The greatest good you can do for another is not just to share your riches but to reveal to him his own. – Benjamin Disraeli (British statesman)
As the number of startups increases, so does the number of incubator and accelerator programmes nurturing them. According to a report by NASSCOM and Zinnov, with over 140 accelerators and incubators, India is now ranked third globally, after China and the US, when it comes to such programmes.
Mentorship is a key component of any accelerator programme, not just on an individual level, but also at an organisational level. Since June 2017, global data storage and management giant NetApp has been helping a number of young B2B startups find their feet in the bustling, competitive startup space. With each cohort, the NetApp Excellerator has been forthcoming with business and technical mentorship and forging connects with investors and potential clients.
“The NetApp Excellerator is a pioneering programme that looks to break new ground and provide newer and greater possibilities for data-driven startups. If I have to pick one thing that sets aside NetApp’s accelerator programme from the rest, it is the quality of the mentors and its world-class mentorship,” says Ajeya Motaganahalli, Sr. Director and leader for NetApp Startup Accelerator. “With NetApp's rich history of innovation and expertise in data management, we are providing startups working in this area with the right mentorship - both technical and business. Additionally, we get best-in-class global industry experts to help them define their business strategy and focus.”
We spoke to the mentors for the six startups from the 2nd cohort of the NetApp Excellerator – Anlyz, ArchSaber, Blobcity, Dataken, Nanobi, Sigtuple – who shared their experiences with us.
Quote: A mentor is not coming with any biases towards the business and has an outside-in perspective. Understanding and communicating each other’s perspective is the biggest challenge. I am sure right decisions are taken as soon as the clarity emerges: Parag Deshmukh, Archsaber mentor.
They say it took a combination of gentle persuasion, tough love and constructive criticism, to guide their mentees. Combined with the fact that establishing mutual trust took time, and some of the mentees were not on the same page as the mentors when it came to the issues at hand, it was a tough road. Girish BK, mentor for Blobcity, says, “The Blobcity team is trying to solve a very large-scale and difficult problem in the industry today. I wanted to help them solve some of their technical challenges. But first, I needed to take the initiative to articulate the problem scenario that my mentees were facing on their behalf.”
But for everyone, their collective efforts are being validated today, with improved and better versions of the solution in terms of design and usability, cost-savings due to process improvements, and a host of other benefits.
What helped was that they all shared the same value set, with a long-term vision to improve the product experience offered by the startups and worked with that goal in mind.
Some of the startups they were working with were a very early stage, with passion, enthusiasm, and agility in droves. In fact, both Girish and Parag reiterate that the scale and magnitude of the problems that their young mentee startups had taken on the onus to solve had not been cracked even by larger existing players. As mentors, they had to nudge them in the right direction where necessary. “We felt that we are asking them to slow down; however, q it was important so that they can re-channelise their energies so as to position themselves for success,” said Parag.
The practical advice ranged from how to rationalise their portfolio and focus on one or two niche capabilities, which helped them to better segment their customers and prioritise, to how to approach product design to provide an intuitive and differentiated product experience and moving old records and reports to low cost/cold tier storage, resulting in significant improvement in storage costs.
The learning was not one-sided. The mentors say they also in turn, learnt from the startups. “I learnt a lot in terms of the workflows in healthcare and the various insights they provide through their AI platform. What also really impressed me (and is usually lacking in most startups) is their willingness to publish their work in external conferences,” says Priya Sehgal, mentor for Sigtuple.
Quote: Often, the expectations between the mentor and mentee is not well-communicated or misunderstood. That’s the time the relationship falls apart: Priya Sehgal, Sigtuple mentor.
“As mentors, we ought to be true in our views so that startups can get the best suggestions, solutions from us. I agree it’s sometimes difficult to say things that we believe are not correct, especially when the startups are really passionate. But again, there are ways to communicate the message and make them realise the path they are taking may be wrong,” says Sunil Gopal, mentor for NanoBI.
In turn, the startups have been extremely receptive to suggestions to improve their current product experience. “I believe they realise the need to have a differentiated product experience to scale higher, and hence I believe they have been very receptive. Of course, the implementation prioritisation challenges exist,” adds Sunil. Priya says that the Sigtuple team has been meticulous in taking up action items that were suggested to them and coming back in later weeks with how they have made progress on the suggestions.
How different is mentoring a business versus mentoring founders? “Calling a consultant to evaluate a business and him putting in an elaborate report on the changes that need to be made to make the business successful and handing it over to founders for executing it, is very different from going along with the founders as a team on the path to realisation of their goal,” says Parag.
And the success of startups that have been a part of the earlier cohorts of the NetApp Excellerator are a validation of this approach.
The NetApp Excellerator core team will be in Mumbai on June 1. If you want to know more about this exciting programme, then do register here to meet the team.