Monday, May 16, 2011

My BusiCopy Cofounder Anuj Bikram Thapa

Me In The New York Times

A few weeks back Anuj and I became Cofounders at 50% each to BusiCopy, a social network for businesses.

Before I came to America I was renting a place near the largest library in Nepal. Anuj was friends with the landlord's son. And we got to know each other. I came to America and kind of lost touch for the most part. He went to Japan. He was there for seven years doing hotel management. We might have exchanged an email or two along the way.

He returned to Nepal. The country was going through the final phases of a decade long civil war. And so going into tourism, his first choice, was not an option. To that point his only experience with computers was that he had used them for personal use.

In January 2006 he decided to go into IT. He, his brother in the US Amit Thapa, and that brother's friend Ujjyol Raj Singh teamed up. Amit was studying IT in Texas. He dropped out. Little knowledge is dangerous. You end up becoming an entrepreneur.

They bought two computers and just jumped into it. They had no idea where to get projects. They got the company registered. They started with bidding sites like RentACoder, VWorker, and eLance. The company today has a ranking of 17 globally on VWorker but Anuj has stopped using the site because they charge too hefty a commission.

So they started with two computers, one engineer, and one or two contacts.

They built the first ecommerce site for a client in February 2006. His engineer did not know how to use the PayPal API properly and PayPal suspended them for 90 days. The engineers had never seen a credit card before when they built the site.

Anuj says it was very hard to hire people in those early months.

He rented one room in Jamal in Kathmandu. It was one dark, dingy room. Prospective engineers who showed up for job interviews ran away when they saw the office space. The lawyer who showed up for registration work said there was no place in the office to do paperwork.

"We were not sure if this was ever going to take off," Anuj says.
Kathmandu store, NepalImage via Wikipedia
They could not hire engineers, so they hired students part time who might put in two hours a day during the week, and a full day on Saturday. High school and college friends were helpful. The first four, five months work was done by part timers.

The first month's income was 34,000 rupees, the rent was 32,000 rupees.

Then they moved to Kamaladi in Kathmandu which was a better office space. Then they realized there were numerous night shifts. And so, in August 2006, he shifted his office to his house in Dhobighat, Kathmandu, where it has been since.

Only after the company had been around a year the team started taking one day off on Saturdays.
Wool for sale, Kathmandu, NepalImage via Wikipedia
Three months into the venture they had two people and one full timer. Since September 2006 they have added one month per person on average to now ending up with a team that is 50 techie strong.

Fresh engineering graduates had all to be trained for the first three months.

One of the perks is Anuj falls back to his tourism industry days and takes his entire team on field trips twice a year. Sometimes it is Pokhara, sometimes Chitwan. Sometimes it is rafting, sometimes it is bungee jumping.

Anuj holds a personal record of having worked for 88 hours non stop. Some others on his team have personal records of 52, 48 and 68 hours.

One of the early issues was clients would not give detailed and specific enough specs. A five hour project would end up taking five days. At the end of it all the client might still feel they did not get what they had in mind. Now the team places major emphasis on getting good specs before they commence on a project.

Engineers routinely left, to go abroad, or because the work was hard, the hours were long.

So far Anuj has had clients in all developed countries.

Even the smart engineers have language problems. He has routinely provided them with English language lessons. On top of that management training. The company is ISO certified.

One major strength the company has had is they stay open long hours. They no longer boast 24/7 availability like they used to, unless a particular project asks for it, but they still open at 10 in the morning, and stay open to two in the morning. Some designers, some programmers work all night. There is the base salary, and then there is over time pay. Some team members start work in the evening.

So far the house has been big enough that all he has had to do is add desks and computers. The first two computers he bought in New Road, the Fifth Avenue of Kathmandu, were carried by porters to the office like they were sacks of rice.
Nepali sadhu performing a blessing.Image via Wikipedia
Starting out when they had no profile they even did work for 50 cents per hour. It took him about a year to figure out the formula, and he has stuck to it since for the past few years. But BusiCopy is a whole different ballgame. And it is startup time all over again.

BusiCopy is for businesses that have no programming knowledge, no SEO knowledge, but who would like to have an online presence. He had been thinking about it for a few years. Work was started in haphazard ways in 2010. But since March 22 the idea has had a dedicated team. There was a team meeting of 30 senior engineers.

Of the 50 techies, 43 are software engineers, the others are designers, system administrators, and testers.

Almost every team member rides a motorbike to work.

Electricity is a problem in Kathmandu. Nepal is second only to Brazil in terms of hydroelectricity potential. But that water comes mostly in the form of floods and landslides rather than electricity.

When Prachanda was Prime Minister a few years back, Kathmandu was down to getting electricity for only six hours a day. But the company has had 24/7 electricity. They use inverters to charge batteries when there is power. They have two backup generators on top of that. During the bad months the diesel bill would be as high as 100,000 rupees. That comes to about 1500 dollars.

They started with 64 kbps internet access. Now they are at 3.5 MB. 512 kbps used to be 25,000 rupees per month. 2 MB was 87.000 per month. 3.5 MB is at 65,000 rupees per month. That is about a thousand dollars per month for internet access. He gets both optic fiber and wireless.

Skype has been the best communication tool.

From September 2006 to April 2011 lunch and snacks were provided to team members. They would leave home at seven in the morning, and be back home only around midnight. But now he is focused on getting people to work more sane hours, like maybe eight hours a day. His experience has been that after that point productivity seems to go down.

The workers are non unionized. And that is something to note in a country where even the four people working at your restaurant might be unionized.
Dewali Festival, Kathmandu, NepalImage via Wikipedia
In 2006 fresh graduates expected to get paid 4-6,000 rupees a month. By 2011 that starting salary is more like 12-18,000 rupees per month. Every year of experience adds another 5,000 to that. The top engineers currently make 40,000 rupees per month. Being a software engineer is one of the most prestigeous professions in Nepal today, more so than being a doctor even. Doctors and engineers also tend to have ridiculous certification issues abroad. The IT people don't have that problem. With IT, either you can get it done, or you can't get it done. So the most globally mobile minded want to go into IT.

Kathmandu spits out 20,000 new IT graduates every year. Half of them leave the country upon graduation. About 25% go on for a Masters degree. 12% go into non IT fields. Of the remaining 12%, only about one third succeed. So you end up with only 500 good engineers every year locally.

The demand for designers has been growing faster than for programmers.

Anuj's team has earned a reputation in Kathmandu for undertaking a wide variety of projects, and difficult ones too. They did whatever came along. They experimented with programming languages unlike many others who stuck to the one or two that worked for them.
Stone carvings, called Chaityas, seen even in ...Image via Wikipedia
There are less than seven software shops in Kathmandu that have 50 or more engineers. Over the years many have gone out of business. Anuj's team is the leading name in the valley. Kathmandu is a valley.

He has not had local clients. He has built a few sites for a few friends but that's it. For many local businesses getting a website was a status symbol more than a business proposition. The travel agency next door has a website, make me one too, some would say.

Largely avoiding the local market the first few years was a wise move, but now is ripe time to focus more on local and global clients all at once. Going local a few years back would have been lethal for business, he says.

Opening an IT college in Kathmandu is one of his dreams.
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