Behind the scenes of $2 billion Indian startup movie #PNgrowth

Last month, for the first time, I witnessed something really special. Even for someone like me, whose very job and calling is to evangelise this nascent software ecosystem of ours, this was something extraordinary.

I’ve been doing this a while, and what happened last month was one of the best feelings I’ve had in this journey.

This is what happened: Some of the leading B2B enterprise startups in the country, including FreshdeskEka SoftwareCapillaryZenotiFusionChartsKiSSFlow, etc all got together under a single roof.

This is what they got together for: To help 52 other, smaller B2B startups in achieving scale, like they have.

It’s no exaggeration to say that the founders of these companies are some of the most important product leaders we have.

In the first session itself, Shekar Kirani pointed out that a platform like this will not be easily available, and the assembled startups needed to leverage the best from the network and from the folks who had arrived with the the express intention of helping them. And the product leaders who also made an important point – that they did not want the new age startups to go through the same grind, or make the same mistakes they had made in their years of scaling.

I was amazed. It is almost never that you see such accomplished professionals come together towards helping and nurturing young startups from their own learnings.

And what was this? What was happening?

This was the 2nd edition of #PNgrowth.

The first one had been in Jan 2016 at the Infosys Campus in Mysore where we had assembled around 186 founders to help companies think about Category Leadership. It went really, really well, but the feedback was that that perhaps keeping it focussed for fewer founders would help the cause better.

Many heated discussions were conducted over breakfast, lunch, dinner, and beer (especially beer) on the program for the 2nd edition and on how we can add value to the content.

These conversations were typically 4-6 hours long, which meant that the entire program/content took us over 200 hours with 12 founders brainstorming for the past 3-4 months.

It really did take us that long.

And those deep discussions based on the 1st edition’s feedback was what the program for November was based on.

And now that #PNgrowth 2016 is over, I decided to take a look back and share some of the learnings in organising this, and on how we pulled this together. 

This year, the program was designed to help companies chase ‘Good Scale’, that is, to achieve high growth without compromising on quality. There were 52 founders with us, from all over India, and a few from outside as well.

Before we get into the details, a larger question must be addressed again, largely because it keeps getting brought up. This time, I’m trying to use a different approach to explain this. Bear with me.


iSPIRT’s mission is to make India a ProductNation. We have many initiatives like Playbook RoundtablesPNcamp, etc which are focussed around building products and helping companies achieve good scale. Although there are many accelerators in our country, very few offer value to the founders/companies. Keeping this in mind, iSPIRT wanted to do something unique and create a platform which would help companies think about growth in an effective manner. More importantly, we want to make ongoing mentorship accessible to the founders.

_mg_0662The goal was to create 8-10 companies every year which would eventually go on to become $10mn revenue companies in the next 3 years.


These are the co-chairs.

The first edition of PNgrowth had just finished and I was looking for someone to be the architect for the second edition. I met Shankar Maruwada for lunch at Muffets & Tuffets and was having a completely different  conversation. But, as we touched upon the PNgrowth topic, Shankar had lots of suggestions on how we could do this better. I immediately requested him to help in designing the program and helping me organise it better.. He accepted graciously, and was keen to help.

_a5a7389My next request was to get Pallav Nadhani involved again. There is a reason for this. Pallav, in many ways, was the person who forced us to think around Category Leadership. The first meeting took place at Pallav’s place which went on till 2:30 am.

By then, I had had several interactions with Aneesh Reddy, and the early playbook roundtables on Product Management had been done by him. I reached out to him and he was very keen to be part of the program and help us.

With Shankar, Pallav and Aneesh on-board, the pillars of the event were erected.


These, of course, were the facilitators.

Around 4-6 months in advance, we started working on the content for the event. Various topics were discussed. One thing was clear to me: Every founder had immense passion and commitment to add value to a certain topic. The format we had in mind was to make very interactive session. All of us had had enough of the ‘sage on stage’ approach. The founders were to lead sessions and work along with the participating entrepreneurs to help them extract maximum benefit.

Many discussions later, Pallav & Shankar actually started with using the frameworks & mindflips and were later joined by Girish & AneeshManav & Shekhar also used the same in their session. 

_mg_7722It was great to see that all the facilitators did an outstanding job of delivery of the frameworks and ensured that they shared real life stories and lots of data and numbers from their companies. What was more important was that they made sure they spent time with all the attendees and ensured they received personalised attention. They were able to build a personal connect and trust within the startup community by sharing internal information even though they didn’t have to, thereby making the discussion even more credible.


Oh, that. We had huge demand for tickets from the audience, the founders of India’s growing startup community.


This time, right from Day 1, we only wanted to get select founders to be part of PNgrowth.

To begin this selection process, we laid out which stage of startups would benefit from PNgrowth. We then went on and created a list of founders and reached out to them. Apart from this, we reached out to folks from within the eco-system and got them to recommend companies to us.

Each company was recommended by atleast 2-3 founders from the PNgrowth curation team. We did zero marketing for PNgrowth except for a video, which we used to communicate to potential participants. We received overwhelming response for the event thus putting me in a fix at several situations where I had to inform founders that they have been rejected for a program/event. It was difficult, but in the interest of the event, it had to be done.

We finally had 54 founders who confirmed their participation, out of which 52 showed up for the bootcamp. These companies were divided into groups of 6 based on the type of customer/geography they were catering to.


These were the mentors, and we were able to get around 14 founders as mentors and were simply amazed by their commitment for the two and a half days of the event. Mentors were involved in all facets of the event – from intense board room discussions to the dance floor. Let me go little more deeper on the role that they played. In every session, the founders got access to few frameworks, mindflips which they had to fill and discuss with their peers + mentors. Lot of learnings were shared by mentors and it became very valuable to the founders. Very few of them tweeted from the program as everyone was busy interacting, engaging, absorbing content, but here is one of the tweets which acknowledges the mentors.


Getting to them, the volunteers.

In my work, I get to interact with many volunteers in many initiatives, but this time the commitment and the passion with which the volunteers worked was unimaginable. Folks would go to sleep at 5am and be ready next day at 8am. They would ensure that mentors/founders have had breakfast, etc and would go an extra mile to take care that founders are focussed on their work and don’t get distracted.

Volunteers also interacted with the founders to understand if the pace/level of the sessions suited them. Lot of planning was done in advance that each and every person who is part of PNgrowth goes back with a WOW experience. I still wonder where they get so much of inspiration from.

_mg_8120I don’t know if i would ever be able to do something like that. Hats off to all the volunteers who put together an awesome experience for the PNgrowth family.


Day 1

The Founders started with a cricket match between the cohorts itself. 

Sharad Sharma, our guiding light, kick started the event with his words of wisdom for all the founders.

And then it began with Pallav’s session on Who are you? As founders, entrepreneurs have to pitch or sell their ideas constantly, so as to inspire the listener to believe in their dream to either fund the idea, join the team, tie up with the startup, or write about the startup. Is there a method to this? Can this be an acquired skill? 

In this session, founders learnt and practiced a simple framework that enables them to improve their ability to pitch their ideas in the shortest time, to the desired target audience – VCs, journalists, co-founders, customers, business partners, and employees.

The next session was focussed on how to maximise the value of your product. If you as a founder were to increase the perceived value of your offering (Increase average MRR by 1.5X and/or reduce churn to 0.5X),how would your economics change? How would it change your CAC, margins? What would you as a founder then do differently with your product strategy, go to market strategy (positioning, marketing, channel, pricing), team/organization structure, to increase pricing by 1.5X, in the scenarios below as relevant to you. This was followed by an interactive session with the mentors. 

This was end of Day 1 and then we had networking dinner, drinks, some dance and lots of conversations led by Vinod & Ashish.

Day 2

The second day was a more power packed with two sessions. To their credit, the founders were highly engrossed in their sessions, sans their mobile phones and laptops which helped in making these sessions successful.

During the first half, Girish and Aneesh engaged in an extremely fruitful session on product-market how to scale 10X with emphasis on how to establish your sales funnel and building a repeatable sales cycle. This session covered on selling processes from SMBs (by Girish) and enterprises (by Aneesh). They also shed some light on how pricing, positioning and selling varies from one geography to another.

Apart from this, Suresh also gave his insights on selling global products out of India.

_mg_7993The complete session went on till almost tea break after which the candidates came back in for the third and final session by Shekhar and Manav.

This session was meant to give a befitting end to the two rigorous days of activity.

While Manav spoke about how to choose your niche category and expand to other similar industries and geographies, Shekhar’s session was centred around what a VC looks for a in a startup. In the session,

Shekhar did a Q&A round with Nags and Girish on what it takes to build a successful organisation.

He also delved a bit deeper on aspects like how to choose the right market and how to intelligently figure a way out of a market and move into one that is expanding by extracting maximum business value.

Here Raghu also added his thoughts on what it takes to raise venture capital and how one should structure an organisation for a CEO to utilise his time in the most efficient manner.

Though the mentors tried to cover as much ground as possible over the two days, they took questions from audiences on anything they still might have a doubt about.

After this was a complete group photograph since some of the mentors had to leave that night. The energy of the picture speaks for itself. Before calling it a day, the founders were given tasks/homework for them to present on the final day.

Day 3

The third day, we had some inspirational stories from Sanjay Anandaram(Seedfund), Mohit Dubey (CarWale),  Phanindra Sama(RedBus), Raghunandan G(TaxiForSure), Sanjay Deshpande(FortyTwo Labs). We had actually planned for only Sanjay to talk about “entrepreneurial mindset” and then we thought about inviting all of the above folks to share their energy.

Something which we had planned for 20-30 minutes went on for around 90 mins and it was an absolute pleasure to hear some of the learnings/failures from all these founders. Below is the NPS score of 89 for PNgrowth 🙂 

nps-score-pngrowthAfter this, all founders were made to do this exercise on “Getting to 3X Growth in 12 Months”. All mentors with their cohorts spent time with the founders and helped them on what they should be thinking about this. Six Founders got an opportunity to share with the whole group.

Finally Shankar invited all volunteers to share few words on why they volunteered for PNgrowth. With it, a spectacular three days came to end, with some photographs and a lot of hugs, cheers, and greetings.

For me, it was a great feeling to see all of this happen, and at this scale. This probably capped off the year of 2016 for me and iSPIRT as a year in which we were actually able to make the ecosystem function as a cohesive, united entity. Lots of work is ahead of us, but as I write this, I acknowledge a task well begun.


Many thanks to Sairam for editing & Shruti for filling the blanks.

Playbooks is one of the key pillars of iSPIRT bouquet.

Playbook in iSPIRT denotes entrepreneurial learning meant for Indian software product startups to become world class and be successful.

Roundtable is a format of learning intended for startups that have reached a happy confused stage. In this format 8-12 non competing startups are brought together to discuss deeply on a topic that holds them from jumping to their next level.A facilitator, who is an in the saddle entrepreneur deep dives on the topic by becoming metaphorically naked and shares his experience and gets a peer discussion going on the topic.Coaching including peer coaching happens through multiple mode – judgement of the discussion (VC mode), sharing experience (Sage on Stage), being a mirror (Guide by the Side). Playbook Roundtable tend to be more of the last category of mirroring.

playbook-ispirtThink of this as group study for 7th class students in an age where there no school & teacher and one has to pass the 10th standard board exam. Some one who has done that leads the group study.

Playbooks have a longitudinal impact so they are tracked via an input metric.  At the end of every roundtable session a Net Promoter Score (NPS) is calculated via survey, the average NPS score of last 85 roundtable that were held is about +80. (iPhone as a product has an NPS of +71).

Roundtable was initially architected by Shankar Maruwada, Ashish Gupta, Vivek Subramanian & Aneesh Reddy. Some learnings from past roundtable are captured here

Key organizing principles behind creating playbook roundtables

  • In the saddle entrepreneurs are the best to teach upcoming ones. Age, company brand plays no role.
  • Quality > Quantity which means traditional format of 1 to 100 classroom style  and metric of footfall attendance should be questioned.
  • Safe environment are absolutely necessary to have deep discussion.
  • Curation is highly important, ie. have non competing participants and bring people together in similar stage of startup growth.
  • A facilitator and organizer checklist.

I have had the privilege to shadow about 40 of 85 roundtables that have happened in last 3 years. If I describe it as saying that gold dust of the tacit knowledge gets shared it won’t be an exaggeration. Chatham rules apply in a roundtable i.e. to protect the safe environment no quote is attributed to a person. However this deck those captures some of the discussed tacit knowledge as directives

A good mental model to decide which roundtables can be used from the market map


Check details at the events section in PN blog

Playbooks is more than roundtable

The initial focus of Roundtable was happy confused product startup founders a later realization was that playbooks will need to extend across the spectrum of entreprenuership lifecycle.

kindergarden   > discovery (1st to 7th std) > happy confused (7th std) > pre-scale (10th std) > pre-growth(pre college)

Playbooks Progression
Playbooks Progression


Some of these additional formats emerged

Playbooks sets down one of the most critical foundation layer for India to be product nation.

50 Companies. 3 Days of Bootcamp. 1 Year of Mentorship. #PNgrowth2016 is back

We’ve done this for two years. It has been successful. But we still felt that it could be improved. We went back to the drawing board. We thought hard about how we could do this better.

And we’ve come back with something that will be more powerful, and even more demanding from our product entrepreneurs.

#PNgrowth2016 will feature only 50 startups, giving each startup more facetime with the mentors, more scrutiny, and more learning. Reducing the number also means that the quality of the startups attending will also go up, thereby making peer to peer learning  and networking even more valuable.

whatsapp-image-2016-09-13-at-4-57-29-pmSo 50 Companies. 3 Days of Bootcamp. 1 Year of Mentorship.

The Product Bootcamp is back. Smaller, better, more intense. Apply now!

Who is #PNgrowth for, and who is it not for?

PNgrowth2016 is a program to help companies chase ‘Good Scale’ i.e. achieve high growth AND increase in quality. Achieving Good Scale is a critical first step to a company achieving Category Leadership.It will be a year long program comprising of selecting around 50 companies who will go through a three day bootcamp, followed up with monthly mentoring sessions to track progress over the next 12 months.

The idea behind #PNgrowth2016 is to identify companies who can be significantly impacted with Mentoring and put them together in an intense environment to accelerate their learning curve. It is not meant for companies who are:

  1. Well funded, have their business model figured out and have access to business inputs and sufficient mentors.

  2. Companies who are in survival mode, are wondering whether they will survive the next six months or don’t yet have a working product and some initial customers.

How will the format be?

The inputs to the companies will come from structured frameworks provided to them and from intense practice of these frameworks as it applies to their individual cases. During these practice sessions, they will get relevant feedback from their peers, and from experienced Mentors. The feedback will help them improve their thinking and the structure (including metrics) will allow them and their Mentors to judge the progress being made over the next 12 months.

What happens in the three day bootcamp?

  1. You might have heard of a Product Teardown? #PNgrowth2016 starts off with a three day bootcamp for your business model.  It is an intensive ‘business model’ teardown for entrepreneurs, by entrepreneurs.

  2. To begin with, you will be provided with a structure along with frameworks and metrics which you will apply on your own business.

  3. There will be three main sessions (each lasting 4 hours or more) – Market (Demand), Product (Supply) and Product-Market fit.

Across these three sessions, your business model will first be torn down and rebuilt. Along the way, will be questioned on every assumption you have made about your customers, your product, metrics, your business etc (maybe even about yourself)!

You will also get feedback on your efforts from peers – you will be in a cohort of 12 other entrepreneurs. These fellow entrepreneurs will be in your cohort throughout the three days, and for the rest of the year (Think iSPIRT RoundTables)

You will get feedback from Mentors who are practitioners of the science and art of building companies – VCs, experienced entrepreneurs, specialists in Product, Marketing and Sales, Finance. There will be two mentors assigned to each cohort of 12, and there will be around 4 cohorts in all.

There are three formats of learning we’ve planned:

  • VC or ‘Judgment’ – Where your business is judged by those who might want to invest in you and their judgement is a kind of feedback for you to refine your business model.
  • Sage on Stage or ‘Teaching’ – Knowledge from experts whose experiences inspire or instruct you to refine your business model.
  • Guide by the Side or ‘Learn by doing’. You get relevant feedback and insights on your own efforts from peers and mentors that are directly applicable to refining your business model.
  • PNgrowth will be 85% of ‘Guide by side’, 10% of ‘Sage on stage’ and 5% of Judgement model. Your output is proportional to the effort you put in. There is no passive learning.

At the end of the bootcamp, based on all the business model tear down and rebuilding, you will walk out with the top metrics of interest for you, your goals for those metrics over the next three, six and twelve months, and your choices and actions to reach those metrics. The metrics will enable you to progress check in monthly meetings/calls with Mentors and your cohort group.

The preparation for bootcamp will begin with the curation process itself. You will start answering the very simple set of questions that will be repeated throughout #PNGrowth2016 – What is your hypothetical customer Bob’s problem that you are solving (Market-Demand), how are you solving it (Product-Market fit) so that you can have a scalable, sustainable Business Model  which allows you to achieve ‘Good scale’ and positions you on the track to Category Leadership.

And since there are only 50 slots, you should start now!

Positioning and messaging for Product Entrepreneurs in Pune – iSPIRT Playbook Roundtable

A strong, differentiated & memorable product messaging is essential in creating traction for your product. Effective product messaging speaks directly in the language of your target audience. This workshop is brought to you by iSPIRT. One of the initiatives of iSPIRT is to convert conversations into playbook for product entrepreneurs.The PlaybookRT is led by Shankar Maruwada and is intended for companies that have a software product (consumer or enterprise), have initial customers and are trying to scale to the next level.

They are keen to make more crisp their value proposition to the target audience and more clearly articulate their position relative to competitors. This PlaybookRT will be interactive and will help your team step into the role of your target audience, map your features to benefits, organize those benefits into message themes, and summarize the product in a positioning statement.

This one day PlayBookRT is designed for Companies who have some visibility in market and product has been validated through an initial set of customers. To apply for this PlaybookRT please fill up the online application and we will get back to you. The session is open to the company’s CEO or head of marketing/product.

Applications are due by the 20th October ‘2015. The goal is to have at most 12 companies so as to make the interaction effective. If there are other interested attendees, we will arrange subsequent workshops. We will confirm the short-listed companies by 25th October 2015. This PlaybookRT is FREE and there are no charges.

Profile of Shankar: Mentor to entrepreneurs and investor in startups, Shankar combines deep entrepreneurial experience with expertise in the two diverse domains of marketing and analytics. He successfully exited his own startup Marketics (a premier marketing analytics services provider to Fortune 500 companies around the world), by selling it to WNS in 2007. The story of Marketics is featured in Rashmi Bansal’s ‘Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish’.

He was then handpicked by Nandan Nilekani, as one of the first few people onboard the UIDAI project. At UIDAI, he headed Demand Generation and Communication, and among other things, was tasked with creating a brand name for UIDAI’s product – now known as Aadhaar.

He started his corporate career in Procter and Gamble’s famed Brand Management function. He is an alumnus of IIT Kharagpur and IIM Ahmedabad.

Product positioning is all about connecting emotionally to your prospective customers – Insights from the Positioning and Messaging PlaybookRT

The 50th PlaybookRT session was held at Helion Ventures in Bengaluru to brainstorm and understand best practices for positioning and messaging of startup products. This roundtable was led by Shankar Maruwada, who by virtue of his illustrious past experiences as the brand builder for Aadhar and P&G, and being a successful entrepreneur at Marketics ably anchored the deliberations. Twelve product entrepreneurs spread across IoT, mobile, social, analytics and B2B sectors benefited from the insightful interactions.

This roundtable was special for iSPIRT family, since it marks a milestone of a journey that began with the same person – Shankar Maruwada in April 2013, at the same venue as well! To mark this special occasion, Sharad Sharma, co-founder of iSPIRT was present at the start of the session. He traced back the evolution of PlaybookRTs and explained that these roundtables came to action to fill the need for honest and open peer to peer knowledge sharing and gaining among product entrepreneurs. Shankar recollected his experiences of running the roundtable on the same topic at various locations across India and narrated the differences and common patterns he observed amongst the participants across these sessions. Rajan wrapped up the pre-event activities by describing the metrics iSPIRT uses to measure the effectiveness of such programs, and the way forward.

The roundtable began with Shankar asking all the participants to jot down three things about their prospective customer Bob:

  • The problem that the customer faced/is facing
  • Solution provided by the participants to alleviate the above problem
  • The value/benefit that Bob, as a customer derives by using the above provided solution

Once completed, a review of the pitches that participants had written was done in the group. There was a lot of variety in the pitches. While one such pitch was crisp, succinct and focused on numbers/metrics to drive the value proposition of the solution for Bob, a customer in the B2B space, the other was a story that tried to explain the value provided by the participant’s IoT solution invoking a connect to the customer’s parents. This variety in the pitches generated a lot of discussion among the participants about the best/optimal way to pitch/position their corresponding products.

At this point, Shankar introduced the concepts of curse of knowledge*, and the Golden Circle* that helped the participants to understand the need to emotionally connect with their prospective customers, as well as, the need to keep in mind, the knowledge of the customer (not the know-how presenter of the pitch), while describing the key tenets of their products.

These concepts paved way for further brainstorming on the applicability of the inside – out or outside – in approach of the WHY – HOW – WHAT trilogy of the Golden Circle across different segments. For example, there were discussions on whether it is appropriate in the B2B context to start with an outside – in approach, and vice versa for a B2C context and so on. There was also an opinion that Marketing team in a startup would usually use the Why – How – What route, whereas the Sales team would go vice versa. A video of Steve Jobs addressing his internal marketing team about how they should reach out to their intended customers helped internalize these aspects.

One of the participants resonated with the ill effects of the curse of knowledge when he shared how he had assumed that all of his customer base would be aware of the familiar ‘Settings’ icon. Upon getting a support request from an aged customer, who cited inability to locate the ‘Settings’ option, he realized that he had not provided a text alongside the icon based on the assumption that what he knew would be also known to his customers.

As the group digested these concepts, Shankar nudged the participants to revisit the pitches that they had initially created, and explore if they could make any changes based on the learning they had on account of the above two concepts. This brought about a few revisions to the pitch each of the participants had made. At this juncture, the group listened to pitches from a few more participants and ideated on what aspects of the pitch resonated with them.

The group then moved on to understand in more detail, the art of explaining the core value of their products. This was done by reviewing the Dropbox advertisement* created by Lee Lefever and discussing about how the ad starts by establishing a common connect/chord with the audience (SETUP), and then, in common language (without jargons) explains the key benefits a user would get (SOLUTION) using analogies, and finally, reinforces it with factual details of its features (SUPPORT).

Some time was spent in explaining the importance of using analogies as a bridge to transition the customer attention from the initial few minutes to introducing the product/solution to the customer, while keeping his attention intact. The Dropbox video and another video from the archives*, where a doctor explains the vulnerabilities of children who face daily abuse from drunken parents helped the participants to understand the power of using analogies to convey the right message.

These videos and a couple more on the book ‘Made to Stick’* by Heath brothers helped the participants to craft/revise their positioning and messaging pitches, which started with building a context to establish emotional connect, used analogies to describe the solution and finally strengthened the pitch with factual/logical and data driven narration to make a lasting impression on the prospective customer.

Towards the end of this roundtable, as a last aid, Shankar introduced the 6 tips of persuasion* which entrepreneurs could use to help build up customer connect. As the participants completed these deliberations, they had imbibed the knowledge that being able to connect both emotionally and functionally to the customer is key while positioning and messaging for their products to prospective customers. The participants spent more than four and half hours and not one of them moved till Shankar actually ended this session at about 9 PM.

The evening was very well spent, and the participants had an accelerated learning by virtue of this roundtable. Dinner, arranged by Rajan, courtesy iSPIRT and the friendly staff at Helion provided the perfect way to end a very eventful learning experience to all the participants as they ruminated about the things that they learnt and shared their thoughts about time well spent during the session.

* The following URLs provide additional information about the concepts and views expressed by fellow participants of the previous sessions on this topic. Skimming through these write-ups and watching the videos will provide additional context for those who want more insights:

  1. Simon Sinek’s ‘The Golden Circle’:
  2. Dropbox Intro Video:
  3. Lee LeFever on the Art of Explanation:
  4. Made to Stick–Review of the book (Part 1):
  5. Made to Stick – Review of the book (Part 2):

  1. Science of Persuasion:
  2. Steve Jobs – Think Different Speech:

  1. Summary of the PlaybookRT session on positioning and messaging products, held at Bengaluru:
  2. Summary of the PlaybookRT on this topic, held at Bengaluru:
  3. Summary of the PlaybookRT on this topic, held at Mumbai:
  4. Summary of the PlaybookRT on this topic, held at Mumbai:

12. Summary of the PlaybookRT on this topic, held at Delhi:

The best things are simple. Is your messaging there yet? : from #PlaybookRT

The most crucial lessons come from looking at the mistakes: those that we make and those that we spot others making. A thought might get triggered by listening to great dreamers like Steve Jobs. But the termination, in terms of realization, implementation and imbibing the essence comes only when you have walked through that journey and declared a new start.

Shankar, who imagined and steered the 43rd round table in Delhi, created amazing examples to drive across the points, we had often read heard and hoped to understand. I will try and share what were my takeaways.

This session, thanks to Rajat Harlalka and the amazing iSPIRT movement, started off with an unforgettable lesson, on what is the Curse of Knowledge.

You need to attend one round table to experience it. For now I can only re-iterate one of the ways it is often represented.

The moment you know how to speak a language, you forget what it is like, to not know it.”

The same thing happens with you and your product. You know it too well to imagine what it looks like to those who don’t know it. What should the message be, so that the potential customers want to have it?


So if you are looking at spotting your messaging, spot the Who of your customer.

  1.       Who is your Bob (What Bob?)
  2.       What does he look like
  3.       Where does he go
  4.       What does he do


Once you have figured out the Who, move on to answer the Why

  1.       Why should Bob need your product
  2.       What’s in it for him
  3.       How does it make him better

Only after figuring these questions would it make sense to move on to ‘What’ your product does and ‘How’ does it do it.

I want you to read that again. Give it some time to sink it. Let it challenge what you think you know.

List of Videos by ShankarIt’s only after spotting “Who is your Bob” and “Why should he bother” that you product and it’s features and functionality come in.

First response of one of my fellow entrepreneur to this statement was: I know all that.

‘I am the best ecommerce setup for finding XYZ. That’s why he should care’, he went.  Really?

It’s like saying, “I am the best writer. You better read my books”. Does that work?

If you have both the answers, feel confident. You are amongst the top 5% companies who have their basics right.

Now what do you do with this knowledge?

Let your Bob know!

This was where I would say, the workshop’s original aim hovered.

If you have your answers, incorporate them in your messaging. Share a story that people can relate to. Share with your Bob that you are going to make him better. Let your messaging help Bob, feel this sentiment.

If you look at the steps we went through and reinforced during our Bob journey, there were just 2.  Make yourself :

  1.       Meaningful, and,
  2.       Differentiated, to your Bob.

One other takeaway that stuck with me was this: The best things are simple. Is your messaging there?

Guest Blog post by Kritika Prashant, VoiceTree Technologies

Why “No other product like yours” is not cause for celebration. #PlaybookRT

On Saturday, December 6, 2014, founders, CEO’s and others from startups based in and around Mumbai met at the office of WebEngage. We were there for the iSPIRT PlaybookRT on Positioning and Messaging by Shankar Maruwada. Below are my notes and thoughts about the event…

Identifying and defining your customers

Shankar emphasized that the process of developing a positioning and messaging strategy starts with identifying and defining who our prospects or customers are. Finding out what they value and what their pain points are. In case of an existing customer base, one must evaluate what made a customer choose our product over other options.

It is important to remember that finding out who your customer is, is a lifetime process. And the results of such an exercise can keep changing over time.

The positioning and messaging objectives

Once customers have been identified and defined, we must start work on how we should define our product so it appeals to the customer base identified. Our positioning and messaging should be such that…

  • It gets the customer’s attention quickly
  • It is extremely easy for them to understand what your product is
  • Enables them to see without much effort, how the product would be useful to them

Using Analogies

Analogies can be a powerful method to quickly position your product in the mind of the prospect. A new idea is better understood when it is stated in the context of an already well known idea.

To take the example of some popular movies which were based on newish ideas at the time they were pitched…

  • The film “Aliens” originally was pitched as “Jaws on a Spaceship” and that image sold.
  • Similarly the 1994 movie Speed was pitched as “Die Hard on a bus”!

Some other helpful tips to help with your positioning process…

  • List out what questions you want your customers to ask? That will help you figure out how your positioning should be.
  • Don’t get trapped by words. Get the idea and thought first and then figure out how to articulate them.
  • When you say there is nobody like you, you are in trouble. No one wants to be the first person to be a fool.
  • People will position your product anyways. It is not optional. Your job is to guide them to the positioning you want.
  • To add credibility to any benefit that you choose to highlight, quantify that benefit. For e.g. Product X is so simple that employees complete their tasks in half the time
  • Your positioning statement and initial messaging should be as short as possible. Remember internal chatter in the prospect’s mind starts in about 30 seconds.
  • When there are multiple benefits, try to create a hierarchy of benefits.

One way to really know that you understand your customers is to see if you are able to predict their behavior. If you can successfully predict their questions or action, then you have a good job!

Curse of Knowledge

One of the most interesting things that Shankar spoke about was the Curse of Knowledge.

Wikipedia describes this as…

The curse of knowledge is a cognitive bias that leads better-informed parties to find it extremely difficult to think about problems from the perspective of lesser-informed parties. 

Anyone who has attempted a positioning and messaging exercise for their products has surely battled this. It requires us to…

  • See ourselves from the eyes of the prospect.
  • Understand how they perceive us currently. Understand what our prospect values.
  • Understand how our product must appear and what it must say so the prospect feels enough trust and sees enough value to go ahead and purchase.

The curse of knowledge is easily the biggest roadblock in this process. A better informed person is not always able to anticipate the judgement of a lesser informed person. Applying this to sales, it is said that a better informed sales person may actually be at a disadvantage as compared to a lesser informed agent pitching the same product. This is because the better informed agent may fail to ignore that knowledge which they posses but the prospect does not.

They could end up over estimating the prospect’s product knowledge or the value the prospect attaches to certain benefits or features.  A lesser informed sales agent would probably have a better idea of what the customer has understood. They would probably explore more to understand what the customer truly values.

It is important for the prospect to see our positioning and messaging as relevant to them. The curse of knowledge can fool us into believing our messaging is universally understood.

8 Powerful Things I learned about “Positioning your Startup” at the iSPIRT #PlaybookRT

As a founder or technologist mired in the day-to-day tasks of product building, it’s easy to get drawn into thinking of your product as a collection of features. But do customers also see our products as a stack of features? Or do they see products as a sum of the solutions that they offer? How do we best translate our offerings into a simple and sticky pitch that piques our customers’ curiosity and gets them to purchase/sign-up?

To find a thinking toolkit to these type of questions, I attended the iSPIRT Round Table on Startup Positioning at the WebEngage  office in Mumbai this Saturday along with the founders and product leaders of 14 other unique startups.

2014-12-06 16.57.35Over six intellectually stimulating hours, all of us had our product pitches brutally critiqued by everybody else under the guiding presence of Shankar Maruwada, an ex-P&G marketing wiz and the man who got millions of Indians to sign-up for the Aadhar card.

Here are the Top 8 things I took away from the #PlaybookRT.

  1. First, make sure you are positioning to the right customer—A startup can have multiple “customers”. The customer who will purchase and implement your product may not be the same as the one who will use it. Which one of them do you pitch to? Example—should RippleHire (an employee referral hiring tool that uses gamification) position itself to a company’s Chief Recruitment Officer who will deploy the product in his company, or to the company’s employees who will be the actual end users critical to the product’s actual usage?
  2. Then, know your customers well—What 3-4 specific things do you know about your customer, which you can use to create a pitch? This resonated very well with me. Having interviewed a bunch of Instamojo’s customers in the past few days and quizzed them about the outcomes they were trying to achieve by using Instamojo, I had learned that “non tech-savviness” was a common characteristic among most of them. This insight suggested to me that Instamojo’s positioning should embed the fact that it requires “Zero IT Knowledge”.
  3. Find out the customer benefits that your product delivers and communicate them—Beware of confusing features with customer benefits! Features define the tasks that a product completes. Benefits capture the outcomes that customers achieve as a result of using the features.
  4. If your product provides multiple benefits, prioritise them in decreasing order of importance and then communicate just the one or two most essential ones in your positioning. Communicating too many benefits at the same time could make for a confusing message and take the focus away from your product’s superpowers.
  5. Beware of the “Curse of Knowledge”—As product leaders, we are prone to become so close to the body of knowledge surrounding the product and internalise so many assumptions that we forget what it is like being the user. Positioning the product correctly requires us to place ourselves outside the realm of features, technologies, implementations and industry terminology and speak in the language of customer’s problems and our solutions to them. Example—product leaders of Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software may forget that many in their target customer base may not even know what ERP stands for, though the same customers may still be facing the problems that ERP software aims to solve.
  6. Use the power of analogies—Often, a complex concept can be explained simply using the construct “We are the X of Y”. Example—“Foodpanda is the Uber of Food Delivery.” or “Wishberry is the Kickstarter of India”. While such a construct may not always fully convey the idea, it catches you the customer’s attention enough for you to then elaborate further on how your product’s benefits make the analogy valid.
  7. Use the power of stories—A powerful customer story can illustrate your product’s benefits and allow the target of your positioning to visualise herself in the story. Example— Apartmentadda helped an amnesiac senior citizen find his way home. His apartment complex’s security guard pinged all its residents on SMS about the lost gentleman using ApartmentAdda. Among those who received the SMS was the old man’s son, who promptly arranged for his pickup.”
  8. Use numbers for a strong impact—What numbers can you say about your product that will help your prospective customers visualise its impact on their lives? Numbers can be about the number of customers whose lives you have changed, the number of steps (hopefully very few) it takes to get started with your product, the number of transactions your product did in the last X hours, the number of hours of customer work your product will end up saving, etc.

Guest Post by Apoorv Pandit, Sr. Product Manager, Instamojo



Experience. Peer. Learning.

How can these 3 words go together? Experience is all about failing. We’re competing with peers. And who the hell wants to learn ??

Allow me to sell to you – India’s first true bootcamp for Product Entrepreneurs – #PNCamp, happening in Pune in December this year.

“…to your context…” – watch this video about a customer. You’ll appreciate why learning is directly connected to decision making.

“…I thought it was me…” – another customer. Why and how peers can play a fantastic role in arriving at solutions. They’ve made mistakes that you don’t need to. Vice versa.

“….tunnel vision….” – the curse of knowledge. From a veteran.

Product Entrepreneurs are battling their demons every hour, every day. And inside this battle lies the glory of winning. From the outside it looks like chaos and madness. But there is a sense to it all. See this deck below to get a better idea.

How silly of me… almost forgot to mention … this is a by invite only event. You don’t want to be left out. You’ll find the registration links below the deck.

See you in the city that was the top 3 shortlisted cities to be India’s capital back in the day.

Some Takeaways from the First iSPIRT Playbook Roundtable on Positioning & Messaging for Products

“99% Practice, 1% Theory”. This was the ground rule laid down for the session by the workshop facilitator Shankar Maruwada at the beginning. Sounds very much like the tagline of a popular softdrink brand that’s No Bakwaas! No wonder it came from someone who has loads of experience in the FMCG space, built and sold an analytics company and has more recently given life to what is arguably India’s biggest consumer brand, Aadhar.

Shankar sharing insights at the iSPIRT Playbook RoundTable

The theory lasted just a couple of minutes with Shankar telling a simple, yet a compelling story of how the Indian flag evokes a strong feeling even though it is nothing but a geometrical shape consisting of rectangles and a circle! The point that a compelling visual and a strong emotional connect can touch a strong chord was driven home very clearly. Over the course of the next 3 hours, Shankar orchestrated a highly engaging and interactive session with the participating companies, making them think hard and think deeper to help them think in the right direction. What also helped immensely was that Shankar had gone through the profiles of each of the participating companies and knew the challenges each of them were facing.

The participants were involved in exercises that helped them think beyond the regular product features and benefits. Emphasis was placed on understanding and communicating the whys of the product rather than the hows and on ways of building an emotional connect with the customers that will resonate strongly with them.

The participants were made to think through the different stages of the communication to customers.  For each step, two companies shared their thought process in detail with other participants sharing their inputs for the two companies. The participants found it very helpful to pick the brain of other entrepreneurs and learn from other entrepreneurs. A couple of participating companies probably found their one-line message or the keyword that signifies their product offering by the end of this workshop!

Shankar sharing insights at the iSPIRT Playbook RoundTable

Here are some of the key takeaways from the workshop, based on the stage and the audience to which one is communicating to:


  • What’s the grand idea that can resonate with everyone? This is beyond the product features, pricing and has a much higher connect. E.g. Education with the reach of television, your own personal secretary..
  • If possible, use connections, metaphors and analogies for better impact. E.g. YouTube of…., Google of…..


  • What will make your customers sit up and take notice? This is something related to their business that they wouldn’t have thought of or know about and you instigate that thought through your messaging. This should make them care for your product offerings and be interested in exploring more and have them say, let’s talk! E.g. Did you know that you can now teach a million students right from your classroom? Did you know that 30% of devices in your corporate network go undetected and potential sources of malware that can disrupt your network?


  • What is it that the customers can actually put to use? What are the tangible benefits that the customers can derive out of your offering? E.g. Deliver courses over low bandwidth and hence reach out to a large number of students even in remote locations, create attractive charts and graphs to derive meaningful and actionable insights out of your data, carry out quick experiments for merchandizing on your e-commerce website with very little involvement from your engineering team


  • These are the features and functionalities built into the product. These would explain how the product works. E.g. Various roles built in for access control and permissions, different interfaces and interactions for different user types, alerts, reports and notifications. 

As you’d observe, the how part becomes more prominent as you move from the Idea stage to the Features stage and the why part becomes more prominent as you move in the reverse direction. Depending on the whom you’re speaking to in the scheme of things at the customer’s end, you can focus on the appropriate stage and communicate accordingly.

iSPIRT Playbook RoundTable

It is said that well begun is half done. Considering that this was the first such roundtable, the response from the product startup community was very encouraging and the participating startups found it to be very relevant and effective. The engagement with the participants will continue even beyond the workshop. The startups will be in regular touch with each other, share their inputs and the learnings derived from the workshop and update on the progress.

Here are some books that Shankar recommended:

There are more such Playbook Roundtables planned in the coming days across various locations and hope the product startup community will make the best use of those and benefit from them.

Announcing the First Playbook Roundtable: Positioning and messaging for Product Entrepreneurs

We are pleased to announce the first Playbook RoundTable for Product Entrepreneurs around Messaging & Positioning. A strong, differentiated & memorable product messaging is essential in creating traction for your product. Effective product messaging speaks directly in the langauage of your target audience. This Playbook Roundtable is brought to you by iSPIRT. One of the initiatives of iSPIRT is to convert conversations into playbooks for product entrepreneurs.

This Playbook Roundtable is led by Shankar Maruwada and is intended for companies that have a software product (consumer or enterprise), have initial customers and are trying to scale to the next level. They are keen to make more crisp their value proposition to the target audience and more clearly articulate their position relative to competitors.

This Playbook RoundTable will be interactive and will help your team step into the role of your target audience, map your features to benefits, organize those benefits into message themes, and summarize the product in a positioning statement.

To apply for this workshop please send a PDF document(one pager) to avinash(at) with the following information by 23rd March ‘2013:

  • Name of the company
  • Name and title of the intended attendee
  • Mobile phone of attendee
  • Email ID of attendee
  • The top two practical problems your company faces in messaging, communicating, positioning your product, that you would like help with. 
  • Top 2 desired outcomes from the workshopPlease share, as briefly as possible, your current resources and efforts in this area
  • Write (max 150 words) on the ‘What’ and the ‘Why’ of your product, in simple language. You may accompany this with a single visual (optional).
Find more details about the playbook roundtable here.