With focus on human interaction, ‘unconferences’ come of age

With focus on human interaction, ‘unconferences’ come of age

Mumbai: Early this year, on the third weekend in January, two events of interest to start-ups and venture capitalists (VCs) went head to head in two cities. In Chennai, Proto.in showcased selected start-ups to VCs, while at Headstart in Bangalore, start-ups and firms demonstrated new products and services.

With scores of start-ups, industry experts and VCs, the events were great networking opportunities (Proto had 350 participants and Headstart close to 400). But clashing dates meant many entrepreneurs chose between one of the two and some representatives at VC firms flew between the two southern cities eager not to miss on investment opportunities.

The events marked the coming of age of what are called ‘unconferences’ in India. For networking, sans the formal black ties, Indian entrepreneurs have never been so spoilt for choice. What began two years with BarCamp, an informal gathering of tech enthusiasts, has exploded into a plethora of networking events, informally called “meet-ups" such as Mobile Mondays (MoMo), Open Coffee Clubs (OCCs), BlogCamps and so on across the country.

Giving the trend added impetus now are groups such as Chennai’s Proto and Kickstart from Bangalore, which are taking things forward: in the last two months, Proto, along with the National Entrepreneurship Network, has launched Startup Lunch to help young firms meet potential recruits, while Kickstart’s Startup Saturday helps entrepreneurs meet investors and potential customers in closed-door meetings.

The growing number of events—some 50 BarCamp events have taken place in the country out of 400 globally—has turned India into one of the more active start-up networking hubs outside the US. This is important because while the start-up ecosystem itself is at a nascent stage here—VCs invested $927 million (Rs3,949 crore today) in 2007 in India compared with $29.4 billion in the US—these meetings offer entrepreneurs and potential backers a chance to interact with peers, exchange information, ideate and brainstorm.

While most meet-ups are held in cities such as New Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai, Hyderabad and Pune, unconferencing has proved popular even in places such as Kochi, Ahmedabad and Kharagpur.

The genesis of such events can be traced to two years ago when enthusiasts here adopted various kinds of gatherings that originated in different parts of the world, from Helsinki’s MoMo to London’s OCC. MoMo’s India chapter was born when M. Thiyagarajan and Rajiv Poddar, two Bangalore-based entrepreneurs who helped organize BarCamp Bangalore, wanted to have an event to connect the mobile community. Vaibhav Pandey, who started the Bangalore chapter of OCC, has a similar story: “We met a lot of interesting people at BarCamp and wanted (a platform) so we could have regular interaction instead of meeting them once in three months." MoMo and OCC events take place at least once a month.

There are reasons why unconferencing has worked so well here. “We (in India) like human contact. Research shows people like to get their information from other people, irrespective of knowledge management systems or large database," says Suresh Bhagavatula, a visiting faculty at the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore, who has been researching the importance of social networks and capital from the point of view of an entrepreneur.

Bhagavatula, who attended his first BarCamp in 2006, was drawn in by the interactions and is now part of Kickstart and helps organize BarCamps in Bangalore. “These (events) create an enabling environment and provide emotional support for those who want to start up," he adds.

For existing start-ups, it also provides a ready audience to critique and publicize their offerings. Thiyagarajan whose company Motvik Technologies Pvt. Ltd had developed an application that turned a mobile phone camera into a webcam, credits a wave of early downloads thanks to a demonstration he gave at a MoMo event. “You can’t measure the returns—it comes to you in totally different ways," he says.

With the events gathering pace, new ones are getting an element of fun too. The latest event to hit the circuit takes a potshot at the unconference concept itself. ‘Start-up Disco’, a pub gathering in Bangalore that proclaims, “Enough of Meet the VC, Demo your Start-up bullshit, celebrate your own hard work!"