If you have been a founder or an operator in a startup for a while, and you then join a venture capital firm, you will be asked the above question at least a hundred times. When I was asked this the first few times, I was taken by surprise. But with time, you learn to play along with an accommodative reply, preferably with a laugh, though it's the umpteenth time you've heard this.
In my case, the most happening part of my 25 year long career was not as a founder or as an operator in a startup. Rather, it was as part of organisations that were built to enable startups: NASSCOM and iSPIRT, and I loved what I did. But, I can imagine how my move to a VC firm could become easy prey for the kind of exchanges mentioned above.
Which is precisely what happened when I joined Accel in Sept 2017.
Now you may ask why VC firms are perceived as the dark side.
Why are they related to an archetype which is out to squeeze every last penny out of you, who try to negotiate the life out of you, and who push you beyond your breaking point to get the desired results?
And all this even when most VCs out there also happen to be ready to go on a limb to help their founders.
I won't deny that they do this to improve their likelihood of winning the bet, but aren't we all in the game for a positive outcome?
I'm not here to fight the stereotype but this is how things were when I joined Accel in India, one of the biggest VC firms in the country, for an unusual job - building an entrepreneurial community. This was something I've done before with NASSCOM and iSPIRT but it is not something that the VC world is known for.
An unusual role
Building a community of entrepreneurs, in a nutshell, means building an incredibly robust support system for founders and startups, in the form of a community. The concept was formulated by the leaders at Accel in India who identified two insights that we needed to do, from their journey:
Enriching the pie: Founders are usually so neck deep in building their company that they miss out on peer learning. If there's a way to unlock peer learning across the portfolio companies, that would benefit everyone.
Growing the pie: As a leading VC firm, Accel felt responsible for supporting founders and startups outside the portfolio. They realised there's a dire need for better founder orientation and onboarding that can drastically improve the quality of startup journeys that prospective founders plan to take.
(Bear with the pie analogy. We both know it's criminal to not mention "pie" in a VC blog post.)
I was able to relate with both these aims, and I have to give credit to Accel’s leadership for having been able to identify and articulate them very clearly to me. The why was very clear to me and I couldn't have got a better start to my journey.
My first few months in Accel was all about talking to the portfolio entrepreneurs. I talked to founders of close to 50 companies, half of them via calls and the other half through personal visits. I already knew 20 of these companies because of my affiliation with the Indian startup ecosystem, but this effort helped me empathise with these founders much more closely.
I felt like a counsellor, investigative journalist and census surveyor all in one, and all I did was listen. This experience gave me the much needed learning about the Accel portfolio and equipped me with the confidence I needed to initiate a few experiments to build a more robust peer-learning platform.
Step 3:Getting Together
We kicked off our efforts by organising highly focused off-site programs for cohorts of 8 to 10 founders with a coaching organisation. 2 days away from their work environment, and supplemented with trekking and a few other outdoor activities, these programs helped the founders unwind, talk to each other without any insecurities and inhibitions, and most importantly experience a high quality learning environment.
Curating offsites for founders
The off-sites were followed by experimentations with multiple formats to encourage collaboration and peer-learning. To cite a few examples, we designed and conducted playbook roundtables where 12 to 15 founders participated with the sole aim to learn from an expert in the domain and leave the room with actionables, we built a program that took founders to Silicon Valley for learning and exposure, we launched a much-needed NCR chapter for founders and also got all our founders together using an online community platform.
While our team kept on experimenting with different learning and collaboration formats, one particular initiative that we conducted deserves a special mention.
We conducted a Badminton tournament for all Accel Portfolio companies which saw close to 50 companies and 200 individuals participate. It turned out to be an amazing ice-breaker for everyone in Accel: the partners, the staff and the portfolio companies. As one of the founders quipped during the tournament, "I feel very comfortable here with a racquet in my hand. At least, I know my VC partner (who's also sporting a racquet in his hand), is not going to ask me how the last month went."
The event released all the muscle knots we had in the Accel family due to stress and tension - every startup got the much needed break and were able to get back to be at the top of their game.
A natural consequence of having so many internal peer-learning experiments led us to the next problem (or rather opportunity) in hand: how to build a more robust startup support system for India.
In the world of startups, it’s all about enabling the Ecosystem
Building a robust startup support system is a cause I've personally been excited about and been working on via NASSCOM and iSPIRT. After I moved on from these organisations, I was fortunate to co-found SaaSBOOMi with a few passionate founders, a pay-it-forward community for SaaS startups in India, with an aim to groom 100 $1B startups from India by 2025.
But all the while, what I didn't realise was the enormous impact that venture capital can have in building the support ecosystem. And that's precisely what we unlocked in the past couple of years in Accel.
Opening up the Space
If there's one more thing I will want to mention as one of tenets of our plan to build a robust community, it's the story of a three storeyed building in Koramangala, Bangalore that later came to be known in the startup circles as Accel LaunchPad.
When I joined Accel in 2017, I learnt that we've been keeping a building at our disposal for years to enable our portfolio companies to work out of. And we had only recently moved our internal co-working space to a bigger building. This was the time when our community plan was in the thick of its action and now when I look back, it was only natural for the co-working space to play an important role in our mission.
In the beginning of 2019, we opened up the LaunchPad (as it was christened by then) to our seed stage portfolio companies as well as a small group of early stage non-funded startups who were chosen via referrals. Our intent was to build the LaunchPad into a vibrant startup community that works together. The movement slowly gathered momentum as the startups inside the LaunchPad started helping each other, coordinating talks and events for startups inside and even outside the LaunchPad. The group became so close and connected that we started having monthly mixers with board games and even conducted a Table Tennis tournament.
The LaunchPad program, for us, was a strong validation of what can be done by getting startups together under the same roof. We hope to open the LaunchPad soon once the Covid-19 situation is under better control.
I personally can't wait to go back to the LaunchPad - the energy in the space was simply magical.
And somewhere during this time, when so much was happening, was when we had the thought of taking all our community initiatives online, to an even larger audience. This was the start of what eventually became SeedToScale, easily one of the most ambitious things we’ve done.
The birth of SeedToScale
Even though we started our efforts to build this kind of a community a couple of years back, it was just a few months back when we at Accel in India knew what to call it. We came to realise the magnitude of what we are trying to accomplish: enabling a founder’s journey from day zero.
SeedToScale aspires to significantly multiply the number of founders starting up from India and help them build world-changing companies. We're starting by helping talented, ambitious people across the country get access to the best content on building startups and design unique community programs that help them gain the network and skills needed to build the next generation of scalable companies.
We’ve tried to capture the essence of SeedToScale here.
What’s in there? 55 founder podcasts, 60 thought leadership articles, 2 cohorts of Rebound, 1 batch of FounderStack and more than 50 Startup events organised PAN India - we’re just getting started with SeedToScale.
Insights - We started off by opening up our internal peer-learning programs to the bigger ecosystem in the form of a blog and podcast. We called it Accel in India Insights and set ourselves up against a relentless monthly cadence to share our learnings since January 2018 and we just recently completed 55 episodes of our podcast.
Other than Insights, we conducted physical events, like half day sessions on critical aspects of the startup journey like Product-Market fit, presided over by established founders and VC partners. The physical events, which have now evolved into virtual events - thanks to Covid-19, took various shapes and sizes as we experimented with different formats. All the learnings from these efforts also gave us the confidence to launch two marquee eco-system programs:
Rebound - a community program and support system focused on repeat founders. We launched our first edition on 8th June 2019 and are now preparing to start the third batch of the program.
ProductGrowth an initiative to recognise, learn from, and celebrate the unsung-heroes and to build a community of product and growth professionals and leaders who influence, collaborate, and get things done over numerous quarters to make the 'overnight success look inevitable. Very fortunate to be working with some of the best Product and Growth Thinkers here.
Founder Stack - a community & learning platform to help early stage consumer tech startup founders gather high-quality insights on building a scalable product-led business, through an immersive online program. Here's a post about our first cohort.
Knowledge Worth Spreading
Our philosophy has always been to add value to founders across the country. We keep getting emails from students & founders from Kerala to Jammu & Kashmir asking for support. We decided to open up all our founder stack content to founders across the country with our Library.
Check out this link for some of the finest content available in the country for Indian founders.
What we learned on this journey and what lies ahead for Accel in India
The idea for this post started with the intent to reflect on the journey we've had with community building at Accel India, with the primary aim to share learnings that can be helpful for organisations who want to build out their own version.
But as the journey was so interesting, I was sure folks would ask me for our learnings from the road too. I’ve compiled those here.
While some of the points can be contextual to a VC firm like Accel, I still think there are certain core tenets that can be replicated regardless of the context.
So let me take you through these:
Consistency: Most of the programs we initiated in 2017 and 2018 started giving us early signs of validation many months later. We still did not relent, and continued with our efforts with discipline. This is important to internalise because community building is a difficult job that takes an incredibly long time, a classic case of delayed gratification. So don't worry about early traction in what you do. Just keep at it and look for opportunities to learn in whatever you do.
Empathy: If you are building a support system and community for founders, you need to put the effort to understand founders and their motivations. It's true that we ended up building valuable support systems and community initiatives for founders and startups in the past 3 years, but what can easily be ignored are the months we spent talking to founders and understanding their journey better. So, no shortcuts.
Experimentation and Evaluation: We tried programs and initiatives of different kinds: offline and online events, with strength ranging from 5 members to 100 members, podcasts and blog posts for content distribution. The ability to experiment with consistency enabled us to evaluate the programs dispassionately, and then double down on what's working really well. No program in Accel in India was conducted without an extensive effort to gather feedback from participants.
Collaboration: When you are working on a problem that's bigger than what your organisation can solve, there's value in acknowledging reality and collaborating with others. Our goal to enable the startup ecosystem outside the Accel portfolio was an example for such a herculean mission, and to accomplish that we worked with foundations like SaaSBOOMi and other VC firms who shared our broader vision.
I hope these learnings are helpful.
When I look back at the last 3 years, what we accomplished as a team in Accel in building a community has been nothing short of incredible. And this wouldn't have been possible if the Accel leadership in India didn't give me the freedom and ownership to experiment, iterate and learn on my terms. I'm incredibly grateful for that.
We also understand that we've barely scratched the surface in our mission to build one of the best communities for entrepreneurs. So here's to an enriching journey ahead 🥂.
Note — Thanks to my colleagues Anand Daniel & Siddharth Ram for sharing their comments and encouragement during the writing of this blog post. Thanks also to my friends - Matthew John and Sairam Krishnan for editing this piece and giving their candid feedback.