Scaling Good Advice In India’s Startup Ecosystem – A Research Paper On PNGrowth Model

In January 2016 iSPIRT ran the largest software entrepreneur school in India, called PNgrowth (short for Product Nation Growth).  The central vision of PNgrowth was to create a model of peer learning where over 100 founders could give each other one-on-one advice about how to grow their startups. With peer learning as PNgrowth’s core model, this enterprise was supported by a volunteer team of venture capitalists, founders, academics, and engineers.  See iSPIRT’s volunteer handbook (https://pn.ispirt.in/presenting-the-ispirt-volunteer-handbook/)

However, unlike a regular “bootcamp” or “executive education” session, the volunteers were committed to rigorously measuring the value of the peer advice given at PNgrowth. We are excited to announce that the findings from this analysis have recently been published in the Strategic Management Journal, the top journal in the field of Strategy, as “When does advice impact startup performance?” by Aaron Chatterji, Solène Delecourt, Sharique HasanRembrand Koning (https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/smj.2987).

TLDR: Here’s a summary of the findings:

1.
 There is a surprising amount of variability in how founders manage their startups.  To figure out how founders prioritized management, we asked them four questions:

“…develop shared goals in your team?”
“…measure employee performance using 360 reviews, interviews, or one-on-ones?”
“…provide your employees with direct feedback about their performance?”
“…set clear expectation around project outcomes and project scope?”

Founders could respond “never,” “yearly,” “monthly,” “weekly,” or “daily.”

Some founders never (that’s right, never!) set shared goals with their teams, only did yearly reviews, never provided targets, and infrequently gave feedback. Other, super-managers were more formal in their management practices and performed these activities on a weekly, sometimes daily, basis. Not surprisingly, the supermanagers led the faster-growing startups.  Most founders, however, were in the middle: doing most of these activities at a monthly frequency.

2. Since PNGrowth was a peer learning based program, we paired each founder (and to be fair, randomly) with another participant. For three intense days, the pairs worked through a rigorous process of evaluating their startup and that of their peer. Areas such as a startup’s strategy, leadership, vision, and management (especially of people) were interrogated. Peers were instructed to provide advice to help their partners.

3. We followed up on participating startups twice after the PNgrowth program. First ten months after the retreat, and then we rechecked progress two years afterwards.

We found something quite surprising: the “supermanager” founders not only managed their firms better but the advice they gave helped their partner too.  Founders who received advice from a peer who was a “formal”  manager grew their firms to be 28% larger over the next two years and increased their likelihood of survival by ten percentage points. What about the founders who received advice from a laissez-faire manager? Their startup saw no similar lift. Whether they succeeded or failed depended only on their own capabilities and resources.

4. Not all founders benefited from being paired up with an effective manager though. Surprisingly, founders with prior management training, whether from an MBA or accelerator program, did not seem to benefit from this advice.

5. The results were strongest among pairs whose startups were based in the same city and who followed up after the retreat. For many of the founders, the relationships formed at PNgrowth helped them well beyond those three days in Mysore.

So what’s the big take away: While India’s startup ecosystem is new and doesn’t yet have the deep bench of successful mentors, the results from this study are promising. Good advice can go a long way in helping startups scale.   iSPIRT has pioneered a peer-learning model in India through PlaybookRTs, Bootcamps, and PNgrowth (see: https://pn.ispirt.in/understanding-ispirts-entrepreneur-connect/).

This research shows that this model can be instrumental in improving the outcomes of India’s startups if done right. If peer-learning can be scaled up, it can have a significant impact on the Indian ecosystem.

iSPIRT’s Response to Union Interim Budget 2019

Our policy team tracks the interest of Software product industry

INDIA, Bangalore, Feb 1st, 2019 – Proposals for Union budget of 2019 have been announced today by Finance Minister.

Being an interim budget not many announcements were expected. Some of the important announcements that may affect the expansion of the economy, in general, owing to increased income and ease of living in the middle class are as follows:

  1. Within two years tax assessment will be all electronic.
  2. IT return processing just in 24 hours
  3. Rebate on taxes paid for those with an income below 5 lakhs
  4. TDS threshold on interest income by woman on bank/post office deposits raised from Rs. 10,000 to 40,000
  5. Increase in standard deduction from Rs. 40,000 to 50,000
  6. Rollover of Capital gains tax benefit u/s 54 from investment in one house to two houses, for a taxpayer having capital gains up to Rs. 2 crore
  7. Recommendation to GST Council for reducing GST for home buyers
  8. Exemption from levy of tax on notional rent, on unsold inventories, from one year to two years
  9. Many benefits announced for Agriculture and Rural sector

The coining of the phrase “Digital Village” and placing it second on the list of ten-dimension vision statement in budget speech is a welcome step. The statement nudges the next Government to improve access to technology in rural India, a welcome step. We expect “Digital India” and easy and quality access to the internet for every citizen will remain a focus area, irrespective of which government comes to power.

The government has announced a direct cash transfer scheme for farmers. We are happy to see that technologies like the India Stack are being used by policymakers for effective policy-making irrespective of political ideology. Cash transfers promise to be more efficient initiatives that directly benefit our poor without needing them to run from pillar to post trying to prove their identity and eligibility. “Similarly, startups and SMEs remains a focus area in the vision statement. These are very important for a healthy ecosystem built up.

Similarly, focused phrases such as “Healthy India”, “Electric Vehicle” and “Rural Industrialisation using modern digital technologies” are welcome ideas in ten-dimension vision for Indian Software product industry and startup ecosystem.

However, among key issues for Startups and Investments which need to be addressed but have been missed out are Angel tax and Tax parity between listed and unlisted securities. Angel Tax is a very important issue which needs to be addressed conclusively at the earliest. We need to ensure gaps between policy declaration and implementation do not cause entrepreneurs and investors to relocate themselves aboard.

About iSPIRT Foundation

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

For further queries, reach out to Nakul Saxena ([email protected]) or Sudhir Singh ([email protected])

#1 India’s Health Leapfrog – Towards A Holistic Healthcare Ecosystem

In July 2018, NITI Aayog published a Strategy and Approach document on the National Health Stack. The document underscored the need for Universal Health Coverage (UHC) and laid down the technology framework for implementing the Ayushman Bharat programme which is meant to provide UHC to the bottom 500 million of the country. While the Health Stack provides a technological backbone for delivering affordable healthcare to all Indians, we, at iSPIRT, believe that it has the potential to go beyond that and to completely transform the healthcare ecosystem in the country. We are indeed headed for a health leapfrog in India! Over the last few months, we have worked extensively to understand the current challenges in the industry as well as the role and design of individual components of the Health Stack. In this post, we elaborate on the leapfrog that will be enabled by blending this technology with care delivery.

What is the health leapfrog?

Healthcare delivery in India faces multiple challenges today. The doctor-patient ratio in the country is extremely poor, a problem that is further exacerbated by their skewed distribution. Insurance penetration remains low leading to out-of-pocket expenses of over 80% (something that is being addressed by the Ayushman Bharat program). Additionally, the current view on healthcare amongst citizens as well as policymakers is largely around curative care. Preventive care, which is equally important for the health of individuals, is generally overlooked.  

The leapfrog we envision is that of public, precision healthcare. This means that not only would every citizen have access to affordable healthcare, but the care delivered would be holistic (as opposed to symptomatic) and preventive (and not just curative) in nature. This will require a complete redesign of operations, regulations and incentives – a transformation that, we believe, can be enabled by the Health Stack.

How will this leapfrog be enabled by the Health Stack?

At the first level, the Health Stack will enable a seamless flow of information across all stakeholders in the ecosystem, which will help in enhancing trust and decision-making. For example, access to an individual’s claims history helps in better claims management, a patient’s longitudinal health record aids clinical decision-making while information about disease incidence enables better policymaking. This is the role of some of the fundamental Health Stack components, namely, the health registries, personal health records (PHR) and the analytics framework. Of course, it is essential to maintain strict data security and privacy boundaries, which is already considered in the design of the stack, through features like non-repudiable audit logs and electronic consent.

At the second level, the Health Stack will improve cost efficiency of healthcare. For out-of-pocket expenditures to come down, we have to enable healthcare financing (via insurance or assurance schemes) to become more efficient and in particular, the costs of health claims management to reduce. The main costs around claims management relate to eligibility determination, claims processing and fraud detection. An open source coverage and claims platform, a key component of the Health Stack, is meant to deal with these inefficiencies. This component will not only bring down the cost of processing a claim but along with increased access to information about an individual’s health and claims history (level 1), will also enable the creation of personalised, sachet-sized insurance policies.

At the final level, the Health Stack will leverage information and cost efficiencies to make care delivery more holistic in nature. For this, we need a policy engine that creates care policies that are not only personalized in nature but that also incentivize good healthcare practices amongst consumers and providers. We have coined a new term for such policies – “gamifier” policies – since they will be used to gamify health decision-making amongst different stakeholders.

Gamifier policies, if implemented well, can have a transformative impact on the healthcare landscape of the country. We present our first proposal on the design of gamifier policies, We suggest the use of techniques from microeconomics to manage incentives for care providers, and those from behavioural economics to incentivise consumers. We also give examples of policies created by combining different techniques.

 

What’s next?

The success of the policy engine rests on real-world experiments around policies and in the document we lay down the contours of an experimentation framework for driving these experiments. The role of the regulator will be key in implementing this experimentation framework: in standardizing the policy language, in auditing policies and in ensuring the privacy-preserving exchange of data derived from different policy experiments. Creating the framework is an extensive exercise and requires engagement with economists as well as computer scientists. We invite people with expertise in either of these areas to join us on this journey and help us sharpen our thinking around it.

Do you wish to volunteer?

Please read our volunteer handbook and fill out this Google form if you’re interested in joining us in our effort to develop the design of Health Stack further and to take us closer to the goal of achieving universal and holistic healthcare in India!

Update: Our volunteer, Saurabh Panjawani, author of gamifier policies, recently gave a talk at ACM (Association for Computing Machinery)/MSR (Microsoft Research) India’s AI Summit in IIT Madras! Please view the talk here: https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/research/video/gamifier-policies-a-tool-for-creating-a-holistic-healthcare-ecosystem/

 

Angel Tax Notification: A Step In The Right Direction, But More Needs To Be Done

There have been some notifications which have come out last week, it is heartening to see that the government is trying to solve the matter. However, this is a partial solution to a much larger problem, the CBDT needs to solve for the basic reason behind the cause of Angel Tax (Section 56(2)(viib)) to be able to give a complete long-term solution to Indian Startups.

While the share capital and share premium limit after the proposed issue of share is till 10 crores and helps startups for their initial fundraising, which is usually in the range of Rs 5-10 Cr. Around 80-85% of the money raised on LetsVenture, AngelList and other platforms by startups is within this range, but the government needs to solve for the remaining 15-20% as startups who are raising further rounds of capital, which is the sign of a growing business, are still exposed to this “angel tax”. Instead, the circular should be amended to state that Section 56(2)(viib) will not apply to capital raises up to Rs 10 Cr every financial year provided that the startups submit the PAN of the investors.

The income criteria of INR 50 lakhs and net worth requirement of INR 2 crores is again a move by the government that requires further consideration for the investing community. Therefore, to further encourage investments by Angels or to introduce new Angels to the ecosystem, there is a need to look towards a reduced income criterion of INR 20 Lakhs or a net worth of INR 1 crore, enabling more investors for a healthier funding environment. We also, need to build a mechanism to facilitate investments by corporates and trusts into the startups.

Most importantly, any startup who has received an assessment order under this section should also be able to for the prescribed remedies and submit this during their appeal. They should not be excluded from this circular since its stated scope is both past and future investments. The CBDT should also state that the tax officers should accept these submissions during the appeals process and take it into consideration during their deliberation.

So, to summarise:

  • Section 56(2)(viib) should not apply to any investment below Rs 10 crore received by a startup per year or increase the share premium limit to Rs 25 Crores, from Indian investors provided that the startup has the PAN of the investors
  • Section 56(2)(viib) should not apply to investors who have registered themselves with DIPP as accredited investors, regardless of the quantum of investment
  • The threshold stated should be either a minimum income of Rs 25 lakhs or a net worth of at least Rs 1 crore
  • Any startup who has received an assessment order should be able to seek recourse under this circular during their appeal

Through this circular, the government has reaffirmed its commitment to promoting entrepreneurship and startups in India. With these suggestions, the spectre of the “angel tax” will end up as a footnote in the history of the Indian startup ecosystem.

We look forward to the early resolution of these pending matters. For any suggestions, Do write to us [email protected]

The article is co-authored with Siddarth Pai, Policy Expert – iSPIRT Foundation and Founding Partner – 3one4 Capital.

White Paper On The Analysis Of High Share Premium Amongst Startups In India

“High share premium is not the basis of a high valuation but the outcome of valid business decisions. This new whitepaper by our iSPIRT policy experts highlights how share premia is a consequence of valid business decisions, why 56(2)(viib) is only for unaccounted funds and measures to prevent valid companies from being aggrieved by it”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is the Digital Sky and how does it work?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How industry/playground will change over the coming years?

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

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

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

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

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

If you want to join our future roundtable sessions on Digital Sky and more, please register your interest here.

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

India Financial Services – Disrupt or Be Disrupted

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Early Days of AU:

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

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

Partnering with HDFC Bank

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

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

Growing the balance sheet and partnering right

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

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

Consistent performance

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

How we became a bank

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

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

Recognizing the Athletic Gavaskar moment in Indian Financial Services

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

Infrastructure changes lead to New Playgrounds

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

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

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

Dual-immersed entrepreneurs have the biggest advantage

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

New Playgrounds need new Gameplay

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

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

About iSPIRT

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

About AU Small Finance Bank:

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

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

iSPIRT Final Comments on India’s Personal Data Protection Bill

Below represents iSPIRT’s comments and recommendations on the draft Personal Data Protection Bill.  iSPIRT’s overall data privacy and data empowerment philosophy is covered here.  

Table of Contents

Major Comments
1. Include Consent Dashboards
2. Financial Understanding and Informed Consent for all Indians
3. Data Fiduciary Trust Scores Similar to App Store Ratings
4. Comments & Complaints on Data Fiduciaries are Public, Aggregatable Data
5. Warn of Potential Credit and Reputation Hazards
6. A Right to View and Edit Inferred Personal Data
7. Sharing and Processing of Health Data

Suggestions and Questions

  • Fund Data Rights Education
  • Limit Impact Assessment Requirement
  • Passwords should be treated differently than other Sensitive Personal Data.
  • Does the Bill intend to ban automatic person-tagging in photos and image search of people?
  • Notifications about updates to personal data should be handled by a Consent Dashboard, not every data fiduciary.
  • Need for an Authority appeal process when data principal rights conflict
  • Do not outlaw private fraud detection
  • Limit record keeping use and disclosure to the Authority and the company itself.
  • Fillings may be performed digitally
  • Request for Definition Clarifications
  • Author Comments
  • Links
  • Appendix – Sample User Interface Screens

Major Comments

1. Include Consent Dashboards

We support the idea of a Consent Dashboard as suggested in the Data Protection Committee Report (page 38) and recommend it to be incorporated in the Bill in Section 26 – Right to Data Portability and Section 30 (2) Transparency.  

We envision all of a user’s personal and inferred data that is known by data fiduciaries (i.e. companies) being exposed on a consent dashboard, provided by a third party consent collector or account aggregator (to use the RBI’s parlance). Below is an example user interface:

This mandate would enable users to have one place – their consent collector-provided dashboard – to discover, view and edit all data about them. It would also allow users to see any pending, approved and denied data requests.

Furthermore, in the event of data breaches, especially when a user’s password and identifier (mobile, email, etc) have been compromised, the breach and recommended action steps could be made clear on the consent dashboard.

Given the scope of this suggestion, we recommend an iterative or domain specific approach, wherein financial data is first listed in a dashboard limited to financial data and for its scope to grow with time.

2. Financial Understanding and Informed Consent for all Indians

We applaud the Bill’s Right to Confirmation and Access (Chapter IV, Section 24):

The data fiduciary shall provide the information as required under this section to the data principal in a clear and concise manner that is easily comprehensible to a reasonable person.

That said, we’ve found in practice that it’s difficult to appreciate the implications of digital policies on users until real user interfaces are presented to end users and then tested for their usability and understanding. Hence, we’ve put together a set of sample interfaces (see Appendix) that incorporate many of the proposed bill’s provisions and our recommendations. That said, much more work is needed before we can confidently assert that most Indians understand these interfaces and what they are truly consenting to share.

The concepts behind this bill are complicated and yet important. Most people do not understand concepts such as “revocable data access rights” and other rather jargon-filled phrases often present in the discussion of data privacy rights. Hence, we believe the best practices from interface design must be employed to help all Indians – even those who are illiterate and may only speak one of our many non-dominant languages – understand how to control their data.

For example, multi-language interfaces with audio assistance and help videos could be created to aid understanding and create informed consent.  Toll-free voice hotlines could be available for users to ask questions. Importantly, we recognize that the interfaces of informed consent and privacy control need rigorous study and will need to evolve in the years ahead.

In particular, we recommend user interface research in the following areas:

  • Interfaces for low-education and traditionally marginalized communities
  • Voice-only and augmented interfaces
  • Smart and “candy-bar” phone interfaces
  • Both self-serving and assisted interfaces (such that a user can consensually and legally delegate consent, as tax-payers do to accountants).

After user interface research has been completed and one can confidently assert that certain interface patterns can be understood by most Indian adults, we can imagine that templated designs representing best practices are recommended for the industry, much like the design guidelines for credit card products published by US Consumer Financial Protection Bureau or nutritional labelling.

3. Data Fiduciary Trust Scores Similar to App Store Ratings

We support the government’s effort to improve the trust environment and believe users should have appropriate, easy and fast ways to give informed consent & ensure bad actors can’t do well. Conversely, we believe that the best actors should benefit from a seamless UI and rise to the top.

The courts and data auditors can’t be the only way to highlight good, mediocre and bad players. From experience, we know that there will be a continuum of good to bad experiences provided by data fiduciaries, with only the worst and often most egregious actions being illegal.

People should be able to see the experiences of other users – both good and bad – to make more meaningful and informed choices. For example, a lender that also cross-sells other products to loan recipients and shares their mobile numbers may not be engaging in an illegal activity but users may find it simply annoying.

Hence, we recommend that data fiduciary trust scores are informed with user-created negatives reviews (aka complaints) and positive reviews.

In addition to Data Auditors (as the Bill envisions), user created, public ratings will create additional data points and business incentives for data fiduciaries to remain in full compliance with this law, without a company’s data protection assessment being the sole domain of its paid data auditors.

We would note that crowd sourced rating systems are an ever-evolving tech problem in their own right (and subject to gaming, spam, etc) and hence, trust rating and score maintenance may be best provided by multiple market actors and tech platforms.

4. Comments & Complaints on Data Fiduciaries are Public, Aggregatable Data

…so 3rd party actors and civil society can act on behalf of users.

A privacy framework will not change the power dynamics of our society overnight. Desperate people in need of money will often sign over almost anything, especially abstract rights. Additionally, individual citizens will rarely to be able to see larger patterns in the behaviour of lenders or other data fiduciaries and are ill-equipped to fight for small rewards on behalf of their community.  Hence, we believe that user ratings and complaint data about data fiduciaries must be made available in machine-readable forms to not only to the State but to third-parties, civic society and researchers so that they may identify patterns of good and bad behaviour, acting as additional data rights watchdogs on behalf all of us.

5. Warn of Potential Credit and Reputation Hazards

We are concerned about the rise of digital and mobile loans in other countries in recent years. Kenya – a country with high mobile payment penetration and hence like India one that has become data rich before becoming economically rich – has seen more than 10% of the adult population on credit blacklists in 2017; three percent of all digital loans were reportedly used for gambling. These new loan products were largely made possible by digital money systems and the ability of lenders to create automated risk profiles based on personal data; they clearly have the potential to cause societal harm and must be considered carefully.

Potential remedies to widespread and multiple loans are being proposed (e.g. real-time credit reporting services), but the fact that a user’s reputation and credit score will be affected by an action (such as taking out a loan), most also be known and understood by users. E.g. Users need to know that an offered loan will be reported to other banks and if they don’t pay they will be reported and unable to get other loans.

Furthermore, shared usage-based patterns – such as whether a customer pays their bills on time or buys certain types of products – must be available for review by end users.

6. A Right to View and Edit Inferred Personal Data

The Machine Learning and AI community have made incredible strides in computers’ ability to predict or infer almost anything. For example, in 2017, a babajob.com researcher showed the company could predict whether a job seeker earned more or less than Rs 12000 / month with more than 80% accuracy, using just their photo.  She did this using 3000 job seeker photos, 10 lines of code and Google’s TensorFlow for Poets sample code.  Note the project was never deployed or made publicly available.

As these techniques become ever more commonplace in the years to come, it’s reasonable to assume that public facing camera and sensor systems will be able to accurately infer most of the personal data of their subjects – e.g. their gender, emotional state, health, caste, religion, income – and then connect this data to other personally identifiable data such as a photo of their credit card and purchase history. Doing so will improve training data so that systems become even more accurate. In time, these systems – especially ones with large databases of labelled photos – like the governments’, popular social networks’ or a mall’s point of sale + video surveillance system – truly will be able to precisely identify individuals and their most marketable traits from any video feed.

Europe’s GDPR has enshrined the right for people to view data inferred about them, but in conjunction with the idea of a third party consent dashboard or Account Aggregator (in the RBI’s case), we believe we can do better.

In particular, any entity that collects or infers data about an individual that’s associated with an identifier such as an email address, mobile, credit card, or Aadhaar number should make that data viewable and editable to end users via their consent dashboard.  For example, if a payment gateway provider analyses your purchase history and infers you are diabetic and sells this information as a categorization parameter to medical advertisers, that payment gateway must notify you that it believes you are diabetic and enable you to view and remove this data. Google, for example, lists these inferences as Interests and allows users to edit them:

Using the Consent Dashboard mentioned in Major Comment 1, we believe users should have one place where they can discover, view and correct all personal and inferred data relevant to them.

Finally, more clarity is needed regarding how data gathered or inferred from secondary sources should be regulated and what consent may be required. For example, many mobile apps ask for a user’s consent to read their SMS Inbox and then read their bank confirmation SMSs to create a credit score. From our view, the inferred credit score should be viewable by the end user before it’s shared, given its personal data that deeply affects the user’s ability to gain usage of a service (in this case, often a loan at a given interest rate).

7. Sharing and Processing of Health Data

The Bill requires capturing the purpose for data sharing:

Chapter II, point 5:

“Purpose limitation.— (1) Personal data shall be processed only for purposes that are clear, specific and lawful. (2) Personal data shall be processed only for purposes specified or for any other incidental purpose that the data principal would reasonably expect the personal data to be used for, having regard to the specified purposes, and the context and circumstances in which the personal data was collected.”

In the healthcare domain, collecting the purpose for which the data is being shared might itself be quite revealing. For example, if data is being shared for a potential cancer biopsy or HIV testing, the purpose might be enough to make inferences and private determinations about the patient and say deny insurance coverage. On the other hand, stating high-level, blanket purposes might not be enough for future audits. A regulation must be in place to ensure the confidentiality of the stated purpose.  

The Bill has a provision for processing sensitive personal data for prompt action:

Chapter IV, point 21:

“Processing of certain categories of sensitive personal data for prompt action. — Passwords, financial data, health data, official identifiers, genetic data, and biometric data may be processed where such processing is strictly necessary— (a) to respond to any medical emergency involving a threat to the life or a severe threat to the health of the data principal; (b) to undertake any measure to provide medical treatment or health services to any individual during an epidemic, outbreak of disease or any other threat to public health; or (c) to undertake any measure to ensure safety of, or provide assistance or services to, any individual during any disaster or any breakdown of public order.”

While this is indeed a necessity, we believe that a middle ground could be achieved by providing an option for users to appoint consent nominees, in a similar manner to granting power of attorney. In cases of emergency, consent nominees such as family members could grant consent on behalf of the user. Processing without consent could happen only in cases where a consent nominee is unavailable or has not been appointed. This creates an additional layer of protection against misuse of health data of the user.

Suggestions and Questions

Fund Data Rights Education

We believe a larger, public education program may be necessary to educate the public on their data rights.

Limit Impact Assessment Requirement

Section 33 – Data Protection Impact Assessment —

  • Where the data fiduciary intends to undertake any processing involving new technologies or large scale profiling or use of sensitive personal data such as genetic data or biometric data, or any other processing which carries a risk of significant harm to data principals, such processing shall not be commenced unless the data fiduciary has undertaken a data protection impact assessment in accordance with the provisions of this section. …
  • On receipt of the assessment, if the Authority has reason to believe that the processing is likely to cause harm to the data principals, the Authority may direct the data fiduciary to cease such processing or direct that such processing shall be subject to such conditions as may be issued by the Authority.

We believe that the public must be protected from egregious data profiling but this provision does not strike an appropriate balance with respect to innovation. It mandates that companies and other researchers must ask government permission to innovate around large scale data processing before any work, public deployments or evidence of harm takes place. We believe this provision will be a large hinderance to experimentation and cause significant AI research to simply leave India. A more appropriate balance might be to ask data fiduciaries to privately create such an impact assessment but only submit to the Authority for approval once small scale testing has been completed (with potential harms better understood) and large scale deployments are imminent.

Passwords should be treated differently than other sensitive personal data.

Chapter IV – Section 18. Sensitive Personal Data. Passwords are different than other types of Sensitive Personal Data, given that they are a data security artifact, rather than a piece of data that is pertinent to a person’s being. We believe that data protection should be over-ridden in extraordinary circumstances without forcing companies to provide a backdoor to reveal passwords. We fully acknowledge that it is useful and sometimes necessary to provide backdoors to personal data – e.g. one’s medical history in the event of a medical emergency – but to require such a backdoor for passwords would likely introduce large potential security breaches throughout the entire personal data ecosystem.  

Does the Bill intend to ban automatic person-tagging in photos and image search of people?

Chapter I.3.8 – Biometric Data – The Bill defines Biometric Data to be:

“facial images, fingerprints, iris scans, or any other similar personal data resulting from measurements or technical processing operations carried out on physical, physiological, or behavioural characteristics of a data principal, which allow or confirm the unique identification of that natural person;”

The Bill includes Biometric Data in its definition of Sensitive Personal Data (section 3.35) which may only be processed with explicit consent:

Section 18. Processing of sensitive personal data based on explicit consent. — (1) Sensitive personal data may be processed on the basis of explicit consent

From our reading, we can see a variety of features available today around image search and person tagging being disallowed based on these provisions. E.g. Google’s image search contains many facial images which have been processed to enable identification of natural persons. Facebook’s “friend auto-suggestion” feature on photos employs similar techniques. Does the Bill intend for these features and others like them to be banned in India? It can certainly be argued that non-public people have a right to explicitly consent before they are publicly identified in a photo but we feel the Bill’s authors should clarify this position. Furthermore, does the purpose of unique identification processing matter with respect to its legality?  For example, we can imagine mobile phone-based, machine learning algorithms automatically identifying a user’s friends to make a photo easier to share with those friends; would such an algorithm require explicit consent from those friends before it may suggest them to the user?

Notifications about updates to personal data should be handled by a Consent Dashboard, not every data fiduciary.

Chapter IV – Section 25.4 – Right to correction, etc

Where the data fiduciary corrects, completes, or updates personal data in accordance with sub-section (1), the data fiduciary shall also take reasonable steps to notify all relevant entities or individuals to whom such personal data may have been disclosed regarding the relevant correction, completion or updating, particularly where such action would have an impact on the rights and interests of the data principal or on decisions made regarding them.

We believe the mandate on a data fiduciary to notify all relevant entities of a personal data change is too great a burden and is better performed by a consent dashboard, who maintains which other entities have a valid, up-to-date consent request to a user’s data. Hence, upon a data change, the data fiduciary would update the consent dashboard of the change and then the consent dashboard would then notify all other relevant entities.

It may be useful to keep the user in this loop – so that this sharing is done with their knowledge and approval.

Need for an Authority appeal process when data principal rights conflict

Section 28.5 – General conditions for the exercise of rights in this Chapter. —  

The data fiduciary is not obliged to comply with any request made under this Chapter where such compliance would harm the rights of any other data principal under this Act.

This portion of the law enables a data fiduciary to deny a user’s data change request if it believes doing so would harm another data principal. We believe it should not be up to the sole discretion of the data fiduciary to determine which data principal rights are more important and hence would like to see an appeal process to the Data Protection Authority made available if a request is refused for this reason.

Do not outlaw private fraud detection

Section 43.1 Prevention, detection, investigation and prosecution of contraventions of law

(1) Processing of personal data in the interests of prevention, detection, investigation and prosecution of any offence or any other contravention of law shall not be permitted unless it is authorised by a law made by Parliament and State Legislature and is necessary for, and proportionate to, such interests being achieved.

We worry the above clause would effectively outlaw fraud detection research, development and services by private companies in India. For instance, if a payment processor wishes to implement a fraud detection mechanism, they should be able to do so, without leaving that task to the State.  These innovations have a long track record of protecting users and businesses and reducing transaction costs. We recommend a clarification of this section and/or its restrictions to be applied to the State.

Limit record keeping use and disclosure to the Authority and the company itself.

Section 34.1.a. Record – Keeping –

The data fiduciary shall maintain accurate and up-to-date records of the following

(a) important operations in the data life-cycle including collection, transfers, and erasure of personal data to demonstrate compliance as required under section 11;

We expect sensitive meta-data and identifiers will need to be maintained for the purposes of Record Keeping; we suggest that this Record Keeping information be allowed but its sharing limited only to this use and shared only with the company, its Record Keeping contractors (if any) and the Authority.

Fillings may be performed digitally

Section 27.4 – Right to be Forgotten

The right under sub-section (1) shall be exercised by filing an application in such form and manner as may be prescribed.

The Bill contains many references to filing an application;  we’d suggest a definition that is broad and includes digital filings.

This also applies to sections which include “in writing” – which must include digital communications which can be stored (for instance, email).

Request for Definition Clarifications

What is “publicly available personal data”?

  • Section 17.2.g – We believe greater clarity is needed around the term “publicly available personal data.“ There questionably obtained databases for sale that list the mobile numbers and addresses of millions of Indians – would there thus be included as a publicly available personal data?
  • We’d recommend that DPA defines rules around what is publicly available personal data so that it is taken out of the ambit of the bill.  
  • The same can be said for data where there is no reasonable expectation of privacy (with the exception that systematic data collection on one subject cannot be considered to be such a situation)

Clarity of “Privacy by Design”

Section 29 – Privacy by Design

Privacy by Design is an established set of principles (see here and in GDPR) and we would like to see the Bill reference those patterns explicitly or use a different name if it wishes to employ another definition.

Define “prevent continuing disclosure”

Section 27.1 – Right to be Forgotten

The data principal shall have the right to restrict or prevent continuing disclosure of personal data by a data fiduciary…

We request further clarification on the meaning of  “prevent continuing disclosure” and an example use case of harm.

Define “standard contractual clauses” for Cross-Border Transfers

Section 41.3.5 – Conditions for Cross-Border Transfer of Personal Data

(5) The Authority may only approve standard contractual clauses or intra-group schemes under clause (a) of sub-section (1) where such clauses or schemes effectively protect the rights of data principals under this Act, including in relation with further transfers from the transferees of personal data under this subsection to any other person or entity.

We would like to standard contractual clauses clearly defined.

Define “trade secret”

Section 26.2 C – Right to be Forgotten

compliance with the request in sub-section (1) would reveal a trade secret of any data fiduciary or would not be technically feasible.

We request further clarification on the meaning of  “trade secret” and an example of the same.

Author Comments

Compiled by iSPIRT Volunteers:

Links

Comments and feedback are appreciated. Please mail us at [email protected].

Appendix – Sample User Interface Screens

Link: https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1Eyszb3Xyy5deaaKf-jjnu0ahbNDxl7HOicImNVjSpFY/edit?usp=sharing

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

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

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

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

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

Revisiting Section 57

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

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

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

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

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

Applying these changes to the section, we get:

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

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

Cleaning this up, we get:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What private players should do today

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

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

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

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

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

Paragraph 193 (and repeated in other paras):

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

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

Paragraph 260:

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

Paragraph 289:

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

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

What private players should do tomorrow

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

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

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

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

(Disclaimer: This is not legal advice)

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]

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

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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

Creating a company brand — outside a product brand

One of the top two responsibilities of the CEO is to ensure that there is sufficient cash in the bank at all times. That often requires raising money from investors; an unpleasant task for most people! This article discusses a mindset change that is useful for fund raising.

The company by itself is a product that is best sold gradually and continuously to the investors — both public and private.

When we buy any product — say a mobile phone — we do so either because someone told us to or because our research led us to it. Even when we research a product, our view gets influenced by what we have heard about it. In the world of consumer goods, this is the power of the Brand. Raising money also relies a great deal on how the company is “perceived.” This perception is the company’s brand. The first round of money is largely driven by this brand perception. A lot of other aspects of the company (including fund raising in subsequent rounds) are affected by brand, as we will discuss in this article.

A company has two types of brands that coexist — the brand of the company and the brand of its product(s). Frequently the company’s brand gets forgotten or confused with that of the product. Yet, the company brand is omnipresent; created by the team, vision, past success, market opportunity, etc. For e.g. Nandan Nilekani’s next startup will have an immediate brand because of the team — well before the product has even been identified. As mentioned before, the first round is primarily driven by the company brand because there is nothing else.

The importance of company brand to fund raising often diminishes with time because delivered financial and operating metrics become the criterion for evaluating the company. When customers start using its product, the company’s brand gets pushed even further back because the overwhelming brand is that of its product. However this neglect is a wasted opportunity. In most companies there is no explicit recognition of the company’s brand and it has no identified owner. Given the criticality of the company brand for raising money, it’s imperative for the CEO to build that brand. CEOs who are very skilled at raising funds realize that they need to maintain the company brand in addition to the product brand. Consider for e.g. PayTM where Vijay has successfully navigated in and out of many businesses, while keeping the company brand associated with the promise of the future. Another example of the company brand being a driver is Theranos, the Palo Alto based Health Tech Company; of course the Theranos story did not end well because their brand was not backed by execution. However just that brand alone enabled Theranos to raise a fortune.

The Company Brand is not built in a day

Company brand building happens well in advance of fund raising and ideally never stops; the intensity just varies with time and circumstances. There are many ways to build the company brand in the early years of a company’s life.

  • 1–1 engagement with investors to cultivate familiarity: set up periodic meetings with relevant investors to keep them updated, get their views, and build a relationship. These same people will talk about your company in forums and eventually people buy from people.
  • PR — press appearances are noticed by investors (and by prospective employees, and customers). Its often hard to stay in the press for the right reasons so this has to be dealt with conservatively.
  • Presence in forums — establish the position of a thought leader, be seen by peers in the correct context. These same peers will be used as references by future investors. So speak at events like the NASSCOM product forum or TIE.
  • Key influencers in many areas; they can be cultivated as references or engaged as advisors
  • Customer proxies — for e.g. head of HR of INFY if the product is to be sold to HR
  • Product experts — for e.g. an advisor from Apple for a company that banks on usability
  • Go-to-market experts — for e.g. someone from the sales team at Workday, for a SaaS company

A good company brand offers benefits that go beyond fund raising. It drives recruitment and retention (e.g. “best place to work”). It drives sales because customers often buy the company before they buy the product (e.g. the proverbial purchase from IBM). It drives policy/public acceptability (e.g. Google/Infosys wanting to be seen as doing good.)

Company brand building therefore needs to be owned explicitly — often by the CEO — and catered to as one of the critical outbound agenda items. By investing in the company brand from day one, the company’s odds of successful fund raising go up substantially.

Guest Post by Ashish Gupta, Helion Venture Capital

Inadequate liquidity for Indian Startups

Recently was having a conversation with a Private Equity friend and was trying to explain the challenge that has captured my imagination and full attention, ie exits for software product startups in India. He felt that the data about the exit structural deficit that I was trying to point out felt too bearish to be true. My counter argument was that my intent is not to sound bearish but instead be a realist, after all acknowledgement of a problem is first step to solving one.  Post that conversation I thought should put this data out publicly so that through crowdsourcing can at the very least improve my understanding if it is off by wide margins.

2012-2016 VC vs M&A

India VC vs Exits 

India VC vs M&A


India Software Products VC  (in $m)

2012 2013 2014 2015 2016*
$801.00 $1,021.00 $4,883.00 $6,526.00 $2,419.00 $15,650.00
147 123 173 330 223 996

India Software Product M&A  (in $m)

2012 2013 2014 2015 2016*
$205.00 $308.00 $799.00 $1,350.00 $1,339.00 $4,001.00
43 39 59 137 113 391

Source iSPIRT M&A Report https://www.slideshare.net/ProductNation/india-technology-product-ma-industry-monitor-an-ispirt-signalhill-report?ref=http://startupbridgeindia.com/

Israel VC vs Exits 


Israel Software Product VC  (in $m)

2012 2013 2014 2015 2016*
$1,878.00 $2,404.00 $3,422.00 $4,307.00 $4,775.00 $16,786.00
567 667 684 706 659 3283

Israel Software Product M&A (in $m)

2012 2013 2014 2015 2016*
$8,149.00 $3,704.00 $4,493.00 $6,462.00 $6,782.00 $29,590.00
74 81 109 98 86 448

Source IVC Report, http://www.ivc-online.com/Portals/0/RC/Survey/IVC_Q4-16%20Capital%20Raising_Survey-Final.pdf

Above data indicates that Israel was able to generate 1.8X of the money that went in while in India in the same period it was 0.2X. The right comparison is exits from 2012-2016 with VC investments from 2005-2009, iSPIRT report does that comparison but results are even less encouraging.

Exits follow a power law distribution, however in India it seems like a power law’s power law.

Not only is the volume of exit a challenge but also the structure, any ecosystem exits follow a typical power law. For every $1 bn exit, there are ten $100m deal, for every $100m there are hundred $10m deals.

Top 7 deals in India account for ~$2.5b of the $4b in exit. About 250 of 391 deals total a deal volume of $97m which means the size of an acqui hire i.e in long tail is about 0.5m, which is inadequate even for an angel investor (in other ecosystem long tail is >$10 m, hence being referred to as power’s law power law). Lack of many $10-100m deal means there is a missing middle of the long tail.

Source iSPIRT M&A Report https://www.slideshare.net/ProductNation/india-technology-product-ma-industry-monitor-an-ispirt-signalhill-report?ref=http://startupbridgeindia.com/

Anything in the data above that does not feel kosher  ?

 

iSPIRT M&A Connect program takes a multiyear view to design interventions that can address the middle and long tail of the market coordination challenge.

Volunteer Hero: Vivek Raghavan

 iSPIRT volunteers build public goods inspired by open-source Linux and Wikipedia. Our volunteers are selfless, committed and conflict-free. They are animated by a burning cause.
 
One such cause is about creating technology platforms that will help make India a Product Nation. Building a successful country-scale technology platform is hard. And doing this as an open and public platform is even more challenging. It takes talent, sweat, and toil to do this.
 
Vivek-RaghavanVivek Raghavan for instance. He stepped in as a part-time volunteer to help build Aadhaar back in late-2010. Soon he was working as a full-time volunteer. Had he known that he would be volunteering full-time even after so many years, he might not have taken the plunge! In fact, two years ago, he gave up. After all, it’s not easy to work in a government system to make things happen. But, his sense of mission sprinkled with some emotional appeal from other iSPIRT volunteers had him back in action again.
 
We have many full-time volunteers in iSPIRT who take a year or two to give back to the ecosystem. But few have done it for six years! Here is a successful entrepreneur – with two notable exits in the US – waking up every morning to make the world better for all of us. His example inspires other volunteers. He kindles the fire that keeps iSPIRT running.
 
Vivek’s uncommon ownership and determination make him an iSPIRT volunteer hero.
 
Guest post by Pramod Varma & Sanjay Jain
 
“True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost.”  – Arthur Ashe

 

How we built iSPIRT from scratch, with nothing except a lot of spirit. #iSPIRTturns4

I missed the 4th anniversary celebrations of iSPIRT in Bangalore today as my father has been unwell for the last couple of weeks and I have been avoiding travel. I thought it will be good to refresh my memory by reading up some of the old emails and also share the journey of the 9 months of preparation before we officially launched iSPIRT. In the early months we called ourselves as SPIRT — Software Product Industry Roundtable.

iSPIRT officially got launched on 4th Feb 2013 after missing the launch date on 26th January 2013. You should read up the annual letter issued today which talks about the journey, the good progress made and why India has the potential to innovate for the next six billion.

Why I started?

The idea of setting up a product body came about after I ended my ten-year stint with NASSCOM in February 2012, where I was lucky to have worked closely with a number of inspiring individuals in the software product space. While my next career milestone took me back to the corporate world at One97 and I remember Paytm was in the early day: I never knew VSS would make it so BIG one day.

The desire to contribute to the start-up and software product eco-system in the country never left me. This desire in me forced me to reach out to Vishnu Dusad, MD of Nucleus Software. I met him at his office and he encouraged me to stay focussed and he will put all efforts behind convincing and engaging with people like Bharat Goenka of Tally & Sharad Sharmawho chaired the NASSCOM Product Council.

While I was at One97, I had a candid conversation (of leaving One97. I was just 3 months in the system) with Vijay Shekhar Sharma about my passion as I didn’t want to be unfair to a friend who had offered me a job when I needed. I still remember the brief conversation that I had with Vijay where he said “You go ahead and follow your passion, I will support you in whatever you do, be it on the rolls of One97 or outside”. I think that was a big commitment, I know very few people who can do things like that. He said — don’t worry about sustaining yourself, I will take care of that, you go and follow your dream.

I still thank him as he was the first person who freed me and became the angel for the Product mission.

How the key people came together

Vishnu was able to convince Bharat & Sharad that it was time to focus on creating something unique for the Software Product companies in India. We also engaged with Pari Natarajan of Zinnov as he had a good understanding of the ecosystem and also knew some of the gaps that had to be filled. I remember, we did few calls and everything would stop for few weeks as people got busy. I had to again nudge people so that they start contributing back. Many a times, I thought it was difficult to pull something together, but something inside me didn’t allow me to stop.

We always were trying to identify more people, but early on someone had suggested that it is better to start with a small team and then keep adding more people. I remember in one of the calls, how Bharat had motivated me by giving some valuable advice. I remember I had written it down somewhere, but it was more on the lines of when you have a dream and when you discover your mission, it will fill you with enthusiasm and a burning desire to work on it. It was always good to hear Bharat on how much passionate he was for India and for Software Products from India.

Once everyone was aligned, we virtually laid the foundation for SPIRT on 15th August 2012 where Bharat & Sharad met at the Tally office and Vishnu and I joined on the call from Delhi. I came officially on board after that.

How we ideated on the mission and the core beliefs…

After lot of back and forth and around 8–10 calls, we arrived at the Draft 1 of what SPIRT should be focussing on. Once in a while, we would also get an outsider to share their perspective and we got advice on how to create another trade body on software products. I’m glad we did not go ahead with the trade-body concept and created a think tank thanks to Sharad.

Also, since most of the conversations were done on phone, i don’t have any photographs of the team in the early days. Normally, startups always show their photographs from the garages 🙂

Sharing what Pari of Zinnov had put together on. Since beginning, we had lot of confusion on the name, as you can see, SPIRT became SPIRIT 🙂

In one of the initial meetings, it was decided that we will be taking the 3 pillar approach — Policy, Market Catalyst & Playbooks. This was articulated beautifully by Sharad and what SPIRT would be focussing on..

Over the period of time, Bharat, Sharad and Vishnu crystallized the vision and we put together this document, although I remember lot of efforts went behind this.

Launch of ProductNation — the community for Product Founders

Once the core team had decided launch the mission, I was assigned the task to build the community for software products. I remember i had proposed few names to Sharad out of which ProductNation was picked up. The other two names which were close were ProductoNomy.com & ProductsFrom.In

The other list which got dropped was:

TheIndusValley.com & theindusvalley.in are available (this is inspired from The Silicon Valley).

The ProductNation Blog was launched in the first week of September 2012 and I was fortunate that many product folks came and supported this by writing blogs, doing interviews and few meetups.

One of the early versions of the ProductNation newsletters

This is a writeup that I had done at that time

Productnation aims to be a forum for these individuals to contribute their points of view and opinions and energize the software product industry with their passion for enhancing the product eco-system. The citizens of this great “nation” bring experience, diversity, information, knowledge and cut across caste, creed, race and color! In a nutshell, Productnation.in is by the product guys, for the product guys.

The initial name was SPIRT and why we changed to iSPIRT.

Sharad came up with the name of SPIRT which stands for Software Product Industry Roundtable. I guess after few weeks, Sharad came up with this beautiful analogy of why a think-tank positioning is better than the trade body approach. He had all his facts & data ready with him and others also agreed and we were all set.We tried the following domains early

  • spirt.co.in
  • SPIRuT.in (Software Products Industry RoUndTable )

But when we applied for the name at MCA, it got rejected twice and that’s when we thought about adding i for India. Luckily, the third attempt(i was told it is the last attempt) was successful and we got the name registered as Indian Software Product Industry Roundtable Foundation and called it as iSPIRT Foundation. I added the i in the name 🙂

the first version of the iSPIRT website

We again had a tough challenge in getting the domain as someone had registered ispirt.org and few other domains that we wanted. I also wanted to block ispirit.in as many people continued to call us iSPIRT(with the I) in the end.

Joy from WoodApple, a dear friend helped us with the design of the iSPIRT logo…and you can see the wonderful options that he created and I think we picked up the best.

Joy put his heart in designing the logo which is why it came out so well. We didn’t do any iteration, change of colour, style nothing. We just picked one of them.

How the funding happened…

It was clear that iSPIRT will not be a trade body and will not have members. Instead it will be funded by grants and contributions from products firms and individuals. So, we made a list of 30–35 product founders in the month of December 2013 and started to reach out to them.

  • VAS: One97, OnMobile, NetCore
  • SaaS/PaaS: OrangeScape, Zoho (has announced India launch)
  • ERP/CRM: Tally, Ramco, EmployeeWise, Saigun, Impel,
  • Banking — Nucleus, Infrasoft, iCreate
  • Cloud-SI: ABS, Kuliza
  • Digital platforms: Komli, Inmobi
  • Payment platforms: CCavenue, Billdesk, Paytm
  • TECI: MediManage, RedBus

The second list that we had created

  • BI — Manthan, MAIA Intelligence
  • Security/Anti-virus — iViz, EliteCore, K7 Computing, QuickHeal
  • Power — KLG Systel
  • Mass Visibility — Flipkart, Bookmyshow
  • SMB — Gradatim
  • Micro-Banking — EKO,
  • JustDial, Zomato
  • Income Tax — ClearTax, elagaan
  • Retail — Capillary technologies, GoFrugal
Most of my meetings with Sharad would happen at KGA, that was the place where all discussions would be done on the donor funding.

In the first list, I remember we had not even put Freshdesk and today, you can’t do anything in the product eco-system without the Girish’s touch. So happy to see that Girish has built a powerful brand in the last 4 years.

This would be a 20–30 minute led by Sharad on why we are setting up iSPIRT, how it will be different from a trade body model and how they can be part of this movement and support it. To our surprise, most of the founders believed in the story and came forward and donated money to iSPIRT.

Some of the meetings in Bangalore were face to face whereas the meetings in other cities were on phone. The meeting with Naveen of InMobi was pretty good as he gave us lot of insights on what kind of companies/Founders we should be adding in the first 30. The meeting with Shashank of Practo was also insightful as he shared some pain areas of a growing startup and no help he was getting from the eco-system.

The meeting with Pallav happened at Mainland China and Pallav was on full fire, he asked so many tough questions on why we are starting? 🙂

The conversation with Suresh of Orangescape was the easiest as he was one of the early guys who always believed and supported the work been done by us.

I remember collecting 4 lakhs form companies which were in the early stages, but believed so much in the mission, that they did not even question us on the mission or on where the money would be used.

Before the launch, we had 30 founders who had signed up for the mission and came for the first meeting scheduled at Pramati’s office in Bangalore.

The Launch

We had most of the founders who attended the first meeting on 4th Feb, some of them flew from different places to be part of the meeting. You can see some photographs here. It was good to share the mission, what we had planned to do and also how we were planning to execute it.

The Founder Circle at iSPIRT launch on 4th Feb 2013 at Pramati office

Before the launch, Sujit John & Shlipa Phadnis of TOI did a breaking story of the launch by calling it as 30 software product firms break free from Nasscom. This created lot of issue for me & Sharad as both had played an active role in NPC and the EMERGE forum.

The story that I really liked was by Rohin Dharmakumar of Forbes. He did a very balanced story titled “Is iSpirt an Alternative to Nasscom?

Luckily those days, I think @Sumanthr was not active or he did not notice us and hence we never got some mileage 🙂

When we launched iSPIRT, I remember after few weeks we had Manish Bahl of Forrester questioned that iSPIRT will not be able to make an impact as it is driven by volunteers and doesn’t have a proper secretariat, etc. Based on his blog post, i remember there were couple of stories written about iSPIRT as why we might not be able to do what we have set up as a mission.

Surviving and thriving against all odds!

Initially, some of the leaders also thought that iSPIRT will be an experiment for 1 year, if it worked, we will continue, if it failed, the spirit will just evaporate 🙂 I’m glad that we continued the spirit and good to see the movement has taken off. I can see that now we are a large number of volunteers with many initiatives and happy to be one of the volunteers part of this amazing journey, onwards to many more years of thought leadership as #iSPIRTturns4. It has been an awesome journey!

Special thanks to my friend Sairam who did take a look at the blog inspite of his offsite.