A personal introduction to #SaaSx4, and why I believe Chennai is the place to be right now for SaaS startups

I have worked with iSPIRT for many years now and one of my key lessons has been around the dynamics behind community and ecosystem building. I have learnt that just having a plethora of startups in one geographical location doesn’t make that place the natural epicenter or capital. There is something more to it, an X factor that goes beyond mere arithmetic.

This X factor is something that I think Chennai has.

There is no doubt in my mind that Chennai is the capital of SaaS startups in India today.

Firstly, the numbers themselves are mighty impressive. Just between Zoho and Freshdesk, two of India’s bellwether SaaS companies, there is around $400m in revenue, about a $100+ million in funding and around 4000+ SaaSemployees.

But what is more significant is that around tentpole companies such as these, a massive ecosystem for many other SaaS companies has been created in Chennai. And this is going from strength to strength as we speak.

To explain why I am personally excited about Chennai and its focused and committed founders who are building companies in this same mould, let me go down memory lane a bit. If the story seems a bit rambling, please indulge me as it is a personal story that is close to my heart.

When Chennai was Madras

My early memories of Madras are when I was probably seven years old and my uncle was posted at the Tambaram Air Force station. When we travelled from Delhi to Bangalore by train, the GT Express would halt in Madras for 5 hours as the engine would get changed. Our uncle would pick us up and we would go to one of the beaches. It was also probably one of my early experiences by the sea. I also got to spend holidays a couple of times in the quiet and green Air Force Base in Tambaram.

Image Courtesy — FriendsofChennai

I got placed by NIIT as a GNIIT in a Madras-based software company called RiteChoice technologies (Yes, I was a GNIITian!). They had built the back office software for the National Stock Exchange and I joined as a Support Executive to help them with the sales/support/installation of the software in the Delhi region. We got intensive training about the stock market and how the software functions at the company headquarters. It was great fun those days as you worked for 6 days and the 7th day would be an off site with colleagues who had come from different cities. In those days, North Indian food was hardly available in Chennai and it was tough to have idli/dosas for almost two months (no offence to all my South Indian friends!). The software segment was just picking up at that time and there were very few IT companies.

Ritechoice was a product company at a time when we really did not know the demarcation between a service and a product organisation, and their other software was called Suxus. I remember interacting with the founding team; they were full of passion and keen on building more products.

The Ramco mafia

I moved on from Ritechoice after six months as we were not able to sell/support the software in Delhi. There were lot of changes being done at NSE and in hindsight, I now understand that we were not able to find the product market fit. I continued with my journey of working with Internet startups with DSF Internet & Trisoft Systems, until NASSCOM happened in 2002. I was again able to interact with a lot of software companies.

In the early days whenever we used to talk about products, the company which drew all the limelight was Ramco. It was probably one of the fastest growing companies then, selling ERP software and making a big impact in the user community. It was fighting SAP in those days. I remember that there were around 60 ERP companies at one point of time. Other notable companies in Chennai at that time were Polaris Software(now acquired by Virtusa) and MyAdrenalin. Apart from these companies, there were a few IIT-Madras incubated startups like as well.

And there was another small company called AdventNet, which had just started making some noise.

The Role of Proto.in

I was introduced to the Twitter/blog world by Kiruba Shankar & Vijay Anand. I remember following them and getting to learn about social media through some of the sessions at NASSCOM. In the early days of the startup ecosystem, very little action used to happen in Chennai, but Proto made a big dent by getting all startups under one umbrella. For me attending Proto gave me exposure to the startup community. I got to see Ashish Gupta surrounded by many people and later on got to know that he was one of the founders of Junglee. The event was at IIT-Madras and it was hard to get into any of the halls. They were just full. The man behind the show was Vijay Anand. There were others, of course, nothing in our ecosystem is a one man show, but Vijay did a magical job of getting it all started.

I remember how Shalin Jain proudly demoed DoAttend which got built because of Proto. Wikis were used quite extensively first in Chennai for Proto: I’m yet to see another event, even in these event-rich times, which uses Wikis extensively.

Some of the companies that showcased at Proto 1

Some of the well known companies like Myntra, iXigo, Drishti (Now Ameyo), ValueFirst, iCreate (Now Fintellix), Novatium, etc launched their products at Proto 1. Do take a look at Proto 2 as well. Thanks to Amit Ranjanwho continued to upload all these decks and also write about them at WebYantra. If Proto was alive today, it would have probably been the biggest enabler of the startup ecosystem in our country. Pity that it isn’t, but we need to remember that the movement actually started in Chennai.

Me at NASSCOM, and how the Emerge community took off

Some of the initial people who really made the EMERGE community happen were people like Suresh Sambandam of Orangescape (now KissFlow), Late Mr. Raja from Coromondel Infotech, Lakshman Pillai of LPCube, and George Vettah of Kallos. These were also product companies and played an important role in building the community. I continue to stay in touch with Suresh and leverage him as much as I can in building the ecosystem.

Apart from Delhi, it was the EMERGE conclave in Chennai that was a roaring success. So many people took ownership of the event. It was almost completely driven by people in Chennai and we successfully were able to build a community for product companies.

For the first time, Sridhar Vembu of ZOHO spoke at a NASSCOM conference. It was at the EMERGE that ZOHO won an Innovation Award for the work that they were doing to hire freshers and train them. They continue to do so and it’s also very impressive to see the ecosystem that ZOHO has built in Chennai. The ZOHO mafia (Girish/Freshdesk, Arvind/Zarget, Sridhar/Credibase, Krish/ChargeBee) has created many founders (around 42, says Quora). The other Vembu brothers are also still going strong. Clearly ZOHO has played an important role in creating a culture in Chennai.

The unfolding story

In the early days of iSPIRT, I did get to do some playbook roundtables at the Orangescape office. I remember Ashwin Ramaswamy of PipeCandy(in those days it was called ContractIQ) volunteered for most of the playbook roundtables. I remember I got introduced to Girish Mathrubootham by Sairam Krishnan for the first time in their small office….met them in the boardroom and i remember one of the members was working in the boardroom as they were falling short of space 🙂

First Playbook by Shankar Maruwada in Chennai

I did get to do some playbook roundtables in the early days of iSPIRT, basically i would use Chennai to validate some of the playbook roundtables. Most of the playbooks were done at Orangescape and more recently Aditya Sanghi(Hotelogix) got some 6–7 founders from Bangalore to learn SaaS scaling from Freshdesk. I remember, it was one of the insightful playbooks and I got to meet Sanjay Parthasarthy from Indix for the first time at their office and also did a tour of the ZOHO campus which was quite far from the city.

In 2014, I was in Chennai for some meetings. It was around the time of SaaStr and it was then that it struck me that two large SaaS companies are already based out of Chennai, that and many others like KiSSFlow, UnMetric, Indix, Chargebee, Pipecandy and Zarget were all SaaS companies. It became clear to me that this city had a strong DNA of building SaaS/B2B products.

I and called up Shekhar Kirani from Accel (I consider him to be the Force behind the SaaS ecosystem in India). I bounced this idea off of him, asking for support for something around SaaS in Chennai. I got a green signal after which I reached out to Suresh and Girish. I got full support from them and in less than 20 days, we pulled together SaaSx Chennai.

Full credit to Suresh Samabandam for coining SaaSx. By the way, EMERGEOUT was also his coinage. The energy at SaaSx is always very high and we did the first three editions every six months. The beauty of SaaSx is that it is by entrepreneurs for entrepreneurs and some real sharing is been done by people like Girish, Suresh, Avlesh, Paras, Krish, etc..

Playbook Led by Avlesh(WebEngage) & Suresh(KissFlow) at SaaSx

As iSPIRT, we are blessed to have strong support from such people who believe in paying it forward and are happy that we have been able to create a robust & safe place for SaaS founders. We will continue to stay focussed, curate the audience, and ensure that the platform becomes a meaningful one for SaaS founders in India.

Audience from the first SaaSx

We are all excited about the fourth edition of SaaSx in Chennai on 17th March, and I’m proud to continue to bat for the city (like Krish Srikkanth) and make an impact in the SaaS ecosystem.

Edited by Sairam Krishnan & reviewed by Sumanth Raghavendra

India SaaS Survey 2016 – Decoding our SaaS industry

Strength of a industry is not just judged by how much it contributes to the economy. There are a number of factors to consider and surveys play a major role in painting a clear picture.

The India SaaS Survey is all about getting the pulse of the burgeoning SaaS ecosystem in our country. A survey of this kind is indispensable in drawing an insightful analysis and in getting credible benchmarking data about how the industry is shaping out. Though nascent, the SaaS industry has a lot of potential. The data from the survey is useful not only to help entrepreneurs and investors but also showcases the prospect of the industry to technically sound aspirants looking to step into the industry.

Signal Hill, India’s largest software investment banking advisory practice in partnership with iSPIRT, the Indian Software Product Industry Round Table decided to conduct the India SaaS Survey last year. In their commitment to refreshing results of the survey annually, the second edition took shape. The learnings of the first edition has made the second iteration a better fit to the cause.

iSPIRT puts the number of respondents who took the survey at 10% of the entire SaaS ecosystem in India!

This sizable sample size with variation ranging from bootstrapping startups to the biggest names in the industry is what sets it apart from the rest. As the SaaS ecosystem in India continues to grow, participation is bound to further increase and India SaaS survey would be the benchmark.

Image credits to The Economic times

Here are the 7 key takeaways of the India SaaS Survey 2016:

  1. NCR has moved up three places to the second position and established itself as the latest hotspot for SaaS companies
  2. Vertical focussed SaaS players occupy majority share of the scaled and funded respondent pie
  3. Enterprise focussed clients have reported higher median growth rates compared to SMB/SME focussed players
  4. Though inside sales is by far the most preferred and effective sales channel, post the $1Mn ARR mark respondents do report an increased usage of feet on street (which is still #2 after inside sales)
  5. ‘Try and Buy’ is the most preferred sales model (vs. sales channel)
  6. Horizontal and Vertical SaaS players report similar median growth rates, however companies that focus on the US as their primary market (as against India or Asia) reported distinctively higher median growth rates
  7. The median CAC payback period (for >$1Mn ARR) is 6-12 months

Do have a look at all the data we dissect with the survey:


We are open to your suggestions to make this survey better with time. Please do let us know what else you would love to see us cover next time. Write to us at indiasaassurvey(at)signalhill.in

On behalf of Signal Hill & iSPIRT Team

Nishant & Varun(SignalHill), Krish(ChargeBee) & Suresh(KiSSFlow)

8 tech products from India for the World

India has come a long way since its Independence on 15th August, 1947. One industry that has really shined for India is IT/ITES and that really have put India in a global map. The major contribution has come in the form of Software services with names such as Infosys, TCS, Wipro & HCL being the torch bearers. However, be it due to lack of media attention or for the lack of sheer scale, India is still not looked upon as a Product Nation that has created a global consumer or enterprise facing product such as Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Oracle, SAP and other such marquee names. It is a bit ironical that all these big giants have a size-able number of Indian minds working for them!

So, on the eve of Independence Day of India, let’s give a shout out to few products which are slowly and steadily helping India to become a Product Nation and inspiring many Indian entrepreneurs to dream big for the World!

#TechMadeinIndiaforWorld

Capillary Tech — Any retailer in the world if looking for a customer engagement solution, then Capillary probably will be there in the list of evaluation. That is the brand it has able to create for itself in quick time. It has shown that an industry specific solution can be also scaled up big time!

Crowdfire — It is a social media management app for Instagram and Twitter. Earlier know us ‘just unfollow’, it has really shown that to get users, the focus should be on user need and not on complex problems.

Finacle — Infosys should always be proud of on the success of Finacle. This has helped them take multiple risks in product and platforms space. Finacle has always kept itself up to date owing to change in banking customers’ behavior. The fact that banks are using it in more than 94 countries speaks a lot of its universal applicability. Finacle has shown that despite the parent company being service oriented, products can be created if given independence in execution!

Freshdesk — It started in an industry which already had multiple matured players in the market. But focus on UX, price points and its target customer needs, it has nailed the customer support space. And with its recent hiring, it has shown the importance of right leadership.

Tally — It is almost a synonym for accounting software. And probably the first global product out of India. Again have shown to focus on user problems than anything else.

Web Engage — It has redefined the way how products should engage with customers. Again it operates in a highly competitive space but with its focus on innovative features, has shown how a product should be scaled up.

Wingify — Just look at their main page and you will fell in love with its mission statement. Overlaps with the web engage space to some extent but the mission statement itself separates them out.

Zoho — The perfect example of how to run a product business. In the age where founders chase funding, Zoho has remain bootstrapped and keeps churning out a productivity product for a business problem.

These products inspires us at UX Hack on a daily basis to have the right intent and build for the World!

Guest Post by Nishith Gupta, Founder, UXHack.co

UX and Design in India

I recently heard of the demise of renowned MP Ranjan. Though I’ve never met him, my friends and colleagues who are in design, speak highly of him. It’s amazing how much design as a field of study and profession has progressed. And I’ve been fortunate to have worked with a lot of smart and talented designers over the past few years. This was not the situation when I started in the tech industry.

While at Zoho (then AdventNet, circa 2002), few of us came together and felt it was important to focus on design (it used to be called Usability then). And many teams had designers who used to be called Usability Engineers. We even went on to setup a usability lab where we had the ability to share the big CRT monitor, have a user try out our product (usually someone from SysAdmin, remember: AdventNet was building enterprise network management products then) and be able to see how a user used specific screens in the product. Most of my friends in other tech companies back then hadn’t heard of or were familiar with usability engineers or what they do. The common question used to be

Are these the people who fix the font colour and bold/italic? Isn’t that graphic design?

When I was interviewing with Yahoo in 2004, the recruiter who forwarded my resume to Yahoo, saw “User Experience” mentioned in the resume, and suggested “Why don’t you write some programming languages like Java in the resume so that they’ll consider this? Why do you want to write things like user experience? How does it help?“. As irony would have it, I ended up getting hired by Yahoo, and joined the same day as @rutasraju who led the UX teams at Yahoo for quite a while 🙂.

By this time, few more companies were beginning to talk of User Experience, Design and even hiring for those positions. And when I moved to InMobi (then mKhoj, circa 2008), we hired UX designers quite early on, and the company continues to build the UX/Design team. It was a much more accepted and serious profession to be included, if you were building products for any kind of human!

In more recent times, design is a mainstay in any company building products. This may be achieved by hiring in-house or by outsourcing/contracting, but the fact remains that it plays at a high level of consciousness for any team starting a company or building a product. At Credibase, when we think of what to do for users, the conversations always start with

What is the proposition for the user, and what is the experience the user will undergo?

I think this is due to a nice and virtuous cycle: See classy products -> Want classy products -> Build classy products. And I think this is great for the ecosystem. From being an afterthought (fix the text and colour on the screens) to being a mainstay, design in India has certainly come a long way, all in 1.5 decades!

India B2B Software Products Industry Clocks Solid Growth from 2014 to 2015

India’s B2B software product industry has grown nicely since we published the first edition of this index in November 2014 – the top 30 companies are valued at $10.25 billion (₹65,500 crores) and employ over 21,000 people.  The index has grown 20% in USD terms and 28% in INR terms from October 30, 2014 to June 30, 2015.

There has been an acceleration since 2010 in the pace of creation of B2B companies.  Vertically-focused offerings in retail, travel, financial services, media have reached scale and we are likely to see some larger exits in terms of IPOs or M&A over the next couple of years. In parallel, we are seeing horizontal offerings targeting global markets emerge and start to breakout of India into the US and other global markets – we are starting to see not only India-based venture funds backing these companies but also Silicon Valley funds coming in once there is initial customer adoption in the US.

A new set of founders are coming into the B2B software products ecosystem. These include an increasing proportion who have worked at consumer and B2B startups that have scaled in India and who have identified problems that they can solve with software automation.  We are also seeing continued venture creation from founding teams that have backgrounds from established enterprise software companies and some from IT services companies.

In terms of target markets, fast-growth Indian companies (in sectors such as organized retail, organized healthcare services and technology startups in product commerce and services commerce i.e. online-to-offline) are starting to purchase software from Indian B2B software product startups and have globally-aligned requirements, helping these startups get closer to product-market fit before or in parallel to starting to sell globally. We are also seeing many startups go global from day-one through a desk-selling model, as evidenced by many of the companies in the index. And finally, several startups have moved founders to the US and are succeeding in direct selling models there.

Some of the numbers: 80% of companies have global customer bases, while the rest are India-focused.  67% of companies are domiciled in India, with the rest principally in Singapore and the US.  Bangalore and NCR account for half the companies’ principal city of operations with Chennai and Pune as key secondary hubs – there is a trend to newer companies starting up in Bangalore, Chennai and Pune and away from NCR.  Average enterprise value per employee is climbing toward Silicon Valley levels – the index currently nets out to $480k per employee.

The top 30 companies in alphabetical order are:

Here’s the report in its entirety:

Thanks to all the volunteers at iSPIRT who worked on this project as well as Professor Sharique Hasan of Stanford Graduate School of Business, Stanford University; Professor Rishi Krishnan of IIM-Indore; as well as Signal Hill for providing public market valuation comparables and Rakesh Mondal  for designing the document..

We will publish an updated iSPIxB2B index every year starting with the next one in June 2016 – please do click here to submit names of companies you think should make this list.

Processes in Start-ups! Can’t live with them! Can’t live without them! Seven ways to address this!

Processes in start-ups are like the proverbial Men or Women – “You can’t Live with them! You can’t live without them!”.

Striking the right balance between having processes and not having them is an Art, not a Science. Getting them right in a start-up means all the difference between a surviving and thriving one, and one that chokes on itself either through chaos or rigidity!

When it is just the founding team and a small, tightly knit team working closely together, you don’t need a whole lot of processes. Everything just gets done informally by someone picking up the slack and doing it. It is when you reach a critical mass of 20 or more employees, fast growth or rising revenues that you suddenly need processes for everything. Not having them brings chaos, confusion, loss of goodwill with critical early employees, clients or customers!

At the same time, I have seen start-ups emulate large corporations too soon, and load up on process in the beginning, become rigid, and drive away good employees, valuable clients and customers. Right in the beginning when things looked so promising, and that’s not good either!

Whether it is Software Development Methodologies, Sales or Marketing, Customer Support or Human Resource management, processes become necessary with size. Keeping processes in control and making them work for you, rather than you working for them is the key!

,chickenprocess

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Forms are the first signs of processes that show up and they are the bane of most start-ups! Like a form designed for an impromptu conversation proposal above!

Pixton_Comic_6_Reasons_Processes_Fail_by_OperationsBlog2Processes fail for various reasons. Start-ups cannot afford to have processes fail! In large corporations, there is enough margins and cash flow, ( Of course, when they are doing well) that they can afford to absorb all kinds of process experiments, and failures before something works correctly! Start-ups need to get them right the first time! The margin for process failures is very thin! You cannot afford to waste any money, especially when you are on your way to revenues, and you are burning angel investments or hard-to-come-by venture money!

Luckily technology provides software product start-ups with various tools that can be leveraged. They can have the cake and eat it too! Here are seven such technologies that every start-up needs to look at seriously in rolling out processes smoothly and inexpensively, for the most part!

  1. The Internet: Web portals have enabled organizations business processes from order entry to logistics to customer service to be performed from anywhere, anytime by their employees. In some cases, these organizations are making these portals available even for their end-customers on an around-the-clock basis, making it very convenient. A good question to ask in any start-up while rolling out any process “Is there a way, the Internet can increase the process cycle efficiency for this business process?”. There are no excuses for not leveraging all kinds of Software As A Service (SaaS) sites from Software Development management to Customer Support and Service! Zoho, ChargeBee, Explara, FreshDesk, BaseCamp, etc., are all companies that any software start-up should explore and integrate in their processes!
  2. Wireless Connectivity: Can we wireless enable the people that form part any process?  Can that delivery guy record that delivery using an application and data connectivity through his smartphone?
  3. Automated Workflow Systems: Automated workflow systems cut down the time, work items wait in a queue for processing. Many business processes suffer from wasteful physical movement of paper from desk to desk. When a piece of paper reaches the next destination, it waits behind other work items that arrived before it. Automated workflow systems can keep the work items moving, raising alerts if work items have been waiting for too long a time, re-routing themselves to others if someone is busy, etc. They also provide visibility into exactly where the bottlenecks may be in a business process, enabling sane Lean process improvement efforts to smooth these out. At a time when cloud-enabled workflow systems like Orangescape are available locally in India, there is simply no excuse!
  4. Scanning and Digitization: Computing and computer storage have become so inexpensive that many organizations scan and digitize most official documents that come in as paper. These may be legal documents or invoices from vendors of services, supplies, or raw material. Thereafter, it enables the circulation of these digital versions of these documents rather than wasteful movement of physical paper across the company. Digitization also enables processes to move geographically long distances effortlessly, enabling employees from geographically dispersed office locations to participate in the same workflow, for example.
  5. Service-Oriented Architectures: If an organization is using the most up-to-date transportation companies to handle its shipping needs, it can initiate a delivery from it own corporate applications seamlessly. These shipping companies have made their backend software systems accessible to any organizations’ software systems using service-oriented architectures (SOA). The SOA technology enables software systems in the same or disparate organizations talk to each other and exchange information automatically, without any human intervention. Many large corporations have realized enormous gains in process cycle efficiency in their supply chain business processes by allowing suppliers’ and customers’ software talk to their backend software systems using SOA. By enabling automatic exchange of data between organizations’ computers in an electronic form, SOA eliminates wasteful and time-consuming exchange of paper and redundant entry of data in to multiple computer applications.Checking out your local logistics vendor and seeing if you could integrate your order management system with their logistics systems over the Internet is something to be explored early on!
  6. Document Management Systems: Document management systems allow an organization to execute business processes that require collaboration across geographies, and even continents. They allow two people in different cities or countries to work collaboratively on a business process by making sure the changes they make are done in an orderly fashion and nothing is lost during the collaboration. Document management systems allow the check-out of documents for editing and require checking them back in once they are done. Thus changes made by different people on the same document are not lost. In many business processes, this has the potential of eliminating waste due to motion and most importantly the quality of the collaboration involved. In the absence of such systems, more time may be expended in sending documents back and forth by e-mail and coordinating changes made to the same documents by different people.
  7. Online CRM Systems/Self-Service FAQ Systems: Many organizations have placed customer relationship management (CRM) systems online as part of their web site. A customer can login and create a trouble ticket online for a support or service request instead of talking to a customer support representative on the telephone. Many organizations are using self-service frequently asked questions (FAQ) sections on their web sites where customers can see if their problem has been faced by other customers, and what the solution was, in those cases. These systems enable the speed up of customer service and support processes. FAQ sections on company web sites may even eliminate service or support calls if they answered their questions or solved their service or support problem. They are convenient for end customers since they are available on the Internet, around the clock, providing even better service than when done manually by telephone. Make the client/customer do the work! Many times they may not mind since they can do it 24/7 in their pajamas and don’t need to reach a human being to serve themselves!

sugai_slide2

 

Processes in start-ups can only be rolled out after a great deal of thought, especially, “is it absolutely necessary?”. But once it is deemed necessary, these days technologies and especially inexpensive, SaaS based offerings make it easy for them to implement them and make them work very effectively!

You can live with them, after all, if you know what you are doing and find the easiest, most effective way of doing them!

Excellence is a continuous process and not an accident – A.P.J.Abdul Kalam.

Baby steps to an Indian Microsoft

A country well known for its software services now has an opportunity to build world-beating software products.

At a recent corporate awards ceremony, Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) was crowned as the company of the year. Piyush Goyal, the Minister of State for Power, Coal and New & Renewable Energy hurriedly stepped up to the lectern after the award was given. He told the assembled glitterati that TCS had promised to give the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) a modern, nay, world-class hospital management system by March 31. In the tentative clapping that ensued I heard a big snort from my right. The scepticism of the gentleman sitting next to me was rooted in the belief gaining ground that bespoke software systems were outdated and presented a sub-optimal choice.

The predicament of enterprise technology clients stuck with archaic bespoke software systems is no longer common. Bespoke software systems fell out of favour 20 years ago. Firms switched en masse to on-premise enterprise software products. They were cheaper, easier to upgrade, and yet extensively tailored to their needs. This shift in the late 1990s created two sets of players: product vendors like SAP, and implementation consultants like IBM Global Services and Accenture. Soon, Indian IT services players like TCS, Infosys and Cognizant muscled into the game and grabbed considerable market share.

Lost in this success story is the narrative about Indian enterprise software product vendors. For instance, iFlex built a great enterprise software product for banks, which Oracle snapped up for a billion dollars in 2005. Kochi-based IBS is a leading product vendor for airports and airlines, and is now big enough for an IPO next year. PARAS, a hospital management product from Bangalore, is grabbing the industry limelight by winning global deals involving hundreds of hospitals.

If the Indian IT industry has benefited from the shift away from bespoke systems, why did AIIMS miss the bus? In general, why has our public sector been so slow to buy enterprise products? Government officials are not to blame for this. Unfortunately, our IT services firms became protectors of status quo in the government sector. While it helped them milk their fading bespoke systems for longer, it also created crumbling government systems and robbed the nascent product industry of a big market. Luckily, the new government has started fixing the issue.

The Growing Shism

Another breed of enterprise product vendors is emerging. Companies like Workday and Salesforce personify this new wave. They offer on-demand products. These require less customizations and work on cloud-based data centres. So, as Workday says on its website, they are a “fraction of the cost of upgrading from their incumbent vendors”. Naturally, customers love these new-generation products. They are called Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) products. And they are growing like wildfire.

A schism has opened up in the Indian IT industry over SaaS products. The implementation consultants don’t like them, as they need only minor adjustments. They look at them with a jaundiced eye of a traditional bespoke darzi [tailor] looking at readymade clothes. Going from stitching custom pants to doing length adjustments for readymade ones is a gloomy shift for IT services providers. But it’s a boon for our software product start-ups.

In fact, Indian SaaS product start-ups are on a roll. They are even getting begrudging respect from Silicon Valley. When ZenDesk, the SaaS market leader in customer service desk management products, did its roaring IPO earlier this year, it listed six key competitors in its SEC [US Securities and Exchange Commission] filing. Four of these – Kayako, Freshdesk, Supportbee and Tenmiles – are Indian! Indian SaaS product players are becoming global category leaders. Zoho, for instance, sells a CRM (customer relationship management) product at $12 per salesperson per month and is the market leader in this mid-market segment. It is flanked by Salesforce in the enterprise segment (at $60 per salesperson per month) and a raft of players, mostly Indian, in the SMB segment (at $3 to $4 per salesperson per month).

This availability of, say, CRM software product at every price point is a big new story in the IT industry. Unlike cars or smartphones, we have never had different software products to cater to every price segment. SaaS has changed this. As a result, everybody can now afford a software product. Hopefully, this time, government policy will build on this new generation and not let incumbents hold things back.

My Cup Runneth Over 

Two other pockets of explosive growth are exciting. One is the much-discussed rise of the digital consumer in India. This has led to the birth of Flipkart, Ola Cabs, Stayzilla, Newshunt and others. The other pocket is less sexy but it’s even bigger. It has to do with software infrastructure.

Old software infrastructure is being replaced at a pace previously unseen and is creating lots of product opportunities. Data explosion is driving endpoint data protection and governance products. Video explosion is driving dynamic ad insertion products. E-commerce growth is driving a new generation of search infrastructure products. Corporate mobile use is driving new agentless Bring-your own-Device security products. Social media is driving real-time social media analytics products. Now here is the punch line: in each of these categories, the emerging global leader is an Indian company! This is an unbelievably powerful development. For instance, Druva, a Pune-based start-up, is the global market leader in endpoint data protection and governance and is set to do an initial public offering in the US in 18 to 24 months.

Daring to Dream

Behind this optimistic turn of events is a new type of a technology entrepreneur. He (and, sadly, its mostly he so far) is unshackled from the restrictive dream of being the world’s back office. He doesn’t think in terms of labour arbitrage. He is a missionary, a creator and disruptor of status quo. And he has a blazing desire to change the world.

Team Indus embodies this spirit. This team is a motley group of passionate technologists that aims to land a robotic craft on the Moon by December 2015. This is literally a moon shot. Not altogether surprising to many of us, this team has emerged as one of the top three teams in the prestigious Google Lunar X-prize!

There are other moon shots in the works. Some are pivotal to developing our defence, aerospace and electronics industries. Others are about building highly affordable software products that will bring competitiveness to small businesses, teaching effectiveness to schools, productivity to health-care centres and new skills to farmers. Let’s not blow this chance. Let’s give these efforts the policy oxygen they deserve.

The country that gave zero, calculus, yoga and chess to the world is dreaming again. It wants to retake its rightful place in the world. It’s not satisfied being a back office for everybody. It dreams of powering the future with its ideas and inventions. It dreams of being a product nation!

This article was first published in Business Today

Over seven seas: Why Indian companies are increasingly going global

NEW PRODUCT-3While there are no numbers or research on how many Indian startups have global operations, I suspect it will be a sizeable number – a number that is growing every month and every year. No longer are Indian startups content in serving merely the domestic market, this new breed of startups and entrepreneurs consider the world as their market.

This, however, is not something that has happened overnight. We see a considerable number of Indian companies like Zoho, InMobi, Zomato going global and one consistent theme is that the entrepreneurs have some sort of a global stint. A recent report said that in China, 5 out of 10 billionaires are Internet billionaires and the common thread is that they have all studied or had stints in the US.

I feel a lot of us in India have the global context, having studied or worked or having both those experiences. Global context enables us to understand what market opportunities exist and the emerging trends throughout the world. To build a global company you need to have a global perspective and you need people at the top who think that way.

The second big pointer is the evolution of the Indian IT industry. When we started the revolution of IT services in 1990s with companies like HCL, Wipro and Infosys, it was all about labour arbitrage and how to get things done in a cheaper, better and more efficient way in India. Now that story has been beaten to death and people are more aware of what services companies are doing in the context of the opportunities that exist globally. Hence, instead of being a mere back end provider, people want to move up the value chain. People understand the opportunities and are now questioning why they can’t go out and address it.

Business today is borderless and in a global economy, boundaries have blurred and opportunities can be tapped across the globe. The intermingling of cultures and people on a very large scale has meant that whenever anyone thinks of any opportunity it is very easy to think about it as a global opportunity. Previously the thought process was limited to the market size of the domestic market.

For example, when we talk about selling to the travel and hospitality industry, we think about how many hotels exist globally and how many airlines operate across the world. The globalized nature of what we do today makes it much easier to implement ideas. There may still be some friction in the system, but today it is relatively easy to have the world as your playground.

It is also the question of market size. Although the 1.2 billion dollar home market may be a very big market, operating globally gives you a much bigger market size. Take for example the fact that 300 million tourist travel domestically, but the travel and hospitality market in India is fragmented. As a result the organized hospitality industry has about 120,000 rooms. New York alone has 120,000 rooms.

For us as a B2B player, we have to go where the marketplace is more mature. India today is as small as New York for us. Globally, we have 500,000 hotels and 500 airlines cater to. Even product companies that started with a notion of serving the domestic market have now gone global. It is also the case that if you are successful overseas, the domestic market tends to you accept you faster. Druva, Zoho are very good examples of that.

The ticket size for everything is much more globally. If a company sells something for a minimum ticket size of 10,000 dollars globally in India one has to sell it for 5000 $. The cost of operation for most of these companies, whether they sell domestically or globally, remains the same and any marginal increase is the cost of sale. Just by selling overseas, even for a small incremental change in cost, the company enjoys a much larger margin. It makes much more economic sense to go overseas, which means the opportunity size is much larger.

By going global Indian companies are writing a new chapter in how the world perceives us. Many of them are the future billion dollar companies and will serve to be great ambassadors of the are “Made in India” campaign that our Prime Minister has embraced.. With every globally successful company, India is creating role models for others to emulate.

Get to Learn from @Zoho – Zoholics: India, Nov 20-21, Bengaluru

We have been around for the last 18 years, making software for businesses around the world. At Zoho, software is our craft and our passion. Our people spend years mastering the craft, and their handiwork are the 30+ products that we now offer. With more than 10 million users across the world, we are one of the largest IT product companies based out of India. This journey has taught us many things, and we are ready to share our experience with you.

We are holding our first-ever event in India on Nov 20 and 21 at The Ritz Carlton in Bengaluru. At Zoholics: India, we will share our story and talk about creating world-class products, and selling them to a global audience, from India.

Other sessions include, product vs services mindset, engineering products, running a business on a budget, whether to take VC money or not, and much more. To view the full agenda, click here.

zoholicsJoin us at Zoholics:India, to learn, share and explore the Indian innovation in IT, through the lens of Zoho.

Who should attend and why

Entrepreneurs and Startups: It does not matter what business you do. Business apps can greatly increase your productivity and help you streamline various processes. This will leave you free to do what you love. At Zoholics:India, you can learn about which tech-tools are best suited for your business, how to position your product in the international market, and whether taking venture capital is good for your business or not.

Aspiring Entrepreneurs: Learn about various opportunities in the local market and how to create world-class products and sell them to a global audience, from India. Also find out how to capture the attention of an increasingly mobile-centric world.

CXOs and Managers: Discover some of the best practices in online marketing for selling to a global audience out of India. Know about the market trends and opportunities.

Technology Geeks: Learn about cloud-based technology and how it is affecting the local market. Find out more about business apps and latest trends.

Business and Technology Analysts: At Zoholics, we will discuss product vs services mindset, how college credentials are of little value as the real learning happens at the workplace, market trends and much more. Also, use this opportunity to learn more about the cloud market in India.

To register, log on to ZOHOICS India website. Use the discount code: ISP to avail a 15% discount.

Guest post by Raju Vegesna, ZOHO

 

Building Billion dollar product companies from India

Flipkart raises fresh round of $1b”, “Wipro sets up $100m VC fund to invest in start-ups”, “Ratan Tata considering a personal investment in Snapdeal”, “Druva raises $25 million in a fresh round of funding Entrepreneurship ecosystem in India currently seems to be buzzing with multiple investment rounds, acquisitions and launch of new funds. A big driver of this activity is the eCommerce boom that India is seeing currently with Flipkart.com and Snapdeal.com leading the race. Though the increased activity is going to benefit the ecosystem as a whole, the service sector seems to be getting more attention.

This brings us back to the question that we have been asking many times – “Why India does not have many billion dollar technology product companies?” There have been multiple debates and discussions around this topic for years. So I set out to do an in depth research using primary and secondary sources to find out what people say and how much of that is validated. Over two months, I spoke with multiple founders and players in the Indian start-up ecosystem and also read through many articles, discussion forums and interviews to find out what issues product companies face in India.

As per the research findings, following key issues emerged:

  1. Difficult to penetrate Indian market especially the enterprise and government sectors.
  2. Small early adopter market in India.
  3. VC and angel investments are not directed to product companies due to reasons including risk averse investors, lack of fundable companies that can show traction immediately and no good way to discover good product companies.
  4. Difficulty attracting and retaining talent.

But how do we resolve these issues? What have some of the successful companies such as InMobi, Druva and FusionCharts done to circumvent some of the above problems? What can we learn from other start-up ecosystems around the world?

Research indicated that the above issues cannot be fixed by one entity. Instead the entrepreneurship ecosystem as a whole needs to take multiple steps to address the specific problems. Some of the recommendations to address the above issues and move towards building billion dollar product companies from India have been discussed below.

Difficult to penetrate Indian market

Ecosystem players can play a huge role by bridging the gap between product start-ups and enterprise and consumer buyers. One way to do that is by bringing Enterprises & start-ups closer. Many of the B2B product start-ups interviewed for the research mentioned difficultly in penetrating the enterprise market as one of their biggest pain points. iSPIRT has taken the lead here and had recently organized a meet-up – InTech50 of product startups with Chief Information Officers ( CIOs) of global companies such as Citigroup, Procter and Gamble Co. etc. These meet-ups called “Swayamvars” are curated events where a large company can meet 5-15 startups it can potentially partner with. We need more such initiatives to bridge the gap.

We also need to increase the trust between start-ups and enterprise customers. Enterprise buyers often are reluctant in trying products from start-ups as they have had few bad experiences in the past. To solve this issue, start-ups should be educated on how to approach enterprise customers, how to draw contracts and what level of service to offer. On the other hand Enterprise companies need to be educated on the pros & cons of buying from start-ups to set the expectations right. They also need to be trained on how to evaluate a start-up vendor.

It is also essential to open the doors to start-up firms to apply for government contracts. Start-ups are often left out of the government contracts due to bidding criteria that favor large firms. Government should work towards either relaxing the requirements for bidding for government contracts or initiate a separate program to award contracts to start-up firms. Another way to resolve this issue would be to allow companies to compete for contracts based on their innovation and not be stifled by impossible high qualifying hurdles.

Small early adopter market in India

India currently has an urban population of 27.8% with an internet penetration that stands at 20%. The country is still evolving especially from technology perspective. Increase in early adopter market would take its natural course of time as more people start adopting technology in their daily lives and are open to try new products as seen in US and other markets. Though the issue of small early adopter market cannot be solved directly, in the meantime, more opportunities can be created for Indian product companies to sell to the global world. If we look at Israel startup ecosystem which has a small local market, we notice that they focus on US markets solely. India also can gain advantage of the large markets in US & Europe by creating avenues for start-ups to sell to global markets. These avenues could be either in the form of international treks taking selected Indian companies to US & Europe to meet potential buyers or bringing international companies to India and showcasing India product companies. In May 2014, Ravi Gururaj, Chairman of NASSCOM Product Council led NASSCOM InnoTrek 2014, a first of its kind event that took a delegation of India’s top product and entrepreneurial founders/CEOs to Silicon Valley. This is great initiative and first step towards putting Indian product companies on the global map. More such opportunities would open the international markets for Indian product companies.

Not every start-up can afford to make international visits or have international sales offices. To resolve this issue, a common international sales and marketing body should be established in locations such as US and UK. This common sales office could help all India based product companies to reach out to International customers by acting as their own sales and marketing office.

As per iSPIRT’s estimation, at least five Indian product companies have crossed or are on track for a $1 billion valuation. Among those are InMobi, Zoho, QuickHeal and Pubmatic. Each of these companies has grown targeting international markets and they are now rapidly expanding their global footprint.   

VC and angel investments are not directed to product companies

Before we get to the recommendations, it is important to understand why Indian investors are risk averse especially when evaluating product companies. A deeper analysis reveals multiple issues – Limited growth opportunities for product companies due to market issues addressed in previous section and lack of enough M&A exits. We already addressed the market challenges above. To solve the issue with M&A exits, investors should focus more on smaller sub $40m exits. As Sharad Sharma described it, for every Billion dollar startup (e.g InMobi) there should be 10-12 $100m startups (which is the case right now). For every $100m startup there should be 10-12 $50m startups; and for every $50m startup there should be 10-12 $10m startups. A healthy power law distribution is a sign of a healthy ecosystem. In India, many believe that this power law distribution is broken. Looking deeper one can see that it is not broken at the top as we can see many $100m companies rising up slowly. It is broken at the bottom! There are too few small-value (sub $40m) exits. Fixing this situation by catalyzing more small value exits will improve the entire distribution.

One way to resolve this issue is by enabling more M&A opportunities for startups. iSPIRT has taken up this cause and had drafted an elaborate M&A connect action plan in 2013. As part of iSPIRT’s M&A Connect Programme, they have been organizing multiple roundtables to showcase Indian product companies to potential acquirers in Silicon Valley. This is a step in the right direction and we need more such initiatives to increase the volume of M&A in the Indian start-up ecosystem.

There is also a need to increase seed stage money through government innovation funding programs. Government currently provides funds through bodies such as Department of Science and Technology (DST) to fund technology research. Karnataka government recently announced that it is drafting a new “Startup Act” to boost the state’s entrepreneurial activity. Budget 2014 announced Rs 10,000 crore fund of funds for startups. Issue is not availability of funds but dispersion of funds through transparent processes and having single window clearances. Many of these schemes are not marketed enough and often the process to acquire these funds is extremely complex and outweighs the benefits. Israel’s technological incubator program which was started by the government in 1991, provides funding and know-how to people to become successful entrepreneurs. Since the first companies emerged from the incubator program in 1993, 61% have secured follow-on funding and 40% are active to this day. These are some great examples to follow to lay out a better process to access government funds. Some of the ways include building and funding incubators, and closer collaboration with academia through research programmes as in the US.

Government intervention is also required in resolving taxation issues by providing tax holidays to startups and removing the start-up tax. A great suggestion given by YourStory was to give startups in India tax exemptions on the line of Singapore tax exemption scheme for new startup companies. As per this scheme, a newly incorporated company that meets certain qualifying conditions can claim for full tax exemption on the first $100,000 of the normal chargeable income for each of its first 3 consecutive assessment years. A further 50% exemption is given on the next $200,000 of the normal chargeable income for each of the first three consecutive assessment years. Schemes like these would indirectly address the issue of lack of funding by allowing the start-ups to reinvest more of their earnings.

The Finance Act 2012 of India brought in an amendment to tax the share premium which is above the fair value of investment by the resident angel investors and not proven satisfactorily to the tax assessing officer. This “Start-up tax” law makes it much more difficult to raise early stage funding for start-ups. Instead the new Indian government should follow the Israel model and introduce “Angel’s law” under which a substantial tax benefit is given to individuals who invest in qualified Israeli R&D companies. Under that law the investors can deduct their investment from any other income source such as salary, capital gains etc. In 2009, the Israeli government also removed the capital gain tax for foreign investors.

Though many of the above suggestions apply to all kind of start-ups and not specifically product startups, but product startups have a longer gestation period before they can start generating revenue and therefore have higher funding needs.

Difficulty attracting and retaining talent

India is a risk averse country and people always look for stability and security when looking for employment opportunities. Finding a good employment is not just a concern of the individual but of his whole family. If a person opts to join a no-name brand start-up, he has to handle the questions, concerns and taunting of the whole family. Hopefully all this is changing slowly with the current increased activity and main stream coverage of start-up successes. But still attracting and retaining talent stays as one of the big concerns of start-ups.

In my discussions with different founders, various suggestions were made. “Start-up” hiring events are a great way to enable start-ups and potential employees to get to know each other. Recently held “Headstart Higher”, a start-up hiring program run by Headstart Network Foundation was a huge success and led to many employment offers being made. Apart from enabling recruitment, these events should also be a medium to educate both fresh graduates and experienced professionals on topics such as “benefits of working with start-ups”, “How to evaluate a start-up for employment”, “Value of stock options” etc.

It is also important to effectively sell the value proposition of working with start-ups. Many of the entrepreneurs interviewed indicated that the only way they have been able to acquire talent is by matching the salaries of larger tech firms. While it is good that they are addressing the salary concern but this is not solving the underlying issue as every potential hire would expect to get that much salary and not all start-ups can afford to pay that much. Instead entrepreneurs need to do a much better job of communicating the value proposition of working in a start-up (faster career growth, technical leadership and growth, quality of work, long-term pay-offs, flexibility of timings etc) rather than trying to compete with big companies on the strengths of big companies (salary, facilities, etc.).

Government should also work in skill development making young population employable. Close to 1.5million people graduate with an engineering degree every year in India but only 3 out of 10 are actually employable based on the skill sets. There are more than 5000 Industrial Training Institutes (ITI) in India. However, the quality of training is not up to the mark. They have poor infrastructure, outdated curriculum, less qualified instructors and limited interaction with the industry. The entrepreneurs who hire them spend considerable amount of time to first train them and then use them. YourStory.com suggests a creative idea – businesses and Government can work together on this, wherein businesses can train young force on the job and government can motivate businesses by providing wage subsidy for a defined period.

Indian start-ups are slowly getting noticed by the global world. Start-ups like Fusion Charts and the more recent acquisition of Little Eye Labs by Facebook are giving a new wave of hope and inspiration to the younger lot of product start-ups. SaaS companies such as iCreate, Manthan, Druva and Eka have potential market sizes of thousands of clients. As per iSPIRT, close to 26 product companies have the potential for a $100 million valuation this financial year. All these signs indicate that India is moving in the right direction. However to ensure we see more and more product companies hitting the billion dollar mark, we need to resolve the core issues such as difficult to penetrate local market, slow adoption of new technology, lack of risk capital and difficulty attracting and retaining talent. Resolving these issues require equal effort from government, ecosystem players, investors and entrepreneurs themselves and could take easily 6-8 years.

What are some of your recommendations to create billion dollar product companies from India?

The detailed research paper can be accessed here:

 

Government recognizes the Software Product Industry

The fact that the Finance Minister specifically underscored the Software Product Industry (SPI) in his maiden budget speech is testimony enough of the Government’s resolve to make significant and dramatic changes to achieve rapid economic development. Here are two reasons why we believe the Government is moving in the right direction.

One. Empowering the masses. There is no reason why software products cannot make an impact across various sectors in the economy including agriculture, education and healthcare among others. Software products can provide platforms for improvement in government functioning and effectiveness whether it be the issue of birth certificates or facilitating financial inclusion. They can help provide better healthcare and education. The most sophisticated defence and aerospace products have software at their heart, so software product capabilities could in the long run help our security and defence as well. 

Two. Promote Product Thinking. Success in software products could help promote product thinking in other industries as well. A healthy Software Product industry is also pivotal to developing our Defense, Aerospace and Electronics industries. It is also necessary for creation as well as maintenance of strategic technologies that are critical to national security. The advantage of focusing on software products first is that unlike many other product categories (like drugs or semiconductors), the upfront investments are much more manageable, and we already have the talent base and skills to get going. But why is product thinking crucial? Because it makes possible the capture of value within our country. According to one estimate, Apple earns $368 out of every $560 iPhone. In contrast, Foxconn’s margin on every iPhone that it manufactures for Apple is less than $15. We need to change from “India Inside” to “India: Product Nation” so that we can appropriate a significant part of the value created by our talented designers, engineers and scientists.

Image Credit: Economist

Keep in mind that India is already a global player in Software Products and has the potential to be one of the global leaders in this important industry. Companies like Tally, Zoho, InMobi and QuickHeal have created market leadership in their own segments. In recent years, hundreds of well-qualified technical people are leaving IT Services and joining the software product startup ecosystem. About 15-20% of new engineering graduates from marquee colleges are now electing to be part of Software Product companies. Software Products is the next wave. With a little effort, India can emerge as one of the dominant players in several categories of the global Software Product industry.

Fortunately, the Government recognizes this potential. In the budget speech, Mr. Jaitley clearly said: “There is an imminent need to further bridge the divide between digital “haves” and “have-nots”. For this it is proposed to launch a pan India programme “Digital India”. This would ensure Broad band connectivity at village level, improved access to services through IT enabled platforms, greater transparency in Government processes and increased indigenous production of IT hardware and software for exports and improved domestic availability. Special focus would be on supporting software product start-ups”.

The new Government has clearly taken a step in the right direction. The Software Product industry waits with bated breath.

This Fourth Wave of Indian Enterprise Software Startups is World-Class

India’s enterprise software industry has been slowly bubbling since the 1980s but has generally failed to deliver a large number of high impact, high value companies.  We do have some companies that everybody talks about – iFlex, Tally, Zoho – but these are far and few between. I believe that we are seeing a new scalable wave of enterprise software companies coming out of India and there is a potential to deliver several high impact companies over the next decade.  Here at Lightspeed Venture Partners, leveraging our global strength in enterprise technologies, we see opportunities to partner with companies that are cloud-native and have cracked a global market – examples of current active categories in India are CRM, analytics/big data, marketing automation and infrastructure.

India’s enterprise software industry has to be looked at separately from the outsourcing/BPO firms like Genpact, Cognizant, Tata Consulting Services and Infosys.  Starting in the 1980s and early 1990s, this services industry is now mature and at scale.

Separate from the outsourcing/BPO industry, India’s enterprise software industry (or “products” as it is called by many here in India) has evolved from the 1980s to now in what I think can be divided into four waves, coinciding somewhat with three trends: 1) enterprise software moving from desktop to client-server to cloud; 2) evolution of Indian industry post 1991 liberalization; and 3) increased experience of Indians at successful US product companies.

Picture1

WAVE 1

Tally-

The first wave of software products came along in the late 1980s/early 1990s – the focus was desktop products for business accounting.  Companies in this wave include Tally Solutions (still the undisputed leader in SME accounting software in India), Instaplan, Muneemji and Easy Accounting.

WAVE 2

Infosys-finacle ramco  5I-flex_Solutions_logo.svg G  _institute_Newgen Logo

This generation of software products emerged in the 1990s as projects within outsourcing firms or from internal services arms of larger corporates. Infosys launched Finacle. Ramco Systems launched its ERP. And Citibank launched CITIL which became i-Flex.  Other notable companies included 3i InfotechCranes Software, Kale Consultants, Newgen SoftwarePolaris Financial Technologies,Srishti Software and Subex.

I remember attending CEBIT in Hanover in 1989 when many of these Indian software and consulting companies were first introduced to Europe.

The late 1990s saw a wavelet of ASP (application service provider) startups in India, most of which got crushed after the dotcom bust.

WAVE 3

eka-nexus-funding-147zycus-logo Manthan-Systems-Logo talisma logo

The 2000s saw on-premise India-first companies such as Drishti-SoftEka SoftwareEmploywiseiCreate SoftwareiVizManthan SystemsQuick Heal TechnologiesTalisma (for which I did some initial product management work while at Aditi Technologies) and Zycus get started.  This was the era of 8-10% GDP growth in India which lasted till about 2010.  Many of these companies had a direct sales model. After India, they generally expanded into the global South (Africa, Middle East, SE Asia, Latin America) where they found similar customer requirements and little competition from Western software companies.  Bootstrapped in their earlier years, some of these companies grew over several years and have broken through to $25 million+ in annual revenue.  Key verticals have traditionally been BFSI (banking, financial services and insurance), telecom, retail/FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods aka CPG in the US) and outsourcing/BPO.

Having been around for over a decade, some of these companies generally face the challenge of migrating to the cloud, upgrading user experience to modern Web 2.0 levels, and expanding addressable markets beyond the global South to the US and Europe.  We have seen some of these companies get venture funded, typically at much later stages in their go-to-market relative to US-based software companies.  Several of these companies have received funding in the past couple of years, ostensibly to “go international” and “go cloud,” not an easy task, especially when done together.

WAVE 4

Starting in around 2010, a new wave of cloud-native companies were launched, perhaps following the slowdown in India’s economy and the growth/acceptance of SaaS as a delivery model and as a sales model in the US.  These companies have grown and now could power beyond the $10M/year revenue glass ceiling.  The reason for the scale potential being higher for this cloud-native wave is the cracking of efficient online sales channels to reach markets globally.

Why this decade? Because there is an increased willingness of companies around the world to search for and buy software products online.  There is now a large pool of founders who have worked at global enterprise product companies (e.g. Indian offshore development centers or in Silicon Valley itself with companies like SAP, Oracle, Google, Microsoft, Adobe) and have experience in product management, marketing and sales.  And finally, there has been a dramatic reduction in the capital required to bootstrap enterprise software companies.  Everybody uses AWS and software from other startups to get started. It’s quite meta.

Wave 4 companies have the opportunity to break through the barriers that previously relegated Indian enterprise software companies to selling to the global South. We have seen Atlassian (Australia), Zendesk (Denmark) and Outbrain (Israel) do this move to Western or global markets.  Zoho is an Indian company that is rumored to be at $100 million per year revenue scale – they have been part of many of the waves I have described.

This cloud-native wave, I believe, can be divided into two dimensions. One dimension is the platform/tools companies versus workflow automation (applications) companies. The other dimension is India-first companies versus the global-first companies.  We see opportunities in all four quadrants, each having its own challenges.  We are interested in looking at companies in all these segments, with a bias toward companies which have reached some scale ($1M ARR) and are going after large addressable markets with aggressive sales & marketing execution.

Fourth Wave

 [Please note this is not a comprehensive list of companies nor a view on which companies we admire or not]

Global-first companies coming out of India have started to crack or have cracked the online sales model, using SEO, SEM, content marketing and telesales.  They are typically going after mature segments where buyers are typing keywords into Google at a high rate. This online selling model results in an SMB and mid-market customer base.  In many cases, founders may have to move to the US to enterprise sales.  It’s worth noting that scale markets are not necessarily all in the US – companies could get built with a general global diffusion of customers, perhaps with help from resellers.

I see India-first companies typically going after newer high-growth companies in India (e.g. ecommerce, retail) and startups.  Some go after Indian arms of multinationals (MNCs).  This is a reasonable early adopter market to cut a product’s teeth on, but has limited ability to scale.  Of the newer crop of India-first companies, very few go after large enterprises in India – there are exceptions like Peelworks and Wooqer.  The model here generally is SaaS as a delivery model but not SaaS as a sales model (ie direct sales, not self-service).  Many software companies are essentially verticalized.

We continue to see a few high-ticket, high touch direct sales enterprise software companies which are global-first, including companies like CloudbyteDruva,IndixSirion Labs and Vaultize. Many of these start out with teams in both Silicon Valley and India or transplant themselves to the Valley over time.  I think this will continue to happen but we will not see the explosion here that we are seeing in the number of companies utilizing low touch online sales models.  I see several high-impact companies coming out of these direct sales enterprise software startups as well.

I think this dichotomy between India-first and global-first companies is interesting and makes India a distinctly different type of investment geography, different from Israel (which has very small domestic market where tech companies move to the US very quickly), different from China (which mostly has domestic market focused startups and very little enterprise software) and different from the US (which is primarily domestic-focused in $500B enterprise tech industry in the early years of most startups). In terms of investor and founder interest, the pendulum may also swing back and forth between these two models as the Indian economy grows, sometimes at high speed, sometimes at a snails pace.

[With input from the team at iSPIRT and several of the companies mentioned above].

Reblogged from YourStory & LightSpeed Venture Partners blog.

On that age old debate, Bootstrapping Vs Venture Capital

“The best way to do something ‘lean’ is to gather a tight group of people, give them very little money, and very little time.” – Bob Klein, chief engineer of the Grumman F-14 program.

I first came upon this quote on Paul Graham’s website, and it always intrigued me, the small detail about the money – it could be little or a lot, but money is a factor, and a very important factor at that.

Bob Klein’s F-14 program is now legendary in aviation history; the Tomcat was one of the airplanes I was familiar with even in the Indian Air Force circles of the 90’s. Designed to fulfill duties both as a air superiority fighter as well as a naval interceptor, the F-14 Tomcat was easily one of the greatest airplanes ever built then, and Bob Klein did it, as he said, by keeping it fast and cheap.

Bootstrapping or Venture Capital

So is that the blueprint to build something amazing and meaningful? To just sit down, tighten your belt and do it, what we call bootstrapping, or is embracing the stability of venture capital a better way?

It’s an important question in the context of the product startup, and I believe there’s no right and wrong answer to it.

Last week, in a conversation with iSPIRT’s co-founder Sharad Sharma, this topic came up and proceeded to lay claim our entire discussion. When these days a bootstrapped startup is seen as something of an aberration, and scale is seen as validation, Sharad maintained that there’s no formula here; both these paths can lead to success, if followed with caution and perseverance.

Quoting Sharad –

“When you are building something that hinges on a market prediction, that so and so market will be worth so and so in 2025, and you want to be there to fill that gap, then VC funding for the idea and for you is probably the way to go. But if you have no such idea or bet on the future for what you are building; it’s much more experimental (which is ok, that’s how innovation happens), then bootstrapping might make better sense, even if just for the sake of flexibility and more control.”

I could find no reason to disagree.

The Zoho Example

The success of Zoho, the poster child for the bootstrapped product startup, is now quite well known. And all of it with not a penny in external funding. The company is growing, has always been growing, and has just announced a bold move to make one of its flagship products completely free. These are big decisions, made strategically and with a much larger gameplan. Zoho has always stood for something, and its clear, unmuddled decision making has been one of its strengths through the years.

Would Zoho have been able to make such decisions if a member of its board was an investor? Perhaps, but not very likely.

Which I think is significant. What ails the ecosystem these days is a ‘go big or go home’ attitude that typically results in an organization and a product that scales far ahead of its time, resulting in chaos and sometimes even graver problems. Zoho didn’t fall into that trap, it took its own time, and now stands tall as an organization.

Sometimes VC money, though a huge competitive advantage, can come with its own baggage, and the pressure of having to execute something extraordinary all the time can weigh down on doing what actually needs to be done.

But sometimes that baggage is exactly what you want.

The Zomato Story

When Deepinder Goyal started Zomato off, he certainly would not have known that the product he was building, a restaurant review and recommendations site that is today used in 40 cities across the world, would change the entire landscape of eating out. He would have had a vision, but of course he could never have knows what exact shape his business was taking. But he knew he had something; he raised funding. Venture capital stood him up as he expanded hard and fast and cool. It was great to watch.

Would Zomato have been able to scale the way it did without venture capital? The answer is an emphatic no. The awesomeness of the Zomato model rested on its ability to execute, and they did it magnificently well; waiting was something Zomato could not have afforded anyway.

In this case, the VC prerogative to execute fast and hard tied in perfectly with what Zomato itself wanted to do. What resulted is Zomato’s incredible success as a platform, a lovely example of using funding to take an idea big.

“There is no formula”

Again, though, Sharad put in a word of caution – it all depends. This may be a good rule of thumb but there is no formula. Product startups are all different from each other, and what works for one is not at all guaranteed to work for another.

And this is when it struck me that there’s a third category here as well, the perfect example of which is that darling of the younger generation, Instagram.

The Instagram Model

Instagram started out as Burbn, a location sharing app with the option of taking a photo thrown in, but then pivoted to the unbelievably successful photo sharing app we know. And they were funded from the beginning by Andreessen Horowitz and Baseline Ventures.

So here’s a venture funded company, which was trying to build something purely ‘social’ and ‘viral’ in parlance, and the VC’s let them experiment to an extent as to change the focus of the product itself. This is the third kind, the company which adds the no-commitments freedom of bootstrapping to the competitive advantage of venture capital, and becomes a sort of hybrid, absorbing the good in both approaches and ridding itself of the bad.

An important point here is that Instagram never really had a monetization plan in the first place (other companies like this include Tumblr, Twitter, Foursquare, and so on). Positioned for acquisition because of the exponential increase in their user base, they could tread this middle ground with the confidence of knife edged focus.

WhatsApp also did something similar. When Jan Koum and Brian Acton started working full time on WhatsApp, they already had $250000 in funding from friends, which meant that they had the freedom to innovate and at the same time had the stability of capital.

The Last Word

In 1986, Tony Scott’s Top Gun hit the silver screen, in which a young man called Tom Cruise flew a F-14 Tomcat to box office glory and superstardom. The immediate aftermath was that the US Armed Forces were overwhelmed with young people wanting to sign up for service, so much so that the US Navy opened recruitment desks outside cinema halls.

The Tomcat became the symbol of a generation, the high of the air and the allure of uniform combining to give an era its own narrative. And it was exhilarating.

It was a small team that built it. With the entire might of Grumman (later Northrop Grumman) behind them, Bob Klein could have done it in any way he wanted, but he and his team chose the best way for the specific thing they wanted to do, and executed.

And that’s exactly what we can learn from them – that there’s no ‘one size fits all’ answer to this question, and the ecosystem should encourage bootstrapping as as much of a viable pathway to growth as venture capital.

As for the startup, it should choose wisely.

Zoho, Cloud, Sridhar Vembu

Those who know me well have heard a lot of stories about my experience at Zoho when they transitioned from AdventNet to Zoho. I worked there between 2001-2004 when it was quite a new thing in the indian product ecosystem to talk of Product Management etc. During that period, the company went through a very significant phase of transformation which I was fortunate to be part of, see & learn from close quarters. Today, Zoho was named 4th best Cloud company to work for – makes many of us very proud.

The first thing that struck me was Sridhar’s focus on leveraging data. It went to a point where we realised that inefficient code can put paid to aspirations of leveraging data. And he rethought the data model for our suite of products ground up. The larger ambition was “Deliver software as service, not as installable“. This was in 2003! Back then, the company had about 5 big platform products (SNMP, WebNMS etc). Rethinking the data model, writing and enforcing code that didn’t obfuscate the database (most code was in Java, so it was easy enough to write inefficient code) were tough but important changes he brought about.

Sridhar cared a lot about how teams were organized – large teams are an inherently inefficient lot! Sridhar had the view that teams should be less than 7 people, cross-functional. The reward for growing a team beyond 7 was that it will be split :). His view was that since “Software will be delivered as a Service”, the company should transform from 5 big ships to a 1000 speed boats. To do that, each team team had to focus on a specific market, build and ship a unique product. By 2004 when I was leaving for Yahoo!, there were already 18 products underway. Before the end of the last decade, they were doing over a 100 products!! To go from 5 to 100 in just a few years is quite something.

There’s a lot to lay by the founding DNA of a company and what it can accomplish. While building Credibase which I’ve cofounded a few months ago, here are a few lessons I took away that we try to practice:

Data is God

Focus on the User and all else follows

Small teams create great work

Code always goes from Simple to Spaghetti, but never comes back

Earning a rupee in India is more difficult than earning a dollar in US! – Kumar Vembu, Founder and CEO, GoFrugal Technologies

ProductNation interviewed Kumar Vembu, Founder and CEO of GoFrugal Technologies. In a candid conversation, Kumar shares his experiences of dealing with Indian retail market and shares key mantras for succeeding in the Indian market. Read on…

Could you explain the rationale behind venturing into the Indian retail space through GoFrugal?

I started GoFrugal during the late 2004, inspired by the thought of solving problems local to India. At that time, my brothers and I were doing well with our other entrepreneurial venture – Zoho. We were primarily focusing on selling to US and European markets. However, an interview that I watched on NDTV with Bill Gates and Narayana Murthy, seeded my initial thoughts to focus on solving India-centric problems, specifically in the area of retail sector.

I distinctly remember Bill Gates lamenting about entrepreneurs not focusing on solving locally relevant problems. Having studied and worked at IIT Madras under Prof. Ashok Jhunjunwala and Prof. Bhaskar Ramamurthy, I thought that I had the right skills and expertise to delve into one of the most promising areas in the Indian market. This was my inspiration behind starting GoFrugal Technologies.

Interesting! What were the initial challenges you faced as you were setting up GoFrugal? What did you learn from them?

In the initial days of GoFrugal, I was quick to realize that I had not done adequate research in understanding the market dynamics. I probably got carried away by the size of the oppurtunity at initial iterations. I was of the opinion that if there was a good product that I could provide to retail customers, they would buy it. However, I soon discovered that many retailers had very little time or interest to evaluate my offerings, and even for those who had the time, they were unable to judge the value of the offering. I realized that most retailers made their buying decisions based on prior relationships or through references. Hence, I had to make drastic changes in plans to take into account these market realities.

I learnt that retail practices in India are different for every 100 kilometers, primarily because there are different clusters/communities that conduct businesses in very different ways, especially in terms of procuring and running their retail outlets. I also discovered that retailers were not open to adapt industry-wide best practices. They were more comfortable to consider automating their existing processes, even when we told them about better ways to manage those activities. All these early experiences led me to quickly reconfigure the entire process and goals at GoFrugal.

These are very vital insights. What factors do you think gave rise to this kind of buying/evaluating behavior in the Indian retailer? What are your ideas to improve the environment?

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I can think of few key reasons that, in my view, caused such changes in thought process in the Indian ecosystem. Firstly, most of the retail entrepreneurs were self made, were forced into this business due to external factors and possibly did not have any formal training. Hence, they had their own view of how to run their operations. Most retailers did not see, that focusing on best practices could be a competitive advantage. Usually, you would find them thinking for short term.

Secondly, for those people who understood the relevance of differentiation, I found that they did not trust the software solution vendors. This is because many vendors could not profitably serve the demands of the customer due to lack of ecosystem and encouragement from the Indian market. Also, vendor refusal to address customization requests from customers, left the latter in a fix.

To tackle these two key issues, I think that market awareness and education is required. The high entry-barrier for software vendors approaching customers should effectively be lowered by creating bridges of trust and relationship. Apart from this, we also need to make the retailers understand the need to upgrade, in order to effectively tackle the onslaught of globalization.

Could you explain what specific interventions you did to enable GoFrugal to emerge as one of the leaders in this space, overcoming the challenges that you outlined earlier?

At GoFrugal, when we started, I was planning for a hyper growth strategy – driven by large-scale customer acquisition plans. However, when we understood the intricacies of market, we pivoted and expanded at a much slower pace than what was initially planned, but with more and more happier and repeat customers. Our current focus is to provide continuous improvements to our offerings on an iterative basis to ensure customer delight and retention. We also have standardized all of our internal processes across product licensing, support, development practices etc. This has helped us move forward and absorb such marketplace changes as in technology and customer expectations.

There was also a particular focus to make all functional teams agile, to be able to take inputs and change processes very swiftly to meet the external changes. This also meant that most of the existing team had to be trained in these new processes. I hired a lot of new talent who helped in leading this transformation internally.

Apart from these internal alignments, I also saw that the external environment was in favor of companies such as ours. I now see signs that the market is looking for more credible vendors, and that customers are warming up to the concept that the best products would win and are worthy of use. With more clarity on regulations from the Government, many opportunities will open up for vendors such as ours. Overall, due to the actions we have taken over the past decade, and the emerging external environment, we seem to be in a very good position to leverage the upside and do well.

Thank you for these insights. As a parting question, what message would you like to provide to tech entrepreneurs who focus on India as a market?

I can recollect a few aspects that every entrepreneur should not forget as s/he builds their enterprise. The most pivotal input is never to be complacent on any aspect of your business. Complacency is your worst enemy. What you have now will never be good enough for tomorrow – and hence always think of ways in which improvements could be made to your business. Next one is to focus on hiring quality people, especially if you are in the retailers’ growth/scaling out stage. This is absolutely crucial for the success of your company.

Lastly, on the market side, realize that adoption of IT based solution is very slow in the Indian market. Be prepared for a long haul. Do not have excess fat in any functional area of your enterprise. Always remember that earning a rupee is more difficult than earning a dollar!