Paths to peaks

Paths to peaks: University dropout lands $1.5m in funding

Viren Shetty, 24, left university to run an e-commerce startup that helps online retailers convert casual browsers to actual shoppers. Since 2015, his company PlusMargin has raised more than $1.5 million in funding.
Mr Viren Shetty, who dropped out of his applied mathematics course at Nanyang Technological University, set up PlusMargin, which helps businesses predict how consumers behave on websites.
Mr Viren Shetty, who dropped out of his applied mathematics course at Nanyang Technological University, set up PlusMargin, which helps businesses predict how consumers behave on websites.PHOTO: GIN TAY FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES

This former NTU student became the co-founder of a hot e-commerce start-up after watching videos and doing Coursera courses on AI. This is the first of a four-part series on young Singaporeans who have ventured beyond conventional academic tracks and followed their passions.

When advertisers want to convert online browsers to buyers, the man they might turn to for results is a 24-year-old mathematics dropout with a short attention span and dyslexia.

And Mr Viren Shetty acquired a lot of the knowledge to do this his own way, without graduating from university. He did it by writing a research paper for fun, watching instructive videos and doing Coursera courses, available to anyone online.

Mr Shetty is the co-founder of PlusMargin, which uses artificial intelligence and behavioural psychology to help businesses predict how consumers behave on websites.

Businesses can then personalise offers and messages to persuade consumers to make purchases.

Among the start-up's customers are several global multi-billion-dollar brands such as e-commerce fashion firm Zalora.

Mr Shetty's plus point lies in what is called a "conversion rate", in e-commerce terms. This refers to the percentage of users who would go beyond browsing to buying something on a website. PlusMargin has been able to increase its clients' conversion rates and, in the process, increase their revenue by up to 30 per cent.

Mr Shetty helped start PlusMargin just over two years ago, after dropping out of his applied mathematics course at Nanyang Technological University (NTU).

Since then, his start-up has raised more than $1.5 million in funding from investors such as Silicon Valley venture capital firm 500 Startups, Singapore Press Holdings and the founders of United States tech company Olapic, which was acquired for US$130 million (S$177 million) last year.

PlusMargin has eight full-time staff based here and is expanding to the US.

Mr Shetty, a former Catholic Junior College student, also made it to this year's Forbes Asia list of 30 Under 30, a set of lists that recognises the most influential people across industries such as the arts, healthcare and science.

On quitting university, Mr Shetty, who officially withdrew from NTU last month, said: "It didn't make sense to stick around. I knew I was going to leave, and I don't foresee myself going back to university."

TIME OFF FROM STUDIES

It was only two years ago that Mr Shetty had the conversation with his parents that any young entrepreneur dreads: I'm taking time off from university to do a start-up.

He said: "It was a shock to them. They were apprehensive and told me they would allow only six months off."

His father, Mr Sandeep Shetty, heads a Singapore-based business unit for South Asia at Swedish-Swiss engineering company Asea Brown Boveri and his mother, Beena, is a housewife. They live in a condominium in Jurong.

In the first year of his degree course, the younger Mr Shetty felt "frustrated doing theoretical stuff in university even though it was an applied maths degree". "I looked at the modules I was going to take. Even in statistics, the parts where we used real-life data were limited," he said.

On why he was determined to take a different path, Mr Shetty, who is an only child, said: "I guess I'm quite stubborn... I've always been a bit of a rebel."

EXCELLING IN MATHEMATICS

Recalling his younger days, Mr Shetty said his grades had always been "very skewed" - he consistently fared better in mathematics and physics than in language-based subjects such as English, his mother tongue Hindi and the humanities.

"My essay writing in General Paper, literature and history was bad. I can't structure my thoughts well," he said. "But doing maths was so natural. I took part in local maths Olympiads (and won medals) and I also did H3 physics."

He attended Princess Elizabeth Primary School and St Joseph's Institution, scoring 246 for his PSLE and 13 points for his O levels.

In his first year of junior college, his General Paper teacher suspected that he might have dyslexia, based on his handwriting and spelling. "I mixed up 'i' and 'e' and my handwriting is quite illegible sometimes, like scribbling."

It turned out that he did have dyslexia and attention deficit disorder and till today, takes medication twice a day to help him focus better.

"Throughout my school years, my teachers complained that I was hyperactive, disruptive in class, very noisy and talkative - (now) it all made sense," he said.

VEERING OFF THE BEATEN TRACK

His venture into start-ups began while he was serving national service from 2012 to 2014. "I was a clerk and really bored, so I was looking to occupy my time. The clerk next to me was doing a start-up so I was inspired by him."

His first project - a crowdsourcing platform to connect social enterprises with youth - lasted only 11 months.

But he started reading up on data science. "I realised a lot of businesses have a huge amount of data but they don't know how to use or analyse it," he said.

He was intrigued by the travel industry, and how hotels and airlines change their prices based on demand and supply. He even wrote a research paper "for fun" on dynamic pricing - how prices could be personalised for different users - based on their behaviour.

"For example, how much time you spend on a website, tracking mouse movement and analysing your history of purchases," he said.

The go-getter also watched videos online and took Coursera courses on applied statistics, machine learning and artificial intelligence. As a a result, he brings to his start-up a mix of skills - constructing algorithms for software, as well as in sales, fund-raising, recruitment and operations.

Mr Shetty also attended start-up events, where he met Mr Melverick Ng, 45, who became his co-founder at PlusMargin. Mr Ng mainly handles the firm's finances, as well as product development and operations.

Before that, back in 2014, they dabbled in another start-up called Book Quickly, applying the principle of dynamic pricing to the beauty industry. Some 120 hair, nail and spa salons signed up with them.

DOING SOMETHING GRANDER

But after talking to a friend who worked in marketing, Mr Shetty felt that they could be doing something bigger. So they decided to move on to start PlusMargin. "The algorithms we were using could be adapted beyond pricing to marketing dynamic content," he said. "Basically using fancy maths, how can we persuade people to buy?"

He added that there are 58 types of persuasion tactics known in the field of behavioural psychology. These include social proof - for example, Justin Bieber bought this - and scarcity - one item left in stock. "Each person is more prone to certain types of persuasion strategies."

Today, PlusMargin is one of a few companies globally using similar technologies.

"Worldwide, there are 40,000 mid-sized to large e-commerce sites, so there is space for us to co-exist. The market and demand for this technology is large," he said.

EXPERIENCE MORE CRUCIAL

Asked if he would complete his university degree, Mr Shetty answers with a firm "no". "Building a real-world software is different from learning programming language in school. If you learn English, it doesn't mean you can write a novel."

He added: "People ask me how I feel about dropping out of school - they say it's so cool. (But) as a caveat, most people should not do what I've done."

Still, he knew he had to put university on hold if he wanted to succeed with PlusMargin.

"For example, can anyone copy Grab or Uber now? It's a game of how fast you move, especially in the tech start-up scene. We could come in later and solve the problem as well, but there would be other companies which would have already built a substantial client base and we will always be a small company relative to them."

Failure was a possibility, but "even if I did fail, I would have the connections and experience to get a job at a tech company, without a degree".

Yet, convincing his parents that he knew what he was doing was not easy. "They had always been very strict with me and education is very important to them," he said.

"Initially, they were apprehensive but over time, as PlusMargin became a more mature company and we gained more credibility, they knew it was not some fancy thing in my head and they appreciated what I was doing."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 24, 2017, with the headline 'University dropout lands $1.5m in funding'. Print Edition | Subscribe