In this series, we’re doing deep-dive interviews with the founding team building RootFi. In our second edition, get to know our Co-Founder and CTO, Parth Shah and gain insight into the start-up journey and building a Unified API.
Rhea: Can you tell me a little bit about your background and education?
Parth: Sure. So, I grew up in Bangalore and attended an international school called Indus, where I primarily focused on the sciences and completed the IB curriculum. In high school, I taught myself computer science because I found it more interesting than the way my friends were learning it in school. One of my math tutors taught me to code as part of a math project, and I found it very intuitive and loved the idea of creating something from nothing.
I continued tinkering on my own and became confident that computer science was what I wanted to study in college. At the University of Michigan, I pursued computer science engineering with a minor in entrepreneurship. Those four years were intense. I learned the basic theory in the first couple of years and expanded my knowledge with electives.
After graduation, I returned to Bangalore because I wanted to be a part of a startup. Although I could have joined a startup in the US, visa problems made it difficult. I started doing some side projects with friends and family and eventually joined RootFi, where my journey began.
Rhea: Great. How long have you known you've wanted to pursue entrepreneurship? What was the motivation behind wanting to be an entrepreneur?
Parth: Yeah, I guess I've always known. Growing up, I read stories about Apple, and Steve Jobs became one of my idols among many different tech entrepreneurs. The idea of not working for someone else played a part in my desire to become an entrepreneur. But more importantly, Steve Jobs' line to "make a dent in the universe" always inspired me. So, from a pretty young age, probably middle school, I knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur.
Rhea: Could you tell me a little bit more about the first startups you were part of before RootFi?
Parth: Sure. The first startup was actually a VR company inspired by Google Cardboards. With more and more people in India owning smartphones and the easy setup of VR systems, I wanted to explore this idea. All you need is a cardboard box to put your phone in and you can experience VR.
The goal was to provide a concert-like experience for people who couldn't afford to attend expensive concerts in person. One member of our team would attend these concerts with a 360 camera in the front row, holding the camera up so millions could enjoy the concerts. However, things didn't work out due to the high cost and lack of adoption of VR headsets.
Other founded ventures included my dad's drone company, Yelloskye, another was a co-working space called Gocoworks, and The Only Indian Store, which aimed to create a homegrown Indian Amazon for small sellers by bringing together a group of Indian sellers.
Rhea: Nice. And can you tell me a little bit about the lessons that you learned that you were able to carry forward?
Parth: Yeah, so the biggest thing I learned as the tech person was to always keep your customer in mind. Effectively selling to your target customers was the biggest thing because the platform was often built, and the tech was ready, but it was difficult to sell and generate revenue.
So doing your market research is the essential first step. Define your customer segment, know what your customer actually wants, and engage with them. This is easier if you are your own customer in a B2C business. But if you're not, then acknowledging that, actually getting to know your customers before building out a system is vital.
Lastly, building MVPs quickly is crucial. If you can build something quick for your customer, then you can learn from your mistakes and iterate rapidly based on feedback.
Rhea: Very interesting. So going back to the early days of RootFi, how did you end up meeting the co-founders, Ishwar and Sidharth?
Parth: It happened by chance through LinkedIn, thanks to one of our mutual friends from high school. Ishwar and Sidharth told all their friends they were looking for a tech co-founder.
So our mutual friend reached out to me on LinkedIn and we got a call. From that first conversation, we knew it was a perfect fit. The next day, I joined the office, it was a perfect fit because we brought our different areas of expertise together and shared the same business principles.
Rhea: That's great. When did you identify API integrations to be a problem that needed solving and how ready were you to create that solution?
Parth: Yeah, this problem came from the first product that we built out— a loan management system, where we were building an underwriting engine for customers. We noticed that getting data from accounting platforms was a challenge our customers needed to solve.
We realised that across different accounting platforms, there was no unified way or easy way to get all this data without building exact connections. And then diving more into that problem, we realised that API integrations for B2B generally are a problem. So we started very simply by building out a Zoho Books integration, seeing how it works, and talking to our customers about it. It turned out that this was a much-needed solution, and we have been building on it ever since.
Rhea: So why is it so hard to build B2B API integrations?
Parth: The biggest hurdle is every accounting platform has its own API integration. So each software has its own formats in the way that they expose the APIs and the way that they store their data.
There's really no industry consensus on how to create a general format for all the companies in the industry. So in that case, every time you have to build integration, you have to start from scratch from day zero and do the entire process for each integration.
Rhea: And is there anything uniquely challenging when it comes to accounting integrations specifically?
Parth: Yeah, yeah, so accounting platforms are very privacy-focused, many of them are on-premises solutions like Tally, for example, which is the biggest one now here in India and very big in the rest of the world as well. Tally is a 30-year-old company that's completely on-premise based and they allow people to fully customise the product in the way they want to use it.
So that is a huge challenge because then we essentially create a way to understand this custom data for everyone. Analysing data is of course very difficult in accounting, especially because everyone has different ways of using the set accounting methods, like having different account names, types, and journal entries. The way they organise it is different for every customer, so you can imagine how challenging it would be to set up an integration.
Rhea: Got it. And so then how familiar were you personally with accounting and finance prior to RootFi?
Parth: Haha, not at all. I was only involved in technology and big tech things like VR and AI. And I was a bit involved in crypto, specifically the DeFi ecosystem. Ishwar was primarily the one who was into finance and he brought up the whole team in that segment and now we're all very excited.
Rhea: All right, could you tell me a little bit about either the tech stack you used to build RootFi or the intuition behind choosing said tech stack?
So that way that allowed us to iterate very quickly and basically have a very stable code base over time as we prioritise new features.
Rhea: Got it. Was there any other language that you were considering that you decided not to and why?
Parth: There are industry favourites out there. Like, there's Go and C++. There are a bunch of other back-end system languages. But again, we thought that the amount of time it takes to learn and become an expert in those languages is not worth the benefits that it gives you.
Rhea: Okay, great. And looking back at how you've built RootFi if you could go back in time, is there anything you change? And based on that, do you have advice for aspiring developers and entrepreneurs?
Parth: Yeah. I’d tell them this— don't try to build out the entire product from day one. We tried that in the LMS for a while, thinking that we could build any solution to house any kind of loan, and thinking we'd build like, a low-code tool from day one. But until you know the market, until you know what customers actually want, it's very difficult to account for all the nuances. So I would suggest building prototypes and MVPs fast, getting them out there and then iterating on them. Build it in a way that allows for change and breakage, and avoid building foundations that can't be altered from day one.
The focus should be on getting the product into the hands of customers, getting them to pay for it, and growing from there.
Rhea: Got it. Very interesting. So far, have you seen any limitations to the product you've built and how do you plan on addressing them?
Parth: Yeah, to my previous point right? It's important to build an MVP quickly and get it to market. It's better to approach scalability with a healthy dose of scepticism until the product has been battle-tested. Going from ten customers to a thousand, and eventually millions, presents challenges that every company must face as they scale up.
The tech stack may have to change, and we may have to put effort into designing a robust system at scale but being on the cloud mitigates many of these issues in today's world.
Rhea: All right, great. So what would you say is the most commonly held misconception about API integrations?
Parth: People often assume that using an API is as simple as making a single call with a token and receiving the data in return. However, building a reliable system that can handle multiple vendors and APIs is much more complex than that.
Rhea: I see. Great. Moving to you as a leader within RootFi, how do you motivate your team of developers? And what kind of engineering culture are you?
Parth: Yeah, I instil the engineering values I have into all our team members and into our company in general; which are a passion for learning, trying out new technologies and building new systems. So it's the idea of basically creating value out of nothing, not just achieving the end goal, but it's about the process of doing it. And while working on a project, we grow the company, the IP and the product. We're also growing as individuals. And so I think that a growth mindset is as important for team members to have as it is also for growing the company. That's a great aspect to look out for.
Rhea: So then is that kind of the personality that you look for when you're hiring an engineer?
Parth: Exactly, that's exactly it. When we look for engineers, we look for people who have done projects on their own. Because building something on your own, from scratch, is a whole journey. It develops a mindset where you have to ideate, think of how to tackle a problem, learn, research how to solve it, and then actually do it, fail, try different approaches and finally create something. So, yeah, we definitely look for people who can take up that ownership of projects, who've done something end to end and then to enable that.
One of the things we do while hiring is a coding test. We're not just looking for the solution to a coding problem. We're looking at their ability to understand, approach, explain and analyse the whole problem.
Rhea: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. How would you say your role as a co-founder has changed over the past few years?
Parth: Definitely! When we were a very small team, I was the only one coding, but at that point, we just wanted to get something out there. Once we hired more developers, we began pair programming, working in groups of two to help each other with bugs. Pair programming is a great engineering practice.
As we built our foundation and developed our product, my role changed again. I began to architect and design high-level ideas, while the other engineers built the product. Whenever there’s a bug, we discuss it as a team and develop different solutions.
Now, with a well-established team and workflow, I am more involved in sales, marketing, and automating those processes with technology.
Rhea: Nice. That sounds like a very interesting journey to have as a co-founder. Now, going back to how you feel about the tech space in general, how do you feel about new trends like blockchain and AI? Do you feel pressure to keep up with every trend?
Parth: Not at all. There is no pressure, in fact, there is enthusiasm.
Since college, I have been interested in blockchain off and on. I have not been consistent, but I always keep tabs on what is trending. Recently, new AI breakthroughs like GPT are completely mind-blowing to me. So it makes sense for us to explore these new technologies in our company but never feel pressured to immediately jump into it. As long as we know what is happening out there, I think we can always improve our product by using these technologies when appropriate.
Rhea: That’s great. What's the most valuable lesson you've learned so far?
Parth: The most valuable lesson— Building a company is hard. Building a successful company is not as easy as "build the product and the customers will come." There's a famous Silicon Valley quote that says exactly that, right? It suggests that all you need to do is focus on building the product and the customers will come.
However, I would argue that it's not entirely true. Our company, for instance, doesn't embrace the stereotypical Silicon Valley mindset of raising millions of dollars, burning through cash, and accepting losses for a decade or more. Instead, we have built a different culture that I really appreciate.
Rhea: Was that something you were kind of captivated by before?
Parth: Yeah, I used to think that the glamour and hype surrounding the tech world was the whole story. But I've come to realise that's not the only mode that exists in the tech sphere of startups. There are other sustainable ways a startup can grow and thrive.
Building every segment of the company is definitely a challenge. One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned is understanding how many divisions, responsibilities, and roles are involved in putting together a successful company.
Rhea: RootFi works with sensitive business financial data. What are your thoughts on data security and privacy?
Parth: The number of security breaches and hacks in the news is mind-boggling, especially when it's the biggest companies with sensitive data that get hacked. As we deal with financial data, security and privacy are paramount concerns for us. To ensure best practices, we follow guidelines established by security experts. If we encounter something unfamiliar, we easily research, seek a second opinion, or consult with experts. We prioritise security even if it requires additional time and effort, as cutting corners in this area could have serious implications in the future.
Rhea: So would you say that's the aspect where RootFi is not a lean startup?
Parth: Yes, 100%. I think companies tend to prioritise speed and effort, leading them to cut corners when it comes to security. However, at RootFi, we prioritise maintaining the highest level of security, especially through our engineering culture.
Rhea: All right, great. Do you have any else you'd like to share with anyone that might be reading this interview?
Parth: If you're interested in our work and our way of working, reach out to us and join the team. We promise it will be a fun journey. Also, make sure to follow our LinkedIn page for more updates on our RootFi journey.
Rhea: All right, great. Thank you so much.
Parth: Thank you.