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  • Writer's pictureJyoti Pande

How iSPIRT is helping Indian software product startups get exposure to international markets

May 3, 2015, 05.33AM IST

How do you communicate a unique, innovative concept that defies definition, labels or boundaries, yet has clear goals, a strong, well-planned structure and a definite, luminous path ahead? Well, how do you catch a cloud and pin it down?

You don't have to be John Lennon to understand the open-source, volunteer-led model of iSpirt, but it would help to imagine a scenario where some bright minds and big hearts who have achieved some measure of success in the conventional sense of the word want to do something more meaningful for a greater good. Because iSpirt, an acronym for India Software Product Industry Round Table, is a the product of two parents – the left brain logical, structured focussed Type-A engineer-tech-geek and the right brain dreamer-idealist. And thats a potent combination.

Ispirt, which began as a consortium of 30 Indian software companies in 2013, has all the physical trappings of a lobby group, with the brain of a think tank. But what makes it stand out is its heart. It is one of the rare professionally-run change agencies that is exclusively led by volunteers working on a pro-bono basis. And not just any volunteers, but hyper-intelligent, high-quality entrepreneurs and engineers who are masters in the art (and science) of wealth creation - and ready to share their experience, knowledge and rolodex for free, to teach others how to do it.

What adds soul to this powerful combo is not just the selflessness of the individual, but the collective passion that propels this group forward, making it different from any of the existing bodies, including Nasscom, from where it emerged, amoeba-like in February 2013.

“Ispirt started inside Nasscom and owes it a debt of gratitude,” says Sharad Sharma, co-founder iSpirt and also CEO & co-founder, BrandSigma Inc. “But its fundamental premise is very different. Firstly, its focus is Indian software products companies, as distinct from the traditional view of India being only about software services. Its goal? To make India a product nation.”

Ispirt aims to promote tech entrepreneurship in India by nurturing and making fertile an ecosystem that helps Indian software product start-ups to scale quickly, expose them to international markets early in the game and generate and encourage more merger and acquisition activity around them. Even more importantly, iSpirt volunteers believe that leveraging technology on a macro scale can be transformational and can solve India's unique social and political challenges. This is why the consortium works to enrich the ecosystem, with open-source knowledge sharing, bootcamps, conferences and matchmaking sessions and other facilitative innovations, hoping to spark more creative ideas and ignite change in order to encourage the development of new technologies.

In addition to the open sharing of knowledge among peers, iSpirt volunteers also work towards educating the government and the public on critical issues of relevance and advocating for best practices – all without a fee or any cost. “It is an open-source movement, completely volunteer-led,” says Sharma. “All the enablers and material that we create are “public goods” and are available to all software product companies on an open-access basis.”

But unlike most organisatons that are run solely by volunteers, iSpirit has a distinct culture that binds existing volunteers – beginning from high standards from the very first step of selecting those volunteers. One entrepreneur who sold his company more than a decade ago and exited it recently signed up to volunteer at iSpirt– and was taken aback at the level of attention and detail that went into vetting his offer to volunteer. “It was almost as if I was applying for a highly-paid job,” he said.

This sort of culture comes from its strong foundational principles where the volunteer network is “pulled by passion and pushed by program management, and places shared challenges at the center of the network,” according to Manjula Sridhar, another volunteer who recently started up her own compan, Ironsense. “Our volunteers select a specific challenge, rather than fulfil a task.”

Explaining the process telephonically from Bangalore, she said, “our operating practices describe how to define a challenge, select volunteers, bring them on board and manage the project. The bond generated out of working on something bigger than oneself is what binds this network together.”

Another interesting aspect of this organisation is its polycentric approach – almost like a panchayat. The five panchs in this case are Bharat Goenka, co-Founder & MD, Tally Solutions, Naveen Tewari, CEO, InMobi Technologies, Vishnu Dusad, MD, Nucleus Software and Jay Pullur, Founder & CEO, Pramati Technologies, and of course, Sharma. Together, they form the governing council.

“The governing council is about empowerment and not control. It helps keep everyone honest. Radical transparency, polycentric governance (which means iSpirt is bigger than any one individual) and open access or public good focussed, (which means we work for many and not for a single company) are key,” says Avinash Raghava who was part of the founding team and spent 10 years with the Nasscom secretariat before moving to iSpirt with Sharma. Although the agency doesn't have a physical office or secretariat, Raghava is one of the only three salaried Fellows at iSpirt: the rest of the 27 Fellows who form the vanguard of this movement work pro-bono. So do the 24 Mavens, 31 Saarthis, 14 Evangelists, 16 Curators, 34 Expert teams, 9 Advisors, 5 Ambassadors - and hundreds of Well-Wishers. But the sum of the total is larger than the parts.

“There is a strong sense of mission and cause – and program management funnels that energy into feasible actions and tangible results. You could equate it to the open-source Wikipedia model,” says Sridhar. “Sustainability of this network comes from its ability to get things done.”

One would assume that being volunteer-led, with peer-learning, collaboration and advocacy at its core, iSpirt would have a nebulous, shadowy structure - but thats not the case. Its scaffolding is anything but amorphous: it consists of Fellows - who take ownership of specific iSpirt initiatives, Saarthis, who work with Fellows to drive those initiatives, Mavens, who are trusted experts who share knowledge to others in a pay-forward model in small, intimate learning sessions, to the more self-explanatory “Evangelists,” “Curators,” “Expert Teams,” “Advisors,” “Ambassadors” and “Well-Wishers.”

“The network consciously and constantly examines the difference between good and great volunteering and classifies its volunteers into different levels of effectiveness making it effectual leadership at its best,” says Sridhar. “Our network is driven by the crowd - but with a sense of discpline. Otherwise, a crowd can go haywire,” says Sridhar, who is currently working on a pre-entrpreneur program that helps polish soft-skills of potential entrepreneurs.

Ispirt's mandate goes beyond wealth creation. Volunteers don't just want to catalyse growth, but also spark change and ignite creativity, specifically using product companies to trigger overall national growth through wealth creation. But more importantly, they believe that technology can go a long way in solving national problems on the larger canvas. An example: iSpirt believes that technology has already proved to be a change agent in the unique identity Aadhar card, helping target subsidies and preventing corruption. Ispirt volunteeres are working with the government to open-source its vast, public-funded databases. The IT secretary has already stated that the government wants to build a secure, scalable open platform that leverages the best technologies available – an ecosystem of apps so that people don't have to go on websites or use proprietary packages. Ispirt volunteers are collaborating in this process.

In this context, a goods and services tax network (GSTN) will be establishing a country-scale system for this value-added tax to be introduced to replace all indirect taxes on all goods and services. iSPIRT is providing pro-bono and unencumbered advice to ensure that the system is easy to use for all stakeholders, has modern architecture and open APIs, and is robust, scalable and secure. It curates highly technical experts and ensures that there is no conflict of interest. This partnership allows the government body to leverage private sector experts for a national cause.

“A public good like e-signatures to ease transactions or a secure and unified e-payments system to make payments frictionless could go a long way in improving system efficiencies,” says Sharma. A memorandum of understanding between iSpirt and the National Payment Council of India will allow the change agency to provide an optimal technology and architecture design for this to consolidate and integrate the various payment systems into a standard, nation-wide retail payment system as well as engage the eco-system for feedback.

According to the iSpirt website, “We believe that there are places within a complex system (an economy, a city, an ecosystem) where a small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything.” Adds Raghava, "If we want to change India, then we need to leverage technology. We believe technology at large can really solve social problems,"

“Our product entrepreneur community is at different stages of evolution. There is an entire generation which has already established itself in terms of product, processes, people and market. We encourage that community to “pay forward” and nurture the next generation. Learning from those who have been “through the grind” ensures that insights are better and mistakes are fewer. This also means the potential of catapulting the next generation to the path of growth and prosperity much quicker due to better tacit industry knowledge,” says the website.

If you're still wondering what exactly is it that all these volunteers do, first lets try and understand why they feel the need to do it at all.

Have you ever thought why most of the large innovative companies seem to emerge from the Silicon Valley – Google, Apple, Facebook – and not India? Apart from me-too companies like Flipkart which replicated the Amazon model and tweaked it to Indian market conditions, there's no home-grown company that can match those entrepreneurial giants. This is because the Valley has an ecosystem extremely conducive to entrepreneurship — made up of a combination of proximity to top academic institutions (which include preppie Stanford and hippie Berkeley), a demographic of intelligent, sharp, mostly-young people with an appetite for serial risk-taking, inspiring role models and accessible mentors — and enough venture capital to go around. Add to that reasonable and supportive laws, strong advocacy and the multi-cultural mosaic of nationalities, ethnicities and cultures California attracts – together, these create the perfect sub-culture of encouraging entrepreneurship and creativity. The Indian entrepreneurial system is still new, isn't as alive and thriving as that in the Silicon Valley or even Israel, rich and deep and fecund. It needs propogators like iSpirt to pollinate the eco-system. Just going by recent evidence, Ispirit has catalysed many deals - the acquisition of Zipdial by Twitter or LittleEyeLabs by Facebook or KDK by Intuit or Bookpad by Yahoo or Eventifier by BookMyShow. “All of these have been publicly attributed to iSPIRT by either the buyer or seller or both,” confirms Sharma. “However, we aren't doing this for applause, but for a cause,” he says, outlining the difference between mercenary and missionary entrepreneurship.

Even more importantly the recent changes in the x which the software entrepreneurial industry is expecting to translate into easier listing norms can be directly traced back to advocacy done by Nasscom and iSpirt. (aparna) So now we know why it does what is does and what it is capable of doing, but what is it, itself, actually?

First, here's what it's not. It's not a trade body, even though it lobbies for the software product nation. It is not a think-tank, even though it helps shape public and policy opinion by educating governments and its people. And it most certainly is not a nebulous, abstract, idealistic cheerleading agency that highlights and showcases its successes.

What it is is an advocate and enabler for the entire Indian software products eco-system, and by virtue of being that, a catalyst for the entrepreneurial eco-system as a whole. A sort of eco-system accelerator-cum-evangelist. Like an intersecting Venn diagram, it straddles all of the above, lobbyist, think-tank, enabler. “We represent the national interest,” says Sharma.

“We take companies that are what we call in a happy, confused state and help them scale. They're happy because they have traction and confused because they don't know where to go from here.

From one deal a quarter, to one deal a month and aiming for one deal a week.

“We convert ideas into policy proposals to take to government stakeholders. We explain, educate and inform government policy makers and other policy bodies that a vibrant software product industry is vital to India's future. We record small, intimate and intense experiential learning sessions of, for and by peers into conversations recorded into “playbooks” for product entrepreneurs. We run a ProductNation blog and create a community around it. We have roundtables and other platforms such as the InTech 50 (held last week in Bangalore) for matchmaking purposes.”

InTech50 brought together 50 product executives, venture capitalists and chief information officers of some of the world's biggest companies with Indian software product startups to give them a platform to showcase their innvoations.

"If you are a serious buyer of innovation, I recommend you fish in this pond," Piyush Singh, Senior VP and CIO at Great American Insurance and another iSpirit volunteer told these companies. “That is the pitch I use when I tell them about Indian product companies,” he said, speaking from Cincinnati, where he is located. “Cloud computing has made it possible to build products with dramatically less capital than before.The software enterprise product space is very very different”

InTech50 attracted companies such as All State Insurance, Houston Casualty, Convergys, Time Inc., Royal and Sun Alliance, Mashraq Bank and Informatica.“We are adaptable and responsive to the market place – if companies find value, they will come back. We are thrilled with the way this has worked out. But we need to do a better job of follow ups,” he added.

“We want to create a platform to support a diverse eco-system for all stakeholders so that the tide rises for everyone,” said Singh. “This is a great opportunity to change the dynamics of the work place to make the trajectory quicker and easier.”

It's the quality of people you could run into at your local cafe. There are many more risk-takers in a more concentrated area, people who have gone through the experience, willing to help others — it's a special place," I had quoted Venk* Shukla as saying. According to him, ideas that sound crazy are most likely to find support in Silicon Valley than anywhere else.

Maybe replicating that eco-system, at least for software product providers in India will pay off, so that India become the “Product Nation,” that these evangelists are batting for.

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