In 2013, Javed Akhtar and Shiv Unnikrishnan met at a wedding in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Both felt a bit uncomfortable. Having spent their youths seeking fortunes abroad, they each knew only a handful of people in their country of birth. Neither had been in Malaysia for years.
Shiv and Javed knew of each other – they ran in similar circles – but hadn’t met. At some point in the evening, introductions were made and they got to bantering. Javed says they both like to poke fun at people a little and they bonded over that. Banter quickly turned to talk about work.
Shiv had spent the last few years working with multinational corporations in the country’s oil and gas industry. Many of these businesses were older and operated in ways she found inefficient. They needed to update their processes or risk becoming irrelevant.
Javed’s career up until this point had been solving operational problems at tech companies. Having reached a peak in his career as the COO/CTO of a company that had just been acquired, he was ready to run his own. He just needed to find the right industry.
Both realized they had the solutions the other needed for their careers.
They teamed up to create a platform called Planally: a solution that helps businesses digitize their processes and turn high-level plans into trackable action items. The first client they landed accounted for about 30 percent of the Malaysian GDP.
After scaling to contract for an entire Fortune 500 company in a few short years, fighting competition all the while, they have successfully created Axceligent Solutions. This business is their bid to make the entire world more efficient at executing, monitoring, and tracking plans.
Here’s how two unlikely co-founders are shaking up old, inefficient processes around the world. Completely bootstrapped.
A Second Career in Their Home Country
Although born in Malaysia, Shiv and Javed both went to school and began their careers in very different fields on opposite sides of the globe.
Shiv runs the operational and financial side of things at Axceligent. From 2005 to 2012, after graduating from university in Australia, she worked as a financial analyst for major firms like Westpac and Bank of America.
Around 2012, Shiv was headhunted by a Malaysian government-linked corporation (GLC) while working for an investment bank in Sydney. Shiv has a cautious nature and had to consider the offer. She’d begun to consider Australia her new home, but she’d noticed Malaysia’s rise in recent years and was lured back.
“Everyone was telling me about how much progress Malaysia was making in its economic development. I liked living in Australia, but Malaysia’s my home,” she says. “At some point, I threw caution to the wind and got over there.”
Shiv’s first job back home was bringing foreign direct investment (FDI) into the country. However, she quickly realized things weren’t managed at Malaysian businesses the same way she had been taught in Australia. She found herself wanting to try something new.
“I was assigned to a different sector than I’d expected,” she says, “so I asked to move to another assignment. I was reassigned to oil and gas deals, which I didn’t know much about at the time. Actually, it’s safe to say I knew nothing about it, but I thought it seemed interesting.”
Fortunately, Shiv likes learning new things. She went back to school and completed an engineering program by Texas A&M and Schlumberger to better understand her industry while continuing her career in oil and gas. While she grew to enjoy the field, she was frequently frustrated by the lack of technology in the sector.
“You’d think the technological advances that had been made abroad had happened lightyears away sometimes,” she says. “If you peeled away all the red tape and government requirements, their problems were actually quite solvable.”
By the time Javed met Shiv, he’d been outside of the country for about 26 years.
Javed is the tech and business development side of Axceligent. He earned a degree in Computer Science from Western Michigan University in the early 2000s.
After completing his MBA, he went worked at Humana as a project lead. In 2011, after six years at Humana, he moved back to Malaysia as a COO for a local tech company. After three years, the national telecommunications company in Malaysia acquired his firm. This was no small feat and he was flooded with job offers shortly after.
Javed was working as a GM and a sales director when he met Shiv in 2013, ready to take on a new challenge.
After their fateful meeting at the wedding, Javed and Shiv seemed to bump into each other everywhere. Javed says this isn’t as weird as it sounds.
“In Kuala Lumpur, everyone goes to the same places every day. We’d run into each other a lot and talk about all of these issues,” he says.
After many fruitful conversations, they decided to go into business together. They also decided to focus their efforts on landing one big client perfectly positioned in the middle of both of their worlds: the country’s national petroleum company (from here on referred to as the NPC). It’s probably the largest company in Malaysia and one of the biggest companies in the world.
Contracting 30 Percent of Malaysian GDP
“Every time we’d meet we’d discuss the national oil and gas company among other things,” says Shiv. “We thought they could use our help. However, they are one of the most difficult clients to penetrate.”
Landing a client like the NPC is every contractor’s dream. An entirely government-owned enterprise, Shiv claims as much as 30 percent of Malaysia’s GDP depends on it. It’s a Fortune 500 company (ranked 277 at time of writing) that operates in 35 different countries and employs almost 50,000 people.
“It was hard to imagine a company like that working with a small company or a startup,” says Shiv. “That drove us even more.”
Shiv had numerous connections in the oil and gas industry but had yet to work directly with anyone important in the NPC. Both founders knew if they could just get in a room with some executives they could land a contract.
After about a year of meetings and countless coffees with industry professionals hoping to meet a decision-maker at the business, they got their chance. They bumped into a member of the governing board at a networking event who offered them a meeting with the local branch.
Once Javed and Shiv secured their meeting, the pressure was on. The NPC was ready to see what they had as soon as they got in the door.
“They put us to the test there and then,” says Javed. “They asked, ‘Can you digitize our process right here?’ We did it in 30 minutes in front of them. The news went to the vice president and they decided to give it a shot.”
And just like that, Javed and Shiv had done the impossible and landed their dream client and 30 percent of the Malaysian GDP as a two-person startup. Planally was ready to take on the world.
Building For a Fortune 500
Immediately, Javed and Shiv hit hurdles they hadn’t expected when working for the NPC, including large amounts of paperwork and scrutiny.
“To work for [the NPC] you need to get a special license,” says Javed. “Fortunately, they wanted to get things going as much as we did. We got our license approved in a day.”
Paperwork aside, some departments of the NPC were also wary of letting a small startup change their operations. However, this soon smoothed over after they saw Planally had robust code and a stronger work ethic.
“A common issue we get is people wondering if we’re going to disappear since we’re a bootstrapped startup,” adds Shiv.
Internal departments at the NPC weren’t the only ones suspicious of the Planally contract. The NPC is probably the biggest fish in Malaysia and local organizations nationwide had been trying to land them for years. Many were wondering what made Planally so special.
“We were the only local company providing services to them at the time so we were watched closely,” says Shiv. “People likely suspected foul play.”
Their first assignment was a capital investment management process. It had taken three years for the company to create its process, but they had difficulties implementing it. They wanted a newer, more digital one for tracking where investments went.
With a founder in tech and a founder in finance, Axceligent was able to create a digital solution in no time. From there, Axceligent systematically digitized every process its clients threw at it, from quality control to risk management to project and contract management.
Planally also needed to be distributed to dozens of subsidiaries. And after two more months, upper management asked the founders to deploy Planally across the entire operation. That’s hundreds of sub-companies, each with their own needs.
“We really liked that,” says Javed, “For us, our goal was to create a product we could sell to a large audience and here we were with all these companies in just one contract. It gave us lots of opportunities to practice iterating our product.”
Finally, the NPC agreed to sign a global pricing agreement for all of their operations with Axceligent. These agreements are usually only inked with multinational contracting companies with deep pockets.
“We were ecstatic,” says Javed. “However, that contract took months to sign and one of the clauses was that we could not have new orders until it was signed.”
Axceligent had to sit on its hands for a couple of months and eat its losses waiting for the contract to pass, but it paid off. In October of 2015, they had no orders coming in. After signing in November, they had a backlog of $6 million in orders and were ready to grow.
What is Planally?
Simply put, Planally was designed as software for “process optimization and improvement.” It’s a SaaS business that sits under the Axceligent umbrella.
“A lot of organizations have good processes in place, but many cut corners in the interest of saving time and getting their jobs done,” says Javed. “There’s also a huge communication gap when converting these processes into applications. We wanted to create a platform that allows anyone to digitize their processes easily.”
Planally allows businesses to create itemized management of varying complexity for any process. It can be used for tracking how grant money is spent or monitoring the different moving parts for manufacturing a complex product and everything in between.
Once their business stabilized, Javed and Shiv realized they needed to change how they viewed Planally. They wanted it to be a SaaS solution for businesses of any size, not just a tool for large enterprises.
“One of the major things we wanted to work on was our pricing,” says Javed. “How could we help smaller companies afford our platform?”
At the end of 2019, they re-launched Planally with new pricing and an interface allowing companies to design their own plans. Today Planally’s professional package is $22 per month and business packages are $49 per month. They also maintain an enterprise version where they offer more bespoke systems and pricing for individual enterprises.
Growing the Axceligent Team
Once Javed and Shiv decided to go all-in on Axceligent in 2013, Javed decided to focus completely on building the platform. He quit his lucrative job and rented a small, 264-square-foot office while they began looking for clients. He admits this was a risky way to go about it.
“The parents were saying, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’” laughs Javed.
Shiv was a bit more careful about throwing her hat in the ring at first.
“I’m the kind of person who needs to know where funds are going to come from,” she says. “For the first nine months, I was working two jobs. I’d work nine to five and then work at Axceligent in the evening. Those times were pretty exciting and challenging both mentally and physically. Finally, I realized this is what I needed to do, so I quit my job and joined too.”
Besides Javed and Shiv, there were two other team members when they started the business. One was a young graduate engineer named Keng with a double degree in commerce who became their “products and solutions guy.” They also had a business developer named Sanjev who joined the company after working with Dell. The small team held them for a while, but as contracts grew they had to build these numbers quickly.
“We started with four people and then we realized the focus needed to be on our tech team,” says Javed. “Unfortunately, we frequently received applications that didn’t quite meet our standards. We used to do ten to fifteen interviews daily. Once we finally started finding some good team members we went from four to 18 people within eight months.”
“We went through a crazy hiring phase,” says Shiv. “Hiring for operations in foreign countries and across roles. It’s difficult because you need to know if you are hiring dependable staff while building a roadmap of where you want to go.”
Today, Axceligent has grown to a remote team of roughly 22 people.
“We were fortunate to have some great team members from all over the world,” says Javed. “People from India, Bangladesh, Russia, Iran, and Syria.”
A huge part of Javed and Shiv’s roadmap is their company culture. They worked hard to create a Silicon Valley-style work culture at a time when few in Malaysia knew about it.
“We wanted to have an open-office concept which was not common in Malaysia when we started,” says Javed. “You don’t own your table, you don’t own your chair. You call people by their names. There is no calling your boss sir.”
They think they’ve done a good job of creating the culture they wanted at Axceligent. One where people aren’t afraid to speak up if they think there is a better way to do things.
“It’s an amazing culture because if I’m up there talking nonsense a junior developer is not afraid to tell me that,” Javed adds.
Since stabilizing relations with their clients, Javed and Shiv have added some new businesses to the Planally portfolio. One that reached out soon after their expansion was a large, publicly-listed construction group.
“There was a new anti-bribery law and the chief compliance officer wanted to make sure each subsidiary complied with that,” says Javed. “We set up the whole process but it took a while to implement because it was a pen and paper operation before that.”
The most recent business added to Planally was the third-largest university in Malaysia boasting a 4,000-strong research team. Organizations would frequently give the university research grants, but when the organizations asked where the money went, the university had no way of showing it. Planally was brought on to make the disbursement of grant funds more transparent. Things were growing quickly for Axceligent.
On March 17, 2019, Malaysia went into what ended up being a 500-day lockdown. The government told the public it could last anywhere from a month to two years. While the news was disheartening, Javed and Shiv realized this was going to be a defining moment for their business. They started laying the groundwork for expanding their SaaS worldwide.
“During the pandemic, we got even busier. We plan to expand our reach in Malaysia and Southeast Asia. In 2019 we started looking at other countries like Pakistan,” says Javed. “I was shocked at the number of VCs over there.”
Who Are These VCs I Keep Hearing About?
For Shiv and Javed, seeking out venture capital never crossed their minds.
“This is a bit embarrassing, but I had never even heard of a VC until this year,” says Javed. “In 2020, TechCrunch was publishing all this stuff about VC so three months ago I asked Shiv what it was.”
That’s not to say Axceligent didn’t have funding offers. As mentioned earlier, many entities in Malaysia were aware of the capital they were bringing in.
“We had bankers frequently come by and ask us to take out a loan,” says Javed. “We’d look at the rates and say, ‘No, we’re fine right now.’ We never applied for government grants either.”
However, three months ago, after seeing so much news about Venture Capital, Javed and Shiv did shop around for a VC. After two and half weeks they realized it wasn’t for them.
“On our first application, we immediately got selected to join a VC ‘speed dating’ session. Soon after, they made an offer, but we declined,” says Javed. “The first conversation we had with this group was a timed story. They said ‘times up,’ after three minutes. It seemed very strange to us that they didn’t want to hear the whole story of a company they were investing in.”
A native to the financial world, Shiv had been aware of venture capital – if not specific players – for some time. However, she is very careful about giving away company equity.
“Javed was intrigued with this idea. I was never very into it,” she says. “I didn’t want to give equity. We actually found the VCs a bit offensive when we met them. Many of them seem to think that because they have deep pockets they don’t need to bring anything to the table. They would offer us 10 percent of what we wanted. If I was going to marry you I’d like to know if you are in it for the long run.”
She believes that if a VC only has money to offer then they should have a clear exit plan. If not, they should have something of equal value to offer besides some extra cash flow.
“We’d ask them what other companies they’d worked with and where they are now,” Shiv says. “Funnily enough, only one of them had experience in growing tech companies and few had run a business of their own.”
“I Couldn’t Imagine Doing it Again”
As two individuals with large amounts of experience in tech, finance, and entrepreneurship, Shiv and Javed have quite a bit of advice for other founders.
“My first piece of advice would be to believe in what you’re working on and don’t be scared,” says Javed. “That means making sure you are the best person to sell your product. I tell people if you can’t convince someone to buy your platform, don’t expect to hire a sales team that can do the same for you.”
And, interestingly, Javed isn’t sure he’d do a startup again if he had the choice.
“I couldn’t imagine doing all this all over again. It takes a ton of time and energy,” he says.
Shiv believes the most important thing for new founders is to emphasize doing things right the first time.
“You’ll often get approached for work you know you can’t deliver. Don’t always say yes.”
“I think making it during the first couple of years is critical for everyone. You’re navigating new waters every single time,” she says. “Remember to keep your overhead low. You’ll often get approached for work you know you can’t deliver. Don’t always say yes. Reputational risk is very hard to salvage when you’re starting up. We’ve had to refuse work when we didn’t have the capacity to do it. Don’t bite off more than you can chew.”
As the world plunges headfirst into the digital age, the 20th century’s pillars of progress have begun to lag due to their size and bureaucracy. Javed and Shiv’s story shows that many of them realize that in the 21st century, their market share is on the line, and they must do what it takes to keep it – and that may be a big opportunity for future businesses.
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