I am always thrilled to do stories of pioneering entrepreneurs building technology startups in remote locations. Anjan Pathak, Co-founder and CTO of Vantage Circle, brings us into the nascent scene in Guwahati, in the northeast Indian state of Assam.
Sramana Mitra: Let’s go back to the beginning of your journey. Where are you from? Where were you born and raised? What kind of background did you have?
Anjan Pathak: I was born in a small town in North East India. It’s about 50 kilometers from Guwahati. I spent my childhood there. I studied in a very small school.
From there, I went to Guwahati. That is where I met my co-founder Partha Neog. I studied there for two weeks and after that, I went to the engineering school in Nagpur. I spent four years in Nagpur. I graduated and worked for a year and a half in a services company.
I then went to the UK, London. I was working for British Airways for a year and a half. After that, I joined a company called Art Technology Group. It was a great learning experience for me to work in that company. I was working there as an express service engineer troubleshooting clients’ problems.
I was traveling mostly around Europe. That was during the hay days of e-commerce from 2001 to 2002. After that, I started working as a freelancer/contractor in the UK. I spent about 13 to 14 years in the UK.
I then decided to come back. My parents were getting a bit older. I wanted to support them in their old age, so I came back to India. When I came back, I had the privilege to work with my co-founder and he said, “Why don’t you start something here?” I came back and there was nothing.
Sramana Mitra: What was your co-founder doing all this while when you were in the UK? What path did he follow?
Anjan Pathak: He also had a similar experience. He went to Kurukshetra and we met there. We met in the UK as well. We were in touch all the time. I actually started a company in Bangalore in 2003. That was out of my home, but that did not work. I spent about a year in Bangalore trying to get things done. When it did not work, I went back to the UK to do freelancing work again. In 2013, I decided that I needed to come back to India. I came back to my hometown which is in Guwahati. I did not have anything in mind when I came back.
By that time, my co-founder had already invested two years into the company Vantage Circle. We were in touch and I’d invested some amount of money in the company. After two years, I decided to come back.
I thought to myself, “Why don’t I start a technology company. “ The technology part was small at that time. There were only two people in Hyderabad. I came here and I hired one person. The business started growing in Guwahati.
Sramana Mitra: What was the business model?
Anjan Pathak: It’s very simple. Samsung might have a new phone on their website. They want to sell it directly to corporate employees, but they cannot. They need a medium to market themselves, so they give the deal or coupon to us which can be redeemed on their website.
Sramana Mitra: Does Samsung pay you for this?
Anjan Pathak: Yes, Samsung gives us a commission for every sale.
Sramana Mitra: Samsung gives commissions and then Infosys gives you what? Do they subscribe to a benefit service or package of some sort?
Anjan Pathak: We don’t charge our corporate customers.
Sramana Mitra: So you only charge the brands that market through you?
Anjan Pathak: Correct.
Sramana Mitra: In 2013, you went back to Guwahati and joined Vantage Circle?
Anjan Pathak: That is correct. I joined as a co-founder, because I had already invested a lot.
Sramana Mitra: Are you currently the CEO?
Anjan Pathak: I am the CTO. There are no real external investors even now. It’s just friends and family who have invested in the company. In 2013, I invested quite heavily. I invested about £100,000. That is the last biggest investment that we had in the company.
Sramana Mitra: Is it all in Guwahati?
Anjan Pathak: Now it is almost all in Guwahati. We have 89 people in Guwahati right now. Employee perks were not making us any money; it was the employee rewards.
Sramana Mitra: Hold on. We are doing an entrepreneur journey story, so back to 2013 and start telling me what happened sequentially.
Anjan Pathak: In 2013, we started having these corporate clients. It was quite easy to get into the corporate market at that time because we were the first mover. We had Infosys and HCL followed by Deloitte and Cognizant in 2014.
By 2015, we had all the major corporates with us as clients. We were the only ones providing corporate perks in India then. Now, I think there is another one.
Sramana Mitra: What kind of revenues were you doing in 2015 with all these corporates as your partners?
Anjan Pathak: It was small. We were only making less than a million at that time.
Sramana Mitra: But you managed to get from 2013 to 2015 with a million dollars?
Anjan Pathak: It was about a million.
Sramana Mitra: That is pretty good for a bootstrapped company. That is not bad. What happens after 2015?
Anjan Pathak: In 2015, Infosys came in and they said, “Why don’t you give rewards?” We had this concept called Vantage points which is basically a wallet. We have this concept where people get fantasy points if they do some online shopping.
It’s like a cashback from online shopping. We tied up with all these big e-commerce companies like Flipkart and Amazon. If someone buys through us, then we give some cashback in terms of Vantage points. In that same Vantage point, Infosys said that they can offer five rewards as well.
This means that they want to give a certain kind of rewards to certain employees for doing a good job. They already had some programs running like that, but they wanted to make it detailed. The idea was simple. They used to give us a CSV file. The same thing is still running by the way.
The idea was they would give us these points through employee IDs and we’d just upload them. They can redeem the vouchers on our platform. Our main business model is getting people to redeem the vouchers through our website in exchange for Vantage points.
Sramana Mitra: Let me understand this. Infosys said that they wanted to contribute to the Vantage points program as an employee reward. They would create vouchers that would get translated to Vantage points through a digital system and then they would give you a list of which employees get it and you load those employee wallets with Vantage points. Is that correct?