An Afternoon With Don Norman In Bengaluru

Are you building products for the everyday user? Is it becoming harder and harder to manage complexity while maintaining usability? How do you design a sustainable system for a complex multi-stakeholder environment? How do you teach a user to use your product with good design? How do you reinvent an established business model in light of rapidly evolving markets and technological possibilities? How do you design a product to be truly human-centric?

If any of these questions sound relevant to you, here’s an opportunity to seek answers on 22nd February in Bengaluru! 

About Don Norman

Dr Don Norman is a living legend of the design world having operated in the field for over 40 years. He has been Vice President of Apple in charge of the Advanced Technology Group and an executive at both Hewlett Packard and UNext (a distance education company). Business Week has listed him as one of the world’s 27 most influential designers. Dr Norman brings a unique mix of the social sciences and engineering to bear on everyday products. At the heart of his approach is human and activity-centred design, combining knowledge of cognitive science, engineering, and business with design.

Presently, he is Director of the recently established Design Lab at the University of California, San Diego where he is also professor emeritus of both psychology and cognitive science and a member of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. He is also the co-founder of the Nielsen Norman Group, an executive consulting firm that helps companies produce human-centred products and services.

ProgrammeTalk

Don will share valuable insights about his interactions with Indian people, products and experiences.

Fireside Chat

An informal discussion with Don about his learnings and experiences spanning his long and illustrious career.

How to participate?

We’re inviting engineers, product managers, designers and everyone else who is building for large scale impact.

If you would like to further your understanding of human-centric design and hear straight from the horse’s mouth, please register here by 18th February. (An invite will be sent out to selected participants by 21st February)

A Platform is in the Eye of the Beholder

The distinction between whether you are building a platform or a product should be made primarily to align your internal stakeholders to a particular strategic direction, as we learned in the recent iSPIRT round table.

[This is a guest post By Ben Merton]

“So are we a platform, or are we a product?” I said last month to my co-founder, Lakshman, as we put the finishing touches to our new website.

We’d been discussing the same question for about a year. The subject now bore all the characteristics of something unpleasant that refuses to flush.

However, the pressure had mounted. We now had to commit something to the menu bar.

“I think we’re a product.”

“But we want to be a platform.”

“Okay, let’s put platform then…But isn’t it a little pretentious to claim you’re a platform when you’re not?”

Eventually, we agreed to a feeble compromise: we were building a platform, made up of products.

Job done.

At least, that is, until #SaaSBoomi in Chennai last month.

Manav Garg, who has considerably more experience than both me and Lakshman at building platforms, put up the following slide:

Product = Solving a specific problem or use case

Platform = Solving multiple problems on a common infrastructure

“Here we go again”, I could hear Lakshman say to himself after I Whatsapped him the image.

“That’s his definition. It doesn’t have to be ours,” he replied tersely, “What does he mean by ‘use case’, anyway?”

“I don’t know.”

I’m in awe of the entrepreneurs who seem to bypass these semantic quandaries.

You know, the ones who say stuff like “Stop thinking so much. Just sell stuff. Make customers happy.”

For me, these are the type of questions I need to chew over for hours in bed at night.

I was therefore excited to be invited to the iSPIRT round table at EGL last week, where the topic of discussion was “Transform B2B SaaS with #PlatformThinking”. The roundtable was facilitated by iSPIRT mavens Avlesh SinghShivku Ganesan & Sampad Swain.

It takes a lot to get 20 tech founders & their leaders to travel after work from all over the city to sit in a room for three hours with no alcohol.  Fortunately, the organisers had promised a lot.  The topic description was:  

“Enable a suite of products, high interoperability, and seamless data flow for customers. This peer-learning playbookRT will help product to platform thinkers develop an effective journey through this transformation” was the topic description.”

The meeting was governed by Chatham House rules, meaning we can’t discuss the name or affiliation of those involved.

However, along with our founder mavens of large, well-known Indian technology businesses, there were 15 or so less illustrious but equally enthusiastic founders (& their +1s), including myself.

The discussions started with an overview of the experiences and lessons that had been learned by some of those who had successfully built a platform.

“We define a use case as a configuration of APIs…” the founder of a cloud communication platform started. This was going to be interesting.

“Why did you define it that way?” I asked.

“Based on observations of our business.”

I began to understand that the term ‘use case’ was being used differently by platform and product companies.  

“A use case of a platform is usually tangential but complementary to the core business. A use case for a product is something that just solves a problem,” someone clarified, guaranteeing me a slightly more restful night.

As the discussions continued, it also became clear that there were a large number of possible markers that distinguish a platform from a product, but there was no agreement on the exact composition.

To resolve the impasse, we listed out the names of well-known technology companies to build a consensus on whether they were a platform or a product.

Suffice to say, we failed to reach any consensus.  The conversation went something like this:

“Stripe?”

“Platform.”

“Product.”

“A suite of products.”

“AirBNB?”

“A marketplace.”

“A marketplace built on a platform.”

Etc etc

Even companies that initially appeared to be dyed-in-the-wool platforms like Segment and Zapier eventually had someone or the other questioning the underlying assumptions.

“Why can’t they be products?” murmured voices of dissent at the back of the room.

This was going nowhere. A few people sought solace from the cashew nuts that had been placed on conference table in front of us.

“Does the customer care whether you’re a product or a platform?” someone said.

Finally, something everyone could agree on. The customer doesn’t care.  Your product or platform just needs to solve a problem for them.

“Then why does any of this matter at all?” became the obvious next question.

“I found it mattered hugely in setting the direction of the company, especially for the engineering and design teams,” the Co-Founder of a large payment gateway said.

“And investors?”

“Yes, of course. And investors. However, I think the biggest impact that our decision to build a platform had on my business was in the design more than anything else,” he explained, “For the engineering team, it was just a question of ‘we need this to integrate with this’. But the UX/UI and the…language… needed to be thought about very carefully because of this decision.”

“So, in effect, the platform/product debate is primarily a proxy for the cultural direction of the company?”

“Exactly.”

Logically, therefore, the only way you can really understand whether a company is a platform or a product is to have an insight into the direction its management wishes to take it.

A company might appear to be a product from the outside but, since it intends to evolve into a platform, it needs to start aligning its internal stakeholders to this evolution much earlier.

“So, a startup like mine should call itself a platform even if we are years away from actually being one?” I asked cautiously after I had enough time to process these insights.

“Yes,” was the resounding, satisfying response that virtually guaranteed me a full night’s sleep.

“And when should the actual transition from product to platform happen?”

“Well, Jason Lemkin says it should happen only when your ARR reaches USD 15m-20m, but that’s just another of those rules that doesn’t apply in India,” the co-founder of a marketing automation software said.

“The important thing is that this transition – when it does happen – is very hard for businesses,” he continued, “There is a lot of risk, but it opens up new revenue streams, helps you scale and build a moat.  We hugely benefited from our decision to become a platform, but it was tough.”

It’s unlikely that we completely resolved the product vs platform debate for all founders. However, I feel that all of us came away from that meeting with a deeper insight into the subject.

Ultimately, whether you’re building a product or a platform will depend on your perspective. Most companies lie somewhere in between.

Where does your company lie on this sliding scale? And if that makes you a platform vs. a product, does it make any difference to the way you think?

We want to thank Techstars India for hosting the first of the roundtables on this critical topic.

Ben Merton

Ben is a Co-Founder of Unifize, a B2B SaaS company that builds a communication platform for manufacturing and engineering teams. He is also a contributor for various publications on business, technology and entrepreneurship, including the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times and Business Standard. You can follow him on LinkedIn here, and Twitter here.

© Ben Merton 2018

Featured Image: Source: https://filosofiadavidadiaria.blogspot.com/2018/01/o-principio-mistico-da-verdadeira-causa.html

SaaS 3.0 – Data, Platforms, and the AI/ML gold rush

An impending recession, the AI/ML gold rush, Data as the new oil, SaaS Explosion…
The SaaS landscape is changing rapidly and so are the customer expectations!

18 months ago, I came across a message that India is a premier hub for global B2B SaaS, just like Israel is a hub for cybersecurity. At first, I did not think much of it, but after having interacted with many SaaS founders and observing their painful growth journey, I realized the potential in these words. Yet, a series of market shifts are changing the world order of SaaS putting at test India’s position as a premier hub for SaaS.

TL;DR

The SaaS 3.0 market shifts are changing how global customers perceive value from SaaS products:

  • Tools which provide higher levels of automation & augmentation are valued more.
  • Comprehensive solutions in place of single point products is a preference.
  • Interoperability across the gamut of systems is an expected norm.

Startups, you have to build your new orbit to solve for these evolving needs. First, focus on delivering a 5x increase in customer value through an AI-enabled proposition. Next, build your proprietary data pot of gold, which can also serve as a sustainable moat. Lastly, leverage platforms & partnerships to offer a suite of products and solve comprehensive customer scenarios.

Read more on how the convergence of market shifts are impacting SaaS 3.0.

Quick background

While the SaaS industry began over 2 decades ago, many say it is only now entering the teenage years. Similar to the surge of hormones which recently brought my teenage daughter face-to-face with her first pimple. And she is facing a completely new almost losing battle with creams and home remedies. In the same vein, convergence of several market shifts – technology, data, economics, geopolitics – combined with deep SaaS penetration is evolving the industry to a new era. This rare convergence – like the convergence of the nine realms in Thor Dark World – is also rapidly changing how customers perceive the capability of SaaS products.

Convergence #1 – SaaS penetration is exploding!

I learned from Bala at Techstars India that they received a record number of applications for their first accelerator program. 60% of these were building or ideating some form of B2B SaaS offering. It would seem to justify the message above, that SaaS in India has grown legs, building a true viral movement, replicating momentum. Yet in these large numbers, there is also a substantial ratio of repetitive products to innovations. Repetitive in say building yet another CRM, or mindlessly riding a trend wave such as chatbots. Without an increased pace of innovation beyond our existing successes, we cannot continue to be a premier hub.

In 2018 SaaS continued to be the largest contributor to cloud revenue growth at 17.8% (it was down from 20.2% in 2017). Competition is heating up in all categories of SaaS. 10 years ago, an average SME customer was using 2 apps, now it averages at 16 apps. 5 years ago, a SaaS startup had on average 3 competitors, now a SaaS startups averages at 10 customers right out the door. Many popular SaaS categories are  “Red Oceans”. Competing in these areas is typically on the basis of features or price, dimensions which are easy for any competition to catch up on. There is a need for startups to venture deeper into the sea and discover unserved & unmet customer needs in a “Blue Ocean” where they have ample opportunity to fish and build a sustainable moat.

AppZen started with an opportunity to build conversational chatbots for employees, helping them in an enterprise workflows on various aspects like sales & expenses, and several other companies are doing the same. But as they went deeper to understand the customer pains, they were able to identify an unserved need and pivoted, leveraging the same AI technology they had built, to solve for T&E expense auditing. Being a first mover to solve this problem, they are carving out leadership in this underserved space and is one of the fastest growing SaaS startups of 2018.

Convergence #2 – Impending recession in 2019/2020!

On average recessions come every four years and we are currently 9 years from the last recession. The war between the Fed vs the US govt on interest rates, the recent US govt shutdown on a frivolous $B wall, the tariff and trade war between the US and China, are all indicative reasons for an upcoming recession. In such an uncertain economy, customers experience reduced business activity and alter their behavior and preferences:

  • Customers will become crystal clear about satisfying their core needs versus nice-to-haves.
  • They will seek high automation tools to help not only cut costs but also to make strategic decisions for an upside.
  • Many will prefer a suite of tools instead of buying multiple single point products.
  • They will also slow down POC, investment, partnership activities.

In a way, this is mixed news. Companies often pursue low-cost digital products with SaaS being a natural choice. However, combined with the competitive SaaS landscape, businesses become very selective. To be recession-proof startups must:

  1. Collaborate and partner with other vendors to build a shared view of the larger customer scenarios. Innovate to share (anonymized) data/intelligence.
  2. Partner to deliver a comprehensive solution instead of solving for a gap. 
  3. Invest & experiment in building solid AI-enabled automation for improving efficiency and decision making.

E.g. Clearbit’s approach to provide API and allow customers to leverage the value it provides, by integrating with common platforms such as Slack or Gmail which customers frequently use. In this approach they are reducing app switching and embedding the niche usecase into the larger customer workflow environment.

Another e.g. Tact.ai is helping increase sales team efficiency and bring visibility of field data to the leadership team. They are not only solving the core salesforce data entry problem for field sales, but with better data in the system, businesses now get better visibility about sales activities and can take effective strategic decisions.

Convergence #3 – the AI/ML gold rush!

During the dot com & mobile rush in early 2000, I watched many a friend jump ship to build a startup. At that time the web was flush with rich content, but the mobile web was in its early growth and innovative ways to bring web content onto mobile phones were being explored. Automated conversion of HTML to WML was a hot topic. But the ecosystem conditions were not aligned for completely automated WML transformations. Several startups in this space including my friend’s startup shut for such reasons.

More recently in 2016-17 Chatbots were projected to be the next big thing and it too suffered from similar misalignment. Chatbots were the first attempt to bring AI/NLP for customer interaction. However, they lacked the depth of ecosystem conditions to make them successful. 

  1. Bots were treated as a panacea for all kinds of customer interactions and were blindly applied to problems. 70% of the 100,000+ bots on Facebook Messenger fail to fulfill simple user requests. This is partly a result of not focusing on one strong area of focus for user interaction.
  2. Bots were implemented with rule-based dialogues, there was no conversational design built into it. NLP is still in its infancy and most bots lacked data to provide meaningful interactions. They were purely a reflection of the level of detail and thought that went into the creation of the bots.

AI/ML, however, is suffering from the “hype” of an “AI/ML hype”. There is a considerable depth within the AI/ML ecosystem iceberg. Amazon, Google, Microsoft…OpenSource are continuously evolving their AI stack with higher and higher fidelity of tools & algorithms. You no longer need fancy degrees to work the AI tools and automate important customer workflows or scenarios. 

Yet it is easier said than done. Most startups on the AI journey struggle to get sufficient data to build effective ML models. Further, data privacy has increased the complexity of sharing data, which now resides in distant silos. While internal proprietary data is a rich source of patterns, often times it is incomplete. In such cases, entrepreneurs must innovate, partner, source to build complete data as part of their data collection strategy. A strong data collection strategy allows for a sustainable moat. 

AIndra multiplied 7000 stains into 7M data points by splitting into microdata records. DataGen a startup in Israel, is generating fake data to help startups train models. The fake data is close enough to real data that the use is ethical and effective. Startups like Datum are building data marketplaces using blockchain to democratize data access. 

As mentioned many of the AI tools are limited in their constraints. Meanwhile, getting familiar with the capabilities and limitations of the necessary tools will help form a strategy path to solving the larger customer scenarios. 

Tact.ai faced the constraint by the limitations of the Alexa API. However, instead of building their own NLP they focused on working around the constraints, leveraging Alexa’s phrase based recognition to iteratively build value into their product. During this time, they continue to build a corpus of valuable data which will set them up for high growth when the NLP stack reaches higher fidelity.

Solving for the Hierarchy of Customer Needs

The convergence of SaaS penetration, AI/ML, data & privacy, uncertain economy & global policies… the customer expectations are rising up the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. SaaS 1.0 was all about digital transformation on the cloud. SaaS 2.0 focused on solving problems for the mobile first scenarios. In the SaaS 3.0 era, the customer expectations are moving to the next higher levels. They will:

  • Prefer comprehensive solutions in place of single point products.
  • Expect interoperability across the gamut of systems.
  • Need tools which provide higher levels of automation & augmentation.

For startups who want to fortify their presence in the SaaS 3.0 era :

  1. Begin with a strong AI value proposition in mind, regardless if it is AI-first or AI-second. Articulate the 5x increase in value you can deliver using AI, which wasn’t feasible without AI. 
  2. Build your proprietary data pot of gold. And, where necessary augment with external data through strategic partnerships. A strong data lever will enable a sustainable moat. 
  3. Leverage platforms & partnerships to offer a suite of products for solving a comprehensive customer scenario.

Remember it is a multi-year journey, Start Now!

 

I would like to acknowledge Ashish Sinha (NextBigWhat), Bala Girisabala (Techstars India), Manish Singhal (Pi Ventures), Suresh Sambandam (KiSSFlow), and Sharad Sharma (iSPIRT) who helped with data, insights and critical feedback in crafting this writeup. Sheeba Sheikh (Freelance Designer) worked her wonderful illustrations which brought the content to life. 

Interesting Reads

What lies beyond the horizon: Digital Sky & the future of drones in India

Drones have been around for a long time, going back as far as World War II. For most of their history, they were considered part of the military arsenal and developed and deployed almost exclusively by the military.

However, the past decade has seen a tremendous amount of research and development in the area of using drones for civilian purposes. This has led industry experts to predict that drones will be disrupting some of the mainstay industries of the global economy such as logistics, transportation, mining, construction and agriculture to name a few. Analysts estimate a $100 billion market opportunity for drones in the coming few years  [1]. In spite of the overwhelming evidence in favour of the value created by drones, it has taken quite a few years for the drone industry to take off in a commercial sense globally.

The main reason for this has been the regulatory challenges around what is allowed to fly in the air and where is it allowed to fly. A common theme around the world is the unconventional challenges that old governmental structures have to face as they try to understand and regulate new technologies. Hence the default approach so far for governments has been reactionary caution as they try to control what are, essentially, flying robots in the sky.

However, with electronic costs coming down, the hardware becoming more accessible and the software interpreting data becomes more powerful a number of humanitarian, civilian and industrial application have emerged and as governments across the world are realizing the potential of drones, we are starting to see the first version of regulations being drafted and adopted across the globe.[2]

Closer home India has a relatively adverse approach to drones or more lackadaisical rather. [3]

But as India continues to drive to become a more technology-oriented economy the role of drones in the worlds fastest growing economy and the potential benefits it can bring are hard to ignore.[4]

However, India’s approach to drone regulations cannot be that of other major economies that have the luxury of friendly neighbours and a large network of monitoring apparatus, India has had to take an approach that has to be novel and robust. Something that balances the security landscape while also being designed to allow maximum utilization of the potential that drones offer. Out of this need to both regulate secure how and where a drone can fly and keep multi-ministerial stakeholder interests accounted for was born the Digital Sky, India’s foundational framework for all things drones.

What is the Digital Sky and how does it work?

What the Digital Sky accomplishes beautifully is to fill the institutional void that needs to be collectively fulfilled by so many institutions and make it easier for the industry and consumers to interface with the government legally through one platform. Permission to fly drone no longer requires a 90-day intimation with an arbitrary number of NOCs to be approved by umpteen number of ministerial bodies at the central and federal level. The industry and the public now know one place to interact with in order to register their drone, get recognised as a certified operator and apply for permissions and all concerned government agencies ensure their overarching interests do not interfere with the large-scale adoption of drones.  

There are crucial components required for the Digital Sky concept to work, the most central being that drone operators should not be able to fly drones if they are not approved by the government. To accomplish this the Drone 1.0 regulations revolve around the concept of No-Permission-No-Takeoff (NPNT).

Our maven Tanuj Bhojwani explaining NPNT at the DigitalSky RoundTable on 4 Dec 2018 in Bengaluru

What this implies is that unless a drone has got valid permission for a particular flight through tamper-proof digitally signed permission tokens, it will not be able to take off. The Digital Sky is the platform to automate the processing of these permission tokens as they flow in from different parts of the country without overwhelming the authorities through a flight information management system (one of only three countries to build this nationally after China and the USA). In order for this vision to come true, there will be an enormous change in the way drones are manufactured and operated. Entire new industry verticals around getting existing drones compliant, developing interfaces that interact with the Digital Sky platform and making applications for India’s needs will develop. Hence this begs the question.

How are the current state of the industry are changing with 1.0 regulations

Until the introduction of the regulations companies especially in the UAV operations were doing non-restricted work and end up becoming the jack-of-all-trades. Companies in the manufacturing domain were unclear of who is their target customer and what they needed to build. All the companies in this domain were working with no clarity on the safety and permissions.

With the introduction of the Drone Policy 1.0, there is a buzz which has been created and efforts are being made to understand the regulations by all the entities who are set to gain from it. They understand that there will be a new aspect that needs to cater to i.e. the sense of accountability.

For manufacturer’s The NP-NT mandate will be the most immediate requirement, the most common route to implement the mandate will be through changes to existing firmware architecture. The changes themselves are being driven by open source initiatives with various operators, system integrators and manufacturers contributing to the shift to NP-NT for all major drone platforms in the country. The Digital Sky has inadvertently catalysed the first industry-wide initiative to bring together all members of the ecosystem. Other requirements such as ETA bring in much-needed standardisation in the hardware space, this allows benchmarking of products, easier availability of information about the standards to look out for end users.

For operators, a massive increase in the volume of business is expected as they can now focus on getting certified drones into the air, and not so much on getting approvals. The Digital Sky brings in much-needed certainty and predictability into an industry that will be focused on balancing demand and supply of drone-related operations in a market that has a huge need for drones and their data but limited expertise to acquire and process it. This also puts onus an industry to become security and privacy conscious and insurance agencies will play an important role in this regard. It will also immensely help in changing the thought process of the companies providing services and their customers. Customers will start understanding that they also need to have a defined plan, process and execution instead of a haphazard existing process of execution.

How industry/playground will change over the coming years?

With the introduction on the regulations and a platform like Digital sky enabling the ease of doing business for the companies who are serious stakeholders in this domain, there is no limit to what developments will occur in the coming years. It opens up possibilities for utilization of Drone and its related technologies in Agriculture, Medical, Energy and Infrastructure and transportation.

The existing players will become more mature and more focused. They will understand that with regulations in place a more focused approach is the key to scale. They will look at opportunities to compete with the global market also as the solutions that are developed around the Drone Regulations 1.0 and 2.0 will be key factors that contribute to the Indian ecosystem to becoming a global standard to test, adapt and innovate drone applications and management.

What are the opportunities? What does that mean for the current and new players?

UAV/ Drones as a business was a far-fetched thought for many entrepreneurs and has been a struggling industry in the past in India. Going forward it is guaranteed that it will be one of the biggest markets in the world for UAV as a business. What the regulations and Digital Sky platform will enable is a new levelled playground ground for the UAV companies to initiate good scalable business models both existing and the ones entering new to the sector.

The existing companies with the right resources can now plan to scale their operations and also have the added advantage of doing work for the private sector in India. Due to the restrictive method of operations adapted previously the solutions to private agencies was unavailable. Now going forward the companies will shift their focus from being a B2G entity to a B2B entity. Many new businesses for UAV air traffic management, surveillance, AI and ML-based UAV solutions and deliveries will emerge out of India with technology specific to India.

The blog is co-authored by Anurag A Joshi from INDrone Aero systems, Abhiroop Bhatnagar from Algopixel Technologies and Gokul Kumaravelu from Skylark Drones

White Paper On Section 56(2)(viib) And Section 68 And Its Impact on Startups In India

Angel Tax (Section 56(2)(viib)) has become a cause celebre in Indian startup circles due to its broad-reaching ramifications on all startups raising capital.

This paper traces the origin of this section, it’s analysis, impact, how it adversely affects startups. Special mention is also made of the seldom covered Section 68 and it’s used in conjunction with Section 56(2)(viib). The paper also proposes recommendations to ensure that genuine companies are not aggrieved by this while the original intent of the section is preserved.

For any support or query, please write to us at [email protected]

India Financial Services – Disrupt or Be Disrupted

Matrix India recently hosted two firebrands of the financial services world, Mr Sanjay Agarwal, founder AU Small Finance Bank and Mr Sharad Sharma, founder iSPIRT Foundation, Volunteer at India Stack, for a no holds barred discussion at the Matrix Rooftop in Bangalore. Here is an excerpt from the evening and some of our learnings for fin-tech entrepreneurs.

Part 1 of the two-part series features the untold story of AU Bank, in the words of Sanjay Agarwal himself, as below:

Sanjay Agarwal – on his background and early days before starting AU:

“In my early Chartered Accountancy days, I started out by doing audit work, taxation, and managing clients. I had studied hard and was naïve and enthusiastic at that time hoping, to solve the world’s problems. This pushed me to work harder and I had a desire to do something more.

I believe that we are the choices we make. While evaluating various choices, I eliminated all the options that I didn’t want to pursue e.g. to work for a fee or commission and then I started digging deeper on what really interests me – that was when the concept of AU Financiers was formed.

In 1996, as 26 years old, I began approaching HNIs to raise capital, as back then, there were no VCs. I was fortunate to raise INR 10 cr at a 12% hurdle rate and I had to secure the funding with a personal guarantee. But what is the guarantee of the guarantor? No one questioned this at that time. So, I technically became one of the first P2P lenders, and structured a product that didn’t exist– short term, secured and at a 30% rate of interest. That was the start of the AU journey.”

The Early Days of AU:

“I started off AU as a one-man army. I was everything from the treasurer to the collector. Slowly we built our team and rotated the 10 cr of capital to disburse 100 cr of loans – not a single rupee was lost. There were several challenges at that time for e.g., there was no CIBIL score, financial discipline was lacking, people were still learning how to take a loan and repay it and customer ids didn’t even have a photograph. But somehow, we managed.

The period from 1996 to 2002 taught me everything I needed to learn – how to lend, how to collect, how to manage people, read people’s body language, and most importantly how to manage yourself in different situations. I follow all of that until today, and my team also benefits or suffers from those learnings of mine even today. In those 7 years, we would have dealt with 2000 customers out of which 500 defaulted. That was the ratio of defaulters – 25%. But we managed and there were actually no NPL’s.”

Partnering with HDFC Bank

“In 2002, retail credit was beginning to take off, but our HNIs started pulling their money out, as they wanted a higher return. However, at that time, the most premium bank in the country, HDFC Bank, appointed us as their channel partner. The model we followed was very simple – AU was responsible for sourcing the customer, KYC processing and doing on the ground diligence while loans were booked on HDFC’s balance sheet. HDFC is perceived to be a conservative bank, and it is – however, they gave me Rs 400 cr, on a net worth of only Rs 5 cr! They made an exception in our case due to our strong track record, through execution, sound knowledge of the market, and most importantly our integrity.

By 2008, our net worth had increased to Rs 10 crore through internal accruals. At that time, HDFC told us that we can’t give you any more capital, as we were overleveraged, and that we now needed to bring in equity capital if we wanted to grow.”

Growing the balance sheet and partnering right

“I had two choices at that point, I could continue in Jaipur, keep my ambition under control and live comfortably or figure out what else is possible. I chose the latter and this marked the beginning of my partnership with Motilal Oswal. Its easier to raise equity now, back in the day shareholder agreements used to look like loan agreements with min IRR requirements, etc. As luck would have it, a few months after we raised equity, the Lehman Brothers crisis broke out and most banks stopped funding. We were supported once again by HDFC – they were our saviour and I will cherish my relationship with them always. Once the market settled down, having survived this negative environment, there was no looking back.

Our next major investor was IFC. For the entrepreneurs here, I want to say that you have to be selective about your investors, who will help with not just capital – there should be added value they bring to the table apart from money. IFC was giving me 20% lower valuation, but I knew that I didn’t have any lineage to fall back on. As a first-generation entrepreneur, I had to raise money on the strength of my balance sheet and not basis my family name. I knew that partnering with IFC would shift the perception of AU within the industry, especially for PSU banks. After their investment, we grew from one bank relationship with HDFC to 40 bank partnerships. One thing led to another and Warburg Pincus, ChrysCapital, and Kedaara Capital all came on board after that.”

Consistent performance

“From 2008 onwards, we started diversifying from vehicle lending and got into other forms of secured lending like a loan against property, home loans etc. We never tried unsecured lending and never ventured into microfinance or gold finance. Those were very popular products at that time but focusing on what we were good at resulted in a consistently strong performance. We never had a bad year. In the world of finance, the margin of error is very less. If you have a bad year you can almost never come back. Good companies survive regardless of the market condition, you can never blame the market for your company’s poor performance. In 2015-16, we were a successful NBFC, our RoA was close to 3% with an asset base of close to 8,000 crores, with a RoE of 27-28% and everyone was chasing us – the question at that time before us was, what next?”

How we became a bank

“As an NBFC, it is very hard to manage a book of Rs 50,000 cr with the same efficiency and effectiveness as it’s a people dependent business, there are limits to the kind of products you can do and you can’t keep raising capital. Hence, we became a bank because we wanted to be there for the next 100 years and that perpetual platform can only be created through a bank. That is the biggest platform and it is not available at a price. It’s available through your integrity, business plan and execution. Today, we receive Rs 100 cr of money every single day. This is the same person who was struggling to raise Rs 10 cr in 1996, and is now getting money at the speed of Rs 100 cr every day – it feels amazing but there is a lot of responsibility!”

Part 2 of the two-part series features insights from Sharad Sharma:

Recognizing the Athletic Gavaskar moment in Indian Financial Services

“Indian financial services industry is going through its equivalent of the Athletic Gavaskar project of Indian cricket. The motive behind this project was to instil the importance of being athletic to successfully compete in the modern game. A new team was created with the rule that if you are not athletic, you cannot be a part of the team, regardless of other skills that you bring to the table. Virat Kohli eventually became the captain of this team and the results are for everyone to see. Similar yet contrasting stories played out in hockey and wrestling. In hockey, we lost for 20 years because we refused to adapt to the introduction of astroturf. However, in wrestling, the Akhadas in Haryana embraced the move from mud to mat with rigour, and Indian wrestling is already punching above its weight class and hopefully will do even better over time. The idea of sharing this is that similar to sports, sometimes an industry goes through a radical shift. Take the telecom space, for example, if Graham Bell came alive in 1995, he would recognize the telephone system, 20 years later he wouldn’t recognize it at all. The banking industry is going to go through a hockey/wrestling or communications type disruption and a lot of us are working hard to make it happen.”

Infrastructure changes lead to New Playgrounds

“All the banks and NBFCs put together are not serving the real India today. We have 10 million+ businesses that have GST id’s, out of which 8 million+ are big enough to pay GST on a monthly basis, but only 1.2 million have access to NBFC or bank finance. This is a gap that needs to be addressed and it cannot be solved through incremental innovations.

Entrepreneurs and incumbents should learn from what happened in the TV industry when new infrastructure became available. When India went from state-run TV towers in 34 cities to cable and satellite TV in pretty much every town, there was a massive new market that was unlocked that did not want to watch the same Ramayan or Hum Log TV serials. What transpired was an explosion of entertainment products because of the high demand stemming from the new markets and the TV channel players that reinvented their content is thriving today while others that did not, are barely surviving or have shut down.

So where does this leave the bankers? I think it is the biggest opportunity for the right banker who understands this problem, wants to serve this section of the market and is willing to reinvent the way they do their business and take advantage of the new infrastructure that will be available.”

Dual-immersed entrepreneurs have the biggest advantage

“Entrepreneurs who are immersed in the messiness of both the new infrastructure and the old problem are “dual immersed entrepreneurs”. They are the ones that succeed when a market shift is underway. Today this is not happening. Some of our city-bred entrepreneurs are more comfortable with California rather than Bharat. And some of our sales-oriented entrepreneurs are intimidated by the messiness of the new technology infrastructure.”

New Playgrounds need new Gameplay

“In a world where eKYC exists, and we can transfer money through UPI from a phone, and sign documents digitally – we are ready to deliver financial products on the phone and this is the disruption that is required. Access to credit drives the economy and with this new infrastructure, it is now possible to lend to the real India. However, it’s easy to give money, but the ability to get it back and keeping defaults at a minimum is the real trick. Even there we are moving towards seeing a radical improvement. Debt providers now have powers they never had and defaulters are being brought to book. Customers are now incentivized to build their own credit history to get better and lower interest rates over time. A new Public Credit Registry is coming to enable this at scale. But the biggest innovation is related to the dramatic shortening of the tenor. One can structure a one-year loan into 12 monthly loans or 52 weekly loans. This rewards positive customer behaviour and brings about the behaviour change that is needed.

There is no secret sauce here, it requires gumption – like that shown by Reed Hastings, founder of Netflix. He disrupted the TV and home video industry by first having the wisdom to go from ground to cloud and then again when they started developing original content. In both cases, he had little support from the board or investors. If you can reinvent yourself before it becomes necessary, you’re a winner but this is harder to do for a successful company. The legacy of success provides resisters with the clout to block change. The real beneficiary of Aadhaar based eKYC in the telecom world was not the incumbents but Jio – eKYC allowed Jio to acquire customers at an unprecedented scale and they saved INR 5000 crores on KYC costs as well.”

About iSPIRT

iSPIRT is a non-profit think tank that builds public goods for Indian product startup to thrive and grow. iSPIRT aims to do for Indian startups what DARPA or Stanford did in Silicon Valley. iSPIRT builds four types of public goods – technology building blocks (aka India stack), startup-friendly policies, market access programs like M&A Connect and Playbooks that codify scarce tacit knowledge for product entrepreneurs of India.

About AU Small Finance Bank:

AU Small Finance Bank Limited (AU Bank) started in 1996 as a vehicle financing NBFC, AU Financiers and scaled to touch over a million underbanked and unbanked customers across 11 states of North, West and Central India, prior to becoming a bank in April 2017. During this time, AU attracted equity investments from marquee investors such as IFC, Warburg Pincus, Chrys Capital, Kedaara Capital and recently went public when its IPO was oversubscribed ~54 times. Over the years, AU Bank, led by its founder Sanjay Agarwal, has created significant shareholder value with its equity value growing from ~$120 million in 2012 to current market capitalization of ~$3 billion.

Please Note: The blog was first published and authored by Matrix India Team and you can read the original post here: matrixpartners.in/blog

AI/ML is not Sexy

One would think that the new sexy in the startup capital of the world is self-driving cars, AI/ML… I got news for you! AI/ML (esp. Machine Learning) is not listed in Gartner’s hype cycle for 2018.

Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hype-Cycle-General.png

This was corroborated on my recent trip to the valley and the US east coast, where I met several investors, founders, corp dev and other partners of the startup community. It was evident that the AI/ML hype which peaked in 2016 & 2017 is no longer considered a buzzword. It is assumed to be table stakes. What you do with AI/ML is something everyone is willing to listen to. Using AI/ML to solve a high-value B2B SaaS problem is Sexy! (Gartner trends for 2018).

As the hype with AI/ML settles down, B2B startups across the globe are discovering the realities of working the AI/ML shifts for SaaS. Many AI tools & frameworks in the tech stack are still evolving and early pioneers are discovering constraints in the stack and creatively building workarounds as they build their products.

Many entrepreneurs are watching from the sidelines the unfolding of the AI/ML hype, wondering on many valid questions like these (and more):

Q: Do I have to stop what we are building and jump onto the AI bandwagon? No.
Q: Are the AI/ML resources mature & stable to build better value products? No, they are still evolving.
Q: Do I need expensive investments in constrained resources? No, not until you have a high-value problem to solve.

B2B SaaS startups go through 2 key struggles. How to find market-fit and survive? And how to stay relevant and grow. And if you don’t evolve or reinvent as the market factors change, there are high chances for an upstart to come by and disrupt you. The iSPIRT entrepreneur playbooks look to help entrepreneurs get clarity on such queries and more. Our goal is to help our startups navigate such market shifts, stay relevant and grow. Our mini roundtables Playing with AI/ML are focused on WhyAI for SaaS discussions in multiple cities. If you or a startup you know may benefit do register

The MiniRT Agenda

Seeding & creating an active discussion on Why AI/ML? What is the higher order value being created? How to identify the value & opportunities to leverage AI? How to get started with an AI playground (if not already running)? How to think of data needs for AI/ML investments, How to address the impact on Product & Business… Insights from these sessions are meant to help refine our approach & readiness to leverage AI/ML for building higher order value products. And in doing so building a vibrant community focused around navigating this shift.

Upcoming PlaybookRTs on AI/ML

6-Oct (Chennai) 10 am – 1 pm – MiniRoundTable on WhyAI for B2B SaaS – Shrikanth Jagannathan, PipeCandy Inc
18-Oct (Bangalore) 6 pm – 8 pm MiniRoundTable with Dr Viral Shah on AI/ML Tools & discuss your ML/DeepLearning challenges
27-Oct (Delhi/Gurgaon) 2 pm – 6 pmMiniRoundTable on WhyAI for B2B SaaS, Adarsh Natarajan, CEO & Founder – Aindra Systems
TBD (Bangalore)MiniRoundTable on WhyAI for B2B SaaS, (based on registered interest)
TBD (Mumbai)MiniRoundTable on WhyAI for B2B SaaS, (based on registered interest)

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 Register for the AI/ML Playbooks Track.

Please note: All iSPIRT playbooks are pro-bono, closed room, founder-level, invite-only sessions. The only thing we require is a strong commitment to attend all sessions completely 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.

Image source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hype-Cycle-General.png

Interesting Reads

The slow, light touch of AI in Indian Saas

Policy Hacks On India’s Digital Sky Initiative 1.0

On August 27, 2018, India announced its much-awaited Civil Aviation Regulations (CAR) for drones. The new CAR had many improvements on the original draft published last year, but most important was the introduction of Digital Sky, a technology platform that would handle the entire process of regulating the registration and permissions for all Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems above the nano category, i.e. any remote controlled or automated flying object – multi-rotor or fixed-wing, electric or IC-engine. These set of regulations along with the announcement of Digital Sky drone policy represent the government’s “Drone Policy 1.0”.

What this policy isn’t?

From the outset, one of the largest criticisms of the draft was its seeming omission of beyond visual line of sight flights, as well as those of fully-autonomous operations. Combined with a ban on delivery of items, it would seem like the government is pre-emptively clamping down on some of the most promises of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles before they even begin.

But on close inspection, the Ministry of Civil Aviation has made an interesting & what looks to be a promising decision in naming this policy as “1.0”. Through the various public comments made by the Minister of State for Civil Aviation, Jayant Sinha, it can be gathered that there is a phased-approach being adopted for the planning and implementation of the government’s strategy for unmanned aerial vehicles.

The more complex commercial operations will be rolled out atop the digital platform, allowing the government to test the waters before allowing potentially risky operations.

At iSPIRT, we appreciate this data-driven, innovation-friendly yet safety-first approach that has been inherent to all of civil aviation.

What does the policy say?

The policy lays out a general procedure for registering, and taking permissions to fly for every type of remotely piloted aircraft system (RPAS). A good summary of the regulations themselves, what you need to fly, what you can and cannot do is given here. We will be focussing this blog post on demystifying Digital Sky and the surrounding technology – How it works, what it does and what should private players be doing about it.

What is Digital Sky?

Digital Sky is essentially a barebones Unmanned Aircraft Traffic Management system. An Unmanned Traffic Management is to drones what ATC is to aircraft. Most countries are looking to external UTM providers to build and run this digital enabling infrastructure. The government of India, in continuing its digital infrastructure as public goods tradition, has decided to build and run its own UTM to ensure that this critical infrastructure system remains committed to interoperability and is free from the risks of vendor capture in the long run. Digital Sky is the first version of such a UTM for managing drone flights in both controlled as well as uncontrolled airspaces.

For consumers, Digital Sky essentially constructed of three layers. The three layers are Online Registrations, Automated Permissions and Analytics, Tracking and Configurable Policies.

Online Registrations are the layers that onboard operators, pilots, RPAS and manufacturers on to the Digital Sky Platform. It will be a fully digital process, and applicants can track their applications online. All registered users will have an identity number, including the RPAS, which will get a Unique Identification Number (UIN). There is a private key attached to the UIN allowing the drone to prove it is who it claims to be through digital signatures.

Automated Permissions is the transaction layer that digitizes the process of seeking airspace clearance. Using Open APIs or a portal provided by the government, drones can directly seek permissions by specifying the geographic area, time of operations & pilot registration id, signed with the UIN of drone. In response to the API call or portal request, an XML file digitally signed by the DGCA is generated. This XML response is called the Permission Artefact.

All RPAS sold in India under the new policy must carry firmware that can authenticate such a Permission Artefact. Further, they must confirm that the flight parameters of the current mission match those given in the authenticated Permission Artefact. If these parameters do not match, the RPAS must not arm. This condition is referred to simply as No Permission, No Takeoff or NPNT. Thus, the requirement is that any RPAS (except nano) operated in India should be NPNT compliant. We will cover what it means to be NPNT compliant in part two of this series.

To deal with areas of low connectivity, this authenticated request can be carried prior to the flight itself, when connectivity is available. The Permission Artefact can be stored, carried and read offline by an NPNT-compliant RPAS with a registered UIN. Thus flight operations in remote or low-connectivity areas will not be severely impacted. While this seems tedious, it promises to be a lot easier than the draft regulations, which required the filing of flight plans 60 days in advance.

Digital Sky will classify all existing airspace into three colour-coded zones: Green Zones are where drones are pre-authorized to fly, but must still obtain a permission artefact to notify the local authorities of their intent to fly. On applying for permission, a permission artefact is returned instantly. Red Zones are where drone operations are forbidden from taking place. This includes areas such as airports, borders and other sensitive areas. Amber Zones are areas restricted by appropriate reasons as mentioned in the CAR where additional permissions are required. These requests are also initiated and managed through the Digital Sky Platform

Analytics, Tracking & Configurable (ATC) Policies is a shorthand for the regulatory functions that the DGCA will carry out to regulate the use of airspace by unmanned aircraft. It involves functions such as the classification of Red, Amber & Green zones, deconfliction of overlapping flights, incident response, etc.

The MoCA has articulated its desire for an ecosystem-driven approach to building out the drone industry. From an earlier draft of the No Permission No Takeoff technical document shared with manufacturers, it is expected that this layer of Digital Sky will be opened up to private players labelled as Digital Sky Service Providers (DSPs). We will cover more about Digital Sky Service Providers in part three of this series.

Conclusion

Digital Sky appears to be a move towards a more data-driven, phased-approach to policy and regulation for emerging technology. It is a global first and offers a truly forward-looking approach compared to most other nations.

For operators, in the long term, a formal system leads to an eco-system of authorised players, increase in trust, and rise of a legitimate industry. 

Note:  We have been actively following the Digital Sky policy development, Intend to bring in Part two of this blog after an active role out and implementation starts.

Why the SC ruling on ‘Private Players’ use of Aadhaar doesn’t say what you think it does

On behalf of iSPIRT, Sanjay Jain recently published an opinion piece regarding the recent supreme court judgement on the validity of Aadhaar. In there, we stated that section 57 had been struck down, but that should still allow some usage of Aadhaar by the private sector. iSPIRT received feedback that this reading may have been incorrect and that private sector usage would not be allowed, even on a voluntary basis. So, we dug deeper, and analyzed the judgement once again, this time trying to disprove Sanjay’s earlier statement. So, here is an update:

Section 57 of the Aadhaar act has NOT been struck down!

Given the length of the judgement, our first reading – much like everyone else’s was driven by the judge’s statement and confirmed by quickly parsing the lengthy judgement. But in this careful reanalysis, we reread the majority judgement at leisure and drilled down into the language of the operative parts around Section 57. Where ambiguities still remain, we relied on the discussions leading up to the operative conclusions. Further, to recheck our conclusions, we look at some of the other operative clauses not related to Section 57. We tested our inference against everything else that has been said and we looked for inconsistencies in our reasoning.

Having done this, we are confident in our assertion that the judges did not mean to completely blockade the use of Aadhaar by private parties, but merely enforce better guardrails for the protection of user privacy. Let’s begin!

Revisiting Section 57

Here is the original text of section 57 of the Aadhaar Act

Nothing contained in this Act shall prevent the use of Aadhaar number for establishing the identity of an individual for any purpose a purpose backed by law, whether by the State or any body corporate or person, pursuant to any law, for the time being in force, or any contract to this effect:

Provided that the use of Aadhaar number under this section shall be subject to the procedure and obligations under section 8 and Chapter VI.

Now, let us simply read through the operating part of the order with reference to Section 57, ie. on page 560. This is a part of paragraph 447 (4) (h). The judges broke this into 3 sections, and mandated changes:

  1. ‘for any purpose’ to be read down to a purpose backed by law.
  2. ‘any contract’ is not permissible.
  3. ‘any body corporate or person’ – this part is struck down.

Applying these changes to the section, we get:

Nothing contained in this Act shall prevent the use of Aadhaar number for establishing the identity of an individual for any purpose a purpose backed by law, whether by the State or any body corporate or person, pursuant to any law, for the time being in force, or any contract to this effect:

Provided that the use of Aadhaar number under this section shall be subject to the procedure and obligations under section 8 and Chapter VI.

Cleaning this up, we get:

Nothing contained in this Act shall prevent the use of Aadhaar number for establishing the identity of an individual pursuant to any law, for the time being in force:

Provided that the use of Aadhaar number under this section shall be subject to the procedure and obligations under section 8 and Chapter VI.

It is our opinion that this judgement does not completely invalidate the use of Aadhaar by private players, but rather, specifically strikes down the use for “any purpose [..] by any body corporate or person [..] (under force of) any contract”. That is, it requires the use of Aadhaar be purpose-limited, legally-backed (to give user rights & protections over their data) and privacy-protecting.

As an exercise, we took the most conservative interpretation – “all private use is struck down in any form whatsoever” – and reread the entire judgement to look for clues that support this conservative view.

Instead, we found that such an extreme view is inconsistent with multiple other statements made by the judges. As an example, earlier discussions of Section 57 in the order (paragraphs 355 to 367). The conclusion there – paragraph 367 states:

The respondents may be right in their explanation that it is only an enabling provision which entitles Aadhaar number holder to take the help of Aadhaar for the purpose of establishing his/her identity. If such a person voluntary wants to offer Aadhaar card as a proof of his/her identity, there may not be a problem.

Some pointed out that this is simply a discussion and not an operative clause of the judgement. But even in the operative clauses where the linking of Aadhaar numbers with bank accounts and telecom companies is discussed, no reference was made to Section 57 and the use of Aadhaar by private banks and telcos.

The court could have simply struck down the linking specifically because most banks and telcos are private companies. Instead, they applied their mind to the orders which directed the linking as mandatory. This further points to the idea that the court does not rule out the use of Aadhaar by private players, it simply provides stricter specifications on when and how to use it.

What private players should do today

In our previous post, we had advised private companies to relook at their use of Aadhaar, and ensure that they provide choice to all users, so that they can use an appropriate identity, and also build in better exception handling procedures for all kinds of failures (including biometric failures).

Now, in addition to our previous advice, we would like to expand the advice to ask that each company look at how their specific use case draws from the respective acts, rules, regulations and procedural guidelines to ensure that these meet the tests used by this judgement. That is, they contain adequate justification and sufficient protections for the privacy of their users.

For instance, banks have been using Aadhaar eKyc to open a bank account, Aadhaar authentication to allow operation of the bank accounts, and using the Aadhaar number as a payment address to receive DBT benefits. Each of these will have to be looked at how they derive from the RBI Act and the regulations that enable these use cases.

These reviews will benefit from the following paragraphs in the judgement.

The judgement confirmed that the data collected by Aadhaar is minimal and is required to establish one’s identity.

Paragraph 193 (and repeated in other paras):

Demographic information, both mandatory and optional, and photographs does not raise a reasonable expectation of privacy under Article 21 unless under special circumstances such as juveniles in conflict of law or a rape victim’s identity. Today, all global ID cards contain photographs for identification alongwith address, date of birth, gender etc. The demographic information is readily provided by individuals globally for disclosing identity while relating with others and while seeking benefits whether provided by government or by private entities, be it registration for citizenship, elections, passports, marriage or enrolment in educational institutions …

The judgement has a lot to say in terms of what the privacy tests should be, but we would like to highlight two of those paragraphs here.

Paragraph 260:

Before we proceed to analyse the respective submissions, it has also to be kept in mind that all matters pertaining to an individual do not qualify as being an inherent part of right to privacy. Only those matters over which there would be a reasonable expectation of privacy are protected by Article 21…

Paragraph 289:

‘Reasonable Expectation’ involves two aspects. First, the individual or individuals claiming a right to privacy must establish that their claim involves a concern about some harm likely to be inflicted upon them on account of the alleged act. This concern ‘should be real and not imaginary or speculative’. Secondly, ‘the concern should not be flimsy or trivial’. It should be a reasonable concern…

Hence, the privacy risk in these use cases must be evaluated in terms of the data in the use case itself, as well as in relation to biometrics, and the Aadhaar number in the context of the user’s expectations, and real risks. Businesses must evaluate their products, and services – particularly those which use Aadhaar for privacy risks. It is helpful that the UIDAI has provided multiple means of mitigating risks, in the form of Registered Devices, Virtual Ids, Tokenization, QR Codes on eAadhaar, etc. which must be used for this purpose.

What private players should do tomorrow

In the future, the data protection bill will require a data protection impact assessment before deploying large scale systems. It is useful for businesses to bring in privacy and data protection assessments early in their development processes since it will help them better protect their users, and reduce potential liability.

This is a useful model, and we would hope that, in light of the Supreme Court judgement, the Government will introduce a similar privacy impact review, and provide a mechanism to regulate the use of Aadhaar for those use cases, where there are adequate controls to protect the privacy of the users and to prevent privacy harms. Use cases, and an audit/enforcement mechanism matter more than whether the entity is the state, a public sector organization, or a private sector organization.

Note: This is in continuation of Sanjay Jain’s previous op-ed in the Economic Times which is available here and same version on the iSPIRT blog here.

The writer is currently Partner, Bharat Innovation Fund, and Chief Innovation Officer at the Centre for Innovation, Incubation and Entrepreneurship, IIM Ahmedabad. As a volunteer at iSPIRT, he helped define many of the APIs of the India Stack.  He was the Chief Product Manager of UIDAI till 2012

(Disclaimer: This is not legal advice)

Preferred Market Access Policy for Indian CyberSecurity Products

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are the essential features of this Policy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is the objective?

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

Who are the procuring entities?

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

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

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

 AND

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

How big is the government opportunity?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About Author:

Ashish Tandon, Founder & CEO – Indusface

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

It takes time to build something successful!

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Scaling Sales: A Deep Dive At SaaSx Fifth Edition

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

This blog is authored by Apoorva Tyagi, Product at SignEasy

SaaSy bear SaaSy bear what do you see?

Shifts for SaaS - SaaSy Bear

I see 3 shifts critical for me!

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

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

Some background

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

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

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

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

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

Discovering 3 Shifts for SaaS

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

Market Shift with AI/ML for SaaS

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shift to Platform Products

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

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

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

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

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

Leveraging Potential Strategic Partnerships

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

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

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

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

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

Working with the 3 Shifts of SaaS

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

And that’s what I see

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All images are credited to Rakesh Mondal