A Q&A with Neartail Founder, Mani Doraisamy

Neartail helps local businesses connect directly with their customers, instead of going through marketplaces. By doing so, they are able to create their own brand identity with customers.

Mani DoraisamyIf you could go back in time, what one piece of advice would you give your pre-startup self?

Transitioning from a developer to a founder, I initially struggled with understanding business terms. Looking back, I now see that some qualities common among developers are essential for a startup's success. Here are a few:

Using jargon in your pitch - Using technical terms in your pitch might discourage investors and journalists, but it's a concise way to explain a problem to a knowledgeable audience. For instance, our initial product was an add-on for Google Forms that added calculation functionality. This was mainly appreciated by people who were familiar with the limitations of Google Forms. When dealing with niche products, using the right jargon can be effective, especially if you're targeting tech enthusiasts.

Debugging embodies intellectual honesty - A skilled developer should focus on uncovering their own bugs, even if it makes them look bad in front of others. This quality is crucial for a founder and is known as intellectual honesty. It helps build a culture of trust and accountability because employees respect leaders who admit their mistakes.

What is one failure you experienced during your startup journey, and what did you learn from it?

Our previous business involved a system that recommended products for online stores. At first, it did well, but then we faced a challenge when many of our customers couldn't raise money and were bought by big companies like Alibaba. This change had a big impact on our business, and we learned two important things:

The idea that "software is taking over the world" isn't always true. After the acquisitions, the companies that once valued new technology started focusing more on saving money than on being technologically unique.

Some traction can be worse than no traction. Without traction, we might have explored other ideas sooner instead of sticking to the same idea for four years as our business declined.

Did you make any assumptions about your market that turned out to be incorrect? How did you pivot?

Our early success in the eCommerce field mainly relied on venture capital funding, but that changed when the funding bubble burst. After facing this setback, we made several attempts to pivot, but one side project, a simple Google Forms add-on, unexpectedly started to gain popularity. When we noticed this unusual user engagement, I asked my co-founder Vipin to investigate further.

Vipin found that these users were using the add-on for online orders. When I asked, "Why not use Shopify?" he explained that Shopify couldn't meet their specific needs. This discovery prompted us to improve our product. It's surprising how this initially minor add-on transformed into a viable alternative to Shopify, addressing a unique user need that had previously been overlooked.

Describe a moment when you thought your startup might not succeed. How did you overcome this?

When our customers were acquired, most of their management team left. We lost our champion inside the company and the new team didn't pay our dues. So, we decided to make money from our Google Forms add-on. I had serious doubts if we could survive, but we kept improving the add-on for our paying customers. Not only did we survive, but we got the right feedback that shaped the addon into an ecommerce platform.

How did you approach creating an authentic company culture, and what unique aspects of your culture do you think have contributed to your success?

We identified unique attributes about us. One of them is "Using a cannon to kill a mosquito." This means tackling seemingly insignificant problems that competitors overlook and applying all our expertise to solve them.

For instance, when small businesses were using Google Forms for online orders, their main challenge was the inability to calculate order totals. Instead of creating a full-fledged Shopify-like product, we developed a Google Forms add-on. This unconventional move set us apart because no founder aiming to create the next Shopify would consider building an addon – it might seem like a beginner's project. However, we seized this opportunity and created an addon that extracted prices from form field titles and calculated order totals. Although it had some bugs, it gained us 150 users per day through the addon marketplace for free. We later improved it by implementing AI for price extraction, creating a form builder, and expanding into a full-fledged e-commerce product, which marked the beginning of the Neartail product line.

What piece of conventional wisdom about startups do you disagree with?

The conventional wisdom advises building a product based on a customer pain-point, but it's a hit or miss strategy. Focusing on one problem allows for quick results. That's why investors love it. They can move on, if your hypothesis turns out to be wrong.

However, building a product driven by a passion for technology is a slower but less risky approach. It can be applied in various industries, although there's a higher likelihood of choosing the wrong industry due to the lack of domain knowledge. But, when it fails, you can move on to the next industry with minimal changes. If you stay long enough, you will have a higher rate of success than the former.

What were the best support systems you’ve relied on throughout your startup journey?

The YC Startup School was crucial for us. Initially, I was unsure if an addon could be a business. So, I reached out to Eric Migicovsky - a YC partner who ran the startup school at that time. He assured me that the idea was indeed useful. It gave me the motivation I needed to fully commit to this idea.