How is Microsoft Ventures Changing the Indian Entrepreneurial Landscape?

Saurabh Saha

Mindthis and Microsoft Ventures have a start up chat  

Startups are the engines of growth which fuel a sustainable future. In the last 5 decades you will find that startups which started with a disruptive idea are the ones that have become the Apple, Microsoft, Google and Facebooks of today. Most of the technological innovation that we see around us is the result of startups that worked on a specific idea and converted it into a live product that changed the course of business. I can’t deny there have been many startups that have vanished into oblivion but their failure was the sole reason we see such brilliant products around us.

The Indian ecosystem in the last decade or so has become a haven for startups. In the recent past we have seen startups like Flipkart, Snapdeal and the most recent Redbus doing exceedingly well. At the same time the investment landscape too has changed drastically and today there is no dearth of capital when it comes to funding the right businesses with the next killer idea.

I would like to take this opportunity to interact with Rajinish Menon who heads Microsoft Ventures accelerator in Bangalore; a haven for technology startups. Microsoft Ventures has been instrumental in incubating some really exciting startups in the past and are building a credible reputation in India.

Let’s find out more from the man himself.

How would you describe MS accelerator?

<Rajinish>The Microsoft accelerator is an immersive program aimed at creating great new world-class, successful startups. The Accelerator provides participants mentoring that is focused on ideation, basic business and customer development, networking and pitching. Microsoft is seeking to build greater momentum in the startup ecosystem and become the natural partner and platform for the entrepreneurial community.

What do you think could be the reasons Indian product ecosystem hasn’t had much success in terms of creating state of the art products?

<Rajinish>There are multiple reasons for this situation starting with the fact that we have a great service led economy and especially in IT where services ruled the roost and it was easy given the cost advantages for entrepreneurs to start a startup in the services space. Also the domestic market in India is not so well developed in terms of IT adoption and this led to an impression and to some extent it is true, that it would take mega bucks to build a product startup and market to the developed markets. Another reason could be that in early days there wasn’t much of impetus to build product startups. Lastly, it was expensive to onboard developers, buy software to build products. The situation on all these fronts have thankfully changed for the better

Do you think this is the right time for startups to dabble with innovative ideas as the ecosystem is optimal?

<Rajinish>Of course. No time is a good time and every time is a good time! If you have an idea and if you able to carve out a business model for that idea then you should explore entrepreneurship. There are tons of partners, govt bodies and platform providers like Microsoft who have suitable programs that encourage entrepreneurship. Microsoft’s BizSpark program and accelerator program are such example of our support towards this.

What do you think will the the key technology areas where most of the product innovation would happen in the next 5-10 years?

<Rajinish> I will go with the current flow that we see today which is the SMAC space. There are tons of innovation yet to happen and this is the most exciting space. The coming together of Social Media and its variant use in the enterprise space throws interesting ideas and business opportunities. Similarly we haven’t still seen the power of mobility. With apps we have probably scratched the surface. Again here once we see mass adoption of mobility in the enterprise space, you will see tons of opportunities being thrown up. Big data is another area with all of us generating tons of data  and with the multiple sensors and devices around us there is tremendous scope to harness this data and use them for increasing the personal lifestyle of people and increasing their business productivity.

What role does MS accelerator play in nurturing startups it shortlists for it’s accelerator program? Do you acquire equity from the startups you shortlist for the program? How many successful exits have you had till date?

<Rajinish> Firstly we don’t take any equity in the startups who are enrolled in our accelerator program.

Our focus of operations with the startups who have enrolled in our program is to guide to them check and change, if need be, their focus between the following aspects:

•       Ideation Strategy & Assessment

•      Business & Customer development

•      Product build

•      Investors exposure/networking & pitching

The main pillars of the Microsoft Accelerator’s operation

Physical space – where we give adequate space for the startup team to work out for the 4 months they are in our accelerator

Mentors – Access to a pool of mentors

Partners – Access to other startup ecosystem partners including customers who are part of the Microsoft partner program

Investors – Access to a pool of investors and given them visibility from day one so that the interested investor is appraised of the development of the startup

The themes we focus are

  1. business development before product development
  2. UX: Scenario oriented engineering, user-centric planning, UX mentoring supported by UI designers

 How would you define the investment landscape of India?

<Rajinish>The investment landscape in India is very tiny, kind of nascent and partly matured and I say this because we are yet to see good angel investment traction, good large deals and very open minded investing community who bet on risks. Currently whilst we see traction on all these fronts but none of it is on the same lines that we see in other markets like Israel, China or Berlin. Somewhere the percentage of share that startups give up at the very beginning to raise seed/Angel money itself put the entrepreneurs on the back foot. This coupled with investor interest in traditional success models and some sort hesitance to invest in unknown ideas make it a reason to believe that we are still long way to go.

 Is hiring a huge problem for startups as first of all there is dearth of technical talent and secondly engineers wish to work for bigger brands that offer competitive salary as opposed to a startup offering comparatively less salary plus sweat equity?

<Rajinish> Yes! Hiring is a huge problem for startups and this is partly due to the mindset where employees feel that employment security is key and a startup might fold up anytime. This scenario is thankfully changing although the numbers are still very small. Today we see seasoned professionals move out of their senior positions in large corporations and join startups to lead their business or technical branch. This is leading to a good number of junior and middle level talent moving to the startup space. What could be done even further is for the industry, the BFSI industry etc to give equal credence to employees working in startups. This way employees feel respected and they will be encouraged to join startups.

Do you see Google, Microsoft or Facebooks emerging out of India in the next 10-20 years?

<Rajinish> I am optimist in this space and I cant see a reason why we cant have a great company built of India. That said we should stop thinking of companies like Google or Microsoft from India but instead concentrate on creating companies that solve India’s problems. If one can build a successful solution that can solve India’s problem then that solution can be sold anywhere in the world. Look at how Nokia succeeded with its Asha range of phones. The key is get the right functionality and pricing. India is a commodity market and if one succeeds in commoditizing a business and create products then we have a world winner!

As director of MS Accelerator what has been your focus area and what kind of developments have you observed in that space?

<Rajinish> I lead the startup ecosystem for Microsoft India where I work with startup themselves, startup enablers like – NASSCOM, TiE chapters, NEN, NSRCEL etc. My main objective is to come up with a holistic approach towards these various entities and then ultimately help the startups success in their endeavor. Over the past few years, I have seen tremendous growth in the number of entrepreneurs who have this entrepreneurship route, I see lot of them doing things like building unique products, building locally relevant products unlike a bland copying of western ideas. The momentum is huge and I see great traction by the Government at the center and most states. Today the number of accelerators and incubators have shot up multiple fold and I see great traction. The  number of startups who have set up their bases in US and other developed markets like Singapore is on the rise. Overall a great positive momentum.

 What kind of problems do startups tend to face right in the initial stages that you have observed being a part of MS accelerator?

<Rajinish> We take startups who have some sort of a maturity when it comes to their product, customer traction and addressable market opportunity. Inspite of this stringent prerequisites most time we are quite surprised at their level of ignorance to have a regular customer validation and change course. Most still persist with their same product line/functionality when they are seeing lower customer traction. Changing their mindset to be more accommodative in the beginning and see the big picture takes some time. Most people do change after sometime but the initial hurdle in accepting that all is perhaps not right is a issue. Thanks to our easy, friendly inhouse mentoring program coupled with the great resources we bring to the table, the initial teething issues are sorted out quickly and they go on to build great products.

In the end what is your message to aspiring entrepreneurs?

<Rajinish> Please don’t wait if you have a good idea and a viable business model.Take the plunge because if you don’t someone else will. There are tons of opportunity in the market both in India and WW and with Technology fast changing there is a tremendous scope to improve everything. Lastly, unlike earlier you have a great support ecosystem and we are all doing our bit to help you. Do work with us and we will everything we can to make your idea see the day. All the best!

  Rajinish Menon

Rajinish_MenonRajinish is a business leader with demonstrated ability to tackle tough business and management challenges. In his earlier stints donning various hats he have always emphasized to put process and systems that promotes institutionalization of the division/enterprise. He has crafted visible turn-arounds and growth strategies, based on strong fundamentals and people management skills. He strongly believes he possesses an innate ability to inspire people, and lead through confidence, vision, logic and fair play. He attributes his successes to the wonderful team he had the privilege of leading and which he has nurtured well with a good sense of managing by proper direction setting and giving them appropriate freedom to leverage their core strengths. His core belief is best summarized by the adage – “Walk together and one will walk a long way”

Over the past 16 years he has worked in various roles and some of his core areas of focus has been around the following:-

a. Identifying and Developing new areas of growth for the company and for its partners

b. Simplifying technology and making it easier for partners to adopt technology

c. The world of application economy especially in the era of Cloud & Phone industry transformations

d. The startup ecosystem in India, what works?, what might work and what might not work?

e. Aligning teams and business division by strategizing and operationalizing plans in line with Corporate goals

f. Possesses multi-disciplinary expertise

g. Proven P&L a/c responsibility and proven people management skills

His Specialties include:

Leadership, General Management, Business Strategy, Finance, Marketing, People Management, Cross Group Collaboration, Cloud Computing, Azure, Windows 8, Windows Phone and the world of Application Economy