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The hits and misses of Proto 2007

This is a first in a two part series on the experiences of those startups that have showcased at the last two editions of Proto in 2007. For the sake of focus, we are only looking at startups in the Internet and Web 2.0 vertical. This is the story of Proto, January 2007.

This is a first in a two part series on the experiences of those startups that have showcased at the last two editions of Proto in 2007. For the sake of focus, we are only looking at startups in the Internet and Web 2.0 vertical. This is the story of Proto, January 2007.

On the eve of Proto 2008, the startup event which kicks off on 18th July, we bring you a roundup of the companies that showcased last year in the Internet and Web 2.0 vertical and their journey so far following Proto. We took a sneak peek into the shortlisting process to find out if it’s the product, the team, the passion or something else all together that makes the shortlisted startups tick.

There is no panel of juries at Proto, as we found out. We spoke to Vijay Anand, the force behind Proto about how then, in the absence of a jury, startups are picked up for the final round. In his words, “We at do not believe in a jury model. One of the reason why we believe that there is so much mediocrity in terms of innovation from a venture-invested model and from an incubator model is that it’s because there are few people who get to decide the fate of everyone else. And these gatekeepers rarely realize the power they are vested with. The selection process in is quite simple. We have over the past two years built fabulous networks into most verticals — which is also the reason why we try to stick with technology startups, and not go all over the place.”

“After the initial screening of companies is done (filtering out the obvious, less serious, student projects, mobile phone recharge shop models, service companies etc), each company is linked with upto three people — a potential customer, a potential partner and a trendwatcher. It’s the feedback of these three people which determine if the company is ready to go on the stage or not. Obviously, if a company does not go on the stage, it doesn’t mean it’s not ready or hasn’t thought through everything yet rather than them not being innovative,” Vijay Anand told AlooTechie.

Vijay however mentioned that some very elementary factors like being a technology company and startup is necessary. The startup also needs to be Indian and product focused. When we asked him about the specific factors that influence the judging, he said that it’s the team which is the key to the success of a startup and it eventually boils down to betting on people.

Taking Vijay’s cue, we spoke to the people behind the six startups of the Internet and Web 2.0 category at Proto 2007. And this is what we found out:

We spoke to Aloke Bajpai of iXiGO, Manish Agrawal of Picsquare, Satish Ayyaswami of SpotEazy and Arun Katiyar of SEraja (now defunct). We were not able to reach Saffronconnect and Taazaa though. A bit about the six startups is below.

Ixigo is a travel meta search engine which gives results that are collated from across online travel agencies and multiple airlines. Ixigo only shows the fares from their partner websites but a booking is made directly on the online travel agency or airline’s website.

SpotEazy began as a product recommendation website by ONE i Systems but is now a price comparison engine that sees an active base of users today.

Picsquare is an online photo service that allows users to upload, view, share and order online high quality prints of digital photographs and create products like t-shirts, mugs, calendar, and greeting cards using one’s photos.

SEraja was a web-based event-centric publishing system. The service had the capability to provide users a ‘near real’ experience of even remote, time-displaced events through multi media content.

SaffonConnect was a social networking portal centered on user generated audio and video content from the Indian sub-continent. SaffronConnect allows independent artists, music labels, bands and video content owners to upload, share, distribute and monetize their content to a community of users from South Asia.

Taazaa was an online news portal that aimed to integrate news with context and personalize for an individual user.

How was your experience at Proto?

Aloke: It was a fabulous opportunity for us as we were presenting a radical concept that had not been heard of, had not been experienced in India. It was a nail biting 10 minutes for us and we were thinking all that while, whether we will be taken seriously or with scepticism. While we were one of the few companies which were presenting a ready prototype, something that worked in our favour, those 10 minutes are make or break minutes for startups. Of course telling your entire story in a time limit of 10 minutes is the biggest pressure that you face on the stage.

Satish: It was pretty nice. Our startup was barely four months old then. It provided us the platform to present our product and receive feedback and more importantly meet likeminded people.

Manish: It was a good experience. We were mostly there to meet and network with other startups and see what they were doing. We didn’t really see a lot of VC’s there. Maybe because it was the first Proto.

Arun: While it was a good experience for us, the time allowed for each startup was an issue. While some were given the designated 10 minutes, there were others which spoke for much longer. That was unfair. Although we stuck to the time limit, the discrepancy in the timing gives an unfair advantage to others when you are faced with telling your entire story in that short a time. I really enjoyed the presentations by other startups. There was so much courage, enthusiasm and passion of startups for what they were doing. In fact I’m still in touch with people I met at Proto. We wanted to give ourselves a chance and Proto was that opportunity for us.

How has proto helped you?

Aloke: Proto happened at the right time for us. We went there with a team, a plan and a working prototype. We received positive validation of our concept and more importantly some very useful feedback on iXiGO. We heard some great ideas around our product and immediate feedback from angel investors, people who liked what we had, people who wanted to work with us. We were able to ride the buzz created by Proto and received a lot of attention among the online media. The sign ups on our beta page rose to 300-400 per day after Proto.

Proto offered us motivation and courage to go forward with our plans. We became a company that people had a lot of expectations from. We were able to attract and hire some good people. It was an excellent opportunity for us that came at the right time. It was also good to see what other startups are upto and the challenges that they are facing.

Satish: Proto led us to few people who we otherwise wouldn’t have met. And we started doing business with few of them. That way Proto has helped us a lot.

Manish: It hasn’t helped in any specific way. We received media coverage in the online media during the event but that’s about it.

Arun: We were able to make our pitch to a very knowledgeable audience. It was a great learning experience and the feedback was honest and useful. Although our showing at Proto did not produce any result, it’s good to hear from others about your concept.

The nature of the VCs present there wasn’t very encouraging, however. We were just not able to speak to the ones we approached during the dinner. They were not interested in talking to us. I do hope VCs are more approachable and friendlier this time around. We felt like we were not good enough and being ignored is the most insulting feeling for a startup. I am okay with being told that my idea is not good enough or that a VC is not interested but for that the VC should at least speak to me first.

What is the kind of funding you have received?

Aloke: We closed our seed round in January this year. More is coming up!

Satish: We are not looking for any funding now. We will continue to self fund SpotEazy development from our services / licenses revenue.

[Picsquare is looking for funding but when we asked Manish about it, he wasn’t willing to reveal his plans. (Picsquare has earlier received $75,000 in angel funding, partly under TiE’s Entrepreneurship Acceleration Program (EAP)] [SEraja: The startup is not operational as of now. Arun Katiyar, the then CEO of SEraja told us that the model could not be executed well and the idea behind SEraja was too complicated for its time. “We were trying to wed mobile through the internet and we were not able to execute in a simple clear manner,” he says.]

SaffronConnect and Taazaa are not operational anymore.

Message for startups this year

Aloke: Let your product do the talking. That’s the most important thing. Don’t look at Proto as just a place to pitch to VCs. It is a brilliant platform for startups to meet and mingle. Do that while you are there!

Satish: Go to customers first and not VCs. Try and build a sustainable model by generating revenues from customers. Put together systems and processes in place and make sure all business transactions happen without delays. Prospective employees should feel that they get all the benefits that they get in a MNC and the freedom / creativity they get in a startup.

Manish: Focus on the product and concentrate on telling the story in those 10 minutes! You should present the problem that needs to be addressed and the solution to it and be precise at it.

Arun: Don’t miss it! The experience will harden you, something which is extremely important for a startup. It gives you honest feedback about your product. Getting someone else’s money isn’t easy and Proto is a reality check for startups.

While the common thread in our conversation with these startups was the absence of known VCs at the event, the approachability factor was also an issue for some of them. It wasn’t really easy for them to speak to the VCs that were present at the event so instead, these startups met and networked with their brethren. What’s surprising is the end of three companies in the Internet vertical that presented in the first ever Proto. Saffron Connect, SEraja and Taazaa aren’t operational anymore but then that is the story of entrepreneurship, we reckon!

We will be bringing you the second part of this series after Proto 2008. Stay tuned!

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