At 10:30 PM on the 4th of April 2012, I walked into Terminal 3 of Delhi’s international airport, getting ready for a two week global expedition. I’ve done my fair share of international travel in the past, but this trip was going to be something really unique. We were to visit six cities across three countries in nine days, with an incredibly packed schedule of meetings, presentations and a few parties as well. The itinerary was – Delhi – London – Berlin – New York – Boston – Palo Alto – San Francisco – Delhi. It was a crazy schedule (as we would often get told during our trip) and I can think of only the crazy GSF team that would pull off something of such scale. We were to meet with entrepreneurs and investors, present at leading business schools and immerse ourselves in the local startup ecosystem to learn and be inspired. The GSF delegate included, for the most part, Rajesh Sawhney – Founder GSF, three of the GSF EIRs and six startups.
I can honestly say that nothing in the past, compared with what I was about to experience.
Our first stop was London, one of the most influential and fast growing global startup hubs and home to wildly popular startups such as Spotify and Shazam. A late flight led me to miss the first morning meeting, but lunch was with Saul Klein, a prominent European VC with Index Ventures. Saul spoke about his experience at the executive team of Skype and later cofounding LoveFilm, which was UK’s Netflix. We discussed how London had evolved rapidly into a startup hub and Saul expressed his unbridled enthusiasm for India as the future of global product startups.
Next we headed over the London Business School for a short conference on the future of Indian entrepreneurship. A packed audience of LBS entrepreneurs and London based investors in the LBS auditorium listened in rapt attention to Rajesh and the panellists discuss the challenges and opportunities facing Indian entrepreneurs, after which all the GSF startups presented and fielded questions from the audience. Seedcamp, a GSF partner European incubator was also in attendance, and two Seedcamp startups also presented their businesses.
The evening ended with a mixer at LBS, where we got the opportunity to really mingle with the LBS entrepreneurs, understand their businesses and the challenges they faced. As fellow entrepreneurs we related to each other’s struggles and learnt from our shared experiences.
Berlin is one of Europe’s lesser known startup hubs but one that has been recently gaining prominence. A lot of European entrepreneurs from London and Paris are starting up in Berlin. There is a local joke that if you pick any coffee shop in Berlin, you’ll find a struggling entrepreneur sitting inside working away. The city is also famous for its art, and every second person is a budding designer or artist. This incredible confluence of art and tech makes for an interesting startup ecosystem. What was most remarkable was that at an event in Berlin I bumped into a fellow Indian entrepreneur who turned out to be an alumnus of my B-school. Even he, with no previous experience in Europe, had recently moved to Berlin to startup.
At Berlin we visited startups such as EyeEM, a unique photo sharing based social network, as well as Founders Fund which was an incubator supporting several startups. The German startups were all incredibly enthusiastic about India as a potential market and were eager to launch in India as soon as possible. India’s sheer size, the fact that it was mobile-internet-first and would soon have hundreds of millions of users on smartphones browsing the internet really excited these product startups.
Next stop was USA.
New York & Boston
The GSF delegation spent a day each in New York City and Boston.
In NYC we got Hacker Earth, a fellow GSF startup featured on CNBC, visited startups like ShopKeep, had a few drinks with the awesome team at Saavn, learnt how General Assembly was promoting entrepreneurship, met with Indian bureaucrats and businessmen at the Indian Consulate, presented to another packed audience at Columbia Business School and I still managed to get a few hours to give some of my fellow GSF entrepreneurs a walking tour of Manhattan. Yup, all of that in just one day.
The next day we took an early morning train up to Boston and spent the morning understanding MIT’s entrepreneurship development program, engaged with several MIT startups and also spent a few hours exploring the fascinating MIT Media Labs. At the Media Labs we got demos from several teams working on amazing projects such as a camera that can take photos from around corners, or a spoon that tells you when to stop eating. Pretty cool, right?
The afternoon was spent in a conference at Harvard Business School, where again the GSF startups presented and we met some Boston based celeb entrepreneur such as Dharmesh Shah, cofounder of Hubspot. Dharmesh spoke about a lot of the silly things that entrepreneurs do such as ‘going stealth’ and gave some useful tips on how to fail fast and stay lean.
But before the feeling of being at HBS could sink in, it was time to fly out to global epicentre of entrepreneurship, Silicon Valley.
Despite having lived for several years on the US East Coast, this was my first visit to California and I was quite blown away by the thought of spending several days in the same place where most of the world’s most amazing companies were born.
Every city we had gone to, we had taken amazing weather with us, even in the otherwise cloudy and rainy London. The sun and clear skies were our constant companions and as I looked out of the hotel window at the Golden Gate Bridge I knew these would be a few very special days.
On the first day, we had breakfast with Whatsapp and lunch with Evernote. For me personally, I was blown away by our meeting with Jan Koum, a Yahoo veteran and Whatsapp cofounder. Whatsapp is this incredibly small and incredibly focussed startup with everyone working on engineering except for just one guy handling the business side of things for what is definitely a billion dollar startup. In fact the day we dropped by was the day after rumors were adrift of Google offering Whatsapp $1bn. Jan spoke about how Whatsapp was furiously focussed on their user base and wanted to keep their product as minimal as possible, unlike several of their feature-rich competition. They were driven by their passion to be the default common denominator when it came to communication and their product was evolving as the needs of their user base evolved. I was quite amazed by what I can only describe as their meditative focus on the pulse of their users. It was unlike something I had seen at any of the startups elsewhere.
The afternoon was spent with Evernote and the culture was a dramatic contrast to Whatsapp. Evernote embodied the bright, boisterous, open and colourful atmosphere that many of us have come to associate all silicon valley startups with. The guys at Evernote spoke about their passion for building nothing less than a great product, and how it was more important for them to get their users to stay rather than pay, and how their philosophy was to be long – term greedy. They shared some valuable insights on the freemium model and how even a company of their size still struggles with the balance. Their biggest lesson however was that there was no point optimizing and that the founding team just needed to pull things out of thin air if required and just move on. Metrics needed to be tracked obsessively ofcourse, but there was no point in wasting time over taking a decision.
The evening was spent at Stanford Business School and another great few session of mentor talks and GSF presentations.
The next day saw us visit Wheelz, which I thought was an awesomely cool startup which was a Zipcar for owned-cars. It allowed regular people to rent out their cars for a few hours and make some money while they weren’t using their cars. They had some really cool technology and it seemed to me like an awesome idea in a market like the US. We spent the afternoon at Zynga’s headquarters in downtown San Francisco and we behaved like kids let loose in a videogame arcade. Perhaps that’s because we were let loose in a massive videogame arcade. Zynga’s office is by far one of the coolest which can be imagined, with arcade games and game consoles all over the place. It’s not for the easily distracted.
Our visit to California ended that evening over drinks with the GSF team and several local entrepreneurs. As the night grew on and conversations carried through, we regretfully realized that an amazing and transformative experience had come to an end. It was an incredibly journey put together by the GSF team and the exposure to global entrepreneurship and the relationships forged will linger on for a long time. The GSF world expedition helped me grow as an entrepreneur and more importantly helped showcase India as an emerging entrepreneurial hub. I strongly believe that entrepreneurs the world over face similar problems and navigate equally difficult paths when they attempt to build companies, and being able to facilitate dialogues and build relationships with them was a tremendous learning experience for me. The GSF team has grown a lot closer as a result of this expedition. I definitely understand my fellow GSF entrepreneurs and their businesses a lot better and I think we will work a lot more closely together in the future. Such experiences serve to bring us all closer and motivate us all to work harder, face the fire and persevere to succeed in our goals of building scalable global businesses.