Entrepreneur interview: Sachin Dev Duggal, co-founder of Engineer.ai

The co-founder of engineer.ai wants firms to develop their own apps using his programme which he says requires little or no tech skills.

Having a fast, personalised app is key to a company’s online presence and marketing ability. In 2017, the total amount of app downloads hit 197 billion which is expected to surge to 352 billion by 2021, according to Statista. Here, Sachin Dev Duggal, co-founder of Engineer.ai explains how he wants to bring the cost of creating an app down for businesses and make it easier than ever to do so.

Tell us more about the company. What’s your background and what is the company’s vision?

We founded Engineer.ai in 2016, and the ‘Builder’ platform will be launching in June this year. The company was founded because we wanted to create a platform that would enable anyone to make a software idea into a reality without needing expertise knowledge in development and coding.

The company was founded in partnership with my university friend Saurabh Dhoot. I’ve invested in over 20 technology start-ups, founding Nivio, one of the world’s first cloud computing companies and Shoto, a photo software streaming company that uses AI and analytics to bring together photo experiences from a time and place between selected audiences. Prior to this, I worked at Deutsche Bank at the age of 17, making me the youngest employee at the company. In 2009, I was named a World Economic Forum Technology Pioneer. I studied at Imperial College London, where I met the now co-founder of Engineer.ai, obtaining a degree in Business Engineering as well as holding a degree in Entrepreneurial Master’s Programme from MIT.

With the Builder platform we’re aiming to bring down the price of building an app; whether that’s on mobile, web, e-commerce or Internet of Things (IoT). The more people that build a specific type of product, the cheaper it becomes for everyone to build, as the marketplace is being utilised more. Unlike anyone else, we take the ultimate price risk. 90 per cent of the time we will do better than we promise, but 100 per cent of the time we will match what we say.

With Builder, you create an application, buy the update ‘insurance’ from us and then buy all the hosting for example cloud, micro-services or whatever you need to keep the platform running and that’s the retention part; otherwise most people will build their initial idea and then not stay.

We want to create a product that keeps people coming back and allows them to continue building when their needs change.

If we started building things with people and we didn’t have a way to keep them then we’d build them, they’d leave and we’d have to spend money to get them back. If we get this right, the audience is important – if you’re already in the cloud and you use us to get it cheaper, better, faster, then the likelihood is you’re going to spend sometime in the future to build. If we’re bringing new customers on to make the decision of where it’s built, where it’s hosted and the micro-services available on it then why not have the marketplace because ultimately we’re the master buyer and we have seen Apple’s model work.

It’s like the iPhone, Apple provides the initial basis of the product (the software, platform and basic needs) then the consumer can build their own developments (through apps) from there.

How much initial investment did the company need to start and where did it come from? What was the money used for and how was the product developed?

We bootstrapped the investment; I sold my last company Nivio for $100 million and used some of that money and put it into Engineer.ai and then built a parallel business.

A hosting platform was built first, which generated cash and we then used to cash to create the builder platform.

Ultimately we need to build, ensure and host. We build the hosting platform, we operate it and we give users access to everything they need to keep it running. Initially, we started with the cloud and took what we learnt from Nivio and Shoto to create what we have done today.

Using cloud helped with software development as it acts as a retention tool; we had to create something that would keep customers here and then continue to promote them to other people in the future. It was really important for customers, but had the double whammy effect so that we could build cash flow rather than raising money directly.

What marketing did the company employ to maximise exposure?

I think what we can say is because we were in private beta what we have done is guerilla tactical; we did a couple of events and podcasts with very targeted display adds but they’ve been taking people to a filtering process to see if they were a right fit for the data.

When we did a public beta in November we had 2,100 people that signed up to want to build an app and some came with a credit card to sign up and put down a deposit which was nothing we expected.

How important is an inspirational figurehead to a scale-up company?

I think when you’re selling a big product it’s all about the person having the conversation; so having a senior team that can communicate a vision and convincing people it’s do-able and bringing them on board is super important.

>For us, whether it was our original partnership with Amazon or some of the ones we have now with the world’s biggest systems integrater (SI’s); they are all as a result of walking them through things that weren’t quite ready but painting a path to demonstrate they will be ready.

Then it’s the same thing when hiring staff; when you don’t have revenue or produce and you’re still trying to hire them you’re promising them a better tomorrow. I think having an inspirational and aspirational leadership team is critical to success. Because I think people like to get the sense that there’s a ground zero and they build up from ground zero.

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What specific advice would you give to scale-up companies looking to build their company to exit?

One of the most important things to remember when building up a business is to keep your eye on the goal, conserve cash and spend it like it’s your money not a VC’s money. The most practical advice I can give is to keep a data room running especially if you’re at the scale-up stage. Keep people updated and stay in contact. People’s goals are always changing, so there is always the chance they may be interested at another point in time.

For scale-up businesses, they must be authentic and this becomes apparent when it’s contrived and you’ve got to balance impact on your own business as well. If you’re going to do things for people that are just circumstantial that will catch on really quickly. You want to invest in ecosystem and the social impact around the ecosystem and then when you want something it becomes much easier.

Talk about the company’s growth trajectory, from being founded to establishing revenue, to covering costs, to moving into profit.

We have grown at about 180 per cent for the last four years, we have been profitable for just over two years, with most months resulting in neutral cash flow; we spend own cash for building the product. We have also expanded from five people to 150 people in just four years. One senior manager or two to eight C-team equivalent.

We now have offices in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New Delhi, Mumbai, London and will be opening a new one in Tokyo very soon.

Our customer growth has increased from 0 to 3,500 across the product and a lot of it has been around taking the view of building a real business. The key to our success was mapping out way points that we needed to get to before we got to our ultimate goal, which is this platform. We always have to make sure it’s up to date and like insurance and make sure that they can buy all the services needed to keep that idea working from our marketplace. But we didn’t start with building, we started with cloud ops and retention but needed minimal investment to make it profitable in cash flow.

Find out more: Engineer.ai

Michael Somerville

Michael Somerville

Michael was senior reporter for GrowthBusiness.co.uk from 2018 to 2019.

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