BENGALURU : Startups face strategic choices at different stages that can make or break them. Take the example of Bengaluru-based startup EnrichVideo, which helps enterprises use personalized videos to increase sales conversions.

EnrichVideo faced a choice that’s crucial for enterprise software product startups: whether to be narrow-focused or cast the net wider at an early stage. The temptation is to go wide because you’re unsure where the product will fit the market.

But EnrichVideo founder Chandu Sohoni decided to listen to three of his peers who told him they had wasted six crucial months with the broad-based approach.

The startup targeted banking, insurance and wealth management, and now has customers like Motilal Oswal, DBS Treasures and IIFL Wealth.

“You’ll never have enough data to make the choice between a narrow or broad segment very clearly at an early stage," says Prasanna Krishnamoorthy, founder of Upekkha accelerator for SaaS startups. “But when three founders share their experiences, it’s more concrete and actionable than wishy-washy data or advice."

Two years ago when Upekkha started, Krishnamoorthy knew building networks and communities was important. But now the approach is more nuanced.

Networks are too amorphous, he feels, and communities are better at providing shoulders to cry on. “Now we think of the learning part in a more structured manner. Peer-to-peer learning comes from a process-oriented format." This is now built into the Upekkha programme’s framework.

Finding people

Avinash Raghava, an organiser of SaaSBooMi and other startup events, loves to build communities because “magic happens when people come together". This goes beyond learning.

For example, finding suitable co-founders can be one of the hardest bridges to cross for some. Others need the right investors who can give them much more than just money.

For example, Indus Khaitan found his co-founder Naeem Zafar at Nasscom Product Conclave. They went on to build Bitzer Mobile to help companies give access to corporate data in a secure way through mobile devices. Oracle acquired the startup.

Raghava saw two other outcomes triggered by networking events. Vipul Mishra, founder of prototyping and usability testing platform CanvasFlip, met one of his key mentors and investors Pallav Nadhani at a ProductNation event. This year, at a SaaSBooMi event, it caught the eye of Freshworks founder Girish Mathrubootham who decided to acquire the startup. Similarly, Thinkflow Software was discovered at an Intech50 event by a US company which acquired it.

“People like me are connectors who enjoy bringing folks together and build a community. Without that, a lot of people wouldn’t get to meet others and know what they’re doing," says Raghava.

Alumni networks

Alumni networks are another powerful force multiplier. Subhendu Panigrahi, founder of Bangalore startup Skillenza that specializes in organising hackathons, used to head the entrepreneur cell at IIT Kharagpur. His first corporate clients were those where his alumni were CXOs.

The IITs and BITS Pilani also support their alumni networks in a structured manner. And the culture of supporting one another begins on campus itself and continues through the careers of IITians and BITsians.

Panigrahi himself had too low a ranking in the entrance exam for the IITs to get his preferred option, which was computer science. He could have done it at an NIT. But he chose to go to IIT Kharagpur anyway.

“My logic was that it was better to be the last guy among the best guys rather the best guy among average guys," says Panigrahi.

“I’ve seen so many guys with ranks of 3,000-5,000 who still come to IIT even though they had a chance to go to one of the NITs. They know it’s not just the IIT brand that will help them. The network is going to help you the moment you’re with the smart guys. They will become your co-founders, first customers, investors, partners, so many things."

Whole companies are built around alumni. Panigrahi points out that the initial team at cloud-based customer engagement software company Capillary was almost entirely from IIT Kharagpur. Similarly, Flipkart was built with IIT Delhi graduates and Ola with those from IIT Bombay.

The advent of messaging apps like WhatsApp has facilitated the formation of multiple networks, with different identities. Some are just alumni, others are more domain specific. For example, Bangalore has a new community around Kotlin, the hot new programming language that’s throwing a challenge to Java.

Malavika Velayanikal is a contributing editor with Mint. Write to her at malavika.works@gmail.com

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