AI/ML Shift for SaaS Companies: Insights from SaaSx Fifth Edition

Early stage SaaS startups typically struggle with one of two things. When you are just starting out, the first struggle is all about mere survival. Will we find customers willing to use and pay for our product ? Good teams typically manage to find ways to negotiate that first challenge. The playbook has been sufficiently commoditized that if you execute well enough, you can actually succeed in getting those early customers. Its a challenge for sure, but is getting easier and cheaper to overcome — which takes me to the second challenge. Once you survive that initial phase, how do you continue to stay relevant and grow? For if you don’t grow, you’ve only prolonged the inevitable and will likely get disrupted into irrelevance by the next upstart that comes along. When you play in a commodity market, that’s the sad reality.

If you find yourself gaining customer adoption, you can be fairly certain that competition isn’t far behind. Unless you find a way to establish sustainable differentiation while you have that head start, you will ultimately die. And that differentiation now increasingly comes down to the value of the data flowing through your platform and how you are able to leverage it better than your competition. In other words, if you are not thinking about constantly learning from the data that you are gathering and enabling implicit intelligence via your products, the odds of survival are going to be stacked against you. Given the significance this topic carries for us at Swym, I was really excited to have the chance to sit in on Ashwini Asokan and Anand Chandrasekaran’s session on AI/ML for SaaS at SaaSx5. And they most certainly didn’t disappoint. With a lucidly laid out argument, their talk served as a strong wake-up call for the SaaS founders in the room that weren’t sufficiently worrying about this topic.

SaaS growth is slowing

Ashwini started out by underscoring the fact that SaaS growth was slowing in general. There’s no denying that most solutions are rapidly becoming commoditized — building a good product has gotten fairly prescriptive, costs have come down and barriers to customer adoption are a lot lower than they used to be. That inevitably leads to markets getting very crowded, making survival increasingly difficult. If you don’t stand out in very defensible ways, you will perish. To make matters worse, AI is slowly but surely causing entire categories of work to disappear — Customer Support, SDRs, Financial/Market Analysts, to name just a few examples. If those workers were your market and you were helping them be more efficient, you are in trouble because your market is disappearing with them. You better be evolving from being software that’s serving those people that in turn serve a function, to actually serving the function itself. Of course you do this with human assistance, but in a progressively intelligent fashion that makes you indispensable.

Embrace the platform mindset

In order to stay relevant, you really need to create a viable roadmap for yourself to graduate from being a simple feature that’s part of a larger platform (No one likes being told they are nothing but a feature, but this really is where most early stage SaaS products sit today) to becoming the platform itself over time. It can most certainly be done because the opportunity exists, and the access you have to your data and how you are able to leverage it is likely to be the most effective weapon to get you there. Think really hard about new use cases you can light up, automations you can now enable, important solutions that hitherto weren’t possible or practical — enabling those capabilities is what will give you stickiness. And you can in turn leverage that stickiness to allow others to build on the data platform you’ve created to expand your moat. Easier said than done of course, but it is the only path to staying relevant. Alexa, Salesforce, Adobe, Hubspot, and most recently Stripe with their just announced app store, all come to mind as stellar examples of execution on this strategy.

How should I be thinking about Data Science?

Anand followed that up with some really good advice on how to go about this, especially touching on what not to do, and it was clearly resonating with the audience. For instance, when he highlighted the fact that most AI initiatives that start with “Here’s the data I have…what can I do with it?” are doomed from the get go, a lot of heads in the room were nodding in agreement — seemed like a pretty common trap that folks had fallen into. Instead, his advice was to identify the end goal that mattered first, with the caution that this could be deceptively challenging. Once that goal is well understood, then focus on the data you have and the gaps that exist — and your challenge basically boils down to filling those gaps and cleansing/validating your data. Those are your most critical, time-consuming steps in the process for once you get the data quality you want, it becomes much simpler to build and iterate your model around that and figure out how to engineer this into a repeatable part of your workflow. The sub par data quality is one of the most common causes for AI projects “failing” and no amount of modeling proficiency will save you from bad data or a poorly understood problem statement.

Get on the train, but don’t lose sight of what got you here

I’m really glad to have had the benefit of listening to their talk in person, and now that I’ve let the arguments sink in over the past couple of weeks, a few truths have become indisputably clear in my head. The AI shift is not one you can ignore as a SaaS founder. If you don’t get on the train, you’ll likely end up under it. And no, getting on the train doesn’t mean simply attaching a “.ai” to your domain name and claiming success. It really comes down to internalizing your vision for why you exist, identifying in very clear terms how your roadmap to making that vision a reality will need to evolve given the AI shift. How do you see your problem space changing in the the next 2–5 years thanks to AI, and what does that mean for you? And given your existing strengths, what can you do to make the most of that shift?

Its important to remember that a lot of the fundamentals of a good SaaS story still don’t change. For instance, a sound distribution strategy is still very much necessary, for without sustainable access to customers, the rest of it is moot. Likewise, you want to be able to protect the access you have to your most valuable asset, your data) and lower the barriers enough for adjacent players to be able to work seamlessly with your offering. All those advantages you have still very much matter. Really, the biggest mental shift you need to make is thinking very deliberately about how the world around you is changing because of AI, and how you leverage those strengths so you continue to have proprietary access to the data you need and become an integral part of that change.

The article is authored by our volunteer Arvind Krishnan, CEO & Founder – Swym Technologies.

Deeper Strategic Partnerships – Pitching for Significant Scale and Co-Creating the Value

David Vs. Goliath had a happy ending, but the odds of beating Goliath as a startup are slim and most startups do not have a fairytale ending, unless…

At SaaSx5, I had the opportunity to hear Vijay Rayapati share his story of Minjar. This was a fairy tale with all the right ingredients that kept you engrossed till the end. With angels (investors) on their side, along with Minjar and Vijay’s prior experience, Minjar could have faced many Goliaths in their journey. Instead of going the distance alone, Vijay followed the Potential Strategic Partner (PSP) playbook (Magic Box Paradigm) and identified one in AWS. His reasons were clear, one of the biggest challenges a startup faces is distribution. And, a PSP can open several doors instantly, making distribution easier, revenue growth faster and gives the startup multiple options. As a startup, you need to think about a PSP early in the game at the “Flop” and not at the “Turn”. You need time to develop a PSP and you need to start early.

Identifying a PSP in your vertical maybe easy, but building a relationship with them is the hardest. It requires continuous investment of time to build the bond with the PSP such that they become the biggest evangelist of your product. This involves building relationships with multiple people at the PSP -from Business, Product & Tech- to make sure you have the full support from the company to scale this relationship without roadblocks. In the case of Minjar, with AWS as their PSP, it opened roads to customers, built their brand and also increased the value of the company. One of the highlights of the Minjar story was about the CTO of AWS, evangelizing the product at their conference. As Vijay ascertained “Invest time in people who can bring visibility and credibility to your company”. Focusing on these people is a sales channel by itself, and a Founder has to be involved in building that channel when it shows glimmers of hope. The Minjar story had a happy ending, because they invested more time in building their PSP relationship and limiting other marketing activities: they did not spread themselves too thin. This involved multiple operational changes like training, presenting thought leadership & co-selling at conferences, and making sure the end users at the PSP are successful in using your product.  It is also important to note that a partnership is not a reseller or transactional relationship. A partnership is a relationship of strengths, in which each entity brings unique skills and together provides exponential value to the end customer. Partnerships work when you have champions leading on both sides of the table and one of the best outcomes a PSP can provide to a startup is a strategic acquisition. A PSP is one of the best ways for a startup to exit, especially if you have not raised a lot of capital.

At Tagalys we have tried to develop relationships with PSPs; twice, and we seem to be making good progress today after one failed attempt. My learnings resonate with Vijays’ and some of them are

Persona: Not every large enterprise, who might also serve your target customer, is a valid PSP. An enterprise is an ideal PSP if the value you provide as a startup is something that can be incorporated into the product or process of the Enterprise, and without which the end value of the enterprise depreciates. If your startup is not important to the customers of the PSP, then they are not a match for your startup.

Timing: In your early days, a startup needs to focus on customers, customers and more customers. A PSP is likely to work with you only if you are part of the affordable loss for them. Very early in your stage the risk is too high for the PSP to consider the relationship an affordable loss. Remember, you are adding value to the PSP, hence any risk in the value proposition you bring to the table, is a risk to the end customer. Only after having proven your value to your own customers, will a PSP be willing to take you to their customer.

Credibility: Today, Tagalys works with many recognizable customers in the country and that makes the process of gaining credibility & trust easier. Your product is only as good as what your customer says it is. For a PSP to work, you need buy in from stake holders like the CEO, CTO & Product Managers and they are going to put their neck on the line if they can trust you. Customer references are the best channels to gain trust.

Lifecycle: As CEO, I have time to invest in meeting with various stakeholders at the PSP because our product is in steady state. This steady state of the product is theright time to speak with a PSP because your team can take on this additional responsibility. We also have a clear understanding of our expected outcomes, risks and upside in working with the PSP, hence our conversations are well guided and makes the discussion very productive.

Bill of Materials: While Tagalys is a line item in what the PSP provides to the market, we are an important line item who can potentially extrapolate the end value provided to the customer.

Not every startup can find a strategic partner, but one thing is for certain, as Vijay said, “You miss 100% of the shots you do not take”.

Antony Kattukaran is the Founder & CEO of Tagalys. Tagalys is a merchandising engine for online retailers, dynamically predicting what products to display across search & listing pages to increase conversion.

It takes time to build something successful!

Since SaaSx second edition, I have never missed a single edition of SaaSx. The 5th edition – SaaSx was recently held on the 7th of July, and the learnings and experiences were much different from the previous three that I had attended.

One primary topic this year was bootstrapping, and none other than Sridhar Vembu, the CEO and Founder of Zoho, was presenting. The session was extremely relevant and impactful, more so for us because we too are a bootstrapped organisation. Every two months of our 4.5 year-long bootstrapped journey, we have questioned ourselves on whether we have even got it right! If we should go ahead and raise funds. Sridhar’s session genuinely helped us know and understand our answers.

However, as I delved deeper, I realised that the bigger picture that Sridhar was making us aware of was the entrepreneurial journey of self-discovery. His session was an earnest attempt to promote deep thinking and self-reflection amongst all of us. He questioned basic assumptions and systematically dismantled the traditional notions around entrepreneurship. Using Zoho as an example, he showed how thinking from first principles helped them become successful as a global SaaS leader.


What is it that drives an entrepreneur? Is it the pursuit of materialistic goals or the passion to achieve a bigger purpose? The first step is to have this clarity in mind, as this can be critical in defining the direction your business would take. Through these questions, Sridhar showed that business decisions are not just driven by external factors but by internal as well.

For example, why should you chase high growth numbers? As per him, the first step to bootstrapping is survival. The top 5 goals for any startup should be Survive, Survive, Survive, Survive, Survive. Survival is enough. Keep your costs low and make sure all your bills are paid on time.  Cut your burn rate to the lowest. Zoho created 3 lines of business. The current SaaS software is their 3rd. They created these lines during their journey of survival and making ends meet.


Why go after a hot segment (with immense competition) instead of a niche one?  If it’s hot, avoid it i.e. if a market segment is hot or expected to be hot, it will be heavily funded. It will most likely be difficult to compete as a bootstrapped organisation and is henceforth avoidable. Zoho released Zoho docs in 2007, but soon as he realized that Google and Microsoft had entered the space, he reoriented the vision of Zoho to stay focused on business productivity applications. Zoho docs continues to add value to Zoho One, but the prime focus is on Applications from HR, Finance, Support, Sales & Marketing and Project Management.  Bootstrapping works best if you find a niche, but not so small that it hardly exists. You will hardly have cut throat competition in the niche market and will be able to compete even without heavy funding.

Most SaaS companies raise funds for customer acquisition. Even as a bootstrapped company customer acquisition is important. As you don’t have the money, you will need to optimise your marketing spend. Try and find a cheaper channel first and use these as your primary channel of acquisition. Once you have revenue from the these channels, you can start investing in the more expensive one. By this time you will also have data on your life time value and will be able to take better decisions.

Similarly, why base yourself out of a tier 1 city instead of tier 2 cities (with talent abound)? You don’t need to be in a Bangalore, Pune, or a Mumbai to build a successful product. According to Sridhar, if he wanted to start again, he would go to a smaller city like Raipur. Being in an expensive location will ends up burning your ‘meager monies’ faster. This doesn’t mean that being in the top IT cities of India is bad for your business, but if your team is located in one of the smaller cities, do not worry. You can still make it your competitive advantage.

Self-discipline is of utmost importance for a bootstrapped company. In fact, to bootstrap successfully, you need to ensure self-discipline in spends, team management, customer follow-ups, etc. While bootstrapping can demand frugality and self-discipline, the supply of money from your VC has the potential to destroy the most staunchly disciplined entrepreneurs as well. Watch out!

And last but not the least – It takes time to build something successful. It took Zoho 20 years to make it look like an overnight success.

This blog is authored by Ankit Dudhwewala, Founder – CallHippo, AppItSimple Infotek, Software Suggest. Thanks to Anukriti Chaudhari and Ritika Singh from iSPIRT to craft the article.

Scaling Sales: A Deep Dive At SaaSx Fifth Edition

As a first time attendee of iSPIRT‘s annual SaaSx conference, I didn’t know what to expect as we drove along the western coast of India towards Mahabalipuram – the venue for SaaSx5. From all the chatter around the event on Twitter, it looked like the who’s who of SaaS leaders in India were attending. Upon arrival, I took my seat with my colleague and looked around. There were only about 100 people in the room, very different from most conferences I’d attended in the past – a lot more exclusive, and a melting pot of SaaS founders building a diverse set of products. It had all the markings of an inspiring day, and it did not disappoint.

Starting with a keynote from the estimable founder of Zoho, Sridhar Vembu, the day was packed with talks and discussions focused on growing one’s SaaS company in the current technology landscape, primarily led by founders of notable SaaS companies of the country. One such event was an unconference on “Setting up and Scaling Sales across Segments and Geographies”, led by Ashwin Ramasamy from PipeCandy.

Picture this: about 80 founders seated in a room, circled around Ashwin who was leading the conversation about setting up and scaling your sales team. Since the flat organizational hierarchy at SignEasy, and the culture of openness at the company provide me with a wonderful vantage point of all functions across our company, including sales, I was eager to listen to the different perspectives that the founders brought to the table. At the start of the discussion, Ashwin graciously asked the audience for talking points they’d like covered, and the discussion began. A plethora of topics were discussed, starting from the very definition of inside sales, leading up to when and why to deploy an inside-sales team. Hiring and putting together the right sales team, including whether it should be in-house or outsourced, was another hot topic of debate with many founders offering their own experiences and perceptions.

The conversation then steered towards outbound sales and the mechanics and economics of that, which contributed to some of the biggest takeaways for me – things that cannot be found in a book and are only learned through experience.

The success rate of outbound sales peaks at 2%, as opposed to the 40-50% success rate you come to expect with inbound sales. This was an interesting insight, as it’s easy to assume your outbound effort is underperforming when it could actually be doing quite well. Also, you should use the interest you’re receiving through the inbound channel to refine your outbound strategy – your inbound interests are a goldmine of information on the kind of industries, company sizes, and job functions your potential customers represent. At SignEasy, we are constantly honing our outbound target by capturing as much information as possible from our inbound requests.


Further, the efficacy of your outbound sales effort is a direct function of the maturity of the market you’re in – for a saturated market with tens of other competitors, outbound usually fails to make a mark because it’s difficult to grab a potential customer’s attention. This is a great rule of thumb to decide if outbound is for you, depending on the market your product serves.

Outbound sales also requires dedicated effort rather than a ‘spray and pray approach’ – a minimum 6-month commitment is crucial to the success of your outbound strategy. Founders should be deeply involved in this initial effort, sending out 500 emails a day for at least 3 months, and tweaking and iterating through them as they get to the most effective email. It’s also important to dedicate yourself to a channel when experimenting, but also experiment and exhaust numerous channels over time to zero in on the most effective ones.


The value of this discussion, and indeed the day, was best expressed by the ferocity with which my colleague and I took notes and wrote down every piece of advice that was being dropped around the room. Being product leads of the SMB business and mobile products respectively, Phalgun and I were amazed at how much we could relate to each point being discussed, having been through and living the journey first-hand ourselves at SignEasy.

SaaSx5 was nothing short of inspiring, and we emerged from it feeling uber-optimistic about SaaS in India, and what the future holds

This blog is authored by Apoorva Tyagi, Product at SignEasy

The Second 20 Confirmed Batch at #SaaSx5

2 days to go for #SaaSx5 and we are reaching our limits for this year. I had missed a few folks in the first batch of 50 announced, so including them along with  the next 20+ (in no particular order).

  1. 99Tests
  2. Appmaker
  3. Auzmor
  4. Botminds Inc
  5. CallHippo
  6. CIAR Software Solutions
  7. Cogknit Semantics
  8. CustomerSuccessBox
  9. Deck app technologies
  10. GreytHR
  11. Happay
  12. HotelLogix
  13. Indusface
  14. inFeedo
  15. Infurnia
  16. LogiNext
  17. Makesto
  18. Mindship.io
  19. Pepipost
  20. PregBuddy
  21. Recruiterbox
  22. ReferralYogi
  23. Swym

There will be one last list sent out tomorrow of confirmed participants. Really excited about the sessions which are shaping up at #SaaSx5

The First 50 Confirmed Companies at #SaaSx5

We are almost there. Only 3 days for #SaaSx5.

For people who are have attended earlier SaaSx I don’t need to tell this, but for all those who are attending the event for the first time – SaaSx is an informal event for knowledge sharing by SaaSprenuers for SaaSprenuers. This is why we have it on the beach for the last 3 years. 🙂

If you don’t know what this is about, SaaSx5, iSPIRT Foundation flagship event for software entrepreneurs of India, is being held in Chennai on 7, July 2018 (Saturday). SaaSx has been instrumental in shaping Global Software from India in the last 3 years. This year the theme is to help SaaS entrepreneurs setup for growth over the next 1-2 years.

So the first 50 confirmed list #SaaSx5 companies is here. It has been a slog for us going through all the applications we received, especially the initial drive to set extremely fair criteria and process. Listening to feedback from earlier SaaSx this year we decided to allow Founder and +1 (from their leadership team). Having a tag team we believe is extremely helpful to the founders in learning, assimilating and taking it back to their teams. This also meant that given the small limited space we had to be strict in our curation to ensure most SaaS product startups had an opportunity.

By the time this post goes live many other invites will have been sent and confirmed. We will continue to announce the companies finalized as we go along, so they can start preparing for the amazing sessions.

There are still spots, so if you have not registered or confirmed your invite (check your email), please do it quickly.

saasx5

In no particular order, here are the first 50 (based on their confirmations).

  1. 3Five8 Technologies
  2. 930 Technologies Pvt. Ltd.
  3. AceBot
  4. ADDA
  5. Airim
  6. Almabase
  7. Appointy
  8. Artifacia
  9. Artoo
  10. Asteor Software
  11. BlogVault Inc
  12. Bonzai digital
  13. CogniSight
  14. DevSys Embedded Technologies Pvt Ltd.
  15. FactorDaily
  16. FlytBase
  17. FormGet
  18. Fourth Dimension Software Systems India Pvt Ltd.
  19. Fyle
  20. Gaglers Inc
  21. Godb Tech Private Limited
  22. inFeedo
  23. Infilect Technologies Private Limited
  24. InMobi
  25. Inscripts
  26. JKL Technologies
  27. Leadworx
  28. LiveHealth
  29. Lucep
  30. Mindship Technologies
  31. Netcore Solutions
  32. Olivo Inc
  33. Omnify Inc
  34. Playlyfe
  35. Plivo
  36. PushEngage
  37. QueryHome Media Solutions Ind Pvt Ltd.
  38. ReportGarden
  39. Rocketium
  40. ShieldSquare
  41. Siftery
  42. SlickAccount
  43. Stealth
  44. Strings.ai
  45. Syscon Solutions Pvt. Ltd.
  46. Tagalys
  47. United Translogix Pvt Ltd
  48. Vernacular.ai
  49. Waffor Retail Solutions Pvt Ltd.
  50. webMOBI

[Update: Next 20+ also announced]

All confirmed participants will receive further information in their mailboxes.

Looking forward to an amazing #SaaSx5!

Thanks to our many behind the scenes volunteers who have been tirelessly working on getting us this far and continuing on. Thanks to Chirantan & team from Software Suggest for crafting this post.

SaaSy bear SaaSy bear what do you see?

Shifts for SaaS - SaaSy Bear

I see 3 shifts critical for me!

Taking a line from the popular Brown Bear children’s book, I believe that our SaaS startups have a real opportunity to leverage some leading shifts in the global SaaS evolution. While there are many areas of change – and none less worthy than the other – I am highlighting 3 shifts for SaaS (tl;dr) which our entrepreneurs can actually work with and help change their orbit:

  • Market shifts with AI/ML for SaaS to build meaningful product & business differentiation,
  • Platform Products shift to transform into a multi-product success strategy,
  • Leveraging Partnerships for strategic growth and value co-creation.

Some background

I joined iSPIRT with a goal to help our community build great global products. I believed (and still do) that many entrepreneurs struggle with the basics of identifying a strong value proposition and build a well thought out product. They need strong support from the community to develop a solid product mindset & culture. My intent was to activate a product thinkers community and program leveraging our lean forward playbooks model.

I had several conversations with community members & mavens on playbooks outcomes and iterating our playbook roundtables for better product thinking. I realized that driving basic product thinking principles required very frequent and deeper engagement with startups. But our playbooks approach model – working in a distributed volunteer/maven driven model – is not set up to activate such an outcome. Through our playbooks model, our mavens had helped startups assimilate best practices on topics like Desk Sales & Marketing, something that was not well understood some years back. This was not a basic topic. The power of our playbook RTs was in bringing the spotlight on gaps & challenges that were underserved but yet highly impactful.

As a product person, I played with how to position our playbooks for our entrepreneur program. I believe our playbooks have always been graduate-level programs and our entrepreneurs are students with an active interest to go deep with these playbooks, build on their basic undergraduate entrepreneurship knowledge, and reach higher levels of growth.

The product thinking and other entrepreneurial skills are still extremely relevant, and I am comforted by the fact that there are many community partners from accelerators like Upekkha to conclaves like NPC and event-workshop formats like ProductGeeks which are investing efforts to build solid product thinking & growth skills.

As the SaaS eco-system evolves, and as previous graduate topics like desk sales & marketing are better understood, we need to build new graduate-level programs which address critical & impactful market gaps but are underserved. We need to help startups with meaningful & rapid orbit shifts over the next 2-3 years.

Discovering 3 Shifts for SaaS

Having come to this understanding I began to explore where our playbooks could continue to be a vibrant graduate-level program and replicate our success from the earlier playbooks. Similar to an entrepreneur’s journey, these three shifts became transparent through the many interactions and explorations of SaaS entrepreneurs.

Market Shift with AI/ML for SaaS

There is no doubt that AI is a tectonic shift. The convergence of big data availability, maturity of algorithms, and affordable cloud AI/ML platforms, has made it easy for SaaS startups to leverage AI/ML. During a chance roundtable learning session on Julia with Dr. Viral Shah & Prof Alan Edelman, it was clear that many entrepreneurs – head down into their growth challenges – were not aware of the realities behind the AI hype. Some thought AI/ML should be explored by their tech team, others felt it required a lot of effort & resources. The real challenge, however, is to discover & develop a significantly higher order AI-enabled value to customers than was feasible 2 years ago. While AI is a technology-driven shift, the implications for finding the right product value and business model are even greater.

As I explored the AI trend I saw a pattern of “gold rush” – build a small feature with rudimentary AI, market your product as an AI product… – making early claims with small changes which do not move the needle. It became clear that a step-by-step pragmatic thinking by our SaaS startups was required to build an AI-based leapfrog value proposition. This could help bring our startups to be at “par” and potentially even leap ahead of our global brethren. Here was an opportunity to create a level playing field, to compete with global players and incumbents alike.

To validate my observations, I did quick small research on SaaS companies outside of India on their approach with AI. I found quite a few startups where AI was already being leveraged intrinsically and others who were still trying to make sense. Investments varied from blogging about the AI trend, branding one as a thought leader, to actually building and delivering a strongly differentiated product proposition. E.g.:

There are no successes, yet! Our startups like Eka, Wingify, FreshWorks, WebEngage… have all been experimenting with AI/ML, stumbling and picking themselves up to build & deliver a higher level of value. Some others are setting up an internal playground to explore & experiment. And many others are waiting on the shore unsure of how to board the AI ship.

How do we enable our companies to create new AI playgrounds to analyze, surface, validate and develop higher order customer values & efficiencies? To chart a fruitful journey with AI/ML there are many challenges that need to be solved. And doing it as a group running together has a better chance of success.

The AI+SaaS game has just begun and it is the right time for our hungry entrepreneurs to Aspire for the Gold on a reasonable level playing field.

Shift to Platform Products

As market needs change, the product needs a transform. As new target segments get added different/new product assumptions come into play. In both these scenarios existing products begin to age rapidly and it becomes important for startups to re-invent their product offerings. To deal with such changes startups must experiment and iterate with agility. They require support from a base “internal” platform to allow them to transform from a single product success strategy to scaling with multiple products strategy.

This “internal” base platform – an infrastructure & layout of technology components to interconnect data & horizontal functional layers – would help to build & support multiple business specific problem-solution products (vertical logics). The products created on such a platform provide both independent as well as a combined value proposition for the customers.

Many startups (Zendesk, Freshdesk, Eka, WebEngage…) have undertaken the painful approach of factoring an internal platform to transform their strategy & opportunity. Zoho has been constantly reinventing itself and launching new products on a common platform, some of which are upending incumbent rivals in a very short period of time. WebEngage transformed itself from a “tool” into an open platform product.

“As the dependency on our software grew, customers needed more flexibility to be able to use their data to solve a wide range of business problems…significant difference in the way we build products now. We have unlocked a lot of value by converting ourselves into an open platform and enabling customer data to flow seamlessly across many products.” – Avlesh Singh, WebEngage

The effort to build an internal platform appropriately architected to support growing business needs (many yet unknown) is non-trivial and requires a platform thinking mindset for increased business development. It must be architected to allow rapid co-creation of new & unique product values in collaboration with external or market platforms. This can help the startup be a formidable player in the growing “platform economy”.

Leveraging Potential Strategic Partnerships

A strategic partner offers 2 benefits for startups. First is the obvious ability to supercharge the startup’s GTM strategy with effective distribution & scale. How does one make a strategic partnership? Pitching to a strategic partner is very different from pitching to a customer or investor. PSPs look for something that is working and where they can insert themselves and make the unit economics even better. 

“I thought I knew my pitch and had the details at my fingertips. But then I started getting really valuable, thought-out feedback…I had to focus on pitching to partners, not customers.” – Pallav Nadhani, FusionCharts

The second leverage with a partner is the ability to innovate in the overlap of the partner’s products & offerings and the startup’s product values. A good partner is always looking for startups which can co-create a unique value proposition and impact an extremely large customer base.

“…we still have only three four percent market share when it comes to customers. So if we have to participate we have to recognize that we are not gonna be able to do it alone we’re going to have to have a strategy to reach out to the entire marketplace and have a proposition for the entire marketplace…you need to (do it) through partnerships.” – Shikha Sharma, MD Axis Bank

Both these partnership intents if nurtured well can bring deep meaningful relationship which can further transcend scale into a more permanent model (investment, M&A…).

Working with the 3 Shifts of SaaS

While each shift is independent in its own importance, they are also inter-related. E.g. an internal platform can allow a startup to co-create with a partner more effectively. Partners are always interested in differentiated leading-edge values such as what is possible with leveraging AI/ML. Magic is created when a startup leverages an internal platform, to co-create a strong AI-enabled value, in the overlap & gap with potential strategic partners.

And that’s what I see

I see a vibrant eco-system of SaaS startups in India working on creating leading global products. Vibrancy built on top of the basic product thinking skills and catapulted into a new orbit by navigating the 3 shifts.

“Reading market shifts isn’t easy. Neither is making mindset shifts. Startups are made or unmade on their bets on market/mindset shifts. Like stock market bubbles, shifts are fully clear only in hindsight. At iSPIRT, we are working to help entrepreneurs navigate the many overlapping yet critical shifts.” – Sharad Sharma, iSPIRT

Through our roundtables, we have selected six startups as the first running group cohort for our AI/ML for SaaS playbooks (Acebot, Artoo, FusionCharts, InstaSafe, LegalDesk & SignEasy).

If you are hungry and ready to explore these uncharted shifts, we are bringing these new playbooks tracks for you.

Please let us know your interest by filling out this form.

Also, if you are interested in volunteering for our playbook tracks, we can really use your support! There is a lot to be done to structure and build the playbook tracks and the upcoming SaaSx5 for these shifts for SaaS. Please use the same form to indicate your support.

Ending this note with a sense of beginning, I believe that our startups have a real opportunity to lead instead of fast-follow, create originals instead of clones. They need help to do this as a running group instead of a solo contestant. It is with this mission – bring our startups at par on the global arena – that I am excited to support the ProductNation.

I would like to acknowledge critical insights from Avlesh Singh (WebEngage), Manav Garg (Eka), Shekhar Kirani (Accel Partners), Sharad Sharma (iSPIRT). Also am thankful for the support from our mavens, volunteers & founders who helped with my research, set up the roundtables, and draft my perspective with active conversations on this topic: Ankit Singh (Wibmo/MyPoolin), Anukriti Chaudhari (iSPIRT), Arvi Krishnaswamy (GetCloudCherry), Ganesh Suryanarayanan (Tata GTIO), Deepa Bachu (Pensaar), Deepak Vincchi (JuliaComputing), Karthik KS (iSPIRT), Manish Singhal (Pi Ventures), Nishith Rastogi (Locus.sh), Pallav Nadhani (FusionCharts), Praveen Hari (iSPIRT), Rakesh Mondal (RakeshMondal.in), Ravindra Krishnappa (Acebot.ai), Sandeep Todi (Remitr), Shrikanth Jangannathan (PipeCandy), Sunil Rao (Lightspeed), Tathagat Varma (ChinaSoft), Titash Neogi (Seivelogic), and many other volunteers & founders.

All images are credited to Rakesh Mondal 

Are you ready to Jump with AI/ML? [Updated Session Dates]

[Update 6-Apr] New April Session Dates – Symposium RT is being scheduled on Saturdays for Bangalore & Chennai (21st & 28th April). 

Playbooks for Electrifying SaaS and more.

This is what we call the fourth industrial revolution…And companies are really transforming and bringing all these new technologies to connect with their customers in new ways.
Dreamforce 2017 Keynotes, Marc Benioff.

There is no doubt that Artificial Intelligence (AI), is one of the recent “tectonic” market shifts, creating a change in landscape, market, and opportunity. AI and  Machine Learning (ML), now in its eternal spring, has a deep impact on SaaS evolution. While the incumbent companies like Salesforce, Zendesk, Workday, have all invested heavily in AI, also global challengers across many verticals from Sales, BPM, CRM… to Security are focused on building higher order efficiencies and automation through AI/ML.

Over the last few years, our Indian SaaS entrepreneurs trumped the global SaaS growth by leveraging mobile first as there was no baggage of desktop, reduced sales & onboarding cost by perfecting the art of Inside Sales & Inbound Marketing, and efficient after sales support & service by leveraging remote success representatives. Our SaaS Mavens helped disseminate these leverages by sharing the best practices & modeling internal flywheels & experimentations. Many SaaS entrepreneurs successfully assimilated and got a significant boost in their growth journey. These levers are now basic table stakes for most SaaS startups.

AI has no breakthrough success stories, but it is helping create a level playing field – especially for our Indian entrepreneurs – to compete with global players and incumbents alikeStartups willing to make the jump, adapt AI into their products & business models to create meaningful differentiation, will experience a strong wind in their sails to leapfrog over the players who don’t.

Our entrepreneurs have a rare opportunity to be early adopters & global trailblazers. 

To take advantage of this our entrepreneurs ask very valid questions.

Q. Why & How should we entrepreneurs navigate this AI market shift? 
Q. How should we, given that we are untrained in AI, grapple with the 360° impact of AI on product, business, and technology?
Q. What AI leverage can we develop without requiring expensive investments for constrained resources? 

How do we enable our companies to create new AI playgrounds to analyze, surface, validate and develop higher order customer values & efficiencies?

AI Playbooks

Since adapting to the AI “tectonic” shift requires a new paradigm of thinking, we have launched a multi-step playbooks track focused on Playing with AI/ML for Indian entrepreneurs. In line with iSPIRT’s mission, our playbooks purpose is to help market players navigate market shifts. The goal is to bring the practitioner knowledge from AI Mavens AI-first entrepreneurs who are further ahead in their AI journey – to the AI-hungry startups and help them perfect the model of working with AI, get traction towards a meaningful AI-enhanced value, and become trailblazers for the community. If you are an AI-hungry startup who has either taken the plunge with AI/ML but early in your journey, or are actively looking to leverage AI/ML for your current products, then following the stepped approach below may help:

Step 1 – Attend an AI/ML Symposium RT – Getting prepared with Why AI and How AI. In our first kickoff session on 10-Mar, we had great discussions on AI data maturity, what can drive your AI approach, and more with our AI Mavens and ten startups (read more).

Step 2 – A cohort of startups from step 1 will be taken through multiple AI/ML Playbook RT for How AI – deep dives on topics to help with structuring an internal AI playground, competency with data product management, product positioning & branding, business model shifts, and more.
These playbook RTs will help the startups carve out a lean playground for rapid experimentation and analysis, with a 3-4 person team of a data PM, & engineers. The team, actively lead by the founder, runs regular sprints (business/product/engineering sprints) of experimentation and validation, and have review touchpoints at intervals with AI-Mavens and the cohort as a running group.
There is also an optional Tech Training Lab to build internal ML competency with a multi-day workshop with Julia experts.

Four startups have been initially selected for the cohort for the step 2 AI playbook RTs (Acebot, FusionCharts, InstaSafe & LegalDesk).

SaaSx5 – June 2018

We are working to set up the 5th version of our marquee SaaSx to engage with the larger SaaS startup community. We will definitely focus on the impact of AI/ML on SaaS and have workshops based on our momentum of the playbooks track on various topics above. Date & details to be announced shortly.

The AI+SaaS game has just begun and it is the right time for our hungry entrepreneurs to Aspire for the Gold, on a reasonable level playing field.

Click to Nominate or Register a startup for the AI/ML Playbooks Track.

Dates & Venue

AI/ML Symposium RT #1 – 10th Mar (Sat) 2p – 5p Done (read more)
AI/ML Symposium RT #2 – 21st Apr (Sat) 11a – 2p @ Bangalore TBD
AI/ML Symposium RT #3– 28th Apr (Sat) 10a – 1p @ Chennai TBD

May the force be with you!

* All iSPIRT playbooks are pro-bono, closed room, founder-level, invite-only sessions. The only thing we require is a strong commitment to attend all sessions completely, to come prepared, to be open to learning & unlearning, and to share your context within a trusted environment. All key learnings are public goods & the sessions are governed by the Chatham House Rule.

Featured image modified from source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jedimentat/7557276684

Launching the SaaS Survey 2017 – by SignalHill and iSPIRT

The third edition of the popular India SaaS survey is here.

As always there are 2 parts, Form A, a 100% anonymous survey, and Form B, a distinct & separate form capturing company details for us to share the final report. Please note that forms A & B are kept distinct to protect your privacy. Both together take about 10 minutes to complete. Scroll down to read more about the survey.

India SaaS survey

image credit – Nick Youngson

What is the survey about?

Every burgeoning ecosystem requires a robust set of benchmarks to compare itself against and reach better levels of performance. Signal Hill and iSPIRT Foundation have been at the forefront of addressing this need for the Indian SaaS ecosystem. The survey aims to anonymously benchmark Indian SaaS companies to better understand the unique challenges they face and the unique advantages they leverage, creating a single reference point updated annually.

If you found the results of the 2016 SaaS survey valuable, please help us make the third version of this survey the most meaningful and relevant. It is a marker of the maturity of our Indian SaaS ecosystem.

What’s New?

What sets this survey apart from the previous two editions is the addition of two new sections to better understand, (a) how SaaS product companies achieve Product-Market Fit and (b) the effective metrics behind successful Inside Sales engines. With the addition of these 2 sections, the survey is poised to provide a complete analysis of the India SaaS advantage covering the product, market, sales & customer support.

Here are the takeaways from the 2015 & 2016 India SaaS Surveys:

2015: Horizontal applications dominated vertical specific ones
2016: Vertical focussed SaaS players occupy majority share of the scaled and funded respondent pie.

2015: 84% of respondents reported looking overseas for growth, ranking North America as their #1 target geography
2016: Unchanged, the US is the most favoured destination for Indian SaaS startups. With that said, whilst companies are building for global markets, the first market for companies to get traction in is typically India.

2015 & 2016: The median CAC payback period (for >$1Mn ARR) is 6-12 months. 

Staying Focused And Achieving The Product-Market Fit Are Key To Managing CAC.

It takes 10 minutes to fill the Survey

To participate in the 2017 survey, respondents will need to fill in two simple forms:

  • Form A, a 100% anonymous survey, 100% multiple choice, and
  • Form B, a distinct & separate form capturing company details for us to share the final report.

Please note that forms A & B are kept distinct to protect your privacy. Your 10-minute contribution to this effort will be hugely useful in helping the Indian SaaS ecosystem benchmark itself.

Some highlights from the web

ET Tech, 2018 is poised to be the year of Indian SaaS explosion

An anticipated increase in global spending on information technology over the course of this year will be a big driver for SaaS companies, even after factoring in changes in political climate such as Brexit and churns in global markets.

Tracxn Report for India SaaS (2017) 

The growth in SMEs and their increased cloud adoption and government initiatives such as Digital India are also expected to drive the SaaS market. Increasingly mobile workforces are also pushing the adoption of SaaS with startups and companies providing mobile-first applications.

 

Experiments with psychology that got us 4x Conversions on our website

SaaS Conversions - Astra SecurityAttracting potential customers on your website is always challenging. While you somehow manage to figure that out by SEO, Adwords and Social Media Marketing, the second challenge comes up – how to get those potential customers to pay. Getting customers to website is the tip of the iceberg, getting them to pay is the real challenge. We found ourselves in the same position a few months ago. Our challenge seemed only more humongous because:

  1. We are a SaaS & services company: The conversions happen on the basis of a potential customer’s experience on our website. We do not see or talk in-person with our customer. If the website is convincing enough, customer buys our solution otherwise just moves on.  It’s not a shirt which comes with cash-on-delivery option or a contract which can be discussed in a starbucks. Imagine you have a huge rock which you are supposed to break with just a small sledgehammer. That’s how we felt about getting conversions with the limited budgets and resources we had.
  2. We provide website security: Our solution Astra is a website security suite providing plug-n-play firewall with the power of security researcher community making security insanely easy for website owners. While we knew that an average website gets fifty odd attacks every day, but that’s not what website owners believe until they see for themselves. Small and medium businesses have a tendency of not considering security until hacked, making our job only harder. The classic Steve Jobs quote ‘Customers do not know what they want’ somewhat applied in our case.  As after sign-up we haven’t seen a single customer leaving our product. But then, these were the same people who were saying they never get attacked.

While we were getting a couple of hundred hits a day on our website, none was converting. With the above two challenges, the task of getting potential customers to pay seemed only more difficult. We realized that website is THE place where we need to focus our energies on. A customer bases his complete decision on what your website makes him feel and what you want your customer to feel is completely in your hands. The next few months were exciting for us as we tried a number of different things. It was interesting to see some strategies work and some fail badly. I’m sure you could use some of them in your e-commerce shop, ticketing website or a SaaS business. A few simple strategies that worked for us and made customers click on that Sign-up button: 

  • Colors Matter: It’s 2017 and your website needs to look from this generation. I see businesses using websites which look so old that they could be put in museum. The design, user experience and most importantly color scheme plays a huge rule in what customer perceives when he lands on your website.

    92.6 percent customers have said that they put most importance on visual factors when purchasing products – source

    A few decisions (with rationale behind them) which we took while deciding color scheme for Astra’s website:

    • Main theme would be blue: Simply because blue symbolizes trust. In our domain, that is website security trust plays a huge role. Customers trust us with critical data of their website. More so, customers of our customers trust them with their sensitive data. Blue is used by brands like Dell, AT&T, JP Morgan etc. Clearly, majority of businesses where trust makes a huge difference use blue. You can have a look at this infograph and see how colors and directly proportional to branding.
    • Contrasting color would be green: While having a primary color is important, it’s equally important to have a complementary color. The complementary color should go well with the primary color. The reason we chose green was because it went will with blue and signified growth and safety.
  • Customers Should Feel at Home: When a potential customer enters your website, they should not feel like they’ve landed on an alien planet. It’s important to show them the things they can relate to (something I read under environmental psychology). A huge growth hack for facebook was to translate their website into local languages so that people can use it easily, cutting down a huge barrier to entry. For small businesses, translation isn’t a viable option and it wasn’t for us too. Especially when you are in SaaS business like us and selling globally. Instead, here’s what we did:Astra-Security-HomePagesYes, you guessed it right! Different home pages for different users. We saw the top countries from where we were getting traffic and the top countries where our potential customers were. Depending on the user location, we load our website with a specific home-page. The home-page has an image which a customer can relate to. Our central theme was ‘great geographical places’ of a specific country/continent where the user belongs to. If you are opening our website from India you see the beautiful marine drive and if you open from France you see the legendary Eiffel Tower. If a customer is not from the top list of country/continent from where we were getting traffic then he see’s a general image of a girl browsing through Astra’s dashboard (showing them subtly what’s coming their way). Something like this can be applied to an e-commerce business too.
    An example: Show products that sell the most in a specific city on your home slider if a visitor is coming from that city. Let’s say a certain set of shoes are selling the most in Mumbai for Yute (a friend’s startup) then his home page slider can show those shoes first to a visitor coming from Mumbai. Similarly, for different cities based on the data collected.
  • People Love to Talk: If someone has visited your website, then for sure something in your offering attracted them. If a customer has stayed on your website for more that 20-seconds, then he is interested in what you are offering. A good strategy is to engage customers who have spent more that 20-seconds on your website via website chat widget. People love to talk! Initially, you should not try and use bots for this but do it yourself.  So, we experimented with various online chat services (we were aiming free ones) ranging from mylivechat, freshchat, resend etc. to finally settle with this amazing one called ‘Tawk.to’. We found it feature rich, open-source, continuously getting enhanced, mobile friendly and ofcourse free. Adding the chat feature was just the start, in addition here’s what we did:
    • A Chat They Use Everyday: What are the two mediums that you use to chat everyChat - SaaS Astra Security day? I bet the top answers would be Whatsapp or Facebook Messenger. These are two chat services which people use without blinking an eye to communicate on daily (read hourly) basis with people they love. You don’t think twice before shooting up Whatsapp or Messenger apps and that’s exactly the way we wanted our potential customers to feel. So, we made the UI of our chat system similar to Facebook messenger. They were way less hesitant before clicking that familiar looking chat button unlike before. We saw a huge rate of people asking questions about Astra via chat!
    • People Love People: A chat widget that just says ‘We are here to chat’ or ‘Hi, ask us your questions’ just won’t cut it. Your potentials customers should know that they are talking to a real person. This is where putting a picture becomes important. We added a picture of our team member on chat widget and it made the widget look much more welcoming.
    • Triggers: Sometimes customers don’t start the chat on their own. An important feature which all good chat systems have is ‘triggers’. This is where, depending on the page a customer is you can ask them if they want anything. The trick here is not to throw out a boring ‘if you need anything, ask me’ kinda automatic trigger. But go for open ended interesting questions which are conversational and should feel that a real person is asking them. So, instead of saying asking a customer who is visiting our Magento security page ‘Hi, if you have question about Astra for Magento feel free to ask’  we first ask him ‘Hey, do you use Magento’. Now since he has landed on Magento page, I am 75% sure he uses Magento. But this open ended question gets him in a conversation better!
  • Words Make or Break: Just like important design, UI, UX and color the choice of words play a huge role. Once a customer feels home on your website, the second thing he does is read what he has to say. Good UI/UX buys you additional ten seconds of a customers attention span and in those ten seconds a customers reads what you have to say. I’ve seen people having top-notch products and spoiling it all by throwing in so much technical jargon on the website that customer gets turned off. My note specifically to my engineer turned entrepreneurs (I’m one too):
    • You use AI in your product? Customers don’t care
    • You use machine learning? Customers don’t care
    • You doing NLP?That’s amazing but still: Customers don’t care!My point being, ‘solve a problem, don’t sell a solution’. I used to do the same, telling them the tech we use and the features Astra has and the list continued. Until one fine day when a potential customer asked ‘that’s fine if you use marcov chains in your machine learning algo, but how does it help me?’. This is exactly what should come across on your website too. Tell your potential leads the headache your pill is going to take away from them, not the ingredients of that pill.Here’s how Astra’s homepage looks like:Astra-Website-FirewallWe simply tell the customer ‘We assure security while you do business’. In one line the customer knows what we will do for him. The line below is followed by a few technical terms once which a lead only reads once they’ve learned the problem being solved for them. The website content should be written in a way that an end user think as if you are holding their hand and giving them a personal walk-through of your offerings. Using the ‘You’ throughout surely helps. You can read more here.
  • Make Them Think: You can make your leads think what you want them to think, just by improving your website flow. I’ll give you an example of our pricing page where we tried to give only that information which helps the user making the decision and eliminating any other jargon:
    • Show Them What’s on the Offer: If they’re reached the pricing page, it mans they like what they see. It’s good to show them the product. In e-commerce, you shop them the pictures of phone or the shirt they chose. In our case, we show them picture of the intuitive dashboard they’ll get.
    • Get to the Point: Now that they know what could be their, it’s time to show the pricing. I believe there should not be a delay or too many elements above the pricing area because that confuses people. They’ve clicked the pricing button which means they want to know the prices quickly, so that’s how it should be.
    • Social Proof: Before clicking that final Buy Now or Sign-up button, it’s good to assure leads that it’s the best decision they’ll take. The best way to do it? Testimonials and logos of customers you have already worked with. This assures them that if other businesses like theirs trust you, they can too. For e-commerce businesses, customer reviews always help.You see, using the right words and placing the right sections one after the other help customer think what you them to think. Placing random sections at random places only confuses customers. Say less, but say right.

Engaging visitors and converting them into customers is a science. And just like science, it requires a lot of experimentation. These experiments when work and when not should not be quantified by gut or intuition. Rather, proper tools should be used to see the effect of every change you make in your path to get more customers. A quick recommendation would be:

  • Google Analytics: Just don’t put the tracking code and forget, use it. It’s a very feature rich tool which sometime does require a learning curve but it’s worth it.
  • Mixpanel: If you want to profile your users, nothing beats mixpanel here.
  • Hotjar: Helps you understand how users interact with your website by recording their actions, tracking their mouse moments and clicks.
  • Mautic: This is one beast which can help you run email campaigns, manage drips and email lists. Quite power open-source tool but does require a learning curve.

Every second google gets more that 40,000 searches which makes it 3.5 billion searches/day. Getting visitors to your website is relatively easy, true art lies in converting those visitors into users. Right mix of creativity and science with an amazing offering is all you need. Keep hustling!

I shared our top learnings with you, would love to hear your feedback. If it’s bad I’ll write better, if it’s good I’ll write more. You can contact me on facebook or follow on twitter.

PNCamp#3 — Product Teardown UrbanPiper

Before writing something down about our experience at the recently held Product Nation Camp (PNCamp) product teardown session, I think it would be better to give a short perspective on the overall event from the viewpoint of a fairly reclusive startup in the B2B Saas space.

UrbanPiper has been around for some time; however, for a pretty long period, we haven’t taken part in any SaaS focused events. Well we did, but all of them were in Bangalore. The ones that we attended too, were mostly about networking with hundreds of people milling about and ready to deliver an elevator pitch if you so much as said “hello” to them. Nothing inherently wrong about such a gathering, but if networking isn’t your one-all-be-all purpose, these events stop making sense once you’ve attended one or two of them.
The PNCamp was suggested to us by one of our advisors. Not sure what to expect, the only reason we agreed to go was because we hadn’t attended any event for a decent length of time.

The event turned out to be a delightful experience — spread across a full day (Saturday), it was a small (80-100 people) gathering of focused individuals from a curated list of startups, with an evolved sense of SaaS business and products reflecting a matured outlook towards problem-solving. There was a team (including the founder) from the matured startup – Zenoti, which anchored most of the sessions and did all that they could to share their learning with the rest of us fledgling startups. The day’s events were well regulated to avoid any feeling of drag creeping in, and at all times, it felt like everyone was invested with a great deal of interest and purpose to contribute to each other’s box of learning.

The product teardown was the first session scheduled after a short inaugural talk by the PN team and the guest of honour – Mr. Jay Pullur (Founder of Pramati Technologies).

As it usually is with all things unprepared for, UrbanPiper was invited as the first startup to step up for the teardown. Not having any previous experience of a product teardown, I had no idea what good or bad was in store, and that in a strange way helped me calm down and focus upon telling the audience a good narrative about the UrbanPiper story.

THE TEARDOWN PROCESS

The teardown allows the speaker, a representative of the startup core team, to speak about their startup for 5-10 minutes. As part of the initial presentation, some basic questions are asked by any member of the audience. These questions are usually of the nature to understand a bit better about the proposition of the startup.

Once the presentation is through and the first wave of questions answered, the team from Zenoti takes over. They systematically explored aspects of the technology platform – the finished product, product interfaces, on-boarding process – but it all starts with the “deconstruction” of the website.

For us, the UrbanPiper website (https://urbanpiper.com) had been an effort to put up a decent web presence. Where “decent” merely meant that it was better as a façade than what our competitors had, and it somewhat managed to convey the platform’s proposition.

The following is what we felt manages to tick most of the checkboxes when it came to a Saas-based startup’s website:

UrbanPiper

The next 15 minutes was a logical and well-executed act of unravelling the pointlessness of doing things half-baked and half-thought. While the focus was directed towards our website, but it didn’t take much effort to see signs of the same problems when it comes to setting a product vision, selling, pricing, negotiating, fund raising, marketing, etc.

The primary theme of the teardown can be summarized as:

  1. What have you built and how do you intend to sell it
  2. Does your website echo the thought-process expressed in #1
  3. The website teardown focuses on:
    1. The messaging around the primary proposition of your product/platform
    2. The explanation of how your target audience can use your platform
    3. The long-tail value of using your product/platform
    4. How has your platform made a difference for the merchants/clients who have been using it for quite some time

TAKEAWAYS

As ominous as a “teardown” sounds, the first thing to know is that it’s a very friendly event. Instead of feeling defensive about getting “exposed”, it is best to view the teardown as a get together of well-informed friends who point out the gaps in your plan to save you the blushes in the future. Think of the last time when a friend of yours pointed out that your fly is open – that probably best sums up the purpose of the teardown.

Another important aspect is the quality of feedback–you have some of the best minds, who have most certainly been-there-done-that, offering you their undivided attention so as to offer you advice which is best suited for you.

For us, the key takeaways boiled down to:

  • Narrow down the area UrbanPiper wants to focus on. Instead of positioning the platform for every merchant, it would make it much easier to scale if we simply focused on being the best in one domain, and then decide to pursue another one.
  • Overhaul the website to focus on simple messaging instead of using buzzwords, which would most likely make no sense to even the people you’d like to sell to.
  • Break down the journey a merchant would have from not using our platform to the benefits of signing up and thereafter.
  • Last, but certainly not the least, build out the product and the website with a focus on selling globally. This involves a change in setting out a more global plan, but the start needs to be with the website–which should reflect in no uncertain terms the intent to cater to a global audience.

CURRENT SITUATION

It’s been a week since the PNCamp, but we have already finished work on the first iteration of making some much needed changes to our website. This iteration is by no means a finished product, but it certainly embraces some of the direction that we should be taking with our platform’s positioning.

It gives me a lot of pleasure to unveil the new look of our website–

While this is just our first iteration, there are some key elements that we wanted to address:

  • Focus the messaging around the domain that works for us.
  • Take the visitor through various parts of the platform in a gradual and relevant manner – the features should unravel themselves as an easy to understand narrative.
  • Use styling which gives the site a crisp look and feel, such as to measure up to the expectations of a global platform.
  • Add a blog (https://urbanpiper.com/blog) section to write about the platform and make a visitor find out more. Not to mention, reap the benefits of better SEO.
  • Prominently showcase a video which ideally has a current merchant talking about the platform.

Urbanpiper2

THE WAY FORWARD

We have just begun an interesting journey of making UrbanPiper relevant for the next phase of growth. During the PNCamp, Sudheer (founder of Zenoti) had suggested that I read a book – Crossing the chasm (Geoffrey Moore). I’ve just read the first chapter of the book, and already it feels like there’s going to be lots to learn from it.

Whatever be in store, it will surely help us rediscover ourselves at an important juncture of growth for UrbanPiper.

If I were to pause for a moment and reflect upon the events and the actions we’ve taken, it’s not like there was a grand revelation or something. Working in startups, we all carry a bunch of latent thoughts. However, in the everyday hectic operations of running a startup, we often lose “perspective”. If we’re lucky, then we have some good friends from other startups with whom we hang out regularly, and exchange notes, which in-turn helps us gain some of the lost “perspective”. But then, having friends from startups which have tread a path similar to yours, call for rather long odds.

Events are usually good to meet an eclectic group of individuals from the startup world, but then, most of them are primarily about networking, and soon lose value for all the effort that needs to be put in for attending them. And then, we just become lazy, letting our latent thoughts remain buried, while we continue to endure every aspect of a tunnel-vision syndrome.

For what it’s worth, the Product Nation Camp, was certainly a refreshing take on the idea of a startup conference – or rather, unconference. You’ve got a room full of smart people, doing smart things, and wanting to help you see things differently – to help you gain some of your lost perspective.

Guest Post by Anirban Majumdar @ urbanpiper.com

The Making of #PNcamp3 #Hyderabad

Just came back, feeling happy, from Hyderabad after doing the #PNcamp3. The drive from the airport in the evening to Gachibowli was pleasant and I got to see lot of construction in the city. I felt like I was driving in the Silicon Valley highway with wide roads and people driving in their lanes. In the evening, when I drove back from the ISB Campus, it took me just 25 minutes to reach to the airport.

Sunset near the HYD airport

Some background about what we have done so far in the Hyderabad Ecosystem

We have managed to do around 5 playbooks so far, 3 of them have been around Products, 1 of them was by Suresh Sambandam on Nuts & Bolts selling to the US, one of them was on Selling by Aneesh Reddy of Capillary. Few months back, we did put together a playbook around Product Showcase, inspite of having 8–10 confirmations, no one showed up except for Niraj from Hiver who was facilitating the playbook.

I was little upset as I felt founders in Hyderabad did not value the playbooks. I stayed quite for few months and then recently wrote a blog post on my contribution to Chennai and how it is now positioned as a SaaS/B2B hub of India. Chaitanya of Ozonetel tweeted saying he will write a blog post on how Hyderabad is emerging as a B2B hub. I felt guilty of not making an active contribution to the city. So after SaaSx, I thought of putting together PNcamp3, it’s a light format and adds value to the Pre-Product Market Fit stage companies.

The Hyderabad Tech Eco-system

Just to give you a little brief about the Hyderabad tech eco-system, they have an awesome Incubator/co-working space called T-Hub which is truly a global facility. Some of the leading companies from Hyderabad in the B2B space are: Pramati Technologies, Zenoti, Ozonetel, AgileCrm and in B2C we have MeraEvents and NowFloats is in the SMB space. Also you have some emerging players such as ReportGarden, AppVirality, Robustest and few others. This is just a partial list to give an understanding of the tech ecosystem. There are many more which I might have missed.

The team which pulled PNcamp together

Few months back, Shekhar Kirani of Accel had connected me with Sudheer Koneru of Zenoti as Sudheer was keen to get connected to the ecosystem and contribute some of his learnings. Initially, I wasn’t even aware about them, but the more I spoke with Sudheer I found him to be someone who was keen to help the Indian eco-system, keen to do something for Hyderabad. He flew in from Hyderabad as I requested him to attend one playbook before he does any for us….that was a big commitment and he made it happen. I’m quite fortunate to have leveraged Sudheer for 2 playbooks(1 in BLR & 1 in HYD), he was a mentor at PNgrowth and shared his learnings at SaaSx4. Sudheer was the first person who agreed to host #PNcamp in Hyderabad. I then reached out to Chaitanya as he has always been there to support in any initiative that I have reached out to him for. I had been working with Laxman from AppVirality on Beyond Founders…it hasn’t taken off, but I know he was committed and very keen to contribute.

I just shared the format of PNcamp2 that we did in Pune and I said, let’s target around the 75 B2B founders in HYD and do something for startups which are in the early stages. According to Chaitanya, it was a high number, so we settled for around 35–40 as we did not have enough B2B companies in HYD. We did the first blog post announcing PNcamp and noticed that we just got 1 application in 1 week. I realised that we have to probably do little more outreach to get the 35–40 number. Then Sainath Gupta heard about the PNCamp in Hyderabad, he shared it on Facebook and I did speak to him to help us out. Without knowing what we were getting into, he agreed and I set a target for around 75 B2B startups, probably around 40 from HYD and the remaining from other parts of India. I also told him that to get to 75, we have to probably get around 130 applications as we follow a tight curation process. I did update Laxman that we were not doing too well on registrations and he did reach out to Praveen Dorna who was very active in the ecosystem. I got both Sainath & Praveen on a call and requested for help. Both of them took on the target of getting around 75 people for PNcamp. Luckily, we managed to get around 90 applications out of which around 63 were short-listed and eventually 55 showed up for the event.

The day at PNcamp3

We started at 11am sharp with a warm welcome by Sudheer. This was followed by an inspiring talk by Jay Pullur. It’s safe to call him the father of the product ecosystem for Hyderabad. He started Pramati in 1998 and was one of the leading product companies in the Middleware space. Jay shared some insights on what it takes to build a global product company from India. There were lot of questions which came and he gave his insights to the startups and I could see that maturity and the depth of product knowledge that he had gained over the last 19 years.

Audience at #PNcamp3

We quickly moved on to the Product Tear down sessions. I was very nervous till the last minute on how the session would be conducted….but Sudheer and his team which included Mrityunjay, Anand & Bharath did a fabulous job of shortlisting 5 companies.

They actually tested out the functionality, ordered stuff, called up the startups like a customer and availed their service. They did a thorough analysis of their website, their market, their messaging, etc. One of the key things mentioned by the team was copy…copy…copy as the basics were not in place from few companies. This was something which Shekhar had also mentioned when he did the tear down in SaaSx.

Startup going through the Tear down process

The startups who presented got some good value and appreciated the efforts put by Sudheer’s team. Product Tear down is a good format which was started at SaaSx and now we are hopeful that we will be able to take this virtual.

Apart from this, we tried a Pitch tear down session, without the VCs, the session went well and i’m glad that most of the founders were trying to help each other in the session. Kevin William David of Siftery shared some thoughts on how you should be launching your product in ProductHunt. The session was around Product Launch…but a few companies shared their learning on how they launched the product…but it was ok…as the idea was to get them talking.

We were around 5:30pm when Sudheer started his own learnings on Building a Enterprise company for Global markets. He shared his learnings and how they have been obsessed in understanding their customer business. Sudheer and his colleagues actually bought software from the competition to understand how it works and many times went to customer to learn from them….never to sell. That was a very powerful insight. Most of the folks are always in the sell mode when they meet customers…but it was so good to see someone going to meet potential customer to understand how their business works.

Sudheer Koneru from Zenoti

They exactly understood their customers’ business, only then pitched on how their product can add value to their business. Sudheer’s session was very interactive and almost every attendee in the room had a question which he answered patiently. The end time for PNcamp3 was around 6pm and as with all interesting events, it kept stretching. knew that folks were flying back in the same evening, so around 6:45pm I had to bring it to a logical conclusion. We have collected feedback and the NPS score for the event is ~78 which makes my colleague Rajan happy 🙂

Tweet from one of the attendees.

Sudheer hosted some of the folks at his house after the session and it was great to catch up with some folks informally in the evening. I had to rush around 7:45pm as I had a flight at 9pm….and somehow I made it 🙂

I feel happy after making a small contribution to the HYD eco-system and I hope to work with the team again to put together the next #PNcamp in the city. Also, thanks to ISB for allowing us to host PNcamp in their wonderful facility. Was blown away by the infrastructure that the city has.

Blown away by the commitment of folks like Sudheer Koneru, Chaitanya Reddy, Laxman, Sainath Gupta, Praveen & Ronak Samantray for putting a great show. We just pulled this off in less than 25 days, with just a few calls…and a few whatsapp messages.

Forget the Product, Obsess about Customer (Problems)

Attending a #PNCamp is like going to an amusement park. You know you are going to have a great time. But everything that happens still manages to amaze you in a way you do not expect.

Seth Godin

In this post, I will share my experience at the recently held #PNCamp3 at ISB, Hyderabad. This was the first Product Nation Camp held at Hyderabad and focused on early-stage B2B startups.

A bit about my startup, RobusTest. RobusTest is a software platform that helps enterprises test mobile apps better and release them faster at a significantly lesser cost. We are currently 2 years old and work with 2 leading enterprises. I came into #PNCamp3 with a burning question – how do I do sales? In the last few months, my understanding of sales has improved through reading and through real experience. At #PNCamp I was looking forward to understanding enterprise sales in a structured manner. I did get some answers and I hope you too get a few takeaways from this post.

Building a Global Product Business

The day started with Jay Pullur of Pramati Technologies exploring the topic of building a global product business from his experience of building multiple enterprise products and successfully exiting a few. Incidentally I worked with Pramati Technologies for 8 years and closely with Jay on an enterprise product.

Jay Pullur of Pramati talking about building a global product
Jay Pullur of Pramati talking about building a global product

Chefs would tell you that when making a dish, not only is it important to have the right ingredients, it is equally important that the ingredients be added at the right time and in the right mix. Jay explored both these facets – the appropriate constituents and appropriate team constitution – when building a product business.

To start with, in the building phase, you need to get the technology and the product right. Once your product is ready, you will be selling and for that you need to identify your market and your customers. In the third phase, you will be looking at scaling for which you need to focus on people and capital. It is important to remember that as a startup grows through these phases, the focus on relevant ingredients increases but it does not imply the absence of other ingredients e.g. you will need people even when you are scaling, you will need the technology even when you are selling – just that when selling your focus should be on identifying the right market and customers and when scaling your focus should be on getting the right people and having enough capital.

Jay also touched upon the different types of exits startups may have – an exit at the build stage is most probably an acquihire, an acquisition at the sell stage is most probably for the acquirer to get a foothold in the market that the product caters to. When you exit at scale, it is for the acquirer to gain a position in the market.

Product Teardown

Product Teardown is always a much awaited session because of the open and forthright feedback given by experts on existing startups and their working. Hats off to every startup which chooses to participate in this exercise. It is an acknowledgement of their willingness to confront their shortcomings and work on them.

Participants presenting at the Product Teardown
Participants presenting at the Product Teardown

5 startups presented their product – UrbanPiper, EngineerBabu, Vaave, KnightTracker, DataKatalyst  – while a crack team which spent considerable time and effort in researching the startup – right from its market space down to the minutest detail – gave feedback. As I heard the feedback given to each startup, I could see many mistakes/oversights in our own marketing and selling strategy. Following are some highlights from the product teardown.

Are customers clear about what you are offering?

Does your website clearly communicate what you are offering – to put it the right way which problem of theirs are you solving, how can a customer sign up or get more information, what they will need to pay, and many other such questions that go into “converting” a customer.

Wait, are you clear about what you are offering?

As engineers and technical geeks, most product startup founders have immense clarity about what they are building. However, most of the times we are found wanting when it comes to clarity on “which problem are we solving”, “whose problem are we solving” & “how are we solving it”. It goes without saying, that a product without customers is a hobby project at best.

Is your website communicating your value proposition or confusing your potential customer?

A rookie mistake most founders make when creating their website (or any other marketing channel) is to explain all features of their products with painstaking detail forgetting the one important part – the customer and how we intend to make his/her life better. In fact, it is not at all a bad idea to look at websites of the competition and learn a few things from them (or even copy the entire site, of course in a smart manner).

Are you selecting your customer(s) or are you catering to everyone?

When we are starting up, there is a great desire to include everyone in our customer set. This propensity, of course, ends up confusing every potential customer. It is, therefore, important to put in some thought into which customer segment to address.As is often recommended, identify your least resistant customers and go after them.

One example that was cited was nature of business ownership. As a startup when the challenge is to close a deal as fast as possible, it makes sense to target businesses which are still run by the owner rather than corporates where decision making is spread out across teams and is, shall we say, bureaucratic.

When identifying the target customer segment, it is helpful to pick as narrow a segment as possible. This helps a startup focus its efforts which is very essential considering that startups need to be very judicious with their resources.

Selling to Enterprise Customers Globally

While Jay’s session focussed on building global enterprise products, Zenoti’s Sudheer Koneru delved into selling to enterprise customers across the globe. Zenoti is a cloud-based software for spas and salons and is a successful SaaS product from India.

Sudheer Koneru talking about selling to enterprise customers globally
Sudheer Koneru talking about selling to enterprise customers globally

One of the first things that Sudheer emphasised on is that if we are targeting the global market (and we better know if we are), then all the messaging including website, language, photographs & product demos should be geared towards creating the impression that we are an international player.

On the topic of Customer Development, Sudheer narrated an impressive anecdote on how he and his team went about studying their customers’ problems. They literally got themselves massaged and manicured into customer development! They took services from different spas and salons and simulated multiple real-life scenarios. This exercise provided important insights into issues that the current offerings posed. It empowered them to talk to their customers in a language they spoke and hence, connected instantly with the customer.

An important piece of advice that Sudheer gave was to avoid selling to customers and rather focus on asking the right questions to understand their problems. Of course, it is important to ask the right questions. So instead of asking “would you like a product which does this and this”, one could ask “how do you currently do ….”, “how much times does … take ”, “how often do you create reports”, “how do you decide if you need to ….”. The answers to these questions will help one understand how to solve the customer’s problems.

The one thing

If there was one thing that I took back from #PNCamp3, it would be

forget about your product, rather obsess over your customer – rather obsess over the customer’s problems

Thanks

Last but not the least, I am grateful to the entire team behind #PNCamp3.

Thanks a lot to the team at iSPIRT – Avinash, Chaitanya and Sainath, to Sudheer and his team from Zenoti (Mrityunjay, Anand, Bharath) which was present in full force and helped organize the camp,  to Jay Pullur & Raunak (Now Floats) for their presence and guidance. Of course, thanks to ISB for being an amazing venue.

Guest Post by Aishwarya Mishra, RobusTest

If you are a B2B Product startup, here is how you can leverage #PNCamp3 #Hyderabad

iSPIRT brings #PNCamp3 to Hyderabad for the first time. There are clearly established trends that successful SaaS startups have started to emerge from India on the global front – with products that are world class and leaders in their categories. These are very early stages of a transition from a IT services world to a SaaS software economy.

#PNCamp for the first time in Hyderabad is a bootcamp never before presented to entrepreneurs in the region. It is a roll-up your sleeves kind of format wherein you will get to see real examples of companies which are analyzed. Very precise feedback on how to make adjustments to the company’s approach towards success are presented to the audience. This is all a part of the product teardown process – where other successful entrepreneurs help do such analysis for participating companies. Rather than hear boring talks – the format will be centered around addressing the issues that participants raise as key concerns.

There are three sessions where startups will present and get feedback.

#PNcamp3

Product teardown: In this section, select startups will provide a quick walkthrough of their product website. As each startup will get limited time to present, key is to stay focused on most critical or concerning area of your product. Experts and fellow participants will provide feedback on core functionality, usefulness, right fit of the product, visual and experiential aspect of the product. In the past, such product tear down has help entrepreneurs get amazing inputs in matter of minutes. Moreover it has opened up doors for more insightful beta users from the cohart. Product teardown session focuses on product flow, functionality, identifying specific KPIs and using analytics to derive insights, and immediate critical aspect that might be hindering product traction or stickiness. Founders will get actionable inputs that can be applied next day and see improvements. If you are interested to seek feedback, please apply here.

Idea to Launch (Unconference): The pre-launch phase is a very important phase in the development of your SaaS business and success in this phase can often accelerate growth once you launch to the public. Smart founders use this phase to understand as much as they can about who their ideal customers are, what their needs are and how much they would be willing to pay to get their problem solved. This session is in place to precisely discuss about this particular phase of your business.

Founders can learn from each other’s experiences in informal conversations on how to go about launching a product. Learn from the founders of Chargebee, Kissflow, Zenoti and many other SaaS founders on how they went about their product launch. From market sizing, validation, identifying lead generation channels to feature prioritization, learn it all from real stories

“What makes a good pitch deck”: One of the most important(if not the most important) resource your startup should spend time on is the pitch deck. Your pitch deck is the window to your startup. The way your pitch deck is structured can make or break your fund raising plans.

What should you include in your pitch deck? Should it be too long? Or too short?

How can you estimate the market size?

What are the key metrics investors look for in a pitch deck?

All these questions and more will be answered in this session. In this session we will do a pitch teardown of two selected startups. Investors from LetsVenture and successful startup founders who have raised money will analyze the pitches and suggest what works and what does not. They will give you pointers on how to calculate the key metrics and how to continue tracking them.

This session is a must for startups who are looking to fund raise.

The entire bootcamp comes together due to the energy infused by Founders who purely volunteer their time towards the cause of helping companies succeed. Successful entrepreneurs like Suresh of KiSSFLOW, Krish from ChargeBee participate in these forums purely with the desire to see a vibrant ecosystem of SaaS companies.

Look forward to seeing you all for what will be the most hands-on bootcamp ever made available to entrepreneurs in Hyderabad.

This is a MUST attend camp for any early stage product startup. Do not miss this unique opportunity to catch the brains of experts and fellow participants through product feedbacks and interactions. So, if you are an early stage startup looking to take your startup to next orbit, then register yourself right away at www.pncamp.in Lets build great product nation, one product at a time! See you at PNCamp.

Guest Post by Sudheer(Zenoti), Chaitanya(Ozonetel) & Laxman(AppVirality)

Announcing #PNCamp3 (22nd April- Hyderabad) – Feedback,Teardowns and more.

Building a startup is hard. And many times it’s lonely. The actual building of the product is the honeymoon period. Especially for tech startups. There is the high of creating something from scratch and seeing it take shape. But just like in a real marriage, then start the struggles 🙂

You have a product. You have some early adopters,maybe some friends and family. But how do you scale? How can you build a predictable revenue machine? Is your product right for the market? Should you track some metrics? What metrics should you track? How do you make people come to your website? How do you make them stay? How can you wow your customers in the first 5 minutes of them using your product?

Every early stage startup will have these and many more questions. And thats a good thing. This means that there are successful startups who have had these questions and have found answers. And thats where this #PNCamp gets in.

The idea of this #PNCamp is to get a bunch of successful startup founders and early stage startups together so that early stage startups can learn from the successful ones. But this aint your regular gyaan session where a founder gets on stage and shares his/her “journey”. No sir no. The format of this camp is to have a complete hands on approach in helping startups find answers to their questions. The PNCamp is structured for real action oriented learning. And the more you share the more you learn. You are getting only 10 visitors a week? What actual things you can do will be suggested. You are converting less than 1% of visits to leads? Actual changes to your lead form or web site will be suggested. These are actionable insights which you can apply immediately.

And you can question. In fact you should question the insights,after all, you own the product. And this will hopefully lead to a healthy debate.

Here are a list of things which we will do at the camp:

  1. Founder truth or dare: A successful founder will be put on stage and you can ask them anything. They will share their insights by putting it all out in the open. And in case they refuse to share, well, we will give a dare to them 🙂
  2. Teardowns: Startups can nominate themselves for a teardown from experts. The experts will analyze your product/website/sales process/marketing and give you blunt feedback on each of the processes. Don’t expect any sugar coating from the experts. They will tell it as they see it. It’s almost as if your startup is getting free consulting and mentorship from some of the best minds in the world :). This is the most important feature of the camp and this is where most of the learning happens. Our previous teardowns have been very successful and every startup which has gone through the process has improved.
  3. Pitch breakup: Here again, startups can nominate and share their pitch deck. Experts will analyze the pitch-deck and give suggestions on optimizing the pitch.

Startups may have a worry about opening up about their startup. Its a valid worry, but let me assure you, it’s an unfounded one. What goes on in the #PNCamp stays at the camp. Its just a community of startup peers sharing.

So are you ready? Just go and apply for the bootcamp  in Hyderabad on 22nd April 2017.