Archana Patchirajan, Puneet Mehta & Sonpreet Bhatia have the keys to your City.
In our virtual world anyone can become an instant expert on any city – thanks to MyCityWay, an innovative mobile app designed by the team of Archana Patchirajan, Puneet Mehta and Sonpreet Bhatia, three immigrants from India who’ve made New York home and achieved the American Dream.
MyCityWay just raised $ 5 million in financing from BMW i Ventures, FirstMark Capital and IA Ventures and you may see this app in BMW cars in the future. This little app, which can be downloaded free on your mobile and offers you a comprehensive grid of the city, is currently available in 40 cities and the plan is to bring it to 40 more.
This is a classic New York success story where innovation by immigrants is at the core. It’s hard to believe that the three gave up solid jobs on Wall Street to pursue their dream. At a time of economic downturn when Wall Street was handing out pink slips to workers – you have three immigrants who have given Wall Street the pink slip!
Puneet Mehta was a SVP with Citi Capital Markets, Archana Patchirajan was a senior consultant with the same company; and Sonpreet Bhatia was a vice president at Merrill Lynch/Bank of America. Now why would people throw up hard-to-get, prestigious jobs in the financial sector and go off into the unknown? They were bitten by the entrepreneurship bug – and entered a technology competition endorsed by Mayor Bloomberg and funded by venture capitalists to bring hi-tech innovation to New York.
Puneet and Sonpreet, who are husband and wife, and their colleague Archana got together and on a lark, decided to join the NYC Big Apps Competition sponsored by the city with the blessings of Mayor Bloomberg. Their company MyCityWay had been launched almost as a dream, a fun project while coping with their real jobs. Their entry won three awards including Popular Choice and Investor’s Award in 2010.
MyCityWay became the first company to be seeded by the $ 22 million fund to provide promising New York City-based technology startup companies with early-stage capital. The company received $300,000 in funding for their innovative app. “The users get to experience the power of 30+ NYC related iPhone apps packaged into one,” explains Puneet Mehta. “It has live traffic cams, restaurant inspection results, WiFi locations, NYC tourism, street food vendors, Free NYC and much more.”
Since then this mobile application has become a popular consumer driven city guide which is available in 40 cities around the world, and is a free app available on iPhone, iPad, iPod, Android and BlackBerry mobile devices.
The real value of their app, they feel, is that it captures the local flavor of New York City, and the goal is to connect people with people, places, events and experiences. As one of the users told them, “The value that NYC Way provides cannot be quantified by a dollar figure. It really becomes a part of you when you start using it.”
With this app, its easy to become aware of current traffic patterns and best routes, as well as obtain on the go information about parking spots in the area and of course, where to wine and dine. The three entrepreneurs have launched city applications for more than 40 cities throughout the world including, New York, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington D.C., London and Paris.
All three came to New York to make a mark in the hi-tech world. Aruna Patchirajan is from Chennai and moved to the US in 2003 with her husband Arun. She grew up in Tuticorin, the Pearl City, and says: “I love my city so much! I love gadgets and technology too. It is something I have in me, because of my dad! He loves technology and always kept us abreast with the latest in gadgets when we were young.”
Archana studied computer technology at PSG College of Technology in Coimbatore, which is a major educational hub. She says, “I always had a penchant for creative stuff and that initially started with multimedia design, then web development, product development and now here I am making Apps! I want to build products that add value to people’s everyday life.”
Sonpreet Bhatia, who is from Delhi and moved to the US in 1999, says “Really early on I learnt that to survive in a world of cut-throat competition, you had to be the best – that’s just the spirit of Delhi! I was taught never to say never and the encouragement and zeal inculcated in me by my parents gave me the will to fight against odds and face the world.”
She adds, “Having been brought up in Delhi, I like to be in midst of action – always. Right from when I was in India, I used to dream about exploring and experiencing the rich and diverse culture and cuisines that NYC has to offer. I jumped on the first opportunity to move here, and that was the best decision I made in my life.”
As Sonpreet admits, she got into technology to impress her father whom she loved a lot. He saw many of the triumphs of the trio, including the big success last year when as creators of MyCityWay, the three were invited to ring the closing bell at NASDAQ. Sadly he did not live to see the big funding that the makers of MyCityWay got from BMW.
“I like to build technology solutions that serve a purpose and give people a richer life experience,” says Sonpreet. “Heavily involved in social media and mobile platforms as I am, I aim to use that technology set for solving real life problems.”
Puneet grew up in Chandigarh and while at the Punjab Engineering College started an entrepreneurship club that helped under-employed community members build business plans and gain access to government subsidies and loans. His twin passions of music and solving math problems led to some interesting experiments: “During my younger days, a few of us got together to create the “brain” of a musician – a computer program that would use a mathematical equation to mix different beats based on a mood you specify. We ended up creating some of the most awful sounds ever heard – but it was a fun experiment anyways!”
As entrepreneurs who dig and mine for the treasures of different cities, the three love what New York has to offer. Says Puneet, “There is such a flux of people, places, fads and opportunities! In my spare time, I love to explore new places, especially those that offer various genres of international music. Watching people perform at subway stations is one of my favorite pastimes.”
As for Archana, she is a fan of the spectacular – be it AR Rahman music, Rajnikanth movies or Sachin Tendulkar’s cricket, and is a passionate creator of images of the spectacular city. “I have taken umpteen numbers of pictures of the New York skyline and still the city has so much to offer and continues to amaze me,” she says.
Since delving into MyCityWay, Sonpreet says there’s no time for leisure but with their office in the city, they do spend a lot of time exploring the city. “I love the clunking of the subway, people running to catch that morning train, the hustle and bustle, the boutique shops, the vendors on the street, the police car sirens, that weird looking guy with the strange hair-do!” she says.
“There isn’t anything I don’t like about NYC. I unwind from a hard day and night of work just standing on the streets of NYC and watch people go by. This rejuvenates me and is by far is the best de-stressor ever.”
Consumers will be seeing MyCityWay in their cities soon. “We are already working towards a hyper-local mobile platform for India,” says Archana. “Considering that India has the second largest number of cell phones in the world – it is a huge opportunity for us. This will be our contribution to bringing next generation technology to our homeland. It is definitely a lot more work as compared to building something for the US – but we believe that it can transform lives and make a real difference.”
The fairy tale continues – The three now have an office in Chelsea, Manhattan and considerable funding to make this project succeed. So what gives them the most pleasure in this venture?
“The greatest satisfaction is to know that we are making a difference in people’s lives,” says Puneet. “We have received emails from people on how this app makes their commute easier by giving them transit alerts, how looking at live traffic cameras helps them get to alternate routes – in turn reducing traffic and pollution….and so much more. We are doing this to truly transform cities across the world.”
And yes, it’s improved their own lives too! Eating passion for breakfast, lunch and dinner is an exciting way to live. Things are certainly looking rosy, with over 2 million users of the app and lots of future monetization possibilities.
“My biggest pleasure in being an entrepreneur is to have the freedom of thought and to be able to pursue that spark of thought to make it come to life,” says Archana. “The biggest asset is our team and we now have full freedom to run the company on our own terms, breaking all traditional myths.”
Asked for nuggets of wisdom to share with newbie entrepreneurs, Sonpreet says, “Follow your dreams and passion. Never think that the idea that you have been nurturing is useless. With the correct potion of hard work, passion, innovation and a dream, there is no power in this world that can stop you from being successful.”
She adds, “Don’t let small frustrations and road blocks skid you from the road to success. Instead of lamenting on the side of the road, think about building a bridge and cross over to the other side.”
Puneet contributes his two-cents worth, or perhaps $ 5 millions worth. “While everyone should aspire to build an amazing company and make a lot of money from it, budding entrepreneurs should seek out risk-taking opportunities where they can learn the most,” he says. “Do not doubt whether you are too young, or too inexperienced – if you believe in your idea, just jump in and outwork everyone else.”
© Lavina Melwani
(This article is part of a series which first appeared in Hi Blitz)