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“Entrepreneurship for us was a choice of natural progression,” said Manish Shah, Co-founder and CEO, BigDecisions.com.
Shah always desires to be his own boss and experiencing the thrill of the entrepreneurial journey was always there in him. However, circumstances and timing were hindrances that delayed the inevitable plunge.
It was during his stint at AEGON Life where he met Gaurav Roy with whom he co-founded the startup.
Founded in 2013, this Startup, which is unique in this space, helps users prudently plan for their retirement, the education of their children, assessing their life and health insurance needs, and helping them to benefit from transferring their home loans.
In addition, the platform also helps users decide whether to rent or buy a home, a critical decision amid a stagnant real-estate market in India.
The platform uniquely uses Big Data, such as healthcare costs across India and sample household expense data over 20 years, to calculate likely inflation for retirement planning, while enabling users arrive at more realistic and actionable next steps with simple-to-use tools.
In conversation with Entrepreneur India, Shah shares his high and low points during his journey and tell us about his vision and mission in respect to his venture.
The Big Idea
During our professional stints, we observed that generic advice related to investing in the stock markets or mutual funds were available dime a dozen, but there was literally a scarcity of reliable sources to turn to in the space of insurance, real estate, education and retirement planning.
Let’s explain the scenario in insurance as a case in point. The person whom you’d have to approach would be the insurance agent, who’d always have a transactional motive and may be selling you a policy that would not be tailor made to meet your need of insurance objective.
Helping middle income and mass affluent Indians to be in control of their financial decisions by empowering them with data backed insights which they’d normally not have access to and without the worry of prematurely becoming a sales lead, is the need that Gaurav and I are addressing through BigDecisions.com.
Story behind the name of the startup
When we looked at the need we were looking to cater to with our personal finance platform, it was evident that the financial commitment involved after taking the decision would have a direct effect on the financial wellbeing of the individual and his/her family in the future.
The decision to invest in an insurance policy to secure the future of you and your family and many more are indeed decisions which determine how financially well off would you be in the future based on your current income. These are indeed ‘Big’ decisions which our platform aims to facilitate and had to be named so to aptly reflect it.
BigDecisions.com is not a transactional platform with product listings. We are more of a knowledge source. This makes our revenue model unique. We have the following three sources of revenue:
- Powering consumer education initiatives of banks, fund houses, insurance companies with our data backed insights.
- Revenue arrangements with licensed product sellers after our users have taken an informed decision on our platform and need to make a product choice.
- Contextual advertising revenues.
Over the last two and a half years, we’ve empowered over 2 million users with tools to make better financial decisions in the space of insurance, real estate, education and retirement planning. This is the best parameter that reflects our business size.
Bigdecisions.com was acquired by News Corp in late 2014 indicative of the latter’s transition from a media company to a company that was focused on a digital future. A detailed 5 year funding plan is in place but we’re afraid that’s not in the public domain.
However, as more Indians from Tier 2 and Tier 3 towns and rural hamlets come under the digital fold with rapid smartphone adoption and broadband penetration, the funding would be particularly helpful in guiding them to take informed financial decisions through our platform.
We believe that being a digital platform adopting a data backed approach to build actionable intelligence in the form of tools and content with high regard to transparency, privacy and safety is what made us an attractive proposition for News Corp.
Team size and Office Culture
We’ve grown from just the 2 of us in January 2015 to 25 a year on. We’re an interesting combination of being a startup in terms of our culture and business model evolution with the financial backing and high standards of a large multinational company.
At the core, we keep the spirits high by being as flat as possible. While we’re split broadly by functions, minimal hierarchy is observed with all team members sitting in the same space with no privileges unique to anyone. This fosters team work. What also needs to be highlighted is that depending on specific projects, members work in scrum teams where the leader of the team may or may not be the most ‘senior’ person.
On a lighter note, the team at BigDecisions.com is the biggest gathering of foodies you’ll see in one place. We really are a hungry bunch – be it on the lunch table or on the business front. Friday team lunches and celebratory meals on the occasion of meeting business milestones keep us going.
Mentor in entrepreneurial journey
We wish we had one particular mentor who’d helped us. Nevertheless, we’ve had a groundswell of support from our families, friends and former colleagues in areas like technology and fund raising.
Our biggest learning from them has been that during moments of self-doubt, when you begin to wonder if your business really has the merit to succeed, you need to rekindle your belief by getting your ideas and products validated at every stage.
Business facet made of stone
We’ve seen several business models wherein business interests don’t always sync up with those of consumers. That’s what got several businesses in the financial services space across the world in a mess during the last decade.
What we strongly believe is that any initiative that we undertake must pass a simple test – does it work for the consumer’s benefit or not. If not, it’s a no go regardless of the commercials involved. Financial viability is secondary to this.
A-ha moment in the business
There’s no greater feeling than to see banks, fund houses and insurance companies queuing up to partner with us for financial literacy initiatives and campaigns which is a break from the otherwise ‘distributor first, customer second’ mind-set that characterizes the BFSI space. This is a validation of our success in becoming a go-to knowledge source for anything related to the personal finance space.
Addressing the challenges
On the business side, the greatest challenge is financial inertia that we as users have. Financial literacy is not as much the problem as is inertia. For e.g. Our users get a good sense of how much they need to put aside every month for a comfortable retired life but getting them to act on it is another story.
Since many of our key financial decisions don’t have instant gratification, getting people to actually make the decision remains a challenge. T
hrough knowledge pieces, columns in newspapers and online portals as well as participating in different forums where we underscore the need for middle income and mass affluent Indians being more proactive in implementing financial decisions, we strive to overcome the aforesaid challenge.
At a personal level, the first set of challenges arose during our early fund raising discussions. Back in 2013, Fintech or robo advisory wasn’t as cool as it is today. Most believed that a non transactional model wouldn’t scale. Tenacity and unswerving belief in our idea and being able to articulate it in the most cogent manner is what got us in News Corp’s radar.
The present challenge that we are grappling with is to build a strong team and a large sustainable business that will outlast us. This is a work in progress and we believe that we will succeed in this pursuit by hiring smart.
Most players in the space we operate in either see their roles as experts advising users for a fee or are product aggregators.
While both these categories have their unique benefits, our offering can be best described as a combination of smart algorithm backed calculators and engaging data backed content in the form of knowledge pieces and videos.
This is what makes us truly unique wherein the emphasis is on empowering users to help themselves. We are a better starting point in the decision making journeys of users and aim to reduce their dependence on external advice.
Future scale-up plans
For now, our focus is to keep enhancing our product such that the user experience is great and that they see enough benefit in using it and in coming back. Our target market is at least 50M strong. Our belief is that if our early users find us useful taking it to the larger group becomes relatively easier.
After a long corporate stint when we list down some of our learnings we found out that one is far more charged up pursuing an idea or a business they personally believe in. You become truly hands-on. In our corporate stints, we couldn’t ever have imagined printing invoices, couriering them, following up on the payment and then depositing the cheques – ourselves!
You learn to balance the need to get stuff done fast, cutting bureaucracy whilst still having the patience to give an idea the time to succeed.