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Sharma Analytics

76 West Adams Avenue
Detroit, Michigan 48226

Alok Sharma

By Tunde Wey
March 15, 2013

To be entirely blunt, one could say that we are fundamentally motivated by profit and loss. While most people actively seek profit, our real motivator is averseness to loss; losing hurts and most people would rather avoid pain.

Alok Sharma’s work is to provide ease and comfort by alleviating pain. More precisely, his work is about identifying problems and coming up with solutions, and it is important to be precise because Sharma, founder of Sharma Analytics, is a data analyst, a numbers cruncher, a trend trafficker. Sometimes for fun he sends surveys to his friends, gauging their attitudes on issues such as local government revenue collection and residents' perspectives on city services.

Uncharacteristic of the general perception people have of data analysts, Sharma is jovial among company and thoughtfully extroverted—talkative at the right time with the appropriate measure of insight.

You can find the genial, happy-faced Sharma during his monthly technology meet up event, Detroit Startup Drinks. Detroit Startup drinks was started by Sharma and some friends to bring Internet technologists, programmers, designers, and founders together over drinks, as a platform to strengthen the technology start-up scene and culture in the area.

Sharma describes the casual atmosphere: “We hold them once a month. We have no agenda, no speaker; it’s just technology people talking to technology people. We invite people who are founders, people interested in working with start-ups, nine-to-five people, even people who have no interest in moonlighting come out.”

Rotating the venue through different bars in the city, the events have been successful in attendance and outcomes, drawing between 40 to 50 technology enthusiasts per event and connecting participants to jobs and other opportunities.

From Startup Drinks came another project Sharma is launching, Pain Pitch; an opportunity for the public, either individuals or organizations, to present challenges they face to technologists, who will prototype clever design solutions.

“There are a lot people who want to create start-ups but they feel they don’t have a really good idea. Having an idea is the first step. The second thing is (asking) 'Is this really a problem?' and the third thing is, 'Who is your first customer?' In one night we are turning the tables on most start-up events and we are inviting organizations to pitch their pain to software developers. If a developer is interested then they have a real world problem, an idea, and their first customer.”

If it seems Sharma is the consummate entrepreneur, that is only partially true; he is a product of his profession.

Sharma grew up in Sterling Heights, a first generation American born to immigrant parents. He studied computer engineering in college. When he graduated in 2003, long-term jobs in his field of business analysis, which is predicated on short-term contractual relationships between hired hands and corporate clients, were limited. After five years of contract work, Sharma decided to actively seek out more clients. In 2008 Sharma Analytics was founded. Speaking about this initial experience when he began his company, Sharma says frankly, “That first year wasn’t as easy as I thought it was going to be.” After five years, he has done a great job. Sharma has grown Sharma Analytics into a business with seven clients, five contract employees and revenues of around $150,000. 

And Sharma Analytics has been successful because Sharma loves what good data can do. He says, “People create these surveys with 30 questions; that’s asinine! With intelligent survey design you can figure out what you really need to ask and you can fill out the gaps later. Figure out what the core is for your survey design. Most people think that collecting more data is better data, and that isn’t the truth. The key when you are defining a data collection system is figuring out how little you can intrude on a business process, upon their time, to get what you need.” Sharma Analytics is the antithesis of the data saturation model, providing smart data collection and analysis services that connect information to relevant human stories.

He says, “In any situation even in the analysis of numbers, you can still build human stories around why something is the way it is. There is a level of human intuition that is involved in it. Because there are many stories that can be told from a single data set there is danger in looking at a situation and saying, “This is why this is.” Data should be treated as a weather vane; this whole idea that there is an ultimate mathematical expression of every human incident is probably faulty.”

He continues, describing his process: “The first step is the data; we figure out clever ways to collect data. Step two is analysis. That’s when we take a look at the data we’ve got and start looking for stories; trends in the data. We also start introducing other data sets; census data, consumer data, looking to build a clear picture of the data set we have.”

While Sharma began his company concerned with devising ingenious methods of collecting information, pairing the information with contemporaneous data to contextualize findings, his interest has grown to democratizing the data gathering.
Sharma, who is very adept at communicating other people’s pain point, has started another company Study Cache, a web-based data collection and analysis solution.

He describes the need for better data collection tools, saying, “Researchers are so used to collecting data in Excel, emailing data back and forth, there is no security and it is a nightmare. We remove all these problems so researchers can do what they want to do without dealing with paperwork—I don’t think there are any researchers who got into it to shuffle papers. We have created a platform to collect data, individually or as a team, that at the same time has better security controls than most people have had in the past. So you don’t have to worry about paperwork anymore; just worry about publishing papers.”

Sharma might see himself as the unlikely entrepreneur, emboldened by success, but he is nothing other than the consummate entrepreneur, well-calibrated to win through his methodical efforts in collecting and analyzing the appropriate set of relevant information. He says, “Entrepreneurship is an addictive sort of thing. The entrepreneurial bug, especially after you get a couple of wins, is very catchy and you just start rolling.” Sharma is rolling.

Photograph by Marvin Shaouni Photography.

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