Harpreet Singh, Founder of Web@ssist (Webassist) spoke to YourStory.in about his experiences since he won the NASSCOM 2012 Social Innovation Honour and also shared anecdotes about his early days as a student entrepreneur.
How has your journey been since you won the NSIH Award? / How has the NSIH Award benefited you in your journey so far?
Winning the NSIH has opened doors to an excellent network of industry, stakeholder representatives and to successful entrepreneurs. The honour has taken the project to a complete new level in terms of visibility, also providing an imprint of credibility for the work undertaken towards positive social change.
NSIH amongst other things has instilled confidence amongst the team in the work, progress and the direction that we are taking. Having the honour in the kitty has pressed out extra chores, provided access to a group of imminent users in the commercial space and in the process has also made it easier for the team to concentrate on its sweats (efforts) for wider deployments and scaling adoptions.
What has been your progress since the awards?
Based on the adept feedback and pointers collected through the stages of NSIH, we have made positive headway on the visible and backend fronts of the project. On the technical facade, Web@ssist, which is essentially a package of accessibility toolbar and cloud based assistive technology (AT) tools, has got an up count of AT tools and now caters to a wider range of disabilities including dyslexia and motor impairments. While the solution modifies the websites according to the needs of the users, it now also carries an additional intelligence level to categorize the device being used to adjust the settings automatically.
On the same route, we have also been carrying out iterative development for inculcations commensurate to the new ascending requirements and managing trial deployments of Web@ssist at more places.
Do you plan to take this service to mobile as well since many mobile platforms in the social space face the language barrier?
Web@ssist as it was started in 2011 had loomed on the basis of a clear vision for a truly inclusive web. The new additions to the framework as and when done by the team are devised by trying to answer questions moving outwards from the set vision. In one such series of sittings, we planned to expand the scope of the solution to mobile platforms as well for the disabled to access the web on their devices.
The task of embarking on a universal solution for the diverse mobile platforms as they are today is a challenging problem that the team is trying to crack presently, in the quest of which we have made the solution available on some mobile platforms as well and plan to include others in the near future.
What are the challenges that you have faced as a student entrepreneur?
Web@ssist was started while I was still a student and had started exploring the need for a solution to make the web all-inclusive. It indeed used to be very challenging to keep at it consistently for carrying out early requirement studies, establishing a focused team, setting of specifications/milestones end to end and working towards a collective goal. The group routine involved visiting several disabled people daily to understand the requirements, developing during the evening and gathering feedback the next day for iterative insets. The work at times ran to the tune of 17-18 continuous hours a day to be able to pull the stuff for the following day and finishing only to the perpetual enthusiasm of the group.
How did you overcome them?
As I look back to the point when I embarked on the coaster ride to work towards a solution envisioned in an abstract sense and implementing the same, the initial plunge involved the most vigour. But imperceptibly, those initial days termed challenging are the ones, shaping the individualism and outlook and leave an impression forever. As a student, one is often ‘drinking from the firehose’ bringing new information to the brain daily and thus one has to be open to learning at each point, which is what I tried to do even while I was away from the project for a certain time during my internship at Microsoft Research India.
Being at such a stage, when there are virtually no limits to the work one can go in for, the problems are only mental moulds waiting to be broken by an individual’s spirit. Perhaps, that is the reason passion is the foremost vital plug for people willing to take the distinctive steps.
What are the best parts about being a student entrepreneur?
As a student, there’s a starry-eyed optimism to take on problems and find a solution by applying the concepts being freshly learnt and coming up with ingenious solutions, and to further expand upon ideas. Anyone who has had the experience of sailing in the entrepreneurial boat for long, is always optimistically expressive about the opportunity costs for start-ups being the lowest while still being a student. Being a student entrepreneur not only allows them to pursue to their interest more vigorously but also offers an opportunity of a good peer network at an early stage.
For any student enthusiastic enough wanting to take the lumpy ride, here’s referencing PaulG’s quote : “Paradoxically, if you are too inexperienced to start a start-up, what you should do is start one.”
How has the transition been from being a student entrepreneur to a full time entrepreneur?
Transitioning from a student entrepreneur to a full time entrepreneur has certainly given time to commit full sweats (efforts) to the project and work coherently with the team. The efforts now are more proficiently directed towards broader and larger tasks to be accomplished, with daily separations and clear markings set towards vital objectives. Starting while being a student has allowed me to cover certain cut-off points early and each of these have contributed in making the transition to the full time efforts smooth. Well along, even as the work has gained traction, it has also transformed into a drive locally to make the disabled informed about the low-cost software solution to access the internet anywhere.
Missed NASSCOM Social Innovation Honours 2012? Apply now for NASSCOM Social Innovation Honours 2013