Fresh Help for Start Ups

Fresh Help for Start Ups
By Laura Parkin

Laura is the Executive Director and co-founder of the National Entrepreneurship Network (NEN). NEN is a leading catalyst for entrepreneurship education in India. Prior to this, she was Vice President at Ashoka, an organization that identifies and supports leading social entrepreneurs in over 40 countries. She is a serial entrepreneur, having founded four companies, and former venture capitalist at Highland Capital Partners in Boston, Massachusetts, where she invested in health care companies.

"I won a contest - and the prize was working with Consumer Vision," a software startup, Gaurav Chaturvedi, a student at IIT Bombay, explained enthusiastically. Not cash, not an iPod, but rather a chance to work at a startup: this unusual prize, and the excited response it engendered, point towards a new trend on top campuses across the country - a trend that holds potential benefits and risks for young companies.

Internships or student projects at large organizations have long been a fixture in academia. But as entrepreneurship programs develop on campuses, and the fascination with new ventures grips students, the students are starting to call for evermore real world entrepreneurship experience.

And startups are beginning to take advantage of this new resource pool. As Sivaprasad Cotipalli, founder of Dhanax Information Services explained, "We do work with students a lot. They have more ideas, fresh ideas; they are ready to try out new things. And they are also economical."

Abhay Panjiyar, the entrepreneur behind CEON Solutions, a company that delivers software solutions to schools, discovered similar advantages when bringing students on board, "At IIMA the students had a lot of experience. Working with these students gave me fresh ideas."

Placing students with startups is still a fairly new endeavor. Entrepreneurship itself is new to most campuses, and the students' interest takes time to mature to the extent that they want to spend time working with new ventures.

In addition, matching students with the right type of companies can be difficult: startups do not have the infrastructure devoted to creating opportunities for students, and many institutes simply don't have a network of startups. Therefore, it's not surprising to find that on several of the campuses that have successfully integrated students into new companies, those startups are actually housed within on-campus business incubators.

Prof. Rakesh Basant of Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, explained, "Our students work with the incubatees on a regular basis as part of an existing model." IIMA's incubation activities were designed from inception to incorporate student involvement in the startups being incubated. Prof. Basant outlined the reasoning, "Startups tend to give exposure to a large number of activities. You become part of the confusion, in some sense, and in the process you end up learning a lot."

The results of startup internships have included some very practical learning for the students. J Kavitha, Ethiraj College, admitted, "The first thing I learnt was how to behave and talk properly - how to communicate crisply and correctly. I want to start my own event management company. And for this I need to know how to deal with people."

Yet other students live the entrepreneurial experience to an even greater extent. Abhishek Naik, student, BITS, Pilani, was one such student. "I didn't have any salary because they were just beginning the company. But we had enrolled for a few B-plan contests and we won two of them. So we shared the money," he said gamely.

Students feel that their startup experiences differ significantly from projects at larger companies. Aashima Sekri, a graduate of IIMA, shared, "This experience gave us the chance to look at the bigger picture. Would we have learnt this in a non-startup? Well, if the top management had taken us for larger projects then may be. But normally they don't offer that to 24 year old management students!"

The benefits accrued also to the startups. Abhay Panjiyar, the founder of CEON Solutions, described his organization's experience with IIMA students: "They helped with communications, writing, marketing, branding, and also business planning and VC pitches in the later stages. By the end of it we had re-organized our entire approach to the client, and our presentation had improved immensely. Their input on fundamentals and coming up with a USP for the product was especially brilliant."

Sivaprasad Cotipalli of Dhanax Information Services was pleasantly surprised by Abhishek Naik of BITS, Pilani, "Actually I was not expecting so much from him and he actually wrote the whole business plan out for me."

However, for all the positive experiences, working in a startup can throw up additional challenges for the students. Abhishek Naik felt the biggest issue for him was, "when people see you are an 18-year-old, and when you say you want to work, they think it's just a college project. They don't really appreciate the fact that a student can work and give results."

Challenges exist as well, on the other side of the equation. While many startups do benefit, there is a risk. Rohit Nalwade, founder of Consumer Vision Limited, didn't hold back when he explained, "The problem is that of many non-performing students."

And given how vulnerable a startup is towards manpower issues, the cost of non-performance can be enormous. Rohit expressed his frustration with some students who "whiled away their time in the office and then when the deadline was approaching they compiled something that was of no use. The result of this was that the entire product development got delayed by a month."

Prof. Basant felt that part of the problem lies with the fact that, "Startups normally don't have the time to get organized, and in some cases they are not able to get the maximum out of the students." This is one reason that IIMA faculty members work with the startups to define clearly a project for each student, and then monitor the progress.

Startups can also increase the success of their student internships. "We don't usually give the students a deadline and forget about it. We monitor their day-to-day progress all through the deadline period," explained Sivaprasad Cotipalli of Dhanax Information Services.

In the end, Abhay Panjiyar of CEON Solutions had such a positive experience with the students working with him that he wanted to keep the relationships going, "I wanted to offer the job to a few of the students I had worked with but I first wanted to take some time to get to a good level. Now I have started making offers to some of them."

And on the student side, long term effects are also evident. "The experience took the glamour out of working in a start up," concluded Abhishek Naik the BITS student who worked with Dhanax. But with his deeper understanding of the realities, Abhishek averred, "I want to start off on my own in the future. I don't have any specific plans as on today but I want to start my own company."

Aashima Sekri, one of the IIMA students who had worked on CEON has already put her experience to work. "I have my own startup now! It's been 5 months since I started. I knew I wanted to start something on my own," she smiled.

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