36-hour WTFK: Chennai goes to Bangalore!

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“It was like a college trip,” said Suresh Sambandam, founder of OrangeScape, of the first edition of WTKF and that pretty much sums up the wholesome experience of founders who boarded the double-decker from Chennai to Bangalore on August 2. Close to 13 hours of train journey, two informal sessions of learning, walking around as a group from one venue to another, and two formal discussions interspersed with food, drink, and loads of fun is what the 22 founders and team members of tech startups from Chennai had as they travelled to Bangalore and stayed together for 36 hours.

What the Filter Kaapi (WTFK) is a period event organized by the FilterCoffeers, an informal group of founders of Chennai-based startups, created with the idea of forming a community of founders to help each other. Filter::Coffee meets are held every month, where founders practically brainstorm and focus on intense discussions that result in tangible takeaways for each founder. “We focus on building relationships between people as opposed to the general superficial business networking that goes on at other events,” says Vivek Durai, founder of Humble Paper, who started this initiative. Vivek, along with Ashwin Ramasamy, founder of Contract IQ, Sharan Reddy, founder of Indee.TV, and Aditya Vikram Thoomati, a former student entrepreneur, travelled to Bangalore in November 2012 to attend the NASSCOM Product Conclave (NPC) and they were also briefly joined by Siddhartha Govindraj, founder of Silver Stripe Software. All of them stayed together at a hotel. The camaraderie that developed between them triggered the idea of a larger group of entrepreneurs travelling together to Bangalore. The preparations for the inaugural WTFK Bangalore trip started about a month ago and 25 entrepreneurs signed up. After hectic preparations, the group set out on a train trip that turned out to be more than memorable. They left for Bangalore on a Friday morning (August 2) and returned to Chennai late on Saturday, August 3.

Seasoned entrepreneurs Suresh Sambandam of OrangeScape, Arun Athiappan of TicketGoose and Murali Vivekanandan, founder of Ideas2IT who has a rich experience as technology executive and a deep involvement with startups, formed the senior team of entrepreneurs. Siddharta Govindaraj of Silver Stripe and Narayanan Hariharan of Effect Works are the emerging entrepreneurs with close to five years of startup experience, and the others are in the early startup stage with less than three years into their startups (see participating founders at the end of this article).

When the train coach became a mini Unconference venue

Arun Athiappan of TicketGoose was excited about this journey and looked forward to interact with the entrepreneurs on the trip and also with the ecosystem in Bangalore. The general mood of entrepreneurs on the trip was upbeat and many of them met each other for the first time. Incessant chatter and noise filled the coach of the double decker as it sped towards Bangalore. Whether quietly engaged in one-on-one conversations seated beside each other or crowded around the aisles, the entrepreneurs turned the coach into a venue for a mini Unconference like discussions. “You can’t find more opinionated views than those of technology startup founders,” says Vivek Durai. “So when we started chatting, our choices of technology stack, platform, and even our blogging platforms, became the source of vociferous debate and discussion.” Typically the discussions involved around issues that confront these entrepreneurs now. Siddharta Govindaraj was overawed as evident in what he has to say on the train journey: “The whole trip was pretty awesome. The train journey was super fun as well as informative. We had enough time for general conversation as well startup discussions. Topics like: should a product startup also do services, different approaches for content marketing, sales approaches for B2B SaaS products and discussion on Paul Graham's blog post ‘Do Things That Don't Scale’ were some interesting topics.” The debates at times turned intense with strong views and counterpoints. The entrepreneurs, in most instances, backed their view with an anecdotal experience or data. Occasionally, an entrepreneur ribbing another was also part of the game. The laughter riot unnerved fellow passengers in the upper deck that the group found a safe haven in an almost empty lower deck, just to keep the fun to themselves. The journey helped break the ice for many first-time FilterCoffeers.

By the time the double decker pulled to a halt in Bangalore, camaraderie was pretty much set up.

Filter Coffee meetup on PR

The pleasant weather at Bangalore warmly welcomed the WTKF group. After lunch, the entrepreneurs trudged up 100 Feet Road in Indiranagar in groups to the new comic book themed cafe and library - Leaping Windows - for an inaugural meetup of the FilterCoffee group in Bangalore. The agenda for this meetup was public relations for startups. There was a vibrant discussion on PR tactics and the suitability of startups engaging PR firms. The presence of a PR consultant and a journalist resulted in tangible outcomes. Shalini Singh of Galvanise PR emphasized the importance of entrepreneurs engaging PR to get their messaging right and to reach out to the media in the right way.Kevin David William, founder of WalletKit and a 500 startups alumni, revealed all his tricks to tell the group how he managed to hustle his way to be covered by TechCruch as he was launching his mobile app. Following blogs by domain experts and the journalists who cover your domain is crucial to this hustling process, in his view. Once you have a story, it becomes easy to reach out to a specific journalist and the effect of that coverage is tremendous. Failing to win a story from the reporter who covers his domain in TechCruch, Kevin approached another journalist, asking him if he can send a Guest Column for publication. As his Guest Column was being considered for publication, he informed the domain reporter that his guest piece is getting evaluated by another journalist. Then the domain reporter called Kevin to get his side of the story. Hustling this way might be a personal trait and pushing yourself is again something that everyone cannot do. But Kevin’s hustling with Paul Singh of 500 startups is now a well-known anecdote. When Paul Singh was in Bangalore last year, Kevin persisted to meet up Paul who was dodging him for a pitch. Finally, Kevin managed to hop into Paul’s cab as he headed to the airport to pitch his story. His startup went on to become one of the startups selected for incubation with 500 startups. So the group now named Kevin the “mega hustler” and an inspiration.

Aparna Ghosh, who covers startups for Live Mint, emphasized how important it is for entrepreneurs to form a personal rapport with the journalists. Keeping in touch is important and it wouldn’t be great to call up the journalist only when you want to be covered. She asked entrepreneurs to engage with the journalists on a regular basis, for a casual conversation. She explained what puts off journalists. She said she prefers personal interactions with the entrepreneurs. Some practical tips that Aparna provided were very useful and gave a feel of the journalist’s emotions and mindset.

Meeting SLP folks over dinner

Vinay Singhal and Shashank Vaishnav of Vatsana Technologies sponsored drinks for the whole group to celebrate their web page receiving 10 million page views. Fun didn’t stop and the walking around in the 100 feet road from one venue to another resulted in conversations, which just didn't seem to stop.

The group then headed to Escape Café for a dinner meet with Startup Leadership Program (SLP) group of Bangalore. SLP provides a six-month course, spread over alternate Saturdays, for entrepreneurs and the courses are usually run by seasoned entrepreneurs. A Chennai chapter is being opened for enrolling entrepreneurs. Hiren, who is now spearheading SLP in Bangalore, highlighted the important points of SLP while some entrepreneurs from Bangalore who benefited from the group told the Chennai group of their experiences.

On August 3, Microsoft Research Centre played host to two discussions – one, a panel discussion on UX, and another, a fireside chat with Krishna Mehra, CTO of Capillary Technologies.

Back to Chennai

On the way back in the train, the group again broke into unstoppable conversations, engaged in banter, discussion, and decided how to keep the momentum going. The unconference session continued on the return trip as well. Issues ranged from personal pain points to general discussions. Ashwin of Contract IQ sums up this experience thus: “One that I enjoyed the most was 'Long Tail SEO' and 'Landing Page Optimization' for a product that has multiple user personas. Suresh walked through his experiences with both, and before we knew we were standing around, with a pen/notepad session, in a speeding train.” Further plans were drawn upon for a real-time WTFK community conversation and assistance for user feedback on a product developed by a startup in the group. On the whole, the trip proved to be an “awesome experience,” as Karthikeyan Mani, cofounder of ByteAlly felt, for everyone who travelled with the group, including myself.

Participating founders: Suresh Sambandam, OrangeScape; Arun Athiappan, TicketGoose; Murali Vivekanandan, Ideas2IT; Siddharta Govindaraj, SilverStripe; Narayanan and Sonaal Bangera, EffectWorks: Ashwin, ContractIQ; Kevin, WalletKit; Vivek Durai, Humble Paper; Karthikeyan, ByteAlly; Anand Sukumaran, Zeocode; Vinay and Shashank, Vatsana Technologies; Vinodh David, Yuvaraj and Amrit Anand, InfiniteWP; Sharan Reddy, Indee TV; Sailajanandan Nayak, Careograf; Srikrishnan Ganesan, Demach; Sujayath Ali, Voonik; Siddarth Kengadaran, HiVeyo. Plus yours truly.

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