Bhavin Turakhia: The man who is building a Slack killer

Sunny Sen June 23, 2017

Story Highlights

  • Like Slack, Flock allows employees to create groups or channels, make to-do lists, chat, share documents, schedule meetings, and do video conferences
  • Flock has a better user interface, is smaller in size and is faster; it also allows a user to access team directory offline, and is 60% cheaper than its rival, says founder Bhavin Turakhia
  • Analysts believe Flock will have to increase focus on enterprises, especially if it has to compete with the likes of Microsoft, SAP, Slack and IBM

Blame it on the drive common in rich men. Like Elon Musk, a man he idolises, Bhavin Turakhia believes one way to beat the competition is by running harder. Turakhia, 37, regularly clocks 90-hour weeks — 14-15 hours daily Monday through Friday and 10-12 hours on the weekend. (Musk does 85 hours).

Every month, he spends seven days in India, mostly in Mumbai where he has a home in Juhu looking over the Arabian Sea. Another seven days in London, and 12-14 days in Dubai — he has houses in both the cities. And there is a house each in Vancouver and Los Angeles.

“London gives me the best of both worlds. I get up at 5:30 in the morning and it’s 10:30am in India. By the time people get out of work there, I still have about six to seven hours to spend with my clients in the US” — Bhavin Turakhia, founder, Flock  

When I call him, it is 9:20pm in London. Turakhia, cofounder and CEO of the Directi (pronounced direct-eye) group, is on his computer. He is engaged with his team in India and with clients in the US. Someone is plucking the Spanish guitar in the background. He learnt the acoustic guitar for some months, but the music is on the stereo, he tells me.

“London gives me the best of both worlds. I get up at 5:30 in the morning and it’s 10:30am in India. By the time people get out of work there, I still have about six to seven hours to spend with my clients in the US,” says Turakhia. Also, London and Dubai are well connected with the rest of the world.

These days, Flock, the most promising of all the companies he is heading, takes up much of Turakhia’s time. Flock, which is Slack’s rival, is one of the 11 companies he and his younger brother Divyank have built over the last 19 years. Like Slack, it allows employees to create groups or channels, make to-do lists, have private and public conversations, share documents, schedule meetings, and even do video conferences — all without the “asynchronous delays” of email communication.

Like Slack, FLock allows employees to create groups or channels, make to-do lists, have private and public conversations, share documents, schedule meetings, and even do video conferences — all without the “asynchronous delays” of email communication  

Divyank runs Media.net, a company the brothers sold to a clutch of Chinese investors for $900 million last August. Turakhia has a Ferrari Spider in his LA home and a Rolls in Dubai, but Divyank is the flashier sibling who not only loves cars but also pilots as a hobby with a Cessna plane parked in Mumbai. “I learnt to fly for three hours and then gave up, but we are buying a jet in LA in the next 30 days,” Turakhia says. That would make the Turakhia brothers, whose wealth Forbes magazine estimates at $1.3 billion, the only Indian startup founders to own planes.

Suburban Mumbai to the world

The brothers weren’t born into a rich family. Their father was a chartered accountant who shifted from Bhavnagar to Mumbai. His mother, too, came from a small town in Gujarat, Surendranagar. She studied law when she was pregnant with Turakhia, but never practised as a lawyer.

Turakhia’s father continues his accountancy practice in Mumbai.

As a child, Turakhia remembers, his father bought him a lot of books. In his formative years, he read about 100 biographies of businesses and entrepreneurs. “That’s where my passion for entrepreneurship came from,” he says.

In his formative years, Turakhia read about 100 biographies of businesses and entrepreneurs. “That’s where my passion for entrepreneurship came from,” he says  

The early 1990s were the early days of computers being used in schools. At Arya Vidya Mandir in Bandra, Bhavin and Divyank’s school, there were 12 computers. Turakhia was lucky — he didn’t have to share the computer with anyone as there were only 11 people in the class. “Even after school, I spent three hours on the computer, at times writing software codes, and also spending time teaching other students advanced programming,” he tells me in the one of two phone conversations we had for this story.

Bhavin-Turakhia,-Founder-and-CEO,-Flock
Bhavin Turakhia, founder and CEO, Flock

He joined Ruparel College in Mumbai to study science, and simultaneously prepared for the IIT entrance examinations. Soon, he realised that he already knew what they taught in the colleges, so he decided to drop out. But Turakhia’s father wanted him to complete his graduation, so he enrolled in commerce.

In 1997, he started writing the software for an automated job matching programme to find candidates. For a year, he tried selling the product to clients, but there weren’t too many people on the internet in the country those days and the business didn’t go anywhere.

But, Turakhia was fascinated by the potential of the internet and set up Directi for web hosting. That tentative step into the online world got him where he is today, he believes.

Also read: Flock to us with all your data, challenger tells Slack users

As Directi survived the dotcom bubble burst and continued to grow, Turakhia and his team figured out that there was a better way to communicate, and that was chat.

So, as early as the 2003-04 period, using Jabber servers, Directi created its own chat software. Not many will remember Jabber today; it was acquired by networking company Cisco in 2008. That was the beginning of what would eventually become Flock.

“Chatting was so intimate to us… It was my first week at Flock. I sent him a business proposal over chat, Bhavin approved it in minutes, and we rolled out the project” — Ninad Raval, vice-president, product and design, at Flock  

“Bhavin is one of the rare persons who is involved in every department — from businesses, marketing to product team. He looks at the features, what is there to be built,” says Ninad Raval, vice-president, product and design, at Flock.

In 2004, Raval was working with one of Directi’s customers in Dubai. A meeting with Turakhia was a regular monthly fixture on his calendar. Those meetings led to familiarity and friendship, and Turakhia eventually convinced Raval to join Directi that year.

Raval was surprised to see Directi was already using a chat service internally. “Chatting was so intimate to us…,” he says. “It was my first week at Flock. I sent him a business proposal over chat, Bhavin approved it in minutes, and we rolled out the project.”

Increasingly, such cases of quicker decision making were signalling that there was a large number of people working in companies who would want to use a chat service designed for workplace dynamics.

Is Flock a Slack killer?

“I am obsessed with productivity,” says Turakhia. “I always look around for ways to save on a few minutes doing something, which will add up to something substantial.” Still, he was busy building up Media.net and other companies and it took him a few years to crystallise a strategy for the workplace instant messaging and collaboration product that Slack is today.

In 2012, Turakhia met his leadership team to discuss the new opportunities in the business. When he looks for opportunities, he looks for something that has a global appeal and “something that has not been disrupted for a long time.” Something like Flock had huge potential. “Email had been around for 25-30 years and that was last innovation in communications.”

It was decided that a new messaging platform should be built. “Slack, HipChat did not exist at that time… We started testing the product internally,” says Raval. After a year of testing, Flock was launched in mid-2014. By then, Slack had launched its services, there was Hipchat, too. Facebook has launched its own version of FB at Work.

flock-rivals-lead-main
Slack and HipChat did not exist at the time the Flock team started testing the product internally, says Turakhia. But they were there by the time Flock launched in mid-2014

Turakhia is not worried about Slack’s larger global presence and the lead it has. “There is no point in killing something that has not been adopted in less than 1% of the world,” he says. “I think Slack has focused on certain markets and has become the PR darling, being the first in the industry. They don’t deliver the kind of efficiencies we deliver,” he insists without any hint of a marketer’s spiel.

“I am obsessed with productivity… I always look around for ways to save on a few minutes doing something, which will add up to something substantial” — Turakhia  

Slack was always meant for small teams, he says. Flock has a better user interface, is smaller in size and is faster; it also allows a user to access team directory offline, and is 60% cheaper than its rival, he says. Besides all this, it is native to mobile phones, adds Raval.

The enterprise collaboration market today is throbbing with energy and is expected to grow at a compound 13.2% to reach nearly $50 billion by 2021. Turakhia reckons the enterprise user market is of a billion odd people. Just 10% of them use some kind of messaging service. That leaves a lot of headroom for growth. “Slack is not the competition. The competition are things like Skype and Whatsapp, which are not meant for this but are used for lack of better options.”

Some companies are realising the difference. A year ago kids apparel brand Gini & Jony started using Flock. Over time there has been about 20% to 25% reduction in emails, says Rakesh K Chaudhary, head of information technology at Gini & Jony.

So, far Chaudhary has been using Flock’s free service, but is in talks to implement a paid version. “We send a lot of messages to consumers, which costs us seven to eight paise per message. We are figuring out of way to do that through Flock and lower the cost,” says Chaudhary.

Flock has 25,000 clients, but mostly smaller companies such as Yepme, barring a few global companies like VMware and Victorinox. It’s weekly active users at over 50,000 are also fewer compared to Slack’s 5.8 million, according to global digital data tracker DMR.

That leaves market watchers sceptical about Flock’s success. “Flock needs to be tested out with large companies. Slack is more established,” says Neha Dharia, senior analyst with Ovum, a London-based consultancy firm. “Flock is focusing more on trying to get users away from Slack rather than build their own client base.”

“Slack is not the competition. The competition are things like Skype and Whatsapp, which are not meant for this but are used for lack of better options” — Turakhia  

Flock’s success will also depend on higher level of integrations in security, encryption, artificial intelligence, compatibility with other apps, across platforms, says Dharia.

Analysts also believe that Flock will have to increase focus on enterprises, especially if it has to compete with the likes of Microsoft, SAP, Slack and IBM. “You need scale, skills and the ability to manage complexities of migrating users, contracts, and tech operations,” says Sanchit Vir Gogia, CEO and chief analyst of Greyhound Research.

Gogia adds that Turakhia understands the consumer internet space, has the money, a solid product, and a good team but “he needs to fix the approach towards enterprises”, which will come with the right mindset and the right sales team.

Also read: Remembering Atul Chitnis, internet pioneer and fierce open source warrior

Turakhia shrugs it off saying it is just the beginning. “I have always competed with global giants. The bigger the company the slower they move,” he says with confidence bordering on brashness. Slack, he says, claims big brands as clients even if its footprint in those companies may be small. “It mentions large companies because one small team in that company is using Slack. It doesn’t mean that the entire company uses Slack,” he says, taking a dig at his rival.

Future is in AI, AR

While in the near term, Turakhia says that messaging and payments are areas to focus on, the future he is sure will be in artificial intelligence (AI), augmented reality (AR) and driverless cars. “Internet is a utility now, but in future there will be disruptions far bigger than the internet,” says Turakhia.

Both AI and AR have utility in Flock to improve the experience. AI is already being implemented, which will study user behaviour and work on shaving off minutes and built efficiencies. For instance, Flock will be able to learn and train its software to identify people with whom you are chatting more often, and drop off people who have left the organisation from your list all by itself.

“You need scale, skills and the ability to manage complexities of migrating users, contracts, and tech operations” — Sanchit Vir Gogia, CEO and chief analyst, Greyhound Research.  

It will also be able to surface company documents and information that you require intuitively. To be sure, Slack is also using AI to help users find relevant channels and people quicker compared to traditional search.

While Turakhia has built the Flock for the mobile, he feels that AR is the future of computing. Soon enough the company will start its work in those areas.

Flock_Slack_English
Flock has a better user interface, is smaller in size and is faster; it also allows a user to access team directory offline, and is 60% cheaper than its rival, says Turakhia

What about much-hyped autonomous vehicles? Turakhia chuckles and says that is something he hasn’t yet thought about.
New businesses will have to wait until Flock and Zeta, a Directi company managing employee benefits, sustain on their own.

“Right now, the only two focus areas is Flock and Zeta and until those get settled, there will be no other dominant business,” says Turakhia.

Zeta is a company he thinks can change the way employees in India are reimbursed, especially for tax benefits including fuel, medical claims, travel allowances, phones bills, gadgets, and books and periodicals.

Both AI and AR have utility in Flock to improve the experience. AI is already being implemented, which will study user behaviour and work on shaving off minutes and built efficiencies  

India has about 27 million people paying taxes, he says, but just three to four million of them avail such benefits. Zeta comes in here — offers its service at no cost to the employer and the employee, which automatically deducts fuel from the fuel allowance, the medical from the medical allowance, and so on. The employees are given a card to swipe at two lakh offline and online merchants.

This opportunity before Zeta, when fully scaled, is immense internationally, he says.

The Turakhia brothers other — calling app Ringo, online registry operator Radix, competitive programming company Codechef — are better off, meanwhile.

Turakhia, Divyank and their teams have built and turned companies profitable without taking a paise of venture money. For example, Radix is profitable, where he had invested $17 million. In Flock he has invested $45 million. “That shows our confidence… I have seen companies in India that have raised a lot of capital and then made big mistakes because of the capital,” Turakhia says.

“That shows our confidence… I have seen companies in India that have raised a lot of capital and then made big mistakes because of the capital” — Turakhia  

Before selling Media.net — which competed with Google in the contextual advertising market — Turakhia’s first exit was in 2014, when he sold Directi’s web services companies, BigRock, LogicBoxes and Reseller Club, to Nasdaq-listed Endurance International for $160 million.

Turakhia’s eye for new opportunities and obsessive execution comes from studying global companies and entrepreneurs over decades. As a child, he says, he had read 11 biographies of Microsoft, four of Apple, IBM, Xerox, of non-tech companies like McDonald’s and Chrysler Corp. “I have a lot of respect for Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg for the companies they have built,” he says.

The reading continues. He has downloaded Hard thing about Hard Things by Ben Horowitz on his Kindle, he tells me. It is well past 10pm and he has a few more hours to go before turning in. Just as we disconnect, I can hear the Spanish classical music being turned back on.


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