Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hey guys! I am Akhil Nair, the co-founder of Parzenn Partners. We are a management consulting firm focused on the small and mid-sized businesses.
Along with my co-founder Dhvanish ‘Danny’ Shah, we started off a couple of years ago by taking up marketing and operations projects with small businesses in the Greater Boston area. With the vision of helping out many more SMEs across the US, we started working on building a tech platform which could automate a lot of data analytics through machine learning and AI.
Our aim was to provide free basic business assessment tools to be made available to all business owners and entrepreneurs across the country since they do not have the resources to hire consultants from any of the large consulting firms but are in real need of support.
Ever since we launched this product a month ago, we have had over 50 businesses take the free assessment test and have 4 paying clients who have taken the paid in-depth analysis test & a couple of them hired have hired us as consultants to resolve some of their immediate red-flags. We have made $23,000 so far on this product over the past month.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I had a couple of years of experience working for a large corporation back in India. I genuinely felt that I was just a cog in the wheel and that whatever I did had little to no impact in the real world.
We were at a crossroads at that time – filled with constant self-doubt about the career path we wanted to take. We could have easily applied for corporate jobs in the US or in India, but we chose to follow our hearts by continuing to work in our consulting business.
I reached out to a few small businesses I had developed good relationships during my corporate career and started helping them out on developing marketing strategy to scale their businesses and also to instill robust operational efficiencies in their business processes. I realized that I was able to add considerable value to their businesses and that I felt a sense of satisfaction in being able to make their lives better. I soon started consulting for over 20 small businesses in India.
I wanted to expand my business and gain global entrepreneurial experience so as to scale my company to greater heights. I was fortunate enough to be offered a one-year MBA degree course at Babson College with full scholarship. I was well aware of the fact that Babson was the best college in the world for entrepreneurial studies and that they went above and beyond to help support entrepreneurs, especially for international students.
During my course, I came across my future co-founder Danny, who stayed in the dorm room one floor above mine. We spoke on occasion about our plans for the future and after many months towards the end of our course, we struck a chord. Both of us felt that working for a large corporation is unfulfilling and that we had a passion to improve the lives of millions of small business owners whose livelihood depends on the sustained growth of their business cash flow. Both of us also came from families who have faced tremendous obstacles in scaling their own businesses due to lack of high quality professional support which could have made their businesses much larger with way fewer sleepless nights.
Danny was highly proficient and passionate about operations and business process redesign. He too had experience working in a large corporate setup as well as a startup environment. Combined with my passion for marketing strategy, we set out to start an organization with the mission to help grow the backbone of the American economy – the small and mid-sized businesses.
We set out to contact as many family businesses in the Greater Boston area since we wanted to see if these businesses would find our consulting services valuable and if they would be willing to pay for it. We had no personal connections in the Greater Boston area business community at that time and we were doubtful if any business owner would find two relatively young entrepreneurs who have had no track record of doing business in the United States[SN1] .
We were pleasantly surprised at the receptiveness of the business owners to our value proposition and firmly believed in our vision of genuinely helping them grow their business. We were quite fortunate to have received paid projects in quick succession and were really glad that our initial clients loved our work so much that they became our initial word-of-mouth marketing angels. We had finally validated our idea when we received our first check on completion of our first project – that was a milestone indeed. Our happiness was compounded when we were featured in the local newspaper – The Wellesley Townsman – which was quite flattering and a true honor indeed.
We were at a crossroads at that time – filled with constant self-doubt about the career path we wanted to take. We could have easily applied for corporate jobs in the US or in India, but we chose to follow our hearts by continuing to work in our consulting business. Our financial situation was bleak, as with any student who has just graduated – we were just able to scrape by with the projects that we were getting during the initial few months. Slowly but steadily we knew that things would improve and that our north star of helping small businesses grow would undoubtedly lead us to a better place.
We constantly reached out to our professors, connections and industry experts for their advice and guidance on how to take our business forward. One of the most frequent inputs we heard was that our consulting business was highly manpower driven and that it would be quite a challenge to scale this business. This feedback got us thinking – which led to the inception of Project Xena Intelligence. We realized that most of the work done by consultants in data analytics and red flag generation is based on that data. We hypothesized that in this day and age, it should be possible to automate a large portion of data analytics, and if done so, would mean that millions of small business owners across the country would have instant, free and easy access to high level business intelligence analytics reports which could automatically generate recommendations based on the inputs that they give combined with the analytics engine we would build. This would be a natural progression in line with our company’s mission statement and the very reason that we chose to start the organization. We thus set out to build this platform to achieve this goal, and in the future be able to use machine learning and AI to improve the recommendation engine and be able to analyze large amounts of data more efficiently and effectively.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
Neither me nor Danny had any experience in developing a tech platform, and we held our expenses quite tight and to a bare minimum.
While we could have easily hired a developer to build the beta version of our tech platform – named Xena 1.0 after the famed mythical warrior princess, we chose to build the initial test platform ourselves.
We on-boarded a friend of ours – Amrutha Killada – who had worked on a couple of projects with us at that point and was an expert in AI research and design. We spent hours learning the basics of python coding and we built the initial demo platform after weeks of trial and error. We used the demo to show our mentors, clients and potential investors and gained some valuable feedback from them. We then partnered up with another organization CoreValue to officially launch Xena 1.0 with the capability of raising red flags and in-depth recommendations for business of all major industries.
We offered the initial assessment test for free and this test was taken by over 50 clients who were able to get high-level recommendations and value gaps in the business. 4 of them showed interest in doing an in-depth deep dive, for this they paid, and one of them chose to hire us to rectify an immediate red flag the business was facing.
This gave us confidence that we are on the right path and that we continue our research to improve our algorithm and to start implementing machine learning capabilities into our recommendation engine.
Describe the process of launching the business.
Creating the website was perhaps one of the first decisions we had to take – either to hire a developer to make it or to learn it ourselves and use relatively easy to use website services like SquareSpace or Wix.
We chose to do the latter since we did not want to waste our limited financial resources on something we could do ourselves – though we knew there was a steep learning curve and it would certainly take up a lot of our time. After a few long days of tinkering and a lot of caffeine, we did finally put up a reasonably good-looking website. This experience taught us a very important lesson – that if we put our heart and mind into a particular task which would be highly beneficial for the company while at the same time save money, we should certainly give our best shot to make it happen.
Our major expense included medical insurance for both the cofounders ($420 a month), legal fees for both setting up the business as well to immigration related processes (about $30,000). We financed it using our personal savings and our personal credit cards.
Our launch was a gradual and eventual progression leading upto the point where we had a good number of clients who came to us through word of mouth. Every day for months we spent building our credibility, reaching out to potential clients and mentors and expanding our professional network in the Boston area including being active in the local business chambers. Till date we pride ourselves in constantly trying to expand our network and reaching out to people in the area.
We have also made it a point to expedite response to all queries we get and also to take out time to meet up with anyone who wishes to meet us. I believe a few of my entrepreneur peers ignore messages for meeting people who reach out to them citing lack of time, but we strongly believe in giving back to the entrepreneurial community, since we have been recipients of many such kind gestures.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
We believe that it is critical to go above and beyond when it comes to one’s first few clients. The first few clients can make or break your startup venture.
We made it a point to exceed expectations in each of our deliverables and the effort we were expected to put in. Though we did define a project scope, we believed that a good word of mouth from our clients would only come about when they are amazed by our work. This strategy of ours paid out quite handsomely since all our initial clients continue to remain our greatest flag bearers.
We made a conscious decision early on not to expend large amounts of money on social media marketing since we had a strong in-house experts in this field. We were confident of developing content which would enable us to grow our digital presence organically. We did dabble with a couple of mass marketing campaign on MailChimp– though we did have a decent open rate at about 45%, we got feedback that because of the mass newsletter/mailer campaign, most of our emails went directly to their spam folder, this also included personalized email which we would send them later on. Hence we decided to stop all mass mailer marketing campaigns.
We decided to focus all our efforts on enhancing our LinkedIn profiles and using it as a tool to communicate our journey and expertise through frequent posts of current events and also featuring inspiring entrepreneurs we meet along the way. We have also subscribed to the LinkedIn premium subscription which helps us give a better idea of the people who check out our profile and also drop messages to people who are not directly connected with us. This has been a very fruitful investment for us.
This has helped us to build very strong relationships with potential clients, mentors and others which would have otherwise taken a huge amount of time in the real world. Social media, if used correctly, can be a very useful tool to save time and to reach the right people.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
We are quite fortunate to have been accepted by the small business community in the Greater Boston area.
Being a services company, it was a challenge to build credibility in a short duration of time and I strongly believe that the quality of our project deliverables played a huge role in helping us gain the trust of more and more clients. Being a services company, our costs are mainly salaries and other overheads like travel, website, accounting, legal and marketing.
Our initial customer acquisition cost was high since we had to spend a considerable amount of time and resources to get ourselves out in the real world straight out of college. As we gain traction in the Greater Boston area, we have also received interest from potential clients from other parts of the country, and we are considering expanding our capabilities to accommodate those requests.
Over the course of last year alone, we have successfully completed 8 projects with 5 different clients. Because of the quality of our work, we have been very fortunate to have many repeat on follow-on projects as requested by our clients.
In short, the future looks promising as we keep building our credibility and bring about more success stories along our path.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
I think one of the first lessons we learnt was that quite often we have to go above and beyond for our clients and that we need to internalize that before we set out to do any projects.
One of the things that make me sad is when I see wonderful young entrepreneurs with brilliant ideas who don’t take steps to make that dream a reality out of fear of failure.
We have also learnt to turn down projects either because we did not think that we would be able to add enough value to our clients or because we didn’t have the resources or expertise to do an excellent job at the project at hand. In the initial phases, we did pick up a lot of projects since we were new and did not want to miss out on any good opportunities, which we found out was a huge mistake for everyone involved.
One of the most important, and often overlooked aspect, of being a young entrepreneur is the importance of a support system of family, friends and well-wishers. Having this support system is critical, especially in times when things are not going according to plan and you feel emotionally drained. It is very important to cultivate this support system and keep close those who would support you and your vision.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I have always found the stories of real life people fascinating – especially how they found their calling and how they overcame incredible challenges to fulfil their dreams.
The life stories of Elon Musk, Michelle Obama, Jeff Bezos and others who have made achieved their dreams and truly made an impact on this planet often encourages me to push myself when things look down.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
One of the things that make me sad is when I see wonderful young entrepreneurs with brilliant ideas who don’t take steps to make that dream a reality out of fear of failure. I always try to impress upon the fact that irrespective of anyone’s risk appetite, they must always give their ideas a shot in the real world – even small steps like reaching out to potential customers, mentors, tinkering with their product or services with friends and family or even as simple as building a simple website.
Unless something is put out into the real world, we will never know if it would work or not. While it is always a good idea to spend time researching and pondering, one should always keep an eye out for opportunities to make their dreams a reality, in whatever small way possible.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
As we expand our consulting practice and as we start to develop our tech platform, we are looking for people to join our team to help us in this endeavor. We are currently looking for part time interns to help us with our research work and to support our marketing & operations projects.
Where can we go to learn more?
- Website - parzennpartners.com & xenaintelligence.com
- Instagram - @xena_intelligence
- Facebook - @parzennpartners
- LinkedIn - parzennpartners
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
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