Building for Bharat – A Bharat Inclusion Initiative

Bharat Inclusion Initiative seeks to equip entrepreneurs with the right knowledge, skills and tools they need to solve some of the toughest problems of India in a scalable manner using technology. While Bharat Inclusion Research Fellows are working on some of the most interesting studies, another important source of knowledge is thought leaders and domain experts who have been there and done that. In this three-part video series, we have Dr Pramod Varma, the Chief Architect of Aadhaar, providing his perspective on how entrepreneurs can go about building solutions for Bharat.

Part 1: The Key Construct

What are Bharat’s unique attributes? Its needs and aspirations? With data becoming one of Bharat’s key assets, how can entrepreneurs leverage it to provide solutions that matter? Watch the video to know some answers to these questions and much more.

Part 2: The Journey So Far

How to leverage the opportunity made available through Data empowerment? Know how Aadhaar, India’s biometric ID, has fundamentally changed the economics of reaching the poor. Understand how the Aadhaar platform has aided in building further platforms of IndiaStack such as eSign and Digilocker which have further reduced cost and increased trust at scale. The video rounds off with another uniquely Indian platform — Unified Payment Interface (UPI).

Part 3: Exciting Times Ahead

Reimagine solutions. With the newer domain, specific stacks being built, learn how even seemingly unrelated domains can use these platforms to offer innovative solutions. With GST and BBPS already in place, and more being built around transport (ETC), National Health Stack, Diksha and Drone Stack it has been never this good for entrepreneurs crafting solutions for Bharat. Watch the video to understand how.

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What is Bharat Inclusion Initiative?

Bharat Inclusion Initiative (BII) is an incubator platform at CIIE that provides entrepreneurs with the domain knowledge, training, financial support, mentorship, and market access they need to bring inclusive, for-profit-business to life. BII’s core design is to promote technology-driven entrepreneurship towards the delivery of affordable services to the Bharat Segment- the poorest 200 million households in India who survive on less than $5 per person a day through programs, fellowships, and funding where possible.

The program focuses on solutions leveraging technology, especially the India Stack. It integrates financial inclusion research with entrepreneurship and training to transform these solutions into scalable, viable and high impact businesses.  Keen on partnering with entrepreneurs who are driven by building next-generation digital services for India. Reach out to us at [email protected] or ask your questions in the comments section below.

Please note: The above information was first published by Bharat Inclusion Fellows here: https://medium.com/bharatinclusion/building-for-bharat-df8b12867271

SaaSy bear SaaSy bear what do you see?

Shifts for SaaS - SaaSy Bear

I see 3 shifts critical for me!

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

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

Some background

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

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

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

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

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

Discovering 3 Shifts for SaaS

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

Market Shift with AI/ML for SaaS

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shift to Platform Products

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

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

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

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

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

Leveraging Potential Strategic Partnerships

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

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

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

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

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

Working with the 3 Shifts of SaaS

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

And that’s what I see

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All images are credited to Rakesh Mondal 

Understanding iSPIRT’s Entrepreneur Connect

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

Market Shifts

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

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

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

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

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

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

Creating Trailblazers through Winning Implementations

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

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

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

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

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

Supported Market/Mindset Shifts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seeking Wave#2 Partners

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

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

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

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

Best Adopters

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

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

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

Praveen Hari: Flow-based lending

Jaishankar AL: Bill payments

Tanuj Bhojwani: Permissions Artefact for Drones

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

Siddharth Shetty: Data Empowerment and Protection Architecture (DEPA)

Meghana Reddyreddy: Wave#2 Partners

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

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

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

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

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

– Manish Singhal, Pi Ventures

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

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

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

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

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

Maturity Levels of AI Startups

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

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

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

Do You Really Need Artificial Intelligence?

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

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

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

What’s Driving Your AI Approach?

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

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

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

Is Your Data Acquisition Strategy in Place?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* All iSPIRT playbooks are pro-bono, closed room, founder-level, invite-only sessions. The only thing we require is a strong commitment to attend all sessions completely, to come prepared, to be open to learning & unlearning, and to share your context within a trusted environment. All key learnings are public goods & the sessions are governed by the Chatham House Rule.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Dates & Venue for the first of the series:

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

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

AI Mavens

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

Cost

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

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

P.S. Some great material for pre-reading

I strongly recommend all to go through many of these.

* All iSPIRT playbooks are pro-bono, closed room, founder-level, invite-only sessions. The only thing we require is a strong commitment to attend all sessions completely and to come prepared, to be open to learning & unlearning, and to share your context within a trusted environment. All key learnings are public goods & the sessions are governed by the Chatham House Rule.

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

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

Call for Volunteers: FinTech Leapfrog Council [FTLC]

iSPIRT’s FinTech Leapfrog Council (FTLC) is an initiative designed to help incumbent, government-owned banks make the transition to an era of cashless, presenceless and paperless transactions enabled by India Stack and other emerging technologies.

At iSPIRT, our belief is that banking will change more in the next five years than it has in the last 50 years. For a variety of reasons, the changes happening in India will follow a path that is very different from other countries. Indian Banks, therefore, have two choices: Create a new playbook to deal with these changes, or stick to the old rulebook and risk being disrupted.

Over the last two years, FTLC has been helping SBI, Axis, BOB and IDFC Bank create new playbooks in six orbit shifts that will help banks successfully transform themselves. These six orbit shifts are:

  1. Fee-based Payments to UPI and Payments as a Service
  2. Closed Billing Systems to Bharat Bill Payment System (BBPS) and Billing as a business  
  3. Asset-based lending to (Cash) Flow-Based Lending
  4. Closed Pipe Architectures to Open APIs and Platform Banking
  5. Core Banking Systems to Internet Architecture and Transaction Engines
  6. Data Silos to Consent-based Data Sharing

These FTLC banks have major government shareholding and comprise more than 30 percent of the Indian banking system. Therefore, helping them create these new playbooks is a mission of national importance.

FTLC works with the CEOs and leadership teams of these banks through a series of quarterly workshops and customised workshops in the above-mentioned areas. Some of the industry leaders who spoke at FTLC workshops to facilitate these orbit shifts are:

  • Shamir Karkal, Head of Open APIs at BBVA Bank, Spain, and co-founder of Simple Bank
  • S Ramakrishnan, former Chief Data Officer of Citibank
  • Prof. Saras Sarasvathy of the Darden School of Business
  • Nandan Nilekani, Non-Executive Chairman, Infosys
  • Sharad Sharma, Co-founder of iSPIRT & Ex CEO – Yahoo Inc, R &D. 
  • Sanjay Swamy, Managing Partner of Prime Ventures.

We are looking for an anchor volunteer who can work closely with the FTLC banks to ensure that they are making progress on these orbit shifts, and gradually take my place at FTLC.

For me, being the anchor volunteer for FTLC has been rewarding in many ways. The opportunity to work with other volunteers whose work is reshaping the fundamental nature of banking in India has been very exciting. The opportunity to work with some master strategists who can see the big picture without losing focus on the nitty-gritty details of execution has been awe-inspiring. Seeing young volunteers take on crucial roles and excelling in it has given me great hope for the future of our country. And finally, the fact that iSPIRT’s work is helping India create a world-class digital infrastructure is something that fills my heart with great pride. I had initially signed on as anchor volunteer for FTLC for one year, but the work was so interesting that one year became two before I realised it! We are now looking for a volunteer who can replace me, but start off gradually as a volunteer-in-training.

As you probably know by now, it is difficult to become an iSPIRT volunteer, but easy to cease being one. The arduous process of becoming a volunteer allows each side to feel each other out. We want you to get into volunteering with your eyes open. As part of this counter-intuitive mantra, we let you hibernate without any hesitation. This enables you to make soft promises that you can keep.

If you are interested in being a volunteer for FTLC, contact me at [email protected] or [email protected]

Hungry like a Dog, Running like a Cat

Have you seen the recent movie Queen of Katwe? In one of the scenes, when the talented chess prodigy Phiona (a child from the slums) is afraid to play in her first tournament against rich kids from other schools, the coach Robert tells his students a fable.

There was a dog who sees a cat and he thinks would make a very tasty lunch. The dog goes after the cat, chasing it all over the place, but the cat gets away. Why? “I was running for my lunch” the dog says, “but he was running for his life.”

Recently I happened to be part of a couple of invite-only iSPIRT sessions for the Financial Inclusion Challengers Circle (FICC). The FICC sessions are targeted at the FinTech/Banking corporates in India to raise awareness of and navigate the emerging digital revolution for financial products in India. There were 2 levels of sessions, the first was a kickoff for companies that were interested to know more about the market shift, and the second was for companies that were already part of the program and were presenting their approach. Both the sessions were attended by the CEOs & MDs of the payments and banking corporates in India. One of the CEOs said

“ Despite no background in banking, you are speaking about the imminent shift in the bankers language we understand!

The rabid hunger displayed by the CEOs was astonishing. These executives were not only actively listening to the digital transformations happening in India, they absorbed the market shifts (and some also validated them) and the potential impact on their industry. At the end of the first session, these leaders left with a conviction to return with a clear thought process on how they planned to navigate the market shifts and where they needed help.

The second session was even more interesting because these were the MDs who had formed a conviction from an earlier session and had returned a few of weeks later with an extremely articulate approach. The approach was very well structured, backed by good data insights, had a sharp focus on creating a winning product for a well defined narrow yet large size market. I can say that the hunger, the conviction and the metaphor running for life seemed evident as the CEO (and their team) were well prepared and vulnerably open for help.

In both these sessions, I glimpsed the hunger of the dog as well as some of the urgency of the cat with these leaders. Yet I do question whether these companies will be able to bring the urgency as well as the agility of the cat in their established organization and whether they will be able to shed their heavy & arcane investments (tech, model & mindset). It will surely be an extremely uphill battle for them to navigate the gradual and sudden1 onslaught from the natively digital global invaders entering this market.

However, I believe that successful startups embody both, the rabid hunger of the dog and the agile urgency of the cat. This attitude which easily permeates down into their lean organization provides them an inherent advantage that neither the big Indian companies nor the global digital invaders have. I strongly urge our ProductNation startups, insurgents, to imbibe & manifest this hunger, agility & urgency, to leapfrog over both the incumbents and the invaders, and to be aware and adapt to gradual & sudden market shits, be it FinTech, SaaS or any other category.

While Rashmi Bansal encourages entrepreneurs to Stay Hungry Stay Foolish, I would additionally like to encourage our product startup founders to be Hungry like the Dog and Run like the Cat.

P.S.

1 A great read on Gradual & Sudden shifts. Do also go through the keynote presentation for the same.

While Well-Intentioned, Budget 2018 Falls Short of Expectations

Starting nine years ago, Aadhaar, eKYC, UPI and the rest of India Stack laid the foundation for a formalization of the Indian MSME sector. With the introduction of Aadhaar for Business and the unlocking of GST data for lenders, we are poised to see an explosion in flow-based lending to MSMEs, ultimately having a multiplier effect on jobs and economic growth. This is great news for MSME focused digital lenders and the product startups serving them. Therefore, a significant digital dividend for the Bharat economy is finally in sight.

It is heartening to see government adopt the same digital-first approach when it comes to health and education. While this is a great start, much work remains. Laying the policy foundation alongside an India Stack inspired technology spine will ensure the rise of the Bharat focused tech-entrepreneur. We need India’s entrepreneurs to lift outcomes for patients and students not adequately served by our existing system.

On the startup and investor fronts, this budget is a missed opportunity to address the important near-term issues. We had hoped to see the resolution for Angel Tax and other such Stay-in-India Checklist issues. Slapping a Long-Term Capital Gains Tax on the previously untaxed sale of listed equities will adversely affect the List-in-India initiative. Additionally, the compliance overhang of listing will no longer be tempered by the promise of tax-free gains. The promised tax regime must incentivize and protect foundational (angel and domestic investors) as opposed to fleeting capital.

While well-intentioned, this budget falls short of our expectations. India’s complexity and diversity call for a much more responsive and action-oriented policy-making approach. Only then can we harness our entrepreneurial energy to address India’s most pressing challenges.

About iSPIRT
iSPIRT is a non-profit technology think tank that builds public goods for Indian product startup to thrive and grow. Learn more: www.ispirt.in

Sanjay Jain, Nakul Saxena, Sudhir Singh and Sanjay Khan Nagra Fellows from our policy team have issued a press release on 1st February 2018, a copy of it is here. Reach out to Sanjay Jain in case you would like to know more details.

Special thanks to our volunteers Sharad Sharma, Siddarth Pai, Tanuj Bhojwani, Sarika Mendu, Anukriti Chaudhari, Karthik KS. 

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

image1

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

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

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

Flywheel of Funding

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

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

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

Bringing back tax breaks, not a back-breaking Tax

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

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

Capital without Borders

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

Some of the initiatives include:

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

Well begun is half done

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

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

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

Angel Tax in India — Demystified and Explained

Group of business people analysis with marketing report graph, Young specialists are discussing business ideas for new digital start up project.
Section 56:2(viib) or not to be

Context

Section 56(2)(viib) of the Income Tax Act, 1961, or the dreaded “Angel Tax” was inserted by the Finance Act, 2012 to tax any capital raised by a closely held company which is above its Fair Market Value (FMV) as income from other sources, with Rule 11UA(2) stipulating the following two methods for determining the Fair Market Value:

  • Net Asset Value (NAV) Method
  • Discounted Free Cashflow (DCF) Method

However, the Fair Market Value in section 56(2)(viib) is defined as the value

(i) as may be determined in accordance with such method as may be prescribed (Rule 11UA(2));

or

(ii) as may be substantiated by the company to the satisfaction of the Assessing Officer, based on the value, on the date of issue of shares, of its assets, including intangible assets being goodwill, know-how, patents, copyrights, trademarks, licences, franchises or any other business or commercial rights of similar nature,

whichever is higher;

This section, in particular, has been a bane to small businesses, startups, and investors as it seeks to tax any amounts invested by a resident individual into a privately held company. In the sections below, we will explore the problems with the sections that govern the Angel Tax issue as well as the remedies that have been actioned by the government.

With a few more recommended clarifications and modifications, the entire issue can be resolved to incentivise the ecosystem and reward good behaviour.

Analysis of Section 56(2)(viib)

The reason why 56(2)(viib) evokes such fear in the hearts of startups and investors is that it bestows significant discretionary powers in the hands of the Assessing Officer (AO), goes against the principles of the DCF method, and until recently, discriminated against individuals on the basis of residency.

There are four major issues with this section which causes significant problems to Indian startups.

1. Lack of Enforcement of the Law:

  • 56(2)(viib) clearly states that the FMV shall be the higher of:
    — Value as per NAV or DCF (Rule 11UA(2))
    OR
    — Value to the satisfaction of the AO based on the value of the company as of the date of issue of shares
  • From a plain reading of the section, it can evident that even if the AO is unsatisfied about the value of the Company or believes the value to be lower, the disjunctive OR allows for the higher value to be the Fair Market Value (FMV).

Ideally, the Assessing Officer should not have the discretionary power to disregard a valuation acceptable to the entrepreneurs and a group of sophisticated investors and arrived at by a professional in the form of a qualified Chartered Accountant or a Category I Merchant Banker. Many startups have faced a challenge whereby the AO takes the lower value as the FMV and taxes the entire premium as income in the hands of the companies. This results in the law not being fully enforced, leading to consistent bias against the companies.

2. Discretionary powers of the IT Officer:

  • The valuation arrived at by the Company is on the basis of a Valuation Report given by a qualified Chartered Accountant or Category I Merchant Banker, is based on the inputs of the management and is acceptable to sophisticated investors. However, it has the additional criterion of being to the satisfaction of the Assessing Officer. This subjective interpretation often goes against the objective valuation methodologies specified in the Income Tax Act.
  • For tech entrepreneurs or ventures with long gestation cycles, this hampers the flow of invaluable capital needed to scale their businesses and causes a lot of them to flee to other countries like Singapore or the United States of America to escape this requirement to satisfy the AO.
  • This imputes significant discretionary powers in the hands of the IT Officers and exposes startups to the tender mercies of the taxman. It also takes away from the very basic tenets of finance, as shown below.

3. Projections vs Perfection

  • The principle of a DCF valuation is to encapsulate the present value of possible future cash flows. These are based on a Business Plan prepared by the entrepreneur to the best of their abilities and subject to various risk factors, market conditions, etc.
  • To penalise an entrepreneur for failing to exactly reach their projections by comparing it to their financials on a later date vitiates against the very premise of DCF and robs of the uncertainty inherent in it.
  • The market penalises failure by making future funding harder to come by, an erosion of brand value, of morale, etc. — but adding the risk of a massive tax liability for assuming that the future is certain will cripple the entrepreneurial mindset of venturing forth in spite of deviations from ideal plans.
  • The law states that the FMV is based on the valuation methodology adopted as of today, but takes into consideration what the future may hold. However, 56(2)(viib)(ii) flips this on its very head, as shown below.

4. Present Tense, Future Uncertain

  • 56(2)(viib)(ii) states that the Company needs to satisfy the Assessing Officer based on the value of the Company as of the date of the fundraise, whereas the valuation methodologies (56(2)(viib)(i), which leads to Rule 11UAA), allow for you to discount future cash flows as of today.
  • These contradict each other as the value as of today will always be less than the value in the future.
  • This allows for the complete disregard of the DCF methodology by the AO, leading to taxation on the basis of the present Net Asset Value instead of the probable future value.

The Added Dread of Section 68

In addition to the challenges with 56(2)(viib), Section 68 of the Income Tax Act, 1961 adds another dimension to these issues. Section 68 states that any sum credited to the books of accounts of an assessee can be charged to tax if:

  • The assessee is unable to explain the source of the credit;

OR

  • The explanation is not to the satisfaction of the Assessing Officer

Several startups, who have faced off with the sword of section 56(2)(viib), also have to contend with section 68, which again allows for significant discretionary powers in the hands of the Assessing Officer compounded by the discretionary powers already afforded by section 56(2)(viib).

This tag-team reminds one of the chants that haunted the English cricket team during the 1974–75 Ashes tour of Australia-

Ashes to Ashes, dust to dust,
if Thomson don’t get ya, Lillee must.

Given a choice, several entrepreneurs would rather brave the danger of the speedsters than the discretion of the taxman.

Remedies Already Enforced

The government has taken several proactive steps to protect and nurture the startup ecosystem in India. But this Sword of Damocles still dangles over the head of every entrepreneur. Until it is sheathed for good, there will always be fear about these issues.

On June 14th, 2016, the CBDT released a notification stating that for any company registered as a “Startup” and recognised by the Department of Industrial Policy & Planning (DIPP), any amount raised from an Indian tax resident will be outside the scope of section 56(2)(viib). The total list of exemptions to this section are:

  • Any funds received from a Venture Capital Fund or Venture Capital Company
  • Any class of people as notified by the Central Government, such as:
    — Non-residents
    — From June 14th, 2016 — for a company registered as a “startup” under the Startup India Scheme — any resident

While this goes a long way in helping future companies, those who raised money in assessment years 2015–16 and prior are still exposed to this section even if they are startups.

Recommendations

With a few more additions and clarifications to these sections, the last vestiges of doubt can be quickly addressed to help the startup ecosystem proceed forward with clarity and confidence.

  • If a company has a valid valuation report in accordance with the law, the tax authorities should not be able to question if the valuation is justified based on prospective information
  • If any entity qualified to be a startup from June 14th, 2016 onwards, 56(2)(viib) should not apply for any funds raised at a premium from the date of their incorporation
  • The exemption under 56(2)(viib) offered to a startup shouldn’t be denied on the technical failure of not applying to become a startup if they qualified to become recognised
  • The PAN details of the Investors should be sufficient explanation of the nature of the cash credit for Section 68 and for the Assessing Officer to decide, based on the investors past tax filings, if the source of income can be substantiated or not

Conclusion

Out of the USD 10 Billion of investment into the Indian startup ecosystem last year, only 10% of it came from domestic investors. If the inspirational Make in India and Startup India visions of the government are to be achieved and the true value of the ecosystem is to be unlocked, the government must focus on encouraging domestic investment instead of penalising it. Domestic investors shouldn’t be discriminated against and treated sub-par to foreign investors in terms of the legitimacy of their money, which is the current status quo under 56(2)(viib).

After all, a tax is not the best form of defence.

This post has been co-authored by Siddarth Pai and Pranav Pai of 3one4 Capital

India in a Digital World

Quick Update: We have submitted our response on 30 January 2018. You can find it on this link

It is widely known that the amount of data generated daily worldwide is rising at an incredibly exponential rate. Yet, what remains shrouded is how this data, particularly those data types concerning or generated by us, as individuals, are being used and stored by both the public and private sector. As we move into a data-driven world, it is crucial that the laws developed around Data center on the premise of both empowering and protecting the individual. In fact, the main purpose of the 4th layer of India Stack, the “consent layer”, is just this: to provide for a set of tools and utilities, as part of the Data Empowerment and Protection Architecture (DEPA), that  empower citizens to assert control over their data.

The Justice Srikrishna led committee of experts has released a White Paper articulating their provisional thoughts on the Data Protection Framework, and are seeking public comments on the subject. iSPIRT will be submitting a formal response to the White Paper. This blog post lays out our current views regarding Data Protection and we seek suggestions and comments from the larger iSPIRT community as we finalize these into iSPIRT views.

We want the community members who are keen to contribute on the topic. If you have any feedback or you’re interested in contributing to the response, please reach out to us at [email protected]

 Restoring balance between the individual and data controller

From social media platforms to online loan applications, to ride-sharing apps, many of the services we access regularly require mandatory data collection from the individual to the data controller, either on a one-time but often on a recurring basis. Data collected by data controllers often gets used in ways far outside the stated purpose. This in turn automatically places the individual at a data-disadvantage, so to speak. We believe that this current industry practice is an anomaly and data collected must be used only for the purpose it was collected for and nothing else. The law should work towards enforcing this principle and aim to restore balance across all elements of the privacy construct i.e consent, notice, choice, etc.

In addition, the use cases for data are also rapidly evolving. Without empowering the individual, in addition to restoring the balance, a data protection law cannot be considered complete; bringing us to the second core principle.

Data should be used to empower and not for harm

Indians will be data rich before they are economically rich. They must be empowered to use their data for their own benefit. For example, I must have access to a secure mechanism to share my financial information with a personal finance application such that I may easily track my spending and get intelligent recommendations on where to invest.

Progress in the area of data sharing is evident as in February 2017, the Digital Locker Framework was proposed as a national standard for aggregation. Along with it, an Electronic Consent Framework for enabling consent for sharing of data has also been released.

Yet, what about the vast amounts of personal data that have already been collected under various legal frameworks? Under new norms, individuals can be empowered by being given an option to “opt-out.” Where this is not feasible, the law should favour the rights of the individual, placing the higher onus on the data collector.

Individuals have Rights over their Data

When consent models were first implemented in the 1980s, data was largely static in nature. The opposite is true today with data being tracked, processed, and correlated in a multitude of forms, from the trends of our online shopping choices to the timing of our financial transactions. This transformation calls for a move away from the antiquated “consent-based model” to a “rights-based model” for data protection. The proposed rights model can be guided by three principles: accountability, autonomy, and security. Together these principles will ensure that individuals are provided a right to fair treatment, right to information, right against processing, and right to the security of his/her data. For additional information on the rights-based model, the Takshashila Institution has released a Discussion Document on this very paradigm.

The White Paper stays away from the word ‘ownership’ completely and instead opts to create rights which are always with the individual. The individual has a right to each piece of data that relates to her, and she can exercise this right to accomplish everything all that she needs.  The data controller does not have any rights to this data other than those granted by the individual.  We (iSPIRT) need to come to a conclusion as to whether this language is sufficient from our perspective.

Data controllers must be accountable

Data controllers are typically organisations (including non-profits, governments) and hence much more powerful than individuals. While consent is important from an empowerment standpoint, we are also aware of the practical shortcomings of this approach. Many users do not or can not know enough to make a truly ‘informed’ choice.  The data controller, on the other hand, has been entrusted this data by the user for a specific purpose – it is a very conscious act, and they must be held responsible for how this data is used.  This is a fiduciary responsibility, and the controller must keep the data secure, ensuring that the user does not come to any harm from their possession or handling of the data.

This accountability needs to be enabled and enforced by multi-dimensional checks & balances through an independent Data Protection Authority and appropriate adjudication process that will process dispute resolution when situations involving privacy harms have occurred.

Times of disruptive change require agile regulators

Successful businesses today must have the ability to evolve rapidly. Operating in this environment will require regulators to be agile and provide timely intervention. The law must also recognise that these changes are accelerating and that it will be impossible, at this time, to cover everything. Thus the law should empower regulators by providing a framework with a set of principles which are timeless, along with a mechanism that can change with the times and a context to provide suitable intervention.

Leveraging technology for enforcement

Data is no longer the imperative of a few industries, but fast becoming a utility across industries. Therefore, unlike other regulators for Savings, Lending, Banking or Telecom, the Data regulator will have to deal with at least 10,000x the number of entities.  Every company deals with the data of its employees, shareholders, customers, vendors, etc., which may fall under the supervision of this regulator.  In such an operating environment, it makes it imperative for the enforcement of the law on data to leverage modern technology tools to drive compliance, investigation, etc.

For example, the authority could create a technological framework for enforcement (such as data audits, logging, etc.) to minimise the effort required and only needs to regulate the exceptions or data breach notification could have the objective of helping mitigate the consequences of a breach and to serve as notice for an incident.

Balancing India’s needs for privacy, transparency, and development

Balance is a universal aspiration in all aspects of life and an essential requirement for smooth, sustained and predictable growth. If the balance between privacy and development is not maintained, we may end up with a scenario where an individual may not be able to use their personal data, sitting with one data controller (say tax authority) for a beneficial service from another authority (eg new loan). Similarly, the balance between privacy and transparency is also essential, especially for scenarios involving the utilisation of public resources i.e. a PDS shop refuses to provide details of beneficiary it services under the garb of privacy and is thus able to misuse the system to create ghost beneficiaries.

The law should encourage concepts such as anonymised open datasets and democratised access to other datasets that serve the public interest, paving the way for data to become a public good. The UK’s Biobank & RBI’s effort to create a Public Credit Registry are good examples of data becoming a public good.

There is also a need for balance in the efforts and action of the state and private organisation on surveillance and related activities. With newer technologies making access to data easier and cheaper, it becomes even more important to tread the path of balance more carefully. History has proven, time and again, how surveillance will be misused for personal benefit. Therefore, the law should explicitly call out principles to prevent misuse of surveillance.

In addition, the new law must harmonise various existing laws, particularly, the Information Technology Act, 2000, Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Act, 2016, and Right to Information Act, 2005, which directly or indirectly touch upon the issue of data protection.

Overall, the law should strive to create a balance between protecting personal privacy, providing transparency and accountability for institutions (including government), and ensuring development, growth, and empowerment for the individual and other market participants.

Innovations: Trust Score & Consent Dashboard

It is refreshing to see the White Paper bring out new concepts for consideration like the Trust Score and Consent Dashboard.

The innovation of a Trust Score could also provide a means to empower users by assigning every data controller a score based on the robustness of their data protection and data use practices. At a minimum, this would create a red-flag in the mind of the user, versus the black-box that users currently manage, prior to sharing personal information.

Having said that, the actual design of the Trust Score will be critical. It is easy to understand that the score will punish past incidents of data misuse, but we must also decide what behaviour to reward. Should the score be decided by a centralized authority or through decentralized feedback from end-users, audit agencies, etc.? iSPIRT welcomes views on designing such a Trust Score.

A Consent Dashboard could help individuals easily view to which organisations they have provided consent to process their personal information and how that information has been used.

The Consent Collector entity, part of MeitY’s Electronic Consent Framework, may be extended to perform the function of a Consent Dashboard. Through the consent dashboard, businesses may capture and log user consent, provide users with the ability to see what data has been collected, give users the ability to revoke their consent and erase their data, be able to notify users in a timely manner in the event of a data breach, and most importantly give users the ability to easily port their data to another data controller.

The Consent Dashboard could be designed in a manner such that it only generates and tracks an individual’s consent for collection and sharing of data. However, the data could be directly sent from the Data Provider to the Data Controller (and Data Processor) without passing through the Consent Dashboard. In this way, the Consent Dashboard could just be a registered entity, not a regulated entity, and be maintained by a third party instead of the government.

Next Steps

We request your thought/comments on the principles above, and in helping to add/subtract to the list. The final principles will guide and inform iSPIRT’s response to the Sri Krishna Committee White Paper. If you wish to engage more deeply on this topic of Data Empowerment & Protection and help us frame the response, please let us know by reaching out at [email protected]. The feedback submission on the White Paper is Jan. 31st 2018, thus we request all responses by Jan. 20th 2018 to receive consideration.

Update : We have submitted our response. You can find it on this link.


This post has been co-authored by Shrikant Karwa and Sarika Mendu.

Presenting the iSPIRT Volunteer Handbook

New Year Greetings from Product Nation

We are happy to present the iSPIRT Volunteer Handbook.

The volunteer model that underpins iSPIRT has been around since 2009. Every three years we write about our volunteer model so that others can learn from it and build their own volunteer networks.

There are many kinds of volunteer networks. iSPIRT is a volunteer network that builds public goods. Therefore we take inspiration from Linux, Wikipedia, and others. Over the years we have found that no two volunteer networks are alike. Each has its own personality, its own way of resolving disputes and driving excellence. In fact, we find that heterogeneity across volunteer networks is increasing. At the same time, they are becoming more homogenous on the inside. Keep this in mind when you look to replicate some of the practices and values of iSPIRT in your own volunteer network.

In contrast to our 2014 update, this time our self-reflection about the volunteer model is in the form of a Volunteer Handbook. By explaining the inner workings of iSPIRT more clearly, we hope to make our current and future volunteers more effective. We are always looking for high-quality volunteers. In case you’re interested in volunteering, please reach out to one of the existing volunteers or write to us at [email protected].

The handbook can be accessed below

Guiding the customer journey from Discovery → Signup → Onboarding for SaaS Startups

Are you ready for the product teardown roundtable in your city

As Diwali marks a Joyous celebration and heralds a Prosperous New Year for all, we kick off a series of Product Teardown Roundtables to help our SaaS startups prepare for a successful year ahead. This series of PlaybookRT will focus on Guiding the customer journey from Discovery to Signup & Onboarding.  The teardowns are being planned across our startup cities in quick succession (see tentative schedule below). We kickoff with a teardown RT in Chennai which will be facilitated by Suresh Sambandan (KiSSFLOW)Bharat Balasubramanian (FreshWorks).

Apply to get your slot here. (Limited seats).

Why are product teardowns important? For Explosive Growth!

Explosive growth is a common pain point for founders across startup stages, be it an early stage startup or a late stage startup. One key attribute to explosive growth is to make your customers market for you. Quoting from the article Six attributes of Explosive Growth Startups,

Nothing parallels word-of-mouth marketing

Why? Because the customers do this work for the startup. If this is to happen for your product it is important for your customers to have a clear-cut understanding of your product proposition, discovering it’s ROI and a WOW no-brainer experience of signing up and using it.

Our product teardown session is focused on exactly this evaluation for your product. Using our community of peers and leading practitioners, you would go through an intense journey and visualize how your potential customer discovers, understands, signs up and connects the product proposition and ROI to their needs. If you do a damn good job about this, you gain a big advantage because you don’t have to work so hard for marketing leads, getting you further on the path to explosive growth.

The teardown model

In this playbook series, we look at how to get your messaging right, and building a website and signup/on-boarding flow that converts with very little human intervention. This roundtable would begin with a deep dive into the company’s Idea, Discovery Process and navigate through the Landing Page, Sign Up, and its “Wow” experience. The format of the playbook is built around quick 10 minute demos, followed by peer-feedback moderated by SAAS founders & experts who have already built successful SAAS businesses.

Past teardowns

You can read some of the previous teardown experiences from the founders who participated.

Registration and Pricing

If you are keen to attend this RoundTable, do let us know by filling in your details here. We will confirm your seat subject to availability. All RoundTables are conducted pro-bono. The only payment you have to make is to provide your undivided attention and active involvement in the process. Playbook-RoundTables are a dialogue and there’s no monologue. None!

Teardown Roundtable Schedule (tentative)

City Date Time Register
Teardown RT in Chennai 4-Nov-2017 (Sat)  11am – 4pm Register
Teardown RT in Bangalore 11-Nov-2017 (Sat)  11am – 4pm Register
Teardown RT in Delhi 18-Nov-2017 (Sat)  TBD Register
Teardown RT in Hyderabad 25-Nov-2017 (Sat)  TBD Register
Teardown RT in Pune TBD (Dec) Register
(if interested please apply)
Teardown RT in Mumbai TBD (Dec) Register
(if interested please apply)


Notes

These are founder invite only events. Date, Time & Venue details will be sent along with the confirmation.
Since there are limited seats, we would request you to kindly apply at the earliest.

Playbook-RoundTable is one of the most sought after community events of iSPIRT. It’s a gathering of 12 like-minded product startups who are beyond the early stage. RoundTables are facilitated by an iSPIRT maven who is an accomplished practitioner of that Round-Table theme.

iSPIRT needs you!

iSPIRT works to transform India into a hub for new generation software products, by addressing crucial government policy, creating market catalysts, building societal platforms, and assisting product entrepreneurs evolve into the next role. It’s a think-tank with an emphasis on following up our ideas with great execution. This is where you come in.

Over the past 2 years, we’ve developed the Data Empowerment and Protection Architecture (DEPA) as the final layer of the India Stack. The DEPA empowers users with freedom and choice to actualize their data in a way that benefits them.

This includes a new technology for managing user consent and for authorizing data flows, as well as a new federated architecture for efficiently sharing user data from multiple data sources to multiple destinations (referred to as the digital locker framework). Banks and other big institutions are now beginning to deploy DEPA tools to enable consented data sharing by users. You can deep dive into DEPA here 

 

Volunteer Challenge

In alignment with RBI’s NBFC-AA Directive, we wish to develop a reference data architecture for Banks and NBFCs based on DEPA so that they can introduce new products and services to accelerate Financial Inclusion in India.

You will help develop, design and evangelize this new architecture with anyone and everyone in the market. If the job description seems vague, it is because this is uncharted territory and largely, you will decide where the work takes you. What we promise you is a world-class support system and a platform to actualize those ideas.

iSPIRT also has room for a lot of other volunteers with a variety of skillsets. Even if your expertise is not technology, but want to contribute to the mission with your unique skills, do fill the form below.

Why Volunteer

Our volunteers pay-forward for a variety of reasons.  Some do it for iSPIRT’s mission and cause. Others, find self-actualization in building public goods. Yet others do it to be in the company of world-class techies and entrepreneurs. You can learn more about iSPIRT from its Intro Presentation and its 2017 Annual Letter.

We’d be happy to discuss what is in your future, and how volunteering with iSPIRT can get you closer to that goal. Though, we have found that many of our volunteers have gone on to unexpected pathways, as they kept an open mind through the journey.

Location

Preferably, Bangalore

How To Apply

Interested? Please fill out this simple Google form and we shall get back to you: 

Product Market Fit!

The Product Market Fit or PMF in short is one of the first holy grails that every entrepreneur strives to achieve. The second Holy Grail is also another “P” – Profits, which I will deal with in a blog post later.

I will share my learnings of what constitutes a Product Market Fit for an Enterprise Healthcare product, based on my journey of building HealthMacro’s DiagSmart product that is focused towards Diagnostics Labs and Radiology Centers.

I have travelled across 5-6 states spanning several cities, meeting hundreds of Diagnostic & Radiology Lab owners to come to this understanding.

An ideal product-market fit has the following characteristics:

Timeline : Usually for an enterprise product, it does take time (somewhere from 1.5 yrs to 2 years) to achieve a market fit after the product launch. Once one has achieved this, it means the following.

  1. Strong understanding of customer needs, budget and value chain : Once you meet a customer, you know where he/she fits in the Price Chain. You have deep knowledge of his customers, his competition, his pain areas, his revenues, and his annual budget.
  2. Acceptable across multiple segments : Usually we build the first product with more features, and then realize customers do not want all or are not willing to pay for all features. So you segment it. Segment it based on # of users or # of features to make it affordable for a wide market. We segmented it as DiagSmart Mini (lower end) to Basic (Value Product) with Enterprise and DiagSmart Premium models for top end customers. Each model has differentiating values based on the price customer is willing to pay.
  3. Strong understanding of your competitors’ strength and weakness: Deep knowledge of your competitor’s strength and weakness, w.r.t Features and pricing is key. You need to respect your competitor as you still discuss with customer why they will benefit from your offering. In one instance, we had to segment the Product as a DiagSmart Mini to fend off competition with a lower price range model.
  4. Acceptable across regions: In a country like ours, where there are no healthcare standards, in every region there will be local players who will have dominated the market with their product. Selling in newer regions and winning there is one important trait. For our lab product, adherence to existing NABL lab format reports was the key to driving acceptance.
  5. Clear Value Proposition: Your demo should do the work of showing how financially beneficial the product is to the prospect. You do not explain much. User experience is key here. Ensuring a flawless demo, where various customer stakeholders (owner, lab staff, Finance, Front desk…) finds their needs met is key in the demo meeting.

Your rate chart should explain the cost in a simple manner and the customer chooses what he needs based on his budget.

Other Guidelines to ensure Successful Product Market Fit :

Single Code Base : Once you allow a customization for a particular customer, it no longer remains a product. It becomes a project.  You end up with multiple versions, resulting in larger teams to maintain it.

Hence, a single code base is critical. There should be options turn on/off certain features/customizations, based on customer budget/needs.

You take inputs from the customer to the product, and based on the value to the product, you decide to add it to road map or not.   All customers have one code base.

Customer Care : You have a efficient Customer Care or Post-Sales Support team to take care of all their needs, with a clearly tracked process. Customers know how to reach you and what to expect as turnaround time.

You should be able to support new cities/regions without having a local office/support center.

Strong Engagement : Customers get monthly newsletters informing them of the progress of the product and the company. They respond with their feedback, inputs.

Strong Testimonials and Referrals : You should start getting strong testimonials from customers explaining how your product or Service has helped them. They do not hesitate to recommend you.

Water tight agreement with customers : You have strong water tight agreements with customers protecting your business. There are clear descriptions of services, costs and timelines, termination clauses leaving nothing open ended.

Clear mapping of the entire Business Process : All processes Pre-Sales, Sales, Sales to Engineering handoff, Customer On-boarding process, Customer Care process are clearly defined. All process are documented, clear training plans when you hire new folks. All members follow same process.

In summary, you lead the customer/prospect overall in all aspects of business. You are not dependent on few customers for their inputs/business. Customers respect you and trust you.

That’s when you have achieved “The Product Market Fit…”

Article by – Shashi Bhushan, HealthMacro