Author Archives: Mukund Mohan

Finally a way for H1B visa employees to realize their dream of #entrepreneurship – unshackled

I had the chance to talk to Nitin Pachisia today about his new venture fund, Unshackled. He and his cofounder have started the investment arm, which focuses on opportunities created by H1B (and other restrictive work visas) entrepreneurs. I have talked about this problem before, but did not realize that it could be a potentially lucrative segment to invest in.

The problem is this. If you are in the US on a work visa that’s restricted (Optional Practical Training or H1B as an example) then leaving the company that “sponsored” your visa is a tough call since your new startup can a) “not pay the salary” you need to get a new H1B or b) other legal restrictions prevent you from leaving your job (your visa sponsor) for your own startup.

Apparently there are 750K restricted work visa holders in the US (and I suspect most if not all are from India and China). Each year, students and professionals who come to the US increase the pool by a few thousand.

If you apply the basic math, then about 10% of these (likely) will be keen to start their own company – about 7500 and that’s the target segment for Unshackled. They are looking to fund about 25 companies via their fund.

The way Nitin and team help get this done (I am simplifying) is to be the company that sponsors the H1B (as Unshackled can) for the entrepreneur. After they raise their funds to be able to sponsor their own visa, then the entrepreneur can leave and “join” their startup they created.

I think it is niche enough and specific enough for most folks to remember what Unshacked does and what they stand for. Nitin mentioned that over 60 investors have already committed to their fund and they were over-subscribed for their current round.

I am personally still trying to figure out if this is a large enough talent pool to get the quality winners that any fund needs, but it is niche enough and specific.

I do remember being in 500 Startups (#500Strong) a year ago, when they had 4 companies from India – Trade Briefs, Instamojo, WalletKit and GazeMetrix were all started by entrepreneurs who were in the US for the 4 month accelerator program on a B1 visa, but had to return to India, because they did not have a visa option to stay in the US.

This would have been an ideal solution for any of those folks.

I think anyone who is on a restricted work visa and is keen to start a tech startup should seriously explore this fund as a great way to get started. Nitin and his co-founder are based in Palo Alto and have setup partnerships with many local funds, legal and accounting agencies and other startup support organizations.

A comparison of business software review sites: Credii, ITCentral, G2Crowd, BestVendor and GetApp

There are an estimated 5K to 10K SaaS and enterprise software companies that provide solutions for small, mid-sized and enterprise companies.

The large IT analyst companies such as Gartner, Forrester, IDC, EMR and Burton Group have made a $billion business out of evaluating and ranking these vendors on a magic quadrant or waves.

Over the last few years a host of companies have tried to disrupt the evaluation, comparison, review and ranking portion of the business.

The companies, G2Crowd, Credii, ITCentralStation, BestVendor and GetApp all pretty much offer a similar service with a few twists. The ability for business users to review, evaluate and filter the software solution for the based on their custom need.

Given the explosion of startups (thanks to the lower cost of starting a company), there are tons of choices for any buyer of software and many deployment models as well – mobile app, mobile web, SaaS, etc.

I had a chance to look at all these companies, and the intent was to review them from the point of view of a buyer of technology. I was initially looking for the best Early stage private company database, and stumbled upon one of these websites and went to research and see if there were others as well providing Yelp-type reviews for startups in a “crowd sourced” way.

There are 3 different approaches taken by these companies. While G2Crowd, ITCentral station and Best Vendor are more crowdsourced platforms, where any user can write a review and rate the vendors, Credii is more like a “Analyst on Demand” or ” Analyst as a Service” solution. GetApp is a pure marketplace and seems to want to follow the App store model with some reviews, but more a listings website.

There were 3 things I was looking for when searching for a database of startups – first a good comprehensive listing of vendors, followed by analysis of their features and pricing, and finally reviews and recommendations by users like me.

Of the 5 solutions (none of who are comprehensive) I found Getapp to have the most listings – for other solutions than the one I was looking for. G2Crowd was a close second. The rest were pretty poor in the comprehensive nature of their coverage of a domain or the products within a domain.

In terms of analysis of features and pricing, company information, I found g2Crowd the best, but Credii very comprehensive. The limited nature of editorial reviews in the other sites, make them hard to take seriously.

Finally in terms of user reviews, getApp was the best by far with the most reviews. followed by G2Crowd. ItCentralStation was poor but definitely better than the other two.

If you are an SMB vendor with an interest in reviewing products and learning more about products before you start to shop, I’d be hard pressed to say an of them will truly meet your needs. They might be a starting point, but if you are expecting an Amazon like listing, with great reviews, multiple feature comparisons, you will be sadly disappointed.

P.S. I have been also informed (see the comments) about Capterra. Worth a look as well.

A data driven approach to dispelling the myth that planning for #entrepreneurs is “old” school

There is an ongoing meme that keeps popping up ever so often among tech entrepreneurs and gurus. That the “business plan” is dead and there is actually no sense in planning at all.

After all they say “Hands-on Entrepreneurial Action is all that is required to create a Business”.

I have enough curiosity to keep finding out which of these truisms are valid and which are not. Fortunately I also have a position that allows me to try these experiments given that I run an accelerator program.

TLDR: This is absolutely false. Poor or any planning is better than no plan at all for over 80% of startups. In fact, the earlier the stage of the startup, the more is the value of that planning.

Here is the data:

Over the last 3 years, I had the opportunity to identify, select, coach and help 87 entrepreneurs for over 4 months each. I spent about 1.3 hours per week with each entrepreneurial team. In the last 3 years, and in 6 cohorts, there have been a total of 4834 applications we have received and reviewed. Of these my team and I have talked to about 450+ (about 10%) and have met with (for atleast 15-30 min) about 250 of these entrepreneurial teams. A total of 87 of them made it into our accelerator and that’s the sample size. Of these, 89% were from India, and 11% from the US.

There are between 10-12 sprints we run at each of our 4 month acceleration programs. Customer development, technology, product management, design, go-to-market, sales, partnerships, and others. One of the sprints we also run is called the “Operating plan” sprint. I instituted this after the first cohort, when I learned that most investors did not care so much about the “demo day pitch” as much as what the company was going to do with their investment for the next 12-18 months.

So, I put together an operating plan template. Think of this as your blueprint for execution. It would spell out what you were going to do to hire, sell, develop, fund and grow your startup. I put together a template as well to help the companies think through the plan.

It stems from your top level goal first, which depending on your stage could be – get product shipped, get customers to use it, increase usage, drive sales, increase revenue, etc. The only constraint I put was to ensure that you had one goal only. Not 3 or 5, just one.

Then you want to tie in various parts of your company to achieve that one goal.

If you had to hire engineers to build product, then that needed to be spelled out. If that then requires funding, you need to spell that out as well and so on.

So each operating plan will end up having 7-9 sub “plans” for product, development, hiring, sales, marketing, funding, etc.

This planning cycle begins in the 3rd month of our program and lasts 2-3 weeks for the entrepreneurs. During this time, many entrepreneurs are busy trying to get funding and meet investors, which means they tend to have little time for “all this other planning stuff”.

Which makes for a perfect experiment with a control group and a treatment group.

In the last 5 cohorts, I have asked and then politely urged all the entrepreneurs to participate actively in the operating plan sprint. But 50% of the cohort would get another 30 min pep talk from me on its importance.

I’d urge them over a lunch or coffee the importance of doing the plan.

I would not discourage the others from doing it, but the other group I did not spend the 30 minutes with on taking the operating plan seriously. Some of them took it seriously without my urging and cajoling and most ignored it.

Now that I have the data for 3 years, I can confidently tell you that just the act of putting together an operating plan – however poor it is, increases your chances of funding and raises valuation.

I went back to the data to look for my own biases and see if the ones that I urged were “somehow better suited to raise funding and be successful regardless of my urging” anyway, and I think I have no way to really check that at all, but I am confident that the sampling error, if any, was minimal.

Of the companies that I did the extra selling to, 69% of them raised funding within 6 months of the accelerator, compared to 31% who did not.

Even the companies that took the operating plan seriously and put what I consider a poor plan, beat the ones that did not take the operating plan seriously at all by a margin of 20 basis points.

I totally understand that funding is a weak (and only one) measure of achievement (and not of success), but I also realize that it is the metric most entrepreneurs judge an accelerator by.

So, the bottom-line is this.

If you want to achieve any form of success, creating an operating (or business) plan, even if it is poor, is better than not having one at all.

A comparison of early stage private company startup databases

If you are an early stage investor (Venture Capitalist, Angel investor or other Seed fund), there are now a host of databases which claim to have the information required to scout, identify and track startups. There are 2 open data sources – Crunchbase and AngelList and 5 known new age companies – Datafox, CB Insights, Mattermark, Tracxn and Owler.

Crunchbase and AngelList have proprietary data (which they have open sourced) that’s entered by the startup founders and “followers” of the company.

The rest of the systems have either used public API’s or crawling to build their database of startups from sources such as Crunchbase, AngelList and LinkedIn etc.

All of these systems have almost identical pricing ($399) for a single seat per month. Owler claims to have a free tier and CBInsights has priced themselves even more than these solutions.

All except Datafox have given me some form of limited access to their data for evaluation purposes.

All these solutions are looking to replace the expensive Venture Intelligence reports or Reuters data or other private databases from yesteryear’s or become the “Bloomberg” terminal for private companies similar to what’s being used by traders and investors for publicly listed companies.

The mega trend that’s important for the story: The benchmark for a good stock to buy was a “ten bagger”. A company that if you invested $1 would return $10 in relatively short period of time (2-5 years) as initially quoted by Peter Lynch.

What’s happening in the private markets is that due to the onerous regulations, Sarbanes Oxley law and other paperwork associated with being public, tech companies are staying private longer. So they are becoming multi-ten baggers before they go public. Companies like Facebook, Twitter, Uber and AirBnB, may do well as a public company, will no longer be a 10 bagger post IPO (or highly unlikely) but are obtaining large valuations from seed rounds to Series D or E.

So, many investors are looking to invest earlier into these companies. Data from companies listed above will be very useful for these investors, to make decisions on investing.

All these systems have a fairly similar UI and have almost identical data. for the 3 sectors I wanted to track – Internet of Things, Consumer Internet companies and B2B Enterprise software companies. I am sure you will have better value for the arcane categories. There is not much of a difference in their data since they all seem to obtain data from the same sources. Except Tracxn, I dont think the others use manually curation to track or manage their database.

There are 3 top things I looked for when evaluating these systems:

1. Comprehensive nature of their data: Most are fairly similar and you may get a 10% variation in companies from one system versus another.

2. Capability to export and do analysis manually: There’s not much of a difference here as well.

3. Their analysis, reporting and intelligence platform:All of them are in version 1 of their analysis modules, so right now there is a tremendous lack of sophistication on their data analysis.

Most peers in other companies and a few Venture firms I know, use more than 1 system and pull that data into their own CRM system.

I wont be able to really recommend one system over the other. They all do the job for a beta / version 1 system pretty well and right now, Datafox has a good visualization engine as does CB Insights. CB Insights has the most robust system, but in all 3 cases had the least # of companies of the other 4. Tracxn claims to have analysts that are curating their data, but I dont see the impact of that on their database.

The #MI3 – #Xiaomi android phone is not for those with a corporate account (Exchange)

I bought the Mi3 after a lot of deliberation 2 weeks ago. I currently have a Windows phone and always keep a spare since I go back and forth from Bangalore and Seattle.

My previous Android phone was the Google Nexus. I have had a iPhone 4S as well.

My overall basic impression: This is not the phone for me. I am ready to sell it to anyone that wants it.

I had a chance to see the phone in action 3 weeks ago when 2 other folks at the accelerator bought it. It is EXTREMELY light. It has a gorgeous display and I had heard so many good things about it that I was tempted to buy it.

It is a very well made device. Fast and sharp, if you in the market for an Android phone and have bought into the Google ecosystem (use Gmail, Google Maps, etc.)

The 3 most important things to me are consistent access to email (I have an Exchange and a POP3 account), long battery life (my other phones dont last an entire day) and reliable phone (good signal, loud enough with a headset). I use very few apps except to post to FB and Twitter and some minimal reading (Feedly).

Unfortunately these are the only things that this phone absolutely does poorly. In fact it is so bad that I am tempted to go back to my Galaxy Nexus (which is very slow).

First: email. As I mentioned, I have Exchange and our corporate policy requires encryption of the phone to access email. That does not work with MIUI. After 5 restarts and 4 hard resets, I still dont have my Exchange email. Which also means my calendar is not available. It is a known bug according to Xiaomi and there is no ETA on the fix.

The work around is I downloaded another email client, which seems to work, but my contacts and calendar on Exchange still dont sync. That absolutely is a deal breaker for me.

Second: Long battery life. It is much better than my Nokia 820, but the phone heats up quite a bit when you use it for over 2 hours (especially when you use maps). It is definitely much hotter than my 820 or the Galaxy Nexus. The battery has not lasted an entire day of normal usage. Disappointing.

Finally: I need a good phone. I tend to be on calls for over 2 hours daily. This is very weird. When I call my voicemail, the screen freezes. The phone still works, but the screen just wont turn on. It is absolutely impossible to do anything after that other than restart the phone. I had 7 voice mails to go through and they are still stuck without the ability to delete them.

If you need a good phone and dont work for a large company with Microsoft Exchange, etc. this would work, but there are cheaper phone that do the job as well.

Why the #flipkart battle with #Amazon is less about money and more about customer delight

Over the last week the amount of press on Flipkart’s $1 Billion raise and Amazon’s $2 Billion investments in India have been significant.

I have been a big personal fan of Flipkart, but I notice that they dont have the sense of customer joy and delight that Amazon does. Even though that’s a stated goal and they religiously preach it, they rarely follow it.

I have had personal experiences as well shopping with both companies, and Flipkart is the “reliable grocer” and Amazon is the “delightful marketplace”.

That means the game is not about the amount of money raised or invested by either company, but more the extent they go to make customers happy.

I had an extremely poor experience with Flipkart last week, and it was clearly their mistake. An apparent policy of not allowing a customer id to order 2 phones, was to blame, but nowhere was that policy apparent until after they nearly shipped the product home.

And when asked why they messed the order up, they claimed policy was to blame as opposed to their internal issues. Largely, the experience makes me not want to shop again at Flipkart. Not that it matters to them, since there’s enough demand. But in the 10+ years of shopping at Amazon, I have never had a poor experience, even when it was my fault.

When Amazon messed up my order, last week, I got a full refund and a thank you gift as well for the inconvenience.

With Flipkart all I got was lousy emails explaining their policies.

How to be lucky, a skill to learn #entrepreneurs

Those who think they’re unlucky should change their outlook and discover how to generate good fortune, says Richard Wiseman

My research revealed that lucky people generate good fortune via four basic principles. They are skilled at creating and noticing chance opportunities, make lucky decisions by listening to their intuition, create self-fulfilling prophesies via positive expectations, and adopt a resilient attitude that transforms bad luck into good.