Rice University Computer Science alumni Vidhi Vakharia ’17 and Pradhith Konduri ’18 launched Abridge —their new shipping logistics startup— in Mumbai, where they saw the greatest need.
Konduri, who also completed his M.S. in Statistics at Rice, said, “There are a lot of individual components but the supply chain as a whole is an antiquated industry. Vidhi and I never considered the supply chain to be a technology or CS-related field but the more we explored it, the more we realized there are a lot of things we can be building here.”
Vakharia understood firsthand the challenges faced by local importers and exporters. She said, “I grew up in India and then spent eight years in the U.S. —four at Rice in Houston, and four in the Silicon Valley. When I moved back to India, I found myself missing a lot of the brands I’d grown to love in the U.S. so I started an e-commerce business to supply those goods in the India market. The amount of time I had to invest in solving supply chain issues helped me realize that business owners all over India were spending more time on shipping than on their actual business.”
The two founders had launched separate startups for markets in India, and both were discovering the challenges of growing a technology-based company in a country with transportation and network infrastructures that struggled to match the demand of its dense population. As their early startup endeavors revealed some of the roadblocks for tech and commerce entrepreneurs, Vakharia and Konduri began discussing which issues were worth solving from both a business and impact perspective.
“I saw problems everywhere and thought, ‘This is no way to live,’” said Vakharia. “There is so much talent and so much lost productivity because each person has to spend so much time dealing with daily activities —like the extraordinary length of time it takes to get from one place to another.”
She and Konduri dissolved their individual ventures and began collaborating to determine where their combined experiences as Google and Adobe software engineers and as India-based entrepreneurs could make the most difference in supply chain issues across South Asia.
Konduri said, “The problem we are try to solve is making the freight process —the experience of shipping and receiving items— as simple as a few mouse clicks. What Uber did for car transportation, we are are doing for freight.
“Modern exporters and importers should not have to spend a lot of time in phone calls to resolve their shipping issues. Over time, individual features may mean our solution looks different for various importers and exporters; for this launch to really work, it must serve the needs of anyone who wants to import and export.”
When the co-founders were admitted into the Summer 22 cohort of Y Combinator (YC), they recognized the tremendous value of working in San Francisco during those months. But they had also recognized in their earliest discussions that their target market would best be served from headquarters in Mumbai.
Vakharia said, “The three reasons we’re launching in Mumbai include India’s place as an eleven billion dollar freight market. It is also among the top 9% of the world’s fastest growing freight markets. The third reason we’re here in Mumbai is because India remains one of the world’s most underserved areas.
“That is a critical point. India is crucial to the worlds’ resources, particularly with its propensity for skilled human capital. But the supply chain in this part of the world is schleppy. No one is putting together the disjointed pieces and making it work, and that is where we see opportunity.”
She knows the road ahead is not an easy one. While their U.S.-based colleagues launched their YC ventures in 24 hours with an investment of about $500, Vakharia and Konduri needed the full three month YC program and about $15,000 to set up in Mumbai.
“Three months is standard for starting up a new venture in India,” she said. “We weren’t doing anything out of band to launch Abridge, there is just a lot of competition for limited resources. Like much of the developing world, India struggles to keep up with the increasing demands on general infrastructures for a rapidly evolving population.”
“Compare that to a fully-developed set of infrastructures in the U.S., where many of the application, permit, and approval processes have been automated for years. Our colleagues who set up U.S.-based ventures through the YC program found it relatively simple to identify the proper people to contact, and they were able to navigate policies in a fairly straightforward manner. On our side, we had so many papers to complete! We often wondered why it took so long to do XYZ, but those delays and circuitous paths are part of the reason we are setting up in India. When it comes to shipping, we can help simplify some of these cumbersome processes for other business owners.”
Prior to launching Abridge, Konduri had only lived in India for a month every year or two during family visits, but he is equally passionate about serving this market. He believes all lives are equal and that India’s population of 1.4 billion people accounts for a very underserved market.
“India’s rapid growth as a rich resource for skilled labor outpaced the development of systems to support the explosion of new businesses and services that followed the rise in employee income,” he said. “There is now a wide range of basic problems we can solve with technology in India.
“During the pandemic, I slowly realized I was no longer excited about my work projects in the U.S. When I thought about continuing to work on different first-world problems as opposed to focusing on something more relevant —like supporting the emerging human capital in India— I jumped at the chance to invest my energy in India.”
He compared his first startup to a platform like LinkedIn for India’s approximately one billion gray-collar workers in fields like data entry and manufacturing. Konduri said these are jobs requiring teachable skills but not a college education —roles that empower the employees to grow their careers and earn more money. That platform was one of several ideas he felt he could build in India to help improve and ease the typical activities of daily life.
Konduri credits his approach to problem-solving and his global technology perspective to his Rice experience. Having experienced deep connections and personalized curriculums in his small high school in Houston, he chose Rice in order to continue learning in that kind of environment.
“Rice gives you a ton of opportunities and a relatively small cohort in your graduating class (a few hundred CS majors) with lots of personal connections,” said Konduri. “The superpower of a CS background is that it sets you up for success with its flexibility and relevance to almost any kind of global career. A big tech career is definitely one option for Rice CS graduates. But if you really want to be in on product and business decisions, you have two choices: join an existing startup or build your own.
“Vidhi and I found the freight logistics space pretty compelling. The pandemic revealed a lot of supply chain issues and bottlenecks when demand bubbled up very quickly and overwhelmed an antiquated process. There is a lot of room to improve the supply chain, especially in emerging markets, and that drew us into this space.”
Based on her own experience, Vakharia recommends launching a new venture only a few years after graduation.
“Start early,” she said. “Those two words are the best first advice I would give anyone considering entrepreneurship. Startups are hard and risky. The earlier you start, the fewer responsibilities you will have accumulated; the cost of failing is very low in those first years after college.”
“Another reason to start early is because there is so much you will learn about launching a company only by doing so. This is my first startup to be admitted into YC and we had a really successful run. But it is not our first startup. Abridge might now have the same outcomes if we had not learned from our previous attempts. If you do fail, your tech career still benefits; working in or launching a startup teaches you lessons that no program or certification can.”