Artoo Through Fresh Eyes

Three weeks ago, I arrived in India for the first time, eager to gain as much exposure as possible to social entrepreneurship in a country bustling with entrepreneurial spirit. I got this chance through an internship with Villgro Innovations Foundation, an incubator for early-stage social innovation. Excited and a little nervous, I wasn’t exactly sure what my experience would be. Two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to spend an afternoon with Artoo, which is one of the social enterprises that Villgro supports. The visit taught me two lessons: first, talented social entrepreneurs are in abundance in India, and second, they work with an authentic commitment to serving the poor.

The problem that Artoo strives to solve is not one that I was familiar with before arriving in India. I learned that loans from financial institutions are less accessible to bottom-of-the-pyramid (BoP) populations in India (and other low- and middle-income countries) in both urban and rural settings because of systemic and physical barriers. Financial institutions have a network of field agents in place to increase the accessibility of loans for BoP populations, but the paper-based process that field agents rely on is inefficient and is typically stunted by avoidable delays.

Screenshot 2016-07-15 16.19.08

Artoo is tackling this inefficiency by providing a paper-free, mobile-based platform for field agents from financial institutions to help them reach BoP populations. The digitization of the loan process avoids delays encountered in the paper-based process, like transportation time. The platform includes digital tools to cover each step involved in the provision of a loan, with specific products designed for financial institutions and their field agents to monitor the transaction.

Touring around the Artoo office, I was impressed by the level of talent of the people I met. Anubhav, a data analyst, showed me extensive and dense sets of data collected for each of Artoo’s customers each month to analyze field agent performance and productivity. Filled with graphics and lots of numbers, it was evident that the financial institutions that Artoo serves are well-informed. Shilpa, Artoo’s only in-house designer, showed me her hand-drawn mockups for the design of the Artoo website, and then demonstrated how she turns those designs digital. The attention to detail was impressive. Then I was led into a room with about a dozen people sitting in front of computer screens filled with code. Each developer described what he was working on before turning back to type out seemingly endless lines of code on his screen. The room gave off the impression of a well-oiled machine, with each person contributing to the smooth overall operation. By the end of the tour, it was obvious to me that Artoo employees are capable and skilled.

Discussions with my hosts, Thuy and Mradula, and Artoo’s co-founder, Sameer, demonstrated the company’s commitment to serving BoP populations. The energy with which Thuy and Mradula explained the problem that Artoo tackles, and its solution, was exuberant; their eyes lit up as eager smiles spread across their faces. Talking with Sameer about his strategic vision for Artoo and the opportunity he recognizes to make a meaningful difference in the lives of BoP populations was inspiring. It was invigorating to engage with people who clearly care deeply about serving BoP populations.

I am grateful to the folks at Artoo for hosting me and helping me understand part of the social entrepreneurship ecosystem in such a vibrant country as India. The lessons that I learned from my visit to Artoo provided me with the experience I had hoped for as I planned my trip to India, and the opportunity to gain this exposure firsthand is invaluable for me as I continue to explore social entrepreneurship. I am especially excited for Artoo’s future, because my visit showed me that Artoo has some of the key tools for success: talent and passion.

About the author:

Rebecca Singer | Villgro’s Intern

Rebecca Singer is a budding social entrepreneur interning at Villgro Innovations Foundation, an incubator for early-stage social innovation. Rebecca is currently completing her studies at Princeton University, USA, where she studies Music.
AAEAAQAAAAAAAAMKAAAAJDJhYjk4N2E3LTNmNGUtNGFiMS1iNjgwLThjYmRiNDA2MjY5NQ

Artoo’s Field Visit to BRAC Bangladesh

I still vividly remember the summer eight years ago when Sameer was interning at Ujjivan. He quickly saw that providing financial services to those at the base of the pyramid was not a regular business. It was sometimes a matter of life or death to the end customer whether they received their money on time or not. It shook him up and inspired the need for innovation in him. It was from this combination of compassion and creativity that the idea of Artoo emerged. What I remember most clearly from that summer, of course, are all the stories that he brought back from the field about the vibrant, resilient, creative, and inspiring working poor women whom he met. I don’t think he knew yet that improving their lives through impactful technology interventions was something he’d pursue with such fierce commitment, but I did.

I’ve been lucky to go along on the adventure – literally, in the early years when I was involved in shaping Artoo, and of late figuratively, as I’ve stepped out to begin teaching. However, a big piece of my heart will always belong to Artoo, and my favourite part of will always remain the stories from the field. So, I was delighted to accompany Sameer on a visit to BRAC in Dhaka last month and to be invited on some incredibly inspiring field visits to understand their diverse and strategic poverty alleviation interventions in Bangladesh and around the world.

As a teacher, the first thing that caught my eye when we visited a pre-primary school run by BRAC was how carefully the children had arranged their chappals in a circle outside their classroom. This BRAC school, a few hours away from Dhaka, like many others is a simple structure: a single room made with tin walls and roofing and anchored by one main teacher and another assistant teacher that is designed to prepare young children for primary school. BRAC’s non-formal primary schools aim to give a second chance at learning to disadvantaged children. These children are left out of the formal education system owing to extreme poverty, violence, displacement, or discrimination.

Inside, it was deeply moving to see a flourishing classroom functioning beautifully with simple but thoughtful educational materials provided by BRAC. The teachers and students were using innovative methods of teaching and learning; for example, the children had a train song, where at every station the children stopped and checked if their clothes were clean, their hair was neatly combed, their nails clipped—a great way to teach children about personal hygiene.

We then visited two beneficiaries of the BRAC ‘Targeting the Ultra Poor’ programme. Through this programme, BRAC strives to improve the lives of people who suffer from chronic hunger, often do not have adequate shelter, are susceptible to many types of diseases, deprived of education and are particularly vulnerable to the effects of natural disasters.

We met Shireen, a graduate of the TUP programme. In 2010, Shireen had no source of livelihood; so, BRAC gave her 1 cow, 10 chickens, a stipend and access to TUP’s support system. By 2012, she graduated from TUP and became a BRAC microfinance customer. She now has 3 cows, 15 chickens, a goat, a motorcycle, and a source of livelihood.

We also visited Asiya, a current member of the TUP programme who has already made great progress so far. With help from BRAC, Asiya’s family is working with livestock to create a sustainable livelihood for themselves. However, perhaps even more importantly, they now have access to potable water and have been able to install a latrine near their home.

After this, we visited the Ayesha Abed foundation and the Aarong store, which empower women to preserve local handicraft traditions by providing them access to fair trade and helping them earn a sustainable livelihood (as well as access to other essential services – health, financial, legal). You can read more at http://www.aarong.com/about-aarong.

From block printing to intricate hand embroidery on textiles, it was sheer joy to watch the women create masterpieces out of wooden blocks and fine threads from needles. The foundation had a library of block print patterns, neatly arranged in rows of wooden boxes. From Batik prints on Sarees to hand painting and screen printing, the myriad display of colors through artwork was breathtaking. It was truly heartening to see how the foundation’s initiatives have helped women earn their livelihood while nourishing their artistic talents.

I came away from BRAC deeply moved and inspired by their work because you can see without a doubt that this is a movement that will leave no stone unturned on the path to alleviating poverty. Once you’ve set your heart upon doing something as worthwhile as improving the lived realities of those who are most marginalized, I suppose it’s imperative that you dream big, innovate often, and take meaningful leaps of faith that spin you in unexpected but impactful directions. Sameer and I both came back from Dhaka with our eyes full of possibilities and our hearts warmed by all the inspiration Artoo could draw from BRAC.

About the author:

Indus Chadha | Co-founder & Storyteller

Pasted image at 2016_04_25 03_44 PM

Intern for a cause: Artoo & The Valley School Initiative

The Road Ahead

Modernistas

About the author:

Sameer Segal | CEO & Founder

 

The Valley School Interns at Artoo

Early Lessons in Fundraising

I often hear investors complaining that ‘investible’ start-ups are rare to find. And similarly hear entrepreneurs say that it is close to impossible to find investors that are willing to invest at such an early stage, when uncertainty is the only constant. I’ve often wondered whose account of this dismal state of affairs is more accurate. After my brief stint at an impact investing firm I tended to favor the investors.

Last year, I switched sides and began working for Artoo, a start-up social enterprise based in Bangalore. Artoo aims to revolutionize field operations at social enterprises through the use of intuitive mobile technology solutions that are customized completely to a company’s unique workflows. I came on board to lead their business development and fundraising efforts.

Fundraising-tree

When we started our journey of fundraising at Artoo, we were handicapped by our own inexperience and naivety and blinded by many misconceptions. After reading numerous blog posts and articles in an attempt to gauge ‘what investors look for’, I was convinced that we had cracked the winning formula just as we were poised to raise our first round. Artoo was well past the ‘idea’ stage; we had many successful pilots to our credit, we had proven without doubt that our technology works, we were earning steady revenues and above all we had a visionary, energetic team. What else could an early stage investor look for, we thought.  Yes, there was still so much that we didn’t know, so much that was not working and so much more to learn, but isn’t that common at this stage?

Many seasoned entrepreneurs advised us to carefully select the investors we approached and so we set out to make our checklist. We decided we wanted strategic investors, investors who understand the social enterprise universe, investors who have made technology investments in the past and who are reputed in this space. This we believed would give us credibility.

Excited and confident, we began scheduling meetings and making our pitch. Investors seemed excited about our business and were almost always willing to indulge us with a 2nd meeting. In many cases, they were keen to start looking at some of our documentation to decide if they would start diligence.  Meticulously, I began to get all our documents in place. Since we had recently participated in Villgro’s accelerator program – SEED (http://www.villgro.org/seed), we were already a step ahead. SEED is an intensive 8-month journey designed to help early stage social enterprises sharpen their business model and raise their first round of funding. Over a period of 8 months we worked tirelessly with our mentor and the rest of the SEED cohort to identify gaps in our business model, fix those gaps, conduct lean experiments in the field and really hone in on what worked and what didn’t. We had a plan, one we believed worked!

However after the first couple of meetings, conversations with investors were not progressing as I had envisioned. Very soon in the process, the primary focus of their line of questioning became our 5-year financial projections. Isn’t the 5-year projection just a number at this stage in a company’s life, we asked ourselves. Of course it is based on some very well thought out assumptions. But at the end of the day they still remain assumptions. As a company and as people we have always believed that honesty goes a long way and our financial projections reflected that spirit. They were honest to the core. We put on paper what we truly believed we were capable of achieving in 5 years, and as per our plan we were scheduled to cumulatively break-even in little over 2 years. We could have used unrealistic assumptions and projected a 6-month breakeven as that would have obviously made us look more attractive (on paper) but that was not honest. This provoked questions such as – “Isn’t 3 years too long?” and “Shouldn’t you be charging your clients 5 times the amount you charge them now?” Sure, we would love to become profitable sooner, and would love to make more money of every client but given our current challenges that seems like an unrealistic commitment to make. And truth be told, we didn’t have much clarity beyond 12 – 18 months.

I spent many days pondering these events. Why are they asking all the wrong questions, I thought? Shouldn’t they ask about our customers, about the market and the demand for our technology, about our barriers to scale and not about our pre-money valuation?

Some investors seemed cynical about the very real challenges we faced and this disillusioned us even further. We were as honest about our challenges as we were about our achievements. We believed that being honest about what was not working for us would allow investors to give us appropriate advice on how to overcome these challenges, but instead it urged accusatory questions such as – “Why are you still targeting this segment?” and “If the business results from using your technology are what you claim they are, why aren’t more companies adopting this, and why aren’t they willing to pay more?” We knew then that we hadn’t yet met the right investor. One who would ask the same question, but differently – “What can you do to make companies understand and feel the impact of Artoo’s technology and more willing to invest in it?” These early experiences made us re-assess our approach to fundraising.

Though we are still newbies to this game of raising institutional money, these past few months have taught us a lot. We have become more resilient and don’t let stray comments upset us. We also realized that when we made our investor checklist we were asking the wrong questions. We didn’t really want the investor whose name would look good on our board of advisors page. We want the investor who most closely understands and feels our pain, the investor who can give most time to guide and mentor us, the investor who believes in the game changing role technology plays in this sector, and most of all the investor who is in it for the ride, who is a partner in our journey to scale!

Luckily for us, we did manage to meet a few investors who fit this bill exactly. That has kept us optimistic and we are now more ready than ever for our journey. I still haven’t made up my mind as to which side of the debate I support, however being on the other side of the table today obviously makes me favor my fellow entrepreneurs!

About the author:

Kavita Nehemiah | COO & Co-founder

Dark Knights: Hackers for Impact

“Because he’s the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now. So we’ll hunt him. Because he can take it. Because he’s not our hero. He’s a silent guardian. A watchful protector. A Dark Knight.” – Lt. James Gordon
Caricaturas_de_los_90s_04“Superman or Batman?” was the most revealing personality question when we were kids. Superman was born with super powers whereas Batman engineered them. I was a puny kid with glasses and I always picked Batman. The idea of a genius, tragic hero doing good by being a super geek always reassured me somehow. But Batman was always misunderstood by the city of Gotham.

It’s an exciting time to be alive, especially in India. Everything we know is getting disrupted—except, of course, for the higher technical education. 75% of all graduates in India are engineers who, after spending 60+ hours a week for 2 years trying to get into engineering programs, spend 4 years wondering how to get as far as possible away from it. I know this well because this is my story too.

Why? I’m still not completely sure. Is it something to do with how our educational institutions work? Something to do with the fact that learning something by heart doesn’t make you love it? That the only way to think originally is see how the world works and how you can work within it? Perhaps, at the end of the day, we all want to do work that we believe is meaningful.

Whatever it was, after 3 years at one of India’s top engineering colleges, I was ready for something else, anything else. It was the summer of 2008 and microfinance was really hot. I decided to apply to a microfinance institution (MFI) for an internship. I wanted to get away from engineering for the summer but after my first field visit I found myself bursting with questions and ideas.

If the customers were most concerned about how quickly they could get their money, why couldn’t we be faster? Why couldn’t we do this better? Why couldn’t we use more technology? I was already more of an engineer than I realized. My supervisor, a pragmatic young American, tried to bring me up to speed with their challenges: limited operating margins, costs of implementing technology, limited tech savvy and literacy of field agents, and failed technology pilots in the past. But he was still open to exploring options if I could prove that they would work in this environment.

I was inquisitive and naïve and I talked to as many people as possible within the organization. I heard the same thing over and over again: technology doesn’t work at the Base of the Pyramid (BoP). The Business team said that IT couldn’t understand their requirements. IT said Business changed their requirements every 3 months, making it impossible to build technology to meet these ever changing needs. Over the next 5 years, I would realize that this was true of so many social enterprises. Social enterprises are constantly tweaking their processes for particular products, services, and geographies. Or, more simply, they are always experimenting, keeping what works, and reinventing what doesn’t.

Because it’s so hard to find technology that works under these circumstances, social enterprises avoid implementing technology. Often, they wait until an investor pushes them or they reach a breaking point of some sort. And then, due to their limited tech budgets, most tech vendors only provide them with a scaled down version of some existing product that barely seems to work especially with the very little support provided by the vendor.

Given the colossal technology divide in this sector, social enterprises often work with “vanilla” products—products for the largest common denominator. But a core banking system without an accounting module is not missing a single feature. It means the enterprise needs to re-enter data manually in a separate accounting system, which means slower and less accurate financial reporting, which means fewer controls, higher risks, and reduced likelihood of getting money back, which finally means a decreased likelihood of products with variable terms or repayment schedules.

Over time, and rather ingeniously, users begin to improvise and enter data in ways that fool the system into supporting their unique products and services. But, unfortunately, these crafty hacks compound the problem, increasing inefficiencies, and making data and reporting almost unusable. Organizations try to solve the problem by bringing in more people, or increasing the complexity of the processes, instead of considering investing in technology.

But inefficiencies at the BoP, I discovered through focus group interviews with the MFI’s end customers, are often a matter of life or death. Money is an incredibly volatile commodity at the BoP. When someone receives their loan can make a world of a difference to them. Simple timing sometimes determines whether someone will be plunged into or pulled out of poverty.

By the end of my summer internship at the MFI, I had managed to devise simple tech solution making life a tiny bit easier at the BoP. It was a simple software solution for preclosure of loans using SMS technology. Field agents could just send an SMS with a customer ID to query the database and they would receive an instant reply with the exact amount to be paid by the customer to preclose the loan. Something that had taken 15 days could now be done in an instant. I was overwhelmed with how happy this made customers, field agents, and the senior management. The MFI implemented this at scale.

As an intern, I was over the moon because I had built something that actually worked in the field. For the first time, I had created something that felt indisputably meaningful to me. Looking back now, I think I was also glad to have proved that it was not impossible for technology to work at the BoP. I was already more of an engineer than I acknowledged and it was during this summer internship that I discovered my passion for inclusive technology.

Technology can truly be game changing. It can help social enterprises work across larger geographies and provide more innovative products (specifically designed for particular sub-populations) with the very same field forces. Rich demographic data can be collected and then mined for insights while developing new product offerings. Loans can be provided in less than 2 days with more rigorous credit checks than before. Overdue loans can be identified and collected within 24 hours. Field agents can be empowered to explain complex products (like insurance and pension) and topics (like solar energy versus kerosene) with the help of multimedia content. Microfinance could go from being transaction-based to being a kind of private banking for the poor. Technology could help field agents to provide end customers with customized advisory for their individual context to enable them to climb out of poverty.

3 years ago, when we started Artoo, we wanted to create technology that works in the field; technology that is especially designed for social enterprises; technology that is intuitive enough to be inviting even for users with no previous exposure to computer education. We wanted to treat social enterprises as mainstream and marketable. However, given that social enterprises have had more than their fair share of disappointing brushes with technology it is difficult for them to take a leap of faith and experiment with new ideas. In the early stages only the visionaries will agree to pilots. And we are enormously grateful for their trust.

Our clients were amazed, at first, with the amount of time we spent in the field understanding their work and the lives of their end customers. But we had promised ourselves when we began that we would be true partners to the social enterprises we served. Artoo is to its clients as, in the StarWars universe, R2D2 is to Luke Skywalker; a loyal and resourceful companion for life.

But, our biggest challenge of all (and this is really surprising given that 75% of all graduates in India are engineers!) has been to find people. It has been incredibly hard for us to find engineers who want to code but not work for Google and in the social enterprise sector instead (and this is surprising, too, because growing up in a developing country ourselves, isn’t it only natural for us to care about development?). We are always on the look out for bright young engineers who are passionate about technology and about creating a social impact.

But, truthfully, being a millennial myself, I too grew up hearing things like: “Build something you want, however outrageous, and people will want it.” Reading blogs in Bangalore, I began to believe that, in the Silicon Valley, the sexier the interface, the more outrageous the idea, the better—and everyone would want it. I began to believe that you aren’t doing anything worthwhile unless you’re building a “consumer app” that has at least 1 million users (regardless of how expensive customer acquisition is). In all honesty, I also thought that developing technology for enterprises was for losers. It was boring, slow, and just needed to work. It didn’t have to be the most beautiful. It didn’t have to be the best. Before my summer internship at the MFI, I thought there was a clear hierarchy: consumer apps, enterprise apps, and then technology for social enterprises. Most engineers probably don’t even know the third bucket even exists. At least, I didn’t until my summer internship.

But that summer changed my mind. I wondered why the world’s most intuitive technology wasn’t available to the people who needed it the most. Why weren’t iPhone like interfaces available to first-time technology users? Why wasn’t social enterprise software as slick and easy-to-use as Facebook? And, little by little, the idea of Artoo began to come together in my mind. Imagine how exciting it would be to improve not just user experience but also the quality of life at the BoP.

Sometimes we worry about the fact that investors and network organizations draw an imaginary line between us and our partner enterprise to call us “service providers,” Because, sadly, service providers do not fit anyone’s mandates: their impact is derivative; they are seen as merely optimizing the real organization, and so on. We worry, most of all, because we wonder if this is what makes it so difficult for us recruit the handful of engineers who are motivated by impact, to motivate the majority who know little about this space and for us to raise external capital that will allow us pay market rate salaries to them.

We are so much more than service providers. We see ourselves as real partners to the social enterprises we work with. We truly believe that technology can be the greatest amplifier of social impact. We are hackers for impact! We are the Dark Knights.

A big thank you to Kavita and Indus for their edits and for many conversations to clarify my muddled thoughts.

About the author:

Sameer Segal | CEO & Founder

Geeky Summer 2012

Best Summer in Years

Prajwal Y on being a summer intern at Artoo

This summer is what I would describe as the summer where I had the best learning experience in years. Thanks to my two and a half month internship at Artoo, I got the opportunity to work on something that interested me a lot in the past six months.

The-Best-Summer-Ever-coverIt was December last year when I started reading about Android. I became so fascinated about mobile application development in Android that I thought I should be working on Android in the summer of 2011. I knew a little bit about Artoo and their work in Android and without giving it a second thought I mailed them for an opportunity to work as a summer intern. After exchanging a couple of mails and phone calls, I was selected as an intern for the period May-July 2011.

And so, I was at the doorstep of Artoo Office in HSR layout in Bangalore on May 2nd 2011. Sameer and SreeChand welcomed me and after an hour or so I met Sreekanth and Uttam. Sameer asked me to start working on an application to make graphs more interactive on android that afternoon. It looked a bit scary in the beginning, but after two months, I can confidently say I had a lot of fun developing this application. I also worked on a couple of other applications in android.

The following are some of the best bits of my internship.

  • Show off sessions: These are the small sessions where the developers get to demonstrate their work to others and get feedback about their work. We had lots of show-off sessions from everyone in these two and a half months. I also got a couple of opportunities to demonstrate the work I had done. What I really liked about these sessions is how everybody got involved in the discussion even if they were not directly involved in the work that is being demonstrated. These sessions were a real motivation in the sense that I got honest feedback and suggestions from everybody about the work and it really helped in improving the work.
  • D-Day: Personally, D-Day was my best day of the internship. D-Day is the day where developers at Artoo demonstrate their work and release alpha features. We had a D-Day on 29th June. I too got an opportunity to demonstrate the work that I had done in the past two months at Artoo.
  • Artoo Workshop: This was something that I did not expect from this internship. We had a Vision Workshop for Artoo at Indus’s home (which is the most beautiful house I’ve ever seen!) on 11th June. This was possibly one of the best experiences I’ve had till date. It was so amazing to see how aligned everyone’s views were in terms of taking Artoo to the next level. We had an awesome lunch in the beautiful garden which was followed by another afternoon session of the workshop.
  • The Treats: We had a couple of treats in these two months. First, we had Uttam’s treat for getting promoted to Engineer/Artist from an intern. And secondly, we had a send-off treat for interns which was amazing and we had a lot of fun. This internship has made me realize a lot of things. It made me realize how good it feels when you actually know where and how your work is being used. It made me realize how good it feels to work with people who are very focused and passionate about their work. Most importantly, it made me realize how good it feels when you work on something that YOU are passionate about. Thanks to Artoo for all these!

I will definitely miss Artoo as I enter my final year at college and my classes begin in a couple of days. The fun I had working, the jokes we shared during work will remain with me forever. Thanks to everyone at Artoo for making my summer the best summer in years!

About the author:

Prajwal is a student at National Institute of Technology, Karnataka – Surathkal. He completed his schooling at various places in Karnataka. His interest in computers motivated him to take up the Computer Engineering stream. Currently, his passion lies in developing cool and intuitive android applications. During his internship at Artoo, he worked on developing an application in android to make interactive graphs which could be used to show editable visualizations to the end customer on Android devices. He also worked on the some of the security features in Android.