Key Takeaways from the Panel Discussion at TechSparks™ 2011 Grand Finale


The panel discussion at the Grand Finale of TechSparks™ 2011 was, as expected, the most engaging and spirited part of the day. Thanks in no small part to the significant questions raised by Mr Narendra Bhandari, Director of Intel Software and Services Group – Developer Relations (A-PAC), and to the expert insights by the panellists, including: Shailendra Singh, Managing Director, Sequoia Capital India; Mekin Maheshwari, President, Engineering,; Vimal Abraham, Strategy and Marketing, ISV and Developer Relations, IBM India; Jayaram Pillai, Managing Director, National Instruments (India, Russia, and Arabia), and Rishi Dhand, Product Manager, Google.The discussion kick-started with the question what should start-ups bear in mind before approaching investors and large organizations for business support?

Vimal Abraham of IBM felt it was essential for start-ups to acquire market intelligence before making any calls for investment. “Many of the companies approaching us are unable to define the niche segment they are targeting. I believe start-ups must engage intensely with their target customers to try to identify and define their niche markets.

To which, Shailendra Singh of Sequoia rebutted, “I don’t believe entrepreneurs should be concentrating on niche segments. They must instead be aiming big.” He went on to outline three characteristics of a market an entrepreneur ought to be targeting: (1) The market should be big. Size certainly matters. (2) An entrepreneur should be able to delight the market he is targeting. (3) Finally, the market should be both accessible and tangible.

Mekin Maheshwari of Flipkart agreed start-ups must invest in acquiring market intelligence. But what happens when none exists? “It is possible to do and rely on some back-of-the-envelope calculations. And that is important because these basic inputs reflect what your customers need and that ultimately influences your bigger decisions,” he said.

Taking a contrarian stand was Rishi of Google, who felt there was an excessive focus on monetization and traction among today’s investors. “At Google, our primary focus is on creating the best user experience – and that, we believe, is essential for creating truly disruptive technologies. Focusing solely on gaining traction will only get us incremental progress,” he argued.

Mr Narendra Bhandari then posed another interesting question – At what stage may a company decide to global?

The relevance of this question was telling when Mr Narendra Bhandari followed it with a straw poll, which found over 30 percent of the entrepreneurs in the audience were already or were considering targeting global markets, and nearly 25 percent were targeting India alone.

Mr Mekin Maheshwari took the first shot, saying companies using the Internet or web technologies to solve specific problems may not have much heave-lifting to do. But, he cautioned, it was important for them to ensure they have the bandwidth to support all their markets.

Mr Shailendra Singh admitted globalization of technologies has intensified more rapidly than Sequoia Capital originally thought. “We initially felt going global was going to be tough. But, that is no longer the case.” He advised entrepreneurs to think backwards, suggesting they figure out earlier in the cycle the capabilities they need to build in order to go global.

Jayaram Pillai of National Instruments posited an interesting point: If one can make a product that succeeds in the Indian market, it is then far easier to take it global. The opinion found broad agreement from the panel.

But it begged the question why?

“It is, perhaps, because Indians are probably the most cautious demanding consumers out there,” opined Mr Rishi. Consumers in more mature markets are willing to experiment and try things out – but not here. So entrepreneurs have try that much harder to get things right,” he added.

The panel discussion was followed by a spirited round of Q&A, and on a parting note, Mr Narendra Bhandari called on entrepreneurs in the audience to list their most pressing requirements from investors and large players(corporates) in the ecosystem. The call elicited several requirements, from access to marketing resources to distribution networks to incubation support to mentoring and hiring top talent.

Interestingly, Mr Narendra Bhandari noted, all of these requirements, in fact, were already being met by organizations represented on the panel in varying measures. He encouraged entrepreneurs to make all effort to tap into them. Mr Shailendra Singh agreed. “Ultimately, entrepreneurs are responsible for fixing their own problems. While we in the ecosystem will continue to build on our resources, much will depend on how you make use of it,” he added.

To know more about the finalists, click here & here. To know more about the winners, click here & here.

- Kaushik Satish