'SaaS startups from India are at the cusp of a huge global opportunity' – Manish Choudhary, Pitney Bowes Startup Accelerator ProgramMadanmohan Rao
Accelerators can benefit startups through technology, mentorship, market access and venture investments. Product-market fit and profitability should be priority areas for startups, as this interview reveals.
(This article is part of the YourStory series Startup Hatch, about incubators, accelerators and makerspaces in the startup ecosystem. See earlier profiles of initiatives at IIT Bombay, IIM Bangalore, BITS Pilani, NCL, Tata Elxsi, Axilor, NID, IIIT-Bangalore, IIIT-Hyderabad, Vellore Institute of Technology, PSG Coimbatore, Workbench Projects, Makers Asylum, Appy Hours, Turning Ideas, NetApp Excellerator, Ashoka Innovators, and Startup Leadership Programme.)
Manish Choudhary is Senior Vice President, Global SMB Products and Strategy, and Chairman India, Pitney Bowes Inc. The global company’s offerings range from postage franking machines and customer management solutions to location intelligence and e-commerce fulfilment.
Manish was earlier SVP for Global Innovation at Pitney Bowes, where he led a global team of over 900 people, across five countries and 12 locations to create products and technologies for driving digital and physical commerce. He founded Pitney Bowes India office in 2007, moving from Albany NY, as the first employee and grew it to 800 people. Pitney Bowes has been named one of India’s Top Workplaces consistently for the past six years.
The Pitney Bowes Startup Accelerator Program, which was launched in 2014, will soon have graduated 23 startups. Manish has an MBA from the Anderson School of Management, UCLA, an MS from Ohio, and a Bachelor’s degree in Architecture.
He joins us in this interview on the vision of the Pitney Bowes accelerator, profiles of the startups, benefits of joining the accelerator, and opportunities for entrepreneurs in India.
YourStory: What was the founding vision of your accelerator, and how is it supported?
Manish Choudhary: Pitney Bowes launched the accelerator programme in 2014 in partnership with the Nasscom 10K Startups initiative. The vision of the Pitney Bowes Accelerator Program is to provide best-in-class technology and mentorship to startups that are building new-age digital solutions for small and medium businesses (SMBs) across the globe.
YS: Which companies have graduated from your accelerator so far?
MC: Since 2014, 18 startups have graduated from our programme and we are currently incubating the fourth cohort. After graduating from the programme, startups have raised a total funding of $18 million.
- eCourierz is an online marketplace for all logistics solutions for domestic and international shipping. They provide tech-enabled shipping solutions that help corporates, SMBs and individuals effectively manage their shipping and mailing needs. Founded by Shivadeep Mahadi, they were in the batch of 2016-2017.
- EasyLeadz (formerly SponsifyMe) helps corporates and SMBs generate B2B leads through social intelligence. The startup was in the batch of 2016-2017, and was founded by Nitin Bajaj.
- WedoSky is a drone-based startup with a mapping and analytics platform. The founder is Jaspreet Makkar, and was also in the batch of 2016-2017.
YS: Which startups are currently being accelerated?
MC: Instead of a batch approach that we followed previously, this year, we decided to keep rolling admissions. If we find a promising startup, we bring them into the programme. So far, we have inducted the following startups as part of the fourth cohort:
- Eunimart Multichannel: Hyderabad-based Eunimart is a cross-border e-commerce platform that enables sellers to sell globally, manage inventory and orders centrally, handle logistics, track customs clearance, and receive payments in Indian currency. It was founded by entrepreneur Shayak Mazumder and marketing professional Saikat Roy in 2016.
- Planetworx Technologies (Trapyz.com) is a Bengaluru-based Internet of Things (IoT) startup that provides real-time location and context intelligence to enterprises in the retail, aviation and hospitality sectors. It was founded by Anil Kumar N S, C Girish Vishwanath, and Ranganathan Srinivasan in 2016.
- Acebot.ai: Founded in 2015, San Jose-based AceBot is an enterprise chatbot solution that uses conversations to enable collaboration, team productivity and data collation within any enterprise. It was founded by Ravindra Krishnappa, an angel investor and startup incubator specialist, Ralph Vaz, a software developer, and Sameera Vanekar, a marketing professional.
- Artivatic.ai is a Bengaluru-based artificial intelligence-powered enterprise tech platform that helps businesses create a human brain-like system based on genomics and neuroscience capabilities to scale efficiency. The startup was previously selected for the Europe-based ‘Spark10 Accelerator’ from where it raised its initial angel funding. It was founded by Layak Singh and Puneet Tandon in 2016.
YS: What is the profile of the managers of your accelerator?
MC: Our team of accelerator managers have deep experience of the startup sector in India and the US. Ashok Madaravally, who is the project manager of the Pitney Bowes Accelerator Program, was most recently working at Nasscom. Ashok built and managed the Nasscom 10K Startups initiative, the largest startup programme in the world. In this role, he helped over 4,000 startups get shortlisted into the programme and benefit through customer connects, events, mentoring, and fundraising.
YS: What would you say are the top opportunities for Indian entrepreneurs?
MC: One of the greatest opportunities for entrepreneurs is in the SMB space. Indian SMBs have been growing at a rapid pace and play a big role in the growth of the economy. SMBs across industries such as finance, healthcare, insurance, retail and others are looking at new ways to target and acquire customers and grow their businesses.
Machine learning (ML) and AI-focused startups can help create applications that provide relevant and personalised experiences for customers. Sophistication in ML and AI technology will be key to providing SMBs with business intelligence tools and the data they need to grow their businesses.
E-commerce and marketplaces are a fast growing, though crowded, space for startups. Startups can stand out in this space by solving problems related to logistics, shipping and procurement, and can improve ease of doing business. Startups focused on helping SMBs conduct their daily business more easily have a huge opportunity on their hands.
YS: What are the key challenges faced by startups in India, and how can you help bridge this gap?
MC: One fundamental challenge is that startups have great ideas but do not focus on solving problems at scale and monetising their ideas. Having robust business models for monetisation and scaling up is key.
The second is hype versus reality. Sometimes, a trend or technology is hot, and the segment gets so crowded that real companies with real businesses get lost. Something has to done to separate hype from reality.
Third, the funding atmosphere has tightened, and a successful fundraise now needs a real revenue model and profitability projections. Companies that are only focused on raising money, sometimes even without a clear idea or plan, will find it tough to raise funds. For those with solid fundamentals, a strong business model and robust teams will be able to do it easily.
Another challenge is to make companies think global. Thinking global does not mean you do not solve local problems. There are several examples of these in Silicon Valley.
I think the Indian startup scenario has evolved greatly over the last four years. We help startups streamline their product roadmaps and evolve their business models to become more customer-focused, global and robust, while solving a real problem.
YS: What are the selection criteria for startups in your accelerator?
MC: We first look at the founders, their backgrounds, and their commitment to the business. We do not consider part-timers. We want committed people who know what it takes to run a business. Second, we look at the business model and the founders’ understanding of the domain. Third, their overall presentation.
Finally, we believe that even when the idea is broadly right, teams should be open to ideas and suggestions.
YS: What support and services do startups receive in your accelerator?
- Technology: As part of the programme, startups have access to Pitney Bowes software Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) and data for the duration of the programme. The programme provides training, technical and business guidance, and mentoring by Pitney Bowes engineering and innovation leaders and software industry experts. Over the years, Pitney Bowes has partnered with industry bodies who are passionate about boosting India’s startup ecosystem. We have alliances with Microsoft for Azure Cloud Credits and Visual Studio subscriptions for the year. We have also collaborated with Digital Ocean, the world’s second largest cloud computing platform focused on simplifying cloud infrastructure for software developers. In addition, we have recently joined hands with F6s, one of the largest tech startup communities globally.
- Startup Pack: The Pitney Bowes Startup Pack provides startups and developers with access to tools and resources to build high-quality applications for SMBs. This includes free access to Pitney Bowes APIs and support on using them, cloud infrastructure credits from partners, and access to other developer tools.
- Pitney Bowes Market Access Program: Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) startups from India are at the cusp of a huge global opportunity right now. Through our Market Access Program, we will enable some of these SaaS product companies focused on SMBs to leverage the Pitney Bowes customer base to test new applications, get real-world feedback, and build highly scalable businesses using our technologies.
- Venture Connect: We have a network of angel funds and venture capital companies that have been with us from the start of our accelerator journey. We will continue to support our portfolio startups and provide them with a high quality investment pipeline.
For example, IoT startup Planetworx Technologies is looking forward to our expertise in enhancing its location intelligence platform via micro-location analytics. Acebot, an enterprise-focused chatbot solution, is tapping our vast pool of customer engagement relationships.
Eunimart, a 360-degree solution platform for cross-border e-commerce, is leveraging our ML/AI code for logistics, cataloguing and location data. Artivatic, an end-to- end AI platform, will benefit from our market cases and access to experts.
Here are some founder testimonials:
“The programme helped right from technology and sales hand-holding to insights from global executives. The Pitney Bowes Accelerator helped us leap towards building WeDoSky into a global data science company.” - Jaspreet Makkar, Founder, WeDoSky
“Pitney Bowes has been an expert in big data and our platform is all about crunching millions of records so it was crucial to our proprietary technology. Now, EasyLeadz has over 3,000+ SaaS users and we work with big companies like Microsoft, OLA, Droom, MyOperator and many more.” - Nitin Bajaj, Founder, EasyLeadz
“Our mentors in the Pitney Bowes Accelerator Program shared their expertise and knowledge and helped us build our global shipping capabilities. Pitney Bowes has been an excellent mentor and business partner. We look forward to growing with them.” - Shivadeep Mahadi, Co-founder, eCourierz
YS: What percentage of equity do you take in your startups?
MC: We do not take any equity from our startups. Instead, we invest in a long-term engagement. If the partnership is coherent to our business and to our clients, only then do we consider an evaluation.
YS: What kinds of IP are being created by your startups?
MC: Pitney Bowes is focused on creating value for our one million SMB customers globally. Our startups solve problems for this customer segment and build IP that revolve around improving productivity, saving costs, and helping them make smarter business decisions. We are looking at bringing more startups into our portfolio that will create new value and IPs around mobile and cloud-based SaaS offerings.
YS: How would you differentiate your accelerator from the other accelerators in the field?
MC: The Pitney Bowes Accelerator focuses on startups working on new technologies to solve big problems at scale, both in India and abroad. In particular, from this year, we have been working with startups that provide commerce solutions to help SMBs.
In 2017, we hosted the first Global Hackathon that brought together startups and developers to build applications and solutions for more than one million Pitney Bowes SMB clients using our technology. We also launched the Pitney Bowes SMB Startup Portal that helps startups and developers efficiently access tools and resources to build high-quality applications for Pitney Bowes customers.
After graduating from our programme with access to technology, opportunities, connections and collaborative knowledge, startups have a better understanding of their product landscape and are able to adapt their go-to-market strategies and company roadmaps to scale and grow their business further.
YS: What would you define as success for your accelerator?
MC: Pitney Bowes is a 100-year-old startup that is focused on innovation and growth. The accelerator programme is a great way to share our collective knowledge and experience to mentor young entrepreneurs. For us, the accelerator is a great way to bring an outside-in perspective while keeping in touch with the latest technology innovations.
We build a mutually benefitting long-term relationship with our startups and continue to engage with them even after graduation. For example, one of our startups, eCourierz, participated in our Global Hackathon and built a plug-in solution for our SendPro C-Series device that solves the parcel-tracking problem for our SMB customers.
Like our accelerator programme, the Global Hackathon leveraged collective wisdom and crowdsourced ideas from millions of external developers from major technology communities and innovation platforms. The Global Hackathon was the first of the many opportunities for developers to leverage our technology and gain access to a large customer base.
Our success is defined by how well the startups are able to take their products to market, and build true value for their customers. Everything else, including funding and recognition, are by-products of finding product-market fit and near-flawless execution.
YS: How would you compare and contrast India’s accelerators with those of other countries like the US and China?
MC: India has the third largest number of startup incubators and accelerators in the world after the US and China. Today, many Indian accelerators are at par with leading global accelerators. Unlike China, which has a huge domestic market, most accelerators in India are set up by multinational corporations and are looking to provide global markets beyond India, technology, mentorship, and access to capital.
Many Indian accelerators have provided significant value to startups in the first two areas. In the near future, I think we should see greater focus on helping startups solve global problems at scale and more investments flowing into startups via contracts, partnerships, and eventually acquisitions.
YS: What are your plans for the coming three to five years with respect to new startups?
MC: Startups need to focus on ‘three Cs’ - Customers, Capital, and Connects. Our programme is going to focus on the first one through a robust market access programme. Specifically, we are going to work with SaaS-based startups across the country that are aligned to our strategic business goals.
We will provide them with a structured process to understand customer problems, build solutions that add value and, ultimately, take them to the customer by way of pilots and proof of concepts. We are going to work with startups that are solving for our global base of SMB customers.
YS: What are your recommendations for Indian policymakers to make business easier for accelerators, investors, researchers and startups in India?
MC: The Government of India has taken significant steps in this area in recent years through initiatives like Digital India, Startup India, and Make in India.
Increasing the rate of disbursement of capital intended for investments is one key area that would make it easier for startups in India. The other key thing that the government can focus on is how they can get the ‘Startup India’ benefits to a lot more startups and really accelerate that process.
YS: What are your recommendations or words of inspiration to the startups and entrepreneurs in our audience?
Focus on the customer. Set up a continuous feedback loop with the customer. Through the accelerator programme, we have found that many startups are not close enough to their customers and therefore end up with product-market fit problems.
Get the right people. Successful startups have smart founders and are able to get the right team to execute their vision.
Do not get blindsided by current vision and opportunities. Continuously leverage your network and expand it. There are a surprising number of people who would be willing to help you for nothing more than a cup of coffee.