Preferred Market Access Policy for Indian CyberSecurity Products

The government of India had announced a Preferred Market Access (PMA) policy for Cyber Security products through an order notifying the Public Procurement (Preference to Make in India).

MeitY shall be the nodal Ministry to monitor and administer this PMA policy.

The policy announcement is given at link given here.  Public Procurement (Preference to Make in India) Order 2017- Notifying Cyber Security Products in furtherance of the Order

iSPIRT has been pursuing with MietY, application of PMA for all Indian Software Products to promote the Indian Software product industry and it is heartening to note that at least one important sub-sector of Cybersecurity has caught the Government’s attention.

iSPIRT organised a PolicyHacks session to understand this policy announcement with Ashish Tandon Founder & CEO of Indusface and Mohan Gandhi of Entersoftsecurity.

Ashish has been following the policy announcement and has earlier published a blog at http://pn.ispirt.in/cybersecurityproductsprocurement/

You can watch the discussion with Ashish and Mohan at below given YouTube video, in a question and answer format with Sudhir Singh.

What are the essential features of this Policy?

Ashish described the main features stating that this is a policy that is going to help boost Cybersecurity products in India. Govt. of India identified areas that require boosting ‘make in India’ products for the sensitive areas of cybersecurity.

Is there a way product companies can register or Government is going to keep a registry of ‘made in India’ products?

Ashish explains the policy has provided for the formation of a committee that will further provide for a process for empanelment of Indian Cybersecurity products and Indian Cybersecurity product companies with some defined key aspects that would qualify for empanelment.

Ashish further explained that as the empanelment aspects are decided there may also come up with a process for testing and meeting standards and quality norms etc.

Are there are enough product companies in ‘Cyber Security’ space for empanelment?

Mohan Gandhi answered that there are several product companies, but this policy should further strengthen the ‘make in India’ aspect and companies based out of India with deep tech product can look at getting this advantage of this policy.

Whether the Policy will be applicable to “productized services”?

Ashish answered, that this policy is applicable to the only product and at best give preference to made in India products in turnkey projects wherein a large project cybersecurity product is involved.

How will this policy help Start-up companies in Indian Market?

Mohan mentioned, that one interesting thing about this policy is that, it clearly talks about intellectual property. There is a need to register and prove that the IP belongs to India. It will encourage small companies to register the IP and leverage the Indian IP even when they are selling abroad.

Is there enough clarity exist on process and enplanement etc.?

Ashish feels the policy has already prescribed setting up of an empowered committee who will look at these aspects and it is MeitY that will be responsible for doing this.

Ashish further also elaborated that this Policy will get further push once some companies start getting empanelled and processes and rules are framed under MeitY by the empowered committee.

In concluding remarks, both Ashish and Mohan felt that Cybersecurity ecosystem will get a boost by this policy as the policy is furthering the cause by advising Government departments for preferring Indian products. With Digital economy on anvil, there should be a huge demand in Government and Public sector enterprises for cybersecurity. Cybersecurity product market is today dominated by players from the US, Europe and Israel.

The policy has to be pushed hard to further encourage and coupled with StartupIndia policy, there should be all-out effort to promote the Indian Cybersecurity product companies.

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.

Policy Hacks Session on GDPR & DEPA

Here are concerns and curiosity about European Union General Data Protection Regime (GDPR) and there is a related issue in India being covered under Data Empowerment and Protection Architecture (DEPA) layer of India Stack being vigorously followed at iSPIRT.

iSPIRT organised a Policy Hacks session on these issues with Supratim Chakraborty (Data Privacy and Protection expert from Khaitan & Co.), Sanjay Khan Nagra (Core Volunteer at iSPIRT and M&A / corporate expert from Khaitan & Co) and Siddharth Shetty (Leading the DEPA initiative at iSPIRT).

Sanjay Khan interacted with both Siddharth and Supratim posing questions on behalf of Industry.

A video of the discussion is posted here below. Also, the main text of discussion is given below. We recommend to watch and listen to the video.

GDPR essentially is a regulation in EU law on data protection and privacy for all individuals within the European Union. It also addresses the export of personal data outside the EU.

Since it affects all companies having any business to consumer/people/individual interface in European Union, it will be important to understand this legal framework that sets guidelines for the collection and processing of personal information of individuals within the European Union (EU).

Supratim mentioned in the talk that GDPR is mentioned on following main principles.

  1. Harmonize law across EU
  2. Keep pace with technological changes happening
  3. Free flow of information across EU territory
  4. To give back control to Individual about their personal data

Siddharth explained DEPA initiative of iSPIRT. He mentioned that Data Protection is as important as Data empowerment. What this means is that individual has the ability to share personal data based on one’s choice to have access to services, such as financial services, healthcare etc. DEPA deal with consent layer of India Stack.

This will help service providers like account aggregators in building a digital economy with sufficient control of privacy concerns of the data. DEPA essentially is about building systems so that individual or consumer level individual is able to share data in a protected manner with service provider for specified use, specified time etc. In a sense, it addresses the concern of privacy with the use of a technology architecture.

DEPA is being pursued India and has nothing to do with EU or other countries at present.

For more details on DEPA please use this link here http://indiastack.org/depa/

Sanjay Khan poses a relevant question if GDPR is applicable even on merely having a website that is accessible of usable from EU?

Supratim explains, GDPR applicable, if there is involvement of personal data of the Data subjects in EU. Primarily GDPR gets triggered in three cases

  1. You have an entity in EU,
  2. You are providing Goods and services to EU data subjects whether paid for or not and
  3. If you are tracking EU data subjects.

Many people come in the third category. The third category will especially apply to those websites where it is proved that EU is a target territory e.g. websites in one of the European languages, payment gateway integration to enable payments in EU currency etc.

What should one do?

Supratim, further explains that the important and toughest task is data management with respect to personal data. How it came? where all it is lying? where is it going? who can access? Once you understand this map, then it is easier to handle. For example, a mailing list may be built up based on business cards that one may have been collected in business conferences, but no one keeps a track of these sources of collections. By not being able to segregate data, one misses the opportunity of sending even legitimate mailers.

Is a data subject receives and gets annoyed with an obnoxious email in a ‘subject’ that has nothing do with the data subject, the sender of email may enter into the real problem.

Siddharth mentioned that some companies are providing product and services in EU through a local entity are shutting shops.

Supratim, mentions that taking a proper explicit and informed consent in case of email as mentioned GDPR is a much better way to handle. He emphasised the earlier point of Data mapping mentioned above, on a question by Sanjay khan. Data mapping, one has to define GDPR compliant policies.

EU data subjects have several rights, edit date, port data, erase data, restrict data etc. GDRP has to be practised with actually having these rights enabled and policies and processed rolled out around them. There is no one template of the GDPR compliant policies.

Data governance will become extremely important in GDPR context, added Siddharth. Supratim added that having a Data Protection officer or an EU representative may be required as we go along in future based upon the complexity of data and business needs.

Can it be enforced on companies sitting in India? In absence of treaties, it may not be directly enforceable on Indian companies.  However, for companies having EU linkages, it may be a top-down effect if the controller of a company is sitting there.

Sanjay asked, how about companies having US presence and doing business in EU. Supratim’s answer was yes these are the companies sitting on the fence.

How about B2B interactions? Will official emails also be treated as personal? Supratim answers yes it may. Again it has to be backed by avenues where data was collected and legitimate use. Supratim further mentions that several aspects of the law are still evolving and idea at present is to take a conservative view.

Right now it is important to start the journey of complying with GDPR, and follow the earlier raised points of data mapping, start defining policy and processes and evolve. In due course, there will be more clarity. And if you are starting a journey to comply with GDPR, you will further be ready to comply with Indian privacy law and other global legal frameworks.

“There is no denying the fact that one should start working on GDPR”, said Sanjay. “Sooner the better”, added Supratim.

We will be covering more issues on Data Protection and Privacy law in near future.

Author note and Disclaimer: PolicyHacks, and publications thereunder, are intended to provide a very basic understanding of legal/policy issues that impact Software Product Industry and the startups in the eco-system. PolicyHacks, therefore, do not necessarily set out views of subject matter experts, and should under no circumstances be substituted for legal advice, which, of course, requires a detailed analysis of the relevant fact situation and applicable laws by experts in the subject matter on the case to case basis.

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 

Understanding iSPIRT’s Entrepreneur Connect

There is confusion about how iSPIRT engages with entrepreneurs. This post explains to our engagement model so that the expectations are clear. iSPIRT’s mission is to make India into a Product Nation. iSPIRT believes that startups are a critical catalyst in this mission. In-line with the mission, we help entrepreneurs navigate market and mindset shifts so that some of them can become trailblazers and category leaders.

Market Shifts

Some years back global mid-market business applications, delivered as SaaS, had to deal with the ubiquity of mobile. This shift upended the SaaS industry. Now, another such market shift is underway in global SaaS – with AI/ML being one factor in this evolution.

Similar shifts are happening in the India market too. UPI is shaking up the old payments market. JIO’s cheap bandwidth is shifting the digital entertainment landscape. And, India Stack is opening up Bharat (India-2) to digital financial products.

At iSPIRT, we try to help market players navigate these shifts through Bootcamps, Teardowns, Roundtables, and Cohorts (BTRC).

We know that reading market shifts isn’t easy. Like stock market bubbles, market shifts are fully clear only in hindsight. In the middle, there is an open question whether this is a valid market shift or not (similar to whether the stock market is in a bubble or not). There are strong opinions on both sides till the singularity moment happens. The singularity moment is usually someone going bust by failing to see the shift (e.g. Chillr going bust due to UPI) or becoming a trailblazer by leveraging the shift (e.g. PhonePe’s meteoric rise).

Startups are made or unmade on their bets on market shifts. Bill Gates’ epiphany that browser was a big market shift saved Microsoft. Netflix is what it is today on account of its proactive shift from ground to cloud. Closer home, Zoho has constantly reinvented itself.

Founders have a responsibility to catch the shifts. At iSPIRT, we have a strong opinion on some market shifts and work with the founders who embrace these shifts.

Creating Trailblazers through Winning Implementations

We are now tieing our BTRC work to specific market-shifts and mindset-shifts. We will only work with those startups that have a conviction about these market/mindset-shifts (i.e., they are not on the fence), are hungry (and are willing to exploit the shift to get ahead) and can apply what they have learned from iSPIRT Mavens to make better products.

Another change is that we will work with young or old, big or small startups. In the past, we worked with only startups in the “happy-confused” stage.

We are making these changes to improve outcomes. Over the last four years, our BTRC engagements have generated very high NPS (Net Promoter Scores) but many of our startups continue to struggle with their growth ceilings, be it an ARR threshold of $1M, $5M, $10M… or whether it is a scalable yet repeatable product-market fit.

What hasn’t changed is our bias for working with a few startups instead of many. Right from the beginning, iSPIRT’s Playbooks Pillar has been about making a deep impact on a few startups rather than a shallow impact on many. For instance, our first PNGrowth had 186 startups. They had been selected from 600+ that applied. In the end, we concluded that we needed even better curation. So, our PNGrowth#2 had only 50 startups.

The other thing that hasn’t changed is we remain blind to whether the startup is VC funded or bootstrapped. All we are looking for are startups that have the conviction about the market/mindset-shift, the hunger to make a difference and the inner capacity to apply what you learn. We want them to be trailblazers in the ecosystem.

Supported Market/Mindset Shifts

Presently we support 10 market/mindset-shifts. These are:

  1. AI/ML Shift in SaaS – Adapt AI into your SaaS products and business models to create meaningful differentiation and compete on a global level playing field.

  2. Shift to Platform Products – Develop and leverage internal platforms to power a product bouquet. Building enterprise-grade products on a common base at fractional cost allows for a defensible strategy against market shifts or expanding market segments.

  3. Engaging Potential Strategic Partners (PSP) – PSPs are critical for scale and pitching to them is very different from pitching to customers and investors. Additionally, PSPs also offer an opportunity to co-create a growth path to future products & investments.

  4. Flow-based lending – Going after the untapped “largest lending opportunity in the world”.

  5. Bill payments – What credit and corporate cards were to West, bill payments will be to India due to Bharat Bill Pay System (BBPS).

  6. UPI 2.0 – Mass-market payments and new-age collections.

  7. Mutual Fund democratization – Build products and platforms that bring informal savings into the formal sector.

  8. From License Raj to Permissions Artefact for Drones – Platform approach to provisioning airspace from the government.

  9. Microinsurance for Bharat – Build products and platforms that reimagine Agri insurance on the back of India Stack and upcoming Digital Sky drone policy.

  10. Data Empowerment and Protection Architecture (DEPA) – with usage in financial, healthcare and telecom sectors.

This is a fluid list. There will be additions and deletions over time.

Keep in mind that we are trying to replicate for all these market/mindset-shifts what we managed to do for Desk Marketing and Selling (DMS). We focussed on DMS in early 2014 thanks to Mavens like Suresh Sambandam (KissFlow), Girish Mathrubootham (Freshworks), and Krish Subramaniam (Chargebee). Now DMS has gone mainstream and many sources of help are available to the founders.

Seeking Wave#2 Partners

The DMS success has been important for iSPIRT. It has given us the confidence that our BTRC work can meaningfully help startups navigate the market/mindset-shifts. We have also learned that the market/mindset-shift happens in two waves. Wave#1 touches a few early adopters. If one or more of them create winning implementations to become trailblazers, then the rest of the ecosystem jumps in. This is Wave#2. Majority of our startups embrace the market-shift in Wave#2.

iSPIRT’s model is geared to help only Wave#1 players. We falter when it comes to supporting Wave#2 folks. Our volunteer model works best with cutting-edge stuff and small cohorts.

Accelerators and commercial players are better positioned to serve the hundreds of startups embracing the market/mindset-shift in Wave#2. Together, Wave#1 and Wave#2, can produce great outcomes like the thriving AI ecosystem in Toronto.

To ensure that Wave#2 goes well, we have decided to include potential Wave#2 helpers (e.g., Accelerators, VCs, boutique advisory firms and other ecosystem builders) in our Wave#1 work (on a, needless to say, free basis). Some of these BTRC Scale Partners have been identified. If you see yourself as a Wave#2 helper who would like to get involved in our Wave#1 work, please reach out to us.

Best Adopters

As many of you know, iSPIRT isn’t an accelerator (like TLabs), a community (like Headstart), a coworking space (like THub) or a trade body. We are a think-and-do-tank that builds playbooks, societal platforms, policies, and markets. Market players like startups use these public goods to offer best solutions to the market.

If we are missing out on helping you, please let us know by filling out this form. You can also reach out to one of our volunteers here:

Chintan Mehta: AI shift in SaaS, Shift to Platform Products, Engaging PSPs

Praveen Hari: Flow-based lending

Jaishankar AL: Bill payments

Tanuj Bhojwani: Permissions Artefact for Drones

Nikhil Kumar: UPI2.0, MF democratization, Microinsurance for Bharat

Siddharth Shetty: Data Empowerment and Protection Architecture (DEPA)

Meghana Reddyreddy: Wave#2 Partners

We are always looking for high-quality volunteers. In case you’re interested in volunteering, please reach out to one of the existing volunteers or write to us at [email protected]

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

First AI/ML Playbook Roundtable – Playing With the New Electricity

This is a Guest post by Krupesh Bhat (LegalDesk) and Ujjwal Trivedi (Artoo).

AI is seen as the new electricity that will power the future. How do we make the best of the opportunity that advancements in AI technology brings about? With this thought in mind iSPIRT conducted a symposium roundtable at the Accel Partners premises in Bengaluru on March 10th. Accel’s Sattva room was a comfortable space for 20+ participants from 11 startups. There were deep discussions and a lot of learning happened through subject matter experts as well as peers discussion. Here’s a quick collection of some pearls, that some of us could pick, from the ocean of the deep discussions that happened there.

Products that do not use AI will die soon. Products that use AI without natural intelligence (read common sense) will die sooner.

– Manish Singhal, Pi Ventures

Starting with that pretext, it isn’t hard to gather that AI is not just a promising technology, it is going to be an integral part of our lives in near future. So, what does it mean for existing products? Should everyone start focusing on how they can use AI? Are you an AI-first company? If not, do you need to be one? After all, it does not make sense to build the tech just because it appears to be the next cool thing to do. If you are building AI, can you tell your value proposition without mentioning the word AI or ML? have you figured out your data strategy? Is the need driven by the market or the product?

Before we seek answers we must clarify that there are two types of products/startups in the AI world:

First, an AI-first startup – a startup which cannot exist without AI. Their solution and business model is completely dependent on use of Artificial intelligence (or Machine Learning at least). Some examples of such startups in local ecosystem are Artifacia and Locus.sh.

Second, AI-enabled startup – startups with existing products or new products which can leverage AI to enhance their offering by a significant amount (5x/10x anyone?). Manish has a very nifty way of showing the AI maturity of such companies.

The session was facilitated by several AI experts including Manish Singhal of pi Ventures, Nishith Rastogi of Locus.sh, Shrikanth Jagannathan of PipeCandy, Deepak Vincchi of Julia Computing.

Maturity Levels of AI Startups

After a brief introduction by Chintan to set the direction and general agenda for the afternoon, Manish took over and talked about the various stages of AI based companies. Based on his interactions with many startups in the space, he said there are roughly four growth stages where different companies fall into:

Level 1No Data, No AI: An entity that solves a business problem and is yet to collect sufficient data to build a sustainable AI business. The AI idea will die down if the company fails to move to state 2 quickly. Business may be capturing data but not storing it.
Level 2Dark data, No AI: The company holds data but is yet to build solid AI/ML capabilities to become an AI company. There is a huge upside for such companies but the data strategy needs to be developed and AI capabilities are not mature enough to be considered as an AI/ML company.
Level 3Higher automation driven by data and AI: These are the companies that have built AI to make sense out of data and provide valuable insights into the data using AI/ML, possibly with some kind of human assistance.
Level 4Fully autonomous AI companies: These are the companies at the matured stage where they possess AI products that can run autonomously with no human intervention.

Manish also noted that most companies they meet as a VC are in level 1 and 2, while the ideal level would be 3 and 4. He noted that AI comprises of three important components: Data, Algorithm & the Rest of the System that includes UI, API & other software to support the entire system. While it is important to work on all three components, oftentimes, the data part doesn’t get enough importance.

Do You Really Need Artificial Intelligence?

A whole bunch of solutions are smart because they are able to provide additional value based on past data. These are not AI solutions. They are merely rule based insights. Nishith from Locus added that there is nothing really wrong with rule based systems and in a lot of cases AI is actually an overkill. However, there are two cases where it seems apt for startups to look at AI for their predicament:

  1. Data is incomplete: An example of this is Locus who gets limited mapping for gps coordinates and addresses.
  2. Data is changing constantly: A typical case was of ShieldSquare where bots are continuously evolving and improving and the system deployed to identify them also needs to learn new patterns and evolve with them.

It is important to have clarity on your AI model especially when you communicate with your internal teams. Figure out what is the core component of your product – AI, ML, Deep Learning or Computer Vision.

What’s Driving Your AI Approach?

There are two major driving forces that can help one in deciding whether to AI or not to AI.

  1. PUSH: The internal force when decision can largely be taken if your business is sitting on a lot of useful data, may be as a side effect of your key proposition.
  2. PULL: The external market driven force where clients expect or ask for it e.g chatbots. We are already observing that AI can be a great pricing mechanism.

However, take great caution when using Customer data or Derived data, it depends on legal agreement with clients and can get you into legal troubles if it violates any terms.

Is Your Data Acquisition Strategy in Place?

Anyone interested in AI should have a data acquisition strategy in place. Here are a few points that can help you get one in place:

    • What data do you collect, How do you validate it, Clean it and store it for further analysis?
    • Surveys and chatbots can provide a steady stream of data if built correctly
    • Think of data as a separate entity (has its own lifecycle), it may help to think of it as a currency and plan how you would earn, store and utilise it
    • Capturing location, user interaction data can be insightful. This may include the interactions user has committed and the ones they have not committed (deleted/skipped/hidden)
    • It makes sense to invest time, resources and people to gather data properly
    • Have a unified warehouse (can start with economical options like Google Analytics and AWS)

It is also important to give some thoughts on how you are using aggregate data across the platform. In case, if your AI model uses a combination of customer specific data and the sanitised aggregate data available in the platform (“Derived Work”), then you should make sure that you have the permission to use such data. Without such clarity, you may run into legal issues.

Deepak Vincchi explained how Julia Computing is emerging as the programming language of choice for data scientists. The platform can process 1.3 million threads in parallel and is used by large organizations to crunch data problems.

In all this was an extremely engaging 3 hours without break. Guiding the session with real examples by Nishith, Shrikanth and also shared learnings from Navneet and others really helped bring to life Why AI and How AI. This symposium is part of an AI playbooks track was aimed at kickstarting cohorts of startups ready to jump with AI and help them get traction with AI, more will emerge on this shortly.

10 startups attended this mini-roundtable session – Acebot, Artifacia, Artoo, FusionCharts, InstaSafe, Klove, LegalDesk, Rocketium, Rubique, ShieldSquare.

Thanks to volunteers Rinka Singh and Adam Walker for their notes from the session and Ankit Singh (Mypoolin/Wibmo) for helping coordinate the blog post & note

* 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 photo by Matan Segev from Pexels https://www.pexels.com/photo/action-android-device-electronics-595804/

Playing with the new Electricity – AI/ML Playbook Sessions [March Update]

[Update 29-Mar] New April Session Dates – Symposium RT is being scheduled for Bangalore & Chennai (21st & 28th April). 

“Tectonic” market shifts happen every few years creating a change in landscape, market and opportunity. The most recent “tectonic” shift is the emergence of the Artificial Intelligence era. In just the same way electrification in the early 1900s transformed major industries globally, AI, Machine Learning & Deep Learning are poised to transform a multitude of industries, services & products.

It took 100 years from the discovery of electrical generator to electrification of industries. AI is doing this in a span of 70 years (from the time of the Turing Test).

AI/ML has gone through many winters and is now in its eternal spring. It portents a new framework for startups to navigate and evolve from an internet era startup into an AI era startup.


Every new era shift begins with a lot of smoke and hype before it is well understood. iSPIRT ProductNation & Julia are launching a set of AI/ML playbook roundtable & workshop sessions to dispel the hype around AI, and help bring a pragmatic mindset & process change necessary for product startups to leverage AI/ML. We believe AI is not just a technology shift. It is a combination of product, business, and technology shift. Adapting to it requires a new paradigm of thinking to build a viable value strategy. This needs to be done mindfully and in context of the value you offer to the customer, do not rush in with the AI hype.

These multi-step playbooks are for all categories of startups regardless whether they are AI-First or SaaS, and MarTech, FinTech, HealthTech or any other <Domain>Tech category, startups who are looking to deliver a higher order value to their customers by leveraging and applying AI models with their data.

Since AI/ML is still in its early years there aren’t any proven success playbooks. Hence these deep sessions will bring together AI experts, AI Mavens (entrepreneurs who are more ahead in their AI journey), iSPIRT Mavens, and selected startups, to discuss & share their insights, challenges & learnings on the mindset shifts outlined above and best practices adopted. The 2-step playbook roundtable sessions focused on founders (+1 typically CXO) and a hands-on lab workshop are a sequence of:

    • AI/ML Symposium RT (step 1) – An invite-only 3 hour mini-symposium playbook with AI/ML experts, first mover AI leaders & Mavens from our startup community and 10-15 invited startups, focusing on Why AI/ML? What was the higher order value being created? How to identify the opportunities to leverage AI? What do you need to get started with AI (if not already running)? Data needs for AI/ML investments… The shared awareness created in this session, combined with the commitment by startups to articulate their AI/ML opportunity, and detail their approach will lead to the next AI/ML roundtable.
    • AI/ML Playbook RT (step 2) – Startups at similar AI readiness from the Symposium will be invited for a 5-hour deep-dive roundtable discussion on the AI/ML challenges in the context of the startup domain, effectively going through their AI/ML readiness & approach (a review & teardown). Topics would emerge from the Symposium RT and could cover data collection & modeling strategy, AI transformation algorithms, Business model innovation, Success metrics… This session is restricted to 5-6 startups (having similar AI needs) per roundtable and an AI Maven to facilitate the topics & discussion. Possible outcomes for each startup would be to develop an action plan/checklist for next few months of execution. Additionally, startups can identify a tiger tech team to go to the AI/ML Training Lab to get traction for their checklist…
    • AI/ML Training Lab with Julia Sandbox (optional) – A 3+ day workshop intended for the 3-4 person tiger tech teams (CTO, Engg, Data guy, PM…) from each startup. The workshop will help focus on building competency, getting traction & executing implementations related to the checklist developed at the roundtable.

For the first set of these playbooks, we are inviting nominations/applications for startup founders (+CXOs) who are either directly focusing on AI-based opportunity or have started integrating AI/ML as a core strategy for their product growth/success. Please provide your nomination for startups you believe should be part of the first series of the AI/ML playbooks. If you are a startup and interested to be part of this please register below. On final approval, an invite confirmation will be sent via email.

Please submit your nominations here. A registration link will be sent to your nominee.

Dates & Venue for the first of the series:

AI/ML Symposium RT #1 – 10th Mar (Sat) 2p – 5p Done
AI/ML Symposium RT #2 – 21st Apr (Sat) 11a – 2p @ Bangalore TBD
AI/ML Symposium RT #328th Apr (Sat) 10a – 1p @ Chennai TBD
AI/ML Playbook RTApr-TBD (Sat) 11a – 5pm @ Bangalore TBD
AI/ML Training Lab w/ JuliaApr-TBD @ TBD (Bangalore)

While the sessions are in Chennai/Bangalore, we believe this topic is of emergent interest to startups across the country and would invite all to register.

AI Mavens

Ashwin Ramasamy – PipeCandy
Manish Singhal – pi Ventures
Nishith Rastogi – Locus.sh
Shrikanth Jagannathan – PipeCandy

Cost

All iSPIRT roundtables are pro-bono (read below for how that works)

This series of playbooks is being setup by active support from our Mavens & Volunteers – Ankit Singh, Deepak Vinchhi, Karthik KS, Praveen Hari, Ravindra Krishnappa, Sandeep Todi.

P.S. Some great material for pre-reading

I strongly recommend all to go through many of these.

* 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 and 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.

* The Julia team is on a social mission to train a large number of people in India to develop grassroot skills and competency with AI & ML.

+Feature image from https://www.flickr.com/photos/gleonhard/34046647175/

Software Exporters claim your GST Refunds

GST regime has brought a new dimension to treatment of Indirect taxation in Exports.

Prior to GST era, the export invoice had no Indirect tax mentions. So also, the indirect tax returns had nothing to do with Exports.

After GST implementation, to make the GST truly value added and consumption-based tax a concept of Zero-Rate supply was introduced. This made it necessary for exporters to account for indirect tax (GST) at time of exports.

An exporter has to adopt either of the two below given methods.

  1. Export with IGST Paid – include and pay IGST at time of export to Govt. on invoice value and later get refund or
  2. Export under LUT without payment of IGST – File a letter of Undertaking (LUT) with GST department and raise zero IGST export invoices and get refund of GST paid on inputs at later date.

Note: Before October 2017 there was also a requirement to sign a Bond (backed by bank Guarantee) if the value of exports for an enterprise in previous years were less than Rs. 1 Crore and sign a LUT if previous year exports were more than Rs. 1 crore. The requirement to sign a BOND has been done away with and all the BONDS signed until October 2017 will be treated as LUT, format and paper work being almost similar.

As working capital gets blocked if the IGST route is adopted (exporter pays IGST and then file for refund again and again on each billing cycle), not many may have adopted this route. Hence, A good number of Software exporters filed Bonds or LUTs with GST department early at start of GST regime.

The tax refunds can be claimed every month. However, for most small exporters it may be useful to file tax refund claims once at end of financial year. This will keep administrative burden low and also the cost of tax management low, while seeing a handsome refund amount in one go.

This write-up is meant to simplify issues of GST refund in exports for entrepreneurs i startups including SaaS and Software products.

Why is refund applicable on Exports?

First thing to understand is that under GST regime (unlike previous VAT and service tax) exports and imports are subject to IGST (in lieu of CGST+SGST), which is a tax applicable on Inter-state supplies. GST law treats exports and imports at par with inter-state trade to make exporters account for IGST.

Second thing to understand is whereas exports are covered under IGST (inter-state supplies), the exports are treated as “Zero Rates” supplies i.e. such supplies will have zero indirect tax incidence finally. The tax incidence of Indirect tax is normally on the final consumer of goods and services. Since, in exports the final consumer of goods or services is located outside India, the consumption happens outside the country. To maintain competitiveness of exports from country and to align with tariff structures in place before GST implementation, the indirect tax has to be zero (excepting a list of goods that are subject to tax). The exports and supplies to SEZ (deemed exports) have been treated as Zero-rate supplies.

Third thing to understand is the GST is a value added tax. This can be understood from old VAT regime, also. A supply of goods or service when passes from original manufacturer to end consumer through various trading channels, it’s value increases at every point. If A sales a good for Rs. 100 and charges GST of Rs. 18 the cost becomes Rs.118 to B, now B may sale same at Rs. 125 to C the final consumer. The GST will now be Rs. 22.5 and final cost to C will be Rs. 147.50. B however gets an input credit of Rs. 18 and pays Rs. 4.5 tax (Rs. 22.5- Rs. 18).

Now, if B is an exporter and C is a client abroad, B has an option to adopt one of the two routes described above.

Route 1 – B can raise an export invoice with IGST paid of Rs. 22.5. Client C is charged Rs. 125 (in equivalent foreign currency) but IGST of 22.5 is paid to GST department in India.  B then files for a claim of entire GST amount of Rs. 22.5.

Route 2 – B can file a LUT with GST department and raise an invoice with IGST zero and Rs. 125 (in equivalent foreign currency). Now either at month end or within a period of 2 years B can ask for refund of IGST that B has paid when procuring supplies from A of Rs. 18. This Rs. 18 is called unutilised input credit.

Refund of unutilised input is available as the final goods are consumer by client C in foreign territory and C is not subject to payment of indirect tax. Hence the tax accumulated by exporter B from his previous suppliers (can’t be born by the exporter) and should be refunded.

Had the consumer C been in domestic tariff area i.e. within the territory of India, the final value added tax on supplies would have been born by the consumer.

An exporter can claim unutilized input credit on all the inputs required in production of final product or service exported.

How can exporters claim utilised tax credit (GST) refund?

As per Section 54(3) of the CGST Act, 2017, refund can be claim of unutilised input tax credit can be done at the end of any tax period (tax return period) i.e. a taxpayer can claim refund on monthly basis.

As per the provisions of GST Law, Refunds to be granted to the dealer electronically on the basis of application in RFD-01. However, due to the non-availability online process, as per notification No.39/2017-Central Tax, dt. 13-10-2017 exporters can file manual refund claims to the jurisdictional officers.

A New form RFD-01A introduced to be filed manually by the exporters to facilitate early Refunds vide Circular no.17/2017 dated 15-11-2017.

For those adopting IGST paid route, the processes is more simpler and 90% of tax is supposed refunded within 7 days of filing. This writeup assume most exports barring petty exporters have adopted LUT route.

This write-up is not meant to describe a detailed process, but highlight the need to file for refunds by exporters if not filed yet, instead of letting the input tax credit to be passed on to next year. This will help channelize funds recouped in to business cycle for next year.

In order to file for refund an exporter needs to have filed all required returns on GST portal and should have records of all purchase invoices, export invoices raised, and the bank certificates of remittances received against export invoices.

For those who are suppling to Special economic Zones (SEZs) the process is similar to exports, except there will be documents and certification to be sought from SEZ units and local jurisdictional officer.

For a detailed understanding on these refunds one can refer to CBEC article given here on Refund of unutilised Input Tax Credit (ITC)

Conclusion

As the financial year end closes, all such exporters who have filed a LUT or BOND should be gearing up to seek GST refunds, if not done already.

GST regime started with lot of confusion for small exporter. Many issues have been resolved and many are yet to be resolved. GST is a much better regime in terms of taxation. However, a fully featured matured and fully digital GST regime will be much more beneficial for exporters. We hope in next financial year we can see roll out of a fully digital GST with near zero interference from officials and manual applications.

The History and Future of Angel Tax

“I propose a series of measures to deter the generation and use of unaccounted money. To this end, I propose:

Increasing the onus of proof on closely held companies for funds received from shareholders as well as taxing share premium in excess of fair market value.”

When ex-Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee introduced angel tax in 2012, it created an uproar in the fledgeling startup and angel investor community. While the purpose of this section was to reduce money laundering by imposing the hefty tax rate of 30.9 percent, it had several inadvertent consequences.

There were several cases of money laundering by Jaganmohan Reddy that were caught by the Enforcement Directorate, who revealed that people had “paid bribes to Reddy in the form of investments at exorbitant premiums in his various companies to the tune of Rs 779.50 crores apart from making payment of Rs 57 crores to him in the guise of secondary purchase of shares and donation of Rs 7 crores to the YSR Foundation”.

To prevent such abuses of the law, the government clamped down and stated that any unjustified share premium given by a private company would be taxed as income in their hands. But to catch one culprit, they threw the book at many innocents. The relevant law known as section 56(2)(viib) of the Income Tax Act came to be known as the angel tax section. Many startups which are private companies and had issued shares at a premium to angel investors ended up facing notices from the tax authorities under this section. This premium is treated as income in their hands, classified as “income from other sources” and taxed at the maximum marginal rate of tax.

The ‘Startup India’ initiative changed all that. Under the stewardship of the Honourable Prime Minister, startups became a focus area. As per the ten points in the Action Plan, if a startup was registered post- April 1, 2016, then the angel tax was not applicable to the startups. The move had helped startups operating in that area, but a problem still existed for startups that were incorporated before 2016. In fact, in December 2017, many startups received notices and orders for the Financial Year 2013-14. A few entrepreneurs who faced income tax notice hassles launched an e-petition called Change.org in January 2018 so that the government could take some concrete action in Budget 2018.

iSPIRT has taken up the matter with MoF and DIPP on the same. We had made some representations to MoF specifically before the budget. In the budget, the Finance Minister made a statement on continued assistance to the Angel Ecosystem. Due to rigorous efforts that went into sharing of information by these startups, we have recently seen MoF making the welcome announcement.

As per the latest announcement, angel tax would not be applicable on startups which are incorporated before 2016, fulfil the criteria under Startup India Policy and have been granted angel funding up to Rs10 crores. It is believed that at least 300 startups will get a breather from angel tax. The government is also likely to establish a separate committee for the recognition of startups that meet these criteria.

In a further relief to startups, the Finance Secretary Hasmukh Adhia also announced that income tax officers would not take precipitate action and will proceed only after the first set of appeals decided in appellate cases. The exact phrase they used was “no coercive action”, which helped many startups heave a collective sigh of relief. All pending appeals by March 31, 2018, will be quickly addressed.

If you are a startup and need further guidance on angel tax, you should follow the steps below:

  1. Register at DIPP for a startup even if you were incorporated before 2016 and currently are still a startup as defined by DIPP by logging onto this site and filling up the form at https://www.startupindia.gov.in/registration.php.
  2. If you are a startup as per DIPP definition, then get your DIPP certification. All startups which may have raised funding post-April 2016 and are registered with DIPP will not have angel tax applicable to them.
  3. If you are a startup which has received income tax notices for years before 2016 and is still eligible to register as a startup, then please register yourself with DIPP. You can share the registration certificate and relevant notifications with the assessing income tax officer to get an exemption from angel tax.
  4. If you are a startup which has received income tax notices for years after 2016, then please repeat step 2 mentioned above and then appeal against the order. It is important that due process is followed so that the redressal measures taken by the tax authorities can come into effect.

These startups do not have to pay 20% of the tax order at the time of appeal as this has been a one-time exception granted till 31st March 2018 to avoid hurting the sentiments of the startup ecosystem. You can share the order with iSPIRT.

Also, pursuant to our meeting with MoF, we have been assured that the income tax officers in the various jurisdictions have been directed to exercise leniency on this till the new taxation regime for angel and venture capital investors comes into place, as announced by the Finance minister in his budget speech. The officers are aware of the hardships that startups now face and are doing their best to mitigate this within the ambit of the current law.

DIPP and MoF are also in the process of allowing a waiver to the earlier startups facing the angel tax issue, provided the investment made is under Rs 10 crores and subject to an Inter-Ministry board approving the same. This should happen in the next 5-10 days.

We will encourage all startups which have received notices and orders under Section 56 to follow the above steps to chart their way across the new announcements.  

Please forward your orders to [email protected] enabling us to use these orders to take a strategic view to policy to help with this issue in the long term.

Start up India.

Stand up India.

This post is co-authored by Nakul Saxena and Siddarth Pai, Policy Expert Council Members, iSPIRT Foundation

iSPIRT’s Response to Justice SriKrishna committee’s White Paper on Data Protection Framework for India

Read more about the Data Protection Law here: http://pn.ispirt.in/india-in-a-digital-world co-authored by Shrikant Karwa and Sarika Mendu.
For any query, Feel free to write to us: [email protected]