Most founders say the most exciting journey of their lives has been the entrepreneurial one. Ask Vijay Arisetty, founder and CEO of MyGate, an app-based management system for gated communities, about his most exciting journey and he will tell you about being a helicopter pilot during the tsunami that hit the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and southern India in December 2004, and a desperate 1 km run from his quarters to an airfield with a wall of water chasing him.
It was early morning on 26 December. There had been a Christmas party at the Indian Air Force (IAF) cantonment in the small island of Car Nicobar, where Arisetty was posted as a helicopter pilot with the IAF, the night before, and most people were sleeping it off. At around 5am, Arisetty was woken up by his bed shaking violently. Realising it was an earthquake, he jumped out of the window of his ground-floor room. The most bizarre moment of the tsunami came when he, along with colleagues who had also gathered outdoors, felt the earthquake end. “We looked behind us—and Car Nicobar is tiny, only 2.5km radius, so you can see the ocean everywhere—and saw there was no sea. It had receded for miles around and it was shining white with corals for 10 miles. The island had risen above sea level,” says Arisetty.
“And, in the distance, there was a wall of murky water coming towards us at a fast pace,” he adds in his calm, patient tone.
That is when he started running, pulling along colleagues and civilians, towards the airfield, which he knew was on higher ground. They were stranded at the airfield for almost three days, during which Arisetty flew his chopper and rescued people stranded on rooftops and treetops, ultimately saving around 350 lives—an act for which he subsequently received the Shaurya Chakra.
From being a peacetime Armed Forces hero to founding MyGate, a company that created a category (that of community management apps) has been a very different kind of challenge. Arisetty, who grew up in Koraput, Odisha on the campus of Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd’s (HAL’s) engine manufacturing plant—thus the early fascination with flying and the Armed Forces—founded MyGate in 2016, along with Abhishek Kumar, chief operating officer, and Shreyans Daga, chief technology officer. He quit the IAF in 2009 after a shoulder injury prevented him from flying and went to ISB, Hyderabad for an MBA degree, going on to work with Goldman Sachs in Bengaluru for five years as an investment banker.
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His first startup was Purple Road, which would rent out vehicles to e-commerce companies, and although it wound up before being registered, insights from it ultimately led to MyGate. Arisetty was having conversations with his co-founders about the growth of e-commerce in India and how this was leading to increased friction at the gate, where physical protocols like entering details into a register and security guards calling the resident to approve the entry were leading to delivery personnel spending as many as 15-20 minutes at the entry point of gated buildings. “We realised that this could be smoother. The volume of e-commerce was only going to grow, but it was hitting a roadblock at the gate,” says Arisetty.
Today, the Bengaluru-based MyGate services 25,000 gated communities across India (around 40 lakh homes). The company is expecting to hit an annualised revenue rate (ARR) of ₹400 crore by December 2022, a growth of nearly 800% over the ₹55 crore it clocked in December 2021. Even as it grows, the company faces a host of challenges—from an ongoing court case with rival NoBroker over the alleged theft of customer databases by the former, to the challenges of turning the company profitable and keep it growing, as well as routinely facing questions on social media about the kind of customer data its app collects and how private it is.
It is the last that baffles and bothers Arisetty. His normally even tone becomes a bit charged when he’s talking about how, ever so often, someone will accuse MyGate of violating end-user consent by giving access to their data to resident welfare associations or something similar. A viral Twitter thread from January 2022 called MyGate “one of the truly dark tech startups in India” and accused it of “scoop(ing) up loads of end-user data, neatly structured by service provider, and frequency.... There’s no opt-out since they just need to convince a bunch of people that manage these associations and individual users and their consent suddenly no longer matters,” the writer added.
“To all the people who put criticism on Twitter—I am inviting all those people to come and take a look at our systems. Which consumer tech company in India is GDPR-ready or IDP-ready? We consulted top lawyers and privacy experts for the GDPR exercise, so I am confident and I tell people, get an auditor and come and see for yourself if we are misusing data,” says Arisetty, referring to the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), a regulation under European law on data protection and privacy, and Identity Protection (IDP), a technological framework that makes a company GDPR-compliant.
“As a company, if I say that I am not capturing all those things (consumer data), I am lying, but am I misusing it? Am I snooping into the data and trying to derive insights? I am not and that is what being GDPR-compliant ensures,” says Arisetty. “I come from an Armed Forces background. We want to be truthful to what we are signing up for. My co-founder (Abhishek Kumar) comes from a banking background, so all our training is not to disclose our client’s information. One of our cultural statements is we take our customers’ data to our graves.”
The pandemic has been an exponential game-changer for the company as well as the category. During the 2020 lockdown and the Delta wave of coronavirus in 2021, companies like MyGate, till then essentially systems to record and allow residents to permit/decline entries at the gate, found the rules changing overnight. There was a lot of uncertainty in gated communities about who would be allowed inside, how personnel from e-commerce and food delivery companies would get customers their orders if they were not allowed into the complex, whether domestic help should be allowed to come in or not, and many such dilemmas. MyGate, which was handling around 4,000 communities across India at the time, had to quickly come up with solutions. “Things were completely dynamic. There were containment zones across the city and apartments in those areas had to abide by different rules. Every scenario was different in every pin code and every society and our product had to keep pace with that, keep evolving” recalls Arisetty.
He shares an example: “In most societies, delivery boys were not allowed inside but residents needed their daily groceries. So companies like BigBasket started supplying in bulk—they said they would not supply at an individual level but will do so at a community level. We had to bulk the order and at the gate we had to break the bulk.” Then there were rules like visitors from certain states had to produce the results of RT-PCR tests, and it fell on security guards at the gate to check that. All this had to be folded into the app in a user-friendly way.
“Finally, 18 months into the pandemic, we said ‘let’s put a pause on covid-related activities’. Otherwise feature pe feature banta hi jaa raha tha (we were coming up with feature after feature). Take the vaccination tracking tool,” Arisetty says, referring to a controversial feature present in the app for a while that let resident welfare associations (RWAs) track the vaccination status of residents. “We realised that it was creating privacy issues. Why does the RWA want to know who has been vaccinated? The management committee will ask us but the end consumer doesn’t want to give that information. Visitor management is just a log, it’s not about tracking. But we realised that the intent of the vaccination tool was to track.”
Arisetty, however, bats for the RWAs (he is personally on over 2,000 WhatsApp groups of RWAs), saying that while they are often reviled as intrusive and narrow-minded, they are doing a thankless unpaid job. During the pandemic, especially, they were answerable to city municipalities, which were also often acting in an ad hoc manner. At the peak of the pandemic, companies like MyGate played a big role in creating a buffer between residents and the authorities, making lives easier and smoother during an uncertain time/how/ have given examples above like managing deliveries, entries etc/.
MyGate today is aiming to become a one-stop solution for apartment living, with many new features integrated into the app. Starting February 2021, it has launched “MyGate Exclusives”— deals exclusively available to communities through the platform (Arisetty calls this something that “enables gated communities to unlock their collective buying power”)—a “Buy and Sell” feature, which allows residents to sell services and products to neighbours, and an Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) solution that helps RWAs with book-keeping and common facility management, apart from letting individual residents make payments such as maintenance bills, salaries of support staff and even cable TV bills on one platform. It has also started property listings—rivals like NoBroker started with property listings and then got into community management.
“The job has changed a lot, the complexity of the task has changed a lot. Did we envisage this when we first started MyGate? No. As an entrepreneur, a lot of things become clearer as you get deeper into the business,” says Arisetty. “But what is more important, I found as a founder, is not the ability to foresee all those things—but the ability to react when you experience that.”