Networks like National Entrepreneurship Network, Headstart are creating peer-based structure for entrepreneurs

A clutch of organisations have emerged, across the Indian entrepreneurial landscape, who offer support, mentoring and networking opportunities.

Building a business is a lonely process, say entrepreneurs. But entrepreneurs also feel the need to validate ideas, seek out mentors who are experts in their field and meet other struggling entrepreneurs who could help them solve a problem they are facing.

In recent years a clutch of organisations have emerged, across the Indian entrepreneurial landscape, who offer support, mentoring and networking opportunities.

"Most budding entrepreneurs are not part of any personal or professional network through which they can find mentors, co-founders or people with complementary skill sets," says Vijay Anand, who founded the entrepreneurship hub, The Start Up Centre, in Chennai in May 2011. "We offer them a readymade network."

These newly emerging networks are quick to differentiate themselves from older and larger groups like TiE (formerly The Indus Entrepreneurs), the global network of entrepreneurs who trace their origins to the Indian subcontinent. "TiE is like a huge trade fair. But for the small guys there is not much opportunity, beyond meeting successful entrepreneurs," says S Sadagopan, Founder Director of IIIT Bangalore.

Hubs and event-based networks, like The Start Up Centre, pride themselves on their more intimate and peer-based structure. Here interactions between individuals who have just started up or are intending to start up are given prime importance.



Creating entrepreneurs

The National Entrepreneurship Network (NEN) was one of the first networks that tried to follow the organised model.

NEN works with faculty across 600 member colleges and universities to foster entrepreneurship at the student level. With around 400 Entrepreneur cells or E Cells at colleges, the network also attempts to provide hands on practical experience of setting up and growing businesses.

"NEN is like a grassroots movement. It fosters the overall spirit of entrepreneurship," says Kanwaljit Singh, senior managing director of venture fund Helion Advisors, who is also a NEN advisor.

Of the total number of student entrepreneurs emerging from the top one-third engineering and management institutes, 70% belonged to those affiliated with NEN, according to data sourced from the organisation. This is despite the fact that only 20% of the top one-third colleges are a part of the network. NEN's Laura Parkin says the network's success is derived from its community-led model. "Everyone chips in. We have democratised opportunities and anyone who has an interest has access," Parkin adds.
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Entrepreneurs, who have emerged from the NEN system, say the lessons they learnt in classrooms and during practical sessions were invaluable. "We were first time entrepreneurs without any industry experience, but the mentoring we received at NEN made us believe we could make a business work," says Sushil Mishra, who, along with four friends from Chennai's SRM University, started Yogiki in 2009, while they were still in college.

The company works in the field of robotics and conducts workshops at schools and colleges and creates educational robotic kits. The start-up is also the official robotic partner of IIT Kharagpur and IIT Kanpur.

Support system

While NEN attempts to turn students into entrepreneurs, The Start Up Centre (TSC) is for professionals who have turned entrepreneurs. Founded by Vijay Anand, who was previously vice president - new ventures at IIT-Madras' Rural Technology and Business Incubator, TSC acts as a meeting place for entrepreneurs and also for those who want to work with start-ups, as advisors or as employees. It also offers a resident programme, where an entrepreneur can work out of TSC for six months for a fee and should be able to turn a prototype into a product.

"We play the role of connectors, introducing the entrepreneur to whoever can help them. We also give them hands on guidance," says Anand, who has also launched an accelerator programme, where the business gets built up. "A lot can go wrong in the early days of starting up and a number of entrepreneurs give up in those initial days," says Shrikrishna, who developed his start-up, School of Skills, while being a part of TSC's resident programme.

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"When there is a supportive community it is easier not to lose heart." Shrikrishna, whose first product allows anyone to learn computer programming online, also found his co-founder at TSC. The hub, along with Lightspeed Ventures, has also announced a grant of 2.5 lakh each for Shrikrishna's start-up and Mirraw, an online marketplace for designer jewellery. The Mirraw team also just graduated from TSC's resident programme.

Peer-to-peer guidance

Many entrepreneurs do not want to be tied down by a start-up hub or incubator. Yet, they would like to be part of the larger entrepreneurial web. While events and competitions like Proto, Nasscom Product Conclave and UnPluggd fill this gap to a certain extent, the periodic nature of these events has led to entrepreneurs getting together and organising regular meet-ups. Headstart Foundation was started in 2007 and organises regular meetings for entrepreneurs. Its most popular event is Startup Saturdays, held on the second Saturday of every month across nine cities.

Completely run by entrepreneur-volunteers, Headstart also runs a co-founder match making service. "The idea is to connect people, and make access to capital and mentors easier," says Amit Singh, co-founder and director, Headstart Foundation.

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Other entrepreneurs have attempted to copy western formats of networking. While London's Open Coffee Club, which has been duplicated in many cities in India, is a meeting point for entrepreneurs of all shades, a few industry-specific networks have also been brought into the country.

The highly evolved mobile industry has Mobile Monday, which is an independent innovation platform for mobile products. The idea originated in Helsinki, 11 years back at the Nokia headquarters, and Bangalore got its chapter in 2006.

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For entrepreneurs working in the mobile industry, Mobile Monday can be considered a very good platform to pitch to international markets, says Kesava Reddy, co-founder and managing trustee at Mobile Monday, Bangalore. "All the start-ups that have been nominated by the chapter for the World Mobile Congress awards have gone on to do well," he adds.

Challenges

Entrepreneurs caution that these networks do not play a central role in building better start-ups.

"While NEN is doing a good job in schooling potential entrepreneurs, I do not expect anything tangible, in terms of a really innovative product, emerging from the process," says Sanjay Swamy, entrepreneur and managing partner at incubator, Angel Prime. Ashish Sinha, founder of Pluggd.in, a site that showcases tech start-ups, also contends that entrepreneurship cannot be taught. "There should be a greater focus on how to build a product. A start-up isn't just about writing business plans or getting funding," he says.

Most of these networks are also almost completely volunteer-driven. If volunteer interest peters out, they could die out. "Even a network has to be financially viable. It is because of lack of financial backing that we see smaller networks wax and wane," says IIIT-Bangalore's Sadagopan.

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Industry insiders also say that a mere meeting place for entrepreneurs is not enough to expand and improve the entrepreneurial ecosystem. Comparisons with more established ecosystems like the Silicon Valley in the US are inevitable. Entrepreneurs and industry experts alike point to the dearth of domain and function experts, who are willing to work with start-ups in India, unlike in the Valley.

For the people behind these networks the path forward is quite clear. They say networks need to play a broader role.

TSC's Anand is already finalising the accelerator programme, through which start-ups can build up the business and raise outside funds.

NEN's Parkin says networks should integrate better with the other pieces of the ecosystem, like investors, incubators and various government departments to provide more value to entrepreneurs.

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"We actually need more such networks that can attract good talent from each of the parts of the system, providing access to mentors, investors and infrastructure, so that the start-up journey becomes somewhat less risky, at least with respect to known pitfalls," says Subrata Mitra, Partner at venture fund Accel Partners.
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