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Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Cucumbertown: A recipe to bring chefs and foodies together

We are all familiar with companies founded in garages and wooden sheds. But here is one where the founders were sitting in their respective drawing rooms in three corners of the world – two in Bangalore, one in the US, and the other in Switzerland – and none of them had met the others.

There are a number of blogs on restaurants, dining and recipes. But, Cherian Thomas, a Bangalore-based foodie, realised that these blogs are restricted only to the tech-savvy community, since opening a blog and maintaining it requires some amount of knowledge in website management. It struck him that there isn’t a Facebook for cooks, like there is one for photographers or designers and Cucumbertown, a social network for chefs and foodies, was born.

“I used to cook with my brother from the time I was in 7th standard. Later, I realised that many housewives, mothers and grandmoms, besides many men who cook as a hobby, don’t have an online presence, because they are neither comfortable with writing a blog nor have adequate motivation to write long articles on food,” says Thomas, who is an engineer by profession. “So I thought I would devise a mechanism that will make it easy for everyone who is interested in cooking and recipes to have an online identity -- a community where foodies can easily exchange tips on cooking: that’s the premise of Cucumbertown.”

The site is simple to use. You can either log in with your Facebook username and password or create a new account. “Once you are onboard, you can search by ingredient, cuisine or cooking time, upload photos and write recipes, and share all that you cook,” says Thomas.

“I remember one of my friends saying that his grandmother knows a few good Konkani recipes, and he feared that those dishes might become extinct,” Thomas recalls. “Cucumbertown will not let them become extinct. On our site, you mingle with not only chefs and food bloggers, but also with a huge number of home cooks who might end up sharing a few family secrets as well. This is also a place where you can save your recipes for generations to come.”

Thomas, who is the CEO, had worked in Zynga and Support.com. The other three co-founders are CTO Arun Prabhakar who previously worked with Taggles and TutorVista; Chris Luscher, partner at InformationArchitects, a premier design firm in Zurich; and Dan Hauk, theme designer of Tumblr and co-founder of BrewTracker.

Thomas explains the importance of having world-class design experts as cofounders of the Cucumbertown: “For a consumer product, design is extremely important, as important as the website content, for users to keep coming back to the site. Secondly, we decided to work with professionals in America and Europe because we wanted to create a global product.”

Thomas says that Cucumbertown has users from 60 countries, the largest audience, after the US, is from Australia and the UAE. “Thanks to our site, we know of some interesting American-Arabic fusion recipes, created by Americans living in the Gulf. Sanaa A’esha, a user, says, “I spend half my days lookng for recipes, interesting food blogs and sharing my own personal creations. I would have thought of developing this site, if this hadn't come up.”

Cucumbertown raised a $300,000 seed round last year. The first round of investors included Naval Ravikant of AngelList, Paul Singh of 500 Startups, FarmVille co-creator Sizhao Zao Yang, founder of MightyText Maneesh Arora, early Google product guy Richard Chen and Sonique Player co-creator Tabreez Varjee.

(This article appeared in the Brainwave column of The Times of India, Bangalore, yesterday.)

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Inuit - an IT management platform for SMEs

The only data-management solution a small or medium enterprise typically invests in is an accounting software like Tally. To manage the rest of the functions, like inventories and stock supplies, the manager relies on his goodold ledger, files and notebooks. Nothing wrong with them, except it's hard to handle the growing volume of transactions and the diverse types of data.

That, in turn, limits his ability to diversify and grow in business. Sharath Chander Punthambekar, a 59-year-old veteran in implementing ERP (enterprise resource planning) solutions in India and abroad, saw this as an opportunity and set out to build a platform that would put the small businessmen on a par with their resource-rich counterparts, as far as IT infrastructure is concerned.

"Most of the companies, especially at the bottom of the pyramid, don't have the technological, infrastructural or cultural bandwidth to implement a true ERP solution. Some go in for one, because their competitor has one," says Punthambekar. "And, many of them can't afford a solution like SAP."

With the aim of giving the power of IT to the millions of SMEs and thereby revolutionize the way they do business, he and his friend of over three decades, M H Narasimhan, 63, have joined hands to put together Inuit.

"Our platform is based on three critical premises: simplicity, affordability and speed. "We offer SMEs the 5-12-5 advantage: cost of Rs 5 per day per user, 12 key modules like orders, bills, receipts, purchases, payments, deliveries, etc; and the app is up and running in 5 days. There are no licence fees, no implementation fees, no customization fees, no maintenance fees, no version upgrade fees and no consultant fees," says Punthambekar, CTO of Inuit Cloud Technologies.

Narasimhan, who is the CEO, adds, "For any businessman, there are just three matrices: receivables, collections and stock turnover ratio. And we have just focussed on them."

Narasimhan, who is the primary investor in this initiative, has over 30 years of experience in senior management, strategy, sales and marketing. Narasimhan says, "SMEs are the backbone of our economy but the most neglected. They have poor quality of information. Even large companies , who have tried to slice ERP solutions, haven't been able to do it in a simple manner. So, we decided to make available a simple information management app to the SMEs who have neither great knowledge of IT nor resources to manage an IT team. It's mobile, and you can upload and download data wherever you have internet connection ."

Inuit, to be launched on November 1 in Bangalore, won the gold medal from the government of India's department of science & technology and Lockheed Martin, USA, for the Best Innovation on the Cloud. Punthambekar is one of the 30 Indians to have won the annual gold medal.

A recent study by Ficci and Google showed that barely 5% of SMEs had even a website. The founders of Inuit are gungho about the change the platform can bring. The company already has around 400 installations in the pipeline. "There are roughly 18 to 20 million SMEs in India that contribute around 40% of the country's GDP. An app like Inuit can help them manage their business better, increase productivity and diversify. When they grow, so too will the GDP," they say.

(This article appeared in The Times of India, Bangalore, in the Brainwave column on Oct 22, 2013)

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Three cheers to our weather bureau

A proud moment for our weather scientists and India Meteorological Department who accurately forecast every detail of cyclone Phailin and saved hundreds of thousands of lives in Orissa. One may say that's their job, but given the poor reputation they have, they deserve a round of applause.

Meteorologists have always been the butt of jokes in our country. It's a pastime to look at the weather column and trash the forecast. Such is the disdain that if someone is planning a picnic, they check if there is a prediction of thundershowers!

The poor quality of prediction was never because of the lack of well-qualified meteorologists. India has some of the best scientists in the world. But they lacked state-of-the art technology to collect and analyse data. Thankfully, there's been change. Weather men say they now have good computer-backed systems for data analysis and forecast. And, we have seen the result.

In the runup to Phailin, our weather scientists were criticised by their counterparts abroad for underestimating the magnitude of Phailin. While IMD forecast a maximum wind speed of 220 kmph, western weather centres put the figure at 315 kmph. A noted meteorologist, Eric Holthaus, was quoted as saying, "Phailin is already worse than what the IMD is forecasting. A recent satellite estimate put Phailin's current intensity on par with 2005's Hurricane Katrina... I feel that IMD's underestimate of the strength and impact of this storm is potentially tragic and could catch many millions of people off guard." Katrina hit the US coast in 2005 killing over 1,800 people.

The western commentators seemed to have been bound by their stereotypical perception of India. Our meteorologists stuck to their assessment. Following up on their forecast, our National Disaster Management Authority in association with state and central governments did a commendable job of moving close to 9 lakh people to safety and reducing significantly the loss of human lives. Finally, our forecast turned out to be spot on.

It was good to see our weather scientists and disaster management officials getting their well-deserved prime-time coverage on all national news channels last night.

Incidentally, the India Meteorolgical Department has a very good website. It has a Facebook page too, and it has close to 7,000 Likes.

Time to take our weathermen seriously. No jokes, please.