Today is my last day at Infibeam.

I’m going to miss working in this environment because I learned a lot about ecommerce and online buying in India. For example, I was surprised to know how much sales go up during Diwali (in hindsight, not so surprising, of course) and was surprised at the amount of online buying that happens from Tier II cities. Then there was the learning on the huge amount of logistics that happens – the part where the customer visits the website and clicks on the Buy button is just 1% of the total stuff that happens behind-the-scenes.

I am also thankful to Ajay and Infibeam for getting me into the Rails wagon, I’m finally starting to see the light. Learning a new language and framework from scratch to delivering a full ecommerce platform in 4–5 months was a fascinating experience. And soon, anyone can set up their own online store on top of Infibeam’s infrastructure.

Infibeam has done many things right, has many things to improve, and rumors say they may face many challenges in the future. All in all, that’s a good thing. Infibeam launched at the right time and is helping to grow ecommerce in India, and it will continue to do so.

But alas, it’s time for me to move on. I can haz plans.


Listening to Stand Up by The Prodigy

I have been getting many emails regarding isbn.net.in since I put it out 9 months ago. For example:

Hi Swaroop,
I am following your blog for last year.
I have visited and used ur isbn.net.in service. It is a good idea.

To easy of mobile phone buyers, I wanna create a application like isbn.net.in for the mobile phone availability and comparison.

Can i do this as a Final year project? Is it take that much work?
To create that what should I know!

I have knowledge in Open source softwares, LAMP and basic python (From A Byte of Python).

and this:

Hi Swaroop,

Love your site isbn.net.in!

I am planning to start an online bookstore to sell used books. I need help to acquire book info like title, author etc. based on ISBN. Will you be able to help? Do you have an API that I can use? I see that you use Amazon. I was not sure if Amazon would have the details for books published in India. Please let me know your thoughts. Appreciate your help.

I actually wrote isbn.net.in as a means of learning Ruby, so I had written some hacked-up code using Sinatra. As it was my first Ruby project, the code was very amateurish and was not something I wanted to share.

Since so many people have been asking how it works, I decided it would be easier to just open source it. I took this opportunity to rewrite it using Rails 3 and try out Heroku as well. So, voila, Rails 3, Heroku and using MongoDB for tracking background jobs (to do the screen scraping) means a brand new isbn.net.in that is now live.

And the source code is now at https://github.com/swaroopch/isbnnetin (Note that this software requires Memcached and MongoDB to run).

The code is under an Apache license, so use it as you please.

Now that the source code is out there, there are some contributions that can make the site better:

  • Detection of ‘out of stock’ / delivery time
  • Detection of extra shipping charges / other hidden charges
  • Mobile version
  • Any improvements to the web design at all (I suck at UI design)

I would love any help on the above. If you’re interested, please fork away and when you’re ready, send me a pull request on GitHub :-)

Still Spreading

I am surprised to still see the response to isbn.net.in, mainly because I do zero marketing, and yet I still get 1-2 emails per day about it. That is amazing considering that the site has been there for nearly nine months and I didn’t do much other than write a blog post about it. I don’t tweet it or facebook it and all that jazz. I guess it’s a case of “Build it and they will come”?

For example, it was featured in startup articles, it was even mentioned in interviews of new online ecommerce stores that are coming up.

My favorite part is that people are using it as a bookmark URL (which was a use case that I had in mind), see @xrivatsan, @PurpleFoodie and @Shalin10

And I get emails and tweets when the site used to go down for even a few hours!

Oh, and thanks for all the feedback:

Shashank ND says:

“isbn.net.in saves a ton of time when trying to buy books online. Indian e commerce needs more of them. Thank you @swaroopch.””isbn.net.in saves a ton of time when trying to buy books online. Indian e commerce needs more of them. Thank you @swaroopch.”

Swaroop Hegde says:

“Been searching for Kochan’s Objective-C book for a day now but hitting out of stock everywhere. And oh, Kudos to @SwaroopCH’s isbn.net.in”

Nandan Dubey says:

“http://isbn.net.in/ best site to compare price of the books visit it once before buying any online books”

Vinay says:

isbn.net.in is one simple and great site which is give you the best prices online. Great service for book lovers

The greatest flattery, though, is when it has inspired many other book price comparison websites.

For example, take the story behind mySmartPrice:

I chanced upon a book price search engine by Swaroop through a post on Flipkart. I will always remain thankful for that since I have gained a lot of insight by going through his blog. If you intend to ever start your startup then do subscribe to his blog.

A lot of users of Swaroop’s project liked the product. However many of them were asking for a way to start with the title of the book instead of the isbn number. I guess Swaroop has not made the changes since it was not his idea to start with and he might be busy with his new job at Infibeam. Coincidentally I am on the exit mode from my job to get into the startup phase.

One of the biggest inspirations for working on this project has been my own desire to prove to myself that I continue to be a geek even 5 years after I stopped coding to go to IIM Bangalore. There are many improvements that are required even now and I will talk about them in future posts. However I am already proud of the product that I have.

I will close this post by wishing myself and MySmartPrice luck and by thanking Tapas for introducing me to the wonderful blog of Swaroop and Swaroop for providing me such a nice homework to bring out the coder in me

There have been other sites such as MyDiscountBay that also seem to have taken inspiration from isbn.net.in. Update: confirmed via twitter.

And we seem to be spawning many more.

The irony is that I myself was inspired by isbn.nu. We all stand on the shoulders of giants :-)

Oh, and isbn.net.in is certainly just a side project, definitely not meant as a competition to these startups.

The single biggest crib that I hear is that one needs to know the ISBN number to use isbn.net.in – it seems that most people forget that I have a bookmarklet which solves that problem, sigh. I really don’t see the need to make a completely new search engine when all these ecommerce sites are already putting in effort to make a great search engine. But I guess people want everything online and don’t want to even use a browser feature, such is the Net effect! (If you do have an idea in mind how to solve this, as I mentioned before, fork away ;-))

This was my list of updates about isbn.net.in. Feedback welcome!

Update: Someone has written a Flipkart to isbn.net.in link greasemonkey script. Nice to see people building on top of isbn.net.in! On the same note, if you ever want to get the prices from isbn.net.in, just append .json to the URLs, example http://isbn.net.in/0142000280.json for the JSON data of the prices.

We’ve all heard about how startups are key to the future economy of India and we’ve heard about how hiring should be a top priority for any companythen why is it that hiring is NOT a majorly discussed issue in startup events in India?

I ask this question because, in fact, it is HARD for startups in Bangalore to hire. The problem is of two extremes: The good folks you would want to hire either become entrepreneurs themselves (full of challenges) OR work for big money in big companies (may not have challenges, but feeds their social status). There seems to be no middle ground where people want to enjoy the work which is full of challenges and also have the stability of a salary and the promise of stocks.

Hiring has become almost impossible for startups – right from IIMB-incubated startups which have full of challenges and exposure to companies like Infibeam which does crores in revenue per year and pays market price salaries.

Where to find such good people?

  • What happens to all those people who started startups via iAccelerator and Morpheus Ventures and did not succeed? Do they go into consulting or join a regular job?
  • What happens to all the college students who talk enthusiastically about joining startups? What percentage of those students switch to chasing the money because of peer pressure? I’m told majority of students don’t end up joining a startup when they have a higher salary offer from a big company.
  • Who are the kinds of people who go to events like DoctypeHTML5? Are they part of startups or are they part of big companies?

I really wish Pluggd.in would setup an anonymous/discreet matchmaking service between “startup-mindset coders” (the scarcity) with good startups (which seems to be in abundance these days, the irony!), i.e. focus on finding good people first, and then promote the available startup jobs.

Maybe the need of the hour for our startup ecosystem is hiring-for-startup events (“get people to get things done”) rather than startup events consisting of motivational speeches (“listen to high-level talk about how to get things done”).

Sometimes I think that what is missing in Bangalore (and in India, in general) is a hackerspace culture and a geeks grooming culture. Let’s hope HasGeek has something up their sleeves…

This is just a thought running in my head which I’m expressing it here – I’ve heard the “Why can’t I hire good people for my startup?” question so often in the past few months, almost on a daily basis these days, that I really needed to get this out of my head and type it out!

On the other hand, if you think hiring for startups in Bangalore is not really an issue, please do advise, many people I know would be interested to know how to go about it :)

P.S. I’m writing this while I’m listening to sessions at the NASSCOM Product Conclave and can’t help but wonder if all the topics discussed here are even possible without having the right people with you in your venture, after all, the founders can’t do everything by themselves :-)

Note: This article was a result of a discussion with Ram of Metaome, a IIMB-incubated startup. They’re looking for good folks to join them, if you’re interested.

Update: Indus has a different take on this.

A while back, I released a side-project called http://isbn.net.in – a simple tool for comparing book prices in India. I received lots of feedback, suggestions and praise. I have updated it with fixes for the bugs reported and implemented most of the suggestions.

It was interesting to see people writing blog posts and linking to the corresponding book page on isbn.net.in as a “canonical page” about the book. I hadn’t thought of that.

Feedback

Lots of bug reports, suggestions and praise came via email, such as from Onkar:

“Nice idea with simple implementation. I am sure this will make my father happy. Thanks for your work. :-)”

And as expected, Twitterers were most vocal about it:

@saurabh says: isbn.net.in is awesome #recommended #ftw #awesomeness

@kranium256 says: isbn.net.in is actually quite bloody awesome!

@kr0y says: For all those who love to order books online, this site can really help you get a good deal http://isbn.net.in/

@abhinittiwari says: Awesome book price comparision engine! http://isbn.net.in/

@vineetmundhra says: A wonderful tool for comparing book prices in India http://isbn.net.in

@l0nwlf says: http://isbn.net.in -> a pretty neat site to compare prices of book

@yarooruvann says: http://isbn.net.in/ very good tool to compare book prices in India

@jasdeep says: isbn.net.in is awesome, thank you @swaroopch

@tan1337 says: Awesome!

And some of the blog comments were heartening to note as well, especially this one:

Chandan V says: I was searching for a book from past 1 week and was unable to find it. Thanks to you, finally I was able get my book at flipkart. It was like, I thought I’ll not get that book any where in Bangalore and I open my google reader to see your link. Bingo, I have placed an order and eagerly looking forward for the delivery. Thanks a ton. You do not know how much it meant for me to have that book.

Note that last sentence. That is the stuff that creators love! :)

Search by title

The biggest feedback was: “Getting ISBN numbers is a little difficult for everyone. Consider taking a book title as your input and searching prices based on that directly.”

I understand the motivation behind this. But unfortunately, this was what I was exactly trying to avoid! I do not want to build a search engine! That is a non-trivial task, as I’m sure you can imagine.

My idea was to piggyback on top of people who are already doing that well. For example, Flipkart and Infibeam are supposed to have the most titles for the Indian market. So my idea was this: Why not use those search engines which are being constantly updated and tweaked by those companies to search for the books, and then use the bookmarklet + isbn.net.in to compare the actual prices. I actually don’t want you to use isbn.net.in as the starting point.

If you still want to search by book title, then head on over to the new Google Product Search for India. The reasons why you would use isbn.net.in over Google Product Search, is that isbn.net.in is comprehensive, accurate, has latest prices (as much as possible), and helps you decide whether to buy the book using the full description and Amazon rating.

Fixes and Updates

Regarding the fixes and updates based on your suggestions, here is the list:

  1. Fixed error on multiple pages such as http://isbn.net.in/8190453025 (via @sudhiru) and http://isbn.net.in/0074637762 (via email from Abhinav Sood)
  2. Fixing fetching of prices from a1books, thanks to bug report from Amit Sharma
  3. Added link to Google Product Search for India, because of many queries to allow search by title.
  4. Added CoralHub.com to the list of online book stores that is searched.
  5. Linked to iglooo.in and bookase.com in the about page under the list of similar projects.
  6. Added a “generic grep” to make the bookmarklet try a little harder for sites that is not known in its default list – IIRC, this was a suggestion by @talonx
  7. Bookmarklet now works with Amazon pages, but for this, you will need to take the bookmarklet again from http://isbn.net.in frontpage
  8. Added Kindle prices.

Favorite New Feature

My favorite new feature is Kindle ebook prices because, sometimes, buying the Kindle edition is cheaper than getting the paper book. That’s what I did with Seth Godin’s new book.

Further suggestions and feedback are welcome.


Update: As of 22 June, 2011, I’m no longer with Infibeam.

Thanking the community

First and foremost, thanks to all who encouraged me, and offered support and help when I wrote about leaving my own company. Many people, without any personal benefit in mind, connected me to very interesting opportunities. And this is exactly how I got my next gig.[1]

What was specifically amazing to me was that folks were connecting me to opportunities that I would not have heard of otherwise, and enthusiastically vouching for me. Now that was really humbling. Within two weeks of my blog post, I had a job! And I didn’t even have to look for it, so thank you guys. As Seth Godin put it, who needs a resume indeed!

InfiBeam

So where am I joining? InfiBeam – which I can best describe as “Amazon of India.”[2]

infibeam 001

So why am I excited about InfiBeam?

In my previous startup, I experienced the phase of starting from scratch till creating a product. Unfortunately, I did not get to see the second part, the business side of things, including the hard part of selling, the act of knowing the customer, the logistics and operations, etc. I was still yearning for that.

At the same time, getting to see this second phase a few years later would not have made sense because I would’ve lost the enthusiasm and momentum that I have at this point in time. So, in that sense, I’m really excited about InfiBeam because I’ll get to be part of this second phase.

Second, I was specifically looking for companies in “core” areas, in the sense, someone who makes consumer products and services in India for India, and specifically, either ecommerce or mobile. And, voila, the universe conspired.

Third, I was being cautious and really looking to understand the people in the company and not only what the company makes. After all, it’s only the people aspect which makes or breaks your experience and enthusiasm. And I spent quite a bit of time interacting with the people I would potentially work with, and I came out of the discussions very happy.

Fourth, what I especially liked most about the company was their customer focus as well as the focus of building the right culture inside the company. It’s very hard for startups to focus on these soft aspects, because it easily gets sidelined compared to the hectic everyday.

InfiBeam Customer Service

InfiBeam Core Values (list)

There were quite a few opportunities that I explored, but I intuitively felt that InfiBeam was the place to be. And I went ahead with that gut instinct.

Both Business and Tech

And, as an example of a great fit for me, my job description says that I have to take up any product or strategy and deliver it end-to-end from the business model to the technical implementation.

I had thoughts of shifting back to pure coding at first, but then decided a business focus is indeed a good thing, and something I wish I had taken seriously right at the start of my career (better late than never!). For example, quoting from a recent Deccan Herald article:
> It cites Nasscom study which states that India faces IT talent shortfall of between 8,00,000 and 1.2 million workers by 2012. It observes that, though many producers continue to work with universities, government and other firms to improve the quality of technology education, and Asian countries continue to produce large numbers of IT employees, they, however, lag in comparison with North America and Europe in providing well-rounded technology education. Among Asian economies, the concern is that education systems puts too much focus on pure IT skills and not enough on IT in the business context. Likewise, top schools in the US and Europe, which do better in this area, face long-term challenges in cultivating science and technical engineering skills of its younger students. Thus, globally, the study posits that investment in skills development remains long-term imperative.

If it feels scary…

I am positive about this gig because I will be forced to become good at what I do because of the quality of people I work with, and knowing that you’re in a good environment when you consider yourself the dumbest guy in the room.

In such situations, I keep quoting Jeff Atwood:

If it feels scary, it’s the right choice.

Wish me luck!

[1] Specifically, a shout of thanks to Nimish Adani of Workosaur.

[2] Yes, this was a way of skipping the topic that, yes, InfiBeam’s current web design looks similar to that of Amazon.com design. Yes, I don’t like it too. It is a distraction which prevents potential users to proceed to the next step of appreciating the amazing services provided by InfiBeam.

Update on Jan 31, 2010: InfiBeam has launched the first Indian ebook store and the first Indian ebook reader.