Flashback Friday: Exotel  

Exotel is cloud telephony (IVR, missed call management, etc.service provider offering various products for hassle-free experience. Service includes Voice for a loud and clear experience, SMS for improving the customer experience, OTP based authentication, and VoIP based app to app calling for small and medium enterprises in India. 

Exotel helps in building a reliable and efficient business communication system. 

Exotel currently handles over 11 million customer conversations every day on an average. Last year, they were dealing with nearly 5-6 million calls a day, which has doubled now. Exotel has thus far acquired two companies - Voyce, a platform that allows businesses to gather customer feedbackand Singaporean voice-based social media startup Croak.it. Exotel had a revenue of more than 120 crores in the last financial year.

 

Founders 

Shivakumar Ganesan 

Total funding raised  

INR 4 crore  

2020 status:  

Operational 

Number of rounds  

3 

Co-investors:   Mumbai Angels & Blume Ventures 

 

  1. Why did you invest in Exotel?

    Freshly back from my professional & entrepreneurial stint in the US. Exotel reminded me of a vEPABX service that we utilized the customer service & operations team. It improved our efficiency and service delivery quality. Therefore, it was a surprise for me (circa 2012) that Indian SMEs didn’t have access tthis critical technology that would reduce their communication costs
    Therefore Exotel, was a no-brainer investment for me as I knew that they would become the backbone for many businesses in India.
  2. What were the risks involved with an investment in Exotel?

    The most significant risk was the excessive regulations that controlled VoIP calling at the time. Exotel wasn’t allowed to directly purchase minutes from Indian telecom operators, and unfortunately, they tried to bully the company through complicated pricing plans. 
    Despite all the difficulties, the team worked dutifully in securing the necessary licenses and offering such great value for business owners & startups.

  3. What were the possible avenues of an exit when you evaluated the investment opportunity at Exotel?

    I believed (at the time) that a telecom operator would see the stickiness of an Exotel customer and their excellent margins on non-voice revenues to snap them up. Unfortunately, most of the telecom operators have concentrated on the B2C customer with a stepmotherly treatment for business owners – despite the knowledge that businesspeople are willing to pay more for better service.

  4. What are your learnings from investment in Exotel?

    Shivakumar Ganesan, aka Shivku, is a secondtime founder, an alumnus of BITS-Pilani, Yahoo, and Flipkart. To find a founder with such an impressive resume was rarity in those times. Therefore, as an investor, we had to learn how to support someone like ShivkuAnother significant learning for us was how to invest in startups that operate in highly regulated areas. Exotel along with United Mobile Apps gave me (and my team) a wealth of experience that helped in later investments like BookMyCabLenDenClub, ConfirmtktRapidoTala and Karza Technologies (to name a few)

  5. Would you invest in a similar startup today? 

Yes, I would. However, I would structure part of my investment as debt or as payment via dividends. Companies like Exotel threw out a lot of cash, which can be daunting for traditional VC funds to evaluate for future funding rounds. 

An Open Letter to the CEO of Knowlarity from a Knowlarity Customer and Exotel Investor

Dear Ambarish Gupta,
Our company holds a very unique position between Knowlarity and Exotel. You see, we invested into Exotel when it was in its infancy, but we took up Knowlarity for our communication needs due to a better priced product. They were two different business decision(s) at the time and since we were very new to the investing game we hadn’t really given thought to investing as a customer into our investee companies.
We always wanted to move to Exotel, as the lower priced product from Knowlarity came with an even lower standard of service, especially your team’s lack of:

  • People’s Skills (we were abused by one of your staff during contract negotiations)
  • Lack of Follow-Up
  • Missing Deadlines (it took your team 3 months to change the greetings on the corporate number)

Unfortunately, when you start off you don’t think of the long term implications of having your corporate number given off to a 3rd party – they have you by the neck as that number is all over your business cards!
However, backed by the people at Sequoia, we expected that your team would at SOME point become more professional and the systems would be better suited for SME’s. We always wanted to make the switch but we didn’t have a good enough reason.. now you have given me one.
First, I got the email from Shivku on how Knowlarity was allowing (if not condoning) the use of fabrication and white lies to win over customers. That got me quite upset and made me want to send you a personal email to iron out whatever it was that was irking you two. Then, your absolute horrific reply to the serious allegations levelled against your company was the limit. Your reply was misleading, high handed and just dumb.  I’ll dissect my issues with your reply right here:

As for the recording, we fail to understand the connection with us. The only “Anurag” we have in Bangalore is notoriously bad at Hindi. We are still searching for this elusive “Anurag”.

So, I took up the simple challenge of finding this elusive Anurag by doing a search of the Anurag’s that have Knowlarity listed as their current or previous employer (I am sure you didn’t have the time to do the same as in 450 employees an Anurag can always just slip away?) and I found 6 of them! Here is the list I could find
link
You may be right that the ‘Anurag’ in Bangalore doesn’t have good English speaking skills as none of these guys listed their current location as Bangalore (or maybe one of them was lying?). Anyways, 3 of them – Anurag Nagar (Varanasi), Anurag Verma (Gurgaon) and another Anurag (name hidden as he isn’t in my network) list Knowlarity as their current place of work. I suggest you start from there.

We do not have any policy about responding to market intelligence but we are not surprised if some customers care about this and one salesperson (out of 450 employees) furnished this information.

So you say you do not care what 1 out of 450 people says… hmmm… Are you even listening to yourself? What gives you or anyone in your company the right to slander another company in the hope of winning business? Does your company have a team that monitors its 450 employees email communication sent or do you just let open your network and pray for them to do the right thing? This actually maybe the reason you feel your customers are being poached… if someone from the sales staff can write what he pleases, then what stops him from sending whatever he pleases?
The fact that there is an email out there conveying misleading market ‘rumour’ (NOT intelligence) from an official Knowlarity email address should have made you as the CEO and the leader of the company dig really deep into the culture that led to such an email. Not having a policy to have fair competition may not only stem outside the organisation.. it maybe rotting your own organisation too. Infact that is exactly the sign of an aging business not an “older” and what should be wiser one.
With a similar product you will have the issues of copying and being copied. That is going to happen and it can be accepted to a certain degree (read Samsung vs. Apple vs. Samsung) but lying to customer, slandering your competition and just misleading the public with “holier than thou” response just stinks. Infact it stinks so bad that we are going to stop using the Knowlarity services immediately and shift our business to Exotel. Since you don’t have a policy in your company on what is right and what is wrong.. tomorrow one of your staff may tap one of our conference calls and give the information to our competitors and you will write another ridiculous email defending his actions versus taking action against him.
We cannot continue to associate with a business like that. I really hope that you dig deep and understand the implication of defending something that is wrong… but then if you are defending someone who is guilty… what does that make you?
 
Good bye and good luck
Best Regards,
Anirudh A Damani