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Onward to building a strong US-India SaaS corridor: The Rise of #IndiaSaaS (1/2)

When I was making plans to fly to the US, I was enthused but a little tentative. Do they even need SaaSBOOMi there? There exists SaaStr, which is extremely popular and has a large cohort of founders from across the world. But as I’ve learnt over the years, effort is never in vain. Worst case scenario, we would meet a handful of founders, make a few friends and eat some good food. But the trip surpassed our best-case scenarios. It has given us, the entire community, motivation that there should be a US chapter for SaaSBOOMi.

When I first sent out the email, simply checking if we could find a way to get together, I expected a handful of people to reply. It was one of those quick things you do before bed. I wrote it, turned the phone to Do Not Disturb and went to sleep. When I woke up, my inbox was full. Not just Indian founders in the US, but entrepreneurs visiting the country were also e-mailing, wanting to network.

Why do we need to do this now? Couldn’t it wait? Over the past few years, there has been a meteoric rise in companies adopting SaaS as a business model. These companies are increasingly cementing their position in the global landscape, inspiring more and more founders to build for the world, beyond just India. Market valuations may be cooling off, but we believe SaaS is a secular trend. India has what it takes to touch $1 trillion in market cap and unlock close to half a million new jobs by 2030. And in this climate where things look difficult, we need to band together to help each other succeed. So, now is the right moment to step on the gas and accelerate learning from each other about going global, starting with tackling the biggest enterprise software market — the US.

This is purely anecdotal, but there are about 50-75 founders visiting the US every month. They travel to the Valley, East Coast, Austin, and many other centers. About 25 to 30 SaaS founders station themselves in the Bay Area every month.

This is a large community that is still untapped. It is a community that wants to come together.

Think of the India-origin SaaS community as a 10,000 piece jigsaw puzzle. There is an impressive picture that forms if you put it together. But it has been a scattered group so far. What it needed was a sense of harmony, a collegial environment where founders could open up and become close-knit. That feeling of home away from home. This trip gave me the confidence to bring all of these similar but isolated founders together.

The way we designed the trip was to make it as informal as possible. We all know entrepreneurship can be lonely work, more so in a foreign land. So the intention was to help build playbooks on how Indian founders could move to the US with as little friction as possible. We requested Girish Mathrubootham, Manav Garg, Dheeraj Pandey, Jaspreet Singh, Indus Khaitan, Mohit Garg and Sunil Thomas to help founders understand scaling in the US. The SaaSBOOMi US launch event hosted 150 SaaS founders and opened the door to connect with many founders in the US.

Big communities are great, but there is tremendous meaning in creating niche communities too. I have realized that some people are more comfortable in smaller groups. We made sure to host intimate roundtables around getting started. In these discussions, no question was considered too frivolous. What should a founder do once they land in the US? What might catch them off guard? What type of insurance do they need? What kind of people will they be meeting?

But the trip was much more than just a few planned events. Let me walk you through what we did.

A SaaSBOOMi Social

It all began with the SaaSBOOMi Social. Around 20–25 founders got to meet and greet each other that evening, sharing laughs and a dinner, hosted by the good folks at Sequoia. A cracking start to the exciting lineup of activities. Our ambition was to talk about Growth, GTM, Hiring, and Scaling with early-stage and experienced founders. During our conversations, people switched between languages and dialects. For a few hours, this could have been a bar in Gurgaon or a coffee shop in Bengaluru.

The big launch

Indian SaaS is leaping from ‘build in India’ to ‘build for the world’. There is a need to understand both the big possibilities in its future, and the headwinds in the current landscape. So we brought together more than 150 SaaS founders at the Rosewood Hotel for our big fixture The Rise of India SaaS. The occasion had the same vibrant energy as the first ever SaaSBOOMi event held in March 2015 in Chennai. It had the same energy that something was in the offing. We were sitting on something huge.

We opened the event with Manav and Girish diving into some context about how SaaSBOOMi began and what the opportunities are for SaaS in general over the next decade. They explained the $1 trillion opportunity that exists specifically for Indian SaaS companies.

Speaking next, Vinod Khosla shared his wizardly insights on how Indian founders should steer through temporary challenges, keeping their eye on the eventual prize. That was followed by a freewheeling conversation between MR Rangaswami and Girish on his historic journey from Madras to Nasdaq (not Chennai, because after all “Madras is an emotion”!). Later, Priya Rajan from SVB moderated an engrossing panel discussion, getting perspectives from VC investors.

We brought the day to a close with a networking dinner in the beautiful setting of the Rosewood property.

A go-to-market starter kit for the US

This was a special event, not just because it was the first roundtable that was conducted in the Bay Area but also the first roundtable we held globally post the pandemic. We were not sure we would get many takers but the discussion ran for two hours and if we had had more time, it would have kept going.

Indus Khaitan of Quolum and Mohit Garg of Oloid facilitated it. Indus threw open the session by sharing a unique Bingo card with all participants, inviting them to say where they need help with the business.

We covered the 101 of moving to the US — like how to hire your first sales guy, where to stay, insights on medical insurance and how the US actually works. Kishore from Hyperverge has documented key insights. There will be a longer post on these roundtable discussions soon. Watch this space.

I must say one thing about the roundtables, and about every event really: they were not purely serious gatherings. The famous Indian hospitality was on full display. Between or after events, someone among the founders would always offer to take us out for a glass of wine or a beer. I got the distinct feeling that this wasn’t just a transactional relationship but it was a coming together of minds and hearts. One of the reasons was probably because a lot of founders live away from their family and need people around them who are going through the same kind of experience. It helps them relate to each other, forge a connection that extends beyond business. It was somewhere on the horizon where friendship ends and family begins.

The Stanford Dish Loop Trail

The next day, around 15 founders set off on a hike, planned and led enthusiastically by Amit Pande and Priya Ramachandran. I had tagged along and was struck by how nature can inspire unaffected, wholehearted conversations. Though the morning was sweltering hot, not a single person complained. They mingled, spoke with different people as they walked, and listened attentively. After the trek, the group settled down in a park with a picnic of snacks from the Stanford campus, homemade treats, and fruit. This is when people opened up even more. The founders were candid and eager to talk about their journey and their views on the market. We all went out to get a few drinks and eat some good food.

I probably met over a 100 people on my US trip. I’ve collected more cards, phone numbers, email addresses and Twitter handles than I have ever before. A lot has changed in the US, especially in the life of a SaaS founder. Most of these founders have scaled not just their businesses but also their thinking. As human beings they have matured. I took off wondering if there was a need for a SaaSBOOMi-like community. I touched down in New Delhi knowing that this SaaS community had the potential to grow into one of the biggest in the world. All it needs is a little love and attention. I’ll be back. This story hasn’t been written yet.

Some observations so far

  • The city, famously called SF, was deserted. You didn’t really get to see many founders or companies. It shows some early signs of recession, empty buildings, etc. And that is not just because people are working remotely or something. Even otherwise, the scene was generally disappointing.
  • SF city also has a visible housing crisis, with many being homeless and living on the streets….the city was stinking :(
  • It was promising to see Freshworks, Mindtickle and Hubilo having their own signage on Route 101.
  • Entrepreneurs are open to sharing their learnings, but you have to clearly articulate where you need their help and in what capacity.
  • There are very few platforms for SaaS founders here. SaaSTr does exist but it is an event-based platform. It doesn’t have the playbook roundtable format that is built around a community and the spirit of paying it forward. In the Bay Area, most Indian SaaS founders don’t have the kind of ties they enjoy in India, that sense of belonging to anchor them and to help them adjust is missing. So there is a potential for SaaSBOOMi to make a dent here.
  • If first-time founders are selling to the US Market, it will be easier for them to sell to SaaS founders from India who would be happy to explore their product. There is a good opportunity to build something here.
  • When I made this trip, the idea was only to talk to people and see if SaaSBOOMi could work here. Back home in India now, I am already drawing plans for my next trip and the things we could do.

You can read the part 2 — Build local, think global: SaaSBOOMi’s Valley Trip Lessons

So happy to see the MindTickle hoarding as soon as you get on the highway. You can’t miss this. Great stuff Krishna and team. Really happy to see this.

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Avinash Raghava

Avinash Raghava

Building @ScaleTogether, Founding Volunteer at @SaaSBOOMi | Past: Community Platform Evangelist @Accel_India. Co-Founded@iSPIRT(@Product_Nation), @NASSCOM