How often does an Economics Post Graduate from Boston University comes back home to Delhi, doesn’t join the World Bank and starts working on setting up a primary research firm in a country as vast and diverse as India all on her own? Not quite often, I reckon. However this is the story of young Prerna Mukharya, who started Outline India, a primary research firm that does data collection and research consulting. Armed with solid academics and research experiences in places like the Harvard and MIT, Prerna started her venture alone without a co-founder with just her laptop and herself for company. Not even a year into operations, Outline India today is proudly self sustained in terms of finances and generating profit with each project that they are doing. Working in the socio-economic sphere in India for a girl is not an easy task. But Prerna carries it off gracefully although she admits that it’s not a walk in the park.
We visited Prerna at Outline India’s office in Gurgaon, India and sipped some very good quality tea as we talked about her venture, the kind of work, challenges, among other things. An hour long typically casual LifeBeyondNumbers chat session with Prerna took us on a journey across interior villages in India, the research work scenario and everything in between.
The Birth of Outline India:
I have been a researcher for the last few years in the socio-economic space, largely an academic. I was not very eager on joining a corporate job. I had some research experience in MIT and Harvard. When I came back to India, I did a project on education in rural areas which was a World Bank study. And that job taught me everything I know today. That job took me around India; we did a lot of fieldwork. My mentor who was also my boss said to me that data can mean nothing to you until you’re actually on the field. When working on the field and there are no roads and no internet or even mobile connectivity, you get stuck somewhere, you have to work in 40 degrees without water – is when you realize that the rows of data in the Excel sheet is a lot of pain and hardship – they scream that pain and hardship.
I ended up cleaning data for seven months. Other than just running numbers and field work, I cribbed to my boss that why doesn’t somebody do something about it, when there’s so much development work going on in India? And everybody needs data. How do you get data? You either get it online – which is filled with problems like it could be fraudulent, outdated or missing variables, etc – or you go out there and collect data. I thought that having been a researcher I understand the process much better than somebody else and we’re educated. There are lots of people abroad – think-tanks, post doctorate students, universities, even corporate and small business people who want to come into India. So I thought if we can help the small to mid segment people then we will clearly be hitting a pain point.
We are only 10 months old in terms of operations and we have work coming in – so that shows we have definitely hit a pain area and people need somebody like us who they can trust and somebody who has been at the other end. I myself have faced and suffered bad data collection, and I understand the kind of pain it is to deal with something like that. So what we are doing or attempting to do – surveying – is a critical need. To understand the value of good quality data, we can’t defy the age old saying – “In God we trust, for everything else – We Need Data!“
Being a Start-up Entrepreneur:
The idea was to set up an organization that can focus on data collection, that can pick up on step one of the process that is research. Research is data collection, data entry, data analysis and report writing. There are so many people who can do data analysis and report writing, but who is going to go out there and collect data. I wanted to step in and change the way things are done – bring in accountability, bring in quality, which it could really change things. Because data collection is THE foundation of every research. And when the data is there, you can write any report on that, make any policy change, do whatever you want with the data. But if the very data is not correct, then you’re going to build something on wrong foundation. If you get the data right, you can really change the way things are done.
And the good change that has happened for start-ups is that a lot of people are willing to try out new people, willing to work with start-ups, people with no offices. One of the young enthusiast who worked for us, designed our website and he did the site for no money because he wanted to do the work and see if he can do it. The work turned out fine, and later I was able to get him some clients. So you see, there’s this beautiful concept in the start-up culture of learning by osmosis, which is amazing.
I set up with my own funds. Initially I hoped to get some funding but since ours is an organization that works in the socio-economic sector which is not very appealing to a run-of-the-mill VC as compared to a tech start-up. But the fact that I am very happy and proud about is that we are cash flow positive and we do bring in profits with each project that we do. In the last 4-5 months we’ve done pretty well and I have high hopes of things picking up really well in the next 6 months.
At all points, our focus is data collection – primary research. We do everything ranging from designing your questionnaire to monitoring and evaluation, to anything that comes pertaining to working in the field.
We are focusing on the small to mid segment market. It could be a researcher, a think-tank, a PhD students, etc. Since they are academicians, they are very stringent about the quality they want. We have got students from abroad writing to us asking if they can come and work with us during their summer and go to fields and learn about India and things like that, and it’s very encouraging.
While our focus is data collection because we are researchers, some work has come to us like providing research assistance; for example right now we are consulting with the Health Ministries of Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka and helping them set up their public-private partnerships, we got some people who wanted us to organize a financial literacy campaign, and we are doing this very nice project with an NGO that wants to study the concept of human organ donation. So more often than not, while we are just collecting data, the topics that we are actually working on are aimed at doing good work. And that’s a good feeling.
We are trying to diversify into new things. We are trying to get into data visualization (Infographics) – we are trying to condense data into a one page document which doesn’t have a lot of text, no confusing stuff; with simple graphs and one liners that anybody – technical or non technical, student or somebody senior can understand. My idea at all points is to make data relatable and non-boring.
We are a big country and what works in Orissa is not something that works in Himachal and what works in UP will not work in Gujarat. Simply because we are such a big country – dialects, way of life, culture and people are so different – and you can’t have the same guy go from one place to the other which is why data collection in India is so hard. And it is not one of those fancy cushy jobs – you have to go out in the fields and interact with different people – which makes it so much more harder.
One thing that I am really trying to do at Outline India is make a surveyor accountable by giving them some sort of an incentive – to not have exploitative wages. No matter how big a company you’re dealing with, the trickle-down effect is such that the guy who is actually in the field is doing the job gets so little money that he has no incentive to contribute and he doesn’t care. So that’s something we are trying to change. We are trying to give them more money and we are trying to make them a part of the process that is research. We try to make the surveyors understand why a particular research is being done and what kind of changes it might bring to the people and things like that. That way, they relate with the complete story and they engage themselves with it, rather than not knowing why he is in the field and filling out some 20 questions.
Right from providing the surveyors with GPS devices to hierarchical process of multiple rounds of quality check to the senior people actually going out, piloting and testing a survey, we do all that is required to maintain quality. Training the surveyors to be appealing to the respondents is again a very tough task.
Unlike people in cities who dismiss you very easily, you’ll realize that the people in rural areas are actually very nice. They’re so happy to welcome you, and they’ll put the extra sugar and milk in your tea to please you. And all those things are so endearing. I was born in Delhi and lived in Delhi all my life except for the time I was in US for my studies, and I realize that I know almost nothing about my country until I started doing what the kind of work that I do now. It’s only when you interact with people, the ground level workers, you know that there’s so much more out there. We can be sitting in a Tier I or Tier II city in the concrete jungle inside our AC offices and have absolutely no clue of what’s going on in the rest of the 99% of the country.
Technically, I started off in July last year (2012) when I bought the domain name (laughs…). But the first project we got was in November. I started it alone, so initially it was just me, my laptop and my bed. I do think the only way to make a start-up thing to work is perseverance. As long as you can get up from your bed every day and believe that you can go out there and make it work – I think that’s more than half the battle won. You’ll not have one or two bad days, you’ll have weeks and weeks of bad days; even bad months. So, perseverance is the key.