In the summer of 2009, 27-year-old Vishal B. Shah was vacationing in Chennai for a few months before joining the Cornell University for a Master’s degree in Business Administration. And there he chanced upon a cousin who was applying to various engineering colleges. Shah assisted him with the tiring paperwork, which finally led to the idea of setting up NoPaperForms.com.
The Mumbai-based company offers an on-demand tool that enables educational institutions to collect and manage online applications for admission. It essentially means that a customised application form can be created as per the requirements and guidelines of the institution. And this can be instantly published on the Web – so that students can fill and submit their applications online.
The plus points of this online application system are only too apparent. To begin with, it’s really fast, totally reliable and reduces mailing costs to near-zero as students are no longer burdened with cumbersome paperwork. It also makes the entire application process easy and hassle-free for any institution opting for the electronic format. Plus, it helps lessen the consumption of paper and thus protects the environment, according to the company.
But why did the founder feel that online medium would be ideal to simplify the prevalent application process in the country?
“When I was visiting India in the summer of 2008, my cousin was looking for admission and there were loads of paper applications to be filled,” recalls Shah, co-founder and CEO of NoPaperForms.com. “It reminded me of my admission days in 1997 and it was clear that things had not changed much.”
Shah did a thorough market research and also spoke to a number of Indian colleges before concluding that there was no existing infrastructure for online application management and adaptability was at its lowest. Except for a few international institutions, such as International School of Business, the concept of electronic application was not into circulation at that time.
As a result, Shah decided to take the pioneering step and NoPaperForms.com took off in early 2009. He also persuaded his sister-in-law, Ami R Damani, to come on board. “She was a banker with HDFC Bank in Mumbai and it had been a challenging task to convince her. However, Ami had also set up a retail firm which she sold later and she, too, was looking for something challenging. That’s why she decided to join,” adds Shah.
Initial capital requirements amounted to Rs 15 lakh, which came in from friends, family and Shah’s savings. Another Rs 30 lakh came in tranches from his brother-in-law Nitesh Damani, who runs his own business.
“Nitesh was looking for something new and he sensed that this investment would get returns. So finally, we got enough fund for the venture,” details Shah.
Shah has enough credentials to advance in the business, though. He is a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) and has done his MBA from Cornell University. He also holds a Master’s degree in Information Systems from the University of Florida and a Master of Finance degree from the University of Lancaster. He was a senior consultant at Deloitte & Touche (Atlanta) and later joined CompuCredit Holdings Corp, a diversified financial services firm.
Just like other start-ups, NoPaperForms.com had its fare share of initial hiccups. The company had to ensure user-friendly features, integrate a payment gateway, develop an offline payment format and also train the staff of academic institutions. Then there were privacy issues concerning the data pooled from electronic applications. In a bid to provide secure solutions, the company has partnered with Texas-headquartered hosting company Rackspace, which ensures proven measures to prevent service outage, data loss, data theft and security breaches. Rackspace manages the data of 40,000 companies across the globe – a fact that further strengthens the reliability of NoPaperForms.com.
Getting the first customer was not easy either, although the company was doing it for free and decided to run a pilot project at St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai. At that time, the firm had only one programmer on board who built the application for the project and also trained the college staff dealing with admission. Once the pilot was through, St. Xavier’s did a case study and found that the college had cut down operational time by more than 90 per cent and required fewer employees to complete the entire admission procedure.
When the infrastructure was in place, Shah got in touch with Mumbai and Delhi colleges, and offered pilot projects free of cost. “No one was willing to pay for an IT product. Only when the M-factor was not there, colleges were willing to try it out,” he recalls.
Business Model & Operations
Apparently, the services of NoPaperForms.com can be utilised by a huge client base – right from kindergartens to primary & secondary schools, colleges and universities, from tutorials to vocational training centres and any other academic body where students get admission through a standard application process.
According to the company’s estimate, there are around Rs 2.5 crore children seeking admission every year and each apply to more than four schools on an average. Keeping in mind the time, travel and paperwork one can save by applying online, even school-level operations can translate into a huge business proposition.
But the biggest obstacle lies in convincing institutions to adopt the online application system as most of the authorities are unwilling to spend on IT infrastructure. “In fact, most of the colleges had earlier interacted with IT guys on various matters. But generally, the outcome was far from satisfactory and most of them think that any IT infrastructure is bound to be shoddy,” says Shah.
As a result, the business model had to be tweaked to monetise the solution. Currently, the company doesn’t charge educational institutions for its services and solutions. Instead, students are required to pay a processing free per application – either Rs 30 or 5 per cent of the application fee, whichever is higher.
The entire business model is, therefore, application-driven; the greater the number of applications submitted online, the higher the revenue generated by the company. Applicants can pay online through net banking or credit/debit cards. But in case one doesn’t have access to those, there is an offline payment option as well. One can simply buy a coupon, scratch it and key in the code. “In fact, this option is so convenient that lots of students avail of this service,” adds Shah. However, for every application submitted online, the company has to share 2 per cent surcharge with the payment gateway people.
The set-up process is also simple and can be completed in 15 minutes or so – it’s only slightly more complex than creating an e-mail account. An educational institution must sign up to create an application form or get professional help. This is followed by integrating the payment gateway and publishing the form online. After verification, the institution can start receiving electronic applications. The system is hosted on websites via a secure Cloud network.
Students just need to click the ‘apply online’ link and it will take them to the NoPaperForms.com server for filling and submitting forms. But before submission, they should attach scanned copies of all documents required.
Till date, the company has not faced major competition in this specific domain. Of course, there are companies like collegeadmission.com, but they usually have a broader perspective (in this case, right from school search through to form submission). In contrast, NoPaperForms.com only focuses on admission forms and their online submission, which substantially narrows the field.
Incidentally, Collegeadmission.in can be considered a close competitor as it facilitates online admission process for several colleges in Kolkata and is also working with other national and international colleges. Since 2005, the company has processed more than 500,000 applications and answered thousands of admission-related queries for seven leading colleges in Kolkata. Its website is a focal point of information regarding college admissions across the country and it is working closely with various educational institutions in order to scale up.
Then there is Admissionhelp.com, which provides information about leading colleges in northern India, with focus on admission, application forms and notifications. The company has tied up with quite a few premier institutions in Delhi, such as Shri Ram College of Commerce, Hindu College, Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University, Daulat Ram College, Delhi College of Arts & Commerce, Business School of Delhi, Ram Lal Anand College, Hansraj College, Acharya Narendra Dev College and Sri Venketeshwara College. The site also offers advice on educational loans and a list of colleges offering relevant courses that applicants are looking for.
On the other hand, NoPaperForms.com has tied up with 40 colleges across northern India and processed 45,000 applications, of which 30,000 applications have been processed during July this year. According to Shah, colleges in big metros like Mumbai and Delhi or institutions across IT-mature locations are keen to opt for the online application system.
Fundraising & Growth Plans
Initially, there was no plan to scale up and get funding, as the entrepreneurs were focused on building a good valuation for the company. “But when we won the first prize at IIT Bombay’s business plan competition (Eureka 2010), venture capitalists started to take note of our business idea… That’s when we realised that we should scale up and do it bigger,” says Shah.
Consequently, a presentation was made to Mumbai Angels at their quarterly meet and the company managed to raise Rs 2.2 crore during June-July 2011. All the investments are in tranches and the monies raised will be used for developing new products, meeting working capital requirements and ramping up sales & marketing. Fund deployment will be complete by December 2012 and the firm expects to go for series A funding post-2012.
The company currently has 12 people on board, which can go up to 20 and the revenue projection for 2011 stands at Rs 1.7 crore. And it plans to touch Rs 38 crore in the next five years.
Asked about its growth prospects, Anil Joshi, vice-president at Mumbai Angels, says that NoPaperForms is an interesting offering as it saves time and money for an applicant, automates the entire process and makes data easily available for college authorities.
However, there are a few risk factors which cannot be ignored. Unless more students and more institutions opt for the online application format, revenue generation cannot be pushed. Educational institutions who are currently availing of this facility, may not want to continue in the next academic year. And getting more intuitions on board can be quite challenging as they may not want to adopt the new technology – being more used to the traditional pen-and-paper system. Then again, on the government policy front, there can be certain guidelines, wherein all educational institutions need to have a hard copy application mode only. But most importantly, the sales cycle of the company tends to be seasonal (revenues will definitely ebb when admission days are over) and that will surely be a matter of concern for investors.
Yet, the biggest concern is a team’s deliverability, feels Joshi. Certain people have the best of ideas but are not able to execute those as planned due to perfect understanding within the team, he adds.
When asked about the seasonal sales cycle and its possible impact on the business, Shah says that the company is already working on the modalities in order to take the technology solution to B2B customers, such as banks, microfinance institutions and insurance companies.
“The company plans to scale up and reach out to corporate houses, government bodies and consumers at large,” he adds. It means a newer version of NoPaperForms is in the pipeline, which will cater to any organisation/individual. With the increase in mobile penetration, the company is also exploring options to tie up with Tablets, iPhone and android-based phones.
These ambitious growth plans will require the support of strategic investors in the long run and Shah expects that they may come in during the next round of funding. By then, it will also require more funds as the company may want to go global.
Finally, unlike many entrepreneurs, Shah has a well chalked out exit plan in mind. “In the next five years, we plan to exit and the company may be acquired by someone else. If we get a good offer, I would want to exit. But before that, I want to build a solid case for the valuation of the company,” he concludes.