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Meet the IIITians Whose Start-up is Helping Broke Students Avail Deep Discounts

The team of KhaaliJeb.

The team of KhaaliJeb.

Still in the early phases of their journey, the goal to grab a space in the e-payment world, has been fraught with many challenges for KhaaliJeb.

An exciting new entrant in the world of digital-payment apps, KhaaliJeb has something special for one of the largest consumer groups in the country — students and youth, below the age of 29.

Brands, which have aligned themselves with a youthful image are always seeking new ways to increase customer engagement, and students are always on the hunt for good discounts. Bridging the gap between the two has been KhaaliJeb’s area of expertise since 2018.

With a name that literally translated into "empty pocket", the venture stemmed from a classic tale of a group of college friends from IIIT Allahabad who decided to take the risk of stepping away from mundane job hunting and decided to go after something they believed in, instead.

The idea took root one night in 2015, when Prakash Kumar, one of the founding members while travelling in a rented Ola cab, witnessed their automated paying system, Ola Money. Inspiration struck and upon returning to college, Kumar shared his idea to create an app for penniless students with Aman Verma, Wilson Birua and Sudhansu Gaur, who joined in as co-founders.

The idea was further fine-tuned once again upon a landmark visit to a local KFC outlet. In October of 2016 the friends noticed a box in a KFC outlet which read, “Drop your business card for exciting discounts”. As students, always on the hunt to save a buck, he asked the cashier why corporates were given discounts based on cards and students weren’t based on IDs.

The dispassionate cashier’s simple reply was that they should perhaps make the suggestion to the company instead. The interaction made the students realise the potential business opportunity that lay before them.

Speaking to News18, Prakash said, “We decided to build a vast community of students and youth and helped brands market to them.” They created a UPI-PSP (Unified Payments Interface- Payment Service Provider) app which had Kotak Mahindra Bank roped in as their sponsor bank and made it attractive using a distinct "discount program".

The distinction of the program is that it is specially oriented toward the youth. “We present payments and banking products in a way young people would find fun to use,” said Aman.

He further added, “It is live pan India with a few youth-centric brands offering exclusive discounts to young Indians below 29. We are adding new brands every other day. We have on-boarded 350+ Restaurants & Salons in Bangalore, who are offering exclusive Discounts on KhaaliJeb.”

People below the age of 29 have to first register for the Discount Program Membership by uploading their ID. Aided with a one-minute and one-time verification programme, users are good to go in availing the discounts offered.

The app has launched a B2B (Business-to-business) product ‘Verify by KhaaliJeb’ that helps brands in identifying their student customers & running discount campaigns for them. It is API/SDK (Application Program Interface-Software Development Kit)-based that can be integrated easily, within minutes in a brand’s app or website.

The team looks forward to planning more features, targeted at the youth, to launch in the next six months including building a digital savings account, managing, tracking and settling expenses using UPI and building a goal based savings product.

Still in the early phases of their journey, making a space for themselves in the competitive world of e-payment has been fraught with many challenges for KhaaliJeb.

Key amongst them is to earn the trust of the customers.

As co-founder Sudhanshu put it, big names like Google, Paytm, PhonePe, AmazonPay can incite customer trust easily. They are also backed by significant financial prowess and technical know-how, but the awareness created amongst consumers by big payment platforms does help new players to some extent.

However, even if a payment platform provides value and the user experience is top notch, downloads are still hard to come by without well researched and properly implemented go-to-market strategies.

“The challenges a newbie often faces are finding product market fit, coming up with solid go-to-market strategies, building trust factors amongst consumers, acquiring new customers, bootstrapping, raising funds etc,” said Sudanshu.

As a newbie to any market, “everything is a challenge in itself.” That part of what makes the journey exciting and fun, claimed the team of four.

Bootstrapping has been yet another challenge for KhaaliJeb.

“Even in the smallest of requirements the first thought we have is: Do we have the funds for that? Things got delayed due to lack of funds. We didn’t have the luxury to chase growth because we couldn’t spend much on customer acquisition. We couldn’t expand the team,” added Sudanshu.

All these impediments only turned out to make them “shameless to ask for help.”

“Tech giants and startups have helped us go out of their policies with free credits for the needed resources. We became ethical hackers, security researchers at times to arrange funds. We went to the streets on numerous occasions talking to students, youth, and early corporates, telling them about the app. Despite numerous challenges, we can’t deny there’s a fun element in bootstrapping that has kept us motivated to keep going,” recalled the team.

Currently having more than 37,000 users and 15+ partner apps including Gaana, Storytel, Cult.Fit, Testbook, Utter etc, the app is targeting to have more than 400 brands on-board their discount programme.

Fathoming the wishes of the youth and students, who are constantly on the hunt for discounts, as well as setting foot into the UPI market at its nascent stage, KhaaliJeb is all about going everywhere with an ‘empty wallet’ (Khaali Jeb).

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