How Srividya Kannan’s Avaali Solutions helps organisations reduce costs and improve efficiency
Srividya Kannan never liked an easy win, and so she ditched a top job to convince large enterprises to trust their future-readiness on a small start-up
When Srividya Kannan first told her parents about her plan to turn to entrepreneurship, they were taken aback. Her husband encouraged her to pursue her dreams, but her parents saw no point in Kannan quitting her well-paying job as the director, strategic business development, SAP India. For one, the start-up ecosystem back in 2012 wasn’t as evolved as it is today. More importantly, they warned her, it would be like starting from scratch all over again.
While their fears weren’t unfounded, Kannan was more than ready to start with a clean slate. “It was a tough decision because it isn’t easy to quit when one is doing extremely well in their career. But, I knew, it was now or never. Eventually, I convinced my parents and everything fell into place,” says Kannan, who left her job in 2012 and found Avaali Solutions.
Exactly six years later, Kannan has achieved what she set out to. Her company, which specialises in using digital technology to enable large enterprises manage their information processes efficiently (enterprise information management or EIM and enterprise mobility), has about 85 corporate clients. Kannan adds, “We’ve worked with one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in India which also has interests in financial services. We set up shared services to automate processes for them such as accounts payable, accounts receivable and sales order. We’ve also worked for companies such as Bidco (the leading FMCG company in East Africa) to set up their shared services. We’ve done an implementation for one of the largest ophthalmic lens manufacturers to automate their customer communications process.”
Of her clients, 45 are in India. With subsidiaries in UAE and Singapore, Avaali also has clients in Qatar and has done offshore work in the US and Australia. About 45-50% of their business comes in from international markets. The bootstrapped company (with about Rs.5 million of initial investment) reported net revenue of $2.5 million in FY18 and is expecting a 2x growth in revenue in FY19.
Clarity of thought and confidence are evident in Kannan, and she credits this to her upbringing. Despite being the youngest in her family of five — she has an elder brother and sister — Kannan was never a pampered kid. “My dad used to work with an automotive company and would often be travelling, and mom was our go-to person. She taught us to be fiercely independent, irrespective of our gender, and earn our own living. She also expected both my brother and us (she and her sister) to learn household chores,” says Kannan, who studied at a girl’s school in Borivali, Mumbai.
After she finished her degree in commerce, Kannan did her MBA from Sydenham College in Mumbai in 1990.
While Kannan got multiple offers from multinational companies, she was clear that she wanted to begin her career with a start-up. The reason? “I always wanted to do a job where all was not perfect. If there was a situation where something wasn’t right, then I could make a tangible difference,” she explains candidly.
“My parents thought I was crazy. I would go with my resume to companies in Colaba and Nariman Point,” she recalls with a laugh. Then, she met the promoter of five-year-old start-up Synergy Log-in Systems. It was a non-banking financial company (NBFC), where she was given the role of managing their fee and fund-based businesses.
She spent the next two years at Synergy. “We were in the business of syndication of loans, leases, and higher purchases. My role was to drive business for the organisation. So I would have to go and meet potential prospects that might need short-term, long term intercorporate deposits, loans, and leases. I would have to syndicate that with a financier which could be a bank or NBFC, which would fund that portfolio,” she explains.
At Synergy, Kannan also introduced a new business vertical — car financing. “They asked me to own and run it. That was my golden moment. I went to management colleges, hired five bright students, trained them and built this division,” she says. “We became one of the leading NBFCs in car financing at that time.”
But her quest for pursuing challenges prompted her to quit the firm post their IPO. “I enjoy challenges. I’m more focused when I have to build something from scratch.” During a business interaction, she was given such an opportunity. She joined Wipro Finance in 1997, to ensure the region meets profitability and collection numbers. “We collected close to 70% of the long-pending outstanding in two years. More importantly, I learned documentation and how to approach the legal system,” says Kannan. She then moved to Bengaluru to head business finance for one of their divisions in 2000. She also worked with leading tech multinationals such as Oracle and SAP across functions including alliances, strategy, and innovation. Explaining her move from finance to IT, Kannan says, “I was exploring how processes could be executed in far more efficient ways with technology.”
Identifying a Niche
Over the years of interacting with enterprises, Kannan came across an appalling statistic: close to 80% of business processes were being done manually. Various documents, invoices, HR data, and marketing materials all come in bits and pieces, and operations were a huge challenge. “I thought digitisation of processes and unstructured content therein was a good area to invest in,” she says, and that was the genesis of Avaali.
Her intervention made operations more agile and cost-effective. Avaali chose to work with larger firms because, she says, “they would have the process and technology maturity to be able to adopt these solutions”. The goal was to help enterprises bring down the cycle time by 30-40%. Today, Avaali provides services including consulting, implementation and support across SAP OpenText solutions including data and document archiving, vendor invoice management, employee file management, and portal content management.
After identifying the niche, Kannan began the task of building her team on the sales and business development side. Within the first six months, the company was ready to go to market with the solution. “ Our strength was in understanding processes that drive business and identifying gaps,” she says.
The then six-member team at Avaali began approaching various companies in the West and in Bengaluru, and put forth the value that Avaali Solutions could bring to the table. “While they showed interest, they remained sceptical about working with a start-up,” says Kannan.
For instance, Kannan remembers their meeting with a leading Indian two-wheeler manufacturer. “We go there, fully charged up, and their first response was, ‘Sorry, we don’t work with small firms,’” says Kannan. Not one to give up easily, she continued with her presentation, focusing on two things — the value a start-up can bring and the solutions Avaali was proposing. Eventually, the potential clients ended up spending about an hour with the team and saw value, she recalls.
It took about 18 months for Kannan and her team to get their first client. “It was one of the toughest periods of my life,” she says. She says that, slowly, there came a new understanding within larger organisations — that if they needed innovation and new ideas at a rapid pace, they need not necessarily come only from bigger brands. The start-up’s client list now includes Wockhardt, Arvind, Vedanta Group, Tata Sky, Bidco Africa, Sun TV, Royal Enfield, and Hatsun. Avaali’s revenues come from a fixed charge they levy for their solutions, time and material, and Kannan says it has been profitable since inception. She also takes pride in positive client feedback. “One of the best was from a client who said that four to five months after adopting our solutions, the business’ cycle time has come down by 40% and the cost has come down by 45%,” says Kannan.
Avaali’s team is today 85-member strong, and Kannan is excited about the next leg of growth — from domestic and international markets.
While they will continue to build growth on their bread and butter business — which is around building process agility — they have also identified several other ‘white spaces’. Robotic Process Automation (RPA) is one of them. Avaali started investing in this area about a year ago. This enables enterprises to create an intelligent digital workforce that works side-by-side with employees for greater efficiency. It essentially eliminates almost any manual data-driven activity. Instead, intelligent software bots automate tasks requiring human strengths such as emotional intelligence, reasoning, judgment and interaction with the customer.
Apart from working on a vendor portal that will significantly bring down cycle time on supplier engagements, it is also building solutions on top of RPA for quicker deployment. “We built this brand called Velocious, which means fast, with a whole set of offerings including payment approval automation, migration tools, master data management and RPA for logistics and shipment tracking,” says Kannan.
As we near the end of our conversation, Kannan points to the fact that all this wouldn’t have been possible without the constant support from her family, especially her husband Kannan Sheshadri. While a lot has been achieved, a lot still remains to be done. “We are going to leverage all the wins we have had to see how we can further propel and make a deeper, more meaningful impact on the lives of customer organisations. We have barely touched the tip of the iceberg,” says Kannan. And with her clarity and confidence, the targets are likely to be achieved sooner rather than later.