Sramana Mitra is a petite, delicate-featured woman. But, don’t let appearances fool you, for she is a human dynamo. Once she starts talking to you about tech entrepreneurship, dark eyes glinting with a deep-held passion and emphatic tones with a hint of the Indian lilt, she will likely captivate you with her ability to speak boldly and singularly about the home truths that she wants you to know.
I first learned of Mitra in mid-2012, as I was beginning to explore my own self-employment journey. I started reading her blog posts and articles at other publications and was impressed with both her prolific writing as well as her strong beliefs related to bootstrapping new ventures, capitalism 2.0, etc. Mitra’s journey from the entrepreneur’s daughter in Kolkata, India to the computer science MIT graduate and then to tech startups in Silicon Valley may not sound unique, but the milestones she has accumulated along that journey are definitely not of the common variety.
Shortly after graduation, in 1994, she founded a tech firm, DAIS, based in India but serving a US customer base. The challenge of living on airplanes and frustrations with poor Indian infrastructure drove her to settle in Silicon Valley. After DAIS, there were two more startups. Through these 3 businesses, Mitra went through a very steep learning curve – learning how businesses really grow and thrive, understanding what venture capitalists look for, getting rejected for funding, getting fired from her own company only to be then called back to help, etc. Along the way, she found some good mentors as well. Over the last decade or so, she has been consulting with other startup founders as well as helping venture capitalists with due diligence. In the last 2-3 years, she has been running One Million by One Million (1M/1M) – “a global virtual incubator that aims to nurture a million entrepreneurs to reach a million dollars each in annual revenue and beyond, thereby creating a trillion dollars in global GDP and ten million jobs”. She has also written several books – a series called Entrepreneur Journeys with many diverse entrepreneur case studies, personal memoirs and even poetry translations.
FAE: Sramana, thanks for taking the time to talk today. Let’s start with the move from entrepreneurship and strategy consulting into education / coaching. What drove that change?
SM: When I was CEO, mostly in those dotcom bubble days, things moved at a very rapid pace. You had to act, and, often, there wasn’t time to reflect, learn, synthesize. A lot of my real synthesis took place during my consulting years.
In 2006, when I was a speaker at a startup workshop, I used my 90-minute slot, which was meant for a talk about “Positioning”, to do an interactive pitch session with the 60-some entrepreneurs in the room. It was a rapid-fire session where they pitched their business idea in 1 minute and I gave them a 1-2 minute feedback response. We were still going back and forth after the session ended and we spilled out into the lobby area. Besides that, I often had entrepreneurs reach out to me for guidance and I never had time to really help them. So, that planted the seed for 1M/1M. I wanted a way to capture all the tribal knowledge that I had gained and others had gained and bring it to new entrepreneurs – make their journey a little easier.
Between 2008 and 2010, I published five books, and wrote a column for Forbes, alongside my consulting practice. The financial crisis made me think deeply about Capitalism. On January 1, 2010, I wrote a New Year’s resolution that led to the founding of One Million by One Million.
FAE: Through 1M/1M, how many tech startups have you now worked with? Roughly, what % have gone on to become $1M+ businesses and are still growing? What % are not based in Silicon Valley? And, what are the most common threads that you see weaving across those?
SM: We don’t disclose numbers, but we’ve done 190 free online roundtables. You will find the recordings on our YouTube channel. Over 17,000 people have participated in those. You will find some of the Million Dollar Club members on the website as well. Our largest geography is North America, although not necessarily Silicon Valley. We have companies all over the US. India is a very big geography. UK, Canada, Israel are seeing adoption. We also see a lot of people coming from Latin America these days. That’s new. 1M/1M is the only truly global, virtual incubator program in existence today.
The biggest trend is still that entrepreneurs think entrepreneurship = financing. No. entrepreneurship = customers + revenues + profits. Financing is optional. Exit is optional.
FAE: Silicon Valley tends to be very much about knowing the right people – many call it an “insiders game”. You’ve built a strong network across the tech industry but also beyond. Do you think it is still important to have a base here to ensure a startup’s success?
SM: No, I don’t. Not at all. I wrote about this earlier this year in a Huffington Post article.
Through my career now, I have seen, first-hand, the experiences of some 100 cases of business building – from zero-stage companies, all the way to the $10 billion SAP, and a lot in between. And, my take is that Silicon Valley is too expensive for a founder bootstrapping his/her startup. Talent is too expensive because you’re competing with the Googles and Facebooks for engineers.
There are many examples of tech startups thriving in other parts of the world now. If access to the US market is needed, there are many US cities with cheaper access to talent, lower cost of living and better quality of life.
Once you have a validated business and you need to get closer to the VC base, then, you might consider moving here.
FAE: Based on your years in the tech industry, what are the 2-3 seismic changes that you’ve been a part of and what particular changes going on right now interest you particularly as you look ahead – both for your own business and for the industry in general?
SM: Well, my career started with the advent of the Internet. That changed everything, and made careers such as mine possible. Then came cloud computing, social media, the smartphone. Each of those has had immense ramifications. Today, education is going through a major creative destruction process that is very interesting. We’re in the midst of that process as well. All our educational resources at 1M/1M are provided digitally and worldwide, with the appropriate one-on-one support.
FAE: I know, from reading your work, that you’ve felt strongly about Indian companies getting into body-shopping vs building true products. You’ve said how, if a company must get into the former, use it as a way to fund the product side of the business. You did this yourself very early on at DAIS and you’ve provided case studies like that of Sridhar Vembu of AdventNet where this has been a successful business model. Are you finding that the tide has finally turned in India?
SM: See, the India that you and I grew up in was not the land of opportunities that it is now. Entrepreneurs and IT engineers in India today are entering the workforce at a point where the basic platform is ready. India also has the world’s attention as one of the two greatest consumer markets of the 21st century. There is a financial system and a venture capital industry that is coming together to support high momentum growth and building of new enterprises with more openness than ever before. There are also huge problems in India that need to be solved by bright minds – supply chain challenges, urbanization issues like pollution and global warming and lack of space, the water crisis, the need to scale road / port / air-transit systems, the need for alternative energy sources, etc. So, opportunities abound for building relevant and much-needed products.
Am I seeing a change of focus from body-shopping towards these much-needed products? Yes, as I wrote on my blog a few months ago. But, the present generation of Indian entrepreneurs, even though they are brimming with optimism, need to evolve their expectations from “getting a job” to “finding a platform for doing their life’s work”. And, this requires more education / learning and a willingness to take calculated risks.
I’m not suggesting that they should not care about making their fortunes. But, to reap the rewards, they have to learn to build. Build products. Build companies. And, finally, build fortunes.
FAE: That is a powerful idea – “finding a platform for doing their life’s work”. It’s what made me give up my corporate executive job in 2012. But, idea to practice is very difficult.
SM: I hear you. I grew up with an entrepreneur father and in an environment where risk-taking and swinging for the fences was accepted as a virtue. I watched him make, lose, and remake money – and businesses – as I grew up. That has guided all my life decisions and made me more comfortable with failure being part of the equation when trying new things or reaching for bigger, larger goals. But, I had a steep and long climb up the mountain of ignorance and inexperience to get to where I am now. There is likely no direct route and each of us has to create our own map.
FAE: That’s something we share. My father also built his first business in the mid-70s and had ups and downs through the years.
Switching gears a bit – You’re also a prolific writer. Besides your blog, you’ve written for Seeking Alpha, Forbes, HBR, Huffington Post, etc. You’ve also published several books – your Entrepreneur Journeys series, your Kolkata memoir books and, more recently, your Tagore poetry translations. How do you manage to get so much of it done along with running your business? Are you currently working on any book-writing projects that you can tell us about?
SM: We have a team. I don’t do it alone. But I am a good manager, so, even though we’re a small company, we are extraordinarily productive. What we’re publishing now is also material developed over many years – probably 10-15 years, especially some of the literary work – poetry, short stories, etc.
At the beginning of this month, we launched an eBook, ‘The Other 99% Entrepreneurs’ as part of the Entrepreneur Journeys series.
My next book will be called ‘Feminine Feminism’ – a part of the Entrepreneur Journeys series. It’s coming in late-October this year.
FAE: Sramana, it has been a true pleasure to learn a bit more about you and 1M/1M. I intend to continue to follow your writing and, someday, if I have that killer startup idea, I will definitely sign up for 1M/1M.
SM: Thank you. It has been a pleasure.