Sramana Mitra Interview with CEOMAG

Sramana Mitra has been an entrepreneur and a strategy consultant in Silicon Valley since 1994. Her fields of experience span from hard core technology disciplines like semiconductors to sophisticated consumer marketing industries including fashion and education.

As an entrepreneur CEO, Sramana founded three companies: Dais (off-shore software services), Intarka (sales lead generation and qualification Software; VC: NEA) and Uuma (online personalized store for selling clothes using Expert Systems software; VC: Redwood). Two of these were acquired, while the third received an acquisition offer from Ralph Lauren which the company did not accept.

As strategy consultant, Sramana has consulted with over 80 companies, including public companies such as SAP, Cadence Design Systems, Webex, KLA-Tencor, Best Buy, MercadoLibre and Tessera among others. Her work has also included numerous startups and VCs, and she played interim VP Marketing roles for seven such ventures. Sramana has a proven track record in turnarounds, both small private companies (Example: think3, with Joe Costello) and divisions of larger companies (Example: a $100 million business unit of Cadence, with Lavi Lev). She has also created major growth strategies through new market penetration, M&A, industry roll-ups, etc.

Sramana has developed a well-regarded methodology for Positioning which she has used repeatedly in different situations and across a variety of market segments.

Sramana has authored Entrepreneur Journeys, a series of books focused on demystifying entrepreneurship. Entrepreneur Journeys (Volume One) and Bootstrapping, Weapon Of Mass Reconstruction (EJ Volume Two) and Positioning: How To Test, Validate, And Bring Your Idea To Market (EJ Volume Three), and Innovation Need Of The Hour (EJ Volume Four) are now available from Amazon.com. In addition, Sramana has authored Vision India 2020, a futuristic retrospective on India set in the year 2020, in which she has developed 45 of her own billion dollar business ideas leveraging India’s strategic strengths.

In 2010, Sramana founded the One Million by One Million initiative to help a million entrepreneurs globally to reach a million dollars in annual revenue, build $1 trillion in global GDP, and create 10 million jobs. In 1M/1M, she teaches the Entrepreneur Journeys (EJ) methodology to entrepreneurs around the world.

Sramana has a Masters degree in EECS from MIT and a Bachelors degree in Computer Science and Economics from Smith College. Her writings are widely syndicated [Forbes 2008, 2009, 2010].

Sramana, Please share the vision of 1m/1m with our readers of CEO MAG:

I have been a serial entrepreneur in Silicon Valley since the mid-nineties, and have experienced multiple booms and busts through the years. I have also thought deeply about the dysfunctions in capitalism, and today, I am working on a venture that is aimed at fixing some of them.

In November 2009, I wrote an important piece on my Forbes column called Capitalism’s Fundamental Flaw. In it, I underscored the observation that capitalism has been hijacked by speculators, and value creation and entrepreneurship are no longer at the center of the system. The modern financial crisis is but a manifestation of this fundamental problem, and rather than focusing on the rich vs. poor debate, we need to focus on how to rehabilitate the capitalistic system to put the emphasis back on value creation and entrepreneurship. This piece triggered a huge discussion all over the Internet.

In October 2010, I defined what the new form of capitalism needs to look like, and called it Capitalism 2.0: Rather than just a handful of companies building up to become billion-dollar enterprises, we need millions of companies building million-dollar businesses. Or even 500,000 dollar businesses. 200,000-dollar businesses. 100,000-dollar businesses. 50,000-dollar businesses. 10,000-dollar businesses.

Yes, the 10,000- or 50,000-dollar businesses are important as the developing world finds its own stride and grassroots entrepreneurs in all those regions build within their own capacity and economic realities.

I am convinced that the Western world’s economic turnaround and the developing world’s economic development are both dependent upon how well and how fast the entrepreneurs around the world step up to the plate. They are also dependent on how successfully world leaders design policies and frameworks to support this movement.

Indeed, my vision of capitalism 2.0 is a democratic, distributed capitalism that puts the emphasis on entrepreneurship on a very large scale. As a Computer Scientist who did most of her under graduate and graduate research in the area of scalable parallel and distributed systems, my thought process in the domain of economics and capitalism has also been focused on designing a scalable, distributed entrepreneurship development methodology, educational curriculum and delivery model, as well as a virtual incubation and mentoring process that entrepreneurs from anywhere in the world can access and benefit from.

The result is the One Million by One Million program. In 1M/1M, we offer a case-study-based online educational program, video lectures, and methodology, online strategy consulting at public and private online roundtables, as well as introductions to customers, channel partners and investors (pre-seed, seed, angel, VC, bank, alternative financing). The public roundtable is a free program accessible from anywhere in the world. The rest of the services are for paying members only. The $1000 annual fee grants paying members unlimited usage of the service.

It is such a big bold dream, which are the pivotal moments in your life that inspired you for launching 1m/1m program ?

Well, I have been thinking about entrepreneurship development for a while – at least a good decade. I ran MIT’s Silicon Valley entrepreneurship program for three years in the early 2000s. Then I started writing my blog in 2005. That was probably the pivotal moment, although I did not realize it at the time. Just started writing about entrepreneurship, interviewing entrepreneurs, developing case studies, etc. Now, that body of hundreds of case studies has led me to be able to develop and build both a methodology and an online curriculum with which we can teach technology entrepreneurship very broadly. Another pivotal moment was my 2010 New Years Resolution when I wrote a blog post, and my readers started coming to me, asking how they could help. The 1M/1M program grew organically through that early experimentation, largely. [link to eh resolution post]

Who is your most ideal customer and what are the top 3 reasons for them to join your premium program ?

Industry-wise, we work well with Technology, Technology-enabled services and Online businesses, primarily. Our methodology works well with capital efficient business ideas, not those that require $100M in VC money out of the gate. Stage-wise, we focus on entrepreneurs who are already working on a venture, or concept-stage entrepreneurs trying to validate their ideas. We also work with aspiring entrepreneurs trying to learn the methodology with which to move forward. In many ways, we’re a great substitute or supplement for business school education. We cost $1000/year, whereas b-schools cost close to $100k a year. And we focus on early stage ventures, which b-schools generally don’t. The top reasons people join are to align themselves with a methodology that stands on the shoulder of hundreds of entrepreneurs’ experiences. A lot of people join, also, to get a deep connection into Silicon Valley, the networks, and again, the methodology. Finally, a lot of people join because they have access to my strategy consulting and rolodex.

What are the key differences between your free and premium offerings ?

We only offer the Thursday public strategy roundtables for free. Everything else in the program: the curriculum, the self-assessment, the private roundtables, business development, customer and partner introductions, financing support, media and analyst relations – all that is within the $1000 annual premium membership fee.

Can you share further benefits and any other knowledge and technology tools that you offer to premium members ?

A big further benefit is the community that has developed. Both a support network, as well as a business network. People are starting to explore doing business within the premium members.

What has been the key takeaways for some of the participating companies in the premium program ?

I’d say precision, structure and focus. In every part of their business building process, we emphasize structure, precision, and capital efficiency. That, if you put in the associated work to execute against, has been very powerful. And of course, the access to world class case studies, consulting, and the credibility that we have been able to bring to some of our companies who have made it to the public eye so far. Some are still very stealth and want to remain hidden, but for some, we’re offering them serious visibility.

There are many professionals with very rich experience who are in two minds to plunge into entrepreneurship. What motivation can they borrow from you ?

I would suggest don’t quit your job quite yet. You need to test whether or not you are really and truly an entrepreneur. I would prefer that you spend 3-6 months getting through the premium program, spend 50-60 hours to really internalize the curriculum, and understand what it would take. I am pretty sure, once you are done with that process, you will have the answer. Either you will be dying to jump in, and will also know how to. Or you will get scared, and be done with your entrepreneurial hallucinations :-)

What has been your proudest moment since launching 1m/1m ?

Every time I hear our entrepreneurs send me an email saying I got my first paying customer, I feel thrilled. That is the moment when a business gets truly validated, and being fully aware of how much work goes into getting to that milestone, I always feel a rush of emotions when they send me that email. Makes my day, usually. Of course, this week, Freshdesk, one of our companies won the Microsoft Startup India Challenge grant of $40k. That felt very nice as well. When we do some big deals, that feels great too.

What are the roadblocks or challenges you are facing in your personal journey to realize your 1m/1m dream ?

Well, I decided not to take venture capital and bootstrap the business, instead. I had offers for VC money, but it didn’t feel right at that stage, and I wanted to keep more control of the vision. So, I have financed the whole project, and continue to do so. That is a risky decision, and it is perhaps the single biggest stress factor in all this. However, having VCs involved right now would slow me down so much – I’d have to explain every decision I make, and that’s just not worth it.

What are some the common patterns of mistakes you have witnessed among the entrepreneur community through your various Round Table Virtual Conferences ?

Lack of validation. Lack of positioning. Too early for financing, buts wants to raise money anyway. We have just released the self-assessment tool to address the most common errors we see.

What would you recommend to the new breed of Entrepreneur community in India?

Please take advantage of the program we have created. I say this with all sincerity: there is NOTHING in the world of this calibre for entrepreneurship education and incubation at this price-point.

What are the different ways in which people who share your dream of 1m/1m can participate in the project ?

We have tons of volunteer opportunities and internships. Just contact us through the web site and explain what you are looking to do, and we will find a way to plug you in to meaningful projects.

Those who are volunteering are learning a LOT through the work they do. We constantly take on new projects, learn an area together, develop strategies, and solve problems. It is really fun, and extremely productive.

What other questions do you wish we had ask ?

Something about exclusivity, I think. All incubators and educational programs boast how exclusive they are. We are completely inclusive.

In her recent article on 1M/1M, Marylene Delbourgh-Delphis explains the benefits of the program’s inclusiveness:

Physical incubators, even the largest, can only host a limited number of companies, which means that the vast majority of entrepreneurs are on their own for all sorts of reasons. 1M by 1M doesn’t have to select or exclude entrepreneurs to function, and thus can accept companies regardless of their prospective TAM or the speed at which the business will grow. Small niche businesses are the economy operating system of the world, and yes, any small business owner can benefit from being trained. As a matter of fact, the program heavily focuses on bootstrapping and leadership (something useful to entrepreneurs with larger ambitions, anyway). 1M by 1M is a fully international social network of entrepreneurs (they only have to be able to speak/understand English). Changing the world for the better is a collective effort, where each entrepreneur defines his/her vision of effectiveness, while benefiting from sharing lessons learned. [You can read her full article here.]

Indeed, we’re not exclusive at all. We want every entrepreneur to have access to our curriculum and services, and give them an opportunity to build their businesses, irrespective of the scale of their entrepreneurial aspirations. After all, there are many more $5M, $10M, $20M ideas out there than $500M or billion dollar ones. The latter is the domain of venture capital, but the former is what we need to also nurture to startup America. [You can watch a video on this subject to understand more about what VCs do and don’t fund, and why.]

I have learnt a great deal being based in the heart of Silicon Valley for the last 15 years, and having access to its inner circle. However, as I started designing 1M/1M, it was clear to me that what we have learned and fine-tuned here at such a furious pace needs to be encapsulated and made available to the larger world of entrepreneurs. No, you do not need to come to Silicon Valley to learn entrepreneurship. With 1M/1M, we have packaged the lessons from the trenches of over 400 entrepreneurs. We have synthesized a methodology that draws from their best practices. We have created case studies that help you get an up-close-and-personal experience of sitting down with some of the best entrepreneurs of our time, and sharing, perhaps, a cup of coffee with them.

I invite all entrepreneurs to come have a look at the program, starting with our FREE online strategy roundtables. These roundtable sessions usually begin at 8:30 p.m. IST every Thursday, and entrepreneurs are invited to attend or pitch their businesses. You can find more details and register here.

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