From cashflow tips to online expo: how TiE Chennai helped entrepreneurs persevere through the lockdown
The COVID-19 pandemic has dealt a crippling blow to societies and businesses around the world. But life should go on, and a range of entrepreneurship support organisations has risen to the challenge.
This includes TiE Chennai, the local chapter of the global network called The Indus Entrepreneurs, founded in Silicon Valley in 1992. See also our earlier profiles of resilience activities by TiE Bangalore, TiE Pune, TiE Kerala and TiE Hyderabad.
Support for entrepreneurs
In the last four months, TiE Chennai conducted 175 events on entrepreneurship, drawing over 15,000 participants, explains Akhila Rajeshwar, Executive Director of TiE Chennai, in a chat with YourStory.
Formats included speaker talks, ‘Ask Me Anything’ sessions, group and individual mentoring, masterclasses, training programmes, and mixer events. The ‘TiE Essentials’ series covered company formation, compliances, funding, and grants. TiE Distance Education provided training programs on various aspects of entrepreneurship, Akhila adds.
Case studies and tips were presented in ‘My Story’ sessions, covering digital marketing, sales, branding, finance, and strategy. Weekly masterclasses were conducted in July (HR), with more planned for August (‘Becoming Investor-ready’) and September (‘Growth Marketing’).
Cross-chapter Charter Member meetings were held with other TiE chapters in India (Bangalore, Chennai, Delhi, Hyderabad, Mumbai) and overseas (Germany). Virtual mixer sessions were also organised to network between members, Akhila says.
Special training and mentoring sessions were held for women entrepreneurs as part of TiE Women, which is an initiative of TiE Global. For school students between Class 9 and 12, TiE Young Entrepreneurs (TYE) conducted basic and advanced courses on entrepreneurship.
“The winners of the regional finals participated in the TYE Global finals held earlier this month on July 16-18, and won a prize for best elevator pitch,” Akhila adds. Another initiative is TiE for Employees, with skills and attitude development for the employees of entrepreneurs.
The number of participants in these TiE Chennai webinars ranged from 75 to 500. They consisted of entrepreneurs (75 percent), ‘wannapreneurs’ (10 percent), and others (15 percent: investors, tech firms), according to Akhila.
Challenges and opportunities
The TiE Chennai team observes that funding, market access, and employee engagement are key challenges faced by entrepreneurs during the pandemic. “We organise events for entrepreneurs to help them get investment ready, which includes connects with The Chennai Angels, the Keiretsu Forum, and national investors,” Akhila explains.
Pitchfests give them an opportunity to pitch to multiple investors. TiE Sandhai (‘marketplace’ in Tamil) gives members a chance to showcase their company as part of TiE’s website, and during its flagship conference, TiECON Chennai.
There are also issues founders have faced in terms of engaging with their employees meaningfully. The sessions on TiE for Employees help in this regard.
Crises can also open up opportunities for entrepreneurs. In this case, entrepreneurs can tap healthcare opportunities via manufacturing of PPE kits, and developing apps for online doctor consultations. Edtech, ecommerce, and workflow (eg. video conferencing apps) are other opportunity areas identified by Akhila.
The TiE Chennai chapter has six fulltime staff. “All of us are working out of home. The quality of work and productivity has increased tremendously. The current situation has opened up several new opportunities for our chapter,” Akhila explains.
“We have started doing events in Tamil to cater to entrepreneurs across the state. This was not being done during physical events earlier,” she recalls.
Since they were able to seamlessly adapt to the new normal, they were able to invite speakers who were well-versed in both English and Tamil, “Now, about 40 percent of our events also cater to the Tamil-speaking audience,” Akhila proudly says.
Role of government
The government of Tamil Nadu is supporting startups through various schemes, such as NEEDS (New Entrepreneur and Enterprise Development Scheme). “The government can come up with challenges for startups to solve its pain points,” Akhila adds.
“By so doing, the government can get access to latest innovations and ride current trends for immediate implementation. This will be a great opportunity for entrepreneurs to work with the government to achieve scale,” she advises.
Tips and advice
TiE Chennai offers business tips to entrepreneurs with respect to pressing issues like cash management and pivoting strategies. “”Lease fixed assets and equipment instead of buying them, especially if they are expensive. Also, look at buying good quality used equipment instead of new ones,” Akhila advises.
“Monitor employee productivity and keep only productive employees. Retain enough shadow resources with multi-dimensional skills to ensure that client services are not compromised,” she emphasies.
It is important to not delay payments. “Instead, negotiate discounts for early payments. Keep the business lean,” she adds.
Product-market fit and traction are key factors as well. “Strip the solution down and focus on a key feature. Add that mind-blowing feature to make your solution stand out,” Akhila advises.
It is important to understand changing needs of customers. “Sell what the customer wants and is ready to pay for, and not what you think is a good product. Adapt to an emerging customer need or pain,” she recommends.
“Focus on a less-confusing but attractive and lucrative business model. Traction should be the focus,” she adds. The competitive positioning and pricing should be tweaked to attract more users as part of a volume-based strategy.
“Consider technology means of delivering the business solution that sells. There is no point having the best technology if your solution won’t sell,” she cautions.
Mental fitness for entrepreneurs and employees
Mental fitness will be a key success factor for entrepreneurs in the turbulent months ahead. “The chapter`s leadership strongly believes that personal transformation is needed for business transformation,” Akhila emphasies.
TiE Catalyst, which was launched in partnership with Cavinkare before the lockdown, also sends short four-five minute audio-clips to entrepreneurs with daily exercises for personal management and transformation. This will eventually help business transformation as well.
“We started with a group of 100 people five months ago. Now, there are 15 groups of 100 people each, actively participating in this programme. The programme also led to the launch of yet another initiative – TiE for Employees,” Akhila explains.
This was targeted at entrepreneurs’ employees who were working out of home. Now in its second batch, the focus is on the importance of skills and attitude of the employees in the workplace.
“We continue to get great feedback from the employers of these participants about the increased productivity and performance of their employees,” Akhila says.
For the months ahead, TiE Chennai is working on a number of initiatives. This includes ‘Personal Boards,’ or bouncing boards for entrepreneurs who are part of TiE Catalyst. Upcoming sessions will focus on topics like growth hacking and investments. The TiE Essentials programme will address ‘How to Register as an MSME.’
“TiECON Chennai 2020, TiE Chennai’s flagship event, will be virtual this year. We are planning to have it on October 5-10,” Akhila explains.
Speaker sessions will be held in the evenings alone. “We will also organise masterclasses, workshops, networking sessions, and TiE Sandhai (expo) as part of the TiECON Chennai week,” Akhila signs off.
(Edited by Teja Lele Desai)