Interview with Sachin Bhatia, Co-founder and Global Sales and Marketing Head at Ameyo

Ameyo is a leading omnichannel customer engagement platform, and one of the earliest SaaS companies out of India

India is becoming a booming market for SaaS with many startups being built out of the country. But it wasn’t always like this. In fact, not just SaaS, it wasn’t even known for building products, but providing service and support. It was in such a time that Ameyo started where the founders had a simple goal: creating a product company from the subcontinent. Today Ameyo is a leading omnichannel customer engagement platform with a significant presence in the country as well as SEA, EMEA markets, and more. We recently got a chance to chat with its Co-founder and Global Sales and Marketing Head, Sachin Bhatia about the company’s initial days, its evolution, and the learnings of building a global product, among others.

PS: The interview has been edited for the sake of brevity.

1) Hi Sachin, before we begin talking about Ameyo, our readers would love to know your journey into the world of SaaS?

He answered ”So I and the two of the co-founders graduated in 2001 from IIT Guwahati. And at that time, SaaS or even a product company from India was not a normal, right. It was all about IT services. When we used to ask folks to tell us five global IT companies, the names used to be IBM, Oracle, Microsoft, Apple, and so on. When you ask them similar companies from India, the name used to be Satyam, Wipro, Infosys, TCS, HCL. Then we used to ask them what’s the difference between the two. Incidentally, all companies that people use to say from India were the IT services companies, while all companies from the global list were product companies.

We used to give another analogy that if you have to build a house, then you can be a contractor or you can be an architect. Which one you’d be? And people used to say, an architect. So then we used to think that while we shouldn’t be undermining the business that IT services have built, we’ve to wonder why there’s no product company built out of India? At that time, you could count them on your fingertips. Tally used to be one product company that we used to know. Newgen, Ramco, and the likes were the broader companies out there. So this curiosity of why India isn’t delivering a global product – which was immediately after we had finished college – all three of us were feeling really strongly,” he added further.

Concluding, he mentioned “by 2003, we were talking to a lot of seniors. By that time, we had decided that we need to answer this question and we should try making a product company from India. So either way we’ll know the answer; if we fail, we’ll know why there aren’t any product companies, and if we succeed, then we know that it’s possible. That was the origin of Ameyo.

2) What insights led you to launch Ameyo and what problem you’re trying to solve with it?

Being completely honest, Mr Sachin Bhatia said “there are two answers to this. When we started this company, is was a product idea company. The idea was that there has to be a product, but there was no one product that we had in mind. Hence, we started with a concept called small babies or something that we can make, and they can deliver revenue in nine months. So we were experimenting with three or four ideas. We went out in the market talking to a lot of customers, partners, and trying to understand what is it that’s needed in the market? From simple ERP solutions to a lot of ideas floating around at that time. One of the ideas that somebody asked me about, and that’s the first interaction I had about the contact center solution. They asked, do you have a dialer? We asked them what is a dialer? And we realized that in the contact centers, especially in the small contact centers, there was outbound dialing happening from India to the US, or even within India. And there was a lot of manual work for dialing one after the other. And let’s say if your average talk time is one minute. And you are taking time between calls for even 10 seconds, then that’s 16 percent time already lost. What if we could automate this? There were solutions already existing in the market, but they were super expensive because they required proprietary hardware.”

He added “we being from a systems background, it was a problem that we could solve. I was working at Hughes, and I had a background in telecommunication networks, and so did Bishal. We quickly designed an application that could automate dialling for contact center agents and can then run off the Linux box. It was like a small experiment for us, as we probably made this application, the first version of the product in about three to four weeks of continuous coding. And that product then started selling like hotcakes. In hindsight, all these answers would make sense, but at that point of time, we were doing five experiments. And one of the experiments we could see that is getting you revenue. And I think 2007 is when we were consciously picking up that we can’t just be focused on SMBs. You have to go to the enterprise. What is it that the enterprise required? What are they doing? And then laying out the foundation of what we put in as Ameyo. But the first product I think, happened by serendipity. The other factor that worked is me and Vishal, we were both from the telecom and systems background, and Nayan was with Trilogy at that point in time and he was an expert on databases and scaling applications. So the contact center is rare application that you have a fantastic user experience required, and also requires a lot of systems knowledge, which matched well to our domain.

3) Can you walk us through Ameyo’s evolution since its inception?

He replied “our journey is split into three parts. The early days when we launched our first product, which was launched in 2006. It was a contact center dialer, and this was the usual on-premise software that we had to deploy in the customer server. At that time, space was dominated by some large players like Cisco and Avaya, who were doing the proprietary hardware-based solutions. So we could run our software on an enterprise-grade Linux machine. And that was the differentiator that led us to acquire our first million dollars of revenue. So, this was mostly from India. And then, we also went to the Philippines. Some interesting things happened on the journey. Earlier we thought that we should only focus on product and we can find partners who will sell, and we’ll find partners who’ll provide support, and that failed miserably. We realized that, especially in the early days of the product, the support is where you will learn about the product the most.

Adding further “the second journey is when the business was doing really well, but we understood that this is going to be a SMB solution, and that would not help us grow the way we want. Since the vision was to be one of the respected product companies out of India, and that required some scale. We realized that the application that we have built will not get up that scale. So in 2007-2008, we re-architected the product to now become an enterprise product. We also didn’t limit it to voice and started thinking other channels such as chat, and a bit of social media. We also started treating multitenancy and cloud, since SaaS was just starting to happen at that point of time. So there were challenges, and there are still challenges around telecom being completely run on unarmed SaaS because of the regulation, but we thought that it would be best if we are prepared, and as and when we want to invest on a pure cloud model. We also got a little lucky at that time, the consumer internet companies such as Flipkart, Ola, and Jabong were happening and these companies were growing fast. They cared about the customer experience and customer engagement, and that’s where we got our second fillip of growth. So, between 2008 to 2013-2014, the substantial growth was coming in from the new consumer tech companies and enterprise customers as well.

The third phase of growth was when we decided we would raise a round. It’s worth noting that Ameyo was a profitable company, and we had started this with Rs 4 lakh of our own capital and there was no other capital put in. Around that time in 2014-2015, we had about Rs 30 to 35 crores of revenue. Then we decided that we should go to the US market. At that time, India was contributing to about 60 to 70 percent of the revenue, and then Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Africa were contributing another 25 to 30%. So we thought that there are so many markets that we’ve cracked and since the US is the largest market, let’s have a focus on go cloud, go the US. Then we raised $5 million with the thesis that we’ll consolidate our position in the enterprise space and crack the US market. Now, this part of the journey is where it gets interesting because for this experiment, we spent about two and a half years in that market. I myself built a team of 30 people, the product roundup on the Ameyo platform, but we just couldn’t factor in the cost of acquisition of a customer. For us to think that we’ve to spend up to a year’s worth of revenue to acquire a customer, it was new. And during that time, we also cracked a large, multi-million dollar deals with one of the largest banks in India. And we were thinking that, for us to get to half a million dollars or a million-dollar of revenue in the US would’ve taken that much time, whereas here’s highly profitable that we were able to crack in the emerging markets. We asked ourselves; are we just following what we’re seeing in the market as the buzz or this is based on the business fundamentals. That was a big move for us. In 2017, we completely pulled back from the US market, and doubled down on enterprises in emerging markets,” he told us while highlighting the learnings from the third phase of the company’s growth.

Sharing the state of affairs currently, he told us “that transition has led to sustained growth of 30 to 35 percent year on year over the past three years, and we continue to grow with good profit margins. So today about 50 percent of our revenue is annuity revenue, which is subscription based, and that’s a very big transition. It used to be a 20 percent component of our revenue earlier, but now it has grown to such an extent, and it’s also a high gross margin. So we continue to transition from the old license-based business to the subscription business, but focusing on mid-to-large enterprises and emerging geographies, and that’s what we are focusing on. Simultaneously, we’ve been able to think of new offerings that we have launched for these segments of customers.

4) Ameyo started with contact center, what led you to the launch of new offerings such as a helpdesk software?

He stated: “when we came back from the U S market, we were looking at the Indian customers. At that point of time, we had acquired a reasonable size of mid-market enterprises in India and other markets, we realized that every project that we do there is an integration with the CRM, and most of these are homegrown solutions. We were surprised as we thought enterprises would have implemented them properly. And we partnered with Salesforce and Microsoft thinking that they are the ones that these enterprises would have already deployed. But we noticed that a majority of our customers haven’t invested in a CRM, and once they have a contact center, the integrations takes a lot of time. So, we thought why we don’t go in and say that we have a pre-integrated help desk. And we just picked up one use case, and not the entire CRM, just the help desk. We said to enterprises that you already have the contact center, and you can just upgrade to get the helpdesk as well. In some of the markets, which became a really big differentiator against pure-play contact centers. This was in 2017, and if you see today, most help desk companies are doing contact centers and most contact centers guys are doing help desk. We were early movers in that market, and Gartner now has a category for this – customer engagement center. So that was an organic move learning from our customers and taking a very simple, rational decision that we are seeing that 50, 60% of our customers don’t have a CRM and we can upsell helpdesk to them because there’s no cost of acquisition.

And the thing is the same with our new product – video KYC. It’s a need that they have immediately and since we have a lot of BFSI customers, we can just build this and sell it to them,” he gave us another example.

5) With Ameyo offering so many different products, what ties them all together? What’s your flagship offering?

Mr Bhatia shared that “one might see them as different products, as I mentioned, it’s one platform. You can think of it as a set of communication channels and a set of workflows, and our user experience built for a specific role. So a collections agent or a contact center, inbound help desk agent, or a sales agent. All these have different user experiences, but at the back-end, it’s the same platform. All of them are running on a single code base.

Talking about the flagship product of the company, he said “if you ask what has the most traction, then definitely the answer is contact center. And there are three use cases: collections or followups, outbound contact center and then inbound contact centers, which are serving help desk and voice. While voice and email are the prominent ways users reach out to support, new channels like chat are picking up. So every time we go to a new customer, Ameyo Fusion is what they buy. And as mentioned earlier, it’s using the contact center at the base, and then the help desk as an add on.  would be the contact center that we sell in the market.”

6) What’s the current userbase of Ameyo? What’s the biggest market and biggest industry for you?

If we’re looking at numbers this year, international has just taken over India as a total revenue base. So India would contribute to about 45 to 50 percent of our revenue right now. And within international, it’s quite evenly spread between South Ease Asia, Middle East, and Africa. And to tell you the geographical breakup of these regions. The largest market for us would be the Philippines. Then Malaysia in Southeast Asia. Then there are very unlikely markets like Mongolia, and today the largest bank and the largest telco use our contact center. Then in Africa, we have Kenya, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. Nobody knows about these markets, but customers are hungry for knowledge, and they’re very keen to deploy new solutions. After that, we have South Africa. Then in the Middle East, we’ve two large clusters in the form of Saudi Arabia and UAE are the two biggest markets for us. We do serve a lot of the markets, but these are markets that have grown the fastest and have the most traction in the market,” he replied.

Adding further, he shared “think of your top 50-100 accounts in the enterprise, and usually it’s a replacement case, replacing traditional PBX solutions like Avaya and Cisco. As soon as these guys are looking to move omnichannel or are looking to automate more, we’re the preferred choice for them.

He also told that “in terms of the userbase, we can’t disclose the exact number, but I can tell you that our international user base would be anywhere between 10,000 to 12,000 users who are using Ameyo every day. And India is roughly five times the size, i.e. about 50,000 to 60,000 users are using us every day. The biggest industries that use Ameyo are financial services, and within that, banks, and lending companies. Apart from that, the companies that are pioneering the offline-to-online movement, such as Flipkart and Ola, ais the second biggest segment. Then we’ve BPOs and the last segment we would mention is education. In fact, one of our largest customers is Byju’s.

7) Considering the call center software or helpdesk is a competitive space, how does Ameyo stand out from its rivals? 

Answering this, he said “first of all, it’s a large market and over time, most players have their own positioning. I think at the starting level, you have the pure cloud telephony players. Let’s say you and I are opening a small business and we require a business number today; there are better solutions available in the market from the cloud telephony providers. But as soon as you start hitting a 10 to the 20-agent range, then a little bit of operations management, optimization, and automation is required. And small businesses won’t do by using API’s on their own, and they require pre-built solutions around how would I monitor, how would the agent be able to handle multiple kinds of calls, how would I know teams, and so on and so forth. So as soon as that complexity starts hitting, then there are very few players in the market. Once it crosses a range of 100 users, then this becomes like a proper enterprise solution. So you’d require integrations, security, and more that are enterprise specific.

And that’s our niche, i.e. upper mid market enterprises is what we’re serving today. And there we have a very simple value proposition that we’re competing with the likes of Cisco, and in terms of value-to-price ration, we stand out clearly. So we don’t compete with pure play cloud telephony players as of now and most of our customers have complex contact center requirements, which cannot be served by an out-of-the-box solution,” he concluded.

8) What is your go-to marketing strategy to reach out to potential users?

He shared that “it varies geography by geography, but let’s take India as an example. Most of our sales is direct, barring a few strategic partnerships with ISPs, Microsoft, and LeadSquared. We’re able to educate the market of new things that we have done together with all these cases and some of the common customers. So there’s an educational bit of stuff that we are doing. The direct effort is mostly around the sales development team and we are constantly in touch with our customers every three months or six months to understand what’s going on their life and to understand, each of the use cases that we are serving today and what new have we brought? So I think most of the market today, if you look at the funnel- awareness, consideration, and evaluation – in the contact center space, Ameyo is being considered if the replacement opportunity happened. Once an opportunity is flagged, the direct sales team engages with the end customer. There is also a large marketing funnel that we have. We write a lot of content around the contact center space.

Talking about international strategy, he mentioned “most of our GTM is around partners. We have regional partners who are system integrators or cloud service providers in those markets. One example is a partner called Microtel, based out of Singapore and Malaysia, and has been a partner for a decade. Similarly, in Japan, there’s a partner called ITS, which is a telco. Some of our partners have even now developed implementation and support skills.

So, I’ll connect get back to my point that when we started, with thought somebody would sell, somebody would support customers if we provide the product. I think for any new company that is starting off, this is a good thing to continuously think about it. Of course, in the early days, you should be doing sales and support to learn very quickly. We’ve been able to get to that stage, I think a little slower than what we’d have wanted, but now we have multiple partners who are able to sell and support independently. And we just need to focus on the product,” he added.

9) Can you share some learnings on what it means to build for the world out of India?

Giving an insightful answer, Mr Bhatia stated “the important thing is experimenting and choosing your markets, and you have to be proactive about it. And again, this has been said in hindsight, but if you are looking at SMB India or Asia or the US, then these markets behave very differently. So, one of the points that I think is the biggest learning is to be very clear when you are building, who are you building for and complete that hypothesis. And never assume that what worked in one market could be transposed to another. Treat every market or segment as a new market where you have to find the product-market fit.

Adding further, he said “The second learning, which is orthogonal, is to try to build leaders from within. As soon as you’re growing, thinking that somebody else can come and solve for that role. But early days, you need people from within to grow, and once you’ve grown to a certain scale, let’s say, 100 to 150-people organization, that’s when you start thinking about roles that you can fill from the outside. But continuously keep recruiting, i.e. as a founder recruiting, keep thinking what is it that I require in the next 18 months or 24 months and start finding people. Don’t compromise and fill a role when you feel the need by thinking ahead of time. I think building great teams is an important ingredient of growth. If you miss that, then even a market opportunity and an excellent product do bad.

10) How has the ongoing pandemic affected Ameyo?

He said that “the first two months we weren’t sure of how the market would respond and. But we had reasonable cash, and we didn’t slash salaries or did any downsizing either. And the team doubled down on what products will become important. The first thing we realized was that the contact center was a critical function, and more so during the lockdown. The volumes were increasing by 20 to 30 percent in overall interaction, volume, consumers, and businesses. That’s understandable as people are more anxious and when they are more anxious, they want to talk to you. We realize that there’s an increased volume, and enterprises are looking to change really quickly to serve their customers, and remote had some solid challenges. People didn’t even have connectivity or have laptops at home. So, in the early days, we launched what we call as the enterprise-grade mobile contact center. On the agent side, you can just have an Android phone, but it’s still giving you all the functionality, you can’t record, or you can’t take a screenshot. That got really good traction and we moved over 20,000 users within a span of two to three weeks across geographies.

He also told that “we also realized that the SMB segment is unsure of what they want to do, and we saw an increased churn there. Some of the verticals were badly hit, with the obvious ones being travel and hospitality. But at the same time, some of the other verticals were quite positive. So, we saw a lot of traction from the verticals like lending, BFSI, and Edu-Tech.

The other thing that really worked for us was that we geographically diversified. So, when COVID-19 was at its peak in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East didn’t even know about it. And then India and Southeast Asia was back to normal, or not normal per se, but the lockdown that opened up. Hence, there was enough cushion each geography at each point of time. Today, things seem to be in a steady state. We still feel that over last year, we’ll end up growing. But it’s cautious optimism right now, because we’re balancing between SMB and enterprise. One thing is clear that a lot of our licensed businesses are moving to subscription, I think people are taking calls on OpEx as compared to CapEx. Well, one of the facts that I want to again, give you, prior to lock down in India, users were 30 percent OpEX and 70 percent of CapEx. This number has switched completely now; and it’s 10 percent CapEx and 90% percent OpEx. Now, in terms of the lifetime value of a customer, that’s fairly good. While in terms of the cashflow, it’s delayed cash coming in, but that’s something that we wanted, and I think the pandemic has accelerated that. We see that a lot of our revenue is going to be subscription-based going forward. We also want to make sure that our enterprise customers find us more and more relevant because they aren’t going to go anywhere and if we do a good job at this point of time, I think we’ll end up taking more share,” he added.

11) Can you give us a peek at what Ameyo’s roadmap looks like?  

Mr Sachin Bhata mentioned that “we’ve just announced video as a channel. We already have video KYC, but will now offer other use cases of video. It’s evident that it’s going to be an important channel for high-value interactions going forward that can replace a physical meeting The attention that you pay to a video is much more than any other channel like social, chat, or email, so it definitely will be a great addition to our offerings.

We’ll be making another announcement soon which is around the acquisition use case, i.e. online lead to customer conversion to the contact center? So there’s a use case where people are searching for you, they come on your website and then they fill out a form or they call or chat with you, and can that conversion be increased. We’ve discovered that one of the channels that can be the increase it. We’ll be making that announcement of how you can increase your search traffic,” he teased.

12) What are your favourite SaaS products out there? 

He said “I love playing with products, and among my favourite are SEMRush, which is really useful for analyzing online trends and visibility. I also like CRM solutions such as Pipedrive and Freshsales, but these days, I’m a huge fan of enterprise-grade CRM platforms like Salesforce. The amount of work you can get done with something like Salesforce is incredible, and it’s even more impressive when you know that your use case, the requirements keep changing. I’m admire platform products, which means they can be what you want them to be rather than telling you here’s how you should do it.

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