Pranoti Nagarkar looks across the kitchen counter at her partner Rishi Israni. Gosh they had come a long way. 2008 was a distant memory when they had fought about who was going to make the hot roti flatbread for dinner. Pranoti, who had rolled rotis since the age of 8 under her mother’s eagle eye in Pune, seemed to have perfected the dance of adding water to the flour, pinching the dough to check for the right consistency, adding just a drop more to ensure the dough was soft and yet not too soft, and then letting it rest for ten minutes for the gluten to set in before balling it into just the right size balls to be dusted with flour and rolled into perfect sized discs, not too big and not too small.
It was always a combination of science and art that ensured that the discs when they had been heated on side and then flipped over would release the steam and fill the roti into little balloons. The little balloon would float from the black iron skillet onto the plate of the diners. It was not always that the discs popped up and fluffed with pride. They were coaxed along with a dab of cloth here and little nudge there to ensure that the steam filled every corner of the roti.
Pranoti calculated she was spinning out at least 3000 rotis a year making two rotis per family member once a day . Dishes may change but the roti was a constant companion to all dishes. The tedious repetitiveness of the task done every single day in the household got to her.
If the clothes have their washing machine why don’t we have a robot to make the rotis for us she thought. Being an engineer and a problem solver with a desire to be an inventor she set about solving this problem. As a mechanical engineer she had worked as a designer and had taken an idea from a sketch on a paper napkin to production. She decided to give this a go. It was not going to be easy. Pranoti knew and understood the pain and skill of making the rotis and getting them to puff up. It would be a tough problem to solve.
Pranoti looked objectively at the problem. Rotimatic was not just a collection of moving pieces, she needed Artificial Intelligence (AI) software that would prod the dough and check its smoothness just as Pranoti did in the kitchen. In order to marry hardware with the perfect software she turned to her software engineer husband Rishi Israni.
The Rotimatic was now ready and working in her kitchen.
What she did not bargain for was the challenges of entrepreneurship. Once she had designed the product she had to sell her vision to investors most of whom were male and did not have first hand experience of dealing with the pain of feeding rotis to a family. She soon realized the challenge of fundraising and marketing. Different users and their varied expectations took her by surprise.
Investors needed to be convinced that not only did the product solve a problem but also that there was a market for it. In 2013 they floated a video showcasing the product on to the Internet where it was picked up like hot cakes or shall we say hot rotis. 3 million views in the first month and 200,000 signups up for the product led Pranoti and Rishi to offer the device on a pre-order of $59 initially only to the people from the United States. $5 million worth of Rotimatics were sold within 7 days.The overwhelming response forced them to stop taking any more pre orders.
This was an important metric for the Silicon Valley venture capitalist investors who gave them $12 million to meet this order. Manufacturing started and in 2 years the order was delivered. A long email list had grown in the meantime. In 2018 another $22 million was raised.
So far 70,000 machines have been sold and 78 million rotis have been made. Silicon Valley has 45,000 Rotimatic users. It is available for purchase only online on their website and now Amazon, mainly in the US, Canada, Australia, Middle East and United Kingdom. It is not sold in India and yet 2000 Rotimatics have made their way to India via Singapore.
“Customer loyalty is very high. Once a Rotimatic user, always a Rotimatic user,” says Pranoti. “It is not an impulse purchase that is transitioned to a shelf in the garage. People who have it use it frequently.”
The Facebook group, Rotimaticowners, has 20,000 members who share recipes. Recommended lists of attas have been given but users add protein, masala, spinach etc and Rotimatic adjusts the dough as they go along. Artificial Intelligence steps in with tactile sensing to tweak the dough. It adds flour or water in real time to make the right consistency of dough.
Not just wheat rotis but pooris, bajra rotis, gluten free rotis etc can now be made. New recipes are seamlessly downloaded onto the machine via wifi. Servicing the machine is easy as it is done through the cloud. Wifi connectivity helps 24×7 customer support. Additionally the app tells the user how many rotis have been made, calories consumed and time saved.
The job of an entrepreneur is never done. Besides working on new recipes offerings co-CEOs and founders Pranoti Nagarkar and Rishi Israni are now working on the evolution of their business model.
Ritu Marwah is a senior writer whose articles and awarding winning stories are awaited with great anticipation by her readers.