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.

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

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/

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

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.

BPO Talent To Be Groomed For Inside Sales In SaaS India

With ongoing expeditious advancements in communication, social media, cloud, mobility and related technologies – sales is on a continuous path for digital transformation. This is going to place inside sales teams at a strategic position in sales and marketing process, in terms of significance. A shift is being observed from field sales model to inside sales model which is attracting field sales guys towards inside sales jobs. Therefore, the Inside Sales industry is moving towards a revolution worldwide.

Inside Sales Teams to Play a Greater Role in Sales

Inside sales is quite strategic to India’s GDP growth. Indian BPO industry alone contributes 1% of India’s GDP where professionals are majorly involved in B2C processes including inside sales. IT/ITES and software companies have been early adopters of Inside Sales process for B2B leads generation. With digital sales transformation happening for the digitally dependent buyers, the inside sales teams are going to play a greater role in sales process, as more tasks of the marketing and field sales teams have come under the scope of Inside Sales teams.

SaaS India – Early Adopters of Inside Sales Technology

SaaS, Technology and Professional Services companies in the western world are the first ones to acknowledge a digitally connected buyer by adopting Inside Sales Technology. The traditional businesses like manufacturing companies in US are exploring how Inside Sales tech may add value to their sales process.

However, in the Indian market, mainly SaaS industry is at the forefront on trying their hands on advanced Inside Sales Technology for accelerated sales. The others in the technology industry are going to follow this trend in near future in India. Traditional industries are going to take some time to change their sales processes as their buyers are slowly becoming internet savvy for business purchases.

Inside Sales to Play Significant Role in SaaS India

As per Google Accel SaaS Report 2016 – SaaS India is expected to grow to $50 billion in next 10 years while Indian SMB SaaS is expected to rise from current $600 million to $10 billion in the said period.

SaaS_projection.png

Source: Google Accel Report – SaaS India, Global SMB Market, $50B in 2025

SaaS industry has a strong need for inside sales professionals. As per the report, strong workforce in the BPO sector gives access to talent pool of around 6,20,000 Inside Sales professionals, out of which 1,20,000 are inside sales ready and 5,00,000 are skill ready.

Workforce-1.png

Source: Google Accel Report – SaaS India, Global SMB Market, $50B in 2025

I personally believe that 6,20,000 from the BPO sector, who are assessed as ready for SaaS as per report, need to be groomed for making them sales skill ready as only telecalling skills don’t make a professional acceptable for Sales Development Rep’s role in SaaS Sales.

Inside Sales Talent – A Key Challenge for SaaS India  

SDRs are expected to understand the Sales Processes. They should have the knack of using Inside Sales Tools like Social Media, Email, Phone, CRM and other smart selling tools. The working environment of B2B Inside Sales teams is significantly different from BPO scenario, where the reps are much more controlled, the jobs are temporary, the performance metrics are more around calls numbers and talk time, the customer engagements are very short lived, and end consumers are served with products & services.

This vast difference would require a complete psychological shift in the skills of a BPO professional who aspires to work in the SaaS sales space. They would need to be trained on Inside Sales function from scratch to be helpful, empathetic, B2B marketing and sales process oriented, B2B product/services domain expert, and digital sales intensive to successfully become an SDR. SDR will progress to become an account executive with quota around end closures and finally managing SDRs.

Aspirants looking to fill Inside Sales Talent Gap

There is a need to align the professionals by training for B2B Inside Sales function to serve the evolving SaaS industry in India.

I am associated with AA-ISP, American Association of Inside Sales Professionals as the President for India Chapter. The mission of AA-ISP is to advance the profession of Inside Sales. AA-ISP Gurgaon and Noida Chapter is supported by Inside Sales Box to create an ecosystem for Inside Sales professionals for businesses.

If you are a BPO/ Inside Sales/ Marketing and Sales professional or a Technology Entrepreneur, who is aspiring to stay abreast with best IS practices, discover digital sales tools & technologies, and explore jobs and business opportunities locally and globally – I welcome you to be a part of AA-ISP India.

In conversation with Sanjoe Jose, Founder of TalView, participant in Intech50 2014.

Talview was founded as Interview Master in 2012. Starting up as an asynchronous video interview platform, in 3 years they have grown to a full-fledged Video Interaction Platform, with use cases as varied as hiring-training, telemedicine and customer engagement. In 2014, Mayfield funded them. Today, they have more than 60 large-enterprise clients, including many Fortune 100 companies.

TalViewDo you think that product companies in India have the mettle to go global? What was your experience?

In my opinion, a company’s ability to go global is defined by vision of the team. We strongly believe that every product company in India can go global if they get the right assistance. iSPIRT is doing a good job in this regard. As a company which has successfully acquired many global clients, we try and share our experience whenever possible with aspiring product companies.

Is India geared up to be a ‘product nation?’

Today, India is a services nation and I think we should be very proud of that. Service companies have tremendous capability to provide job opportunities to millions of our youth. Having said that, product companies are also great value creators and I would like to see a right mix of both.

Why did you consider participating in InTech50?

Initially, InTech50 looked like an exciting opportunity to connect directly with the decision makers of large enterprises. The scale and focus of the event was also very interesting for us when we considered applying for Intech50.

How has getting shortlisted for InTech50 helped you?

InTech50 helped us connect with many potential clients in India and the US. Some of the largest deals we closed in 2014 had their origins in Intech50. 

What advice would you give to other emerging companies as they plan their scaling up?

I think clarity and speed are very critical in building a global company. Identify the milestones; set timelines for milestones; and ensure that you have access to the resources you would require to execute your plan to reach those milestones on time.

In conversation with the Founder of RippleHire – Sudarsan Ravi, participant – @Intech50 2014.

RippleHire is a SaaS-based employee referral product.

Tell us about RippleHire – your journey so far…

We help companies automate their talent sourcing by leveraging their employee pool.

We spent our first year working with the ecosystem getting feedback and crowdsourcing problems on hiring. Only then did we begin our sales process and that too with the top global brands, so that we get the right folks to get the product experience and results right.

The journey has been challenging and exhilarating – full of the regular highs and lows that every entrepreneurial journey has, along with the crazy experiences and insights that come with building a global company.

RippleHireWhat challenges did you face during the course? Any learnings from that? 

It was initially tough for us to go after brands like Adobe, McAfee, Capgemini. Convincing them to be among your initial customers was not easy. People love social proof and we will be eternally grateful to our first set of customers who have co-created this innovation with us and helped provide the social proof.

If I were to do one thing differently, I would focus directly on global customers.

Do you think that getting access to/finding investors is difficult in India? 

I don’t think getting access to investors in India is difficult at all. We have always believed that investment is a by-product of building a good scalable business. Our focus as a team has been about building a product that adds value to our customers (the real proof came through when they paid).

I always recommend startups to not focus on building a business for investors but for customers. Do take the inputs that the investors give you on the space and the approach. Factor that in. However, build the business to add value to customers.

Our approach has meant that we have always received inbound interest from investors. So, I think getting access to investors is definitely easy if you focus on building a good business.

Why did you consider participating in InTech50? 

We wanted to get validation from Indian and Global CIO’s on our concept. It was wonderful to have multiple CIO’s stop by our booth post our presentation and share their hiring challenges.

It was a great way for us to get feedback on RippleHire. Not only that, it helped us bag customers too.

How has getting shortlisted for InTech50 helped you? 

Being recognized as one of the top 50 innovative software companies coming out of India helped us a lot from our sales standpoint. People in India, and globally, take you seriously especially when the validation for the software comes from CIO’s.

We have also grown by 10X in the past year.

Who were the people you connected with as a result of InTech50, and can you give us a few specific examples of what those introductions translated into? 

We were able to get feedback from multiple CIO’s and introductions to prospects like Happiest minds and Ascendum through this platform. Ascendum signed up RippleHire as a customer as well.

What advice would you give to other emerging companies as they plan their scaling up?

Every startup is different and has different challenges when it comes to scaling up. I think it is important to get the following right when it comes to scaling up –

  • Your customer support and product experience should be consistent. Think of a Pizza Hut. As they scale customers, it is important that the Pizza quality stays the same.
  • Scaling well is about putting the processes in place that the experience stays the same. Getting this in place requires thinking of your engineering, sales and support teams in the form of units. Once you get one unit right in your support engine, scaling is about replicating that unit.

One recommendation I would give out to the InTech50 participants this year is that – research the sectors that are of interest for you. Hiring in our case is sector agnostic. It would have helped us if we had picked three sectors and focused on attendees from that space.

The Kayako culture – Startup lessons in building organisational values

How leaving our values unclear started breaking our culture at Kayako, how we fixed it and what we learned.

In the early days, a startup’s values and culture — the essence — is very much a reflection of the founding team. These values don’t need to be documented, they usually just are.

As new people join the team, the essence will transfer by osmosis. It’s in the air. The essence will be picked up through the sheer amount of time a small team will spend working on tough things together, and will evolve as new people contribute their own ideas and styles.

As the team grows larger and as things move faster, you can no longer rely on your values being passively picked up by others.

In this post we’ll talk about:

  • The problems we faced not capturing our values sooner.
  • What makes great company values great.
  • Our first attempt at capturing values using a “Mars Group” (fail!).
  • Our second attempt at capturing values (success?).
  • How we are applying and scaling our values today.

“We were late capturing our company values and the cracks started to show”

At Kayako, there’s now 145 of us. Three offices. A large remote team. Distilling our essence and finding a way to articulate it is something we should have done a long time ago.

We started to feel the pain of not distilling our essence into a clear and repeatable format in various ways, including:

  • Inconsistencies in style and attitudes between teams. With the absence of a clear and constant articulation of our core values, teams would incubate their own traits, which would trump the company’s.
  • Speaking a different language. With these inconsistencies, we realised friction emerging in how we communicated with each other, whether that’s how feedback was given or how feedback was taken.
  • Other people hiring the wrong kind of people. Without a crystal clear definition of what our values were, we were not equipping people to be able to hire consistently for values across the company.
  • Recognitions and rewards started turning opaque. Without a crystal clear definition of what our values were, it became less clear why certain people were being recognised, rewarded or promoted.

At this stage, these issues were starting to impact our performance.

But if we left it unchecked? Our work would become less fun and less meaningful. We wouldn’t be able to attract and retain great people. We wouldn’t be able to build a great company.

We needed to get everyone back to our roots and capture the core essence of what made Kayako, Kayako. ASAP.

Values for your values: What makes great company values great

We’ve all seen company values before. Some we respect (Moz, TAGFEE). Some revolutionize something (Zappos). Some are so empty you can only laugh (guess which company’s values included the word Integrity?).

But what makes some company values effective, and others not? Why do some company values turn into a religion, but some end up as little more than wall decoration?

We spent some time researching and talking through this question with others. We found that some of the best and most effective company values had the following traits:

1: Values should be memorable and concise. If your values aren’t memorable or concise, they’re already handicapped. Values should be easy to communicate, easy to remember and will then be easy to incubate.

2: Values should be what you do, not just what you say they are. It doesn’t matter what you write down — the only values truth is in what you do, day in and day out. Not just what sounds cool or what looks good on the wall. We really like Netflix’s definition of what makes a true company value:

Actual company values, as opposed to nice sounding values, are shown by who gets rewarded, promoted or let go.

Values should be lived and breathed in the literal sense.

3: Values set expectations. Values make clear who will get hired, and for what. They make clear who will get rewarded and promoted, and why. Values are like APIs for people and culture, and in that sense make communication easier. They ensure compatibility and fit, set clear expectations of each other and remain consistent as you scale.

Values are like APIs for people and culture. They ensure compatibility and fit, set clear expectations of one another and remain consistent as you scale.

4: Values should be weaponizable. As we grow, there will be various demons any startup will face: glut, inertia and complacency. Our values should arm everyone with the weapons to fight these culture-rotting forces before they set in.

We picked up a nice anecdote from the book How Google Works about how Google’s weaponizable values are used on the ground:

[Eric Schmidt] was in an executive meeting in which they were debating the merits of a change to the advertising system, one that had the potential to be quite lucrative for the company. One of the engineering leads pounded the table and said, “We can’t do that, it would be evil.” The room suddenly went got quiet; it was like a poker game in an old Western. […] A long, sometimes contentious discussion followed and ultimately the change did not go through.

We found that some of the best company values were great levellers in this respect. Google’s “Don’t be evil” value is felt deeply by its employees, who use it to check their moral compass when making decisions, and who are empowered to call others out — no matter what their pay grade (prepare to be called out using your own values.)

Values should act as a touchstone that helps everyone keep a check on whether they are doing the right thing the right way. As Rand Fishkin from Moz puts it, “[our values are] an architecture for decision making.”

Without getting too tactical at this stage, another thing we noticed was that the best weaponizable values were written in a way that they could slot into day to day vocabulary, like in the Google anecdote above, or like our favorite example from the Atlassian values:

Don’t #@!% the Customer.

This ability to use the values verbatim increased the likelihood that they would feature on the ground, in conversations and in slide decks.

5: Values should be strong as hell. Startups grow, and hopefully grow fast. New people will join with their own quirks and cultural backgrounds. New stakeholders with their own agendas will be added. New customers will be won, bringing new demands. New priorities will be loaded onto the company’s agenda.

These are really powerful forces. Without a strong set of values to build your company culture on, these competing forces will start to chip at your company culture.

Startups will go really tough times — it’s almost a statistical certainty. When reading Ben Horowitz’s book The Hard Thing About Hard Things, it seemed like Ben’s startups had it tougher than most. But it was their strong cultural foundations and value system that saved them (and boy, did those folks’ values have to be strong.)

What makes values strong? We generally found this links back to 1: Values are what you do, not just what you say they are. Strong values come through in the company culture built on top of them. Values are strengthened by how much trust and confidence the team has in those values. Without trust or confidence, values are empty words.

6: Values should (mainly) be motivational. Great company values motivate people to go beyond, to step outside of a comfort zone and to accomplish something different, just as much as they prevent something or head off a bad force. Together, all of a company’s values differentiate you from another company.

There isn’t much point in documenting the kind of things good people will default to doing anyway. However, there are some exceptions: Google didn’t really think anyone would be evil, but acknowledged the forces of running a huge business and maximizing profit may start to compromise instinctive good values, so while “Don’t be evil” mat not necessarily be motivational, it was there to head off potentially distracting forces in the future.

Capturing our values: Attempt one

We followed a commonly held ‘best practice’ for our first attempt: form a “Mars group” and get together in room (in retrospect, we don’t feel this practice is best — read on).

With a few founding members and a new senior hire, we kicked off an exercise to paint a picture of where we would like to be in the next 1–5 years.

To capture our company values, we then asked ourselves this: What kind of traits will get us there, and what kind of traits would hold us back?

Or in other words, what does a high performance culture look like to Kayako?

We ended up with a long list of opposites: the positive traits that would help us fulfil our vision and achieve a high performance culture, as well as the antonym of those traits — the things that would hold us back.

Our thinking was that we would assess this world of traits, and draw from it a set of values to reinforce the good traits and prevent us from straying into bad ones (good traits -> ??? -> profit!).

To make sure we were being representative of the whole company, we invited a cross-section of the team (~20 people in total) to prioritize the all the traits that they felt were either most true to us today or most needed.

Surely, this would give us a fully representative true essence of Kayako today, the essence that differentiates us?

Not even close.

Acumen, ownership, embracing change, curiosity, clarity, transparency, courage and passion.

Meh. Shrug.

We couldn’t disagree with these values. They’re generally true, they’re generally positive. But they didn’t hit any of the things we had identified as what makes great company values great. They didn’t resonate. They didn’t connect. They didn’t wake us up.

We managed to create a set of flat, lifeless and generic values. But how, with so much of us put into the process?

We identified three missteps:

  • The death-by committee approach. Great company values need raw passion, focus and emotion. By its nature, a committee compromises on all of these things. It turns out the “Mars Group” approach didn’t work.
  • Focused too much on our current problems and not on our ambitions. We were too busy firefighting to really see past problems and see what could be. As a result, we were all focused on the negative things — things that needed to fixed, right now. We compromised on ambition and as a result, they weren’t motivational.
  • We got too wrapped up in arguing what we were true to today, and what we weren’t true to. We spent a lot of time debating whether we could include values we weren’t particularly true to. We weren’t 100% transparent, so could we really make “transparency” one of our values?We realised it doesn’t matter, and in fact the values should guide everyone to be the kind of company you want to build, not just how things are today.

These were obvious missteps in hindsight — we had set ourselves up for failure. Time to rethink.

Capturing our values: Attempt two

This time, we did the opposite of a committee approach. We gave one person ownership of capturing our values. This was a leadership problem and needed leadership, not a committee.

Rather than getting everything on the wall — every possible positive value we currently do or would like to exhibit and narrowing things down from there — we took the time to sit back and really observe. Observe how we worked. How we problem solved. How we faced difficult situations. How we interacted with each other. What was there when things really worked out OK.

These are the questions we looked to answer, thinking that the answers would themselves capture our values:

  1. Why do people stay with Kayako and refer their friends to us?
  2. What are the traits and values we have been looking for — even if we weren’t actively aware of it — in people when hiring?
  3. When things haven’t worked out, why and what were the traits and values that were missing?
  4. When we’ve promoted people, why those people over others?
  5. When we really nailed something, what kind of values and traits were coming through?
  6. What kind of company do we want to be in the future?

We came up with lots of answers. Whatever came to mind when specifically answering these questions (ideally with plenty of colorful adjectives), we jotted down in a Hackpad.

We ❤ Hackpad. We haven’t found a better tool for thrashing something out and iterating on raw content

This process took about three weeks; enough time for enough scenarios and milestones to come up and go by, enough time to reflect and unpick things. I’m sure that if we were a smaller team, we could have accomplished this much more quickly.

These answers became our working collateral. The full universe of traits, behaviours and adjectives which we would now funnel and distil into our core values.

We iterated on these answers, reducing the various phrases into better, more concise phrases. With each iteration, we kept asking why: why did this trait come up? Why was it so material to success and tried to dig deep into the root.

Chris Moody blogged some key questions to ask when deciding whether avalue is worth capturing (or if it is more apart of your company’s vibe):

– Is this aspect of the company important to our long-term success?
– Does this aspect need to be maintained forever and is it sustainable?
– Does this aspect apply to all areas of the company and to all employees?
– Will establishing this aspect help us make important decisions in the future?

If the answer to yes is all of the above, you might have yourself a new value. If not, you’ve probably just observed a vibe in your company.

This process needs one person — ideally a founder, someone with your company’s core values in their gut — to be an all-absorbing sponge, and to take time out alone to reflect and apply a bit of creativity.

This really is a process of staring at a bunch of phrases and adjectives for a while, until a lightbulb lights up.

We distilled this language down into what became two of our values: Make it happen and Go big or go home.

We continued to iterate, simplify and refine the language we captured in our Hackpad. Shuffling things around, bucketing different phrases and traits together, etc.

We invited some select people to comment directly on the Hackpad with their interpretation of them after reading these early drafts. This was a very different approach to what we tried originally — we were getting feedback, but we were not forming committee. We continued this process until we got a consistent interpretation, which matched our original aim with the values.

We continued this process until the values clicked with all of us.

Here is what we came up with.

The Kayako Values

For each value, we chose not just a short memorable sentence or word, but also language describing how those values might be played out in real life.

We were inspired to use this ‘real life’ documentation of values style by the beautifully simple Buffer culture deck and the Genius.com “ISM”s. We felt it was important to provide real, concrete examples like this so that these values would be delivered clearly and with our ambiguity, across languages and functions.

Check them out on Slideshare:

Launching our company values

The first thing we did was prepare a slide deck, and not just because that is what the cool kids do. We needed to deliver these to the company and they needed to be delivered to everyone who joined Kayako.

It is critical to have editorial control over how the values were documented, paced and presented (to an extent). There needs to be a sense of occasion to them, if we are in agreement that the values are one of the most important institutions in your company.

The next thing we did was dedicate a company all-hands to these values.

Kayako All Hands
145 people. More than 10 locations.

Step by step, we took the company through the mental journey we had been through to capture these. The observations that we made, the lightbulbs that went off, the ideas we threw away and the ideas that made it in, and why.

We took everyone through how we were already demonstrating these values today, and where we had work to do.

For us, the process was just as important as the output. We wanted to take everyone on the same journey (just with a few shortcuts which we discovered along the way).

Results so far? It is too early to tell. We know that everyone is excited, we are on the same page and that’s enough to get going with.

Scaling culture with our values

We don’t anticipate the fundamentals of our values changing much over time, but we are not freezing them.

There’s a reason why we put a v1.1 at the end of “Kayako Values” (probably the same reason why Buffer has a v0.4). We may iterate on the language over time, but what we are really eager to do is capture what we learn as we reach new levels of growth.

For us at Kayako, there is catch-up and a bit of a course correction to do. We can’t sprinkle values like pixie dust and say job done. The job has just started. As a founding team, we are going to put a lot of effort into coaching others about these values: getting them in to every day vocabulary, getting them into our goal setting and feedback processes. Bringing everyone back onto the same page, and ensuring our values are being consistently lived and breathed.

We would like to start capturing more of the Kayako culture and Eau de Kayako in a similar way to how Netflix did with their culture deck and how Valve did with their handbook. We think these make magical and tangible on-boarding tools.

We’ll also be looking at how we can incorporate values into our recognitions system. 7geese, a goals and feedback management tool, has an interesting take on recognition-via-values.

We are also exploring ways of really weaving in these values to our everyday surroundings. We really like the idea of creating some artwork to capture some of the values, like Facebook does. We don’t want to spoil them, though. There is a fine line between powerful and cheesy.

The most important thing we have to do, though, will be letting our values dictate how we we hire, promote and let go. There is no better communication or embedding of values — everything else discussed in this section is just micro-optimization by comparison.

Key takeaways

  1. Do this sooner rather than later. You don’t have one shot at this, so create your Values 0.1 sooner rather than later. Leave it too late and people will start to fall off the same page. It is critical you hire with aligned values at all stages. The longer you leave it, the easier it is to defer, smaller issues like the odd ‘wrong hire’ will start to compound and ultimately, the harder it is to revisit.
  2. Too many cooks spoil the broth. This will vary from team to team. It seems obvious in hindsight, but for us, trying to approach our values by committee was a terrible idea. It took that collective thinking and discussion process and then time and a single owner to flesh them out creatively.
  3. Follow up and give your values some meat. Earlier, we identified that great values are what you do, not just what you say they are. Values and leadership in general won’t work if people don’t believe. The only way people will believe in our values is if we live and breath them: hire by our values, let go by our values and reward by our values. Anything else is a bullet in the head for your values.
  4. Get wordsmithing help. This is a skill that is difficult to master — if you can, get the help of an expert when it comes to the final stages of refining the language in your values.
  5. Get someone to own it. Give this to the person who believes in this the most and will find the time to make it happen. It really does need creative alone time to get it right.
  6. It doesn’t matter if you are not 100% true to your values today. Your values should be ambitious. They have to paint the picture of the kind of company you want to be in the future, just as much as how things are today. Of course, don’t call a value a value if you can’t back it up at all (see #3).
  7. Don’t muddle your values and your vibe. Chris Moody already put this brilliantly. Unfortunately we came across Chris’ post after we made the misstep of capturing too many things as values (and we struggled to narrow them down).

Resources that helped us

We cannot give enough credit to the following companies, authors and speakers that inspired us with their own cultures, values and advice.

This post was originally posted Medium. Follow the Life at Kayako series to learn more about working at Kayako, our values and our culture.

Redefining Email Collaboration: The Grexit story!

Innovation comes from myriad sources – in this case Niraj and his team has come up with an innovative product to tackle the common organizational challenges of email overload (often leading to lowered productivity) and lack of easy cross-functional collaboration tools. In this article, we speak to Niraj, Co-Founder of Grexit about his background, motivation to start-up, and his experience and learnings from his startup journey.

grexit-home

PN: Brief Introduction of Co-founders, their background

Niraj – B.Tech in electronics from IIT Kharagpur, 2002 batch, initially worked with Mentor Graphics writing compilers in C/C++ till 2007. Then he started his first venture mobicules.com – which ended up being a 30 people services firm building apps for customers mostly in the US. In early 2011, Niraj moved on to start GrexIt.

Nitesh – B.Tech in CSE from IIT Kharagpur, 2007 batch was first employee to join Niraj’s last venture mobicules.com right out of college. Nitesh started GrexIt together with Niraj as a co-founder in early 2011.

PN: Niraj recalls about his motivation to address the challenges in workplace-collaboration 

“Collaborating effectively with the team and with customers was a problem that we had faced right from our days running our previous venture. While we had used a lot of collaboration tools, getting everyone to adopt to tools was a challenge. The communication was all on email, and we thought what if we can build a system that lets team stay in email and still work efficiently without any confusion.”

That led to the first iteration of GrexIt. It was tool that would let users save email conversations into a shared email repository. It was a great way to store information about projects, customers, job applicants etc. in a central place.

PN: One of the essentials while starting up is having a strong founding team – the one rightly aligned with addressing the problem in hand. Niraj shares his thoughts on his founding-team and initial days of the product. 

Nitesh and I had worked together for 3.5 years when we decided to use GrexIt, and we felt we could work very well. So putting together the founding team was not a problem at all. We also joined the Morpheus accelerator, and we got a lot of friendly advice from the people at Morpheus. We just focused on building a high quality product that worked flawlessly. We were hardly thinking of anything else.

We raised a round of investment from Citrix Startup Accelerator and Vijay Shekhar Sharma in late 2011. That helped us go faster on the product. In mid 2012, with a deeper understanding of the market, we pivoted to our current product, started charging for it, and started getting customers.

PN: In the software product startups, technology is the quintessential central-brain in the startup. Niraj speaks on the importance of tech and the critical-role it plays in his startup.

Tech is the lifeblood of our business. Our 6 people team, including founders, is all tech oriented. Our product helps businesses run on a day to day basis, because it helps them manage projects, customer support etc., and so it is very critical for them. Having a strong tech team is important to ensure that the product keeps working and scaling well.

We have been able to attract a very good team, mostly because we have the kind of work that would excite good programmers, and because we have received very good international coverage. We also make sure that we have a work environment that gives talented people the opportunity to do their best. We have no fixed timings, you can work from anywhere you want, and we don’t have a leave policy which means we don’t restrict the number of leaves you take. We have learnt that putting faith in your employees creates reciprocal goodwill too.

As I mentioned earlier, our product version 1 which we released in 2011 was a system that would let users move email conversations into a shared repository. We started getting paying customers for this in mid 2012, but then we figured out that instead of letting users create knowledge bases, we need to build something that will help them completely solve business problems like customer support and project management.

That led us to our current set of functionality, and when released that in 2012, we started getting new users for this rapidly. That was a strong signal for us to pivot to the new functionality. 

PN: Neeraj speaks on marketing the product, getting initial customers and on-boarding them with the product:

We started getting initial customers through Google organic search and from the Google Apps marketplace. As it turned out, what we had built had a very good fit with a certain segment of users who were looking for collaborative solutions on top of Gmail. They could discover us easily through search, and started signing up for trials.

We worked hard on engaging them through email and our chat support. User feedback helped us a lot in fine-tuning and improving our product. By the start of 2013, we had a very strong product, mostly because we got excellent feedback, and worked on executing it fast.

PN: Scaling up – “Don’t add programmers – add servers

We have a saying at GrexIt – “Don’t add programmers – add servers”.

We have been able to support the growth in customers base by scaling and enhancing the product without increasing our team size much. We recently launched another product – Mailflo.io – based on our learnings from GrexIt, and we still have enough bandwidth to maintain and enhance two products.

Going forward, we plan to keep our dev team extremely lean, and hire mostly in sales and marketing profile.

PN: Niraj speaks on current challenges and how the team is successfully tackling those challenges.

In first year – getting users to sign up, engaging them, getting feedback, and iterating fast enough. And – being able to deal with the frustration when not enough users were coming in and we were feeling as if we were in a vacuum.

Now – Scaling the customer base. Hiring a high quality marketing team that can do world class inbound marketing.  We also provide free trials (through our online page) so that customers can try out the product once before making the purchase

PN: Niraj shares his view on one thing about his startup which he wished, should had been done differently in past

In 2011, we spent a good amount of time trying to sell to very large organisations locally, ran into a lot of roadblocks, and lost a lot of time. If I were to do it again, I’d focus from day one on selling to SMEs globally, and not to large organisations locally. The dynamics of SAAS are very suited to selling to SMEs globally, and every SAAS company should work on cracking this piece of the market first, IMHO.

PN: Neeraj shares his views on ecosystem in India and the changes he looks forward to. 

Since we started, the ecosystem has evolved a lot. There are lots of SAAS/cloud startups around trying to sell globally. That’s heartening. Its also great to see a lot of seed/angel rounds happening.

Foundations: How starting a #Startup is really like… #Recruiterbox

linenStarting a startup is an exciting and also a challenging journey, right from putting together the Founding team, building a great product, persisting during times of roadblock, engaging the users, thinking long-term and so on. To help the fellow entrepreneurs, we have been speaking to recent entrepreneurs about their startup-journey, growth path and their learnings. In this series, we spoke to Raj Sheth, CEO & Co-Founder at RecruiterBox, about his motivation, decision to startup and his experience so far.

“Recruiterbox provides a one-stop portal to track applicants in one place with its online recruiting and resume management software, applicant tracking systems, Careers site management and Collaborative Recruitment”

What is your background, how did you decide to startup?

To give a background, I did my Bachelors from Babson college, US –  the place had a very entrepreneurial culture and the first startup I tried was a food-delivery startup in my college. After my college, I was working with EMC US for 3 years when I started realizing that I’m getting used to this habit of monthly paycheck. I wanted to solve a problem with a good product. Yes, startup isn’t easy, you aren’t going to make money in initial months – yet we decided to take this journey. Recruiterbox is my 3rd startup.

Could you tell us about the Co-founders and team?

Girish Redekar and Raguveer Kancherla are the two other Co-founders who have been instrumental in building the RecruiterBox product. Both are from IIT Madras and they were working with ZS Associates before they went on to work with HSBC and GE Genpact respectively.

Could you tell us about your Product, and how you chose this problem to solve?

All three of us have worked in large companies, and what we have seen largely is the compliance kind of products in use with little flexibility for end users. For hiring, we saw it to be based on emails, with big file attachments and separate XL tracking. In contrast, products like LinkedIn provides an easy way to share profiles through their online network portal. We wanted to build a product which would help recruiters to easily track applicants, manage resumes and the entire process seamlessly.

Tell us about the initial version of the product and its growth henceforth.

Initial experience I’d say was exciting, painful and challenging. We explained to an initial set of customers – they were happy with product – but the challenging part was scaling from say 10 to 100 customers. We incorporated RecruiterBox in US, and we had our initial customers in India as well, we used PayPal to accept payments. We had challenges in our initial product e.g. in billing, before we reached a stable product.

The co-founders had a very clear roadmap for the product – they took customer inputs and at the same time, clearly prioritized the right set of things to be added to the product in the given time. Also we interacted with head of recruiting in major companies, to gather their inputs and make the product better.

How important is Tech in RecruiterBox, and how did you go about acquiring tech-talent?

Technology is more important than anything else in our product Startup. Customers pay for a good product, so it all comes to better product right? in terms of how easy it is to understand the product, how usable, how robust, how secure. It should stay up all the time, should have useful functionalities and so on.

Having said that, acquiring tech-talent is one of the difficult things. You need people who can build better tech product, more so than as a service. There is a lot of time spent on hiring tech-talent, grooming them and getting them on board and this is one challenge faced by most product companies out here.

What has been the biggest challenge in this startup journey so far?

In the first year or even then, growth is the biggest challenge. Product is something in your control, you know what you have built, and what you are going to do further with customer inputs. But sales growth is a challenging one to crack. And we do many things like getting organic traffic from Google, email-marketing, Adwords, online-advertising, paid-Ads etc. And today we appear right at the top in Google organic search results, when you search for the keywords ‘recruiting software’ – this shows the quality of our product.

Ours is a B2B product and we get a big proportion of traffic from Google. For easy onboarding of our B2B customers, we offer online sign-up and free trial. And most customers eventually choose to buy our Product by paying online even without any intervention from our Sales team. We reach out to all customers signing-up and help them through screen-share, video-chats etc. Now with more advanced features being rolled-out, we look to expand with dedicated Sales-team to provide initial hand-holding.

What are your views on the startup ecosystem in India, and what would you advise the aspiring entrepreneurs?

Speaking of networks and VCs, I’d say there is a much better ecosystem now in India, than say 4 years ago. There are active networks, one just has to reach out to right people. Also Bangalore and Silicon Valley are quite well connected in terms of networking – you have to reach out.

Speaking of funding ecosystem, there is a lot of action these days in India as well as here in US. I’d advise aspiring entrepreneurs to focus on building the right Product in initial days rather than spending time on valuations. People wouldn’t easily invest in just an idea right? Learn to code, focus on building a Product which would address the problem out there, and things would slowly fall in place.

How Foradian has established its position in school management software with an innovative product

Kerala based, Foradian Technologies that began as a web development and services company, soon emerged to be one of the fastest growing firms in the field of school management software. What came as a small software requirement to store school records and procedures soon caught the attention of the State Government of Kerala, which deployed Fedena in all their schools under the Project Sampoorna. Founded in 2009, the company has a rapidly rising business and a global presence in 200+ countries that uses its solution.

In an interview with ProductNation, Arun Raveendran, Cofounder, and Director, Foradian Technologies, says, he is upbeat about the future of the company. Foradian has already recorded profits. Moreover, with fresh funding early this year, the company is ready to expand its operations to markets like USA, Canada and the UK. 

ForadianWhat was the mission behind forming Foradian Technologies?

Foradian was established in 2009, by 8 childhood friends who met at various points in their lives. Formed in a small town in Kasargod, Kerala, we wanted to do something different from our peers and decided to start a company. We had no concept plan for a product or which market to cater to, just a dream to be entrepreneurs.

What were the driving factors to build solutions for school education market?

Foradian was started as a web-development services company. During the course of the work we came across an educational institution that wanted to implement a school management system. In our search for an available school management solution, we realized that there was a huge gap in the market as the only available solutions in education software were from big players and they were costly. That is when the idea of developing Fedena School ERP software came into force.

What was the technology adoption scenario in schools before you entered this market?

It was very narrow as it still is. Schools, especially in India, were not very comfortable with the idea of having paperless records and procedures. It’s not the same now. Schools want to adopt technology as it is the right thing to do.  But still there are managerial challenges in making the teachers use it.

How will specialized solutions change the education sector?

Specialized solutions can enable the education sector to deliver a lot more than what they are delivering now. A school with online ERP system can perform tasks like: collaborating with parents anywhere and anytime, go paperless, plan timetables and examinations months in advance, inventory management and a lot more. Technology in any sector is a tool for solving business problems as well as an enabler of progress, so is the case with education sector.

What is the potential of this market and who are the players who are leading in it?

Fedena being a flexible product can be customized to cater to all geographies, types and institutes, irrespective of size. Therefore our market is huge. There are millions of schools, colleges, universities, evening schools, learning centers, etc. worldwide, which makes it a very big market for us. Most of the big players in the market, who offer ERP solutions to education institutes, do not offer specialized products but only a modification of a general ERP product. Also, their solutions are expensive. This gives Fedena an edge over them as we provide a specialized education technology product at much lower cost.

Tell us about Project Fedena and Ruby on Rails (RoR)? How successful did it prove to be?

Project Fedena is the open-source version of Fedena Pro. It comes with only the core modules. In the initial deployment of Fedena, we realized that every school had different requirements and required extensive customization. For scaling up the product, we were required to offer one product that fits all. In 2010, Project Fedena – a free, basic version of the product was rolled out. The basic version of Fedena was free and whoever wanted a customized product had to pay a fee.

We decided to go with RoR because it is developer friendly. All our technical employees were beginners and it took them only 2 months to start coding in our system. Since RoR is widely used nowadays, we get fantastic support online. Also there are plenty of plug-ins and gems available for specific requirements.

What is the story behind creation of Fedena? How did you get the funding? What were the challenges faced in developing and marketing the product? 

Foradian was started as a web development and services company. Fedena was developed after a school raised a requirement for school management software. Soon, Fedena caught the attention of the State Government of Kerala which deployed Fedena in all their schools across the state under the Project Sampoorna.

Foradian received a funding of $2 million earlier this year from William Bissel of Fab India who had a very keen interest in the education sector and saw the potential in us. The funding came at the right time as Foradian, which was already running into profits now wanted to expand its reach in countries like USA, Canada and UK.

Were you able to breakeven with Fedena? How early? What were the challenges faced in selling the software product? Do you sell direct or through channel partners?

It took us about 2 years to break even. The main challenges faced by us were need for customization and limited usage. Every institute is different from the other, so are their requirements from their ERP software. Therefore we started Fedena ecosystem which consisted of many resellers, IT professionals and developers. This ecosystem helped us provide customization and after sale services to all our institutes.

Most management information systems are difficult to learn and configure, so many schools don’t use them. Fedena was designed to be easy to use. It is so user friendly that anyone with a basic knowledge of computers and email should be able to use it within 10 minutes.

What is the company’s turnover today? What’s your next project? Have you explored the overseas market?

Last year we closed around $1 million. We are also under the process of launching Learning Management software called Uzity. It is a global university where you have the ultimate freedom to teach and learn anything you want in any pace you prefer. It is still in testing phase.

Fedena has a global presence. Currently Fedena is being used in 200+ countries.

How favourable is the eco-system for development of software products in India? What is needed to make it more conducive?

Software industry in India is booming. The eco-system for development of software products has gained momentum. There are new pro-active policies by government being introduced to enable the incubators and accelerators and also to impart skill development which will make the work force in this industry more employable.

As a product development company what learning would you like to share with others? What are the highs and lows of product development?

The high side is that you get to introduce innovations in the industry. Once you find a scalable model for your product you earn high profits, high margins. There is a chance of explosive growth with a disruptive product, like it happened in our case.

In contrast, product development can sometimes run into high development costs like R&D, human resources deployment etc. You can sometime run into dead ends where you spent a lot of time, effort and money on product development and the market doesn’t respond to your product.

A through market research is a must before you start developing a product. Best approach will be to find a gap in the market and develop a product that fills that gap.

Is the team still managed by the ‘eight childhood friends’ or has the equation changed?

We are 6 full time Directors now, handling various verticals of Foradian.

Tell us about how you started Tintumon.com and how it ended up being so popular?

Tintumon.com, a social networking website for Malayalees was launched as a leisure pursuit project and it went viral. The user base of Tintumon.com grew radically and was soon reported by all popular media in Malayalam. It was celebrated as a cult by the youth of Kerala.

You have received numerous awards and accolades. How would you describe the journey so far?

Even though Fedena is a simple yet powerful product, it got the right kind of attention from the tech world. Awards bring a sense of confidence that we are on a right track and that has greatly helped us in moving forward.

Our journey so far has been very rewarding and fulfilling. There is a new challenge everyday and it is this challenging nature of entrepreneurship which makes it so exciting and worthy. Fedena as a product has gone places and with the funding in the picture we are at a very exciting point in our journey and we wish to make the best of it.

HackerEarth: an online technical sourcing and assessment solution – Sachin Gupta, Co-founder. #PNHangout.

HackerEarth is a Bangalore based start-up which helps companies hire programmers. It was started in 2012 by Sachin Gupta and Vivek Prakash, both of whom are alumni of IIT Roorkee. HackerEarth provides solutions for the technical recruitment space – one is an online assessment tool which is used by organizations to assess both internal and external candidates. Another solution acts as an engagement platform for companies when sourcing employees. With respect to internal candidates, companies typically use HackerEarth to conduct online challenges to assess their employees’ abilities. On the other hand, when we consider recruitment, there are primarily three stages during recruitment – sourcing where you source candidates, assessment which involves psychometric assessment, technical assessments, etc. and selection which is obviously where the candidate is selected. Our focus is primarily on stage one and two and our approach to these two stages differs from that of a typical recruitment agency. Our approach is to conduct an online hiring challenge. It is like an open test that we conduct on our community of developers. People come and participate in these challenges and based on their performance, we shortlist candidates. Since we began we have conducted numerous challenges, so we now have a large user base whose skill sets we’re aware of.

The test, or the challenge, as we call it, gives us a good understanding of a candidate’s programming proficiency. If they have performed well in the challenge, we know the candidate is good. We then aggregate their coding activities from online sources like StackOverflow, GitHub, etc, combine all this data to understand their core skills/strengths and we match it to a company’s requirements.

When we began HackerEarth, we were keen on working with early stage start-ups but we quickly realized that even if we give them good candidates, the number of hires wouldn’t be very high. So we decided instead to focus only on series A, series B funded companies. At that time InMobi, was a marquee client for us. Later on, Practo, FreshDesk, came onboard and we were able to fulfill their hiring needs too. We found great success in working with growth stage startups. Once we’d established some presence in the market we realized that the SaaS assessment tool could be sold to larger corporations too. Companies like Symantec and Citrix became our customers because our tool because of the time it saved them in assessments. Also, the product was much more stable and much more mature by then.

On the non-hiring front, we conduct exciting programming challenges which engages the developer community. We have a big following now. In addition, all the users on our platform are high on quality, high on skill sets and this in turn made sourcing from HackerEarth very effective.

Obstacles overcome:

The three main challenges that we have faced since we started-up are:

  1. Selection/Identification: As our company has expanded over the last 20 months, the most recurrent challenge that we have encountered is identifying our focus and priorities at different stages. If you can do this, you can actually build a very good company. When it was just the two of us, our challenge was to identify a MVP. We had interacted with a lot of people but there has to be a point where you need to sit down and start working on a product and in spite of this you will always feel that you don’t have enough information. You need to rely on your gut instinct and know why you entered that market or why you are building your product. Combine this with the initial user survey that you did to come up with an MVP and then proceed.
  2. Sales: Another big challenge for us was sales as both of us co-founders have a technical background and we had very little connection to the industry and even lesser knowledge of how to sell. In addition to the MVP we also needed to identify who are our target customers were because in many instances, potential customers expressed interest when we discussed our idea with them but their responses when we spoke to them after having built our product was very different. In our case especially, since we are a B2B solution in some sense, it was very important for us to identify our customer set as we were going after the entire technical hiring gamut. So we had to be extremely choosy. Now that HackerEarth has grown, we have a strong client base, revenue has been coming in and people are becoming more aware of HackerEarth. Building a good sales team was very important for us.
  3. Scaling: After a few successes, we realized that we needed to expand our customer base and accelerate in that direction. User acquisition is one of the most pressing things for us because we are essentially a marketplace as we have developers on one front and recruiters on the other side. It is similar to a chicken and egg problem. If you don’t have developers, you don’t have recruiters and if you don’t have recruiters you don’t have developers, so we have decided to focus more on getting developers to our platform and this is currently a challenge that my team and I are tackling.

Metrics is a must

Being a tech intensive company, the first thing that I would absolutely look for in a Product Manager is how driven the person is with metrics – you should be able to define what numbers you should be tracking, what are the time lines, you should be able to understand the sales figures, etc. By using tools like google analytics, he or she should be able to use a CRM to track sales, they should be able to use analytics to see how users are performing, they should be able to work with mix-panel and other tools to understand how users are interacting with the product and then be on top of these numbers because personally I believe product management is about tracking these numbers and making actionable decisions based on them.

HackerearthSecond is someone with actual previous hands-on experience with technology. If they still work with technology that is even better because sometimes, say you want to build a hack for marketing or you want to implement a small feature that your customer requested which typically would take say half an hour of work and you don’t want to disturb your team, you can go ahead and implement it yourself. So this is hands on technical skills, if not current, then at least experience with working with technology in the past.

Third is having domain knowledge. So somebody who has worked with programmers, somebody who can understand what programmers want and also understands recruiting because at the end of the day, the problem that we are solving is recruiting. We are helping companies hire programmers better. So if I can’t understand the pain point of a recruiter then I would not be able to build a product for them.

In addition, I believe that some sensitivity towards design is required. HackerEarth is a very design sensitive company. So the product manager also should understand what good design is. I don’t really expect them to create good designs but they should be able to understand what is good, what is bad and then work with the designer. One of the challenges of being a PM is actually working with the designer because designers tend to form a certain view point about certain things, so they are very passionate about what they see and sometimes what they see or what they feel or what they think or believe in may not actually translate to what the users want or what the business wants.

At the end of the day, being a product manager doesn’t mean you know everything. You could be wrong but to be a good product manager you need to be someone who is really passionate about solving a particular problem.

#PNHANGOUT is an ongoing series where we talk to Product Managers from various companies to understand what drives them, the products they work on and the role they play in defining the products success.

If you have any feedback or questions that you would like answered in this series feel free to email me at appy(dot)[email protected](dot)com.