When the world’s first-ever startup hotline launched in India to help aspiring entrepreneurs steer through the hazards of the startup space, nobody anticipated it would unleash such a torrent of calls. Over 2,300 wannabe entrepreneurs, a surprising number of them from smaller cities such as Nashik in Maharashtra, Hubli in Karnataka and Shillong in Meghalaya, have called the toll-free line since it opened in April.
“How do I engage a market research firm to research my field?”, “Are there any satellite internet providers in India?”, “Who can fund my car pooling portal?”, go the questions that hit the number daily.
JumpStart, launched by Microsoft in April, is reachable from anywhere within the country, and trained specialists field an average of 60 calls daily, 9 am to 5 pm, Monday to Friday.
“We cannot replicate Silicon Valley’s famed Sand Hill Road but if we can build even a small ecosystem through our toll-free number, it would be useful to hundreds of budding entrepreneurs,” said Rajinish Menon, director, startups, at Microsoft India, referring to the Bay Area stretch that fostered some of the world’s biggest technology companies. While those in big cities such as Bangalore and Mumbai have access to resources, he said, “we want to bubble up the innovation happening in the smaller places where the support element is critical.”
The service dovetails into the country’s larger plan to nurture entrepreneurs through steps such as setting up a new ministry for entrepreneurship headed by Assam’s Sarbananda Sonowal, and launching a countrywide angel funding and accelerator programme called “10,000 Startups” driven by the IT trade body Nasscom.
For now, India’s startup ecosystem is miles behind global hotspots such as Silicon Valley, Tel Aviv and Beijing, and smaller Indian cities lag even farther behind. Aspiring entrepreneurs must navigate infrastructure challenges, wade through mounds of paperwork and deal with a legal labyrinth. Many studies rank India as one of the toughest countries to start businesses.
Initiatives such as JumpStart may hit the sweet spot as the widespread use of cellphones is putting expertise within easy reach of enterprising students or young graduates. “The innovative hotline helps steal a march over other global startup hubs by providing real-time, professional advice,” said Ravi Gururaj, a Bangalore-based entrepreneur and angel investor who heads Nasscom’s Product Council. “Live support is an unheard-of concept in the startup world.”
The hotline came in handy when Avinash Saurabh, an engineer in Coimbatore, dreamt up a seed of an idea with his friends. “We had no access to mentors, fellow entrepreneurs or any other kind of ecosystem,” Saurabh said. “Even if aspiring entrepreneurs in smaller Indian cities are passionate, there is no one to connect with.”
When they stumbled on the hotline, the team could barely articulate their idea. Questions on legal aspects, chasing the market and selling the service came pouring out. The team eventually moved to Bangalore and launched Zoojoo.be (inspired by a frequently-used word from Rajnikanth’s dialogues, which means “easy game”), a non-doctor-based health platform that caters to companies. It has already notched up customers like Mindtree and GE.
Wannabe entrepreneurs’ questions often revolve around finding a good lawyer, an HR consultant or even an accountant. JumpStart’s experts draw their answers from a database of 2,800 service providers, including lawyers, accountants and HR firms. The thinking is the hotline must help get the regular stuff out of the way so that the entrepreneur can focus on building the company.
Some callers are confused about aspects like whether to set up a partnership or a proprietorship. Then there are ethical queries such as, “Do I need to give stake to my chief technology officer?” A 17-year old from Ahmedabad asked for leads on venture capital to help build a sunglasses company. The majority of the callers want to be hooked up with angel investors or early stage funding.
Microsoft now plans to take the hotline to the next level by engaging further with the would-be entrepreneurs. “It is definitely a good start and it could be an enabler,” said Gururaj of Nasscom. A raft of tie-ups with partners such as government funding agencies, venture capitalists, state governments and hardware and software vendors could push the hotline’s efforts further. “We want to give wings to entrepreneurs’ dreams,” said Menon.