SaaS Tools Aimed At Startups

I just got back home after the unpluggd event here in Bangalore. Checked out some really cool demos. I want to highlight some that are trying to solve problems that startups run into and can’t afford expensive solutions. Here are a few such cool SaaS based offerings (in no particular order):

  • interviewstreet.com – if you are looking to hire programmers this is a cool SaaS company that helps automate testing the programming aptitude of your applicants. Customers: Facebook, Google, Flipkart, etc
  • 99tests.com – crowdsourced QA testing for startups. Customers: Flipkart, etc
  • freshdesk.com – SaaS customer support system started by ex-Zoho guys. Customers: 30+
  • unbxd.com – search tool for ecomerce sites. Customers: 6
  • recruiterbox.com – SaaS based company for startups to manage the job application process end to end. Customers: 50+
  • Exotel.in – SaaS based unified voice SMS solutions. Customers: 8

All these companies made a compelling case about solving real issues that startups face, in a cost effective fashion. Most of them have a free one month trial or freemium offer. If you are a startup and want to help your fellow entrepreneurs, please try out some of these tools. 

I have added these companies under the Tools section of EntrepreneursToolBox. If you are a startup and use any other such cool tools/products created by entrepreneurs in your ecosystem, please drop me a note or leave a comment. I will collate all the feedback and do a more detailed post if enough responses/interest in this topic.

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Startup Competitions – How Do They Help?

Recently, I had the chance to be one of the judges at a startup competition. After the event, I was thinking through whether these competitions are helpful to the participating startups and if so how. Overall, my conclusion is that these competitions are indeed helpful but the startups need to be strategic about picking the right competitions and not overdoing it by entering too many of these. Here’s my reasoning.

How startup competitions help

  • Free marketing – This is self explanatory. For a cash strapped startup, getting free publicity through the right competition could be hugely helpful. To pick an example from my Boston days, the MIT 100K competition has led to the creation of about 150 companies over the years including successful ones like Akamai Technologies. The startups in this competition get reasonable amount of recognition/free marketing through various media circles.
  • Exposure to investors and mentors – Through these competitions, a startup can also get exposure to investors and mentors in a lower risk setting. If an investor gets exposure to your startup through the competition and likes you he/she will most probably follow-up to take the conversation forward. Also, through these competitions a startup could meet experienced entrepreneurs who could mentor your startup to success. 
  • Firming up the business plan and pitch – The structure around these competitions forces you to think through your business plan and helps you shape it better. Also, your pitching skills (either the short elevator pitch or longer version) will definitely get exercised and refined through the various stages of these competitions. 
  • Answering tough questions – If the competition has the right set of judges, the startup will be asked some tough questions around their business plan. This would be a great way for the startup to prepare for answering such questions and thereby refining their business plan in a lower risk environment. 

Things to watch out for

  • Picking the right competitions – I think this is something that startups don’t necessarily think about. I would encourage the startups to think whether the competition serves the above mentioned benefits (and anything else specific to your company). In addition, is the competition in the right domain/industry for your startup (e.g. consumer startups vs enterprise vs medical technology, etc.)
  • Over exposure – This is one thing that I find a common issue. When I look at some of the competitions over the past year that I have judged or attended, I see some startups that have entered almost all the competitions (and some have not won any of them). So much so, that someone called a startup a “professional competitor”. This might be ok if you are winning these competitions. For example, I know a startup in the US that won every business plan competition they entered and ended up using that as seed money. But, if you entered a couple and didn’t win, its obviously not the end of the world. After all, I’m assuming your goal is to build a successful startup and not necessarily winning competitions. Please think about this. If anything, entering too many competitions might hurt your chances of getting funded by an investor (if raising outside capital is in your plans) since they would wonder why so many other investors who looked at the company through these competitions not invest.
  • Premature exposure – This is also something to watch out for. If your business plan is very premature and you will not be able to do a good job pitching/answering questions, you are better of refining your pitch before entering a competition. After all, the saying that “First impression is the best impression” is very true for startups as well. You want to put your best foot forward in these competitions and for that you need to be really well prepared.

Those are my quick thoughts on this very important topic for startups as they consider entering various competitions. Would love to hear your perspectives on this.

Note: Published by yourstory.in here

Career Move to India

You probably read the Economic Times article titled “50% of US green card holders plan to return home”. It might not be 50%, but based on the number of inquiries I get from friends wanting to move back, it does feel like a good number who want to move back and be part of the vibrant Indian economic growth story. I was reading Shyam Kamadolli’s blog about “India as a career move” and having gone through this process and also helping out a handful of friends move back to India, wanted to share some thoughts. The comments pertain to people who want to move back and find a job in either an MNC, startup or VC (three areas I’m familiar with). Most people focus on the move alone and miss out on focusing to find the best opportunity possible while moving. The following points (in no particular order) are to help you focus on finding the best opportunity possible while living out your dream of moving back to India:

  • Shortlist cities – Once you decide on the move shortlist the list of cities that you want to live/work in. If you have family, please talk to the rest of the family (particularly spouse) and get consensus on the top 2-3 cities you want to live/work in. It’s important you zoom in on these cities to help focus on finding great opportunities in those cities (sounds obvious but most people who move back are initially open to anywhere in India and this makes it tougher to find good opportunities)
  • Make a few trips to India – Once you are sure you want to move, budget at least a year to find the right opportunity and make the move. Start out that year with a trip to India to visit your target cities and meet potential employers. In the middle of that year, you could make another trip with family and hopefully close on the right opportunity. And by the end of the year, you could make the move. People with kids would have to plan this around academic years. But note that December holidays in the US coincides with holidays in India as well and so, this is probably not the best time to try and close job offers.
  • Target industry and create list of potential employers – Many people, especially on the business side, are agnostic to industry while making the move. But, employers want people with relevant background in their industry. And so, look at your resume and figure out which industries fit you the best (background and interest). Also, if you are looking for VC or startup opportunities (which is what I get pinged most about), it is important to identify the top 10 to 15 firms that you want to talk to. (e.g. if you are interested in e-commerce startups, figure out which are the top 10 to 15 e-commerce startups in India that you want to work for. You could use blogs – many listed under EntrepreneurToolBox – as well as talk to experts in that target sector to shortlist the companies you want to talk to)
  • Tap your social network – Once you shortlist the cities and firms you want to work for, look at your Facebook (try BranchOut app) and LinkedIn contacts closely to find out ways to network into relevant people in the companies you want to work for. 
  • Informational interviews – Once you find relevant first/second level contacts in your target firms, instead of straight away asking for a job in your first conversation, have a more open-ended informational interview with them over the phone. Share with them your intent to move and that you are talking to a short list of firms to learn more and see if it would be a mutual fit. Once you develop comfort that this is the right firm for you and develop rapport with the person, you could take the conversation to the next level and mention about your upcoming trip to India and to see if the person can help set up meetings/interviews for you.

Now for a few items to watch out for:

  • Family not in sync – one of the best pieces of advice I got when I initially thought about moving back to India was from the legendary Indian entrepreneur, Desh Deshpande. He asked me where my wife wanted to live and raise children and advised me to figure this out beyond any doubt before planning my next step. It turned out to be very sound advice which I would like to “pass it on”
  • Industry and Role switch – as mentioned earlier, top companies are very picky on who they hire. They want you to be an expert in the industry and/or role before hiring you. And so, if you are planning to make a move to India (new geography, especially if you haven’t worked here recently), try making only one of industry or role switch. For e.g. if you work as an engineering manager in a semiconductor company and want to move to India and want to become a marketing manager in an internet startup, it will be very tough (both to find a job and to do well in it). In this case, the person has to decide what’s more important, the role or the industry switch and take one step at a time. Goes without saying that if you are already an expert in industry and role and only making the move to India, you stand the best chance to find and do well in that job.

Those are some of the quick points that I could think off. Would love to hear from others who have made similar moves on what worked or didn’t for them.

 

 

Investing in Education – MIT Enterprise Forum Event

I had the pleasure of participating in the MIT Enterprise Forum Bangalore‘s kick-off event last night. The topic for the night was “Education”. The event was well attended and it was great to see the entrepreneurial energy and excitement among the participants around this sector.

I was asked to share my perspective on investing in education and so I put together a few slides on the topic. Post the event, I have received a handful of requests to share the presentation. And so, here it is (a cleaned up and shortened version). Obviously, without the verbal commentary this presentation only tells a partial story. But, happy to engage with entrepreneurs who share a mutual interest in improving the education ecosystem in India.

Investing in Indian Education Ecosystem

Do we need an Angieslist in India?

I was reading Ashish Sinha’s experience using various online classified/listing services (you can read it here) and have to confess I had a similar bad experience over the past 10 days. I will share the story and the learnings below. But, this whole experience has reiterated my firm belief that we need something like an Angieslist.com in India. As a consumer in the US, I used to heavily rely on this paid service to identify quality service providers (doctors, dentists, plumbers, baby sitters and the list goes on) with reviews from real customers. Here’s more info on Angieslist from Wikipedia.

Ok, here’s the story. My wife and I have been trying to find a good babysitter for our two daughters over the past year. We have gone through probably a dozen but still have not landed a good one. Most of the babysitters have come through referrals in our apartment complex and have not worked out for many reasons, which I don’t want to bore you with. But, about 10 days back, I decided to find a professional agency to help me with this and was willing to pay for their services as well as pay more for the babysitter if need be.

I asked around a few friends but none new of any good agencies. I was always a skeptic to find a service through the web without personal reviews but desperation drove me to it. I went to google and searched for relevant key terms and came up with listings from the usual suspects: Justdial, AskLaila, Quikr, Sulekha, Click.in, Locanto, etc. to name a few. I noticed that some of these sites had reviews for the services and read up reviews wherever available and picked the best one as per reviews in 3 different sites and browsing the company’s website. To summarize the experience with this agency we picked – it was horrible. The only thing they did right (for themselves) was cash a cheque we were stupid enough to give for their services and they were smart enough to collect upfront. You can skip next two paragraphs if you are not interested in the details

Baby s(h)itter experience

As tempted as I am, to mention the agency’s name, I will avoid and say that this agency was extremely professional and did show up at our house with a babysitter the same day I called them. We (my wife and I) interviewed both the agency and the babysitter and were extremely happy with the answers. We paid the agency the commission (steep one at that) and signed up for the service with the promise of three replacements of the babysitter in a year if not satisfied. Alas, that’s where the misery started.

Next day, the babysitter did not show up as promised. When we called the “agent” the agency provided she made some silly excuse and said that she would send a new babysitter the same day – the bait-and-switch trick! We were sent a new babysitter without any background info on her and after a cursory interview decided to try her – after all she was certified by the agency we thought. This person showed up late everyday for a week and finally didn’t show up one day. During this week, we kept calling the agency and “our assigned customer service agent was always traveling and would call us back” trick was pulled out of the bag. At this point we decided to stop the babysitter and tried contacting for a replacement and again “agent” will call back. Finally we pulled the plug and went back to an apartment referral babysitter.

What did I learn?

I went back and tried to figure out what are all the lessons from this experience. Here are a few:

  • Always search for a service name followed by scam (or similar words) in Google before you sign up for it. For example: “XYZ services scam”. This was eye-opening since I found a handful of experiences very similar to ours. If I had read this before, I would have never called the agency.
  • Of the various listings/classifieds site, only a few allow for reviews. I went back and tried leaving a review with as many of the ones as possible (to pay it forward). Even if it meant being forced to sign-up for an account with these sites.
  • And, for the few like me who didn’t know this, the listing sites take down bad reviews on “listing owners” request as per a customer service agent at one of these listing sites I spoke to (to figure out why my review was removed). Obviously there is a revenue opportunity for them here and see why they are doing this. 
  • But, as a consumer, when you see a review on any of these sites you need to be aware that you are not paying for it and hence you cannot expect to get honest reviews from real customers on both good and bad experiences. You will find only “good” experiences that the “listing owners” like. Sad but true.

That brings me back to my point. I had alluded to this in a previous post “Whats On(line) in India?”. I would very much like an angieslist.in where the consumer pays but gets a trustworthy review. Anybody out there?

 

Employee Equity Allocation

Employee Equity Allocation I get this question often (and was asked again today). I wanted to include links to two really good posts (that I point entrepreneurs too) on this topic that are relevant to startups around the globe.

The first is by Fred Wilson who is a VC and a prolific blogger (one of my favorite VC bloggers):
http://www.avc.com/a_vc/2010/11/employee-equity-how-much.html

The second is by a Sillicon Valley based entrepreneur Evan Reas who seems to have done a lot of research on this topic:
http://startuphoodlum.com/2011/01/03/equity-grant-averages-to-startup-employees/

After reading these blogs, let me know if there are any unanswered questions, especially in the Indian context and I’ll be happy to address them.

Amazing Indian Entrepreneurs

Now that India has reached the top of the rankings in all forms of cricket (One day, Test and T20) after the splendid cricket world-cup victory last Saturday, I’m sufferring from acute CWS (cricket withdrawal syndrome). To take my mind off cricket, I went to Instapaper and was catching up on my reading. I came across this article in Forbes claiming that BRIC countries surge in Billionaires list this year. As I was browsing through the list of Indians billionaires, I was wondering how many of these were self-made or entrepreneurs. Of the $246.5B in net worth amongst these 55 people, $80B (32% by networth) belongs to the 26 (47% by number) self-made/entrepreneur billionaires.

Couple of quick observations:

  • In terms of count: Software tops the list with 6 billionaires (5 from Infosys) followed by Real Estate (4), Pharma (3), Media (2) & Commodities (2)
  • In terms of NetWorth: Software ($13.3B), Real Estate ($10.5B), Pharma ($9.7B), Telco ($8.3B), Media ($6.4B), Mining ($6.4B)
  • The youngest entrepreneur on this list is 45 and the oldest is 87
  • Even though people like Azim Premji, Ajay Piramal, Cyrus Poonawalla, etc. have built great companies in new industries they did not inherit, they are still not counted on this list as self-made since they started out inheriting companies in some shape or form (this is how Forbes has classified them)
  • I browsed through the stories behind these amazing Indians and many of them are highly inspiring. I have provided links to their Wikipedia pages (if available) in case you want to browse as well.

Here’s the original listing from Forbes. And below you can find the list I curated of self-made/entrepreneurs from the original Forbes list:

As I was browsing the above list, I couldn’t help but notice that it is missing a whole slew of highly successful Indian entrepreneurs around the globe. Here are a few names at the top of my head that I know off and admire:

I’m sure there are many more amazing Indian entrepreneurs. Who did I miss? Which Indian entrepreneur do you admire? 

The following are additions based on suggestions from readers:

Note: Published by yourstory.in here

In case you are interested here’s a snapshot from the spreadsheet I created (click on the link below to see a larger version)

I
ndian Billionaires and Entrepreneurs