In spite of it being a rainy Thursday afternoon, the auditorium at Maulana Abul Kalam Azad University of Technology was packed with youngsters, drawn there by Techsparks Kolkata, and filled with enthusiasm and zeal. Those who in the past were sceptical over Kolkata’s entrepreneurial talent got a loud and resounding response, with the hall being packed with tech startups within half an hour of registrations opening at 1.30 pm. Speakers like Angshuman Bhattacharya, founder of Sibia Analytics, and Binod Kumar Homagai, founder of Wow Momo, spoke heavily in favour of Kolkata’s startup atmosphere, pointing to the large talent pool and great opportunities in the ecosystem. Angshuman pointed to the need to alter the perception of Bengal being lacking in entrepreneurial spirit, which he says is simply not the case.
Angshuman proceeded to speak of his own entrepreneurial journey and the field of data analysis, which his venture occupies. According to him, Kolkata is full of excellent talent when it comes to big data analysis and R&D. However, this talent has remained unutilised due to SMEs being unaware of the power of data analysis, and high price sensitivity, among other challenges. The Sibia founder contends that this will soon change, with significant quantities of data being available to apply creative and predictive analytics, coupled with the proliferation of low cost and no cost solutions with powerful computing through the cloud. He says, “We are in a perpetual stage of beta through leverage learning. Our product is highly scalable, and we plan to monetise through a ready platform, analytics engine and a shared service. Analytics is like medicine, there always comes a time when you need it.”
Angshuman affirms that he has no doubt that Kolkata can produce the best talent in this segment. He says, “I've worked in San Francisco and Bengaluru, but I'm happy with Kolkata. I disagree that you cannot build a strong business out of Kolkata. It is not such a big challenge to build a business here, as I myself am an example.”
Binod, the founder of popular food venture Wow Momo, seconds this sentiment. He insists that Kolkata holds great opportunities for entrepreneurs and that business development in the city isn’t at all difficult, with obtaining licenses actually being easier here than elsewhere.
When Wow Momo started in 2008, momos weren’t a big part of Kolkata’s food culture. But after receiving feedback from customers and making alterations accordingly, food-loving Kolkata soon came to accept Wow Momo, which now has over 1,000 employees, and recently raised Rs 10 crore in funding. The company is said to be currently valued at about Rs 100 crore. The yellow Wow Momo counters are now ubiquitous in Kolkata, always beckoning you with their wide variety of creative momos. Binod calls Kolkata a “temple of food”, and says that Bengal is a great place to get customer feedback to improve your product.
Dispelling the idea that Kolkata-based startups seek to shift elsewhere after raising funds, Binod says,
No, not at all. We have branches all over India and are present in other cities like Bengaluru, but we have always preferred to stay in Kolkata- we find comfort in it.
He points to Bandhan Bank as an example, saying that others should follow Chandrasekhar Ghosh’s lead. “Things are happening here in Kolkata, don’t be so quick to leave."
Alok Patnia, CEO of Taxmantra, sharply points out the bottlenecks plaguing the Kolkata startup environment. He laments that the scene here isn’t as developed as in some other cities. While he himself has been doing business in Kolkata since 2010 and has achieved a great deal of success in his own sector, he feels that entrepreneurs and startups in the city are generally not mature enough. Secondly, he points to the lack of proper mentoring in the startup space; the big guys in the circuit are just not approachable to youngsters. In his words,
They can hardly relate themselves to the younger generation. But in a place like Bengaluru, youngsters can communicate with the big successful players in the sector.
He says that the ecosystem is slowly picking up, but strongly recommends the analysis and understanding of outside risks, of what could happen to your startup six months down the line. Alok suggests that an entrepreneur divide his effort and energy three ways when starting up- 35 percent of your energy should go into evaluating outside and inside business risk, another 35 percent should go into the evaluation of your team, and the final 30 percent should be invested in learning about yourself.
Saumyajit Guha, Chief Operating officer, Calcutta Angels Network, points to a few more negatives in the startup community. He says that startups in Kolkata go in for fundraising far too early, in several cases, at the ideation stage itself, with little more than a PowerPoint presentation and a business plan, looking to avoid risk completely. Rana Dutta, Senior Managing Director, Tiyo, echoes Saumyajit; he believes that there are doubts over the mentality of the whole ecosystem, and says that a proven business has to exist to some extent. He says that only a money making model can work, and a good concept without a monetisation strategy lacks vitality and meaning.
Things are changing, and changing fast. Everyone wants to scale up and make use of the immense opportunities Kolkata has to offer. Rana Dutta emphasises the need for a pro-business mentality to change course. He and Alok both attest that Kolkata has all the essentials for being a startup hub, such as being a safe city, having great power facilities and a great customer base; Rana says that, even in their early days, they were funded all year round by their customers. The two feel that, in some ways, Kolkata is a much better place to do business than even Bengaluru.
Saumyajit reaffirmed that it is not always the case that startups here do not get funding. His organisation, Calcutta Angels Network, is filled with eagerness to invest in the Kolkata ecosystem and have prioritised the funding of city-based ventures, with a plan to invest a handsome amount in Kolkata-based entrepreneurs and startups each year.
The event ended with a crisp pitching session, with ten startups each given one minute to pitch their ideas. It was a fun-packed event filled with great enthusiasm.
Book your spot for TechSparks Grand Finale, 30 Sep-Oct 1, Taj Vivanta, Bengaluru here!
A big shoutout to all our sponsors - Zendesk, Axis Bank, Sequoia Capital India Advisors , Digital Ocean, Microsoft, AWS, Akamai, Target, Verisign, Kerala Startup Mission, Brand Launch Centre, Tork and Blink.