Notes from Proto.in 2010, Mumbai

January 30, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

Proto.in is a fascinating organization that brings together entrepreneurs, investors and academics together every few months in one of India’s larger cities.     Today I was at IIT Mumbai to attend an event for the  first time and was quite fascinated by what was on offer.  The companies here are decidedly early in their evolution and I had low expectations of the show as far as finding investment opportunities here since I now focus on later stage businesses (post revenues and profits, looking to scale up).  And yet, there was a lot to learn and discover today.

The keynote was an interactive session with Sanjeev Bikhcandani of Naukri.com (a local job search startup that has over 70% market share compared to Monster.com at 25%).    Some nuggets  he passed on agree with some independent observations I have made about launching and boot-strapping a business in India and also about Naukri in particular:

  • Fiscal discipline: For the longest time Naukri avoided raising money and that put a certain amount of fiscal discipline in place.    He suggests entrepreneurs do not raise money when you need it desperately;  if you do start looking for money, at least appear to not need it.
  • It is about Sales, stupid: Naukri’s biggest asset was not the technology, it was his salesforce.  Sanjeev’s a-ha moment arrived when he realized that each salesperson can be treated as a profit center making positive contributions.  As long as a sales person was profitable he could keep hiring more.

This was followed by a parade of startups and although they varied greatly in merit there were a few that caught my eye:

  • Panini Keypad:  From a company called Luna ergonomics comes a system that allows you to use the numeric keypad of any old phone to type predictively in any of many regional languages.  Did you ever think about how could a person who does not speak English enter an SMS text or an address book entry on their phone?   This system does not use a dictionary, and relies on linguistic statistical models instead.   The revenues would come from licensing the multilingual interfaces to makers of devices handsets, ATMs, kiosks etc.
  • VoiceTap: A voiced based service that allows you to query an expert.  It is a matching network that finds you expertise when you need it.
  • Earth2Orbit:  A startup that has developed a cheaper/faster/better harness for satellites that piggyback off larger satellite launches.  This is rocket science.
  • IndusGeeks:  This team develops complete immersive experiences to use virtual worlds like Second Life for marketing, e-Learning and other corporate agendas.
  • Tara Machines: A social enterprise that makes good business sense, Tara develops machines and materials for sustainability of environments and communities.  Brick molders that take the bonded labor out of kilns, and pollutants like fly ash converted into building materials, are just two examples of the fine work this company is doing.

There were many other interesting startups but hobnobbing in the hallways was also very productive so I skipped a few sessions.    I would like to welcome Bharti Airtel Innovation Fund (BAIF), a new entrant to the early and growth investor pool in India with a mandate to invest in tech-media-telecom startups that can benefit from the Bharti Airtel platform.   They are looking to deploy $1M to $5M in businesses ranging from mobile VAS, to technology services and energy efficiency solutions.  Sequoia Capital sponsored the event jointly with BAIF.    Other investors including Mumbai Angels and Indian Angels were also out in force.    I was glad to run into my friends from Canaan Partners, LightSpeed Venture Partners etc.

I am hoping some of the businesses we saw today also get the economic models right, are able to attract some seed capital and better management talent , and go on to blossom into solid high-growth businesses.   Overall, it was  a good day.  Congratulations to the Proto team for putting on a good show.

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  1. January 30, 2010 at 11:48 pm

    Vegayan would fit the bill well for Bharti innovation fund. I use to work for them.

    • Shyam Kamadolli
      January 31, 2010 at 7:57 am

      Was vegayan at the show? I must have missed them.

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