To help more start-ups scale up, industry and government have extended support through various startup programs and accelerators. Microsoft, which recently launched a new program for artificial intelligence (AI) start-ups, for instance, claims to have helped over 1,000 start-ups grow through its many programs. In an interview, Sangeeta Bavi, director, start-up ecosystem at Microsoft India, talks about the immense potential of growth for Indian software-as-service (SaaS) start-ups on the world stage and how accelerators can help them realize those goals. Edited excerpts:
What do accelerator programs typically do to help start-ups?
Every start-up founder has one disruptive idea, either in terms of tech or business. But they wouldn't know how to scale the company after hitting the 1 million ARR (annual recurring revenue) threshold. To scale from 1 million to 10 million, a lot of hand-holding is required and that essentially can come from corporate, academia, and government in different forms. Our goal is to provide platforms with out-of-box integrations, which would enable them to offer end-to-end security and build architecture for their platform, which can scale as the number of users grows from 1000 to 10,000 to 200,000. Also, the availability of talent required to scale is currently not there at the scale at which we are churning out startups in India. And for that, we are doing a lot of work on digital skilling and tech enablement.
How decisive is the role of SaaS start-ups in India’s growth story?
SaaS start-ups are the future disruptors. Whatever SaaS startups are there in the world right now, India accounts for only 2% of them. Imagine the kind of opportunity that is there. The SaaS market is growing and will continue to grow. Imagine if we can get the right kind of products or start-ups from India at a global stage, like what FreshWorks has done. We were a services country, but through start-ups we are pivoting and becoming a product nation.
How inclusive are these accelerator programs? What is being done to make them more accessible to start-ups from smaller cities?
More communities and industries are looking at bringing in start-ups from smaller towns and creating an ecosystem of start-ups in emerging hubs. At Microsoft, we do a lot of developer evangelism work with our community of trusted brand ambassadors. They are not part of Microsoft, but they are Microsoft tech advocates. Many of these partners are active in smaller towns. They own their developer communities and through them, we do a lot of digital and technology skilling for developers in various communities. Roughly about 20% of the developers who come into these communities are startups. Many of these start-ups eventually get incorporated into our programs.
How has pandemic and the disruption brought on by it impacted these start-up programs?
Covid-19 has helped us in terms of going online. While we would go back to the hybrid model of engaging with startups at some point in time, what covid-19 has essentially done is help us scale up the programs. Earlier, a mentorship session for startups was always restricted to that city. Going completely digital has helped us get a lot of start-ups that are not from Delhi NCR, Bengaluru, and Mumbai. On average, I now have the luxury of talking to about 20-30 start-ups a week. Earlier, with all the travel, the number used to be far lesser than what it is now.
How have these start-up programs benefited Microsoft?
Start-ups give us future signals of what is going to become mainstream in technology and business. We have to either embrace all of these disruptions now or we will be forced to do it after it becomes mainstream. Also, our engineering team gets to learn how our products can be made better because startups know how to use the products. They are absolutely at the cutting edge of technology. Ultimately Microsoft continues to be a platform provider and startups are building interesting solutions on top of these tech platforms.
Microsoft has launched industry and technology-specific programs. What governs these decisions?
We have also launched a program for social impact startups. But we are focused on fintech for AI program. In the last 6-7 years, our engineering also has pivoted on industries, and that's why we have all these Azure industry clouds such as financial industry cloud, manufacturing industry cloud, and retail industry cloud. For all of these specific industries, we have relevant programs for start-ups.