Sramana: Where you trying to develop another company after you returned to India or did you decide to go back into services work?
Manish Sharma: I continued forward with my goal of establishing a product company. I finally came up with a product idea in the AI space which had been a passion of mine since my college days. I also wanted the company to be based out of the U.S. I was able to convince a friend of mine from school to join me as the CTO and we co-founded the company together.
Sramana: Did you move back to the US to establish the company there?
Manish Sharma: I was based in India and started doing this product company there. I would travel to the U.S. and spend 4 to 6 months of the year there. It was a lot of fun and my most passionate venture. We were building a classification and learning engine. We approached it from context search. We wanted to build a product that would allow a user to highlight the content on a webpage that was highly relevant to what they were doing and have our learning engine present them more information from other websites that was highly relevant to what that person was looking for.
If someone went online to search for exercises to improve marathon speed and time, then they should only obtain results pertaining to marathon training as opposed to any other type of running training program. I wanted to give the user the ability to train the learning engine. We felt that one of the ideal applications for our engine was comparison shopping. Automating proved to be a non-trivial problem.
Sramana: What year was this?
Manish Sharma: This was in 1999. We decided that we wanted to bootstrap the company instead of raising capital. I also took out a small loan, but I was happy to run the business with my own money.
Sramana: Where did you get your loan from?
Manish Sharma: I took it from friends and family. It was only 20 lakh rupees between the two of us. I had some money from my previous venture as well. I did not make a lot of money on my previous venture, but I had enough. We also had some good people on-board with our technology. We were able to build a solid advisory board to include Rajeev Motwani.
I was in the U.S. talking to a prospective business partner. He told me that he was interested, but he was not sure if he wanted to take the plunge. On my way out the door, he asked if I had made any traction in Silicon Valley. I really did not know who Rajeev Motwani was at that time, but I mentioned that he was on our advisory board. That guy called me back the next day and told me that if Rajeev Motwani was an adviser, then he was going to buy into my vision.
Sramana: Did you have any beta customers? Did you do any customer validation or were you just building this based on your own instincts?
Manish Sharma: We did the first phase on our own instincts. As soon as we had an alpha project, we opened that up to consumers. We offered that as a Browser Help Object which was essentially a plugin. IE was the only browser back then that we had to worry about. If a user was looking at a product on one site, our plugin would let them know that it was also available on other sites.