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.

Public Procurement (Preference to Make in India) Order 2018 for Cyber Security Products

‘Digital India’ is one of the flagship programmes of the Government of India (GoI) with an aim to transform the country into a digitally empowered economy. Given the massive push that the government is giving to this programme, some radical changes have taken place across the country at both the public as well as at the government level in terms of digitization. However, it is also a reality that the growing digitization has increased vulnerability to data breaches and cyber security threats.

According to the Indian Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-In), more than 22,000 Indian websites, including 114 government portals were hacked between April 2017 and January 2018, including the Aadhaar data leak in May 2017. These incidents clearly emphasized a strong need for cyber security products to tackle the threat to India’s digital landscape. In fact, last year, the Union Ministry of Electronics & Information Technology (MeitY) had directed all ministries to spend 10% of their IT budgets on cyber security and strengthen the Government’s IT structure in the wake of cyber threats.

Now, in order to be prepared for cyber breaches, the government entities need sophisticated security products and solutions. Currently, there is a heavy reliance on the foreign manufacturers to source these products as there are a handful of domestic players operating in this space. MeitY had issued a draft notification in June 2017 stating its preference to procure domestic cyber security products and give further impetus to the government’s flagship programme ‘Make in India’, thereby also boosting income and employment in the country.

The good news is that now the government has mandated ‘Public Procurement (Preference to Make in India) Order 2018 for Cyber Security Products’ policy which was released on July 2, 2018. With this policy in place, the local manufacturers will get the much required clarity and support to produce cyber security products. As the participation of domestic players increases in the cyber security industry, it will not only make the digital economy stronger and safer for the nation, but also enhance the ability of the suppliers to compete at a global business level. At the same time, it will also give an opportunity to foreign players to invest in the Indian cyber security product manufacturers which in turn will enable India to channel more FDI into the economy.

Let’s take a look at the key highlights of this policy are:

What is the objective?

Cyber Security being a strategic sector, preference shall be provided by all procuring entities to domestically manufactured/produced cyber security products to encourage ‘Make in India’ and to promote manufacturing and production of goods and services in India with a view to enhancing income and employment

Who are the procuring entities?

Ministry or department or attached or subordinate office of, or autonomous body controlled by the Government of India (GoI) which includes government companies.

Who qualifies to be a ‘local supplier’ of domestically manufactured/produced cyber security products?

A company incorporated and registered in India as governed by the applicable Act (Companies Act, LLP Act, Partnership Act etc.) or startup that meets the definition as prescribed by DIPP, Ministry of Commerce and Industry Government of India under the notification G.S.R. 364 (E) dated 11th April 2018 and recognized under Startup India initiative of DIPP.

 AND

Revenue from the product(s) in India and revenue from Intellectual Property (IP) licensing should accrue to the aforesaid company/startup in India.

How big is the government opportunity?

There is a huge government opportunity waiting to be leveraged, especially because MeitY had asked all ministries to spend 10% of their IT budgets on cyber security.

What are the key benefits of the policy to the local supplier?

The main benefits of the policy that local suppliers can avail are:

  • Procurement of goods from the local supplier if the order value is Rs.50 lacs or less.
  • For goods that are divisible in nature and the order value being more than Rs.50 lacs, procurement of full quantity of goods from the ‘local’ supplier if it is L1 (refer the note below). If not, at least 50% procurement from the local supplier subject to the local suppliers’ quoted price falling within the margin of purchase preference.
  • For goods that are not divisible in nature and the order value being more than Rs50 lacs, the procurement of the full quantity of goods from the local supplier if it is L1. If not, then the local supplier will be invited to match the L1 bid and the contract will be awarded to the local supplier on matching the L1 price.
  • The cyber security products notification shall also be applicable to the domestically manufactured/produced cyber security products covered in turnkey/system integration projects. In such cases the preference to domestically manufactured/produced cyber security products would be applicable only for the value of cyber security product forming part of the turnkey/ system-integration projects and not on the value of the whole project.

Note: L1 means the lowest tender or lowest bid or lowest quotation received in a tender, bidding process or other procurement solicitation as adjudged in the evaluation process as per the tender or other procurement solicitation.

How do I get my cyber security product listed to start getting the benefits of this policy?

You need to get your product evaluated and approved by the empowered committee of the government.

The ‘Public Procurement (Preference to Make in India) Order 2018 for Cyber Security Products’ policy is a commendable step in the direction of providing a robust leap to ‘Digital India’ and ‘Make in India’ programmes.

Get complete details about the policy here. You can also reach the author for more details @ [email protected]

About Author:

Ashish Tandon, Founder & CEO – Indusface

Ashish Tandon a first-generation entrepreneur with a rare combination of strong technology understanding and business expertise has successfully lead and exited several ventures in the areas of security, internet services and cloud based mobile and video communication solutions. Under his leadership as founder & CEO, Indusface a bootstrapped, fast growing and profitable company, has been recognized as an award-winning Application Security company with over 1000+ global customers and a multi-million $ ARR. He is also closely associated with the government and industry bodies of India in drafting of the various Software Product & Security related acts, regulations & policies. Connect with him on LinkedIn or Twitter.

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

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 

India SaaS Survey 2017 – Results

Welcome to the Third edition of the India SaaS Survey by DCS Advisory, India’s largest software investment banking advisory practice, in partnership with iSPIRT Foundation.

What is the survey about?

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.

What’s New?

In-line with our goal of constantly improving the quality of our survey we have added two new sections this year, one covering Inside Sales and the other looking at Product Market Fit. Our interactions with SaaS founders and various other stakeholders in the ecosystem clearly identified these topics as the most valuable for the founders of our young ecosystem. We have also added new analyses to previous sections which we hope will further enrich the survey.

Decoding the Results

This year, we have received responses from 59 respondents with an aggregate ARR of ~$175Mn, including some of the most prominent SaaS companies operating in India. We sincerely thank all participants for their time and effort in completing this survey and look forward to ever-increasing participation every edition going forward.

Some key takeaways from the survey are:

  1. Our typical (median) respondent this year is at $0.75M in ARR, likely to be Bangalore or Chennai headquartered (58%) and was founded in 2014 or later
  2. Whereas last year we noted a ‘paucity of machine focused SaaS’, this year infrastructure SaaS made it into the top 3 amongst horizontal focus areas (and took in >50% of horizontal funding)
  3. Overall our respondents grew faster than last year and continue to be bullish on the future, looking towards North America for growth
  4. Inside sales is now the most popular sales channel in our ecosystem but, based on our data, does not yet conclusively outperform the more established FoS channel. In the years to come, particularly for startups selling overseas, we expect this to change
  5. ~50% of our respondents that focus on Inside sales boast a conversion rate of 10-25%. We look forward to tracking this metric in future editions of this survey
  6. 92% of our respondents believe they have achieved product market fit, further indicating that it takes a period of 12-24 months with about 3 product releases to get there (see commentary below).
  7. Across the board our respondents typically earn gross margins in the range of 60-70%, with R&D being the largest expense post gross margins
  8. Our typical respondent reported ~10% annual churn (which may be under reported). We believe the customer lifetime is likely somewhere in between at 5-6 years
  9. Over a third of our sample has never raised external capital. Those that have, have raised $1-5Mn (median) at 7.5-10.0x of ARR (median).

Commentary on PMF

Additional correlations which cannot be derived conclusively from the collected data but I still believe to be relevant so highlighting here as a commentary:

  • Quicker product-market fit seems like a major factor in reaching >$1M ARR .
  • Startups who reached product-market fit in <1 year are more likely to hit > $1M ARR in < 2 years.
  • Approximately 50% of startups who took longer to reach PMF have not yet reached $1M ARR.
  • While Sales & Marketing was clearly listed as the top challenge on the journey to $1M, PMF was more of a challenge for startups who took longer to reach market-fit.

As before, we remain committed to refreshing the survey results on an annual basis. As the India SaaS ecosystem continues to grow, we fully expect to increase overall survey participation, as well as the insights and bench marking data provided. You can also read the results of the previous 2016 SaaS survey and the 2015 Survey results.

Note: Feature image original source – Nick Youngson

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

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/

3 Learnings From a Fintech SaaS Offering For Indian SMEs

One of our key clients using SahiGST suddenly placed a lead on our website. After seeing a few of these leads, I pinged my sales lead and asked him, are they looking for an alternative software? Didn’t they buy a bigger package from us just a few days back? My sales lead calmly replies, ‘oh those leads’. That must be the new users from this company trying to login to the software via the home page lead capture form.

The above situation should give you a hint of what it is like to offer a SaaS solution to Indian businesses.

Over the past one year, building a tax compliance software from scratch and selling it to Indian SMEs has been a great learning curve. Some of these learnings was very curious and insightful for us coming from a media / B2C background. There are several learnings that we got from this experience. Here are a few that may be repeatable for a lot of you.

On Sales:

Even if your service is fully delivered over the internet, it would be foolhardy to expect Indian businesses to complete the buying and on-boarding by themselves. Less than 10% of our customers were closed without a face to face meeting. In most cases we did online demos and product walk through 1-1 but conversions were low. Most sales came after a visit by one of our channel partners or sales executives. One of our channel partners couldn’t demo the technicalities of the software, but closed sales on the trust of his relationship with the client and managed by just showing a demo video of the product!

There could be several reasons why a in-person meeting is needed for closing sales with Indian businesses. Online demoes aren’t as easy to pull off for a product where there are a lot of questions from the customer and internet connectivity for a screen share isn’t always reliable. Add to that the customer set not being very savvy and comfortable with a Google Hangout or Skype. At the same time the trust that is generated when the sales guy says ‘main hoo na’ is unparalleled. What is also unparalleled is the amount of support calls the sales folks get in coming months 🙂

Phone Support:

For a digital entrepreneur it is hard to believe that the customer demands phone support six days a week from 10AM to 8PM even before seeing your product! Good phone support is an emotional connect and while software UX matters, without phone support we found that in our industry adoption would be zilch.

A well trained army of phone support agents was built before launch and we braced ourselves for the deluge of calls that may come our way. On a bad day (tax filing due date) we saw over 40% of our customer base calling us for support!

We were compelled to take a PRI line from Airtel and set up a physical call centre at our office. The same was preferred over cloud systems because of the voice clarity landlines give. We even got high quality Plantronics headsets for each of our support execs.

A lot of my startup friends debate this point and argue that we should work without phone support to change consumer habit. That may work, but in our experience no tax filing software in India survives without it. There are stories of mid size CA firms buying multiple softwares just to have backup options w.r.t. phone support availability. The saying is ‘jiska support phone uthaye, usko use kar le na’.

Pricing Is Key, ARPU would be low

Having run a high margin & content heavy venture before starting SahiGST, adapting to low ARPU and low cost operations was new for us. Our customers are more willing to pay for services (training etc) than the product. We kept our costs low and could keep our end pricing low as a result. Some services revenues tricked in but our focus remained on the product.

The saving grace is that once the Indian business consumer is used to a product, it is hard for them and your competitors to change that habit (eg: Tally)! So we expect the Life Time Value of our users to be very high.

As a policy we always kept our pricing consistent for all clients and did not discount for anyone. This built a reputation in the market and we could proudly tell our customer, this is the best price. Magic happens when the customer sees a reasonable price and knows that no one else gets it below that price!

So how has your SaaS experience in India been?

A Look Back At How Startup India Has Eased The Journey Of Startup And Investors

image1

It’s been two years since the fateful 2016 budget which recognised “Startups” as a separate breed of companies unto themselves, demanding bespoke treatment from the government and authorities. The clarity brought forth helped quell the nerves of both companies and investors, who had to otherwise resort to exotic exercises, supplementary structures, and platoons of professionals to keep their entrepreneurial dreams alive.

As we all await with bated breath for the slew of reforms expected of the Finance Minister, it behoves us to see how far we’ve come and how much further we need to proceed so that a billion dreams may become a reality.

This article is the first part of a two-part series which explores how Startup India has eased the friction in the Startup ecosystem so far, from an investor’s perspective with the second part talking about the next step of reforms which would have a multiplier effect on the ecosystem.

Flywheel of Funding

More often than not, any coverage about fundraising covers the journey of startups and entrepreneurs and the travails of raising their multimillion dollar rounds. But there exists another dimension to this story, that of fund managers raising their own funds. A large section of the investor community was elated that the government recognised this oft-ignored story and created the Rs 10,000 Cr (USD 1.5 billion) Fund of Funds managed by SIDBI which invests into SEBI registered AIFs and Venture Capital Funds.

This approach seeks to galvanise an ecosystem through a flywheel effect, instead of gardening it via direct intervention. The 10,000 Cr corpus can help seed AIFs worth Rs 60,000 Cr in India, which when fully deployed, is estimated to foment 18 lakh jobs and fund thousands of Indian startups. By contributing a maximum of 20% of the corpus of a fund, many fund managers can hasten they fundraise and concentrate more on helping their portfolio companies raise, instead of competing with them.

The Fund of Funds has invested into 88 AIFs so far, thus galvanising more than 5,600 Cr (USD 873 million) worth of investments into 472 Startups.

Bringing back tax breaks, not a back-breaking Tax

The Government’s support of Indian investors found its way into the Income Tax Act, with several measures to incentivise investments into the Indian Startup ecosystem, such as:

  • Insertion of Section 54 EE, which exempts Long-Term Capital Gains up to Rs 50 lakhs provided it has been invested in the units of a SEBI registered AIF
  • Insertion of section 54GB, which exempts Long-Term Capital Gains of up to Rs 50 lakhs provided it been invested into the shares of a Startup which qualifies for section 80IAC
  • Clarifying that the conversion of debentures or preference shares to equity shares will not be considered as a transfer and thus subject to capital gains at the point of conversion (the entire Venture Capital industry is based on convertible debentures and preference shares and this move has settled long-standing disputes regarding the instruments of investments)
  • Issuing a notification that the dreaded angel tax will not apply to shares issued at a premium to domestic investors by those startups who qualify under the DIPP scheme (although the scope of this needs to be extended to rid the spectre of angel tax that haunts various investors and entrepreneurs)
  • Clarifying that the stance of the assessee in categorising the sale of listed securities held for more than 1 year as Capital Gains or Income from Business can’t be questioned by the taxman
  • Changing the definition of a capital asset to include any securities held by a Foreign Portfolio Investor, thus removing the friction arising from asset classification (a similar provision is sorely needed for domestic hedge funds and Category III AIFs)

Capital without Borders

The Startup India scheme over the past few years has rolled out the red carpet to foreign investors while rolling back the red tape. The success of this is evidenced by the percentage of funding foreign capital represents in the Indian startup ecosystem, which is 9 times higher than domestic capital investment.

Some of the initiatives include:

  • Liberalising Foreign Direct Investment into most sectors including financial services, single brand retail, pharma, media and a host of other sectors up to 100% in most areas
  • Abolishment of the Foreign Investment Promotion Board
  • Relaxation of External Commercial Borrowings (ECBs) for Startups for up to USD 3 million
  • Allowing for issue of shares for non-cash consideration to non-residents under the automatic route
  • Marshalling foreign investment into Indian entities primarily for the purpose of investing in other Indian entities has been brought under the automatic route as opposed to the previous government approval route
  • Dismantling the approval mechanism for the transfer of securities by a Foreign Venture Capital fund to an Indian resident
  • Moving most of the filings (FCGPR, FCTRS, etc) to an online window managed by the RBI (ebiz.gov.in)

Well begun is half done

The government’s efforts to improve life for Startups in investors have begun to bear fruit in tangible ways as evidenced by the reduction in the number of companies seeking to have a Delaware entity with Indian operations. The recent leapfrog in the “Ease of Business” rankings also stands testament to this.

The Government must now seek to consolidate all these gains and clarify its stance and the stance of the tax department on long pending issues which have been a bane to all startups. While we have miles to go before we sleep, we must look back and take note of what we’ve achieved before we seek to scale greater heights.

This post has been authored by Siddarth Pai of 3one4 Capital

Product Roadmap considerations

Roadmap1

 

Roadmap is a key part of a software product company, especially Enterprise Software (B2B) software. When you sell your software to a customer, it is not just on the current capabilities but lot of emphasis is made on the Roadmap. Especially with cloud based software this is becoming super important, as the innovation and capabilities come out incrementally, in frequent cycles.

In my interaction with startup founders, one of the aspect they want to manage better is Reliable Product Roadmap – to ensure they do not over or under promise.

There are two steps to Product Roadmap –

  • Creating or documenting the product roadmap
  • Communicating the product roadmap to various internal and external stakeholders

In this post, I would like to share some key areas to focus for effectively create and communicate roadmaps that may have different flavors.

Vision vs. Execution

roadmap2

 

Logically split Roadmap into the above two areas in order to communicate to right stakeholders. One part should cover the Product vision – or even a higher vision of the product segment or umbrella. This would be the driving factor based on which the customers should perceive the product, of how problems are solved today and into the future.  As an example, Microsoft Office vision would be to improve productivity – and how they plan to leverage future technologies to improve productivity. The other part is around the Execution – more of delivery plan, more of product capabilities that are coming in, more of the details. A clear link should exists between the vision and execution – but it is important to have this as two parts.

Long term vs. Near term

Roadmap3

 

Another important distinction to cover in roadmap is what is going to be covered in the long term and what is planned in the near term (short and medium term). Depending on the product lifecycle – long term could be between 2-4 years while near term can range from 3 months to 2 years. The long term ones are still ideas that has been experimented through some proof of concepts or things that would take a longer term to realize or productize, but they are important innovations or things that are coming to get near to the vision. Near terms are the ones which are almost getting completed or is under development, with reasonable predictability of getting them out sooner.

Rigid vs Flexible

Roadmap4

We live in ever changing world, where priorities keep changing. It is important to balance the roadmap priorities between being too rigid or too flexible. The roadmap often changes due to customer needs not being met, competitive action driving some changes, internal priorities and investments, lack of market for certain investment. On the other hand, if you keep the roadmap too dynamic and flexible, you will lose focus and probably trust from your stakeholders. It is very important to keep the roadmap and investments spread between certain areas where you can be a bit rigid, whereas keeping some open-ended areas for ability to change the plans. For this reason, it is critical to keep the future roadmap not covered in any legal or contractual commitments.

Incremental vs Disruptive

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Roadmap should consist of both incremental features as well as disruptive ones. Often we get into this innovators dilemma wherein the focus is on many minor incremental features that improves the product, satisfies the customer needs, solves the problem in a better way, bring better usability – so on and so forth. But in regular intervals – atleast once a year – its important to think about the next wave, the next big thing and start working in parallel to solve some new business problems, that could eventually eliminate a problem totally. Read my post on “what product are you making – pain killer, vitamin or vaccine” – once in a way you should experiment something disruptive, create and prove , and show what’s coming. Whatsapp is an amazing example of such a disruptive technology – in the past we have seen things like Google, ipad etc which are disruptive. Many smaller, less popular products have also been disruptive. In your roadmap, while it would be hard to communicate the disruptive ideas when they are in Labs, depending on its maturity, its best to prove some of the lab ideas with few handful of customers and validate them with real life use cases and scenarios. For such create /prove situations, a more restricted roadmap with NDAs are discussed with select customers. So use your roadmap to think and cover both incremental and disruptive solutions to problems.

Objectives (the what) vs Activities (the How)

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Product Roadmap is not a Project Plan. Many a times we come across some of the roadmap that looks like a project plan, listing out different activities and milestones. Instead of being a list of activities with milestones, roadmap should lay out the objectives of the product – the vision, the capabilities and the tentative timelines those are going to be made available. This is important because the activities may vary based on the approach taken to a solution but the objectives of the product may still be same.

Solution bound vs Time bound

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Another question that keeps coming back is whether a roadmap is solution bound or time bound. Roadmap is always time bound, as the user of the roadmap is looking to or planning based on the roadmap. The time need not be exactly accurate, but it needs to be indicative with an acceptable minor deviation. Usually indicating a period of short term, medium term and long term with a usual timeline fixed for each of them would be a good way to represent the roadmap. This helps customers plan better.

External vs Internal

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Finally, while Roadmaps are drafted based on common vision and solution, Roadmaps have to be slightly different for external and internal stakeholders – especially with respect to the level of details presented, the timelines and the goals. For customers, Roadmap should address solution to the problem, with rough estimate of the time and the benefits that will bring by adopting them. For other external stakeholders such as investors or partners, it may go further into details of the market potential, and the ROI of investing in a certain set of roadmap items for the business. And for internal stakeholders it could go into more details on the strategy, more specific timelines, risks, competitive reasoning and few other internal only information may be laid out.  Communicating the roadmap to different stakeholders is one of the key. Roadmaps should be clearly planned at an appropriate level of details with each of the stakeholders.

Product Roadmaps are living document and most important one for any product company. Lot of engaged time should be dedicated on documenting and communicating the roadmap.

Wishing you all Happy New Year 2018 !

Leveraging GST data for Flow based Lending

Access to formal credit continues to be one of the largest challenges faced by MSMEs in India due to lack of verifiable data about their business.Digital payments data combined with GST data has the potential to unlock millions of SMEs & bring them into the formal system. India is going through a Cambrian explosion of data usage. It is estimated that the monthly data consumption on every smartphone in India is estimated to grow nearly five times from 3.9 GB in 2017 to 18 GB by 2023 as per a report by Swedish telecom gear maker Ericsson.

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Picture Source: Digital Desh

As businesses and their processes get digitized, it provides us a unique opportunity to re-imagine credit products for MSMEs like never before.

In order to move from traditional Asset-based lending to Data based lending it is important to make the following design considerations:

  • Underwriting based on Data – Assess creditworthiness in real time based on the consented data provided by the user
  • Low-Value – Bringing down the cost of processing a loan using digital platforms like eKYC, eSign & UPI enables one to process sachet sized loans
  • Smaller Tenures – Offer small tenures to reduce risk and thereby build better credit history of a customer
  • Customised Loan Offers – In the old world, loan products were designed to be one size fits all; With data & better underwriting, create a “loan offer on the fly” for a borrower based on his need

Getting started with GST Data Based Lending – Basics

  • Over 8M+ businesses in India will file GST returns
  • Every invoice in the GSTN system is verified by the counterparty
  • GST returns are digitally signed and this data can be accessed through consent of a small business

To access this data, you need the understand the three types of GST APIs:

  • Authentication – Allows a taxpayer to login into his GST account from any application
  • Returns – Allows a taxpayer to file his returns from any application
  • Ledger – Allows a taxpayer to view & share his tax data with any application

You can access the GSTN Sandbox & APIs here: bit.ly/GSTAPIs

If you want more insights, do join the GSTN Discussion Forum here: bit.ly/GSTgroup

The GSTN Tech Ecosystem

Goods and Service Tax Network is a section 8 company set up to provide common and shared IT infrastructure and services to the Central and State Governments, Tax Payers and other stakeholders for the implementation of the Goods & Services Tax (GST).

In this context, it is important to understand the below two roles of GSTN:

  1. Direct portal for taxpayers – https://services.gst.gov.in/services/login
  2. Expose APIs thru GSPs (GST Suvidha Provider) – http://www.gstn.org/gsp-list/

GST Introduction (1)

GST Suvidha Provider (GSP) – Companies which provide GST API Gateway as a service to application service providers; They are appointed by the GSTN and list of the GSPs can be accessed here:http://www.gstn.org/gsp-list/

ASPs – Companies which provide the user interface for business to file or fetch their returns from the GSTN

Naturally, ASPs are a great fit as distribution partners for lending as they own and control the end user experience of small businesses. Some of the examples are:

Accounting Software Providers

    • They help small business manage their accounting, inventory & even payroll;
    • They have rich data sets about the small business including their GST returns Eg: Tally (Desktop), Zoho/Cleartax/Profitbooks (Cloud-based)

Tax Filing Software Providers

    • These companies help business who use excel/manual billing/custom software to prepare their GST return & file it every month;
    • One of the key stakeholders here is the accountant who essentially is the business advisor for an SMB and tapping into them as an influencer channel is a great opportunity Eg: Cleartax, SahiGST etc.

Supply Chain Automation Companies:

    • Today many FMCGs and Large manufacturing companies are using software to track their sales/inventory in their supply chain; For e.g: Asian Paints, Tata Steel, ITC etc.
    • As these companies enable a large of wholesalers, retailers to use their software problem, there is a great opportunity to extend credit to their entire ecosystem
    • Eg: Moglix, Channel Konnekt, Bizom etc.

Example of a Lender – ASP Partnership

  • Consider a services-based company which provides advertising services to multiple companies
  • Let’s assume they use an accounting software like for example Cleartax or Zoho
  • In the software, the SMB sees a one-click credit button (This is enabled through an integration with the ASP & lender)
  • In a few clicks, the SMB is able to share multiple types of data like – GST, Payroll, Balance Sheet, Bank Statement etc. with the lender
  • With consent, the lender uses this data for underwriting, build a credit score and makes a credit offer to the SMB
  • The SMB provides his bank account details for real-time loan disbursement and based on the type of the business you can complete KYC
  • Take mandate either digitally or physically based on the customer for repayments

There are various other data sources one could use to improve the underwriting like – Smartphone, Payments Data from the Bank, Bill Payments, Electronic Toll Collection & various others. Algorithms can use these data sources along with other other public data sets like – Seasonal demand for a product, Import/Export, GDP, Consumption Patterns to do contextual lending.

We recommend you go through the presentation above to understand these basics & do watch the pre-recorded webinar session below on How to Leverage GST data for Flow-based lending for more details.

At iSPIRT, we are working with multiple stakeholders to create a winning implementation of Flow-Based Lending. Do watch out for future announcements from us for entrepreneurs working in this space or write to us [email protected] to know more.

About the Author

Nikhil Kumar is a full-time fellow with iSPIRT Foundation, a non for profit think-thank and has been focussed on building the developer ecosystem for the India Stack.

Twitter: @nikhilkumarks

Build On IndiaStack – Venture Pitch Competition

Announcing ‘Venture Pitch Competition: #BuildOnIndiaStack’

Dalberg and iSPIRT invite applications from early-stage ventures that are tech-
based solutions leveraging the India Stack platform at the core of their business
model to bring financial or transactional services to the underserved in India.
Pitch to some of the leading investors and thinkers in the Indian start-up ecosystem,
including the Bharat Innovations Fund, Omidyar Network and Unitus Seed Fund.
Winners will spend an hour of 'Think Time' – a mentorship session with
technology evangelist Nandan Nilekani.

Who are we looking for?

We are open to all innovations that use the India Stack to unlock new business
models or reach previously underserved new customer segments across sectors
such as financial services, education, healthcare and others. Some core focus areas
for the competition may include digital lending and supporting activities, such as
alternative credit scoring; sector specific affordable digital finance services such as
health insurance or education loans; sector specific digital services such as skilling
and certification, property registration agreements, patient-centric healthcare
management; and SaaS platforms “as a service” that support the development of
other India Stack based innovations such as Digi-locker or e-sign providers.

 

Who is eligible?
All applicants should:
1. Meet the 3-point criteria: tech enabled, leveraging India Stack Platform and
serving the underservedBe

2. Be a part of two (minimum) to four (maximum) members team including the
founder of the companyBe early stage start-ups that have received only seed (or limited angel)

3. Be early stage start-ups that have received only seed (or limited angel)
funding, if at all

 
What is in it for you?
The investor group, comprising of Bharat Innovations Fund, Omidyar Network and
Unitus Seed Fund, is a network of investors and operators, entrepreneurs and
technologists, designers and engineers, academicians and policy makers, with the
singular mission to solve some of India’s toughest problems.

Through this event you have an opportunity to receive:

-Exclusive focus on tech innovations that leverage the India Stack platform
and have the potential to address the underservedFlexible

-Flexible, insight driven, funding of up to Rs. 8 lakhs for early stage, innovative
modelsStrategic

-Strategic business support, through their specialists to support investees in
their strategy and growthA chance to be a part of the India Stack ecosystem through partnerships,

-A chance to be a part of the India Stack ecosystem through partnerships,
pilots, workshops, conferences and network building exercises

Visit www.buildonindiastack.in and send your pitch now.

Innofest to Innonation

Evolving from a festival of innovation to a platform helping innovators to succeed…

Over the past 3 years, while volunteering for Innofest – the platform for hardware entrepreneurs – I realized two things:

  • Doing a hardware product in India is much tougher ….
  • … but there are several resources available across the country that can make it easier for hardware companies to succeed

What was needed is a way to connect those who need the assistance and advice to those who can help and are willing to help.

The goal of this group of 10-12 individuals who selflessly give their time in organising various initiatives and events under the Innofest umbrella is to make it easier for first-time entrepreneurs and to assist them in their journey. We deliberately chose to focus on startups and individuals who were using hardware and technology to solve meaningful problems. Because that is the most underserved section of the entrepreneurial eco-system.

The initial 2 years were invested in reaching out to hardware entrepreneurs and enablers who can assist them – maker spaces, companies, mentors, investors, etc., and bringing them together to interact with each other. As with many other sectors, in hardware led innovation too, resources were concentrated in 3-4 cities, while innovators were spread across the country. These innovators usually worked on their own, often spending time and energy and money on aspects that had already been solved by someone else. Getting together problem solvers and innovation enablers was a critical first step. And the community responded enthusiastically. Over 1800 innovators turned up at the inaugural in Bangalore. Since then we have taken the initiative to Hyderabad, Jaipur, Nagpur and other cities. In fact, Prathibha Sastry, the key volunteer driving Innofest took two ‘yatras’ – once driving from Bangalore to Delhi and once Bangalore to Assam – to find innovators in small towns and tier 2 cities across India.

What she unearthed was awe-inspiring – folks who were solving local problems with their frugal innovations. However, many of these enterprising folks did not consider themselves as entrepreneurs. For them, they were just using their ingenuity and creativity in addressing a problem that they or someone in their family or community faced. They were solving for Bharat. And that we feel is the real opportunity. To encourage these inspired, enterprising and creative problem solvers to get their innovations to solve problems at a much larger scale than they have currently envisaged. To help spread their innovations to places that can benefit from these innovations. I.e. find innovators and help them in their entrepreneurial journey.

To do that, it was important that we shift gears. And at Innofest, we have.

We now have extended the goals to not just curate and connect innovators and enablers, but to also undertake programs and initiatives that will increase the chances of success of these innovations. These include providing better access to resources like maker spaces, working with large corporates in helping drive their innovation programs, creating better access to capital and markets, creating a pool of mentors, etc.

Indeed, from being a festival or celebration of innovation, Innofest is now a platform for innovators to succeed in solving problems and making our country a better place. And hence, we have also taken the bold step to change our name from Innofest to Innonation, which means using innovation to improve the nation.

Whether you are an innovator, or want to volunteer, or a company that wants to support innovation or a co-working space or maker space, do connect with us at Innonation. We need a lot more people in making this volunteer-driven platform successful.

To get a ringside view of the innovation happening across India, join us at the flagship event in Bangalore on 26th August. If you are into solving a problem for Bharat, check the agenda to see what workshops and events are most relevant for you.

See you at Innonation. The country needs you to be there.

Prajakt Raut

Founder –  Applyifi