More than 250 million mobile units were sold in India in 2013, but less than five per cent were bought online. How is that possible, particularly when we spend hours on Flipkarts and eBays of the world to check the latest devices and compare specifications? Sure, we do. But how many of us buy a phone online? Most research online and then go to their trusted friendly neighbourhood stores to physically touch and feel the phone before making a purchase. Not to forget the great deals we get from local shops.

Working from J Combinator, a co-working space in suburban Mumbai, PriceBaba, is a company growing fast addressing this very Indian need. It helps consumers research online — it collates the best prices from local stores around — so that they can can buy offline. ‘Baba’, a Hindi word, carries an image of someone knowledgeable. Considering that the Indian consumer is price conscious, and ‘Best Bargain Price’ — the lowest price made known to the team by retailers that are registered to our network — is the website’s offer, PriceBaba was an apt name.

Geeks! Keep out
It is easy to pick up an iPhone, as there is just no other choice. But then the world is not made of just one colour. And in that rainbow too there are some who not only go by the brand, but by the CPU speed, RAM, and other jargon. But our hunch, if not a belief, is that the majority — if not all — of Indian consumers don’t understand that.

PriceBaba realises that and filters down choices for consumers on three very basic metrics — price, display size and camera megapixel, which according to the team, are the most common features consumers look for.

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But then never make the consumers feel that they are dumb. Give them an option to filter further on the basis of OS, SIM type or other features, and then check prices in their locality to see where they can get the best deal. Of course, comparing products is given; and if someone is not impatient, can set price alerts too.

The team is working on adding more filters — according to brand — to make the search process easier. At the helm of the team is 27-year-old Clerk to CEO Annkur Agarwal. By the way, ‘Clerk to CEO’ is his designation.

What started in 2002 as a passion for mobile phones, getting a good deal and selling them online to make a neat profit is today a 500 Startups company.

Annkur Agarwal, Clerk to CEO, PriceBaba

Annkur Agarwal, Clerk to CEO, PriceBaba

The guy who started selling mobile phones online back in 2002
Agarwal sold mobile phones on online marketplace (which was acquired by eBay) at a time when e-commerce was in a very nascent stage in India. He then started online tech media company — Only Gizmos; and PriceBaba in January 2012.

While Agarwal is the face of PriceBaba, the other half is his Co-founder Tirthesh Ganatra, whom he met in a train, while returning from a trip to Bangalore, where he had gone to attend a Headstart Network Foundation initiative.

Wanting to make big in the tech scene in Bangalore, and having failed at that, dejected Ganatra was on his way back to his home town to join his father’s business. A chance meeting with Agarwal in the train and the 24-hour journey made him abandon his plans. Casual talks turned to friendship and then partnership. Today, he is the Lead Developer and Chief Disciple of PriceBaba.

Destiny clearly knew what it held forth for the team. Bootstrapped for about seven months since launch in Jan 2012, it received two rounds of funding from a local investor, which lasted for the next few months. It was in April 2013, when the the big daddies stepped in with 500 Startups funding it. 500 Startups showed its confidence in the company again in November later that year, putting in more money through its India leg 500 Wallah.

500 Startups – Meeting Dave McClure
PriceBaba started conversation with 500 Startups in December 2012 wherein there were talks of investment coming in from its India fund. However, things got pushed and the investment came in April 2013 from the US.

What Agarwal vividly remembers is the ease at which the meeting with the big guys happened, “We met Dave McClure, Pankaj Jain and Paul Singh (Singh eventually moved out) of 500 Startups. They asked us our story and the problem we were trying to solve. They checked out our product while talking to us and in 10 minutes, they said they liked us. Simple and upfront.”

“This was a refreshing change considering, were chasing local investors for weeks to get a meeting,” he adds.

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There was push from McClure for Agarwal to join the 500 Startups Accelerator programme. Hesitant of leaving his just growing business initially, he finally took the plunge and left for the Valley for four months where he got “learnings for a lifetime”.

“PriceBaba has grown 30x since then and I think I have grown lot more,” writes Agarwal in a blog post he recently penned on ‘8 things I learnt by being incubated abroad’.

Content rules any day
Along with Agarwal and PriceBaba has grown his team too, which consists of a dedicated editorial team that helps users make decisions by providing “unbiased opinions”, reviews of latest products, via blogs on the site, along with videos on its YouTube channel. The team also shares tips and hacks on making best use of devices. According to the company, editorial works as a bridge between engineering and consumer needs.

The price advised by PriceBaba is an estimated street price, which may not always be the lowest price. What that means is that consumers are free to  bargain while buying from a local retailer in the real world. But how does PriceBaba collate the local retail prices, considering much of the local retailers in India are in the unorganised sector with little technical know-how. To tackle this, the startup has come up with web-based solution that works on a simple smartphone, allowing retailers to update information about prices and mobile phones available with them. The more frequently they update, the higher up they show in search results and grab mindshare of users.

The brand is available in seven cities in India, including Delhi, Noida, Gurgaon, Mumbai, Pune, Ahmedabad and Bangalore. The startup curates the stores it features on its website basis stringent guidelines. Till now, it has verified 1,450 stores, of which 915 are live on the portal. However, only 200 of these provide updates on a regular basis. PriceBaba is working with retailers to boost this number.

Along with showing prices for phones at offline stores — which is its key strength, the platform also throws up prices from e-commerce players to help users who prefer to buy online. It currently has partnered with Flipkart, Amazon and Infibeam.

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The startup works on a simple subscription model from the offline retailer, which they need to pay quarterly. It also has a free subscription model to get more retailers on board. From online players, it receives a flat commission on sales.

Ambitious plans going ahead
With the current team size at 19, the startup plans to boost the headcount by building dedicated teams in Bangalore and Delhi in the next three months. It also plans to expand its offerings in new cities. So in addition to the seven it already is in, PriceBaba will also have offerings in Hyderabad and Chennai this year.

PriceBaba core team: L-R

PriceBaba core team: L-R Rohan Naravane, Head of Content; Nishit Shah, The Offline Guy – Retailer Relations; Annkur Agarwal; Tirthesh Ganatra, Lead Developer & Chief Disciple

“With new teams in place, it will get easier to launch new categories. We are looking to go beyond just mobile phone to a broader umbrella of consumer electronics,” says Ganatra.

Though helping consumers buy offline by aiding research online will always be its core area of business, PriceBaba plans to venture into analytics in the near future. It will bring out data that will determine which products are popular in a particular hyper local area. This has a lot of B2B possibilities, according to the company, for local retailers, e-commerce sites, as well as major brands.

Agarwal shares that it will help local retailers know what products to stock; e-commerce sites can more efficiently plan their logistics and supply chain, whereas brands can understand city-specific trends and track competition. The team hopes to provide this analytics as a product offering soon.

So what’s Baba’s parting smart shopping tip? “Always start bargaining at a price lower than what PriceBaba suggests, it doesn’t hurt to try squeezing a better deal.”