“Think Beyond Internet and Mobile,” – Sarabjeet, Seedfund
This interview is part of the series - Investors on Student Entrepreneurship
Sarabjeet works with Seedfund, an early stage venture capital fund that invests in technology and technology-enabled businesses across sectors. In the past, he has led an internet start up, Let Me Know, and helped set up a social enterprise, Samhita Social Ventures. Sarabjeet currently volunteers with the Startup Leadership Program, a global training program for start-up CEOs, in Bangalore and has worked with Acara Institute, a social entrepreneurship education and training organization, before. He is an alumnus of IIT Kharagpur and has a bachelors and masters degree in Mathematics and Computing. We had the opportunity to talk to Sarabjeeet on student entrepreneurship in India.
The proportion of students abroad that startup during college is considerably higher than in India. Do you see student entrepreneurship catching pace in India?
Definitely, many more students at Indian universities are working on business ideas and building start ups now. This was not the same a few years ago. Entrepreneurship clubs across colleges have become much more active, national networks like NEN are organizing several conferences and workshops to encourage student entrepreneurs, the government has been setting up several technology incubators in universities around the country, and media is talking a lot about entrepreneurship. The other day, I was at the Symbiosis Management Institute in Bangalore, where we saw 10 student teams present business ideas, under NEN’s College Company program, out of which two were already in operational mode. This is a healthy sign.
I think success stories play a key role in motivating people. Companies like Innoz, now a successful start up was founded by engineering students from Kerela. Same is the case with Carbon Clean Solutions, a clean-tech start-up focusing on carbon capture technologies, which was founded by IIT Kharagpur students. These stories change mindsets and encourage students to take the entrepreneurial leap. Facebook is one of the most popular internet companies around the world and thanks to the movie, The Social Network, thousands now know that Facebook was founded by undergraduate student at Harvard.
Other factors contributing to this change include the new age platforms for building quick internet and mobile applications, widespread adoption of mobile devices, and the democratization of learning and knowledge sharing. Students can now use online forums to learn programming and design, builds applications, put them up on app stores and get going. Several student developers and teams are working on such ideas and this is a good start. A lot of students also freelance during college and take up web design and development projects. Some are working on social development ideas too building things like SMS apps for farmers and citizen awareness campaign sites.
Why would you choose to invest/not invest in student led ventures?
We do not evaluate student start ups separately. We use the same investment criteria across teams and companies that we meet - market size and growth, economics of the business, the ability of the team to execute, scalability of the plan, and exit opportunities for us. In case of student start ups, we would definitely be concerned about their full-time commitment. Given that students would have to spare time for classes, exams and other activities and since this might affect the growth and success of the company, it would concern us. It’s the same case as evaluating a start up where the founders are still employed elsewhere.
Personally, I believe it’s important that at some point (whether that’s on the day you get the idea or the day you get your first customer), one must choose one path or the other – either continue with college (or job) or drop out (or quit your job) and run your start up full time. This would increase your chance of success – at least, you would know you gave your plan the best possible shot. I don’t think we would be much concerned about maturity of student teams or their ability to execute and learn from the market. These are things that can be learnt with time if people have the right attitude and enthusiasm. In fact, students have a lot in their favor since they are generally younger, have less family responsibilities and often a higher risk appetite.
There is significant emphasis on research and development at colleges abroad. What do you think is the state of research in India and whether several technologies move from lab to market?
India has a handful of universities working on cutting edge research – the Indian Institute of Science, some of the Indian Institutes of Technologies, the TATA Institute of Fundamental Research, and a few more. But very few of these technologies reach the market and see the light of the day. If you count the number of patents that Indian universities hold, you’d be surprised with how high that number is. But the enterprise spirit that’s needed to build products around these technologies is lacking.
The Technology Development Board had set up incubators across universities to encourage innovation and entrepreneurship and things are definitely moving in the right direction. Carbon Clean Solutions, the company that I mentioned above, offers technology design solutions to industries and this came out of their work at multiple research labs including that of some IITs.
If you look at universities aboard and understand why they see many more ideas go from lab to market, three strong reasons emerge – first, the quality of labs and infrastructure is world class, allowing easy access to experimentation and discovery; second, several universities abroad, particularly of the likes of Stanford and MIT, encourage creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship; third, the ties between industry and academia at these universities are very strong (Stanford gets employees from Google, Apple and Facebook to take courses at the university, collaborate with faculty members on research and development, and help students start up). Undoubtedly, Indian universities, both public and private, need to do lot of work in this area.
Between engineers and management graduates, who do you think are more likely to startup? What is the trend that you have noticed among the companies that you have seen so far?
I don’t think it would be fair to choose one or the other but my bet is that engineering graduates are at an advantage here and here’s why I think so:
- Students pursuing engineering or any other undergraduate course are younger and more open to new ideas and to trying new things. They definitely have more time to try, experiment and fail compared to graduate students. When you are pursuing a graduate course particularly an MBA, time is scarce. Yes, there are students who join MBA programs to pursue entrepreneurship but that number, particularly in India, is rather small. On the other hand, what would make an MBA candidate stronger is that he has easy access to business knowledge and case studies, which means that he is likely to be more successful if he start ups.
- A majority of student start ups are in the technology space (internet, mobile, cloud, etc.) and science or engineering students have the skills to build these products. They are more connected to technology on a daily basis.
- Pursuing an MBA is a costly affair, both in India an abroad. Unless you are able to make your start up profitable before graduating or raise a good venture round, you are under high pressure to pay off your debt, before you venture out. Undergrad students in India, in that respect, have more freedom and flexibility.
Could you share your experiences being a student entrepreneur?
I got interested in entrepreneurship during the final year of college, discovered an internet portal that had just started, and joined the start up to lead it. I led this project for over two years while I was working with a social enterprise start up in a full-time role. I learnt a lot from both experiences – time management, product development, online marketing, and project management. I don’t think I had good business knowledge and market understanding during this time and I did made a lot of mistakes. I think I just jumped in and thought I would learn along the way, which is not wrong, but I guess it’s important to have a little more clarity on what you are doing and why, and where you are headed in the early days. It’s also important to realize that focusing on one idea is probably better, something I learnt with experience.
What are your three pieces of advice for student entrepreneurs and students aspiring to be entrepreneurs?
Think beyond internet and mobile. Find what you are passionate about and what gives you a kick. Try to pursue it. There are a lot of problems in India and around the world from water and energy scarcity to quality of education and healthcare, and somebody will solve them. That could be you.
Start early (possibly in your first or second year) and find a mentor. You will have a lot more time to try several things and you can reach out to your mentor for personal or professional questions. Use your college entrepreneurship club to find the mentor. Or contact NEN. Choose somebody who has helped early stage entrepreneurs set up businesses. Choose someone whom you are comfortable with and who understands and believes in you.
Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish. (Watch the 2005 Steve Jobs’ Commencement Speech that he delivered at Stanford)
For more information on Seedfund, take a look at Seedfund's website.