Interview with Harsh Narang, Founder, Phokatcopy
(as a part of a term paper for the course Entrepreneurial Management - interview conducted by Apoorv, Akshay, Ashish and me)
Very rarely do we encounter people who are ready to go on a road less travelled, who dare to deviate from the conventional career path just to follow their dreams. It takes a lot of courage, passion and immense self-confidence to do so. This term paper is about one such maverick, who forwent an IIM-A call just because there was something that seemed more important to him. It was his idea.
When his friends were busy playing counter-strike or making female-friends on facebook, Harsh Narang, a fifth year student of Mathematics and Computing, IIT Delhi was busy building his own company – his innovative venture called ‘Phokatcopy’.
While we(the four of us) were waiting at Lipton, IIT Delhi campus, to take his interview as a part of the course SML-302 on Entrepreneurial Management, we were tad nervous. We kept revising our sets of questions and were ready with our pens and paper to start off with our questions as soon as he arrived. It didn’t take much wait on our part, as a simple but dynamic guy in a blue-shirt carrying an extravagant smile appeared in front of us and we introduced ourselves.
The first question that came as a part of our conversation was not from our side, but it was from him. Curiously, he asked us, ‘Why did you choose me for your entrepreneurial study?’ to which I was quick with reply, ‘We identify ourselves with you. Your being one amongst us brings us immense pride and we wanted to know more about you and your venture, and take your story to our fellow mates.’
Thereafter, we began our questionnaire and the pens that were so desperately waiting to make notes, engaged themselves in the handsome task, quite gleefully.
The questions follow:
Personal Information about Harsh Narang - Harsh lives in Saket and is a day-scholar, currently in 5th year student in MCA at IIT Delhi. The day we met him - 16th March, 2010, he had an IIM-A call for interview, and he skipped it to give us an interview. He skipped it not for the us(of course), but for his passion - his enterprise.
About Phokatcopy - PhokatCopy provides an innovative youth-oriented platform for advertising . Offering students photocopying services at no cost, with advertising initiatives on the back page, It links student needs with an innovative marketing strategy, providing an opportunity for targeted brand visibility and information dissemination to impact this demographic. Currently PhokatCopy has MoU's signed with over 25 colleges and Photocopy operators across Delhi including IIT-Delhi, SRCC, Hindu, Hansraj etc, and has recently launched itself in Pune.
1. How did the idea first occur to you?
- I used to photocopy a lot. The concept of free photocopying came to me on a long afternoon in 2007, after I had just copied a mountain of notes! On an average, a student at IIT takes 6 courses per semester which accounts for approximately 1000 papers every semester. So, that is a huge market seeing the number of students in India. Added to this was the growth of advertisements and media lately. So, it occurred across to me “Why not merge photocopy and media?” and hence, came Phokatcopy. I worked on refining the concept and the financials and fleshed out the idea over the course of the year - and PhokatCopy was born.
2. What gave you the confidence to stick to your idea and make it work?
- I had faith in myself and my idea, which was the most important thing.
3. Did you seek mentorship? If yes, how much of help had it been for you?
- I participated in Vishisth, IIT Delhi’s B-Plan competition, in Jan’08 and got a lot of support from the mentors there. I participated in a lot of business plan competitions thereafter and got really good mentors. Yes, mentorship is really helpful. It saves your time as you learn from other’s experiences as well as get important feedbacks from very senior people in the line of entrepreneurship.
4. From where did you get the initial capital to start?
- It was self funded. Around 60-70 thousands came from B-plan competitions and the rest were funded by my parents, a total of 3 lakhs.
5. What were the major challenges that you faced while making this idea work?
- Getting advertisers was a very tough job to do, as the idea revolved around them. And since it was a new idea, convincing them was quite tough. Another major problem was managing the people who worked under me. I had a team comprising of people over 30 years of age reporting to me, and obviously, as you can think, one is not comfortable reporting to someone who is so much younger to them.
6. How did you go about with the market survey? What part of the population were you targeting and how much has Phokatcopy reached till now?
- I conducted a market survey in IIT itself regarding whether they liked the idea or not. Since my idea was student-centric, we thought the results of the survey in IIT would very much reflect the mentality of the students all across India. The survey was done across 500 students. Out of which 96% liked the idea and said that they would be really happy if such a thing comes across.
My target market is students. In India, around 4.7 million students photocopy 450 pages a year on an average. And there are plenty of advertisers who want to target the youth since there are a hatful of youth-oriented products and services available in the market. So, this works for me as well as for the advertisers, who are perhaps the most important part of this venture. The advertisers are the ones who are actually paying for the photocopying.
7. What does your experience about students turning entrepreneur say? Are there many hurdles which require experience or can starting early be advantageous? Didn’t your studies get affected?
- I would say that time management is really an important thing to learn if you want to be an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurship requires commitment, and there is no right answer to your second question.
I scored 9.2 SGPA with 28 credits in the semester I started Phokatcopy. And to add to this, I participated in 5 B-plan competitions around this time, traveling across India throughout the semester. One just needs to manage his time properly.
For me, when you are in college the opportunity cost is very low. After graduating I would have to do away with a job of Rs 12 lakhs or maybe 30 lakhs, if I graduate from IIM, which would have haunted me later. Plus, my venture involved students. I am close to them when I am in college rather than being in a job. So, I think I made a wise decision by starting early.
8. So there is nothing to lose in college? But everything to gain?
- If time is managed properly, you have nothing to lose.
9. How did the name ‘Phokatcopy’ came into being? It’s a really catchy name.
- Our name is our biggest USP. It just occurred naturally. Cheap Photocopy = Free Photocopy = Phokat Photocopy = Phokatcopy!
10. How are you publicizing your venture? Are you satisfied with the popularity it has gained in such a short time?
- Yes and No both. We recently had our mention in the first page of Hindustan Times. Still, word of mouth remains to be our main source of publicity.
We already have Warner Bros., CCD, Vodafone, Nirulas, as our major clients. But getting the payment from them on time is a big bottle-neck.
11. Has Phokatcopy started making profits?
- We have not yet started making profits but have reached the break-even stage.
12. Has your internship experience as an engineer come into play in setting up and carrying forward your venture?
- It did give me an experience of the work environment and how organizations work. But in reality, starting something from scratch and building a company is completely different from working in an organization.
13. Do you think being in IIT has given you the necessary confidence and platform to realize your dreams?
- I would not say that it has given me the necessary confidence but yes, IIT brand has given me the necessary leverage. When I approach people and introduce myself as a student from IITD, they do listen to me. It definitely helped when I was looking for advertisers, the IIT Alumni network being the biggest help.
14.What is the future of Phokatcopy? Are you planning to sell it off?
- Currently, it is not a big venture. We've recently launched it in Pune, and we intend to expand it to many cities, all across the country. Let’s see how big it grows. It is in its development stage. I am definitely going to sell it off, but not now. Maybe in 2-3 years. Since it is at break-even point, no one is interested in buying it. But as it expands and starts making profit, big companies will become interested in it.
15. What kind of material (paper, ink) you use? Is it eco-friendly?
- We use 100% wood-free paper. It is made up of sugar cane pulp. The ink is eco-friendly too. To add to this, we have also reduced the thickness of our paper from 100 gsm to 80 gsm. This saves us 20% of paper.
16. According to you, how is Phokatcopy socially beneficial?
- At first, it promotes entrepreneurship. Youth-oriented start-ups can reach to their core customers by advertising with us.
Today, paper cost is increasing with time, but the photocopy shop operators can not increase price beyond 50 paise. So they are kind of trapped. Phokatcopy gives them huge margins by providing them with papers at very low cost, which fits into the ‘socially beneficial’ category. Plus, we are promoting 100% wood-free paper and wherever Phokatcopy goes, wood-free paper becomes in vogue.
Other than this we have placed recycle bins in collaboration with ‘Green O Bin’ at all the photocopy shops where Phokatcopy is done, so that students can drop in their used papers. I am not making money on this part. Students, who drop in 5 kg of paper, I give them Rs.10 of talk-time. That's how it works. I am paying incentive to people for saving paper.
Often people talk about the fact that one side of page in Phokatcopy is wasted because of the advertisements. What I would like to say is that, one side is just reserved as a means of communication, just like you have advertisements in newspaper or take fliers. In a survey conducted recently, Dominos declared 2% strike rate for fliers. This is much less than the strike rate for advertisements provided in Phokatcopy. This can also be used for providing awareness on issues such as AIDS. NACO has funds and what better ways to reach students are there other than Phokatcopy?
Normal paper cuts 17 trees for 1000 kg of paper. But we cut zero. To add to this, I am also ready to fund tree plantation in campuses where Phokatcopy operates.
17. Where do you see yourself 10 years down the line?
- I come up with a new idea almost every 3-4 days. I actually maintain an idea diary. For now I will stick to phokatcopy, but 3 years down the line, who knows what is going to happen.
Other than this, I have planned to start an NGO which collects VMC, FIITJEE packages costing originally around 35000 and distribute these among poor kids. A lot of students have them, but they are of no use to them now.
We: Thank you Harsh, it was pleasure talking to you. Wish you all the best for your future endeavours.
Harsh Narang: Thanks a lot.
P.S. This was it. We were mesmerized by the confidence. So much that we suddenly wanted to be an entrepreneur ourselves, not in the hope of opening up an enterprise, but rather with desire of scoring a whooping 9.2
P.S. A break-even point is the point where a start-up reaches a no-profit no-loss situation, with the initial investment recovered.