Founded in 1999, Flatworld has its headquarters in Bangalore, the home of business offshore outsourcing processes in India.
The inspiration behind their name is explained by Thomas Freidman in his book, “The world is flat”. It is not a throwback to the dark ages but instead he explains that all the knowledge centers around the world are now easily accessible to each other, as they would, if the world were flat.
Flatworld has over a decade of experience in business process outsourcing and is a legal presence in New York. They provide business outsourcing solutions for different industry related processes such as healthcare, logistics, engineering, insurance, finance and mortgage.
Flatworld operates via their website Outsource2india.com. catches up with David Antony, CEO – Business Solution at Flatworld for a glimpse into the workings of his venture.
Kindly give our readers an introduction to your business.
Flatworld Solutions initially set up operations in 1999; but we came to be known as Flatworld Solutions in 2006. We started as a technology company. The objective was to provide business solutions to customers, and when I say “business solutions”, it’s a little vast, but basically, looking at customers’ businesses, their processes, optimizing the businesses, bringing in higher efficiencies, and increasing productivity. Initially, we developed a lot of applications, right from simple websites to more complex business applications, workflow applications which customers were able to use as an integral part of their business.
Subsequent to that, based on request from our customers and their needs, we also ventured into other areas, to enable our customers to further enhance the efficiencies and productivities within their businesses. A lot of our customers came to us looking for solutions which would enable them to ramp up in very short timelines. There were other customers who came to us as their businesses were expanding and getting more critical, they wanted solutions which would give them disaster recovery solutions – a backup of their current operations that they had.
We built specific teams which would address specific customer needs. We realized early on that geography has its own advantages. For instance, Bangalore, India is a viable zone, especially if you’re looking at technology solutions which the city is well known for along with call center solutions.
We recognized the advantages accessible at various locations. A lot of our customers in the US were seeking solutions in Spanish, reason being a large number of their existing customers hailing from Spain. Some customers preferred solutions near-shore. So we set up a lot of operations in other parts of the world. For instance, we have large operations in South America, where we provide Spanish-based solutions and we also set up centers in places like Grenada. The advantage at Grenada was the backing of people with a Spanish base along with the near-shore advantage. Plus, in a place like Grenada, the attrition levels are pretty low because unemployment is high and therefore you also have a stable workforce. So, like I mentioned earlier, we ventured beyond borders, and set up multiple delivery centers across the globe. Currently we have delivery centers which operate in multiple Indian cities like Bangalore, Chennai, Coimbatore, Pondicherry, Chandigarh, etc. We also set up delivery centers in places like Philippines, Kenya, Grenada, several places in South America, including Peru, Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay, Colombia, and Argentina. This model has proved to be a two-way success formula and this is one of the reasons why we also chose to call ourselves “Flatworld Solutions”. Even in terms of the delivery centers, we are able to provide solutions to our customers, being agnostic of the geography, we can say, “This kind of requirement is best serviced out of this particular location”. We also execute mission critical operations; cater to redundancy, where the same work can be executed not only in two different cities within the same country, but also in two different continents. We currently tend to customers in India and Grenada for similar solutions, which gives them the redundancy they require.
So that’s a quick overview of how we began our operations, and how we started addressed multiple area based services based on customers’ requirements to provide solutions – not just technology solutions, but also contact center solutions where we help them with call center processes, customer service, technical help desk, etc. We carry out a large volume of low-end clerical work like data entry along with complex ones like mortgage processing, customs brokerage for Canadian customs brokers.
Kindly give us a brief description about yourself
I’ve been one of the key people who’ve been involved in Flatworld Solutions right from the start when we started Flatworld Solutions. I graduated with a degree in Electronics, but I’ve been involved with services from way back in 1991. I started with handling strategic accounts for different kinds of customers. I’ve worked in India, the Middle East, and now I’m currently based in the US. But all along I’ve been quite involved with providing different customer services. I’ve been involved with technological solutions as well as BPO services, including call centers, data related work, bookkeeping services, etc.
One of the advantages of having a good understanding of technology and services under it, it helps with looking at customers’ requirements and understand the processes that they have; and then being able to approach it from a technological perspective while being able to apply manual intervention. This is something that has always stimulated me, looking at a business problem and evolving a solution that caters to that. While setting up operations and delivery centers across the globe, I’ve travelled to most of these locations and I’ve had the privilege to interact with people of different cultures, setting up operations in multiple locations.
So far we’ve successfully been able to deliver to customers. And we’ve done this in multiple areas. For instance, we worked with some large logistic companies wherein the customer was initially skeptical, yet we’ve delivered. And not only did we execute it well, but we were able to exceed the production and quality benchmarks that the customer had for their own internal team, and they were quite delighted by the results.
We also been able to accomplish the same in a relatively short time span in other areas where the processes were quite complex and transition them effectively, scale up and provide the customer substantial advantages, both in terms of bringing down their cost of operations, increasing efficiencies, shortening the turnaround time for the processes.
What ignited the spark in you to (start a new business venture) or (to make significant changes in an existing business)? How did the idea for your business come about?
Interestingly, the way we went about our business was a little bit different. We did not come up with a brilliant idea, thinking lets go about developing this solution in this particular manner, marketing it and consequently making it a success.
The very idea of the business, the concept was completely customer-driven right from the start. We started as a technology company, primarily because Bangalore was the right place where we could get excellent resources and technology. Bangalore was known world over as an outsourcing hub for providing technology related solutions. So, that’s what we started off with.
We evolved our service offerings, and it was completely market-driven, completely driven by the customer. We ventured into areas where customer needs remained unfulfilled with what was accessible to them in the market at that point in time.
So we didn’t have to develop a solution and aggressively market it, because we were providing solutions and trying to identify areas where customers had issues. I would say, another difference was, we did this at a time when most companies were trying to narrow their focus, choose a particular area, a very small niche, and they all were striving to be the best in that particular niche. We accomplished this without diluting or spreading ourselves too thin was by setting up every service line as an independent profit center. Each of these service areas have their own service head, delivery head and sales head. That’s how we maintain the focus and depth required in each of these services.
Other approaches we took were, we acquired companies which were really good in a particular area, where they had excellent service capability, at other times, we established strategic partnerships with companies in areas that they were really good at, and we were able to then provide services and solutions to our customer in that area. The reason why outsourcing fails is not because the delivery team is not capable enough to pull off the job, it is due communication issues, lack of understanding customer expectation what the customer wants to accomplish or what the business needs, lack of managing the entire thing, putting processes and systems in place, the adequate checks and balances, cultural related issues, etc. These are the reasons why most of these projects fail and something we had mastered over a period of time.
How important have good employees been to your success?
Employees are extremely critical, especially when you’re looking at key roles. Now I would look at this in two ways. Especially when you’re providing services, one of the challenges you have is, how can you make the service quality independent of who’s doing the work. Consider this – you have an excellent employee on a particular task and he does a fantastic job, the customer’s extremely happy, and for whatever reason that employee either leaves or he’s transferred to another section. In the given scenario the customer’s experience drops because the new employee is not providing the same service. The way that we address that is by systems and processes. If you have a good process in place, where each task is broken down to specific subtasks, and by completing each of those subtasks appropriately you’re able to deliver the service effectively. That is the way you can ensure that your final delivery to the customer is not completely dependent on the person doing it, provided the person has a certain level of ability and skill which you can identify and document, you’re able to use that person provide excellent service to the customer.
On the other hand, when you look at the key people in the organization, especially the customer-facing people, the people who play key roles in transition, in other areas, it is extremely important that you have people that can think on their feet, people who can relate to customer requirements, people who are creative, who can look at a problem and think out of the box in terms of how they can solve the problem, and giving these people the room that they need, the autonomy that they need to make decisions would have a positive impact for customers.
So, the bottom line is, you need systems and processes in place, but if you don’t have the right people in those roles it’s going to be a disaster.
How do you generate new ideas?
It could come from a combination of things, like you’re reading something; you look at a business need, and that inspires a new idea in you. Sometimes necessity is the mother of invention where you’re forced into a situation where a customer has a problem, and you’re looking for ways to address it. Some of it would come from people who are directly in touch with the customer, where they’re doing it in a particular way and they realize if we do it slightly differently, or if we can implement something which can address this particular issue then it’s going to be far more productive. Especially when you’re looking at learning’s from one industry which you apply to another industry, you’d be surprised that somehow advances in one service area are not really influencing another service area. And because we provide multiple services, we are really able to leverage this.
So, we’ve seen that in different areas, like we’ve also seen in logistics companies, it’s surprising that a lot of these companies, they have good IT systems, but then many of those systems are so antiquated. When you say new ideas, a lot of these ideas need not necessarily be a new invention, or a new breakthrough in science and technology, it could be as simple as taking something which exists and applying it in a new area. Because our end objective as an organization is not to be a company that invents new things, but to see how we can improve business efficiencies for our customers, and solve their business problems. All ideas and innovations are channeled towards that objective.
What’s the best way to achieve long-term success?
There are some ways which are not the advisable to achieve long-term success; we find that these fads don’t last for too long.
One of the things is being the lowest cost provider of a particular service. If I can give the customer the same service at a very low price then I can be very successful. That lasts for some time, but you pretty quickly realize that after a certain point, if you want to provide a certain quality, a certain standard of service, it’s almost impossible to provide being the lowest cost provider of it.
Another one is overpromising the customer. I know quite often it’s very tempting to tell the customer you can do anything and everything under the sun, you can solve their problem irrespective of what their problem is, and a lot of it may not be realistic. I do believe that any problem, if you can throw enough time at it and enough funding at it, it’s a matter of time before you crack it. But then that may not be practical in many situations. So, that’s definitely not that way forward.
It’s extremely important that you can develop systems and processes around anything that you take up. Because you can start off by doing a job very well, but as it scales, if you don’t have systems and processes in place, you’re going to start having problems with quality, with turnaround time, with managing it, with all kinds of things, which you may not have when you have a small team in place. So it’s extremely important that whatever you take up, you’re looking at, “How do I scale this without losing any of the efficiencies and any of the quality parameters?”
The other thing is to always look at what is the customer’s business objective. The idea is not just about doing what you’re doing well, but looking at what really matters for the customer. Let’s say, for example, if a task typically takes about an hour to do and if I can complete it in five minutes, it’s fantastic, it’s brilliant. But the question is, does that make any difference to the customer? Does that have a business impact for the customer? And if it doesn’t, and you’re spending all your time and resources in trying to do it faster, you are creating efficiencies, but there may not be any tangible benefit to the customer. And remember, a customer is not going to want to pay for something where he does not get something back in return.
So it’s always important to look at what matters for the customer, what would make the customer more successful, and then see how you can assist in that. Because if you can make your customer successful, believe me, you have a customer for life. So it’s important to identify what’s important for him to be successful and see how you can enable that for him.
Where did your organization’s funding/capital come from and how did you go about getting it? How did you obtain investors for your venture?
Interestingly, at least until this point in time, we’ve been a company that’s been completely self-funded. We’ve not really sought external funding. That might be something which comes up at some point as we’re looking at rapid scale-up. But so far, because of the model we’ve set up the company in, and the way we’ve been growing, it’s been organic growth, it’s been completely self-funded.
How do you build a successful customer base?
The key is, when you start off with customers, remember that a single unhappy customer can do a lot of damage. So it’s important that you only accept customers where you believe you can meet their expectations, you believe you can deliver what the customer wants. And then once you’ve done that and once you start delighting customers, you’d be surprised how ready they are to recommend you, and sometimes even to their competitors because you have that goodwill with them, provided they are not in direct competition with the other company, and they don’t see you providing services to their competition, something that will bring their business down, they would be more than happy to act as a reference to you. And typically, a customer who comes in as a referral is easier to convert, and also they tend to be there for a longer period of time.
How did you decide on the location for your business?
Like I mentioned, we started off in Bangalore, India, because we started off providing technology solutions, and the initial team of founders, all of us were in Bangalore and from Bangalore. But one thing that we did was we didn’t limit ourselves just to Bangalore. Like I mentioned, we were looking at the business, we were looking at our customers’ business needs, and we didn’t limit ourselves to any geography, which is why we have offices across the globe, delivery centers across the globe, and we’re not close to any geography, whatever the geography may be, provided we can see specific benefits and advantages in setting up a deliver center there.
How do you go about marketing your business? What has been your most successful form of marketing?
In terms of marketing our business, one of the things that we did when we started off as an organization was, we were a pretty small organization, we didn’t have access to a lot of resources; we didn’t really have investment from individual investors, or a lot of seed money to start off with. But that didn’t mean that we were very restrictive about our dreams, because we wanted to be a global company, we wanted to be able to reach out to all customers across the globe. So the challenge was how do you do that when you can’t really afford to set up sales teams across the globe? So the only avenue which was open to us at that point in time, or what we could think of, by which we could accomplish this, was to see how we could leverage the internet for our business, to be able to market our business. Over a period of time, we have done reasonably well at that because we’ve been able to attract a large customer base from across the globe. We have customers all across North America, Europe, Australia, the Middle East. We have customers across the globe, and across multiple areas, across multiple segments. And that’s worked out pretty well for us.
In addition to that, we are focusing more on how we can get more customers through referrals from existing customers, to being able to address other needs that existing customers have, and we’re trying to see how we can grow the business by looking at those aspects.
What kind of culture exists in your organization? How did you establish this tone and why did you institute this particular type of culture?
In terms of culture, one of the things we strive to provide is an environment that nurtures, and environment which promotes people to think for themselves and act. We want people to think out of the box, we want people to be innovative in what they do. In fact, one of the nice things is, a lot of our people who have worked in this organization have gone on to be entrepreneurs themselves, and many of them are still associated with our company. And I think the reason for that is that they found that they had the freedom to think out of the box, to be able to own the processes, the customers that they work with. And we try to encourage them to look at it as their own business, their own company. And we encourage people coming up with ideas. If someone comes up with an idea that makes sense, we would be more than happy to fund it. In fact, a lot of our services grew that way, where it came in based on a business needs that an employee identified for a particular customer, and then based on that we went and we built it and grew that into a service.
So it’s that kind of an environment that we nurture. Not just a place that is fun to be at, where people enjoy coming to work, but also an environment that kind of nurtures entrepreneurship, where we tell them, “Here is a place where you can act like an entrepreneur without risking your own money.”
How do you define success?
If you look at success, I know that each one of us has different perspectives on it; it’s easy to look at success where you have a business that is making a lot of money, or you as an individual making a lot of money, being able to afford all that you need and all that you want, having a nice home. Quite often a lot of these things are what’s associated to someone being successful.
But I think success is about accomplishing what you really set out to do, irrespective of what it is. For example, there could be someone who is working hard, living in a rural environment, not really having access to a lot of the luxuries in life and all of that, but he’s pursuing a goal, for example, let’s say, ensuring that there is clean drinking water for a community somewhere. And I would say that when he accomplishes that, he is just as, if not more successful than somebody who has made a million dollars or living in a million dollar home.
Success is relative, and it is not something that is necessarily well judged by someone who doesn’t see the goal. Because there are a lot of people who have succeeded in business, as in make a lot of profits in business, do well for themselves otherwise, earn a lot of money, but are extremely dissatisfied, extremely unhappy. So I wouldn’t say that they’ve been successful because if they’ve achieved something they’ve set out to achieve and it doesn’t give them the gratification they were looking for, then I don’t know if you can call that success.
Another thing I would like to add about success is, if you look at the people who’ve been truly successful, in terms of people who’ve achieved a lot, it’s not about gratification of what you want, it’s about how you can do the maximum good to those around you. Because, believe me, a lot of things are a lot more gratifying when you can share it, rather than hoard it. If you look at Warren Buffet now, apparently, he’s given away 90% of what he has. Now, if his joy and contentment came from having more and recieving more, then that doesn’t make sense at all. And here you’re talking about a guy who’s spent a lot of his life accumulating a huge amount of wealth. So I think that gives us an inkling into, it’s not about how much you have and how much you can hoard, and how much you can collect, but what is it that you can do to benefit for the maximum good of the maximum people around you.