Lightspeed India Partners’ Extreme Entrepreneur programme pays it forward by welcoming new founders into the ecosystem
In an interaction with YourStory, Vaibhav Agrawal, Partner at Lightspeed Venture Partners, explains how the programme, now in its second year, helps Indian founders find their feet with no expectations in return.Thimmaya Poojary
While entrepreneurship requires passion, ambition, and the drive to come out with something new or innovative, it can be a lonely journey if a founder doesn't have a strong connect with the startup ecosystem. A good network, comprising peers, investors, and mentors, is critical not just for the ecosystem to flourish but for the entrepreneur to thrive.
And Lightspeed India Partners’ Extreme Entrepreneurs (EE) programme is striving to bring this new entrepreneur into the startup ecosystem, by seeking out passionate individuals willing to learn from experts in the field.
Now in its second year (the first edition was in 2018), the VC firm likens the initiative to a “no-strings-attached” programme where founders get wide exposure to learn and absorb from some of the best in the industry. Vaibhav Agrawal, Partner at Lightspeed Venture Partners talks to YourStory about this programme and how they plan to take it forward.
Edited excerpts of the interview:
YourStory: What was the idea behind starting the Extreme Entrepreneurs programme in India?
Vaibhav Agrawal: I will talk about the origins. All partners at Lightspeed were entrepreneurs or operators before, and many of us started our entrepreneurial journey as outsiders. Heck, I was a doctor fixing broken bodies in the US before I quit and started my first business in 2008. Through all our journeys, there were many founders and investors who opened doors for us, gave us guidance, and showed us the path.
I learnt that exposure is like dynamite for the curious mind; it can shape ideas, drive ambitions, and open up possibilities in unimaginable ways. So, we designed this programme to pay it forward: to inspire high potential founders and give them exposure to world-class people and ideas, and to bring outsiders to the inside with no strings attached and zero equity taken. That is the spirit of the Extreme Entrepreneurs programme.
YS: What was Lightspeed’s experience with the first edition of Extreme Entrepreneurs, held in 2018?
VA: Founders loved it!
The one comment that really stuck with me at EE2018 was from a participating founder who said, ‘I feel more confident than before. And my ambitions are way bigger than few weeks ago’. This is why we do EE; what my partner calls ‘levelling the playing field’ - for deserving founders who may have begun their journeys as outsiders.
EE is a learning programme that takes zero equity, is geography-agnostic, and open to the community. The format for this year also remains the same. This year, the programme runs for over six weeks, between September 3 and October 8, in Delhi over a three-point format. Mornings will include masterclasses with top guns. Last year, we had people like John Thompson from Microsoft, Dheeraj Pandey from Nutanix, and Ritesh Agarwal from OYO conducting them.
Afternoons will involve one-on-one mentorship sessions with a Lightspeed Partner. This is the powerful core of this programme, where founders get their business pressure-tested by years of global experience Lightspeed has under its belt. The evenings are more about fun, with cocktail sessions with the community to help bring founders to the ‘inside’.
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YS: What can founders expect from the programme?
VA: Firstly, this is a programme for high-potential founders to get inspired and gain exposure to the world’s best people and ideas. There will be masterclasses on wide-ranging topics, from startup basics, finding the first big hire, what great consumer companies do differently, and building great B2B enterprise companies to exploring founder grit and resilience. Secondly, one-on-one mentorship by a Lightspeed Partner, where founders get pushed on their business thinking and get their ideas torture-tested. The Partner also prepares the founders for unique pressure situations.
Finally, this is an opportunity to become real insiders of the startup world. Insiders have the right access to talent, media, investors, and operators. Today, founders often find it tough to hire somebody senior, or when they seek an investment they often get rebuffed with very little feedback. EE changes all that by helping founders build all the right relationships. All this, with zero cost to participation.
We bring all stakeholders to a closed room to meet the who’s who of the startup ecosystem. Importantly, the session by Lightspeed Partners pushes founders by posing hard questions. The founders become insiders in the community, and this is a way to build multiple relationships.
In addition, AWS, who is our key collaborator for the Extreme Entrepreneur programme, is providing entrepreneurial support to startups with substantial perks and discount offers from key solution providers (across marketing, HR, chatbots, cloud credits, among others) to help them be cost-effective and efficient in their early days of scaling.
The programme is Lightspeed Partners’ small attempt to pay it forward by levelling the playing field for people who might be outsiders. When I started my first business, I did not know anything about entrepreneurship. Many people helped me, and there were powerful people who shaped my understanding and opened my eyes to possibility – with no expectation of a return. Hopefully, many of the EE founders will use the learning to build iconic companies, and in time, pay themselves forward, benefiting the ecosystem.
YS: Does the programme help entrepreneurs unleash their potential?
VA: Absolutely. This is a programme to work with high-potential founders with big ambitions, who may be shortchanged because they are outsiders, cut off from the knowledge and networks that insiders have.
This is a programme to change all that, give wings to founders, and unleash their potential. The only filter in this programme is that founders participate, benefit, and make most of the opportunity. No idea is too small and no founder is too early. This programme is not about funding. The moment it becomes that the selection criteria changes from ‘who stands to benefit the most’ to ‘who meets our investment bar’. When that happens, then the magic to inspire and empower outsiders evaporates.
YS: What is your view on the quality of entrepreneurs at last year’s programme?
VA: It was a surprise for us last year. We got over 450 applications from over 45 cities in India, and we were able to work with eight due to the one-on-one mentorship involved. And it was interesting to see so many people from small towns. Entrepreneurship is no longer a big-city phenomenon. This is a pan-India movement and awakening which is very energising for me to see.
Founders who applied were going after audacious problems, all the way from unmanned aerial vehicles, to solving Bengaluru’s traffic problems, to creating new social products for Bharat. It was energising to see a lot of unusual founders; eg, musicians who left their high-paying corporate jobs to create inspiring educational content for kids. There were many women founders; two of the eight startups we selected had women co-founders. We also had founders who were from outside of the top engineering and business colleges.
YS: Have expectation risen for Lightspeed for this year’s edition of the Extreme Entrepreneur programme?
VA: We love to work with high-potential teams with big dreams. We will do our best to deliver a high-quality learning programme for them. We are excited to see what will founders come up with this year.
YS: What have been the learnings from the programme?
VA: I think there were a few things. One is that the community is very powerful. The interesting thing was that founders learn as much from us as much as they learn from each other. It is very important to enable startups to get to know each other and help each other out. Really, it is about building relationships more than anything else.
We were positively surprised how much EE resonated with people outside of Lightspeed. There were founders and investors outside of Lightspeed who made time and joined in this initiative last year. People from Y Combinator, Accel, DST, Nexus, Matrix, etc raising a toast to the EE founder, sharing experiences, and building new relationships. I think what drove all this was that there was no expectation of a return. That is a powerful thing in itself.