“What is your passion?”
“I asked my daughter this question every day as she was growing up,” says Raju Eadarapalli, founder of Prama. “And then I realized someday she would ask me the same question. That affected me greatly.”
Finding his passion was what led Raju to leave India for the US, and three decades later, to leave behind his comfortable and lucrative career as an enterprise architect with Humana in 2019. Today, his passion has taken the form of a startup called Prama, a low-code platform building complex enterprise software.
After finishing 2020 with little to no revenue, his customer roster now includes multiple startups and a Fortune 100 company. He’s made about half a million dollars in revenue as of July 2021 and anticipates closing the year at around one million.
He also thinks he has a product ready to face off against the likes of Salesforce and Microsoft.
From Humble Beginnings to High Achievements
Raju speaks with the calm intensity of someone who truly believes in what he’s doing. After five minutes of talking to him, you can easily imagine him staying up for days at a time to meet an important deadline. Or slowly and patiently overcoming a client’s objections.
He points to his working-class upbringing in Visakhapatnam, India as the foundation that shaped him. “The frugality is always with me,” Raju says, “it’s very hard for me to see millions of dollars being spent on things that I think I can automate.”
He cites his father’s strong belief in education as the key to his and his family’s success.
“I would say in my home, I’m actually the ‘least guy’,” he laughs, “My sister is one of the leading gynecologists in England and she was ranked second in our state with a population ten times the population of Kentucky. And my brother was like the 143rd-ranked aspiring engineer in all of India.”
Like his father, Raju pushes his children to study hard, but unlike his father, Raju pushes them to find something more: a purpose.
“I didn’t have the luxury of choice as a young man, but I later realized I could give that luxury to my daughter,” he says. “I decided I needed to let her find her own path, but I told her: ‘Don’t go into a job and make a million and just sit there. Show me that you can make a positive change a million people’s lives.’”
But Raju realized that he could not expect his daughter to do this while he sat comfortably at his job at Humana while knowing he could make a larger impact. He knew he had a legacy to build for his family that he could no longer delay.
“How Do I Make Machines Work For Me?”
Raju has been obsessed with this question since he started his career in the early ’90s after he was given an opportunity to work for GE in Louisville, Kentucky.
“Nearly anything humans can do, a machine can do faster and with fewer mistakes. We need automation so we can put the human mind to work in places where the machines aren’t better,” he says.
It’s safe to say Raju has “seen it all” in the tech world. The India-born engineer began his career during the 90s tech bubble working alongside the builders of the world’s first mainframe at GE Appliances. Later he worked as a system architect with Humana, Brown and Williamson, and Nasdaq (NASD). He claims to have nearly won a position as “tech evangelist” at Microsoft before getting poached.
Throughout his career, Raju noticed a growing issue within his industry. Whenever a company wanted to build new software, they would hire independent companies to do it for them with a massive price tag.
“You get Salesforce to build something out for you and that’s a starting price tag of $20 million,” he says. “I know people are starving in places like India so it hurts me to see so much money spent on something that doesn’t need to cost so much.”
Not one to stay quiet, Raju usually offered more cost-effective solutions to his managers. Ones that would allow them to automate processes internally instead of spending millions of dollars outsourcing to other companies. More often than not, his ideas were rejected because doing it in-house was considered “risky”.
He understood these inefficiencies were fine for the large companies with giant budgets he worked for. However, he had a hunch they wouldn’t work for start-ups and SMEs that have to carefully consider how every dollar is spent.
“I thought, this problem exists. I have the know-how. I can create the tech. I think I can change a billion people’s lives,” Raju says. An idea began to boil inside of him. He was going to make a company that could take on industry giants.
What It Takes to Clash With the Likes of Microsoft and Salesforce
Raju is easy to root for. He doesn’t even blink when he talks about his large competitors.
“We don’t want Salesforce to be in the low-code business,” he jokes on the phone. “Salesforce has no business being in the low-code business.”
His platform, Prama, is made to directly compete with today’s computing giants by offering a more cost-effective solution to making software.
In addition to helping enterprises and SMEs, Prama operates similarly to an incubator. It partners with companies that have a vision, takes some equity, helps them build their software, trains their engineers to run it, and then offers a subscription to their platform. Customers pay different amounts to use the software, but there is an annual cap on how much they’re charged to promote growth.
“We’re basically an entire data center and application development platform at a fraction of the price of Salesforce,” says Raju.
To compete in the “big league” of computing, Prama needs to do much more than simple app development. “We build tools that do complex things,” says Raju. “Imagine a person coming out of bypass surgery. They need to monitor blood pressure, get medication, get their brother to drive them to and from the hospital, and manage their schedule. That’s the kind of problem we solve. We make everything happen. We are beyond many multi-million dollar companies in our capabilities.”
Assembling the “Geeks” Behind Prama
After years of working and networking with some of the brightest minds in coding, building the Prama team was short work for Raju.
“When I started working on Prama, I knew I couldn’t do it alone,” he says. “I needed a team that was as smart as or preferably smarter than me that had that entrepreneurial mindset.”
Fortunately, Raju knew his first pick. He recalled a man 20 years his junior who he’d worked with many times in the past. A guy who’d won many arguments about tech with him. He gave him a call and with few choice words, their partnership began. Through mutual contacts, they quickly pieced together a team of 16 people around the world with four part-timers.
Raju is proud of his “geeks” as he calls his team. Most have master’s degrees in computer science or PhDs in applied mathematics from top universities in their own countries. He says working for Prama was an easy sell for them too, “I didn’t have to do much other than share my vision and mention how much stake they would get.”
Just like with his own children, Raju strongly believes in empowering his team members to go out and achieve their purpose. He wants to use Prama as a tool to unshackle them all from their corporate jobs so they can fulfill it on their terms.
“Even the companies that call themselves employee-owned companies don’t set aside as much stock for their employees as we do,” brags Raju. “Our corporate advisor says we’ve set aside double the percentage stock for employees as the most he has ever seen in his life.”
“I owe all of Prama’s success to the world-class engineers we were able to bring together,” he adds.
How Prama Finally Made it Happen
Despite a great team, great tech, and a great niche Raju’s initial attempts to raise funding and meet with businesses were often met with rejection.
Having put down roots in Louisville, Kentucky, Raju was reluctant to uproot his family to relocate to a tech hub like Silicon Valley. He credits this with curbing some investor interest.
“To be honest I wanted to raise money,” he says, “but being in the midwest, it’s hard to do it. There are companies I talked with in Silicon Valley that told me they simply don’t invest outside of Silicon Valley.”
This didn’t phase him in the slightest. “It’s harder to do it this way, but it’s alright. I’ve come through harder times in my life,” he says calmly.
Fortunately, his fundraising journey wasn’t all slammed doors and unread emails. Raju managed to put together $570,000 from close family and friends and his own money to begin building Prama. He also successfully brought onboard an advisor that previously launched three unicorns in the same space. They are currently working together to create a venture studio backed by Prama’s technology to help build startups.
While it was tough to get in the door at first, Raju swears that people see the value of his business quickly.
“I met with one exec at a major corporation who said ‘I would take this any day, but I cannot bring you in. Put a few corporate customers on your client list then come back,’” he recalls. “They just weren’t able to fight the internal battles needed to bring Prama on despite acknowledging we had a superior product.”
After many similar rejections, persistence prevailed and Prama made its first successful pitch.
“I finally convinced one Fortune 100 company to give me just an inch of space to show them what I can do with Prama,” says Raju. “I said, ‘Just let me sit in on a meeting with you where you talk about your problem and I’ll fix it.’ I built them a data model they’d been dreaming of in eight hours. Then I developed a big part of the solution in the next 40 hours. They immediately gave us two more projects.”
From there, Raju has expanded his roster to include multiple startups including a company he strongly believes will become a unicorn back home in India. His dream of helping others to find their purpose can now begin.
“At Prama, we want to help provide a future for every vision,” he says.
It’s clear to see how an industry dominated by only a handful of names is ripe for disruption. Founders like Raju, driven by their desire to truly make a difference, and who possess as much experience as any expert in their industry, seem like the ones to do it.
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