Microsoft Accelerator Research on Starts and Closures in Indian tech startups

We are planning to release research findings every month week as part of our startup support program at the Microsoft Accelerator in India. There are about 50 different topics that we are curious about and are consistently doing research to find out ways to help our accelerator companies perform market research, target early adopters and focus on getting more customer traction.

This series is part of our accelerator database on engagement with startups, investors, mentors & entrepreneurship. Last week we did a report on Smartphone usage in India.

This week our focus is on the rate of companies starting and closing in the technology product space. Over the last few years Microsoft has been tracking new companies as part of its Bizspark program. Besides this we have access to several databases from multiple sources which has allowed us to consolidate all these into a single system to track startup activity. While we currently track over 73 different elements including founders, starts, closures, funding, etc. our focus is on trying to find patterns that can give us more clues to remove the roadblocks that reduce entrepreneurial failure early in the system.

We track over 6200+ entities – which includes services companies with a “product” they are building and also many viable side-projects, where the founder is generating some traction or revenue and 3900+ companies that are solely focused on building products (includes SaaS, eCommerce, traditional software, consumer Internet, etc.) in India.

On average there are about 450+ starts annually over the last 3 years, which has grown dramatically thanks to eCommerce.

While Bangalore has the most number of technology product startups overall, at neary 40%, Delhi/NCR came a close second in 2011, only to return to normalcy in 2012.

In terms of closure, 26% of companies still close within a year of them starting (either the founders giving up and moving on, or the company going dormant).

The biggest issue for closure (given that nearly 80%+ of all companies are bootstrapped) is collecting money from customers who have committed to paying for their usage of the product.

While not being able to raise funds is really #1, that seems to be a generic reason enough and a motherhood-and-apple-pie situation.

Unlike the valley (anecdotal information alone) most failed entrepreneurs dont go on to start another company or join a startup, but instead go to work at a much larger company (over 60%). Most reasons given were because of loans to payoff or pressure from parents (surprisingly not from any others).

Our recommendations are for new entrepreneurs to have a “cushion” of nearly 18 months in funds in their personal capacity before they delve into a new venture as opposed to 6 months.

We also recommend asking new customers for an advance in payment as part of the Proof of Concept instead of payment after the fact to aid in managing cash-flow more effectively.

ProductNation and SandHill team up to bring industry best practices to the Software Product Industry

ProductNation, a portal dedicated to the cause of the Indian software product industry and Sandhill, a portal that offers business strategy for the software, cloud and mobile ecosystem have tied-up to share industry best practices with companies that are emerging and growing in India. This is an important development in the Indian software product landscape as it brings to the table pragmatic views from Silicon Valley and from India, which has grown to be recognized globally for its software prowess.

ProductNation was launched earlier this year in India to be the one stop resource for companies who need solutions and advice even as they conceptualize, incubate and grow their businesses. The portal is run by industry veterans who act as catalysts to bring in content from around the world and real life examples of companies who are in the software product space. The portal is run in a democratic fashion and anyone who has material to contribute from various domains is encouraged to participate.

Sandhill is run by industry leader M.R. Rangaswami from Silicon Valley, the hotbed of the software industry. Over the years, Sandhill has grown with the software industry and today is an important destination for the newer technologies and developments that must be understood by entrepreneurs who run or are contemplating to run their own enterprises.

Given that more than 400 companies start their businesses each year in India in the software product industry, it is important that an ecosystem support this endeavour to ensure that companies make a success of themselves and provide value to their customers. Today, it is estimated by Zinnov that there are more than 3,400 software product companies in the country alone with 51% located in Bangalore and the National Capital Region (NCR) around Delhi.

ProductNation encourages entrepreneurs, venture capitals, angel investors, advisors and the ecosystem in general to contribute their thoughts for the benefit of this nascent industry which has the potential to accelerate even further in the coming years.


Will your Differentiation pass the D-Cubers Test?

In my previous blogs, I wrote about how differentiation is a must and even wrote about how Bob Wright and Raj Shetty spoke about the differentiation @ NPC-12.

Ok now comes the most critical issue of “yeah I understand differentiation but how do I do a valid differentiation rather than doing for the sake of doing”.  Let me give me an example to showcase the issue. I want to start a tooth paste company and I want to differentiate as the market today is very saturated. What is the differentiation or what the traditional marketing calls as the USP going to be? It cleans your teeth of course, real white, mouth freshening too and removes plaque, cavity etc. and all are taken over already (by your competitors). How about we provide a way to give you a feeling of chewing a bubble gum along with cleaning your teeth!! That’s a nice differentiation but the question is who wants it. Can’t they just chew a bubble gum to get that feeling? Are people asking for it? Or when you provide will they like it or prefer it?

So here comes the real problem of finding the right differentiation and this is what I suggest the RD2 (RDSquare) Test as a way of validating the same (Refer to Killer Differentiators by Jacky Tai and Wilson Chew)

R – Relevance

D – Desirable

D – Defensible

The most important thing is, will your differentiator be relevant (R) to your customers (or a segment of customers). One needs to answer this before appreciating the value of being different. The bubble-gum effect might not be so relevant but assume you come up with Sugar Free tooth paste and it is relevant to your customer segment which is the diabetic crowd and also those who are health watchers.

Once we know there is good relevance to your chosen customer segment that you are attacking, time to see how desirable (D) the difference is. Difference is great, relevant but should be desirable too (else they may not buy your product for that differentiation). Going back to the same sugar free tooth paste, I say that it is desirable because it will help control sugar level in the diabetic patient and by not using they are not only risking their health but also the cost of the treatment. Yes it is very desirable. On the other hand look at this difference which is relevant but may not be desirable. Let’s pick the same toothpaste example where in it makes bubbles like ghost or evil characters – good differentiation and relevant too (for kids) but not desirable as no parent (or say most) will buy that (not Disney characters, as that will be a different story 🙂 ).

Then comes the toughest one in my books, how defensible (D) is your differentiator. The market today is so hyper competitive that you find an attribute to differentiate and your competitors find it very relevant and desirable for their customer segment, they will copy the same in no time. Bigger organizations have much bigger marketing muscle and budget, and they will get to all of the market much faster than you think you can. Today in this hyper-connected and in the hyper-competition world, your competitors are watching you like hawks very closely than you think. Yes there will be an advantage of early mover but again depends on much marketing muscle you have to inform the market that you are the early mover. Also early mover advantage does not last long. Hence it comes back to the same question on how defensible is your differentiator is. Google’s page ranking or the original formula of Coke or may be the market share or the distribution arm of HUL has in India etc. that you have but others don’t have and cannot be easily copied – can be a measure of how defensible is your differentiation is. Coming back to our toothpaste example, assume for a minute that the formula that makes tooth paste sugar free is patented or something only you know and others cannot replicate easily, becomes very defensible now.

Along with this RDSquare test, I also like to introduce another measuring attribute called the “Size of the market” (S) and I feel is also really critical. Assume you have a great differentiation, very relevant to your segment of customers and also very desirable but the size of the segmented market you have chosen is very small. The whole idea of entering the market with this product becomes unviable and not worth investing or creating a product for that market. Let’s consider the same example of sugar free tooth paste and in a country where there is less than 1% population of diabetics. The whole idea of selling that product becomes unviable as the market is very small and will never be profitable or scalable either.

Together I call this the D3RS test or better “d-cubers test” of differentiation. Also I wish there was a way we can measure (say on a scale of 1 to 10) all these attributes D,D,D,R & S and a cumulative measure which says how strong the differentiation is.

So I guess make a list of all attributes of your product differentiation and see which one can pass the d-cubers test 🙂

Conversation with HR Solution Provider, Saigun Technologies

Editor’s note: EmpXtrack is comprehensive, global HR solution and the product of Saigun Technologies, a startup launched in 2002. We interviewed Tushar Bhatia, Saigun’s founder and president, about the modern elements of an HR solution as well as the challenges for startups in identifying the right target market and funding product development. This article is brought to SandHill readers in partnership with ProductNation. Please describe your product’s differentiation among the other HR solutions available and how it addresses today’s business problems.

Tushar Bhatia: Our EmpXtrack Platform is an integrated HR automation solution that covers the entire HR lifecycle and is perhaps the most comprehensive HR automation product in the market.  It is very modular in nature. EmpXtrack contains 18 modules in four different categories (performance management, human capital management, strategic HR and recruitment).

Besides completely automating HR processes and mundane transactions, EmpXtrack provides: data analytics for quick decision making. Another critical differentiator for our product is that it is compliant to the local regulations in all the geographies we operate in. The solution is also designed to ensure complete accuracy in HR transactions.

Our aim is to enable our customers to innovatively meet their talent management needs and hence we continuously build innovative components in our offerings. What is the story behind your company name and how the company originated?

TusharBhatia-smallTushar Bhatia: The name Saigun is a combination of the names of my daughter and my wife. I worked for several companies in the United States but always had the urge within myself to start my own business. So in the early 2000s I returned to India and started Saigun. Initially, the focus was on offering services, but gradually we started looking for a scalable business model. In 2004-2005 we started focusing on products and, with my prior experience in HR automation, this area was the obvious choice. Is your product for small and midsize businesses (SMBs) or for large enterprises? 

Tushar Bhatia: Saigun and our product have been evolving very strongly over the years. Initially the company’s focus was only on SMBs, but now we also service larger organizations as well. The product is available in a SaaS (software as a service) model, which works well for SMBs. For enterprise customers and government agencies, we also offer the solution behind firewalls in a perpetual license model.

One of my favorite books is Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid, by C.K. Prahalad. The book says that there are significant opportunities available in targeting smaller companies. Most companies focus on larger customers. However, my focus is on smaller companies as well, giving them a world-class product at a reasonable price and being profitable as well.

Read the complete post at

Think Big! Build a Creative Culture or Transform Into It!

I started writing about Thinking Big and it is turning out to be a serial topic! As Indians, technical stuff comes naturally, business thinking comes naturally, but creativity is a touch-feely subject that many of us are not that comfortable with! We usually give it lip service and move on to more important stuff like coding or making sales calls!

You ask most Software Product Entrepreneurs about their products, and the third sentence will descend into technical details, programming languages and feature sets.

But that’s exactly the opposite of what we need to be thinking about if we want to build globally competitive, big, huge companies right there in India.

The usual disclaimers first – If you are already running a profitable software product company that serves the Indian market, good for you! If you are already running a successful software product company that does not innovate but magically keeps finding customers, revenues and profits, this article is not for you! If you think that Indian Software Product companies need to think small and be happy serving some section of the market, Indian or globally, this article may not be for you.

This article is for companies and entrepreneurs that are wondering how to build a creative culture like that of facebook, google, twitter or Pinterest and scale globally, right there in India.

That starts with the complete buy-in of the founders of a creative culture in the company and they  will be successful in as far as they act and do in keeping with that culture. Not all companies are on the same level with respect to this culture but to smaller or greater extents that is something they all must have and do have in common to succeed.

Being creative does not mean thinking up whole new products overnight, but providing and encouraging creativity in whatever function someone performs in your organization. It can be as simple telling your junior-most engineer, “here’s a problem that I want you to solve. I don’t care how you solve it. But come up with something new”, rather than telling them how to solve it, which programming language and tools to use. If they struggle, you can always jump in and guide them but the key question is “Do you give them the chance to attempt something on their own first?” And do you do this every day?

Do not underestimate the influence of Indian Culture in preventing the creative culture from forming in your company. We act in many subtle, unconscious, hierarchical ways in our companies that can snuff the creative instincts in a jiffy. The first time you quickly overrule something creative your engineer has proposed, is the time when the whole thing is dead. People revert back to a subservient mode and wait for instructions, having learned a painful lesson! Others watch this and have learned the same lesson too.

Building a creative culture is hard. Transforming into one is even harder!

It starts with hiring – are you hiring creative people? How would you know? Classic resumes and classic interviewing techniques systematically eliminate the hiring of creative people! When Microsoft or Google or facebook have “strange” interviewing techniques that pose problems that do not have a single solution or involve coming up with creative solutions, they are looking for those people who can think differently and creatively!

I am not suggesting that you forego looking for basic competencies, qualifications and experience. But what are you doing beyond that? If you have one position and you have 25 very qualified, technically vetted people, nothing prevents an Indian start-up from following the same interviewing and testing strategies that some of these companies follow to unearth the creative five among those 25! And hire across India if you could.

Diversity is the essence of creativity. People with different life experiences approach problems differently and you will be all the richer for it since creative juices start flowing when you have people in the same room approaching problems differently!

Once you have hired the creative people, building a creative culture starts at the top and has to be reflected in everything you say and do. Otherwise people get the wrong signals and clam up quickly. How many times have you NOT decided on something technical for your entire engineering team but instead called for a Brainstorming Session? How are you sure that the solution you have thought of is the better one than something any of your engineering team members may come up with on their own? It is worth going through the whole exercise anyway, even if your idea prevails in the end in the interest of your company. But you have sent a subtle message that ideas are welcome, will be considered and evaluated fairly!

In a start-up company it is very hard to do these things with all the time pressures but is certainly worth those extra hours since it will pay off for you in unexpected ways down the road. In a start-up, just remember that you are really grooming a set of leaders that are trained in this creative culture and when they lead groups of people, hopefully they would follow the same lead.

Flex time, brainstorming sessions, ping pong in the cafeteria, team building sessions with humour thrown in for good measure, are all small building blocks that build a creative culture. But they are only the icing on the cake. The cake is you and the management team’s thinking and acting around the company. Does it say – we value creativity and your ideas are welcome?

Transforming an existing culture is even more painful than building one, but it can be done. Unfortunately, not every employee is suitable for that kind of transformation. You will have to do some weeding first. You may have to get rid of people and leaders that don’t buy into this kind of approach and replace them with those that do. Then all the approaches that are recommended for a start-up apply to a mature company also.

To those who say it cannot be done in India and these are high-falutin ideas from out-of-touch expats, I could not carry more disappointing news! I have personally done it in our start-up company in Chennai. We hired people from the North and threw them in with others from the South. Creative cultures are about TRUST and there is nothing more appealing and motivating to a technically qualified, creative fresher than to be trusted with some big task! Not only did we find creative solutions even though our experienced leaders or me could have suggested the way on day 1, you would be surprised how quickly these people trained themselves on the basics, and solved problems. And in unexpected creative ways!

So before you expect BIG things out of your company, ask yourselves the question – Have I built a creative culture? Have I transformed my existing culture into a creative one or at least on the way there?

Creative cultures ask constantly the question “What If we do or have….” and out of that comes big products and big companies. It’s not just a nice-to-have. It is everything! Not Java or Python, iPhone or Android, not nicer offices and a well stocked cafeteria.

Do you trust your employees enough to be creative? Do you give them the chance?

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. – F. Scott Fitzgerald

Dont Take Usage For Granted

Buying vs usage: I read a mention of usage rather than just purchase and it is a very valuable distinction. Let’s focus on that and go deeper in it.

Buying does not necessarily lead to usage and I’m being generic here, spanning genres of  products.  Let’s look at a simple and very common example of a purchase that seldom leads to usage.  It is the vacuum cleaner at residences.  All of us have a desire to keep our  homes clean and so when we see an ad or see a demo of how this gadget can contribute to a clean house, we buy it.  Touch your heart and answer “How many times have we used it  during its lifetime?”.  We in fact have two, one local and another of foreign origin bought when we were abroad.  Both of them are gathering dust (pun intended) in the loft.

Let’s look at another purchase of running shoes, bought with a very good intention of staying fit and healthy.  Branded ones like Reebok or Nike cost quite a bomb but we do not pay much attention to it.  To buy it is very easy but to use it calls for getting up early in the morning, cleaning up, wearing a suitable attire, wear the shoes and go for a jog or  for a run, all of which is quite tiresome even to think of, leave alone doing consistently.

Human beings are a creature of habit and we carry our personal tastes and preferences to our work as well.  So when we read about a productivity enhancement tool that appears relevant to us, we jump in anticipation of lesser work and more results.  Then we go in for a CRM or SFA with mobile modules as well in addition to other bells and whistles.  Mind you, I’m not talking of SaaS or non-SaaS in this context.

And then reality sinks in.  Most of us do not even have a decent database of our customers or an established sales process and so it takes a while to get them on and map them to the software.  Assuming, we do that diligently, it calls for Management focus and emphasis to keep it going on a daily basis.  I’ve worked with bosses for whom reviews mean only one thing: chewing up people whenever they feel like and I’m sure each one of us have had such superiors who had their own whims and fancies.  People need to be trained and re-trained.  And when it is month-end or quarter-end, all hell breaks loose and everything is given a go-by including the systems.  And by this time, the champion of the application would have left or moved elsewhere and then it dies a slow death.

Vendors like us have a big  role to play in getting our products used regularly and that starts with the ease of use within the application, training, support and hand-holding in the initial phases, regular follow-up, introduction of new facilities to name a few. Now the SaaS lobby will cry in joy and say that all that is inbuilt n SaaS and more so because our existence depends on people using our apps regularly.  While there is some merit in that argument, it presupposes that people stop subscribing if they do not use regularly, which is flawed inherently.

Look at the newspapers that we subscribe at home or office, the post paid connections for mobiles, broadband, cable TV or DTH connections for example.  If we look at the usage (which incidentally we never do), we would find that it is probably 10% or even worse but still we continue to subscribe to them, with a hope that we will do so sometime in the future, when we have the time and leisure (which we will never have).  And let us remember that it is our personal money that we are being so casual with. What to say about spending organizational resources which are anyway budgeted for?

There would be a review only when there is a calamity or a huge resource crunch and even then the cuts would be symbolic like replacing clean towels in the wash rooms with low quality unbranded tissues, reducing the number of coffee / tea per employee per day  or downgrading the transport facility from cabs to mini vans.  Rarely would someone do an audit of the usage of the on-demand apps and demand that the subscriptions be stopped.

So let us not be under the illusion that in-premise software is merely a sales or purchase transaction whereas the SaaS model is relationship-driven. The converse is also true because it is about the philosophy of the vendor not the delivery model.

I’ve worn my pads and abdomen guards in anticipation of a mounted attack!!

Post Contributed by Badri Narayanan V S, NRich Software

Your Content MVP fails…. eh?

About a month ago, I had a very interesting discussion with Rajan from Intuit about why content is a product and how the lean startup rules should be applied to it.

Let’s get the definitions out of the way.

A minium viable product (MVP) in its simplest form, is the least number of iterations you’ve done on your product before presenting it to someone who you hope will pay for it.

Sure there are lots of loose words here – but I’ll come around to them in a minute. Keywords here are features and pay.

Lets take software first – we’ll talk about content later.

If your software has 2 features, you would obviously want to make sure that the 2 features actually work before you put the MVP out. You cannot expect a person who may buy your software (prospect) to ‘imagine’ what those features will work like. Naturally paying for it gets chucked out of the window.

If it doesn’t do its job – the feature is useless.

Content behaves exactly the same way. In this case the ‘feature’ correlates to ‘objective’.

WHAT is expected from the content piece? WHAT emotions need to be provoked by it? WHAT memories need to be generated in the user’s mind?

You get my drift don’t you?

If content doesn’t do its job – its design, look and feel is useless. The buyer (could be your mother receiving your call or your university of choice receiving your SOP) cannot ‘imagine’ what the infographic will look like. What the VIDEO will turn out like. And what the Brochure design will look like in print.

All they see – is the MVP. So the features better work.

Applying the lean startup rules to content isn’t impossible. It can still be done. However the build-measure-learn loop should now be applied to learning from each content piece. Not the activity of building the content.

So each blog post that you’re writing – can give you the report card that provides you with the right dataset for taking actions towards the next iteration. A better product or a better blog post.

Eric Ries’ and Steve Blank’s concepts around the Lean startup are fundamentals. But just like you’re applying them to your product and its features, think about applying them to your content and its objectives too.

3 tips to ensure your content is MVP ready:

1. Know thy emotion. If you’re presenting to your CEO – know what emotions you are trying to evoke in her – that’s always a good starting point.

I can’t help you if you’ve got a sucky CEO.

2. It’s wrong if it feels wrong. You’ll know when your content piece is doing its job. And when not. The slightest of doubts means its not ready. Don’t put it out. The content’s features aren’t working.

However diagnosing the problem is like fixing a bug. Helps when the herd doesn’t try to solve it.

3. Put in a premise. Before you demo your software, you present a ‘premise’ first. Do that with your content too. Setting the premise will allow your audience to tune-in. Much easier to etch messages when their minds are free.

What have been your most successful content pieces (features)? How do you know that (validated feedback)?

Building a Product Ecosystem for Startups in NCR region

Despite a lot of matter that is available and the ease with which people network, setting an Product Startup in the NCR region is fraught with challenges that few can perceive in other parts of the country. For one, it is the sheer size of the region, effectively sprawling across three states, dealing with three different governments which pose a challenge. Gurgaon houses some of the larger MNC Services companies and has a very different approach from Product companies functioning out of Noida.

For most entrepreneurs, running a product startup, challenges are aplenty. It is hard to find the right talent – just not skills but also employees, who understand product development and marketing. Once you develop a product, you will find that customers are unfamiliar with ‘Do it Yourself’ model. It’s altogether a different challenge to scale the sales and product.

If you can relate, you will be happy to know that we are launching a platform for NCR Product Startups. It will be a community driven initiative to help out fellow members in the products space. This will be by the Product guys for the Product passionates.

We have put together a short survey to understand where your main pain points are. This will help us lining up help from experts hidden in deep trenches to positively impact your business. Feel free to forward this to folks who can benefit from this initiative…also dont forget to write to us at [email protected] if you would like to volunteer. Thank you and looking forward to creating something which Product Folks will love 🙂

If you are going through hell, take pictures for Facebook and other famous marketing quotes

Great people have come, and great people have gone. But what they have left behind for us is timeless wisdom that has survived the change of marketing models from 4Ps to 4Cs, Al Gore inventing the Internet and funny cats doing funny things. Here’s bringing to you marketing wisdom from eons back, and their translation in today’s world.
Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former ~ Albert Einstein back in time
What it means today – Only two things are infinite, the universe and social media agencies, and I’m not sure about the former.
I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand ~ Confucius
I click and I forget. I search and I remember. I open multiple tabs and I forget again.
Go to Heaven for the climate, Hell for the company ~ Mark Twain
Go to Heaven for the climate, Hell for the direct marketers.
Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe ~ Abraham Lincoln
Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four reading how-to posts and best practices guides.
If you are going through hell, keep going ~ Sir Winston Churchill
If you are going through hell, take pictures for the Facebook page.
Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth ~ Buddha
Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and discount coupon codes from affiliates.
My advice to you is get married: if you find a good wife you’ll be happy; if not, you’ll become a philosopher ~ Socrates
My advice to you is get married: if you find a good wife you’ll be happy; if not, you can make a viral video about it.
You have to give people something to dream on ~ Jimi Hendrix
You have to give people something to make a meme on.
I am not afraid of an army of lions led by a sheep; I am afraid of an army of sheep led by a lion ~ Alexander the Great
I am not afraid of an army of lions led by a sheep; I am afraid of a marketer with a drip marketing campaign.
First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win ~ Gandhi
First they ignore you, then they look at you, then they click you, then you make money.
Some cause happiness wherever they go; others, whenever they go ~ Oscar Wilde
Some cause happiness wherever they go; others, wherever they click.
A man who dares to waste one hour of time has not discovered the value of life ~ Charles Darwin
A man who dares to waste one hour of time has not discovered the value of Internet memes.
You can avoid reality, but you cannot avoid the consequences of avoiding reality ~ Ayn Rand
You can avoid reality, but you cannot avoid the consequences of installing an ad blocker.
Hollywood is a place where they’ll pay you a thousand dollars for a kiss and fifty cents for your soul ~ Marilyn Monroe
Hollywood is a place where they’ll pay you a thousand dollars for a kiss and fifty cents for clicking on an ad.
I’ll be back ~ Arnold Schwarzenegger
I’ll be back.
Got some of your own wisdom to share? Bring it on, and become a living legend.

Be a part of the journey to Product Nirvana!

There has been a huge upstart in the number of product companies in India in the last 12 months. 700% is the estimate according to Zinnov Consulting. Most of them, as one keynote speaker at the recently held NASSCOM Product Conclave 2012 said ominously or more from experience being in the Silicon Valley, “will fail”. Why startups fail can be due to any number of reasons but the chances of succeeding is unarguably high if employees get product management right! So, what is Product Management? It is the art and science of creating the right product for the right user at the right time and in the process create a successful business! It is the functional domain which asks the questions what products do we build, who is it for, why do they need it, will they buy if we build it and how will the product work?

India Product Management Association (IPMA) is a voluntary, grassroots organization that is dedicated to helping product management as a function grow in maturity and capability all across the country. It is mostly focused on IT products for now. IPMA is organizing, in its second year after launch, the flagship annual event which brings together industry veterans to speak about various product management topics. This year’s theme, built on the confidence in the growth of product companies is, Journey to Product Nirvana! Journey to Product Nirvana takes the attendees from dissecting the nuances of product management across platforms and products to highlighting successes to sharing advice on specific challenges!

All this in a few hours with networking over lunch on Saturday December 8, at Microsoft office on Lavelle Road, Bangalore. The highlight of the event is the keynote by Ram Narayanan, a product management veteran on “Building customer centric product strategy”, a craft, very few get it right! The event also features Mukund Mohan, Pallav Nadhani, Pinkesh Shah, Saran Chatterjee, Sanjay Jain, Sarit Arora, Dhimant Parekh etc on panels.

IPMA has chapters in Bangalore, Pune and one more coming up in New Delhi soon. Visit for details or better yet register for this annual event before the limited seating runs out:

The event is sponsored by Confianzys and Tally Solutions and hosted by Microsoft.


Should I outsource the sales function at my technology startup?

I am thinking of writing a series on technology sales, given that selling is my first functional love and I enjoy it more than anything else. (There, I admit it, and yes, more than development even though I am an “engineer” by education). So the next few posts will be focused exclusively on selling for entrepreneurs.

Yesterday I had a friend who came over to get some advice on his startup. 6 years into the business he’d built a $200K+ annual consulting company and had over 30 customers for whom he’d implemented various projects. The average sale was about $20K and since the company was fairly small, (15 people) the CEO and founder was the primary sales person.

Most of their lead generation was relegated to speaking at important conferences and events, after which they’d get a few interested people who were keen to leverage their expertise for implementing a project.

His question was around a proposal he got from another company, which was founded by a big-company sales person who’d built a good network of customers and prospects. The company was offering to help my friend outsource his sales and generate customers. In exchange they were asking for 30% (starting point) of the sale as their commission.

To my friend this seemed on the high side. He’d heard numbers like 10% or even 15%, but 30% seemed large.

So his question was “Is this the right number? Or should I negotiate a lower commission”?

We had an hour to chat about it. I was most surprised he never asked me the question “Should I outsource my sales”? Since I have been running the Microsoft accelerator for the last few months, I have refrained from answering questions I think entrepreneurs should ask, instead narrowly focusing on their specific question and giving them options they should consider or a framework they should look, at to evaluate their options.

Lets do some simple math, I told him. If you are looking to make $200K a year from a sales person, given that your ASP (Average selling price) is about $20K, you will need 10 (roughly) deals for them to make their quota. Since the projects they were selling were fairly complex in nature, the sales person they needed to hire would have to be someone who understood both the customer’s industry, the value of technology to that industry and build good relationships within that industry. So, a fresh out of school grad going for $10K – $15K (in India thats what they make annually) wont cut it.

He needed to hire someone who was a consultative sales person who could not only do the lead generation and selling but also some amount of initial “scoping” of the project. In India most of these people make about $40K annually. These folks would have about 8-10 years of experience (or more) and would have implemented several projects or performed the role of “solution architect”, at their previous role. About 60% of the annual pay of the sales person would be paid as base salary and 40% of it as commission on sale.

Since most of my friend’s customers were in India and primarily in the south, customer travel was going to be fairly minimal, which would cost about $2.5K annually at the high end. Assuming that 50% of his customers were outside the city he lived in and the average customer took 2 trips to close and some trips required 2 people (including my friend who would also help with the sales), the cost of travel was about $2.5K we determined.

To generate leads in a consistent manner, the sales person would have to supplement the speaking engagements my friend was using for lead generation with some events, and a few other techniques, which we estimated would cost another $2.5K.

So in total to generate $200K in business, my friend would have to spend about $45K in hiring, managing and helping his sales person.

Now these numbers are unique to India, but the model holds for the US as well. You might have to multiply each number by 5 to get to the US equivalent, but that’s the norm. Approximately 22.5% of his target or sales was going towards the sales person.

Realistically, the outsourced sales person asking for 30% seemed fairly reasonable.

Of course, I warned that my friend would still have to be deeply involved in the process so the “transparent costs” of the sale would increase the paid commission.

There are a few numbers that can change this equation dramatically. One is the average selling price, second the annual salary the sales person makes and third the target (quota), but by and large this is in the ballpark.

Passion, Conviction and Approach to entrepreneurship

Many People keep wondering about the kid who rarely talks at home and not good to get grades in school but went on to become an amazing start-up genius.

Celebrated Lawyer of his time Moti lal Nehru was neither happy with the grades his son got in graduation in England nor with his career as Lawyer.  But Jawahar Lal went on to become one of the most celebrated politicians of Independent India.

So, life is not about having a packaged education and career but entrepreneurship which is more about living one’s passion and conviction in life. Passion is the fuel that drives the creation of dreams and conviction is needed to realize those dreams.

This inborn commitment gets you out of bed every day. The aim should excite you to the core and channeling of passion becomes key to success.

Sometimes the idea may give the nay-sayer dizzying nausea due to its grandness and chances of failure.

Successful entrepreneurs know that failure is part of the journey, and that without failure, there is no success. Only in dictionary “success” comes before “failure” not in real life.

Passion without conviction may make a young entrepreneur shooting star in the harsh realities of the world. Conviction streamlines your passion into a steady flow. After all, most people have innovative ideas at some point in their lives.

It is conviction that determines what you do with your ideas.

Do you let it die? Or do you go for it?

Let`s face it: Those who have achieved extreme success had some extra mettle and more importantly commitment to their goal.

It takes strong will power for never want to quit and believing in something that defines you. It is this conviction that takes you to a state of euphoria in which give you confidence to think that you can tackle get to the unachievable which others.

Gandhi successfully took to the fasting for ‘self-penance’ to use his moral force against violence which became surmountable in certain periods before and after independence.

So believe in yourself and at the end of the day, everyone who told you no will deserves some credit for making you more committed towards the coveted goal of your life.

If you are able to relate with this, congratulations!

You`re ready to be an entrepreneur. Your quiver is ready with the right arrows – set of virtues, to yield big things in life. You were born to make a difference. Get on with your idea if you believe you have something special. Challenge the paradigms that bind you, and go change the world.

Contributed by Ajay Data, Data Infosys

Differentiate or Die – learning’s from the NPC -12 session

Coming back to busy corporate life after NPC (NASSCOM Product Conclave – 2012) is like starting the second innings 🙂 I thoroughly enjoyed being a core volunteer managing 140+ speakers, and the speaker lounge itself on the day of the event. Not just that but was also managing, choreographing and moderating the session “Differentiate or Die – there is a brutal market outside” with the speakers being Rajesh Setty and Bob Wright both from silicon valley and are champions in their own way in the field of marketing and has been delivering guest lectures and speeches on this topic for a long time, and many companies across the world are thoroughly benefited by them. It was time at NPC for Indian product startups to be benefitted by them.

As much as I enjoyed being a moderator, creator and actually a spectator of his event, would like to bring the summary and core points to those who could not attend the event.  It was a 90 minute event with Raj going first on the stage and man he will tickle your funny bone but make no mistake, he will drive the point firm and hard and this is what I can summarize form his session:

“Being part of crowd is cheap; being different is premium and just be different even if you are addressing a small segment” was his clear message. His idea was very clearly driven that if you have the will you can differentiate and still stand out in the crowd and best is he took an example of overcrowded and saturated market of cars to drive his point. He showed that even today and even in that “overcrowded-saturated-done & dusted” market people are finding ways to differentiate and thrive and survive and more important with profits. Take this: buy a car and there are 100s of brands and each one has a different story to tell – one is on safety, one is on family, one is on fast, one is luxury – all done and now you want to enter and how will you do? The common attribute among all is “owning the car”. Let’s change that to “renting the car” and then came a bunch of companies who do it, better, faster, quicker service, cheaper etc. and started another industry around this saturated car industry. Now what – further saturated and cannot go further – say most people but comes smart entrepreneurs who say the common attribute for all is “renting from airport” and lets change it to “renting from home or anywhere” and a new rental company comes up and again created a niche for itself!! Ok that’s it and you cannot do anything further on this market – come-on there should be a limit on a saturated market. So we all l thought but someone came out with a nice idea about renting cars in the locality of those which are sitting idle and why not rent it in the community and there starts another industry which says “why rent from a company” attribute – amazing isn’t it. If that is not enough another company comes and says “rent and drive” when you can “rent with a driver” and if that is not enough, there comes another company which says ride along so that we can zip faster on the “car-pool” lane. Isn’t it amazing on how an over saturated legacy industry can be even now differentiated!! And we complain how crowded the technology market is and we cannot differentiate at all – I think this should be an inspiring as well as an awakening story for all of us who complain about saturation in the technology market!!!

Raj concluded with his Mantras which I feel are very critical and we should follow religiously which I list below:

(Really) Decide to be different

Don’t forget to create meaning – empathize with the people and their problems

Most important, tell a good story

More important than that, live up to the story (otherwise 1,2 & 3 has no meaning and will hit you on the face)

And he ended up with a famous Buddhist Quote

“When deciding among opportunities choose the most difficult path” – So true!!

What an amazing presentation it was!!

Then Bob followed with his presentation and was another amazing one straight to the point.  He is an expert in positioning which is nothing but differentiation and how you drive that differentiation into the minds of the prospect so that it is “positioned” well in that whatever mm by whatever mm size the brain is. Actually my theory is just create the best product and it will sell automatically with no gtm, positioning, marketing, branding, advertising, etc. etc. as long as  they are selected by a set of machines and not humans but as long as humans make the choice, make sure you do all these right!!!! 🙂

He quoted Al Ries “Positioning in the mind of the prospect. It’s how you differentiate your solution in their mind. It cuts through the clutter. It focuses on the perceptions of the prospect”. According to Bob you should position customer centric and around his problem and what you are trying to solve and not product centric.  The 7 gems he stated which I repeat here are:

Fortune 500 or SMB is not a market

Who is your “Mary”? (Manju: Find that right person to who you like to sell and write down his characteristics – not all are same and you need to know the position and characteristics of the person you likely to sell)

Own a problem (Manju: try stating the problem you own in less than 140 characters – give it a shot – if you can’t I say you are suffering from Laser Focus 🙂 )

Have a point of view

Take a corner of the room (Manju: assume room is the market you are jumping into and don’t try to be everywhere in the room)

Communicate with Stories (this story should answer why your company, how are you different and how will be life be better with your product)

No geek-speak  (Manju: please don’t do this like talking on how many layers in TCP/IP and how you get through that network stack and how that packet flows and how IPSEC works and why the IPS and the IDS works the way it works etc etc – please address what problem you are solving for him)

He ended his wonderful speech with a proposed 10-slide solution, which are

  • Slide 1: Big results from customers like you
  • Slide 2: recent market dynamics: your world has changed
  • Slide 3: Causing a big problem
  • Slide4: …And you may lose your job
  • Slide 5: Traditional approaches no longer work
  • Slide 6: what you need to fix the problem
  • Slide 7:The Answer: Our Company
  • Slide 8: 3-4 reasons why customers like to choose us
  • Slide 9: Cleaned up problem: How your life will be different
  • Slide 10: Call to Action

I am just curious, how many slides talk about your technology? Almost None. Now have a look into your deck and see how different it is from the above. Call to action????

Next, I will come out exclusively for “ProductNation” on not just differentiation but how to find one 🙂 🙂 Watch out this space!!!!

How far should you go with Professional Services in your product business?

Turning on a giant switch

For any products company, product support is a given, and part of the products business fabric. However, almost all Enterprise Products Companies end-up offering the professional services beyond basic product support. These services could range from simplistic implementation support, to integration, to solutions-building, to architectural consulting, to IT advisory support. The decision to perform professional services could be driven by customer-demand, or by the intrinsic need of the product being sold, or even driven by the business strategy itself to generate peripheral revenue.

It’s important to understand where the boundaries lie, and what goal does a certain type of professional services serve. The decision to commit to a particular type of professional services needs to be driven by a conscious thought process. This is important because the time & resources required to build various skills & operating models for serving the various flavors, change dramatically from one to the other.

Professional Services in Products Business

1. Product Support

This is the core to the products model and serves as just that – support to the main products revenue, and to ensure customer satisfaction. While the core strategy for any product should be to make it so good that it requires minimal support, there’s always a need for support – offline and real-time for the customers.

2. Implementation Services

An ideal product is ready-to-use off-the-shelf, however, in case of Enterprise products the need to configure & customize could wary. Most times, customers demand for an implementation service packaged in the license deal initially, in order to ensure success. Most times, products businesses have to employ this mechanism also to close sales cycle and to ensure a consistent source of post-sale revenue from such services, and also indirectly to ensure expansion of the product usage through consistent personnel presence on the customer premises.

3. Integration Services

This is where it starts going slightly further away from the core skills that the organization may possess organically. Integration with the existing IT systems and other products at the customer premises would require the skills & management practices beyond the core areas of the organization. An extra source of revenue is one of the temptations, but there are also scenarios where integration of the product is critical to the success of the product, making such services mandatory. This is especially true if the product interfaces are not built with open-standards, and require the integrators to know the details of how the product is built internally. The correct approach would be to build the product interfaces in a way that doesn’t force the business into such compromise to induct professional services for integration. There’s an indirect impact of diversion of core product resources to such integration projects unless such professional services are pursued by design, and resources built accordingly.

4. Solutions & Consulting Services

This is where the game gets strategic, and resources expensive. And the reasons to do this are not any more intrinsically important, but strategically targeted to higher value to the customers and hence, access to the larger pie of the wallet. However, this is easier said than done. Unless there’s enough scale & case in the existing business to allow the focus on such services, strategic, and by design, a business is better off focusing on building the core products business stronger by investing resources there. This makes sense for the products, which are more like Platforms that provide larger leverage than in a Point-solution product.

5. Advisory Services

This is important for the products that are targeted for larger ticket sizes and are built for Enterprise-wide deployments. The IT strategy alignment as well as the strategic positioning of the product becomes important, and it also requires much larger IT leadership level involvement. For Enterprise Platforms, or even for departmental level strategic investments, this approach to professional services can bear fruits. However, building it into a business line requires the core product business to be strong, ready for the leap.

So what?

While the Businesses can look at starting off with the lower scale of Professional Services and build up over time, the decision is very strategic and long term. Professional Services, while offering additional top-line, could actually be a resource-intensice and money-draining proposition if not built properly. The mindset that governs the professional services line of business is drastically different from the product side of business. The operational efficiency is paramount, & profitability can very quickly take a hit. Even more importantly, professional services are more intensely people-driven and the skill sets required to build and sustain this business over long term are not trivial. Look, think, and think hard, before you leap.

PS: There are other considerations on Professional Services that directly or indirectly impact the core product business. I will cover in those in the next post. Until then, hope this helps! 🙂

The Challenge of “Reverse Innovation”

MNC Structures can impede innovation flows….

In the mid-1970s, the Xerox Corporation faced the first real threat to its domination of the photocopying industry. This threat did not come from IBM or Kodak, the large American companies that had entered the industry. Instead it came from Canon and Ricoh, at that time relatively small Japanese companies.

Xerox had fortified the technological lead it enjoyed due to its patent-protected technology with strong customer relationships, a renowned service network, and a business model built around leasing large and fast copiers to central photocopying facilities within company locations. Realizing that they couldn’t possibly beat Xerox in head-on competition, Canon and Ricoh chose to change the rules of the game. They sold small, relatively slow copiers with limited functionality yet high reliability to individual managers within companies who were looking for options to meet their own copying needs.

Xerox was caught on the wrong foot. With a large base of machines leased out to customers, it was difficult for the company to shift to a model of outright sales. Further, within the US operations, they lacked a small copier product that could compete with what the Japanese were offering.

Ironically though, Xerox’s Japanese affiliate – Fuji Xerox, a joint venture with Fuji Photo Film – had developed small copiers of its own that were particularly suited to the Japanese market. Yet, in a typical case of one-way information flows that often seems to characterize MNCs, Xerox failed to immediately recognize or exploit the products created by Fuji Xerox to compete more effectively with Canon and Ricoh in the US market. By the time they did it was too late.

…But subsidiary initiative can at least deal with local competitive challenges

Innovation by MNC subsidiaries and affiliates has happened in the past when subsidiaries have had to be locally responsive to competitive challenges. In India, we saw the celebrated case of how Hindustan Lever launched Wheel to combat Nirma in the detergent marketplace. In the process, Hindustan Lever had to “borrow” several aspects of its business model from its local Indian competitors. But, such innovations often remained restricted to the host country market, and in the past were seen more as aberrations than an integral part of the company’s strategy.

In several MNCs, subsidiaries still struggle to get the authority to create new products for specific needs of their markets. Subsidiary leaders often have to display entrepreneurship or initiative to overcome the dominant logic that products and technologies flow from the headquarters to the subsidiary and not vice versa.

Govindarajan & Trimble argue for a new logic

In Reverse Innovation (Harvard Business Review Press, 2012), Vijay Govindarajan (VG) and Chris Trimble argue that multinationals need to change this perspective of innovation. And they go one step further – MNCs should not only encourage subsidiaries in large emerging markets to develop “lower cost + lower performance” products for their markets, but should actively create structures and processes to support such innovation.

The rationale for this is simple. Emerging markets are the growth markets of the future, but existing products and services are often not well-suited to these markets – they are over-designed, have too many unnecessary features, and are hence too expensive. If MNCs fail to develop products for emerging markets, they will not only lose out on important growth opportunities, but could potentially create well endowed competitors from these markets who could ultimately threaten them in their home markets.

Reverse Innovation contains some insightful case studies of companies like GE, P&G and Logitech that strategically created products for emerging markets, some of which have subsequently found markets in the developed world as well. The authors call this phenomenon “reverse innovation” because of this latter phenomenon. This constitutes a flow of innovation in a direction opposite to that of what we traditionally saw in MNCs (like in the Xerox story with which I started this post). And, the authors believe that this reverse flow may well be important for the developed world as they face declining growth, lower disposable incomes, and increasing ecological concerns.

The Challenges of Reverse Innovation

I have some reservations about the use of the term “reverse innovation.” It seems somewhat patronizing to the developing world. Notwithstanding this, it appears to be sticking, thanks in no small measure to the Harvard Business Review article by the authors of this book, and GE chairman Jeff Immelt.

But, more importantly, there are some fundamental issues with this phenomenon itself. The first issue is whether MNCs, whose competitive advantage comes traditionally from superior technology and features, can really compete in a price-sensitive, cost-driven market. Anecdotal evidence from the Indian market suggests that GE (the focal company of this book – one of the authors, VG, was a consultant and Professor in Residence at the company) has been struggling to make a commercial success of its reverse-innovated ECG machines and associated products because local competitors have been undercutting GE’s prices. This raises the question of whether, given their overhead structures, MNCs can ever hope to compete on cost with frugal local competitors.





This doubt is reinforced by one of the case studies in the book about a P&G sanitary napkin product specially developed for the Mexican market which suggests that this product enjoys less intellectual property protection than a typical P&G product does, presumably because it doesn’t have such a high degree of proprietary technology in it. At least in India, if it’s a competition for better adaptation and cost efficiency, I would be inclined to put my money on local companies to prevail.

Successful innovation often involves innovating on multiple dimensions. Studies by Doblin, an innovation consulting firm now owned by the Monitor Group, suggest that innovations are more likely to be successful if they incorporate innovation in at least 6 of the 10 dimensions of innovation they have identified. This suggests that MNCs will have to innovate on supply chain, distribution and a host of other business dimensions if they are to make reverse innovation work. (This is reinforced by Hindustan Lever’s success with Wheel where they did exactly that). But, it will be difficult for MNC subsidiaries to make that many changes unless they are really determined to do so. It’s tough to imagine the average GE channel partner selling high ticket price medical equipment being interested in selling low-priced scanners, and the challenge of setting up alternate distribution channels (which the authors say GE is doing) shouldn’t be underestimated.

While the authors should be congratulated for taking the bull by its horns in asking MNCs to embrace complete bottom-up product design if they want to be relevant in emerging markets, they should in my view put greater emphasis on the criticality of fundamental changes in business models that will be required for these newly designed products to be successful in these markets.

And, finally, I wonder whether Clayton Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation (see my earlier post comparing disruptive and radical innovation) isn’t adequate to describe the nature of innovation VG and Trimble advocate. If so, the major contribution of this book is the emphasis on the changes needed in MNC structures and processes to facilitate such innovation by MNC subsidiaries in emerging markets.