From A Social Newspaper To A B2B Enterprise Product – The Inside Story Of Social Business Intelligence Product Frrole

Story of Bangalore based startup Frrole with inputs from Amarpreet, Abhishek, Nishith which was initially a social newspaper but has shifted to a B2B product

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amarpreet_kalkat_Frrole

Frrole – the Bangalore based social intelligence startup which is mining insights from Twitter data finds its roots in Punjab. The word which means ‘serendipitous discovery’ in Punjabi was coined by its Co-Founder Amarpreet Kalkat who comes from the land of Punjab. The computer science graduate from Punjabi University had always nurtured a dream to build stuff. The dream came true in 2011 when Kalkat formed his startup and the serial entrepreneur who has co-created a few consumer web products earlier is living his dream.

But to be able to live this dream, Kalkat had to wait for more than a decade. Sharing more about his journey Kalkat adds that he had a keen interest in artificial intelligence but he didn’t want to settle as a techie in his profession.

“I wanted to be a make stuff guy rather than being a hardcore engineer and that’s when I decided to go for an MBA in 2002.”

The dream of doing bigger things landed the young Kalkat in IIM Kozhikode for his management degree. After finishing MBA in IT & Marketing, he joined HP and thereafter Trinity followed by Nokia. Kalkat was always involved in the product management roles in the corporate world but he wasn’t happy.

“I wanted to get out of the corporate life and do something more meaningful in life that would add more value with a bigger goal,” he adds on the initial motivation to jump into the world of startups.

Early entrepreneurship journey

To start with Kalkat joined one of his friends who was working on a travel site called Travelomy. One of the early things that the team wanted to do was to obtain real time data for the site from social media. Twitter was the platform that the startup was looking to pull the data from and was considering it to be an easy exercise. The team got a surprise when it found that there is no way one can obtain meaningful data from Twitter.

By then Kalkat, who had already put his papers at Nokia, thought it to be an exciting idea to go for but that would also mean building up an intelligence platform.

“I was thinking what if we could build an intelligence algorithm that could understand social data and mine out not just travel information but more than travel such as sports, entertainment, breaking news, etc. That is where when it shaped as an independent product and was known as Social Radio,” informs Kalkat. As he couldn’t get a domain for Social Radio, he settled for Frrole which was about finding good things when one is not really looking for.

That is how Kalkat found Frrole.

Frrole – the social newspaper

In the next 5-6 months, Kalkat knew that Frrole was the most exciting thing to happen to him; the travel site idea got parked with complete focus on Frrole. By now Kalkat was the only guy working full time on Frrole along with a few new friends who were helping him part time. The first alpha version was launched in 2011 and the beta was out in April 2012.

[pullquote id=”lhipull” class=”center_pull”]Frrole was now a consumer news portal known as the social newspaper.[/pullquote]

“There was Google News as competitor which was more of a standard discovery but was not personalized. At the same time we did a research and found out that people cared more about their city and digital medium had no such offering which pushed us to go for news,” shares Kalkat while explaining the transition of Frrole from a ‘lets mine everything’ to a news product and then a locally targeted news product.

With Frrole’s growth, Kalkat knew that he needed to have guys who can understand his vision for Frrole and come on board as founders.

“I was looking for my founding team and that is when I met with Nishith from my alumni networks who was a junior at IIM-K and Abhishek, the third co-founder who I met him via the Trinity network,” shares Kalkat who now had a complete team with him being the product guy, Nishith the marketing guy and Abhishek the techie guy.

Nishith – Chief marketer at Frrole

Nishith Sharma, the Chief Marketer at Frrole grew up in different cities across India due to his father’s job. Till date he has lived in Nishith Sharmathirteen cities with a maximum of three years in one city. Nishith, who did his engineering from Bhopal in 2005, ended up doing an MBA from Kozhikode since he was getting lost in the midst of the big multinational software companies.

After graduating in 2009, Nishith spend a good deal of time with Tata Motors and after a stint of three years he moved to Jaguar Land Rover for a year, before he finally settled with Frrole.

“The issues were the same: I was again getting lost in large companies and I always wanted more responsibilities, more autonomy and didn’t want to settle for a specific task. This motivated me to look at the startup world,” adds Nishith who thought of shutting his corporate life finally by end of 2012 and do things where he could add a bigger value.

Nishith started speaking to people in the startup world and while doing this he came across an opportunity posted by Amarpreet for Frrole in the IIM-K alumni network. This led to a couple of early round of conversations that interested Nishith. He flew down to Bangalore from Mumbai for a period of three days.

“We both met for almost 7-8 hours every day and we understood a lot about each other, the industry and Frrole. The whole interaction was interesting and made more sense keeping in mind that social media was still evolving in the country,” shares Nishith. He made his commitment to Frrole since he felt that he could be involved in molding the company’s journey along with his personal interest to dig deep into the social data domain.

For Kalkat, Nishith was the right fit for the role of a startup marketing guy who also understood and appreciated technology.

Abhishek – Chief techie at Frrole

Along with a marketing guy, there was also the need for a hardcore techie guy in the startup. To begin his hunt Kalkat started from Trinity Abhishek Vaidwhich has been known for its engineering strength. Kalkat got the right man when one of his friends recommended Abhishek Vaid who had done his B. Tech from Gwalior.

Abhishek grew up in Delhi, did his B.Tech from IIIT M and was passionate to pursue a PhD in computer science. To achieve his PhD dream he started teaching in a university at the capacity of lecturer in Computer Science teaching students programming languages (C++, Java, Linux), Algorithms and Data Mining.

However in April 2013, Abhishek left his job and moved back to Delhi and started looking for new opportunities in the field of research which would involve machine learning, natural language processing, etc.

This was the time when Abhishek got introduced to Kalkat. To start with Abhishek did a couple of pilots at Frrole but Kalkat had no money to offer him as basic salary so he had to let him go. After a quarter when Frrole started making some money, Kalkat approached Abhishek again and that’s how Frrole found its third Co-Founder who had the required skills to be the Chief Architect at the startup.

“From April to December, I was doing lot of online courses and in the middle of that Frrole came in. So the technology bits that I was updating myself with were completely visible in the challenges that were in Frrole. I could see my interests very well fulfilled in Frrole and still deliver as a Co-Founder which was very befitting,” Abhishek adds. He joined the startup in January 2013.

Abhishek informs that Frrole is the best thing to happen to his career and that’s why he decided to let go his initial PhD dream in computer science.

By January 2013 – Frrole had a sell guy, build guy and an engineering guy.

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Frrole News gets parked

“We wanted to democratize the news, it was a big shot that we were going after without thinking much about success or failure,” shares Kalkat. He feels that Frrole became a good art movie but failed at the commercial part since advertising wasn’t the solution.

Frrole started as a product to make sense of the social data and was definitely picking up at the consumer news business but failed at the business model end. So this was the time when Kalkat started thinking of building an enterprise model of Frrole which would drive revenues for the startup.

“Being a first time entrepreneur the thought was different and the kind of support you would expect from the eco-system but sadly it wasn’t there. Even if it was there it was at unfair terms.” With a heavy heart in September 2012, he decided to display ads on Frrole as the startup’s sustenance was very important.

Kalkat wrote a blog post on the same – “We failed at our goal” while listing out 6-7 things, which was picked up by quite a few online publications. At the same time, the Co-Founders became a good joke in the market on how a failed goal became a story of a failed product. Rediff added some more spice to it and labelled it as the story of a failed entrepreneur.

While failure is not appreciated in our country, Kalkat was having a hearty laugh sharing the gloomy days at Frrole. He considers it to be a great lesson learnt.

“I wished I had someone to tell me that you will have to build a business first to make it sustainable. And that’s where my other two Co-Founders came on board with a motive to give the best shot to Frrole.”

By April 2013, Kalkat finally decided to knock the doors of Silicon Valley in the US. Kalkat’s decision to go to the valley for three weeks was the game changing idea and also reinventing the magic of Frrole.

During this time Kalkat got introduced to some folks at Twitter along with Rishi Jaitly, who later became the Twitter India Head by the last quarter of 2012.

Kalkat met Rishi and shared the idea behind Frrole; he liked the way Frrole was planning to make business sense out of Twitter data in the enterprise domain especially in a market where Twitter was planning to grow its base. This gave the required boost to Frrole.

“15 days of US is equal to a year and half in India. We have people here to help but they are very few and people here are very slow to make things happen.” He thinks that going to the US for three weeks was one of the best decisions for Frrole.

Frrole – The Enterprise product

May 2013 – Frrole News gets parked and Frrole Enterprise in born.

“In 2011 as entrepreneurship was about doing anything other than corporate life, in 2012 it was about building a product that I should be proud of and by 2013 it was about building a business that I could be proud of,” adds Kalkat on Frrole’s pivot from a B2C model to a B2B one.

The initial 4-5 months were tough for the startup. During the month of July, Frrole got an opportunity to be a part of the Microsoft Accelerator in India. Though Kalkat was not that excited initially, his Co-Founders Nishith and Abhishek felt that it would be a great learning curve for the startup to be part of the accelerator.

In August the enterprise model was launched, by September 2013 Frrole signed up its first paying customer and things really picked up December onwards. The startup is now making around 100-200K in revenues every year.

“We avoided being the dashboard analytics for brands. Rather than social listening we went after social integration where people could pick a piece of social data set and plugin into their offerings,”  he adds on why Frrole deliberately avoided the analytics market which is already crowded with way too much competition and the startup had no marketing muscle to differentiate itself in the analytics jungle.

According to Kalkat, Frrole today is an intelligence company that is going much deeper than an analytics company. “Frrole does not only understand data at a statistical level but also at a semantic and contextual level too.”

To cite an example, Kalkat talks about the recent work Frrole is doing with Headlines Today for the #YourVote2014, an initiative being carried out for the upcoming 2014 Lok Sabha Elections.

Enterprise use cases of Frrole

From the very beginning of 2014 Headlines Today was having internal conversations on creating a unique, engaging and credible ‘second screen’ experience for viewers. “We wanted a show that would do two things: one, thrown open the national debate beyond the walls of Delhi’s television studios. Two, enable genuine two-way conversation and feedback between India’s leaders and its citizens with cutting-edge technology. #YourVote2014 was a direct result of these conversations,” adds Aroon Purie, Editor-in-Chief, India Today Group.

Detailing more about the #YourVote2014 initiative, Purie adds that each week, HT invites three political leaders to participate in a live prime-time debate. As they debate on air, HT viewers are encouraged to tweet their reactions, comments and questions using the #YourVote2014 hashtag and the relevant guest’s name.

While the interaction is going on, Frrole, which was introduced by Twitter India to HT for this program, tracks the hashtag and performs a sentiment analysis for each guest named in the tweets. Frrole then sends sentiment scores for each guest in real time, which HT displays periodically on the screen.

Concurrently, HT’s in-house software development team is also working closely with Frrole to ensure the data that is obtained translates perfectly into on-air graphics. Frrole also helps in filtering out abusive tweets so that only the best quality comments & questions go on air. These are put straight to the guests for their reactions.

“This way, not only does the audience decide who wins the debate, but they also decide what direction the debate will take; and it all happens in real time thanks to Frrole’s algorithms,” Purie states.

Another use case of Frrole came up while I was conversing with Rishab Malik who has known Kalkat from his early startup days. “Over the time we both kept conversing on and we gelled very well. He is a product guy and I come from the business side so I kept helping with all the business related queries,” adds Malik with high regards for Kalkat. With time he turned into the official advisor at Frrole.

Later on when Frrole pivoted into enterprise model, Malik got quite excited about the new beginning and since then he has been a business development guy devoting a fixed number of hours.

“I am a part time business development guy for Frrole and from the last six months, I am maintaining a lot of customer relationships in the Delhi and NCR region with clients such as Times of India, NDTV, HT and U2opia,”. Malik thinks that going further Frrole will have to look for a full time business development guy.

Sharing about Frrole’s alliance with U2opia, Malik adds that U2opia has been known to have a product that is providing social networking service like Facebook on feature phones at places where internet penetration is impossible.  Recently U2opia tried out a similar kind of deal with Twitter where it plans to use the same technology to bring Twitter experience to feature phones with the local flavour.

CEO Sumesh Menon speaking earlier to me had shared that U2opia plans to curate local tweets for users since it will make more sense. To make this happen U2opia has tied up with Frrole to curate and filter the tweets to give users a meaningful experience.

“We have finished our pilot program with U2opia and in the next three months the plan is to roll out in eight more countries,” adds Malik.

Challenges and road ahead at Frrole

[pullquote id=”lhipull” class=”center_pull”]Frrole is not a dashboard social analytics product, it is a social integration product bringing out the intelligence from Twitter.[/pullquote]

Frrole definitely has an exciting road ahead and it hopes to work closely with Twitter but Kalkat is not limiting the product to the 140 character platform. “We are here to make sense of the social web and not just Twitter but having said that Twitter is a big part of what we do. Besides there are no large data sets that are openly accessible like the way Twitter allows,” he adds.

Today the startup has hired a few interns while having partnerships with design studios for the front end job.

Talking about challenges, Abhishek finds that scale is one of the key challenges for Frrole. “With the enterprise model the challenges are a little bit on the scalability which we are addressing right now that we should be able to support 500-600 active clients without going down now. Earlier innovation, accuracy were the key challenges and today it is scalability so that Frrole can process 10x more tweets than what we were doing earlier,” adds Abhishek.

The other challenge that Frrole faces is to differentiate itself from other social media analytics tools. Kalkat shares that social media is still a developing market in India so social integration is really in its very early days.

Frrole competes with international players like Flowics which entered the Indian market last year. It is often put in the same box like any other social media monitoring tool but with Twitter’s support Frrole is approaching the right customers.

“Frankly we haven’t bothered too much but customers will have to understand that we go deep levels. I think with the industry getting bigger, customers will have a clear understanding that we are very different from social media analytics companies,” informs Kalkat, while hinting at big news in the near future.

An acquisition by Twitter is not at all in the pipeline, he informs while clearing the air that Frrole was not involved in creating the rumor broken by TC.

Before I winded up, I asked what happens to Frrole News? “Personally I would love to work on it in the future. I loved what we had built but I believe in focusing on one thing at a time and right now it is Frrole Enterprise.”