Prof. M.S. Ananth, former Director of IIT-Madras, used to talk of “opportunity meeting a prepared mind.” The IIT Research Park was conceived for the prepared mind of the entrepreneur to leverage the extensive infrastructure made available through the Research Park. The Centre for Innovation (CFI), a student-centred lab inside the IIT-Madras campus, is helping the entrepreneurial dreams of IIT-M students. CFI lets students test their crazy ideas and build if anything is possible out of their ideas. Four of them have bypassed the placement opportunities after passing out to become entrepreneurs. Alex is the brain behind Techie Smart, a service to help product builder with difficult-to-find DIY objects. Enba Sekhar along with his friend Satish is starting up a ECG diagnostics product company, which helps non-technical person with diagnostics using a kit, in rural areas and small clinics. Kedar Kulkarni is delivering training to students on latest technologies (e.g. robotics) through Lema Labs. Rohit Reddy is into many opportunities and uses web design services to build his product dreams. He is also actively exploring opportunities for partnerships abroad.
In the second interaction with IIT-M alumnus arranged by Office of Alumini Affairs (OAA) headed by Prof. Ram Nagarajan, “Sundi” Sundaresan, a Silicon Valley product entrepreneur, interacted with the student entrepreneurs. During a recent visit by Prof. Bhaskar Ramamurthy, Director, IIT-Madras, and Prof. Ram Nagarajan to various parts of the United States, the alumni entrepreneurs evinced keen interest in the entrepreneurial activities inside the IIT-M campus. So OAA is looking at leveraging the expertise, experience, and network of the alumni entrepreneurs to help the in-campus student entrepreneurs. Ram Nagarajan said, “OAA will act as a bridge between the student entrepreneurs and alumni in solving the problems faced by the budding student entrepreneurs. Students should approach OAA to connect with the alumni network.”
Building products and a company
“Sundi” Sundaresan has worked with small, medium, and large enterprises and has been CEO of two companies. Now he is on the board of a couple of startups and consults for some startups. His experience has been building products as he was an electrical engineering graduate from IIT-Madras. The Silicon Valley experience that enriched Sundaresan helped the entrepreneurs in campus to understand what it takes to build a product.
“Technologists are good at technology. But challenges lie around building a business and go-to-market strategy,” Sundaresan started. He went on to say that technologists, whether in the US, India, or anywhere, face the same problem. In the United States, support services such as accounts, HR, space, and legal services are available through third-party vendors and an entrepreneur starting up need not invest in them to start with. Prof. Rajan, who is with the Centre for International Alumni Relations, IIT-M, present at the meeting, pointed out such services are available in India also. “The entrepreneurs can focus maniacally on what they do well,” pointed out Sundaresan. “I didn’t get a HR till my company was 70 people and I hired an accountant when we were 100 people,” said Sundaresan.
In the concept to prototype stage, the technology entrepreneur should find users to test the product and give feedback. Talking to these users or customers requires an extroverted personality. So a techie founder, if introvert and focuses only on building a product, can partner with a person who is an extrovert and can market the product well. “Going to market has no easy answers,” said Sundaresan.
“Big companies wouldn’t trust a startup with their data,” Sundaresan pointed out, citing an example of a startup providing backup services. In such cases, the startups should strike a partnership with established companies to access the customers. The customers, already familiar and comfortable with those big companies, would have no problems in accepting the product of the startup, if it is offered through the big company as one of their products. Further, big companies would have built support and troubleshooting infrastructure for the product maintenance. When entrepreneurs wanted to know if the big companies can be relied upon with their startup product, Sundaresan said, “IP protection is very strong in the US and no company would like to end up sued by a startup.”
It’s not just enough to have a product and it is important that “customers should be convinced of a compelling product,” Sundaresan continued. Fulfilment comes through a channel, he added. For example, Apple just didn’t deliver iPhone. It had the whole support system of iTunes, iCloud, and other services to give a unique experience to users. So building such channels should be focused upon after building a product.
He also pointed out to the freemium model to build up user base. Offering the product free would build a user base, which could be converted into paying users later on. Usually, the paying user is a fraction of the huge user base. “Creating a walkover with your product with no competitors helps you have a huge margin,” said Sundaresan giving a tip on pricing strategy. When competition is high, margin drops.
On acquiring customers in the US, he quoted the Israeli companies’ practice of having one business development manager in the US and development team in Israel. That helps the Israeli companies sell in the US market. Vembu Technologies, headed by Sekar Vembu, also has tapped the US market, not through a manager but by Sekar’s several visits to the US.
Silicon Valley’s ecosystem has been built over 30 years and TiE has helped Indian technology entrepreneurs flourish in the Valley. To help entrepreneurs understand the other business areas such as finance and HR, a TiE Institute was set up, which delivered lessons to entrepreneurs on these business aspects. It helped the entrepreneurs in a big way.
It was a fascinating lesson delivered for all eager entrepreneurs. What’s heartening is the entrepreneurs are concentrating on building products. So the OAA is trying to build an ecosystem to encourage these entrepreneurs in their aspirations. The alumni network, spread across the Silicon Valley, is a huge bonus for the IIT-M entrepreneurs. If a successful ecosystem is established, and if that leads to a few successes, it will spawn a wave of product entrepreneurship from campus. This might create a new model for creating world-class product companies. So the prepared minds will create history if these developments lead to tangible results. A parallel model that is successful is the Israeli model of building superior products and realizing exits through acquisitions by the likes of Cisco.
–Venkatesh Krishnamoorthy, chief evangelist