One of Silicon Valley’s most successful startups is a brainchild of a man from Thane, Mumbai. Soujanya Bhumkar, co-founder and CEO of Cooliris, may have lived in the US for over 20 years but he still retains strong ties with India. One of the most successful Indians in Silicon Valley, Bhumkar’s ties to his family and business interests ensure that he keeps visiting the country. His Marathi is fluent, with no trace of a foreign accent.
Bhumkar (40) is short, his hairstyle is reminiscent of a teenage Sachin Tendulkar and he is brimming with enthusiasm. As soon as he begins speaking about Cooliris, the passion is evident.
“I draw my passion from the Cooliris team. (Co-founder) Austin Shoemaker and others get the credit for that. The focus is always on awesomeness.”
The name of the company may not ring a bell but all Android users have experienced the 3D wall that defines Cooliris. In 2009, Cooliris was an established browser addon and a desktop application, when Google approached the firm with a project.
They wanted Cooliris to develop a similar media experience for Google’s Nexus One smartphone. That is what went on to become the default Gallery app in Android. Even today, Android’s Gallery app retains the Cooliris-developed 3D wall.
“We invested a lot in the desktop application, and I feel we stayed in that field for too long. But Andy Rubin and Google have my heartfelt gratitude and thanks for reaching out to us for that project. It is the reason we are doing well in the smart devices space today,” Bhumkar says.
Before he went to the US in 1989 to pursue a degree in chemical engineering, Bhumkar studied in Mumbai’s Ruia College. He got his MBA in entrepreneurship and finance from the University of Chicago and went to Bay Area in San Francisco to lead business at Panopticon, a startup that focussed on real-time online merchandising.
“At Panopticon, we raised $2.5 million and the company was later acquired for $108 million. I think we did very well there. After that, I co-founded Tamarind, which had an enterprise-focussed app. That app helped HR teams evaluate employee performance. Its premise was ‘your opinion about someone else’s performance is proportional to your own performance’.”
Bhumkar then co-founded Vazu, which had a software that let users send messages from desktop computers to mobile phones.
“That was in 2004, before the era of smartphones. Even though the app was very useful, it is one of my failures. The monetisation was based on advertisements and we never made enough to make it a commercial success,” he says.
But failure helped Bhumkar learn how to make a good product commercially viable. “Vazu’s success led to escalated costs, but the revenue was not enough to sustain it. That is why at Cooliris, we are careful about cost and scale. We had two rounds of funding from Kleiner-Perkins and Docomo, and we recently sold the 3D advertising business to SingTel.”
When asked about advice for budding app developers and entrepreneurs in India, Bhumkar says, “Don’t just look at form and function, look at fun. The user experience should be a major part of development — the app should be simple, sexy and elegant.”
Founded in 2006, Cooliris today is a company of 18 collaborators, not employees, as Bhumkar puts it. Eleven of these are developers and six are WITs, short for ‘whatever it takes’. “These WITs have flexible roles. They have to be ready to do whatever it takes to get the job done We have a release-driven approach. Once we have a release date in mind, all 18 work passionately till the app is released,” Bhumkar says.
Cooliris recently expanded to China with partnerships with Tencent and Renren and is working on a collaboration with another major Chinese firm. “Asia is a big market for us. Now India is third in terms of smartphone adoption, so we cannot ignore this market. Partnerships in India are still in early stages, but we are working on it,” he says.
Usage in India is “not much, but Cooliris is among the top five new downloads in the country”.
Cooliris is an iOS app that lets you manage photos across devices and services. Apart from photos on iPhone and iPad, users can view and organise pictures from Google, Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, Instagram, and a host of other services. The defining feature of the app is its 3D wall, which is a beautiful way of displaying images.