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Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Meet Sameer Sharma, founder of Uengage — a platform to provide level playing field to local businesses

From Uncle Jacks, Katani Sweets, Bhena Da Dhabha, Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf to Canadian Pizza, Tossin Pizza, Petu Pankaj, Chitkara University, Uengage has 1,000 plus local businesses as its clients.

Written by Jaskiran Kapoor | Chandigarh |
Updated: February 12, 2022 10:05:48 pm
Tricity’s very own exclusive deals website, Trideal, was acquired by Paytm’s Littleapp in 2015 and merged with Nearby, another deals platform acquired by Paytm in 2017.

If you ever happen to take a sneak peek into the playbook of Sameer Sharma, you’ll know how he has cracked the code to sustainable success in his 14-year long career.

There is no overnight success and staying connected to the roots always helps. But the one thing that takes centrestage is “being local”. With the world hailing the hyperlocal business model as the next big thing, Sharma smiles — he had already harnessed the power of local with his first start-up Trideal in the Tricity way back in 2012.

Tricity’s very own exclusive deals website, Trideal, was acquired by Paytm’s Littleapp in 2015 and merged with Nearby, another deals platform acquired by Paytm in 2017.

After his stint as the vice-president, marketing, at Littleapp, Bengaluru and heading a team under Paytm mall, Noida, Sharma relocated to Chandigarh for his second start up innings and co-founded Shoutlo, a local content and deals discovery platform with his wife Abhilasha Sidana, and Uengage, a SaaS (software as a service) company that builds technology for small-and-medium businesses.

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His mission of staying hyperlocal, curating best deals and recommendations in the online to offline space and empowering the local consumer business has been a pathbreaking model in the Tricity.

With the sole purpose of making something from and for this region, Sharma bootstrapped his second start-up Uengage in 2018. A B2B technology company, it makes no code commission-free apps for a monthly subscription for local consumer business.

But why make exclusive apps for the F&B industry when there are giants like Zomato and Swiggy? “Why give unimaginable growing power to just two players? Zomato has a 10 crore customer base, how does it impact your business? You are not going to order a biryani from Hyderabad, you will order from a local, nearby vendor!”

Apps like Zomato and Swiggy came in in 2015 at a 5 per cent commission. “We told merchants the commissions will shoot up, some believed, some shrugged it off. It has shot up to 28 per cent now and if they decide to merge in the future, it will cross 35 per cent. It’s a huge ask for restaurant owners, who have high expenses, low revenue and zero access to customer data.”

Post-Covid, local businesses want to increase their digital footprint, especially in tier 2 and 3 cities but high costs listed by IT companies, that too in dollars, discourage them from developing their own technology. “It’s a problem Uengage is solving – from app, website, delivery management, SMS integration to digital marketing and payment gateway integration and customer data, we are providing the entire ammo, thereby helping them increase their reach, reduce wastage and strengthen their brand,” Sharma said.

Their success stories are playing out — La Pinoz Pizza, a homegrown brand today has 1.8 million downloads across 300 outlets, 27 per cent of its revenue comes from commission-free apps. From Uncle Jacks, Katani Sweets, Bhena Da Dhabha, Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf to Canadian Pizza, Tossin Pizza, Petu Pankaj, Chitkara University, Uengage has 1,000 plus local businesses as its clients.

“Our collective aim is to create wealth and value on a long-term basis to be invested in a problem-solving model and to build a sustainable revenue stream,” Sharma said.

Sharma has a carefree comforting memory of his hometown Dinanagar in Gurdaspur and the charm of Chandigarh that acts as a magnet for the 36-year-old, who carries with him an earthy connection, sound sensibility, humility and values of educationist parents.

“I belong to a middle-class family whose sole purpose in life was to provide quality education to their children,” Sharma said, who did his B Tech in Computer Science in 2003 from Chitkara. “That was the moment I realised Chandigarh is the city I want to be in,” he said.

Although a computer science engineer, he gave Infosys and Tech Mahindra a miss because he did not want to do coding and joined HCL in Noida.

One of the reasons he took up the job was to pay off the education loan and avoid coding. However, in a turn of events, HCL asked him to code. The process of self-learning began, his interest in coding developed and HCL deployed him on site in Bay Area, California in 2008. Facebook, Android, Apple, there was a strong internet culture there and it spiked his appetite for technology.

At 23, Sharma had two stints in the USA, saved, paid off the loan, and decided to give in to his entrepreneurial streak. In 2011, he quit HCL and registered his start-up, a deals platform called DitchMRP, in Delhi.

But why deals? “Because a 24-year-old youth is aspirational, he/she wants to go out but also save money. So why not save it for them?” Consumer motivation he knew but merchant’s he decoded much later. “Restaurants have lean hours, peak times, seasons, rentals, bills, perishable items – merchants have a stronger reason to be in the deal.”

Around the same time, his mentors Dr Ashok Chitkara and Mohit Chitkara were exploring a similar concept as Sharma and asked him to join forces. Two more founders — Kaushik Mukherjee and Kabir Khanna — came on board and his unwavering faith in the Chitkaras made Sharma join unquestioningly. In the start of 2012, Trideal began its business.

Within the first six months, the two co-founders realized this won’t work and exited. Left with a four-member team, Sharma decided to give it a go. The next six months were critical. “From just writing the code, I was given an entire business to run. There were multiple challenges and sleepless nights,” he said but his optimistic and friendly nature helped and Trideal registered phenomenal growth.

Sharma took Trideal to another level by becoming one of the very first mobile apps in the city. “We even came out with a local Trideal e-wallet and recharge to speed up payments and build trust with customers.”

Highs & Lows: The biggest high was when Paytm acquired Trideal but the biggest low was when it was merged with Littleapp and Nearby and his company got dissolved. Working on Punjab government’s COVA essential delivery app pro bono during Covid was gratifying.

Secret Sauce: The ability to take risks, to learn, to help but Sharma’s key differentiator has always been “hyperlocal”. “We survived because it was never a tech play for us. It was a merchant-relation play. The exclusivity of who is working with you, who has a deal with you,” he said.

Looking Ahead: To encourage the entrepreneurial spirit among the youth and open Uengage offices in Punjab. “We need to make our small cities self-sufficient and stop this wealth erosion of brains and money.” In Chandigarh, less traffic and more digitisation is the wish.

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