Lending a Hand

Lending a Hand

Subbu Murugan(left) & Vijay Anand(Right)

“Every entrepreneur believes than they can better the best product/service available in the market,” says Vijay Anand. An entrepreneur himself, Anand would understand this notion well. At 29, he is the founder –chief-executive officer of The Startup Centre (TSC), a Chennai-based business incubator that enables technology-based startups to establish a foundation before taking flight. TSC’s numerous activities include coffee club meets, events, residential programmes and classes on building a company.

“The idea of TSC is to complement entrepreneurs with the work they are doing. Where they do need help is in showcasing their work to the right person. Usually, many wait for events to meet other such founders. Instead, I wanted TSC to be a fixed meeting ground for such people,” says Anand. There are several entrepreneurs such as Subbu Murugan, who are on the board of TSC and help guide startups. In 2007, Murugan founded Ventuno, an online video solutions company, in Chennai. “Having started my company with no business plan, I understand the importance of TSC for entrepreneurs. We hope TSC will fill the void for all that is fundamentally lacking,” he says. Other entrepreneurs on the board include Naru Narayanan, director at 20:20 Media known for his marketing expertise, Suresh Sambandam, founder of OrangeScape Technologies Inc., Sudhir Ravindran, founder of Escrowtech India who is also an attorney and Dorai Thodla, founder of iMorph. Anand’s role at TSC is defined as the business mentor.

“The idea of TSC is to complement entrepreneurs with the work they are doing. Where they do need help is in showcasing their work to the right person. Usually, many wait for events to meet other such founders”

Let’s get started

TSC went live on May 1 this year and has various activities functioning in their premises in Egmore, Chennai. “We have a community-based initiative where any entrepreneur can drop in at TSC and interact with other like-minded individuals. The monthly ‘Open Coffee Club’ meet is another such forum that helps in ideating,” says Anand. The residential programme that TSC runs is more streamlined where founders who are keen to create a prototype join the six-month programme. And they are charged for it on a monthly basis. “We fixed a fee since we wanted to filter only those who were serious about taking their idea forward. It is to make sure that at the end of six months, they have the first version of their product ready,” adds Anand. Shrikrishna Shrin (26) is one such resident. A graduate of Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kharagpur and Stanford University, he is working on a prototype that he hopes will make coding more engaging. “The environment at TSC is conducive for entrepreneurs to interact and share feedback. Also, experienced founders often drop by and offer insight on your product. Hence, the value of interaction I get here would be missing if I started my company from home.” It is this mentoring that Anand hopes will help entrepreneurs find their feet faster. “We hold informal reviews every two weeks, help put entreprenuers onto the right people, advise them on upgrading their prototypes and the kind of obstacles to look out for. Our goal is to help cut down their mistakes by half,” he adds.

At the technology-based incubator, Anand looks out for ideas that have the potential to scale fast. “About 80 per cent of the time, I look at how fast a product can grow. For instance, we would encourage entrepreneurs to develop applications for gadgets like Apple’s iPads and iPhones. But, if a really exciting idea is presented to us, we are game as well. The point is to develop a software product culture,” he says.

Snap Shot

The Startup Centre
Founder: Vijay Anand
City: Chennai
Industry: Business Incubator for technology startups
Strength: A six-member team of entrepreneurs with diverse areas of expertise to handhold entrepreneurs in their early stages
Activities: in50hrs, residential programmes and startup-centric classes on business, technology, design, among others
In the pipeline: Accelerator programme

There are also regular classes held on subjects that cover business processes. “The main areas we hold classes on are business, technology, design and markets.” How do they manage to get the domain experts for these classes? “We have entrepreneurs who have been through the same journey and emerged successful, sharing more practical and useful knowledge than consultants,” says Murugan. in50hrs is another initiative that is modelled on the lines of the American concept, ‘Startup Weekend’. The purpose of in50hrs is to build a prototype from an idea in the span of a weekend. “The first one was held last March and we got a very good response – 72 people attended and 19 prototypes were designed. It is basically one weekend to figure out if your idea works or not,” says Anand.

In the beginning

During his under-graduation in Canada, Anand realised the start-up culture in India had many problems plaguing it. “Finding the right mentors, the time it takes for a product to reach the market, why ESOPS are not given to employees or exits not happening – I had a long list. I used to crib about it to Dr. Ashok Jhunjhunwala (professor at IIT-Madras), who I got introduced to through an acquaintance. He told me either I do something to change that or to stop complaining,” smiles Anand. So, he decided to return to India in 2004 and a year later founded Proto.in, a platform for start-up companies to showcase their products to experts and investors in the field. In 2006, he took up another role heading IIT-Madras’ Rural Technology and Business Incubator (RTBI). “It was during Proto that the idea for TSC developed around three years ago – to nurture these entrepreneurs who needed an incubator to sustain their work.” And it was through Proto that he met many entrepreneurs including Murugan.

Setting up TSC was not without a challenge. “The primary challenge was to get a centre. Time and again it has been entrepreneurs who have helped us. When a friend of mine sold his company, he offered me his office space,” says Anand. “The seed capital was the money key members pooled in, but the costs are fairly minimal at this stage. Our revenue now comes mainly from internal accruals. We would like to give it about 18 months to stabilise,” says Murugan.  The role of the private equity firm SAIF Partners is to sponsor two students, who TSC finds talented and committed, for the residential programme.

Being new in the market does not discourage it from offering services that other business incubators are already offering in Chennai. “TSC is complementary to the kind of work RTBI or C-Tides is doing,” says Anand, who served as vice-president of RTBI. “While RTBI caters to rural businesses, many wanted to see an incubator for urban businesses. Though C-TIDES is involved in the same sphere, they cater to IIT graduates,” he adds. Murugan believes TSC’s strength lies in the six-member team who come from very diverse backgrounds and are a knowledge bank. “We hope to see the companies that we nurture get to a stage where angel investors start investing in them – that is where our work will end,” he says.

Its immediate plan is to kick-start the Accelerator programme by November. The Accelerator programme enables start-ups with working prototypes to build to market-sustainability and find the right clients. “We are looking at taking equity in these companies but we are yet to decide the stake,” reveals Anand. TSC is also looking into expanding organisation to other cities, preferably next in Pune, but for now its aim is to grow companies in Chennai.