Vapor Story

How a US student visa rejection led me to start a SAAS company.

March 05, 2019


Introduction

My name is Ashwin co-founder of Vapor. I’m 30 years old and currently live in Bangalore. Previously, I worked as an Embedded Systems Engineer in a small company of around 50 employees and later on worked in an ed-tech startup for a while.

Beginning

My initial plan was to get some work experience and apply for a Masters program in the US. I had applied to quite a few universities and got admitted. The major challenge was getting a student visa. My first application met a clear reject. I didn’t give up and made some changes and applied for the visa again but still got a second reject. I didn’t know what to do next.

At that time, I was always thinking about starting up something on my own. I had spoken to a friend of mine from college who was studying in the US; he said quite a few of them were traveling to India for medical purposes because of the quality of healthcare infrastructure and the availability of highly skilled doctors, as well as lower cost of treatment. I was excited by the news and decided to do more research on the matter. It brought me to a realization that it would be a challenging task as there were several risks ahead.

The first hurdle to be dealt with was the fact that we didn’t have a good idea about the health care market. Secondly, although around 68,809 foreign tourists were arriving on e-Tourist Visa, they didn’t prove to be a viable option to base our business. Because even if we could target around 2-3% of these customers, it would be hard for us to scale the company. So, we decided to drop that idea, but we still think it’s a good business idea as it was solving a core problem to medical tourists.

At that time, I was looking for a co-founder, and one of my friends from college connected me to his colleague who was also looking for a business partner. He introduced me to the idea of Software As Service (SAAS) and wanted a collaboration to make it successful. We tried working together but things didn’t work out, and in less than a month the partnership was over. That taught me a very vital lesson that it’s critical to know your co-founder well, probably a least five years, to have a good understanding and cooperation in building a company.

The Idea

When things were not looking good, I decided to call up my friend who I had known from school for around 17 years; he was working in the US at that time. I had discussed the SAAS startup idea, and he agreed immediately without a second thought. Luckily, he was working as a consultant and software architect for a top US SAAS company dealing with finance and accounts, supply chain, inventory management, etc. We thought it was better to build a product in which we had experience in so we finally decided to create an accounting software to start with as it was targeting a bigger market.

The Product

Over time I decided to get the requirements needed to build the product, working mostly in the evenings and weekends. We couldn’t afford office space, so I decided to work from cafés offering free Wi-Fi like Yogistan, Third Wave cafe, and Starbucks in Bangalore. I used to order either a cup of green tea or coffee and sit there for around four to five hours every day.

As the startup was growing, we realized we needed to hire some few individuals to help us with some things we couldn’t do on our own. But this also proved to be a bit of a daunting task due to financial constraints. At the time, I was only left with around $2500 from personal savings, so we thought hiring full-time employees will not be ideal. So, we decided to work with freelancers on Upwork.com to cut down costs.

Lots of agencies on Upwork seemed to charge very high prices, so we opted to work with individual freelancers at a fixed rate. The first task we needed to be done was the logo, and we managed to get it done by a top-rated designer for $50.

I was going through some designs on Dribbble and was impressed with designs of Outcrowd design studio based in Ukraine. I tried working with them, but their quote didn’t fit in our budget. I was somehow very impressed with their designs so I contacted one of their top designers with an excellent portfolio on Upwork named Paul and he agreed to design landing page as well as all pages of the features of the product for $300.He used tools like Sketch and sent it in Zeplin format for all design and shared prototype designs on Dropbox for evaluation. Later we converted those designs from Zeplin to HTML format.

The next step was writing code for the website. After we had all our designs ready, we went ahead and contacted top-rated individual freelancers on Upwork specialized in backend coding. However, this didn’t go as smoothly as we had anticipated. One challenge was that most of the individual freelancers work on multiple projects, they agree to work for a lower price but only when they have time during that week. I have worked with more than seven full stack developers for the entire project. This process is cost-effective but time-consuming as it took around ten months to get the product ready.

Beta

Finally, we had a breakthrough, and we were now ready to test our beta product. We decided to use experts who had massive experience in accounting and got positive feedback that the product was ripe for commercial use. That was probably the best idea as we gained valuable feedback in detail on Upwork for a low price.

Later on, we went ahead and launched our product on many product launch portals like Betalist, Beta page, etc. Betalist was good as it helped us get around 50 leads while the rest gave us 20. But we couldn’t launch at full scale at that moment. We knew it was not the right time for product hunt as we were not incorporated yet and didn't have a payment gateway on the site.

Incorporation

We needed some guidance at this at early stages, so I went on Facebook groups for entrepreneurs in the SAAS and B2B space and came across a gentleman who had answered a lot of queries related to company incorporation and legal processes named Chaitanya. He had suggested to incorporate in India first and implement a payment gateway to get a few customers and later on get US incorporation. But our product was global and needed a payment gateway that accepts international payments in a smooth process. I had discussed with him regarding this, and that’s when he informed me that Stripe is testing their payment gateway in India and it was in a beta stage. I requested Stripe for a beta invite, and they agreed immediately but needed the incorporation documents and Import-Export Certificate to provide access. During that time, I was not able to decide whether to register in the US or India, so I thought I might get an idea if I could speak to SAAS startup founders in India. Most of them said incorporating in the US had a lot of expenses at the early stages like minimum bank balance charges, annual tax in the first year, etc. After speaking to quite a few of them finally decided to register in India using Cleartax.in and eventually launched the product for commercial use.

Conclusion

Currently, we are looking to get some mentorship, so I thought the best approach is to apply to accelerator programs that have experience in mentoring and guiding SAAS startups.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ashwin Kumar, Co-Founder Vapor.


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