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Sharad Sharma is not a name who needs introduction in the startup ecosystem and software/product industry and investors fraternity in India. Sharad is the co-founder and Governing Council member of iSPIRT, a non-profit industry think tank.

A  passionate evangelist of the software product ecosystem in India, Sharad has invested in over 20+ companies playing an active role of A passionate evangelist of the software product ecosystem in India, Sharad is one of the active technology angel investors in India with over 20+ investments. In his entrepreneurial role, Sharad has co-founded Teltier which now part of Cisco and currently he heads BrandSigma Inc as CEO .

  In his previous roles,Sharad has held positions like Chair of NASSCOM Product Forum and a member of the Executive Council from 2009-13,  SVP at Yahoo! and CEO of India R&D along with other senior executive positions with leading technology companies.

Inc42 Magazine spoke with Sharad on various topics ranging from the significance of iSPIRT, policy making, software industry in India, his role at NASSCOM, about his new startup BrandSigma Inc., on Entrepreneurship and advice to startups on fund raising.

The whole interview will be published in two parts, the first part will see Sharad talking about iSPIRT,

ProductNation, Need of policy making, Mergers & Acquisition and about launching a new startup BrandSigma Inc.

Second Part of the Interview will focus on initiatives by NASSCOM, Sharad’s role in the organization, on entrepreneurship, funding advice for startups and key areas which interests Sharad as an investor.

[Part 1] Edited Excerpts: In talk with Sharad Sharma

On iSPIRT

Inc42: What is iSPIRT ? How is it positioned and what this initiative aims to achieve?

Sharad: iSPIRT – Indian Software Product Industry Roundtable – is a non-profit industry think tank. We believe that with focus, investment and indeed encouragement, the software product industry can become a multi-billion dollar force to reckon with in the future. This obviously will have a multiplier effect on the economy in terms of growth, employment, consumption, investment and so on.

We are a think tank with a difference. We do three things:

POLICY: We convert ideas into policy proposals to take to government stakeholders. As part of our advocacy efforts we explain, educate and inform government policy makers and other policy bodies that a vibrant software product industry is vital to India’s future. To aid policy making we also provide unbiased data about the product industry through our Product Industry Monitor reports. We strive to have a symbiotic relationship with trade organizations, including NASSCOM, and see them leading the charge of converting our policy prescriptions into reality.

PLAYBOOKS: We convert conversations into playbooks for product entrepreneurs. Product companies need a different mindset and playbooks than IT services businesses. They need to anticipate customer needs rather than just react to them. They need to brand themselves in very different ways and create IP that will disrupt the marketplace. They need deep technologists rather than fungible engineers. And so on. ProductNation blog and community is the platform for enabling crucial conversations around these issues amongst practitioners. The highly regarded Playbook Roundtables and #PNCamp are examples of the small, intimate and intense experiential learning sessions that we have pioneered.

MARKET CATALYSTS: We convert actions of self-help communities into market catalysts for the Software Product Industry. Many intractable ecosystem problems can’t be solved at the firm level. However they can be solved by a self-help community of individuals or companies. We are creating open-access market catalysts to improve access to Corporate Development (to increase M&A), Indian SMBs buyers and Global CIOs.

productnationInc42: Why focus on building ProductNation under iSPIRT, a separate portal for products?

Sharad: ProductNation is a daughter brand of iSPIRT that faces the insiders in the product industry. InTech50 is the daughter brand that faces CIOs. Overtime you’ll see more of these daughter brands. They allow us to present the relevant face of iSPIRT to that audience.

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Inc42: How does the team iSPIRT look like?

Sharad: iSPIRT is internally organized as a collection of causes. It operates on an open-source inspired volunteer model. We follow polycentric governance (akin to the Panchayat system). Given all this the team is highly collaborative, enthusiastic and believes in Gandhigiri. We pay forward to turn our dreams for software product industry in India into reality. We seek to bring out the best in people. Across Fellows, Mavens and Sarthi’s we are about 56 committed folks working at iSPIRT now.

Inc42: iSPIRT has a focus on “Policy Making”. Why you think this particular sector needs attention? What all are the problems you see in it?

Sharad: We believe that Software Products Will Transform India at large. The new generation of Indian software products will have a big impact on improving government, labor, and social productivity. It will make governance more data-driven, small businesses exponentially more productive, and communities more connected.

Sharad Sharma
Sharad Sharma

In India, the majority of economic activity takes place in the informal sector. For the first time ever, self-employed individuals are able to use technology to become efficient and competitive. For instance, a self-employed driver can now be part of a taxi network and have access to new customers.

Or a small bus operator can use RedBus and have a state-of-the-art seat management system. In fact, now any small business can embrace a game changing business application easily. This is creating unprecedented opportunities for individuals and smaller firms to create value in their business. As this revolution unfolds, it has the potential to make the informal sector the new engine of economic growth.

Yet, in spite of the huge commercial success of the software services industry, the benefits to brand India have been circumscribed. At a broad level, this is because software services are essentially a business-to-business (B2B) activity. The brands of software services companies become visible only thanks to the persona of their founders and CEOs, their performance on the stock market, and their recruitment activities. Therefore, their brands (and by extension, brand India) don’t get a high level of visibility outside India except perhaps in MBA curricula.

Though India’s advantage in software services transcends cost advantages, it is not unusual even today to see India’s success in software services referred to politely as a labor cost arbitrage story or sometimes more acerbically by references to cybercoolies and other such derogatory terms due to the lack of inherent IP.

India needs prominent brands like Sony from Japan (20years ago) and now Samsung from Republic of Korea, brands that can power its global image.

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How can India use the foundation created by the software services industry to go to the next level in terms of global branding and soft power? Software products offer one viable route.

Our policy efforts are focused on making this vision come to reality.

Inc42: M&A is another piece which your core focus area. How you see this shaping in 2 year from now?

Sharad: Our focus on small value (sub-$40m transactions) M&A is yielding good results. Our M&A Connect Program is working really well. We are confident of facilitating at least 40 small M&A transactions in the next 3 years. This will be a significant step up from the handful transactions that happened in the last 3 years.

Inc42: Tell us something about BrandSigma Inc.?

Sharad: BrandSigma is a startup focused on disrupting marketing. I have been interested in this area for sometime. I see this taking place in three layers – mass marketing, smart local and 1:1 marketing. My association as an investor in Frrole, Mobile Walla and SureWaves targets mass marketing. BrandSigma  targets smart local. Iken Solutions is 1:1. AdSparx is ad-tech. So I’m having a go at this through several vectors.

Inc42: As a startup in marketing domain and advertising domain, what is the traction like, clients, revenue etc?

Sharad: It’s got good momentum but its still early and has yet to find a proper product-market fit.

Inc42: What’s the team of BrandSigma Inc. ?

Sharad: It’s a small but high-performing team. For example, our Chief Science Officer, Abhinanda Sarkar, was with GE Research and IB Research in the past, is a Stanford PhD and ISI alum.

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