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October 7, 1999


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Obongo to the Rescue Of e-Passports and e-Wallets

Jai  Rawat

Kamla Bhatt in Santa Clara

Kumaon, Mambalam. Both words are less than eight characters and make great passwords.

Two thousand days ago, imagine you had a dial-up account to access your email and used Kumaon and Mambalam as your passwords. Like others, you used Lynx as your online text browser to surf the World Wide Web.

But, in the past 1,000 days the dial-up access has changed to a DSL connection and from a single email ID, you now have multiple email IDs and the World Wide Web has given way to the Internet tsunami. Now, Mambalam and Kumaon are no longer great passwords. Using the same password multiple time defeats the purpose of having a "unique password", says Jai Rawat, Chief Technology Officer, Obongo Inc.

"The purpose of a password is to protect your files and personal information," he adds.

So, clearly you have been violating one of the fundamental principles of this business. There are many others who do the same thing. Sometimes they use their own names as passwords.

Today, there are free nifty e-passport and e-wallet tools that solve this basic problem of using the same password multiple number of times. E-passports and e-wallets basically store all the relevant information of the user like passwords, mailing address, credit card information just like a regular passport or wallet does.

One such free toolbar is the Obongo Bar that was launched in mid-September. It takes less than 10 seconds to install the toolbar that sits on the browser while you surf different sites. It provides "one-click log-in and one-click shopping".

With the toolbar installed, you list your email accounts and passwords and personal information that is required to fill forms when you shop on-line. That done, you can automatically log on to your account and shop without bothering to fill those tedious forms that take long to fill.

And, as many know even a nanosecond is too long for some surfers. A couple of minutes is akin to eternity and very few people wait that long, as many e-stores have discovered. The "abandoned shopping cart" is a death-knell for e-store owners.

Currently, Forrester Research estimates that nearly 66 per cent of the online shoppers abandon their shopping carts because of cumbersome forms. The Obongo bar solves this problem. Sameer Palnetkar

In hindsight, the problem of multiple passwords seems an obvious one as does the solution. But, as everybody knows it is the timing that matters. Netscape, in its heyday, worked on the e-wallet concept but had to shelve it since there wasn't a market for it then. Thousand days ago, not many people had Hotmail, Yahoo or Excite accounts, nor did they use NetZero as their free Internet access provider and online shopping was not in existence.

In 1997, Rawat while working at LSI Logic decided to shift from software development to the IT group in-charge of the Intranet.

"The Internet was a black box to me. I learnt about web servers, the back-end process and digital authentication," he says.

He learnt his core technology at a time when the digital space was sparsely populated and the dot com companies were nowhere on the horizon. In 1998, he joined Tibco where he continued working with cutting edge Internet technology. By then, the Internet had become a household name.

"I used to constantly hear people from across my cubicle using choice words when they forgot their passwords," says Rawat. These were highly qualified technical people who could not remember their passwords or who made typos.

That gave birth to the idea of finding a solution.

By mid-1998 Rawat, who has a graduate degree in computer science from Iowa State University (1993), had hooked up with his IIT Kanpur senior and house neighbor Samir Palnitkar. Among other degrees, Patnitkar has an MBA from San Jose State University (1996).

The two spent many hours discussing how to exchange information between users and the Internet site. Providing an Internet-based password utility to users was the initial business idea. And like many business ideas, theirs too went through many reviews.

Of the two, Palnitkar was the one with business experience. He, along with his friend, Milan Gandhi had started a company called I2P to deal with semiconductor intellectual property.

"And since both of us are doers, we decided to follow through with the idea," says Palnitkar.

In December 1998, they pitched the idea to Ashish Gupta, one of the co-founders of Junglee, which was acquired by Gupta, like Rawat and Palnitkar was also from IIT, Kanpur. And as everyone in the Valley knows connections matter a lot and so is the validation you get from successful entrepreneurs and investors.

"Ashish validated our idea and invested in our projects," says Palnitkar. They got $ 10,000 from Gupta for their project. Now, the duo was ready to migrate their business from the living room -- the garage has been replaced by the living room for many start-ups -- to an office in Santa Clara.

The challenge was to find a find an appropriate name for their product and they hit upon the word "chabi" (key in Hindi). "We could not find any English words and resorted to Chabi," comments Rawat. It was an appropriate name since they wanted to "give users a master digital key to the Internet. One key fits all," says Rawat.

Palnitkar and Rawat built the first prototype that required a lot of complex algorithmic work. While the tool is simple to use for the user, there is lot of complex back-end work that is done.

"Every time you simplify a tool, the complexity at the back end grows," commented Rawat. Besides the back-end work, security was a major issue that needed to be addressed.

The team built a layered architecture with quadruple encryption and multiple firewalls to ensure ultimate safety of the user's data.

The team worked on the prototype for a few months, getting it ready by January 10. Four days later was incorporated. They now hit the venture capital circuit on Sandhill Road -- the Mecca for VC money in the Valley -- in Menlo Park. Barely, a week after they hit the circuit, Gupta introduced them to Michael Moritz and Sameer Gandhi of Sequoia Capital. They met them for the first time on January 20.

By February 1, they obtained $ 2.5 million from Sequoia Capital.

"It took us 11 days to obtain funding. And I believe this is a record," says Palnitkar. In all, the team spoke with 5 VCs for funding and all of them offered to invest.

Their first employee was a friend, Ravi Durairaj, currently the director of database engineering at Obongo.

"I had faced similar problems with login IDs, passwords and irritating forms," says Durairaj. "With Chabi, I was being presented with an exciting opportunity to solve a user's fundamental problems. I jumped at the chance," he adds. Chabi also immediately hired Oswald D'Sa, a senior executive at Symantec, to handle web operations.

With more money, the company steadily grew and, within six months, it was acquired by SmartPort, a British company which was also in the same space. became Obongo. The word "obongo" does not mean anything. "It has a nice ring around it and people will remember the name," says Rawat.

In September, they released their first product: The Obongo Bar. They are working on adding more features to the bar. "Wait for an announcement in December," Rawat said when asked for details. The caution is typical of many entrepreneurs, a result of fierce competition.

"Obongo has a solid business model that meets the important need of bringing together web users with Web sites," says Gandhi of Sequoia Capital.

"As e-commerce becomes mainstream, both web users and web sites need a solution to simplify the complex exchanges that occur between them. Obongo is the solution," he says.

Sabeer Bhatia's latest venture called Arzoo is also in the same space. Others include Gator, Qpass and Brodia. According to the analysts' predictions, the e-wallet and e-passport space will see a lot of competition in the next few months. A primary reason is that e-Commerce is predicted to hit $ 1.3 trillion by year 2003 and more people are expected to shop online. E-store owners are looking for ways to retain their customer's interest and Obongo certainly ensures she doesn't lose it.

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