About six months ago, I met the founders of a one-year-old tech startup in Kerala - two youngsters from engineering background. Although a far cry from unique, they had a product to address an interesting problem. After having a couple of discussions with them, I introduced them to a friend of mine, who matched their customer profile.
Soon, the youngsters met my friend to discuss the product features and had her committed to become their customer. So far, so good or that’s what it seemed like.
A few months later, my friend casually mentioned to me that she didn’t hear back from the startup guys after their last meeting. That surprised me. They had a product and a customer who was ready to pay for it. They should have closed the deal by now. But no, something went wrong and my friend had no clue. I tried reaching out to those youngsters, but couldn’t.
Hence, I rang up those connected to them and checked.
This is what I understood from what they told me:
1. That startup never had the product they claimed to have. (That’s okay, many do that before successfully building businesses, I told myself.)
2. They didn’t know how to make the product and couldn’t find an employee to do the work. (Now, that’s not okay because that product never demanded rocket engineering skills.)
3. They probably decided not to proceed with the idea. (That means they took close to two years to understand that they don’t have a solution to the problem they wanted to solve.)
Is this a case fatigue taking the enthusiasm out from the founders? Did they make any attempt to really solve their technology challenge? Or is this a case of simply giving up? Too many questions started popping up in my mind. The incident made me look at some of the startups more closely and it became clear to me that the problem is much more acute than I thought.
Blame it on the startup fad, Kerala’s entrepreneurial ecosystem has now become a breeding ground of unskilled technology founders. It’s true that the brutal ecosystem would filter out such startups at some point in time. But then, these type of startup failures are avoidable to a large extent.
For that, the founders must ensure that they learn the required skills to build the solution to the problem they are trying to solve, at least version 1.0. The lack of good tech communities in the state is another major reason behind this phenomenon.
Need for active tech communities
I am not forgetting the FAYA:80 (read as Faya Port Eighty) events in Thiruvananthapuram. More such tech events should be held throughout the length and breadth of the state. But our technology clusters, read Technopark Thiruvananthapuram and Infopark Kochi, probably host more cultural and social events than tech events.
I’m not against such events in our technology parks, but the skewed ratio is a problem, or rather the symptom of a more acute problem. If our ecosystem wants to create better tech entrepreneurs, we need to start with building more active tech communities in the state.
By ‘active tech communities’, I mean those which effectively help the participants and members to learn, upgrade and share skills and knowledge. They need to help the respective community to learn new frameworks and tools that help them to be productive. The best engineers and professionals use the best tools for their work.
The Innovation and Entrepreneurship Development Centres (IEDC) in our colleges need to take up the responsibility to build such tech activities within their campuses. Kerala Startup Mission should insist that as an important objective of each and every IEDC under them.
While Kerala Technical University and Kerala Startup Mission are working together to address the root of the problem, it’s important that we understand the issue in depth and come up with solutions.
A good startup ecosystem can exist only when there is a knowledge ecosystem. Kerala should make more efforts towards building sustainable knowledge ecosystem. Hope the proposed Knowledge City creates such an environment in the state, where knowledge is created and shared.
My objective behind penning this article is to highlight that the issue exists, so that a more serious and focused attempt is done towards addressing it. That the team doesn’t know how to build the product should be the last reason for a startup to fail.
If the drivers of Kerala’s entrepreneurial ecosystem work together at the grassroots level with an objective to eradicate this problem, it can definitely create a bunch of good tech entrepreneurs and talented engineers.
(An investor in multiple tech startups across Kerala and outside, Robin Alex Panicker is a software engineer-cum-entrepreneur. Views expressed here are personal.)