I am not very fond of conferences and conclaves. They are generally populated by balding, middle-aged men in identical grey suits. Spouting cliches and company achievements in the name of gyaan.
Nasscom Product Conclave 2010 was different. Held over 2 days in Bangalore, this was an event which showcased the less celebrated side of IT. Both the speakers and the audience were primarily young, work-in-progress founders of startups. With a few experts, angels and VCs thrown in for good measure.
The organisers roamed around in tshirts which declared 'I helped put this together' on the back. And slippers, not formal shoes.
Name badges of all participants featured just first names.
Audience asked questions via sms to panelists and were asked to rate each speaker. For a change, the focus was on keeping people engaged and interested!
Although I must confess I only attended bits of two sessions (apart from my own as a speaker), I did learn about some very interesting startups. The three who stand out:
1) Hashcube: I first heard of this Bangalore based startup a year ago when it was selected for the iAccelerator program at CIIE, IIM Ahmedabad. Hashcube creates social games - some of which have achieved a respectable amount of popularity.
Their most popular game is based on Sudoku - the Hashcube app is apparently the most popular sudoku game on Myspace. They've now adapted it for the iPhone and are course developing apps for Facebook as well.
When I asked founder Deepan Chakrabarty how the company was doing in terms of revenues he said, "We're making enough to get by."
The trick to being really successful in the app ecosystem is to get millions of users. (Zynga - creators of Farmville - have attracted 100 mllion). That's because - so far - the primary source of revenues appears to be advertising.
I like Hashcube because it is a pure invention model. Once you know how to write an app - and I'm guessing any reasonably technically minded person can do that - it's really about coming up with a great idea which catches the fancy of people.
Where is that killer idea? Who knows... But Hashcube has as good a chance as anyone -anywhere else in the world - of creating it.
2) Fusioncharts: Of the 5 startups which made a 5 minute pitch during the networking dinner on day 1, I really liked the presentation by Fusioncharts.
The company specialises in helping people who want to sex up their charts and graphs. 17,000 customers in 110 countries actually pay for its web and enterprise applications. Most of these customers are programmers and designers, but now they have a new app targetted at ordinary folks as well.
Visit oomfo.com and you can download a small app to create and import stylish charts into MS Word and Powerpoint presentations. What's more, the app is free to use at the moment.
What I like is the idea that someone can create an entire business on so small and simple an idea. Built in applications in most software programs generate ugly charts and graphs. But we simply lived with it. Until someone came along and said - this won't do.
You can select a niche as thin as this and become the go-to person in that space. Well, even what appears to be a thin niche is actually a very large market if you look at the universe of people who use charts and graphs in their day to day lives. But it may be thin enough for other companies to ignore, or at least, not feel passionate about.
Have downloaded oomfo.com - but not used it yet. If any of you do try it, let me know!
3) Morpheus Ventures: I am not a big fan of Venture Capital. I am sure they do some good work but a majority of startups are simply wasting their time by pinning their hopes in that direction.
VCs look for highly scalable ventures with (potential for) very high returns. Your idea may not fit that description. Yet, it can be a viable business, one which needs a small amount of funding to grow. Not millions.
But while we have microfinance, we don't have freely available micro venture capital. You have angel investors, of course, but not much else.
That's why I really like Morpheus Ventures - modelled on YCombinator in the US - for its support model to startups. Morpheus invites applications from startups to join its Business Acceleration program. Every company which becomes part of the Morpheus portfolio receives funding of Rs 5 lakhs and mentoring support of 10-15 hours per week in the first 4 months. And subsequently, on need basis.
Morpheus Ventures takes an equity stake of 7-12% in each company which may seem like a lot to the founders. But if it's the difference between life and death, may be well worth it.
I like that Morpheus clearly specifies that 'we are happy to wait for the long haul, 5-7 years and see you through'. That is, we won't hassle you for returns before that. It helps that the contributors to the fund are essentially startup founders and serial entrepreneurs themselves.
I haven't done deeper research on Morpheus - spoken to their portfolio companies etc. But I have a good feeling about this initiative. Indus Khaitan, who is a partner with Morpeus Ventures, mentioned that every week he spends time holding a startup 'clinic'. Which means startup founders can walk in to the Leela, pour out their woes and go back a little lighter.
Which I think is a really amazing service.
Because what most of us need more than money is a patient listening. And moral support.
(Psst: To book some time at the 'clinic' go to the calendar at tingle.com/indus)
There were many more amazing people at the Product Conclave - some of whom you can read about in Prof Vivek Wadhwa's column here and particpant's feedback here.
All I can say is it's good to see India moving beyond the era of faceless backoffice support and services. We too are dreaming of creating products, of finding a place in the sun. It is hot, it is crowded, it is dizzy and dangerous at times.
But that is all part of the fun...and the struggle!
May the Force be with you all.