Rohit Gupta, Founder & CEO of Crux Labs Pte Ltd tells us about building simple, affordable, and green products.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Rohit Gupta: On 7 Feb 2020, the total number of cases in Singapore had risen to 33, making it a country with the second-highest number of COVID-19 cases after China. At that point, I was required to travel on work from Singapore to Bangalore, India, leaving my daughter and wife behind in Singapore, oblivious of the stringent lockdowns, border closures, and travel restrictions that were to follow the world over in upcoming months.
I have now been in Bangalore for over a year, with my parents, managing my business remotely. Needless to say, this year of separation from my remote family has been painful but compared to the pain so many others have suffered globally from loss of family and friends, loss of livelihood, loss of assets, etc., I feel blessed and lucky that my immediate family and I have been fortunate to have had to deal with only separation. Moreover, technology has come to the rescue in these times, in multiple different ways, narrowing the separation one might have felt without it.
In hindsight, I feel my travel to India has been a blessing in disguise since I could be with my elderly parents, who are carrying a higher risk of infection due to their age, to support them and keep each other company during these times of isolation. On 19 Jun 2020, in the thick of lockdown, my parents also completed 50 years of their married life, and I was the only family member physically present with them to celebrate the occasion, while the rest of the family joined us over a video call, making it a unique experience for all of us under the new normal.
Yesterday, on 4 Mar 2021, my parents received the first jab of COVID-19 vaccination.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Crux Labs.
Rohit Gupta: I am presently the acting CEO of a telecom start-up called Crux Labs that I founded in Singapore in 2017. This is my third start-up venture in the last 24 years. Crux Labs is a maker of Telephony and Unified Communications products for SME Offices and Call Centres. Previously, I have co-founded two start-ups (Pragma Communication – a Tech PR and Influencer firm focused at SME from 2006-10, and Megasys Computers – a System Integrator firm focused on SME and Retail customers from 1996-98) and lived multi-faceted leadership roles with global charters at IBM, HP & Wipro.
My expertise extends across Technology, Alliance-led Sales, Pre-sales, Delivery management, Software, and Systems R&D, Data Center Transformation, New Product Initiatives, and Product Management. A Computer Science major, an MIT Sloan graduate, and a keen author, my by-line articles on various business and technology topics are frequently published by leading Indian publications. I also mentor early-stage start-ups on routes to market and technology commercialization at a few accelerators and b-schools in Singapore.
Crux Labs emerged from a eureka moment when one day, I heard the cordless phone instrument ring, and I reluctantly walked up to it to receive the call. After the call, I continued to wonder that even though smartphones have proliferated globally, households are still making use of answering machines, cordless phones, and wired phone instruments! The thought became more intriguing since, at my home, I had a single optic fiber-based connection that was the backbone for internet, phone as well as television content. The question as to why do we need multiple devices and why a smartphone could not be used to replace the digital sprawl grew stronger. And, why it could not be done wirelessly given every home tends to have a WiFi router these days. The research that followed over the next few weeks to seek answers to these questions led from one experiment to another and caused me to dig more to find that SME businesses had this problem even more pronounced than home users. Soon, it was also evident that Telecom was not the only technology that had been difficult for SME businesses to embrace due to its inherent complexity and cost.
The idea gave birth to Crux Labs in Jan 2017, with a vision to build technology products for SMEs that are simple to use and affordable.
With this product philosophy in mind, it was decided that the first product to be brought out by Crux Labs would be a Telephony and Unified Communications platform that could meet the needs of consumers and businesses through a single device without requiring cables and instruments, at a fraction of a cost that customers generally pay for such solutions today.
How does Crux Labs innovate?
Rohit Gupta: Crux Labs aims at building products that are: Simple, Affordable, and Green.
Crux Labs’ products are meant to serve the SME market. There are two very unique aspects to be understood about this target market.
- In terms of the number of employees, SMEs are roughly only up to 250 employee businesses as compared to Enterprises that can even be 500,000 employees or higher. Hence, due to smaller denominators, per employee, the cost of a solution is usually higher for SMEs – hence, adopting any new technology requires deep pockets.
- In terms of skill composition, the majority of SMEs tend not to have an in-house IT team due to the cost involved. Hence, the skill-requirement is a key consideration when evaluating new solutions. Any solution that creates the need for additional skills to be available in the team, or creates a new vendor dependency, is viewed unfavorably by SME.
Crux Lab’s product design objective has thus been two-pronged – one, simplify technology to lower or eliminate the learning and skill barrier, and two, lower the total cost of acquisition of the solution as well as the total cost of ownership for the lifetime of the solution.
We achieve these objectives by following the lean innovation model towards product design and development. For example, we avoid re-creating the wheel by using as much of free and open-source hardware and software and partnering with other solution providers who excel at what they have built instead of building it ourselves from scratch. This approach helps keep the cost of product innovation and support very low. We also maintain a keen focus on automation and simplification of skill-intensive solution interfaces so that any non-tech savvy user may also be able to install or manage the solution.
Our first product built on these fundamentals is called Crux. When we think of phone systems used by businesses, we imagine telephones, wires, complex technology, and bulky power-guzzling servers. Crux is, however, a palm-sized device that can manage the telephony needs of offices and call centers with up to 250 employees without requiring investment in cables or phone instruments and deploys in just 30-60 minutes even by a non-techie.
Crux consumes a mere 0.36 kWh of power per day and runs using a 5V mobile battery bank. The older PABX systems that Crux replaces consume 9.6 kWh per day or more. This alone amounts to a 96.2% reduction in carbon emissions and helps businesses earn carbon credits.
Crux starts at a modest USD 799 one-time price with zero recurring costs. It also helps lower the monthly phone bill by up to 80% from the very first month of use. This means that the payback period for Crux is less than a year with continuing perpetual savings.
How does the coronavirus pandemic affect your business finances?
Rohit Gupta: Crux Labs has recorded two out of three years of operation with a positive cash flow, including 2020, where we recorded year-over-year growth of 55%. This was possible since our product, Crux, in addition to various other benefits, also enables remote working for offices and call centers. With Crux, employees can make and receive calls on office phone lines even when they are not in the office. This feature was recognized by SGTech (industry body) and IMDA (state regulatory), and caused Crux to be included in the ICT Vendors directory for Remote Working solutions for SME (Ref: https://www.sgtech.org.sg/SGTECH/Web/Initiatives/Solution_Toolbox_for_SME/Working_from_Home_Solutions.aspx). The rising need for a WFH solution for phone systems fuelled Crux sales though the last year and the momentum continues to remain strong. Amongst various success stories created by Crux with customers, one was captured in an interview with SGTech to inspire other SME businesses towards timely technology upgrade (Ref: https://sgtech.org.sg/SGTECH/Web/SGTech_News_2020/Oct20/FarEastFlora.com-Uses-Technology.aspx)
We were also not required to incur any additional expense to maintain business continuity since our operations had been built, keeping a remote team structure in mind that allowed us to hire and onboard remote team members with ease.
Overall, we consider ourselves one of those fortunate businesses that did not have to suffer financially, at least during COVID-19.
Did you have to make difficult choices regarding human resources, and what are the lessons learned?
Rohit Gupta: We have been in expansion mode since early 2019. Our focus in that year was on developing our presence, market, and channels in Singapore. However, by late 2019, we had decided to distribute our team across India (marketing and support) and Singapore (sales). In early 2020, I had travelled to India to execute this strategy, but as soon as we started the hiring process and evaluating office locations, the lockdown was imposed, and that caused us to defer our plans momentarily. With the lockdown extending month after month, we decided not to delay our hiring plans further and decided to hire a remote team instead. This was a big shift in our plan to set up our India presence, but it proved to be a great decision since we were able to tap into a larger pool of people and skills.
Due to lockdown in India and circuit-breakers in Singapore, everyone was forced to accept the Work from Home (WFH) regime. Through 2020 and until now, we have continued to work remotely with ease. It is helping us maintain a good work-life balance and cost-efficient at the same time. Hence, we are likely to continue using this operation model going forward.
How did your customer relationship management evolve? Do you use any specific tools to be efficient?
We had already been using tawk.to for the helpdesk ticketing system and its live chat capability to manage pre-sales and post-sales customer support. During the COVID-19 period, both the number of new sales enquiries and post-sales support calls increased by 2-3 times. Some of the existing customers wanted support to enable the remote-working capability on their Crux units, while many others wanted us to configure new call routing rules or changes to their IVR so that calls could be routed to staff members who were working from home or remote locations. New customer enquiries wanted to take a quick trial to experience how the solution worked and see if it would be a good fit for their business. Despite being an on-premise product, we have a self-assisted remote-trial facility which was extensively used during the pandemic. In Jan 2021, we also launched an online store, customer support forums, cost calculator so that new prospects can find information and answers readily.
Internally, within our team, we took to using collaboration tools like Slack, Trello, Google Meet and Drive, and a few other mixed-bag of tools for various functions like Calendly, Canva, HReasily, and WaveApps. Using these tools, the remote team has been able to work seamlessly and many times simultaneously on work products.
Did you benefit from any government grants, and did that help keep your business afloat?
Rohit Gupta: Due to our business model and a lean structure, we were thankfully not required to seek support through government grants. On the contrary, when we received an incentive from the Singapore government for being an early adopter of the e-Invoicing platform, we matched that amount and donated it to a charity that we support. Similarly, in India, we contributed to a few individual-led programs as well as the PM Cares fund set up for aiding COVID-19 related efforts.
We were also not required to incur any additional expense on technology per se to maintain business continuity since our operations had been built, keeping a remote team structure in mind that allowed us to hire and onboard remote team members with ease.
Overall, we consider ourselves one of those fortunate businesses that did not have to suffer financially during COVID-19.
Your final thoughts?
Rohit Gupta: At Crux Labs, our purpose is to make technology consumable for SMEs so that they stay at par with large enterprises, drawing benefit from the same technology advancements. This requires a rip-down of complex technologies to develop products like Crux that are simple, affordable, and sustainable.
While remote-working has always been an inherent benefit of using Crux, prior to the COVID-19 period, this aspect was not considered a game-changer by some businesses; hence, it did not associate the expected urgency with digitalizing. In fact, the remote-working phone system was seen as an invasion of privacy by some employees. However, COVID-19 has changed that perception about working from home to the extent that it has become the new norm and gained acceptance from a large section of the employee community.
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