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 (

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 (

TLDR: Here’s a summary of the findings:

 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:

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.

Prof. Sharique’s(Stanford’s) email to internal iSPIRT community

Dear iSPIRT Family,

I wanted to follow up with an update from the PNgrowth team at iSPIRT. A little less than a year ago, a small group of iSPIRT volunteers proposed something unconventional:

We would run a bootcamp to jolt 200 growth stage entrepreneurs from India to aspire to category leadership. The bootcamp would combine learnings from strategy courses taught at Duke and Stanford with detailed case studies of Indian companies such as InMobi, Zoho, Paytm and more. More radically, we would eschew the Sage-on-Stage model for 3 days of active learning where founders worked with peer and mentor support to rethink their own startup’s raison d’etre. To provide as intensive an experience as possible we would have morning and evening breakout sessions and the bootcamp would be fully residential with accommodation, food and transport from Bangalore available to all participants. Finally, we would do this with only minimal cost to the participants. In early 2015, something of this complexity and scale seemed not just unconventional, but improbable.

As many of you know, last week a team of nearly 30 iSPIRT volunteers pulled off the PNgrowth bootcamp in Mysore for 200 growth stage startups. The response before and after has been tremendous, and we have learned much in the process. After the bootcamp, participants have taken to social media to share their experiences. A few examples on the iSPIRT blog:

And read the many tweets on #PNgrowth:

Now, with some experience under our belts, we hope to continue working with the PNgrowth participants over the course of the year, learning about their startups and providing help and resources when possible. But, if producing many category leaders from India is the ultimate goal, then even the best organized 3-day bootcamp will be insufficient. So, as 2016 begins, a small group of volunteers is beginning to reimagine even bolder ways to help India’s product entrepreneurs. The ideas are likely to be audacious and unconventional, but that might be what it takes.

Thank you,

An incomplete list of the volunteers who made PNgrowth possible:

Aaron Chatterji – Duke University; Amit Somani – Prime Ventures; Aneesh Reddy – Capillary Technologies; Avlesh Singh – WebEngage; Kunal Shah – FreeCharge; Manav Garg – Eka; Manjula Sridhar – ArgByte; Nags – [24]7 Inc; Pallav Nadhani – FusionCharts; Phanindra Sama – Former redBus; Prasanna Krishnamoorthy – Microsoft Ventures; Sanat Rao – iSPIRT; Sanjay Deshpande – Uniken; Sanjay Shah – Zapty; Shankar Maruwada – EkStep; Shekhar Kirani – Acces; Sumanth Raghavendra – Deck; Avinash Raghava – iSPIRT; M. Thiyagarajan(Rajan) – Intuit; Sandeep Todi – Remitr; Rohit Veerarajappa – Wow Labz; Praveen Hari – Thinkflow; Manu Jolly – Student; Tanish Thakker – Zone Startups; Rem Koning – Stanford GSB; Sharique Hasan – Stanford GSB; Solene Delecourt – Stanford GSB; Randy Lubin – FactoryX; Gokul K S – PNgrowth; Sairam Krishnan – iSPIRT; Hrishikesh Kulkarni – Freshdesk; Senthil Kanthaswamy – Freshdesk; Sharad Sharma – iSPIRT.

The final agenda for #Pngrowth is here

In the fourth #PNGrowth hangout last week, the usual suspects got together but this time with something a lot more concrete to hand out. With #PNgrowth generating the buzz that it has, we have been inundated with questions about what exactly the three days of the residential workshop will entail. As we have been vocal about, the residential workshop will kickstart the yearlong program that is #PNGrowth. To give everyone deeper insights into the agenda, we brought Sharique Hasan, Rem Koning, Sharad Sharma and Pallav Nadhani together to speak about the program we have put together for the three days.

You can watch the whole hangout here, which will give you a deeper insight into what we are thinking about and hoping to achieve, but this blog will give you a rather simple breakdown of the agenda itself.

With the major objective for #PNgrowth being category leadership, we have calibrated the three days to be workshops; there will be no gyaan sessions and every entrepreneur will be thinking and working through problems they face.

Day 1 – Rethink

The first day will be spent on entrepreneurs getting their bearings right and reflecting on where they stand with respect to where they want to be. The day will focus on getting the best tools and frameworks they need in place, to think about where their company is heading, and to understand their company represents versus what the category leader in their segment will look like.

Day 2 – Redesign

The second day will focus only on one thing – getting a gameplan in place with the aim of getting to category leadership in their spaces. This day will contain what the entrepreneurs will need to carry back most. The day will cover all the important things entrepreneurs need to concentrate on – culture, team, product/business, authentic leadership and so on. With sessions designed for entrepreneurs to work this out, this is going to be an absolute cracker of a day.

Day 3 – Implementation

On day three, the gameplan will be put to the test. The question of how to implement the plan, what challenges will rise, and in what sequence to implement the learnings will be discussed. The important metrics to focus on will be finalised and most importantly, where to start, how to start and how much time and energy to focus on and where will all be cleared up.

After the workshop, when all the entrepreneurs have gone back to work on what they learnt, comes the most important part. Now when they start, they’ll come up against the real world, and will need help adjusting their plans with things that will come up. This is when the real value of  will come in. With a direct line to mentors who have done this before, they will know who to call and when to call for help. This kind of opportunity is unprecedented in the Indian ecosystem and was formulated with the goal of an Indian product nation in mind – a community of product people who have a network to help each other and grow together.

For people who still haven’t applied, we have ONE last batch to select. You should apply.

iSPIRT: Big ideas on little napkins. #iSPIRTturnstwo

You’ve heard of famous napkin sketches such as the Southwest airlines route map or Robert Metcalfe’s Ethernet diagrams. But did you know that iSPIRT also started out as a series of such sketches?

It was a late wintersun afternoon in December 2012. I was sitting in Bangalore’s Karnataka Golf Association across Sharad Sharma and Avinash Raghava. It was the day after a marathon few weeks of us “volunteers” putting together India’s largest startup event that year. I’d done my small bit building out the Program Guide, helping with the scheduling tetris and hosting a UX workshop for startups.

Now when Sharad or Avinash call, you can be sure of one thing: you’ll walk out of that conversation buzzing. The KGA meeting was one such chat. It was when I first heard about the “sketches” behind iSPIRT – an acronym for the Indian Software Product Industry Round Table. One of their big ideas was founding the entire iSPIRT as a platform anchored on volunteers’ energies and selfless service, as a platform that represented Indian startups. There in the middle of beer and coffee mugs I remember reams of paper on our table. These papers had ideas and boxes and arrows and circles. There was Industry. And government, and academia. We discussed a million questions:

is this a Think Tank? A Content Platform? An Enabler? Logistically, a Round Table? How do these pieces connect?

I offered to build on some ideas in early 2013. We made concepts and threw most of them away, in the true spirit of prototyping. After all iSPIRT was a startup too! It needed multiple experiments running!


2013 started with much momentum for iSPIRT and Product Nation. The identities seamlessly blended into one visual identity and website. The product round tables continued to be a huge success. As iSPIRT picked up momentum, my own life took a few different turns. I left for Stanford Business School for the Sloan Fellows program and traded a corporate job and Bangalore life for a dorm room and back-to-school lifestyle in Palo Alto. I was with iSPIRT in spirit, and I saw it from 14000 KM away, taking shape as early stage startups do. The Product Roundtables. The Product Technology Ratings. InTech50. #PNCamp.

2014 of course was an even bigger year for iSPIRT. The engagement with the new government, the policy papers, and the acceleration of startup investment activity were palpable. Midway during my Stanford year, I had the opportunity to introduce iSPIRT to my GSB Professor and now friend Sharique Hasan, one of the best researchers out there in Organizational Analysis. Sharique like many others in the Valley had heard rumblings around Indian startups. When he finally met the iSPIRT team, it kick-started new initiatives within the M&A Connect program.

2015 promises to be even bigger. I hope to contribute more, volunteer more. But even as I imagine the largeness of things to come, I will never forget those sketches at KGA, that bright winter afternoon, and those ideas that seemed distant, like a dream you can almost touch.

Today when iSPIRT turns 2, I am reminded of the power of big ideas sketched on little napkins. I am reminded of that famous line:

you cannot stop an idea whose time has come.

Unlocking the data within Indian Software Product Startups : An iSPIRT Survey [INFOGRAPHIC]

India has the potential to build a USD 100 Billion software product industry by 2025. India has a critical mass of software product companies that have entered their maturation stage. At this juncture, to sunstain momentum it’s very important for the entire ecosystem – product entrepreneurs,  angels,  VCs, government to  be aligned. And this alignment will come about when everybody is looking at the industry issues through the lens of credible industry data. Since this data isn’t available iSPIRT embarked on a systematic research effort in partnership with Prof. Sharique Hasan of Stanford University to address this problem.

The first Product Industry Monitor report is a result of this effort. Following are some key findings of this report.

Survey Infographic_7.0-01