Forget the Product, Obsess about Customer (Problems)

Attending a #PNCamp is like going to an amusement park. You know you are going to have a great time. But everything that happens still manages to amaze you in a way you do not expect.

Seth Godin

In this post, I will share my experience at the recently held #PNCamp3 at ISB, Hyderabad. This was the first Product Nation Camp held at Hyderabad and focused on early-stage B2B startups.

A bit about my startup, RobusTest. RobusTest is a software platform that helps enterprises test mobile apps better and release them faster at a significantly lesser cost. We are currently 2 years old and work with 2 leading enterprises. I came into #PNCamp3 with a burning question – how do I do sales? In the last few months, my understanding of sales has improved through reading and through real experience. At #PNCamp I was looking forward to understanding enterprise sales in a structured manner. I did get some answers and I hope you too get a few takeaways from this post.

Building a Global Product Business

The day started with Jay Pullur of Pramati Technologies exploring the topic of building a global product business from his experience of building multiple enterprise products and successfully exiting a few. Incidentally I worked with Pramati Technologies for 8 years and closely with Jay on an enterprise product.

Jay Pullur of Pramati talking about building a global product
Jay Pullur of Pramati talking about building a global product

Chefs would tell you that when making a dish, not only is it important to have the right ingredients, it is equally important that the ingredients be added at the right time and in the right mix. Jay explored both these facets – the appropriate constituents and appropriate team constitution – when building a product business.

To start with, in the building phase, you need to get the technology and the product right. Once your product is ready, you will be selling and for that you need to identify your market and your customers. In the third phase, you will be looking at scaling for which you need to focus on people and capital. It is important to remember that as a startup grows through these phases, the focus on relevant ingredients increases but it does not imply the absence of other ingredients e.g. you will need people even when you are scaling, you will need the technology even when you are selling – just that when selling your focus should be on identifying the right market and customers and when scaling your focus should be on getting the right people and having enough capital.

Jay also touched upon the different types of exits startups may have – an exit at the build stage is most probably an acquihire, an acquisition at the sell stage is most probably for the acquirer to get a foothold in the market that the product caters to. When you exit at scale, it is for the acquirer to gain a position in the market.

Product Teardown

Product Teardown is always a much awaited session because of the open and forthright feedback given by experts on existing startups and their working. Hats off to every startup which chooses to participate in this exercise. It is an acknowledgement of their willingness to confront their shortcomings and work on them.

Participants presenting at the Product Teardown
Participants presenting at the Product Teardown

5 startups presented their product – UrbanPiper, EngineerBabu, Vaave, KnightTracker, DataKatalyst  – while a crack team which spent considerable time and effort in researching the startup – right from its market space down to the minutest detail – gave feedback. As I heard the feedback given to each startup, I could see many mistakes/oversights in our own marketing and selling strategy. Following are some highlights from the product teardown.

Are customers clear about what you are offering?

Does your website clearly communicate what you are offering – to put it the right way which problem of theirs are you solving, how can a customer sign up or get more information, what they will need to pay, and many other such questions that go into “converting” a customer.

Wait, are you clear about what you are offering?

As engineers and technical geeks, most product startup founders have immense clarity about what they are building. However, most of the times we are found wanting when it comes to clarity on “which problem are we solving”, “whose problem are we solving” & “how are we solving it”. It goes without saying, that a product without customers is a hobby project at best.

Is your website communicating your value proposition or confusing your potential customer?

A rookie mistake most founders make when creating their website (or any other marketing channel) is to explain all features of their products with painstaking detail forgetting the one important part – the customer and how we intend to make his/her life better. In fact, it is not at all a bad idea to look at websites of the competition and learn a few things from them (or even copy the entire site, of course in a smart manner).

Are you selecting your customer(s) or are you catering to everyone?

When we are starting up, there is a great desire to include everyone in our customer set. This propensity, of course, ends up confusing every potential customer. It is, therefore, important to put in some thought into which customer segment to address.As is often recommended, identify your least resistant customers and go after them.

One example that was cited was nature of business ownership. As a startup when the challenge is to close a deal as fast as possible, it makes sense to target businesses which are still run by the owner rather than corporates where decision making is spread out across teams and is, shall we say, bureaucratic.

When identifying the target customer segment, it is helpful to pick as narrow a segment as possible. This helps a startup focus its efforts which is very essential considering that startups need to be very judicious with their resources.

Selling to Enterprise Customers Globally

While Jay’s session focussed on building global enterprise products, Zenoti’s Sudheer Koneru delved into selling to enterprise customers across the globe. Zenoti is a cloud-based software for spas and salons and is a successful SaaS product from India.

Sudheer Koneru talking about selling to enterprise customers globally
Sudheer Koneru talking about selling to enterprise customers globally

One of the first things that Sudheer emphasised on is that if we are targeting the global market (and we better know if we are), then all the messaging including website, language, photographs & product demos should be geared towards creating the impression that we are an international player.

On the topic of Customer Development, Sudheer narrated an impressive anecdote on how he and his team went about studying their customers’ problems. They literally got themselves massaged and manicured into customer development! They took services from different spas and salons and simulated multiple real-life scenarios. This exercise provided important insights into issues that the current offerings posed. It empowered them to talk to their customers in a language they spoke and hence, connected instantly with the customer.

An important piece of advice that Sudheer gave was to avoid selling to customers and rather focus on asking the right questions to understand their problems. Of course, it is important to ask the right questions. So instead of asking “would you like a product which does this and this”, one could ask “how do you currently do ….”, “how much times does … take ”, “how often do you create reports”, “how do you decide if you need to ….”. The answers to these questions will help one understand how to solve the customer’s problems.

The one thing

If there was one thing that I took back from #PNCamp3, it would be

forget about your product, rather obsess over your customer – rather obsess over the customer’s problems


Last but not the least, I am grateful to the entire team behind #PNCamp3.

Thanks a lot to the team at iSPIRT – Avinash, Chaitanya and Sainath, to Sudheer and his team from Zenoti (Mrityunjay, Anand, Bharath) which was present in full force and helped organize the camp,  to Jay Pullur & Raunak (Now Floats) for their presence and guidance. Of course, thanks to ISB for being an amazing venue.

Guest Post by Aishwarya Mishra, RobusTest

Start-ups and think tanks are game-changers

It is time for us to embrace new-age start-ups and local think tanks for India to prosper.

Human development indicators improve rapidly when countries learn to provide health, education and financial inclusion more effectively. Incremental increases in expenditure on welfare schemes and subsidies do not bring about this change. Plugging the leakages in government distribution helps, but it is not a panacea. What we need are game-changing innovations that can tackle India-scale challenges.

In the past 30 years, it has become clear that game-changing solutions do not follow a prescribed path to discovery. Instead, they are born out of hundreds of experiments. These experiments can’t be limited to the labs of a few resource-rich incumbents.

We need to widen the funnel to include the new-age entrepreneurs and innovators. To do this, the government needs to adopt and evangelize pro-challenger tools and policies that reduce barriers to experimentation, create level playing fields and encourage innovating around national issues.

There is some good news on this front. In the past few years, a collaborative effort between several government agencies and the Indian Software Products Industry Round Table (iSPIRT), a non-profit think tank, have helped create key enablers for hundreds of experiments.

A digital infrastructure for cashless, paperless and presence-less (on smartphone) service delivery is now in place. It is colloquially called the India Stack. It offers all the building blocks that are needed as public goods. And the rapid adoption of Jan Dhan Yojana, Aadhaar and mobile numbers (JAM) has created a ready pool of citizens to try out these services.

This enables new-age start-ups to do more complex things than they could do before, making them transformation agents for real India.

These new-age start-ups will deliver 10x gains that we need in health, education and financial inclusion to make India successful.

But we must think beyond start-ups. The Indian state must evolve too. It must learn faster, change faster and implement faster.

A 2013 paper by Luke Jordan of the World Bank and Sebastien Turban and Laurence Wilse-Samson of Columbia University shows that the Indian state performs poorly on these dimensions compared to the Chinese state. They identify many factors for this.

For instance, China has undertaken reform once every five years since 1978, while India has only attempted it twice in 65 years. Therefore, China has been continuously tuning up its capacity to learn and deliver.

In India, substantial administrative reforms are overdue. (The reforms recommended by the Second Administrative Reforms Commission still remain unimplemented.)

It turns out that think tanks have an important role to play too. A dense network of think tanks is necessary to conduct and spread research.

Indian think tanks are mostly central or foreign, with only a few having strong links into the policy system. China has think tanks observing and explaining change. This is a structural gap.

Because of this, the Indian state is conspicuously lacking in its capacity to generate new knowledge, transmit it across the system and act on that.

It is time for us to embrace the two new players—new-age start-ups and local think tanks—for India to prosper. Only then will we able to break free from our current trajectory to meet the aspirations of our young citizens.

Jay Pullur is founder and CEO of Pramati Technologies. He is also a co-founder and governing council member of iSPIRT.

Shashank N.D. is founder and CEO of Practo Technologies. He is part of iSPIRT’s Founder Circle.

Era of Open APIs

APIs are important public goods that must be done right. They must not be held captive to commercial interests. This is why iSPIRT is helping Government in this area. iSPIRT’s work is inspired by Open Source movement and IETF methods. It fits with our charter of creating public goods without public money.
GSTN teamOur Open API effort is based on some core principles:
– Like IETF, iSPIRT is not a member organization. Participation is “People, not companies”.
– “Design is a team sport”. Focus is on building a modern architecture for country-scale technology systems.
– iSPIRT API Teams have people who are “Competent experts that are completely free of conflicts”.
– Technical decisions emerge from intense discussion. They are informed by prototypes, not theory. Motto is: “Code walks, bullshit talks”.
Today Economic Times carries an article about this Open API effort.  The article conveys the progress that we are making. More is on its way.
Source: Economic Times

We will soon be launching a micro-site to build engagement with your community. Watch this space.

Presenting the iSPIRT Governing Framework

It has been a great, great year here at iSPIRT, and though we have a long way yet to go, we are confident that we are well on our way to get to where we want to be.

After all, well begun is half done.

But then, there is also the question of structure, not unlike the problem entrepreneurs face they have to scale their business – when the organization becomes big and responsibilities fragment and become more focussed, what if the core values get diluted?

This is why principles are important, and since we started with an ideal we wanted to reach, we have distilled it into three governing principles , which are –

  1. Radical transparency
    This is crucial to continued operation of our ‘peer production’ (volunteer) model.
  2. Polycentric governance aka Panchayat system
    Which means that SPIRT is bigger than any one individual.
  3. Open-Access Public Goods
    We work for many and not for any one company, no matter how important it might be.

The Governing Council (GC) is responsible for upholding these governing principles and ensuring integrity across the board. The GC is about empowerment, not control. It helps clarify the causes and initiatives that we pursue. It is responsible to the SPI at large and not to donors. Our inspiration comes from the world of Wikipedia and Linux.  It’s a world where people are organized but there is no traditional organization; disputes are resolved and order prevails but there is no single person in control.

In the GC, we have a clear conception of the long-term outcomes that we seek. Today SPI is not even an identified industry. We seek to change this. As we argued in the 2012 iSPIRT Annual Letter, India’s future depends on a vibrant software product industry.

To accelerate the growth of SPI we seek a healthier power-law distribution of big and small firms. Our focus on market catalysts like M&A Connect, Global CIO Connect (InTech50) and Software Adoption Initiative are geared to help companies scale faster. In keeping with the global practice, we measure ecosystem’s success in terms of market capitalization, not revenues. We hope to overtake Israel in number and value of M&A deals in the coming years.

The Governing Council is going to champion three causes in this regard –

  1. Solve market coordination failures (e.g. through M&A Connect Program),
  2. Influencing policy,
  3. Synthesizing and evangelizing playbook for faster success.

We recognize that these aren’t everyday tasks. And iSPIRT is just getting started. With our almost audacious mission of transforming India at large through use of software products, we know this is a marathon, not a sprint.

This governing framework that we are sharing with you has evolved from numerous discussions and conversations with our Founder Circle membersFellows, Mavens and Saarthis over the last many months.  By placing this in the public domain, we once again commit ourselves to building a durable Think Tank that’ll turn India into a Product Nation.

Bharat Goenka (Tally Solutions), Jay Pullur (Pramati Technologies), Naveen Tewari (InMobi), Sharad Sharma (BrandSigma), Vishnu Dusad (Nucleus Software), Governing Council, iSPIRT Foundation

Analysis of Market Opportunities for Indian Software Products

As a think tank, iSPIRT has been constantly thinking, exploring and encouraging numerous models of software product business, all in parallel. This process leads us to gather three distinct categories of inputs that can then be crystalized and shared with the larger ecosystem – practitioner experiences, market trends and industry strengths. Since all the three factors evolve, the class of opportunities becomes different over a period of time and the analysis needs to be repeated. The current document reflects the best of our understanding as of today.

iSPIRT is very appreciative of the efforts of entrepreneurs who pursue individual market opportunities and their will to succeed. Unlike a market analysis report by an Analyst firm, this document does not aid entrepreneurs to pick a particular opportunity or support an investment thesis, as it deals with mainly the macro-level factors. We believe that an articulation of the market reality (a blend of practitioner experiences, market trends and industry strengths) would provide insight to industry observers and policy makers as to how the Software Products Industry is working and why.

Here is a small outline that helps in understanding this document.

First section starts by clarifying segmentation of the market on internationally accepted lines. Two major impact areas are then analyzed – SaaS business model (pay as you go, for software) and Services industry (large population familiar with issues and delivery of services to enterprise customers, particularly, larger ones). Finally a picture of market opportunities across segments is derived from the above trends and other tailwind factors from an India perspective.

Fellow Entrepreneur, Ask not what the Buyer can do for your company!

For about 2 hours in the RoundTable session, the intense discussion was centered around how to be ready for M&A. Buyers, who have an interest in your company will ask about your product, your markets, your customers, your revenues. As an Entrepreneur, what is your first ask in return? Usually they are any of the following. What will the buyer pay us? Is this the right time, should we wait for a better valuation? What will the buyer do with us post acquisition?

Jay Pullur, CEO, Pramati Technologies, helped us realize, that the first question should be, what will our company do for the buyer? What is the fitment of our product or solution in the buyer’s vision? You need to ask and most importantly answer this yourself. Don’t expect the buyer to answer this, if you are, then you are not ready for any deal. It was a moment of epiphany. Fellow Entrepreneur, the first step to readiness for an M&A is to ask, what your product does to the buyer’s company, not what the buyer can do for your company.

Four hours of entertaining stories by both Jay Pullur, Pramati Technologies and Sanjay Shah, Invensys Skelta, 12 companies and about 20 participants got the opportunity to interact and learn many of the wise nuggets from these industry leaders. Not all elements of the session can be reproduced here, but below are some of the key highlights and learnings.

Wise Nuggets – Its all about Knowing (see below for details)

Wise men plan ahead. The pain or the gap that your company addresses should itself be strategically planned. Positioning your entire company, like a pretty bride will ensure the suitor will come. According to Jay, technology buyers in the US do several acquisitions in a year, so for them its just another transaction, they are not emotional about it, not attached to it, its just their job. So the interests of the suitor should always take precedence, otherwise the suitor will move to the next company on the list. Sanjay added that using an iBanker to help you in the match-making process or to source the right type of buyers is also a very beneficial activity. To sum it up, like for any Sale, Seller has to make it absolutely comfortable and easy for the buyer to buy. The checklist includes, but is not limited, to the following.

    • Know or Define the right fitment (addressing the GAP in the buyer’s arsenal is most important)
    • Know your Position (be clear on the landscape and position your product very clearly)
    • Know when to exit (constantly guage the pulse or the sentiment of both the market and the buyer, macro-economic conditions can play havoc, sense the weight of an opportunity)
    • Know your Buyer’s problem – Demonstrate that you know the Customer’s Exact Problem (POC, Story boarding the Pitch and strategy all come into play)
    • Know your Product (Don’t use flowery language and adjectives- show the customer, you are only solving a pain – which is not a glamorous job to do)
    • Know your Buyer – Gauge the buyer’s impending need to buy (They will usually reciprocate with the same rigor as you)
    • Know the Competitors, their strategies, their features, their benefits and most importantly their weaknesses.
    • Know your-self (You know that you have built a rocket or a rickshaw – if you are in a rocket, you should be on-top of the short-list)
    • Know your price (indicative pricing is most important – make sure all research leads to a best possible quote)
    • Know how to close (all the criteria for success should be met, there is no alternative for preparation and effort)
    • Know your readiness (systems/processes for closure, like record-keeping, employment contracts etc)
    • Know what the deal entails (who brings the deal – may be an iBanker, upper thresholds, lower thresholds, etc)
    • Know your Organizational structure (are you are platform, are you embeddable, do you need domain expertise)
    • Know the parties and their motivations (Eng Team in California v/s CFO in London – who is the deal maker, who is the deal breaker)
    • Know the term-sheet (if not hire legal guys or ibankers who can help).

Insights and Learnings

There were many learnings, which definitely are tied to the personal experiences. Some of the key ones are

When Jay sold Qontext to Autodesk he found them to be extremely professional and did not find any price penalty, or discrimination, because of the Indian-ness of it. In fact, he was able to sell it for a very good multiple. The best valuation/revenue multiple silicon valley companies to could get. So its a myth to think that a technology product from India, might get the raw end of the deal.

When Sanjay sold Skelta to Invensys, he understood the weight of the opportunity. Even though the conversation was not intended for M&A, both parties realized that its mutually beneficial to do so within a couple of hours of conversation.

Sanjay’s additional advise, raise adequate money at a comfortable time, and continue to stay relevant via media briefings, etc all the time.

    • Other general learnings were also discussed. To note a few,
    • Learn about Earn-outs, ESOPs, Liquidation Preferences (Be real to scale)
    • Invest if you have clarity on Exit (do everything possible for the deal to come to a fruition, POC, be aggressive, call the CEO if needed)
    • Learn about Black duck tests, acqui-hires, escrows for indemnification, etc.
    • Define the outcome post M&A and get consent.


Overall M&A stands for all your Moves & Acts. Its all about the Story, your clarity of all the characters and props in the story, and their acts. Commercial success is most important, direct accordingly. Re-takes’s are possible, in-fact easier provided you make your first venture successful.The hilarious moment and the most catchy line came from Jay. Someone asked about honesty and truth, during the process of due-diligence, for which Jay laughingly said, “Tell the truth with such conviction, that the buyer will lie to himself”.

Build product teams based on established capabilities and chemistry

Jay Pullur is the founder and CEO of Pramati Technologies, software and services company based out of Hyderabad. The company recently announced that it’s enterprise social collaboration software platform — Qontext — had been acquired by Autodesk, the maker of design, engineering and entertainment software.  Jay’s career in the software industry spans 25 years, and his primary interest lies in building products for new markets. This has led to Pramati Technologies incubating and spinning-off multiple startups. In an interview with, Jay talks about the importance of a product development team, switching from a services mindset to a product mindset and importance of giving customers not just a product but also an experience.

When you’re conceptualizing a product do you ultimately have the end goal in place or does that fall into place somewhere long the journey? 

Well, the end goal is to make the product successful. Normal entrepreneurial expectations are to build the business big enough to pursue the acquisition path, or an IPO. However at Pramati, even before we think about that end goal we practice what we call ‘careful entrepreneurship’ — we don’t venture into something just because we’re passionate about doing something in a certain area or because we want to jump on the bandwagon. Working with an end goal in mind is like playing the game with the sight set on the scoreboard; we might loose track of the ball.

Instead, we start an idea in a small fashion, watch it gather momentum and then form a core team. The spectrum of opportunities is wide and how else would one choose? We build a core team around the project with people from within the company who have established capabilities and chemistry. We then have to craft the product pitch and try it out in the market before committing funds to sales and other activities. Based on the product-market fit, we formally make it an independent entity and float it out like a typical startup. This approach as worked better for us.

So on an average, how long does this preparatory phase take? And what’s the profile of this team – do they come from multidisciplinary backgrounds?

Idea development stage can take anywhere up to a year, most often 6 months.  During this period, we have a really small team — like for Qontext, we had a three-person team. And they are usually people who’ve been with the company for sometime, so we know they are right for exploring certain aspects. There are many aspects to explore because a product is a confluence of market opportunity and certain technology changes. The company has built strong capabilities to address this confluence in a few chosen areas, and we play around our strengths. The team might include people from technology, user experience, business development, consumer marketing or enterprise sales, and the composition entirely depends on what aspects have to be explored before we dive deep.

So given your background in Wipro, where you were employee #36,  getting into the product mindset would have required a different mentality. In Wipro it was about the client doing the spec and asking for something, and the services organization providing the people and delivering the project. How did you resolve yourself to a new business model where the waiting period itself to kick of a project was anywhere between 9-12 months?

When I started at Wipro, it was early days of the IT industry in the country. We did have to innovate on the services side of the business model in some fashion, however the services industry enjoyed many natural advantages. Understanding the services part of the business gave me good insights as to what is possible in India and the expectations of global clients. But, now we had to innovate on the business model further and we were ready for that.

I left Wipro with the intention of experimenting and bringing a new level of innovation in the country using the same IT professionals but creating higher value offerings. Those were the days when the Internet was just beginning to boom, so our first product was an infrastructure for web applications. The company vision has been to find the right model for building globally successful products or services and go beyond what the traditional IT industry in India has done.

Talking of teams, you have different very distinct product lines doing some very focused work. How do ensure that the best practices that come out of the product development exercise are replicable across the organization?

Product development no doubt needs very high-levels of skills, capabilities, teamwork and commitment to excellence. And when we are able to that well, we need to ensure that it spreads through the organization and remains as part of our DNA even as we grow.

This actually is a very critical element of our business model and you will notice that we are organized as multiple independent businesses with a core, underlying infrastructure, technical expertise, work culture and purpose. The independent business gives them the freedom of smallness (read startup) structurally and the core brings the power of the big.

In some ways Pramati is not only a software company but also as an incubator and an angel investor with a portfolio of businesses. The strength lies in bringing this synergy between them, and building the infrastructure that is common for all these companies — and this is beyond just providing facilities and finances. It is about building the core capabilities of creating teams, spotting talent and integrating them. The Pramati corporate base provides a common infrastructure such as access to a strong legal and M&A specialists needed for deals like our recent one with Autodesk. Such Corporate development capability is hard to build in a startup, although very essential. Also, our model gives us the opportunity to bring talent in to the company even earlier than we’d actually need. We are always looking to bring the right people in the system and be part of our culture; opportunities may get worked out subsequently.

So in the product development game, if you had to put your finger on three vital resources without which you wouldn’t even contemplate beginning, what would those be?

  1. Deep understanding of technology. The organizational knowledge in key technology areas plays a big role. It gives us the confidence to deal with changing market needs and customer preferences.
  2. The ability to think globally. Over the last 14 years we have built complementary operations in both India and the US. So this gives us access to both markets – customers and talent, enabling us to build products and market them.
  3. Our brand. Customers don’t want to deal with small brands and unknown products. Having been in business for a long time and served thousands of customers across different categories, we understand the kind of expectations customers have. We constantly strive to understand customers better and enhance the experience we deliver.

Typically, Indians have been accused of being great from a technology perspective but are sometimes very poor at packaging and brand building. How have you tackled this? 

I think being good at technology alone is not enough. Customers today are expecting more than just a product or a solution — they’re expecting an experience. We always design and build the whole product, not just the software part. Few important things here are – the experience of dealing with company, the first impression with the product, the usability, the interaction with our support team. Nothing less than world-class sells today and no customers are captive; there are hundreds of other players in every market who are ready to service them.

So obviously we had to build a team that’s global in nature finding the right resources in the right place. Fortunately, we found right talent in India who could design user interface and experience that works well for our global customers. However, as a company, we have placed heavy emphasis on packaging, user experience and brand development which has paid off well.