How can we change the format and structure of #startup events in #India

I had a chance to see the agenda for 6 startup events that are taking place over the next 2 months. NASSCOM Product conclave, TIE Con Delhi, TechCrunch India and 3 other media events by local folks.

As part of our work at the accelerator we also track the top 137 key “startup speakers” in India. Just so we know who the most frequent, popular and the most sought after speakers are.

Here’s the headline. The same 35 – 40 folks are speaking at all these events. Its almost as if we have run out of ideas in terms of speakers. There are possibly 2-3 reasons for this I think. One, event organizers feel if they get a top name speaker, then the attendees have a reason to come. Two, they probably do not want to “upset” the important folks so we end up having panels of 5-6 people on a 30 min slot and by the time we finish intros and a 2 min spiel by each panelist, we are done. Third, we really dont have too many articulate, insightful speakers so they same names come up all the time.

The second part of the problem is the format and structure of the event. There is a “same-ness” to every one of these – panels, reverse pitches, fireside chats. Throw in 10 “startup pitches” a-la American Idol and you have a $100K profit event.

Most of these events are fairly formulaic, now it seems. Throw in a few ecosystem partners, you will be guaranteed about 300-500 attendees and most likely this event is churning at the low end $50K to $100K or more if the event is larger.

While many event organizers will tell you this is what folks are asking for and signing up for, they are also looking for fresh ideas on how to change the format.

I think the number of events is going to increase not decrease in India because most folks running these events are making good money. While I used to think that 50% of the folks attending these events are the same that appear in each event, I have been told otherwise. Many of the folks (over 50%) are putting their toe into entrepreneurship and looking at ways to network with prime movers who are those 30+ speakers I mentioned above.

I would love to get some ideas on both topics and formats that you think we should experiment on.

P.S. I am as guilty as the others in helping program manage some of these events or help put the structure together for these, so I am as much a part of the problem. Which is why seeking help possibly redeems me.

16 thoughts on “How can we change the format and structure of #startup events in #India”

  1. Totally agreed with you Mukund.
    I will give you my experience – I had been to my first entrepreneur event from YourStory and then realized that its just a place to get inspired (though I dont say it was a bad event but it lacked the connect). And after that I had only been to 4-5 events (in 3yrs time) of which only 1 which was hosted by medianama was fruitful as it was a closed door invite only event for entrepreneurs not ‘VC’.
    And I would like to point out that there is a big difference in this kind of event (only for entrepreneurs) and other events as in such events the entrepreneurs gets to listen to real insights and there is no butter talk.
    So in my view, the events should be more 2 way interaction based coz we need to encourage young entrepreneurs and make them understand how business is done. I assume In50hrs is doing good but never gotta chance to attend it and then we can have an event which is more focused on niche talks where even the speakers learn and get to know from young turks.
    I hope we get to be in more kick ass events than not so happening talks which only creates a mind wall in wanapreneurs.

  2. One thing that comes to my mind is having a chance to do sales pitch by Entrepreneurs. Providing an interactive platform to openly pitch for the product sales/users at an event. It would be a win-win situation if each start-up can bag a few customers and/or again quick product feedback at these events – better than trying to win a cash prize etc.

  3. Very interesting point Mukund. There are three issues here:
    1. It’s a proven fact that big names are proven draw for increasing registrations. Till the name of the big speakers are announced registration hardly picks up.
    2. It is also a proven fact that not-so-well known founders deliver much higher value than biggies. Biggies really do not have much new to add.
    3. If it is sponsored by a VC, then the VC *would* insist on being on the panel. I have heard many talking anything new really. But that’s also a commercial compulsion.

    This could and would change, if the commercial interests for the event is kept aside, organisers are ok with smaller turn-out but focus on content. This is a tall order, as for most of the (media) organisations, event is the only way to earn fat sponsorships.

    At TiEMumbai we made a small beginning last year with Smashup. We ensured that no VC goes on the stage, no PPTs and all the speakers are only ‘recent’ startups. This year, we junked panel discussion as well. Plus, anyone in the audience can go up and pitch (for talent, partner or simply his product) etc.

    Not that we have made a huge impact. Not even sure if the audience would have liked the regular format and regular speakers. And yes, we still do get couple of usual suspects to draw the audience.

    So all of us are the culprit for perpetuating the same-ness. I hope this post sparks a debate and we get some insights.

  4. I have been only to less than a handful of these events and other than the ones held by SAIF, where there is nearly zero pitching and only sharing, I have not been all that thrilled to see what goes on.

    But, it is not easy to put together these events and I’ll not grudge any of the organizers for making money out of it. We lack scale at every part of the start-up scene in India — quality, quantity, deal flow. So anything that tips the scale up will always have my support, even if I think it was not up to the mark.

    That said, it is still very early days for the ecosystem in India. Think of it as local rock music in the 1990s when it was just a handful of real talent and a lot of wannabes and clones of the west. It took probably another good 10-years before that ecosystem became decent in India — quality of the bands, the recording infra, quality of engineers/producers — all are better now.

    We are, with the start-ups, in the 1990s of the rock scene. The only thing that will move it forward is momentum. And momentum is not always completely good or of great quality. Add the general chaotic manner in which India tends to function to the mix and it can really get to you if you allow it to.

    On the other hand, there are nearly no limits to contributing to the good in various parts — as advisers, connectors, investors, mentors — and every little bit counts here. Also, a lot of the first generation start-up success stories are also slowly putting out people with actual experience in getting it to work there. Their numbers are low, but it is a growing tribe.

    As for the mediocre stuff, If you are in a position to change the game by changing the direction of the puck (which, I think, you certainly are in), this is the best time to do it. Lead by example, make a difference beyond what you’re already doing right now. The possibilities are endless 🙂

  5. I always like un-conference style events where the audience are the speakers. In the past two years at NPC we tried a pitch session, a sharing session of failures and some startup challenges. Every one of them had great participation and lots of interaction. Learning from peers is one of the best ways to learn, IMO.


    1. Among the best events (SXSW) it is a audience curated session. Many un-conferences, enough room for the audience to participate. Of course they have a fair share of panels and fireside chats, but I guess they also have so many folks who are in the ecosystem so the same 35-50 folks dont show up.

  6. Dear Mukund,   When events become monotonous with repeated  speakers, panelist, participants and ideas, it could boring. Gradually people will loose interest and loose momentum.   Understand your start ups are mainly based on IT and idea could be running out sooner, if new ventures are not introduced sooner from out of the system/box.   Why not try to offset the current practice by including  some out of the box speakers, panelists , participants based on manufacturing, SME ? You will never run out of ideas as every consumer product is being enhanced with newer technologies. Some of the research results of today will take 10 to 15 years to get in to an application. Take a look at  Nano  technology. It is gradually picking up now. Sky is the limit for it’s applications.    All these need IT at each and every level. Get these research and manufacturing people involved in such events  and that will be a buyers and sellers meet. This will be a great platform for product manufactures to meet IT professionals and mutually mix and match their capabilities  and potentials. As both could be start ups, both could get in to cost effective tie ups or even experiment on affordable areas.   Currently both these groups are in different platforms and one has to go to other group to fish out their requirement. If we can provide an interface for both IT and manufacturing professional/ entrepreneurs they will quickly realize the synergy and should take up  various mutually beneficial  projects .   Hence it will be a good idea to involve both these professionals/entrepreneurs in future startups events   Rgds Murali


  7. Good pt.
    THis has been the core of UnPluggd – i.e. get speakers who aren’t even known to the world. E.g.:
    1. Mukund Mohan in 2009 wasn’t famous 🙂
    2. Kailash Katkar – not much awareness in Southern region.
    3. Sachin Bansal in 2009 : the tiny little co. called Flipkart 🙂
    4. Entrepreneurs like Lalit Patel ($55mn rev)who have build a solid business w/o being in the limelight.

    The startup events in India are mostly about the ‘famous’ speakers because it helps organizers sell tickets (FACT : White skin speakers sell faster!) – very few are creating celebrities!! We are for sure trying our hands there.

  8. While some of these events do have a session or half on how to pitch, in my limited exposure to the ecosystem that you’ve described, I haven’t seen a formal session on say, networking, or even how to get the most out of the events – coming with an agenda for Day 2, say..
    I’ve seen a significant number of people stick around with people whom they already know or when some of them do approach others (the speakers, in most cases), their two-minute conversations are cringe worthy (I’ve been guilty of this and I’ve witnessed countless such cases!)
    To call this a soft-skills training would undermine what it really is, but the naming doesn’t matter I suppose.

  9. Ah!! So you’ve hit the nerve, spot on. The sameness and the formulaic nature, can it be avoided. A fair question but what’s the incentive, for the organizers? A good event or a hit event? And wouldn’t tht incentive change depending on who is hosting the event?
    The start up media companies would want more turnout, and more “partners”, so getting big speakers would, in most cases do the trick.
    But if it was VC holding an event in order to find the next big thing, the format could arguably use another approach where panels aren’t really the top of the agenda.
    The problem I think, happens because everyone is trying a potpourri of tasks within time limits, without focusing as much on the real agenda of the event. And yes, the “promotion and support of entrepreneurship” is not really the “real” or primary motive in most cases. And it is this byproduct of confused and unclear motives which makes entrepreneurship itself look like a wannabe attempt at mindless networking in exchange of an afternoon and a free T shirt.

  10. I would like to suggest changes by first jotting down the key takeaways from startup events. They include:
    1) Learning about the startup space – The first point of contact for wannabe
    2) Customers and Funding – Hope of startups in the initial stages
    3) Networking – For everyone

    The structure of the event could be in three phases to address all these needs.
    Screening of short film showcasing the journey of famous startups followed
    by Q&A session by the founder.

    We could also have a tea on lines of “The Influencers Dinner” by Jon Levy.( Here attendees and speakers could discuss startup ideas without revealing their names, which would help to foster conversations without reservations.

    This can be followed by startup pitches to an eminent panel to cater to the general expectations.

  11. 2 points –
    1 .Entrepreneurs are looking to intract with VCs which is missing is all events.
    2. There should be only 2-3 Speakers(session of 30 mins each) who can share good “Gyan” with startps. All speakers should tell us how we can tackel issue like “user base growth”, “operations”, “Do’s and Don’t”.
    Current speakers just share what happen to them. That information is alreay there on Google… or may be they can that infomration in some other forum.

    We need events where all Entrepreneurs can put their idea for 2-3 mins. Thats we are looking in Entrepreneurs kind of Events.

    We are Let’s Ride Team ( ) and same thing we face in Techsparks 2013 Yourstory Bangalore event.

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