Geeks on a Plane India 2013: Big Opportunities, Optimistic Investors, and a Government that’s Finally Waking Up

Gateway of IndiaThis post originally appeared on the 500 Startups blog

Geeks on a Plane is a 10-12 day trip to various parts of the world with 20-25 “Geeks” (entrepreneurs, techies, designers, angels, VCs, mentors). The trips are planned and run by 500 Startups and have been going on for a few years now. The first Geeks on a Plan (GOAP) to India was in December 2011. That’s when I first met Dave, Paul, Christen, George, Anu, Samir, and a bunch of other really awesome geeks. Fast forward 14 months and I got a chance to be a “geek” on the February 2013 GOAP India trip.

GOAP India 2013 also had some really awesome people on the trip as well as hosts across India. Here are some of the things that I learned from these people during our visit to Bangalore, Mumbai and Delhi with Geeks on a Plane.

India: A Land of Contradictions

The poor are all over India. It’s still one of the poorest countries in the world. However, the rich are obscenely rich. Driving a $200,000 car is no big deal in a city like Mumbai. On your way to a swanky hotel where you’ll pay $900 for a single malt, you may drive by open sewage, dirt piled up on the side of the road for impending construction, barking stray dogs in packs, etc. However, you will also pass by massive skyscrapers, gorgeous temples, educational institutes galore, and many people hustling to make a buck. You can feel the buzz in the air and the excitement of young people who see multiple opportunities all around them.

I didn’t witness these contradictions being any more pronounced than they have in the past. Instead, I saw young people that are hopeful and welcoming of bright future for their country, their families, and themselves. As risk averse as their parents are, more and more people are willing to take significant risks to enact change and get rich while trying. For example, at Startup Weekend Bangalore, we saw many ideas pitched, of which, two of which stood out in my mind.

  • Ghati, to enable safe and clear passage of ambulances.
  • Garbage-busters, which uses mobile phones to alert civil authorities of garbage that hasn’t been cleared.

Two years ago, very few people would have considered quitting their jobs to pursue ideas that will make life better for people while at the same time, having a real chance at making money. Instead, most of them wanted to build the “Twitter of India” or the “Facebook of India”. More and more Indians are cognizant of the problems surrounding them in their daily lives and they are taking the first steps at solving them.

Great Raw Entrepreneurial and Tech Talent

Flipkart
There’s no question that India is full of geeks with great raw entrepreneurial and tech talent. Look at the number of Indian engineers in the Valley, doctors and Wall Street quants that flourished in the US. In India, having their chidren go into the “IT” industry has been the hope of many middle class Indian parents since the 90’s. That usually meant working at Infosys, Wipro, TCS, HCL, etc. Then came along PWC, E&Y, Accenture, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, Dell, Microsoft, Google, etc. Today we have Facebook and LinkedIn as well as hundreds of other great US tech product companies. Most tech entrepreneurs in India prior to 2005 built their fabulous businesses selling services to companies big and small around the world. These successful tech entrepreneurs built businesses to be envied and made India the outsourcing capital of the world.

What they didn’t do was build an ecosystem that fostered entrepreneurship or creative thinking.

ZipDial

All that started changing sometime in 2010. Some amazing companies have been built in the last few years by incredible people (some of the companies go back to 2006/2007) – Druvaa, Slideshare, FusionCharts, InterviewStreet, ZipDial, Flipkart, SnapDeal, InMobi, Innoz, ZoHo, Freshdesk, Wigify and Komli Media.

Some of these companies have exited. Some are incredibly cash rich. Some are growing like a weed and continue to raise larger amounts of growth capital.

Beyond some of the marquee names above, quite a few amazing founders are building great companies. A few are InVenture, WebEngage, UberLabs (gazeMetrix), Ketto, InstaMojo, ChargeBee, and Practo.

Founders’ Communication & Confidence Need to Improve

Rajat, Kavin, Aloke at 91 Springboard
Most first time founders in India still lack confidence and it shows in their pitch and their communication style. Paul has mentioned this before in his Observations on India and he also talks about gaining confidence. I continue to see this being a problem and a tremendous opportunity for founders. The founders that can communicate the most effectively, will have a much better chance at selling to their customers, their investors, and prospective co-founders, employees, mentors/advisors and importantly, in India, to their families. The good news is that in the last 7 years I’ve been here, I’ve seen pitches and communication styles get better. Although the ecosystem is still nascent, it’s maturing and giving young entrepreneurs the shot in the arm they need.

Investors are Optimistic

The Bombay Stock Exchange (BSE)
Investors across India that I met during GOAP continue to remain bullish on the long-term opportunity. Ecommerce, education, travel, personal finance, Universal ID (UID), family tech, rural tech and, of course, tech built in India for a global market are some of the broader themes that investors expressed significant interest in. Sorry folks, “social media” just wasn’t at the top of anyone’s list.

However, as bullish as investors are, most of them still aren’t very founder friendly. Some of the deal terms being offered are still quite onerous. Doing an investment in tranches is another favorite past time of Indian investors. Most founders still complain of angels behaving like series A VCs and VCs behaving more like private equity shops.

The bright side is that a few founders I met with and spoke with during GOAP, mentioned two VCs by name who work more like startup founders than VCs. They make decisions quickly. They present terms that are fair. They tell founders when and how much they should raise to minimize dilution. They make themselves available by not hanging out in their ivory towers. You might say that two VC firms in a country of 1.2+ billion people is statistically insignificant. However, if you said that, you would be wrong. It’s quite significant. VCs running their funds like real startup founders is a massive mindshift and their success will only inspire more to do the same (or lose deal flow).

Investors are also Cautious

Geeks on a Plane at the BSE
During some of the investor events at GOAP, I spoke to investors about things that concerned them. Investors are a little bearish about the short-term. Macro-economic conditions, the lack of exits, corruption in the government, the bureaucracy, rising costs all play an important part in dampening the spirits of investors. However, these also present considerable opportunities for daring entrepreneurs. Investors realize this and continue to hunt for deal where they can deploy funds in India.

The Indian Government is Finally Waking Up

During our trip, the Indian Government announced its budget. Though, not a big deal in most western countries, in India, the budget makes or breaks economic sentiment for the year. No one was terribly excited or distraught over this year’s budget. However, there were a few things added that raised the hopes of startups and early stage investors.

  • Preferential tax treatment for angels when investing together or “pooling” their capital and registering with the government.
  • Corporations are required to spend 2% of their income on CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) investments or donations. Incubators at government or recognized universities qualify for claiming the 2% spend.
  • Startups can potentially find some liquidity by listing on the SME exchange. The BSE (Bombay Stock Exchange) runs one and had 11 companies listed as of December 2012.

A much more detailed analysis of the budget and some opinions can be found on VCCircle.

For more information on Geeks on a Plane and when they are heading to your region, check out the website and also some of the videos from GOAP South America Summer 2011, GOAP Asia 2011 and GOAP India 2011.


Geeks on a Plane India 2013

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Startup Weekend India – The First Six Months

The first round of Startup Weekend events in India came to a close in March. Startup Weekend Delhi was held at the American Center from March 4th till March 6th 2011 and Startup Weekend Bangalore was held from March 11th till March 13th 2011 at Microsoft’s Signature building.

September 2nd 2011 marked the beginning of the next round of Startup Weekend events across India. Startup Weekend Hyderabad was held at ISB from the 2nd – 4th of September. This was the first SW held in Hyderabad and we honestly didn’t know what to expect. We had only sold 25 tickets in the first 2 months that ticket sales were open. In the last three days before the Friday night pitches, we sold over 50 additional tickets.

I’ve seen lots and lots of “me too” ideas and quite a few “ho-hum” ideas. There are some decent ideas with very little depth prior to SW. Startup events in India need to be about team formation, experience building and experimentation. Between these three events, Startup Weekend has kicked off 39 teams of entrepreneurs, techies, designers, and business people. Granted, out of these 39 teams, probably not even four will survive more than a year but that’s not the point. The point is that these 175 or so people, will be better entrepreneurs the next time around.

I believe these three events did something that no other event in India has done so far. It showed people that they CAN execute their ideas in a very short span of time. With complete strangers, in most cases, they can put together a business case and build a prototype to showcase to potential investors.

In a few cases, teams from Startup Weekend in India have had discussions with investors directly as a result of Startup Weekend. One of the biggest pain points for many entrepreneurs in India has been funding and Startup Weekend in India has helped ease this pain point in a small but important way.

Startup Weekend has also shown investors that entrepreneurs, techies, designers can do some really interesting things in a short period of time if all the ingredients are there. It’s created potential deal flow for early stage investors starved for invest-able ideas teams. Already, Startup Weekend clones are popping up across India.

The confidence and the energy that people have displayed at Startup Weekend in Delhi, Bangalore and Hyderabad has been quite contagious. Techies were pushed to deliver minimum viable products and marketers and business people were forced to come up with viable plans in a very short time span. In just a weekend, many people were able to successfully deliver business cases and prototypes. Having done so has shown them that they CAN, in fact, put together teams of the right people and deliver. Being able to find co-founders that can execute has given people the confidence needed to take their ideas from Startup Weekend and pursue them.

Another very important factor was the presence of great mentors that spent considerable amounts of time with the business, techie and design members of each team, helping them develop various aspects of their ideas and the technology being employed. Many of the mentors present have exhibited interest in helping future teams in the same way. Even some panelists have shown interest in being mentors and working with the various teams throughout the next Startup Weekends in India. However, some mentors and panelists have also been disappointed by the lack of depth in the ideas.

I have found that for entrepreneurs in India finding the right co-founders and having mentors to help guide them through the various pitfalls that they continually faced is a continuous problem. Of course, funding issues are an issue everywhere but in India, it’s far more pronounced. To me, the idea of getting the right people with similar mindsets and mentors, serial entrepreneurs with significant experience in a room with raw ideas and oodles of enthusiasm was what people in India have been missing. Bringing all these components together, mixing them up, laying down some rules and bending a whole lot of others has given people who had very little chance of execution or success an opportunity to try their ideas in a safe and risk-free environment. In essence, the Startup Weekend philosophy is helping Indians try out ideas without quitting their day jobs, find people who buy into their ideas, and have people around to immediately guide them in their execution.

Personally, Startup Weekend has given me an opportunity to return to India and give back something that I’m very passionate and excited about – entrepreneurship. The opportunity to help entrepreneurs, both young and old, realize that they can and should take a chance on themselves and their ideas is a great feeling. Instead of just telling them that they should, Startup Weekend has given me a chance to show them that they can. If my contribution to the Indian entrepreneurial ecosystem can help create even one startup out of each event, I believe I’ve given back more than I could have hoped for.

India is a difficult place to understand, with all of its contradictions, it’s rapid modernization, it’s pathetic infrastructure, it’s volatile stock market, it’s real-estate market that defies all logic, it’s incredible wealth and it’s dire poverty. However, India has been a land of entrepreneurs with it’s small businesses, it’s kinara stores, it’s newly minted multi-national corporations. In the last twenty years, much of the entrepreneurial spirit that’s in India’s blood has been lost. Mostly because better opportunities to make money presented themselves with the IT, ITES, call center and other service businesses. However, I believe a new generation of entrepreneurs is emerging. India is draining entrepreneurial and engineering talent from other parts of the world. It’s not just Indians or people of Indian origin coming to India, it’s the Chinese, the Koreans, the Japanese, the British, the Americans, the French, the Germans, the Italians and everyone else in between who are contributing to a new entrepreneurial culture.

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Startup Weekend is Coming to India

Startup Weekend is a 54 hour event where developers, designers, and entrepreneurs get together and build great new Internet and mobile products. Startup Weekend is coming to India

Get your tickets to Startup Weekend Delhi or Startup Weekend Bangalore before the early-bird pricing ends.

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HungryZone for Foodies?!??!

I stumbled upon HungryZone which was launched by the same folks who came up with HungryBangalore. I never used HungryBangalore before but when I saw that I can get reviews of restaurants around Delhi, I had to delve into HungryZone (there are a total of 10 cities covered by HungryZone).

I was pretty disappointed by HungryZone. I could not narrow down restaurants by PIN code, area, cuisine type, vegetarian or non-vegetarian, or any other criteria. Once I clicked on Delhi, I got an alphabetical listing of restaurants all over Delhi. Almost all of the restaurants had only 1 review.

HungryZon Delhi

To help them out, I looked around and found a restaurant, Machan, I had been to and added a review for it. The basic information that HungryZone provides about the restaurant is a good start but perhaps some more information would be helpful.
Machan Review

The concept behind HungryZone is great but there’s a great deal of footwork required to get restaurants to signup and accept coupons, take orders online, deliver, etc. It’s also a great deal of work to get people around cities in India to contribute their reviews of restaurants. Perhaps, HungryZone would allow users to add a restaurant and a review about it. For example, I went to Chonas in Khan Market today and the appetizers, main course, and service service was great!! Avoid the Strawberry “Cheesecake” though.

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Staples in Bangalore

Staples Logo
I recently arrived in Bangalore for a few day visit and drove past one of the new Staples office superstores. Walking into the store, I noticed all of the Staples branded items readily available at Staples stores in the US. What I liked was Staples has an “Apple Store” within. The US Staples stores don’t sell any Apple computers but this one did. The prices were marginally higher than what’s available at a pure Apple Store in the US but that’s to be expected with shipping costs and duties levied by the Indian government.

The staff was very polite needs some additional training on being able to answer customers’ questions and understanding/speaking both local languages and English. Overall, I was happy with my browsing experience. I would have purchased a few things if the store was in Delhi but I had no room to carry any purchases back to Delhi. I was told that the first Delhi Staples Superstore will be opening in March. Where? No idea.

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