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 here

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 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,, 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 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):

The second is by a Sillicon Valley based entrepreneur Evan Reas who seems to have done a lot of research on this topic:

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 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)

ndian Billionaires and Entrepreneurs





India: Closed for business – Open for cricket

When the Indian cricket team is playing cricket, it feels like most of India shuts shop and watches the game. That’s not surprising given that some of the big shots from Politics (e.g. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi), Business (e.g. Ambanis, Vijay Mallya) and Entertainment (e.g. Aamir Khan, Preity Zinta) show up to be spectators in the ground. A friend of mine was in Mohali (CEO of a well known startup) for the India/Pak game and he was tweeting from the airport after the game that the networth of Mohali would be the highest in the country, thanks to the celebrity audience.

I was curious on what happens to online traffic during a crucial game and asked a friend for this info for a website that does decent traffic. Here’s the graph below (comparing against last Wednesday – 23rd). Looks like “online” India started closing shop sharply around noon when people started going home to watch the match. I spoke to a few online startups and they all confirm that they see this same trend when India plays cricket. I’m guessing that only twitter and facebook and maybe sites like crickinfo and that caters to cricket enthusiasts go up in traffic during an India game. 


Are you part of a web startup in India. What happened on Wednesday during the game? Any interesting observations? What will happen on Saturday during the India vs. Srilanka final?

Anyways, here’s wishing the Indian team the very best of luck for the finals. Jai Ho!


What’s On(line) In India?

Over the weekend, I booked a trip (air + hotel), paid my bills, checked my bank and brokerage accounts, bought movie tickets, booked my mother-in-law’s bus tickets, ordered a couple of movies for renting and gifted something for my friends newborn. And the best part – all without stepping out of my home. That’s the beauty of online services which I had so grown used to in the US as a consumer and was initially concerned I might miss after my move to India.

But, I’m glad to say that I feel that India “is happening” when it comes to online services. This is from the perspective of an avid consumer who enjoys trying out new technologies/services that improves efficiencies. Let’s face it – if I were to step out of the door and get those tasks listed above completed by making physical stops, it would take me more than a week. For a specific example, I went to a reputed bus operator to book a long-distance bus ticket and it literally took me 2 hours door to door (20 minutes in front of the guy who was more keen on answering phone calls than completing my transaction). The same thing I was able to do in less than 5 minutes online (in spite of the payment gateway dropping my transaction the first time – payment gateways need to fix this issue, seriously).

Just for the fun of it, I wanted to list out various online services I used in the US and equivalent ones in India. The table below captures my first draft list. I have used most of the Indian services listed and have been satisfied with the quality. The only sites I haven’t used but have received feedback from others who have are the dating/matrimony sites – for some reason my wife does not approve of me spending time on these sites even if I tell her its for work J



 *Full Disclosure: These are portfolio companies of Accel Partners 

As I mentioned, this is just my first draft list and I’m sure I missed many. What are your favorite categories/sub-categories/sites that I missed?

Note: published this blog here.

Frugal Innovation in Medical Technology


For those of you following medical innovation in the developing world, the article earlier this year in The Econmist was quite informative. Here’s the link to the article. This was a good follow-up by The Economist to their more industry agnostic Frugal Innovation article from last year. Wanted to share some of my observations on frugal innovation particularly as it relates to India and medical technology.

Activity Level

  • Startup activity:  There is a decent bit of activity in the frugal medical innovation space in India. There are at least 15 to 20 startups that I met over the past year who are doing high quality work in this space. Most of these fall under the diagnostic devices category aimed at areas such as opthalmology, diabetes, cardiac conditions, cancer and infectious diseases. There were also a couple of companies going after therapeutic devices.
  • IP creation: There is some level of Intellectual Property creation in these startups especially as they try to completely re-engineer and build the product ground up to suit the Indian price point and market conditions. Granted these are not based on years of scientific research done in an educational institution and hence are not fundamental innovations but still there is a decent bit of novelty in these technologies and their applications.
  • Talent: The other good thing for the ecosystem is the existence of large Multinational Corporations such as the Healthcare divisions within Philips, GE and Siemens that have a decent pool of talent. Many of the startups I met with are people who have either gained experience working at these larger companies and/or done a PhD in scientific research at one of the leading US institutions (MIT, Stanford, etc.). At the firm I work, we have at least two instances of founders matching this profile and doing a healthcare related startup. 

Top Challenges

  • Distribution: Many of the companies I meet with are going after the Bottom Of the Pyramid (BOP) as their initial market. The challenge is that majority of this market exists in rural India and distribution becomes a big issue. Even a GE that has come up with the low cost ECG machine for India apparently had challenges with distribution. It becomes all the more challenging for a one product startup with limited financial resources. This is an important issue to think through before figuring out which market you will focus on.
  • Who pays: The other issue with going after the BOP is that in many cases the end consumer does not have the financial capacity to pay. Hence in many cases the government and its programs subsidise the cost of treatment. And as a startup, it becomes tricky to deal with the government as a customer – to put it mildly. You probably need someone in the team who has previous experience in a similar role of selling to the government.

Ideas to Ponder

  • Tier II instead of BOP: Now that many healthcare service providers are focusing on the Tier II Indian cities for growth, does it make sense to target these as the initial customers and gain market traction before attacking the BOP?
  • Go for CE or FDA certification: I see many startups doing this already. They go and get a CE Mark or an FDA approval and that helps them get more market adoption in India. I will share more about the regulatory process in India in a subsequent blog post.
  • Disrupt existing incumbent technologies: Would be good to see some of these technologies that go after Tier II and BOP segments move up the chain and service the mainstream healthcare service providers in Sec A Indian cities. I am trying to find an example for such a story but can’t think of one at the top of my mind. 

Would be great to hear your thoughts on this topic.

Note: published this blog here.

Intellectual Property in India

I had the pleasure of attending a very informative round table discussion today on Intellectual Property (IP) in India organized by Zinov Consulting and NASSCOM Emerge. There was representation from academia, large multinational corporations, IT companies, startups, IP specialists and startup investors. As you can imagine, being a VC investor, this is a topic that is close to my heart and I thoroughly enjoyed the discussions. Wanted to share some of the data I collected as I was preparing for this event and some questions/observations from the discussion today.

Patents and Startups ???


If you look at the US and two very active VC investment markets there, California and Massachusetts, it is no surprise that the level of IP creation is quite high in both these states. Obviously, IP alone is not the only ingredient to successful startups, but in the hands of a good entrepreneur, IP can act as a key ingredient to cook up some outstanding companies.

How does India fare?


As can be seen from the above graph and the statistics, India has some ways to go to catch up with other leading IP generating countries such as the United States and China.

My Key Observations

Still early days in India

  • India is 10 years behind China in terms of patent numbers
  • Patents are around Indian market constraints and application of technology to solve these constraints (e.g. Financial Tech, Mobile) – what some might call Frugal Innovation or Reverse Innovation
  • Unusually high concentration in Biotech/Life Sciences
  • Fundamental scientific innovation still rare

Startup perspective

  • Not too many IP-based exits (M&A, IPO) hence startups not too eager to file – especially in IT. This will change with more IP-based exits happening.
  • IP incubation centers such as academic institutions need more active participation. It’s tough for VCs to fill the shoes that an academic center plays (in countries such as the US) over extended periods

Questions/Observations of other participants

  • India files about one-tenth the patents filed in China. Also 60% of Chinese patents are filed by Chinese companies. In India, only 20% are by Indian companies, rest is by MNCs.
  • Public companies, particularly the bigger IT companies cannot compromise on margins even by a few basis points. This makes it tough for them to focus on long-term and spend money on IP 
  • Time bound (project based) innovation happens in India but that’s not the same as unconstrained innovation that happens in startups in the US (based on one technologist’s experience working in startups in the US as well as India)
  • There is a need for multi-disciplinary faculty to enable IP creation (and guide doctoral students) for solving real issues faced by industry
  • On a similar note, Indian industries do not value PhD and due to this the brightest and the best opt for an MBA post their undergraduate degrees or go abroad to do PhDs and never return
  • Frugal innovation – someone had questions around whether this can really produce IP. Particularly in areas such as “Open Source” software development (which Indian companies adopt for cost reasons).

I have outlined above some of the questions/observations from the session. Just want to throw these out and see what people have to say about this.

Would love to hear reactions on this very important topic from a startup ecosystem perspective.

Note: published this Blog here

Articles/resources  (do feel free to send in other links):

Hosting On The Cloud: Inputs For Early Stage Startups

I recently came across this post on Quora that talks about various hosting options for Indian startups and found it very informational. Many early stage startups are faced with the question of where to host especially as they get off the ground. Key questions they have are: what are my hosting options, costs involved, what other aspects should I consider and what are other Indian startups doing? I have tried to collect data to answer some of these questions. This is particularly aimed at startups that are just getting off the ground (very early stage) and not for ones trying to optimize performance/cost.

Note: The intention of the article is to help early stage Internet startups get quickly off the ground using hosting services. Inputs regarding various services mentioned in the article should not be considered as an endorsement by the author or the organization he is associated with.

Comparison of various hosting options

Here’s a quick summary of comparison between various hosting options (both in India and the US) for an early stage startup. Please note that these are just off the shelf monthly prizes (based on assumptions of usage as outlined in the table) that we could get either from the web or by calling the company. Obviously rates would change based on your particular requirements as well as your ability to get discounts such as yearly subscription, etc.

Key takeaways:

  • Amazon’s AWS offers the most cost-competitive option (at least for the configuration mentioned).
  • If you are focused on hosting in India (particularly for latency reasons) E2E seems to have a reasonably priced offering. I haven’t been able to talk to someone hosted on E2E and hence don’t have too much information on them.
  • If you go with AWS and want to improve your performance, you can refer to the Quora post referred above that talks about using Cloudfront (CDN) for optimizing latency as well as hosting non-latency sensitive workloads in the US and latency sensitive workloads in AWS Asia (APAC).


Getting off the ground

If you are just getting off the ground as a startup, your easiest bet might be to go with a cloud based provider. The costs for setting up are not high and it is also scalable (elastic) depending on the demand (which is usually tough to predict in advance). In addition, some of these services (e.g. Amazon, Rackspace, E2E) are quite granular and so you can pick and choose configurations that work best for you (computing, storage, bandwidth, etc.). One caveat I gathered from talking to startups is that you need to have someone on your team who understands configuring these options. For example, if you are going with Amazon’s AWS, you need someone who understands and preferably has worked on it before. In particular, you need someone who understands the components of your application, various pieces of the AWS system (EC2, EBS, S3, CloudFront, etc.) and failure points so as to mitigate and avoid data loss. Don’t get me wrong, this is not very hard to configure and get going. But, it still is not trivial to take for granted and that is why the startups I spoke to recommended having a person familiar with the setup onboard. Alternately, you could start with an option that provides a simpler holistic solution (e.g. SliceHost) albeit at a slightly higher cost. You could then graduate to one of the other cloud providers at a later point on a need to basis.

Where are startups hosted?

And finally, you might wonder what other startups in your similar shoes (or ones that are further along) doing? I polled close to a dozen startups (small but good group of tech savvy startups) and 80% of them are hosting in the US. Of those, one third are hosted on Amazon’s AWS. If you are in a startup that has gone through a similar exercise of picking a hosting provider, would love to hear from you on what your experiences have been and any tips for others who might follow your footsteps?

The above is a post that I did for

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