Emerging Entrepreneurs

How a college dropout graduated to a marketing master

NK Minda | Updated on: Mar 05, 2018
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With Synup, Ashwin Ramesh helps local businesses control their digital assets and update data

Ashwin Ramesh did not even want to complete school. His parents somehow managed to persuade him to continue with school. But he dropped out of college, in the second semester of a bachelor’s degree in business administration, and became an entrepreneur. This time his parents realised he was serious about what he wanted to do.

Ashwin, 27, is the Founder and CEO of Bengaluru-based Synup, his third venture, a marketing start-up that helps local businesses control their digital assets, updates business information and helps them in location data and reputation management. After a $500,000 funding from Prime Venture Partners within a few months of Synup launching its product in February 2014, the company raised about ₹40 crore ($6 million) in a Series A round in September 2017 from Vertex Venture and Prime.

The entrepreneurial journey

While in the 10th and 11th standards, he felt he had come across something exciting that would help him make money – big money – but was convinced by his parents to continue his studies. His family, he says, was like any other normal middle-class household. His father was a corporate executive and his parents’ dream was for him to become an engineer. There was no cable television connection at home nor did they have a computer. “I was a demanding teenager and fought with my father to get me a computer. He set me a statistically improbable task – that of scoring centum in mathematics, which he had never done so far – if I was to get a computer,” says Ashwin.

As fate would have it, he says, he did score a 100 and his father had no choice but to get him a computer. Those were the days of dial-up internet connections. And, Ashwin would visit many chat rooms. The turning point came when in one of the chat rooms, the administrator asked him if he would like to earn some money. Ashwin readily agreed. His job was to click on proxy websites so that their ratings would increase. Ashwin accomplished his task, but could not get paid as he did not have an account where money could be transferred online. “That is how I became an entrepreneur. I got lucky in a chat room. That captivated my interest. You can sit at home and do this and make money,” he says.

He told his parents that he was going to do this full time and that he was going to discontinue school. They managed to convince him to stay on in school and still indulge himself in what they thought was a passing teenage obsession. “I never got bored. It was so interesting,” he says, of his journey as an entrepreneur that began when he was just 15 years old.

“I have sold to a lot of different people after that, but convincing my parents was the toughest sale but the one with the highest RoI. I first had to convince my mom and dad that the business was viable,” he says.

Venturing into digital

Ashwin soon realised that he was not able to handle all the load himself and that he would need to hire someone to work for him. He roped in his friends and then came up with a more permanent arrangement using a relative’s spare godown space as his office. From there, Ashwin moved up the value chain, floating another venture called OrganicApex, a specialised digital marketing firm. He joined a BBA course in Vivekananda College, Chennai, because he felt that would be easy, but dropped out of college in the second semester as he couldn’t balance his work and college life. He had 25 employees then, in 2008-09. “I dropped out of college, focussed on the business, scaled it quite a bit. We had over 50 employees and were making good money,” he said.

But then he realised that they were still doing things manually, almost like what he did when he dabbled as an entrepreneur while still in school. He couldn’t find anything that would automate his business, which was the trigger for his next venture. He moved to Bengaluru in 2013 and founded Synup, which launched its first product in February 2014. Synup provides SaaS-based solutions that help local businesses manage their online presence.

New business strategy

Ashwin says he managed to blow up almost all the initial money “in doing a lot of really stupid things, but learnt a lot from the stupid things.” What Synup was trying to do was to help small businesses manage their online presence better. Instead of updating information on their own, companies would provide the information to Synup that would update it in all of three minutes, across different search platforms. In mid-2015, says Ashwin, they changed their business model to fully automate the work and also brought in a new pricing model that would make the business more sustainable.

The first customer came on board in November 2015 and it took Synup nine months to get to $1 million in revenues. What does Synup do, I ask him. We are meeting at a coffee shop in a star hotel in Chennai and Ashwin quickly points out that he was not aware of the coffee shop or even that the hotel’s name had been changed or what kind of food was available in the coffee shop or whether it had Wi-Fi access. Businesses need to provide all this kind of information to customers upfront. Problem is, says Ashwin, most coffee shops don’t publish information about themselves online. “As a modern customer, this information is costing me time and it is costing them brand perception.” To argue his point, he says a popular café chain in India even had its telephone number wrong online.

“What we do is,” he says, “manage all of this location intelligence at scale. If you are an establishment, you tell me everything about you and I instantly push it across Google, Bing, Yelp, Apple and every site that matters.” He recalls that a customer in Boston wanted to put out the information that her store would close early one day because of a snow storm in the city. Synup did this for her in a matter of minutes.

In 2016, Ashwin says they undertook an exercise about becoming cash flow positive. He told his colleagues that he would not shave and also not draw a salary till the company achieved this. His team started working towards that goal and Synup turned cash flow positive in three-four months, much earlier than what Ashwin expected. Early in 2017, Ashwin realised that they would need capital to grow the business to the next level and that is when they raised the Series A round.

Expansion plan

Synup, according to him, is present only in the US and Canada now, with over 3,000 paying customers powering more than 105,000 end locations. With the funds, Synup wants to expand to other countries and target larger enterprise clients, for which it has appointed a salesperson in the US.

Does he regret having dropped out of college? “I don’t know how my journey would have changed if I had gone to college. I do think college is important. But I had a lot of fun running this business and I wouldn’t give that up because it is the most interesting experience I have had in my life. I don’t know how to do anything else. This is the one thing I know how to do well,” says Ashwin. His parents too have reconciled to him being a college drop-out.

Published on March 05, 2018

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