What Pipecandy Sees in Chennai and Why It’s Looking Further Afield to Utah
Pipecandy’s conception and execution has been no pipe dream. Its founders saw gold in data and decided that e-commerce clients would be daft not to listen to them. Co-founder Ashwin Ramasamy tells us why Chennai makes sense for data science startups like theirs and why they’re setting up shop in Utah in the near future.
Despite being named after a sugary, hot coffee found on every corner— whether accompanying a masala dosa or poured recklessly from one stainless steel cup to another by street vendors—very few people in Chennai know of the Filter Kaapi Mafia. But that’s how they prefer things; a small band of like-minded individuals who form the nucleus of the product startup community in Chennai. Ashwin Ramasamy, one of the co-conveners of the Filter Kaapi Mafia and CMO of AI startup Pipecandy, puts it like this: ‘It’s a very close community. The primary agenda is to have people we can form friendships with over time, that we can call each other by their first names and we can go ask for help without feeling vulnerable. Think of it as Alcoholics Anonymous for product entrepreneurs without the alcohol.”
Ramasamy and the team at Pipecandy is betting on AI in Chennai. He’s certain that “ecosystems take their time to evolve and fall in place. That’s a force you cannot engineer towards a greater velocity. It will happen when it will happen.’ In addition to this, Pipecandy has seen a surge of NRIs who want to come back and work in Chennai because many of them started out their careers there.
Many are willing to take a bet on Pipecandy too. In March of this year, after a year of operations, the company was able to secure over a million dollars in seed funding from IDG Ventures, Axilor Ventures, Emergent Ventures and Indian Angel Network among others. What the investors saw is how Pipecandy can effectively use the data they collect to help ecommerce players take the guesswork and scattershot approach out of the outward sales prospecting game. For example, in addition to knowing the revenue or traffic of an ecommerce website, merchants can also use the relevant data that Pipecandy provides to find out who stocks their competitor’s products.
The concept of Pipecandy rises and falls on the quality of data and it is here, Ramasamy claims, where the importance of being based in Chennai arises. ‘While we’re a data science company, your data science models are only as good as the data that you flow into it so we set up an office in a tier-2 city in India to fill the broad data. Those things we’d not be able to accomplish anywhere else at the price point that we’re trying to accomplish.’ He added that “[s]ince we’re trying to do something that hasn’t been done before, a lot of data that we want for our models isn’t available here and we’re building by hand.” – another aspect that they see possible only in Chennai. The company is acutely aware that the tasks they are yet to achieve is nothing like taking candy from a baby.
So it probably helps that Chennai has such a strong background in Mathematics. In addition to being the old stomping ground of Ramanujan, Ramasamy cited the Chennai Mathematical Institute and IIT Madras as examples of its academic calibre. As a result, mathematicians are dispersed liberally at PipeCandy. Cofounder and Chief Data Scientist Srikkanth Jagannathan has a PhD in Maths and Cofounder Murali Vivekanandan is a graduate of the discipline as well.
Despite being so Chennai-centric, the company does need to have its presence in the United States felt; hence the head offices in San Francisco. “For us, the market is distributed in the US. You have Utah, the East Coast(New York) and the West Coast (California). These are all concentrated locations for retail, e-commerce or logistics. Being in the US is absolutely essential for these contacts.’ Ramasamy also added that “there’s a confidence-building effort that’s going on there. All of these activities go really well if you’re physically present.”
Which is why PipeCandy’s next moves might really show if their plans to muscle in on the US market will really pay off. Their next plan is to set up shop in Utah, to engage in the nutraceuticals market, the space of muscle-building protein powders, shakes and dietary supplements. The moves to the US might also help with problems that they encounter in India, one being the solving of business problems in India. As Ramasamy puts it, ‘there are not many companies in India that can put data to scale and can then use the analytics to solve problems at that scale. When you’re based in Silicon Valley there are programs at Stanford [University] where they are academically trained and they go on to Google or Facebook or wherever. The challenge in India is that the team has to be trained. They may have academic qualifications, but they haven’t seen scale.’
Who knows, give it three or four years and maybe the Filter Kaapi Mafia will solve that problem themselves.