Tag Archives: entrepreneurs

Are accelerators failing startups or the curious case of “zombie startups” jumping from one accelerator to another

On Wednesday I had a chance to interact with 31 entrepreneurs in the IoT space at Plug and play technology coworking space in Sunnyvale. There were 10 companies in the Healthcare IoT area, 11 in the connected car and 10 in the home automation (IoT) space. Plug and play has 3 sponsors for their programs including Bosch, Johnson and Johnson and StateFarm, so the companies chosen were deemed a good fit for those sponsors to help them with innovation and startup scouting.

The interesting part that was very obvious to me when I looked at the list and later spoke with many entrepreneurs was that 19 of the 31 had gone to another accelerator program before this one. Of the 10 companies in the connected home space, 3 were from the Microsoft Accelerator itself. Of the 31 companies, 28 were outside the Silicon Valley, which makes sense (that they would want to move to the valley). Two that applied were from YCombinator as well, so, there were not just companies from tier 2 accelerators.

I asked the entrepreneurs why they felt the need to go through another 3-4 month program after they had been to one before.

The not so surprising conclusion is that for many (not all) companies, the 4 month accelerator model is largely insufficient. I did learn that most entrepreneurs did value the support, mentorship and advice provided by the accelerator program they were with before, but many had insufficient “traction” to justify a series A after their “acceleration”.

Of the over 3500 companies funded by venture capitalists in technology last year, less than 150 went through accelerator programs. Of them, nearly 50% were from YCombinator.

At the same time, over 1200 companies went through accelerator programs in the US alone last year. Of the over 1200 companies, 68% have gotten some form of funding (or about 800 companies) is the claim from the accelerators.

Which means about 650 (800 minus the 150 who secured VC funding) companies that “got funded” after an accelerator program, have not secured Institutional funding from a VC, but either from angels or from other accelerators.

If you look at the angel data from the US, of the over 4000 deals funded by angel investors in technology, < 5% or about 200 companies have been through accelerators before.

The result is that 450 companies that were claimed as “funded” after an accelerator program actually went to another accelerator.

Going back to the numbers above, if out of the 1200 companies funded by accelerators, about 450 (or 30%) went to another accelerator and 20% of them (on average) shut down, fail or close, then really about 50% of the startups from the accelerator programs or about 600 companies should be technically “funded” institutionally, but that number is 150. So, there are 450 “zombie” companies.

So the question is – what has happened to the “zombie” companies?

There are only 3 possible answers:

1. More companies have shut down that the numbers reported by accelerators.

2. Many companies end up becoming “cash flow positive” or “break even”, so they chose to not raise funding, but instead grow with “customer financing”.

3. More companies are “zombies” or walking dead – trying to raise funding, not succeeding, but not growing fast enough to justify institutional Venture funding.

I have my hypothesis, that it is #3 that makes up most of the “zombie” companies, but I’d love your thoughts.

If the measure of value that an accelerator provides (as measured by entrepreneurs) is funding, alone we are failing big time.

To raise funds for your startup use a fishing pole not a fishing net: A #contrarian view

Most early stage find raising advice around fund raising is about casting a net as wide as possible to speak to 100’s of potential funding sources to land one investor.

Actually that’s pretty bad advice according to the data I gathered from Pitch Book.

New Investor Additions Each Year- CRM, SaaS and   Home Automation
New Investor Additions Each Year- CRM, SaaS and Home Automation

Within your category or market there are far fewer relevant and willing investors than you can imagine. So casting a wide net is a big waste of time for most entrepreneurs.

Of course the larger the market (e.g. SaaS or Consumer internet) the more are the number of investors in each stage but it is still a small, finite number.

Most venture investors will share broad themes of their investment thesis so they don’t “miss” out on deals, but that does more disservice than good. So, when an investor says we invest in “consumer internet” – that purposely broad so they don’t “miss out” on any hot deals. As an entrepreneur, you need to ask more pointed questions about the sub categories within that theme.

Investors should follow the same advice they give entrepreneurs. Be niche, narrow and focused. Here’s the thing though. They are following that advice but only they don’t message or position it that way.

So the best indicator of if an investor will fund your startup is to look at what they do not what they say. Talk is really cheap I guess.

To prove this I looked at 3 segments. One older theme, one middle aged and one relatively new theme. They were CRM, SaaS and home automation. These are themes I know better than others. For CRM I looked at data from 1996 to 2002, SaaS from 2006 in home automation from 2008. Data does not exist for home automation for 8 years obviously.

I looked at total dollars invested over time  and the number of investors over time as well. Then I plotted the graph over time to look at year over year growth as opposed to cumulative growth.

Here is what the data says. There are a about of 130+ unique investors in CRM over the 8 years, 47 in SaaS and about 15 in home automation. That’s is on the venture side.

So if you have talked to one or more of these and they said no, you will be better of rethinking your business or do without going to other investors. Going to other investors who have not invested in a theme will very likely result in you wasting time. Note that the rate of addition of new investors to a theme is slow. Even in a large market such as CRM.

This also explains two other memes. One that there’s a herd mentality among us and second that venture investing also follows the Geoffrey Moore tech adoption curve.

Once one or two “innovative” VC’s finds a new space then the herd follows but slowly. This explains the fact that new VC additions to a theme rarely exceed 10% YoY even on “hot” themes.

After the innovators, the early adopters and then finally the majority follow.

I suspect, but don’t have the data yet, but a VC innovator in one theme rarely is an innovator in many other. They like to stick to their knitting. Unless they hire a new partner with expertise in a new theme. Which is rare.

So, bottom line for you as an entrepreneur is this.

There is a very short list of VC’s who will invest in your area.

Going after hundreds of potential investors is a big waste of time.

Setup a google alert for funding keyword within your category for 4-6 months before you are looking to raise money and also for “new fund” in your category. Those are your best bets.

If you have exhausted the list of potentials then you are highly unlikely to raise investment. Go back to your positioning and business model and see if you can change something to try again in 6 months with the same set of investors.

Of course there are exceptions to this rule of thumb but they are rare.

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.

The toughest choice for an entrepreneur – Slow and committed vs. Fast and apathetic

Another day, another debate. This time it was Ravi Gururaj, Raj Chinai and Rajan Anandan vs. yours truly.

Lets have a twitter debate copying @rajananandan and @ravigururaj as well on your thoughts.

The debate is about the type of investors that entrepreneurs need now. I believe in the last 18 months, the Indian entrepreneur has changed dramatically. They now prefer a slow, but committed investor as opposed to a fast but apathetic investor. If they could have the best of both worlds, they’d like a fast and committed investor, but that’s as rare as a blue moon. Ravi is of the opinion that speed is the need of the hour.

Here’s the background:

Startups that are getting funded by accelerators are largely (there are exceptions) getting a better shot at getting funded that those that are not. Coming out of an accelerator, most startups get a few angel investor to put anywhere between 50L (or $100K) to 2 CR (or about $400K). This is their seed round. In the US, nearly 27% of companies raise the series A after this angel round of funding. That ends up being a $2 Million to $5 Million round. In India for 2013 that is < 5%

In India, because customer acquisition is slow and laborious, the next round after a seed round, is actually a sapling round (or bridge round) during which the entrepreneur raises anywhere from $500K to $1.5 Million. After this round is when most startups raise their series A in India.

So compared to the US startup, Indian startups have given up 7% on average to the accelerator, 25% to seed investors and another 30% to sapling round investors. In the US most startups go from 7% for the accelerator and 20% for seed investors before their series A.

The “sapling round” is very critical. The reason is that VC’s look for market, team, traction, space and competition before they invest in the series A. Most companies (over 90%) in India are clearly not ready after their seed round, with a complete management team, enough traction (aka revenue) and sufficient product differentiation to support a $2 Million round at a valuation of $4-$5 Million.

Say you are an entrepreneur and you want to raise a seed round and are given 2 choices:

1. An investor willing to move quickly and give you 50L in less than 6 weeks, but not commit to helping you fund the next round, either because they assume you will have enough to raise a series A, or because their investment thesis only allows them to put 50L per company and not more.

2. An investor wanting to take 2-3 months to make a decision (to get to know you, or because they are busy, or because of any number of useless reasons) but committing to give you 50L now and earmarking another 1 Cr to 2 Cr for 20% of the companies they invest in for a future sapling round.

Which one would you prefer?

Most entrepreneurs 18 months ago believed that a fast investor was better than a slow one. But I believe that’s changed now.

Why?

The time to raise a round is increasing, not decreasing. Most entrepreneurs are hearing stories of how some Venture investors are taking over 6 months before making a decision since they have enough good quality deals to pursue. They are also seeing their peers raise a bridge round of financing 12 months after their seed funding raise and realizing that a committed investor is better than one that is apathetic to a 50L investment.

I wish there were fast and committed investors, but that is just not possible.

Why?

The time taken to make an investment increases with the amount of capital involved. It is that simple.

For a Venture investor, $250K investments are quick, but $5 Million take more time. Similarly for an angel investor, $100K investments are quick, but $500K take more time, because you better be sure.

The reason for the $500K is that they will put $100K first, then commit to putting another $200K to $400K as needed in 12-18 months. They are committed to seeing you through a series A if they believe in your company.

Angel investors in India are realizing as well, that most (over 90%) of their investments need more money than they put in at the seed stage before they are ready for a series A. Given that 30-50% of their portfolios will fail, close or shut-down, due to any number of reasons, it is important to let the winners “win”. So they need to support their “winners” with more cash.

I’d love your opinion on this topic. Please let us a comment or lets debate on twitter. I am @mukund. Copy @ravigururaj and @rajananandan as well.

How the risk appetite of entrepreneurs affects their exits in Silicon Valley, India and Africa

I run this fun experiment each time at most events I speak at. I ran is again yesterday at the CII event yesterday in Bangalore. The experiment is to gauge the risk appetite among entrepreneurs. It is not scientific nor is it structured. It has though, given me a sense for the risk appetite among the entrepreneurial class.

I have run this experiment now over 30 times and have had fairly consistent results. If there are over 100 people in the audience, I ask folks three questions and request a show of hands.

Q1. If I gave you a 10% chance of making $2 Million from your startup, how many of you will take that outcome? I get a show of hands at this point.

Q2. If I gave you a 1% chance of making $20 Million from your startup, how many of you will take that outcome? Show of hands again.

Q3. If I gave you a 0.001% of making $1 Billion from your startup, how many of you will take that outcome? Final show of hands.

Over the last 3 months, I have spoken at 2 conferences in the US, 1 in Zurich, 1 in Africa, Singapore and over 5 in India.

The results give me a quick sense for the hypothetical risk appetite for entrepreneurs in that community.

In the US at both the conferences, the distribution was 30%, 10% and 60%. In Zurich it was 60%, 30% and 10%. Africa was very close to the US surprisingly, at 35%, 15% and 50%. It is almost as if Africans have nothing to lose and Americans don’t care for small outcomes, but both end up at the same place.

In all the conferences in India, it has been 70%, 25% and 5% (and that’s being generous in 2 conferences including yesterday, where 2 out of 150 people opted for the 3rd choice).

Rather than draw quick conclusions about the risk appetite, I thought I’d think about it more and understand why Indians are happy with smaller outcomes.

Given that the effort over several years to create a $10 Million outcome at your startup is the same as one that has a $1 Billion outcome, why dont we focus on the large opportunities?

  • Is it fear of failure?
  • Is it that we are “happy” and content with even the small things?
  • Is it that $2 million is such a large change in our lives that the $1 Billion does not seem worth it?
  • Is it that we really don’t aim big? Notice I did not say think big, I said aim big? Nuance, but a big difference
  • Is it lack of exposure to large markets?
  • Is it that we are not hungry enough?
  • Or is it something else?

I don’t quite have an answer. When I mentioned that I dont have an answer to the moderator Mohan Reddy yesterday, he expressed dismay. He was looking for an answer – was it our cultural background, our education system, our values, our government – someone or something had to be blamed.

I dont know the answer, but have a deep desire to find out.

Why?

As we start to invest in the early stage startup ecosystem in India, it is important to calibrate the possible returns and allocate funds associated with the returns. If most entrepreneurs in India are okay with smaller returns, it makes sense for us to allocate fewer fund here than China, Israel or Africa.

From our experience at the accelerator, where, over the last year we have “invested” our time, resources and energy in 23 startups, we know that the risk appetite is much lower among startup founders in India, compared to those in Israel for example.

We have already had 2 small “exits” and 3 closures in India. Israeli companies are still out there, fighting for their series A and beyond, while 1 company had pivoted dramatically in Israel, only to start again.

Is the reason something completely different? Is it that we are realists and don’t think the billion dollar outcome is even possible?

As Henry Ford said:

“If you think you can do a thing or think you can’t do a thing, you’re right.”

Where is analytics headed in 2020? An insight gathered from 25 top #startups

The most amazing part of my job is that I get to learn from the smartest entrepreneurs in the world. I cant think of too many people who get a chance to talk to 3 entrepreneurs via video conference in California at 8 am, 2 startup founders from Singapore at 1030, have lunch with 4 amazing big data analytics company promoters in Bangalore and then wrap up the night with a conference call at 830 pm featuring a recently funded analytics company in Boston.

Most VC’s get a local perspective, Silicon Valley, Tel Aviv, Bangalore, or Beijing. I get pitched from all over the world. Most investors in the valley will tell you the best and brightest come to the valley, but I believe there’s a big shift happening. More on that later.

I wanted to share one very insightful thing I learned after 25+ detailed (over 1-2 hour) briefings with entrepreneurs who are all innovating in the analytics space.

The future of analytics is in offerings based on derived insights.

I just gathered this insight, so let me explain.

Historically the analytics space was filled with services companies. In fact  consultants would take loads of data and gather insights to help their clients with their business objectives. The best known analytics companies that dont call themselves analytics companies are Mckinsey, Bain and other management consultants. Then companies like MuSigma and others decided to “offshore” this insights service. The problem with this type of offshore services business is obvious – low margins (net of 20% and since they are people intensive, they dont scale as fast).

The purveyors of the software model of analytics are those that provided a SaaS product – names such as Cognos, Business Objects etc. Companies like Kaggle crowdsourced your analytics and there are hundreds of companies providing SaaS analytics, such as GoodData, Insights Squared, etc. The problem with this type of business is that most of these software products are “generic” hyper cubes and data warehouse / data mart models. Their margins are better than services, but still nowhere near the 80% gross margins that some industries command.

Since we all know that software is eating the world, many companies in industries such insurance, banking, finance, manufacturing are all facing a threat from new age software companies, who are re-imaging the businesses.

The next generation of analytics companies are those that take the insights gathered and create an offering in that specific area so they can benefit from the insights, instead of providing those insights to others in the industry who make more money from it.

Let me take a simple example. Global Analytics just raised $30 Million. They are an analytics company. They used to provide their insights to financial institutions by way of giving them “leads”. These leads were those customers who were worth extending credit to. An average lead in this case cost their client $30 – $100 (depending on quality).

While that in itself was a big and large market, the larger market is to extend the banking facility themselves, which means with their analytics and insights can directly offer short term cash loans to those that their analytics deems are the best. The average customer in this case will make them $500 – $5000 (depending on the size of the loan). They did this via their own offering Zebit.

Now, most founders with a background in software will say “Wait a second. what business are we in? Software or Financial Services”? That’s a good valid question.

But when you get into the “Financial Services” business there’s loads of things you can re-imagine and redo the right way with a “software frame of mind” as opposed to being a “financial services insider”.

Huge difference in revenue and margins.

That’s the future of analytics.

Using the insight gathered from the analytics to offer a product / service direct to customers and not selling the insight or analysis to existing players.

Let me give you some more examples.

Lets say you are foursquare. You have analytics and insights into where people check in, where they go, what their patterns are with respect to travel.

Would you rather sell this treasure trove of data to marketers (and face a bunch of privacy issues) or would you create an offering based on those insights yourself?

The value to a museum of information that a potential customer is near their location is possibly $2.5  (that’s quite high I imagine if the tickets are $25).

Instead if foursquare offered a virtual museum tour or a personal crowdsourced guide to the museum, then they could sell that for $10 and have 40% margin on that offering.

Imagine if you had driving habits data about car owners – how they drove, what time, how fast, how safe, etc.

Instead of selling the “best driver” data as a lead to the insurance companies, who might pay you $100 – $200 per lead, you could create your own insurance offering based on miles traveled, safety of the drive etc., changing the long standing model of one-size-fits-all car insurance.

There are lots of examples that entrepreneurs are dreaming up these days and the most audacious ones I am talking to want to upend large established industries. It is both exciting and scary at the same time.

That’s exciting. Software will truly eat the world.

The age of “speed gauging”: how entrepreneurs are changing cognitive decision making

I have been on a long road trip to meet investors and entrepreneurs abroad including, Sri Lanka, the US and Switzerland (besides many in India) over the last month. The schedule does not get any better for the next few weeks, so I am very disappointed that I am not able to write as much as I would like, but nonetheless, this is an important point that’s been brewing in my mind for the last few weeks.

Entrepreneurs the world over are changing one very important aspect of decision making – the pace and speed of it.

I spoke to over 135 investors in 15 min to 1 hour conversations (some in a group of 5-8 over dinner) over the last month to figure out that investors the world over are now under immense pressure to make decisions quickly. That was not the case a few years ago.

(P.S. I did read the PG piece on startup trends, so if he’s asking investors to move even more quickly than they are, he’s asking for a LOT, which I suspect most individuals are not ready to sign up for).

A few years ago a typical angel investor (individual, investing their own money) took 1-3 meetings and a month to make a decision to invest in a company. A venture capital investor (professional, investing other people’s money) would take longer, 3-5 meetings and at least 2 months. Then the legal paperwork and negotiations began post the “verbal commitment”.

Now it is not unusual to hear investors in the US taking 1 meeting and 60 minutes to give a verbal commitment and 15 days to funding. In India, that number is changing to 3 meetings and 45 days to funding.

Most investors have 3-5 top criteria and a subset of 5-7 sub criteria for every opportunity they evaluate. The criteria is usually entrepreneur, market, product, traction, exit potential etc. The sub criteria for market, as an example might be a) Size b) Speed of adoption c) Competitive landscape d) Pace of change in that market etc.

I am very intrigued by the sub criteria for entrepreneurs. Since I operate at the very earliest of early stages, putting money or resources when there’s just an idea, with very little or no traction, it becomes absolutely important to make sure you back the right folks.

Since I am on the plane a lot and have a new kindle I get to read a lot as well. I have been reading these books and research pieces to understand how to be a better judge of people when time is limited and the stakes are high.

a. How to read a person like a book

b. Cognitive decision making – a mathematical model

c. Thinking fast and slow

I have built a 21 criteria list for evaluating people quickly (well, quickly compared to the fact that I was not doing it at all before) and I am trying to figure out over the next year, which criteria matter and which ones dont.

Before you think this is too many criteria, let me tell you that most sophisticated investors have mentioned to me that they use between 35 and 50 verifiable and “soft” criteria” and keep tweaking their top 5. Some of these criteria can be a simple yes or no and others require you to ask specific questions. The most cultured investors, who bet lots of money have a cognitive sense of evaluating every word spoken by the entrepreneur and putting them into buckets while evaluating if the criteria they are looking for are met or not.

I am not ready to reveal the criteria since people will game the system, but I am now able to process those better. My evaluation takes now about 20-30 minutes to process each individual after I have a chance to meet them for 30 minutes. Usually I do this when I have some downtime – during commute, running, etc.

The most amazing revelation to me personally has been that nearly 30-40% of my “gut instinct” on people dont match my criteria. I used to pride my people selection based on gut feel a lot more before. Let me give you an example.

I met a really smart entrepreneur in Sri Lanka. who had thoughtful answers to nearly 7-8 very difficult questions that I had, and was articulate, concise and honest. When I went back to my evaluation checklist (which I have documented on my phone), I found that I had overlooked a few important questions and decided to talk to him the next day to ask him more questions. He stumbled on them all. Then I realized he had been asked by many folks the same 7-8 questions that I asked before, so he answered them with aplomb, but questions which he had not encountered before flustered him immensely. I dont have a problem with people not having answers to questions, but he seemed genuinely confused.

I think this field of rapid cognitive evaluation is going to see a lot more research and work being done.

The step function of #changes that are happening in the #Indian #startup scene

Most everyone believes that startup growth happens in step functions. You work for ages on something and it seems like there is little progress, but as an entrepreneur you are plugging away at it and suddenly one day, the growth is dramatic. Then it plateaus for a while and grows again. That’s the same for startup ecosystems is my opinion (not researched).

Step Function Growth
Step Function Growth

I am starting to see the next step function of growth in the Indian technology startup scene. There are a lot of people (entrepreneurs, investors, etc.) contributing to this growth and its hard to point to why it happened except in hindsight.

First, what metrics should we track so we can really know if there’s a step function or no progress?

Here are a few that we track at the Accelerator.

1. # of startups: How many startups are getting formed, where are they getting started, etc.

2. # of funded startups: Time taken to fund startups, amount of investment into startups, stage the companies are in at the point of angel investment etc.

3. Pace of growth: How quickly are they signing customers, how quickly are they getting VC investment, how quickly is their revenue growing, etc.

The NASSCOM 10K startups initiative is one such forcing function contributing to the growth.

Yesterday in partnership with NextBigWhat they organized the first of several #startuproots event.

A big part of that event was the #sharktank, which had 4 companies out of 200 that applied, that were going to pitch to investors and they had to make a decision on the spot.

For those of you who are not familiar with the sharktank format, the startups get 5-10 minutes to pitch, the investors get 5-10 min to ask questions and 2-5 min to make an offer. The entrepreneurs can then take some time to make their decision and then make a counter offer.

All offers are binding, save for legal and financial due diligence. Which means if and investor gets cold feet later, they cannot back out.

Yesterday, 4 companies presented. I had heard about 2 of those companies before (but did not know they were chosen) and the other two companies were fresh and new.

There were 8 investors who were part of the sharktank, but only 6 were serious. The other 2 seemed more there to critique and provide theoretical knowledge about startups.

Pankaj Jain from 500 startups, Ravi Gururaj from HBS, Ranjan Anandan from Google, Anirudh Suri from India Internet Fund and RK Shah from HBS were on the investors side.

Tookitaki (ad-tech space), Moojic (retail music hardware), Credii (Mid-market IT decision support) and Lumos (solar panels for backpacks to charge your phone), were the presenting companies.

All four got funded at the end of the event. I personally thought 2 of them would definitely get funded, but all 4 getting offers was truly a step function change.

I was personally pleased that Lumos got funded. They are doing something new and innovative that most Indian entrepreneurs wont do – Working on a non-software, difficult to scale hardware business, because of their passion.

I have to call out a special mention to RK Shah. RK is not a technology entrepreneur, (he runs a textile unit) neither is he a professional institutional investor. He wrote 2 checks himself yesterday. We need more RK Shah’s in India.

Finally big kudos to Jaivir, Brijesh and the rest of the NASSCOM 10K startup team. In less than 1 week, they got 850 signups for the event, and 500+ people attending.

Why do founders split? 1. Differing visions

Over the last 4 months, I have heard of or at least 8 companies closing down because of “founder issues”. Overall this number of companies that I have been tracking personally where the company closed was 14. So relatively speaking the number of companies that closed because the founders split is larger than “lack of funding”. The only other reason I have heard have been lack of traction. These are companies in the valley and India BTW.

Why do we have so many companies which close because of founder issues?

I tried calling and talking to many of the founders separately to understand what the issues were and its not clear that there are the same that plague most “marriages”.

Most married couples split because of financial issues, compatibility issues or “cheating”.

With most founders, I cannot point to the 3 main causes yet, since I have limited data, but I can share what happened in some of these cases, based on my understanding of their situation. Sometimes, my understanding was colored by my impression of one of the founders, but I tried to remain objective about the situation.

Differing vision of where to take the company. This was cited by most of the founders.

“We  used to talk about where we wanted to take the product. We had a general direction and were fairly aligned. Then it started with a few features that we had different opinions on. In a matter of weeks we would constantly fight about every feature. The constant fighting drove our team mad and we decided to split”.

“We started with targeting large enterprise customers, since my co-founder had a few relationships there. We found that many had a long time frame to get us on board as a vendor. Then we decided to change our target to mid-sized companies. That changed the vision of our product and some key features, which the developers could not deliver on. I still thought we could focus on larger customers, but my co-founder did not and we decided to split”.

Many times, the vision of the company is considered very sacred by the founders. Which is a good thing. Alignment of vision is hugely important. I can also see how the vision changes at times, since the initial assumptions made, usually change as you go to market and meet customers.

Some founders are flexible about that change and are willing to be patient about finding that vision, whereas others want to stick to a vision they originally came up with.

If you are a solo founder and are looking for a co founder, it is hard to determine flexibility of your co-founder since most people seem reasonable and fairly flexible during the first few months. I tried to formulate a list of questions to ask – largely scenario based, such as what would happen if this were to occur, or how would you react if this happened?

Most times when I asked those questions of people I got fairly good answers which I consider are reasonable.

These questions did not help very much though, since as we talked about before, vision’s change and so do people’s impressions.

When you ask the objective question in a non threatening situation, it is easy to be collected, objective and composed.

That’s rarely the case when product shipments are behind, payroll is delayed and a customer contract is taking longer than anticipated.

What takeaway do I have from this main reason for founder’s splitting?

If you have not worked together for a “significant period” of time, its very difficult to find out if your co-founder is flexible to change.

So what do I now do as a result of this learning?

I prioritize teams where founders have not worked together for a significant period of time, much lower. If you have a co-founder you have met at a hackathon event, or a startup event, and have been working on your company for 4-6 months, then I would likely pass on your company.

Its not because I dont like your idea or product, its because of demand and supply. Right now, I get many more companies where co-founders have worked together for much longer and have recency of shared vision.

In the next post I will talk about another reason why founders split – performance and execution.

The fallacy of providing “great mentorship” in 1 hour chunks

I have a good friend who has been a successful corporate executive for over 15 years. Off the charts smart and with a keen sense for the “inner issues” driving other people, he is able to figure out the root cause of most problems faster than most people I know.

He does though have a lack of time, like most other people. Having been in a large company for most of his career, he wished to live vicariously through other people and was keen to “mentor” young entrepreneurs. My advice to him was to focus on helping younger people in his company rather than entrepreneurs. He seemed to think about my tip, but chose to ignore it.

He setup 1 hour mentoring sessions with 3 entrepreneurs who he felt were working on problems that he was keen to understand more about and wanted to help them while he learned more about the market they were targeting.

Each session was fairly standard and given his corporate background, were scheduled a month in advance with consistency and a sense of purpose.

After 2 sessions, 2 entrepreneurs said they were busy and could not make the call or be in person.

He did feel he brought value to them in both the sessions and heard from the entrepreneurs that his advice was valuable. While he was in the process of scheduling the follow up, one entrepreneur told him rather bluntly that he did not have the time.

My friend took it rather well, and wanted to understand how he could make the time more valuable. Both entrepreneurs said the same thing.

There were pieces of advice that they could get from my friend, but they did not have the time to execute on his suggestions and felt that while well meaning, most of the suggestions were not precise enough.

Note that they did not say that the suggestions were not actionable enough. They said that the recommendations were not precise.

I get nearly 2 executives and mid-career professionals from larger companies and older entrepreneurs wanting to be a mentor at the Microsoft Accelerator each week.

Most we reject.

Some because they just want to add the mentor title to their LinkedIn profile and dont have enough time to provide.

Most others because they want to compress the “mentorship” in chunks of 1 hour sessions every month.

Its hard to do anything well in 1 hour chunks in infrequent periods of time. Even if its frequent the context is fairly limited.

Its even harder to provide any value in a 1 hour mentorship session.

Which is the prime reason I am not taking any new “meetings” to provide feedback and advice to new entrepreneurs who are not in our accelerator.

There’s very limited to little value that the session can actually provide is my experience.

I might feel good about it, so might the entrepreneur for about 15 minutes after the meeting. When the dust settles, though, after a day or two, they realize the multiple edge cases and scenarios that my advice or suggestions wont really work.

If you think you can provide value in 1 hour chunks as a “mentor” I’d love to hear how you are doing it and how you measure the value of your advice.