Stanford, Duke, and iSPIRT team up to build a 'strategic thinking' accelerator boot camp for Indian startups

Stanford, Duke, and iSPIRT team up to build a 'strategic thinking' accelerator boot camp for Indian startups

Sunday November 15, 2015,

7 min Read

While there are several accelerator programs that are designed to help startups gain mentorship and to grow, PNgrowth isn't meant to work the way traditional accelerators do. They're focussed on strategy building and creating leaders.

A creation of the iSPIRT team, Stanford GSB and Duke, Sharique Hasan of Stanford GSB, says that PNgrowth was started with conversations with Sharad Sharma and the iSPIRT team.

During the course of the conversation they discovered that by joining hands they could build a better ecosystem by offering a deep-learning program that connected amazing founders to mentors and each other.

"We realised it cannot be done in the conference or workshop formats. After bringing on Rem Koning and Solene Delecourt from Stanford GSB, we knew we could build an amazing PNgrowth program which kicks off with a three-day bootcamp," adds Sharique.

Avinash Raghava of iSPIRT adds that several software product startups are now cracking growth challenges, and yet there aren't enough category leaders. The team soon realised that this is the case because the startups are not paying sufficient attention to developing a game plan for category leadership.

He adds that being a category winner is not an accident it takes a good game plan and hard work. This game plan has to be developed early before organisational debt takes hold. "Once this insight was in place, we enrolled the help of our world-class professors to develop a custom program for India and PNgrowth was born,” says Avinash.

PNgrowth has received support from Stanford’s Graduate School of Business and Duke University for funding, Infosys has donated space on their campus, and dozens of iSPIRT volunteers are helping design the curriculum and find promising founders.


Rembrand and Sharique

Identifying the problem

iSPIRT has been running workshops and working with founders in India through the PNcamps and Playbook RoundTables. Most of these efforts have been directed at helping founders solve the day-to-day or shorter term problems they face: getting users, raising funding, sales, hiring, and the like.

A key challenge many of the mentors, who volunteered for the roundtables, saw was that while founders get ample advice on tactical issues, they rarely get rigorous advice and mentorship about the “big picture” strategy like how does one build an organisation's strategy from the ground up to really be a category leader.

Thus, PNgrowth emerged from a few observations about startups in general and startups in India specifically. The observations include:

  1. There is a strategy bottleneck that young startups face. Founders of growing startups rarely get a chance to step back and figure out what the larger goals are, what the scope is for what they want to achieve, what their competitive advantages are as a team, and how they can best utilise what they have to really be market leaders.
  2. They also found that strategy wasn't something that could be taught with the “Sage on Stage” model.
  3. Founders need time to think through tough strategic issues and need to get away from the fire-fighting.
  4. They also need to practice coming up with strategies, testing them by talking to other founders going through similar issues, and then refining them.
  5. Finally, founders need a support system as they go and implement their new strategy in their organisations.

Program aims

The main goal is to help Indian startups on a good growth trajectory and get on the category leadership trajectory. The team hopes that the participants with the insights from the program and their peers will become the number one player in whichever category they are in. The other goals are:

  1. Give founders a rigorous toolkit of frameworks, management practices, and metrics that will help them set and achieve hard goals for their startup.
  2. The team wants to use the three-day PNgrowth camp as a way to get founders to work hard on re-architecting the key elements of their startup: their sources of competitive advantage, their internal practices/culture, their team, and their vision.
  3. This will be done through technology enabled active-learning facilitated by researchers from Stanford and Duke, as well as the leading lights of India’s startup ecosystem.
  4. The founders will be required to develop a strategy to-do list. These are the big strategic changes the startup will need to implement to up-shift on their trajectory.
  5. The list will be vetted and refined through feedback from peers. With the help of mentors, founders will learn how to prioritise what they need to meet their growth goals.
  6. They also aim to create a community of founders that can provide advice, insight, and support to others who are trying to scale their organisations.
  7. The PNgrowth team also wants to get new insights about the problems that Indian startups are facing, the strategies that founders are using, and learn best practices that are working on the ground to expand the play books for Indian startups in today’s market.

Ronnie Chaterji, Duke Fuqua, says that being a non-profit initiative of iSPIRT, the program doesn't take any equity. "So we don't just want to accelerate a ‘portfolio’. Our goal is to accelerate the entire Indian software product ecosystem by seeding a culture of high performance and high potential software startups," says Ronnie.

Differentiator factors

  1. PNgrowth is focused on education and mentorship, and is not making investments.
  2. The team sees PNgrowth as a public good that they would like to do to help the ecosystem sustain.
  3. Most accelerators are focussed on helping founders develop their product or get customers or get funding. These are important dimensions for startups, but PNgrowth’s goal is specifically designed for Indian startups at the next stage-they have products, customers, and even some funding.
  4. The aim is to help founders architect their vision, goals, competitive advantages, and strategies. This means thinking outside their current product and team but really working with them on figuring out how to make big leaps.
  5. Finally, most startups at stage at PNgrowth don’t have much time to go through a full accelerator program. So, PNgrowth differs in that they're “in class” for three days, and then founders go back to their startup to implement their learning.
  6. Given the shorter duration, they work at scale-working with 200 founders rather than the typical 10-20 teams that most accelerators can handle. "We can then use technology to be with the startups virtually over the longer horizon," adds Avinash.

Solene Delecourt, Stanford GSB, adds that the program is built around rigorous coursework developed at Stanford GSB and Duke's Fuqua School of Business. It has also been tailored to the Indian context by over 50 interviews with Indian startups and data analysis of the Indian ecosystem.

"This has helped us to develop a personalised training program that takes local challenges and the prevalent ecosystem into account, while targeting global ambitions of these startups," adds Solone.

Selection criteria

  1. The team must have a functional software product and customers
  2. Team is more than two and less than 50
  3. Formally registered
  4. Should be judged by the evaluators (who are founders and professors) to have a product that is of high quality (as evidenced by clarity of explanation in the application, coherent demonstration on the website, distinctiveness vis-a-vis other alternative products), have a substantially significant market potential, and a team with necessary quality of skill and experience.

The startups that would not be a good fit for PNgrowth:

  1. Startups with only an idea or a rough prototype
  2. A services company
  3. A large company (over 100 employees) because they will be more advanced relative to the other participants.
  4. Startups who submit applications + websites that provide no detail about the team or the product.
  5. Startups with no customers

After the three-day bootcamp

Rembrand Koning, Stanford GSB, says that they've modelled the PNgrowth program after the best business schools education, so startups leave with an alumni network that will look out for and learn from one another. He adds that beyond the network, they will have events and mentorship to make sure the learnings from the bootcamps turn into better strategy and more successful startups.

The key takeaways for the startups will be:

  1. A toolkit for strategy development and implementation founders can implement in their startup
  2. A prioritised strategic to-do list vetted by peers and mentors
  3. Access to mentors and a private peer network
  4. Access to private hangouts/meetups for PNgrowth mentors
  5. A customised strategy scorecard produced by researchers from Stanford and Duke.