How a young Indian startup is making calculators ‘smart’ for millions of shopkeepers

A year ago, Praveen Mishra, the co-founder of Tohands, thought that building a “smart” calculator would be a stupid idea and nobody would want it. However, when he saw a woman running a small business in Sarjapura, Bengaluru, struggling to keep track of all transactions, Mishra realized the importance of having a “smart” calculator that also records the data.

“When I met the lady, I found that she calculated the final amount on the calculator and wrote it on the paper and at the end of the day calculated the final amount again with a calculator,” Mishra said in the video interview.

“Calculators have a basic use case, but we can do a lot of things in addition to the calculation part, so we think the smart calculator will be a really good tool for the shopkeepers,” Mishra explains the idea behind the Humble Calculator into a ‘connected ‘.

Mishra from Pratapgarh, Uttar Pradesh founded Tohands in 2017 together with Satyam Sahu and Shanmuga Vadival. All three co-founders handle different areas of the company, with Mishra handling the product side of things, Sahu handling the app and software, and Vadival handling the hardware.

The smart calculator made in India supports Wi-Fi and a companion mobile app. (Image credit: Praveen Mishra)

backbone of small businesses

Mishra found that small business owners are not familiar with the digital khata ledger mobile apps, nor do they have the resources to invest in expensive accounting machines. What they prefer is a simple calculator to do the regular calculations that come up in everyday life. “The backbone of small businesses in India is still a calculator, whether you’re moving from a jewelry store to a Kirana store,” he said.

It was at this point that Mishra, 21, decided to reinvent the calculator, but the challenge was to make it better. After all, calculators have already proven themselves as devices that allow you to quickly and conveniently perform calculations in a matter of minutes at the touch of a button.

The first version of the “smart” calculator that Mishra developed was a Raspberry Pi-powered prototype device with a keyboard and two buttons – one for credit and one for debit. Mishra then went to some shopkeepers and showed the prototype device to test their interest in the smart calculator. Initially, they managed to take seven pre-orders for the device, but Mishra and his team soon began work on the second version of the calculator.

The second version was a much more sophisticated product and included the calculation function and the credit and debit function, but the screen was small and the device used a membrane keyboard. After only the startup was selected at T-Hub, an incubation center for IT startups in Raidurgam, Hyderabad, Mishra and his team were motivated to give hardware another try and improve the design to make a smart calculator a reality allow. The third version of the smart calculator, which is now available for pre-order on the company’s website, is easier to use and can do much more than the first and second versions combined.

Mishra sells the calculator for Rs 3000.

The second version of the smart calculator was developed for testing purposes. (Image credit: Praveen Mishra)

Emphasis on trifles

He said they applied the principle of MAYA (most advanced but acceptable). For example, the button pattern on this smart calculator reminds you of what you see on a Casio or Citizen calculator. “If I replace your Casio calculator with my calculator, you shouldn’t feel the difference,” he said. However, there are subtle changes that are unique to this calculator. The calculator’s memory buttons were made small to accommodate the deposit and withdrawal buttons, for which Mishra’s startup has applied for a patent.

“The size of the calculator is big, not small, and that was a voluntary decision because we don’t want our calculator to be thrown around the store. We wanted it to be a desktop calculator,” he said.

When designing the product, according to Mishra, a lot of attention was paid to small things, like larger buttons, to accommodate the shopkeeper’s preferences. For example, the deposit and withdrawal buttons are colored green and red, so that when a shopkeeper presses the green button, he knows that the sale is complete, and the red color symbolizes the issue.

The basic idea behind the smart calculator is no different from a conventional calculator. Like a normal calculator, you can do basic calculations. The difference is that you can record these calculations, and that’s where the “smart” angle comes in. The connected calculator supports Wi-Fi and there is a mobile app that shows the transaction on your smartphone. There is a built-in memory of 16MB that can store 5 million transactions. The device comes with a 2400mAh battery and a USB-C port for charging.

An early prototype of Mishra and his team’s smart calculator. (Image credit: Praveen Mishra)

future plans

Although it’s a calculator, Mishra plans to introduce new features and improve capabilities via OTA updates. Think of how Apple or Google release new software updates on their smartphones. In the future, the smart calculator will be able to record who you paid to or were paid by, essentially capturing the customer’s details. This helps the store owner to capture the name and cell phone numbers of their customers. Access to their customers’ data means the shopkeeper can record transactions and remember who took Udhaar and when the loan repayment due date is.

The smart calculator is designed and manufactured in India. The current plan is to build 2000 units per month and gradually expand to 1 lakh units by next year. In order to reach a broad consumer base, particularly in the rural areas of India, Mishra is exploring three types of distribution channels including resale, partnering with companies like PayNearby, and selling the device directly to consumers through its own website and listing on e-commerce platforms like Amazon. The startup has so far received Rs 30 lakh in investment from T-Hub Startup India Seed Fund and another Rs 20 lakh from angel investors. Mishra will use the money to make the smart calculator.

Mishra (right) with a customer (left) holding the smart calculator in a shop. (Credit: Praveen Mishra/LinkedIn)

Mishra’s company is one of the few active startups trying its hand at hardware. Designing and building a hardware product has never been easy in India, which is why there is a lack of specialized hardware startups in a country with a population of over a billion people.

“It’s very difficult to be honest,” Mishra said, adding that in hardware it requires an early adapter and in India the customers are not early adapters. “They want finished products because our expectations are very high , and if a local company does not meet their expectations, they prefer to source a quality product from an external market,” he added.

Part of the problem is the nonexistent ecosystem that supports hardware innovation, Mishra blamed. “It’s a chicken and egg problem. In the early stages when you don’t get customers because the quality isn’t good and the investor doesn’t finance you because you don’t have the customer loyalty.”

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