I co-founded a podcast production company with my wife earlier this year. We are probably the only company in town that does not call themselves to be a tech company. And it comes with several downsides. Here’s my lighthearted take on the situation we have put ourselves into.
My wife and I live in Bengaluru in India, where almost every other startup is a tech company or claims to be one. We live in a city where service companies like to call themselves product companies, and almost every investor, journalist, and customer expects you to have a smartphone app. You should have either launched your app, or it should be under development in a ‘stealth mode’. Last but not the least, you should work in Big Data, IOT, Machine Learning, or make operating systems for SpaceX’s Mission to Mars.
I’ve noticed a trend that many startups either call themselves a *-tech company (fintech, edtech…) or a *-As-A-Service (SaaS, PaaS, Iaas..). One aggregator of buses calls themselves as “We are a Bus As A Service Company”. I always thought that most people did not own buses, and they bought tickets for a bus ride. In other words, every bus operator was in the service business. So what exactly does “Bus-As-A-Service” do? Maybe it works while making a pitch to investors and journalists, maybe customers and employees. Then there are startups who claim to disrupt everything from babymaking to funerals, but they are simply aggregators.
That puts us in a quandary sometimes. We produce and distribute a mp3 file, so I guess we are a product company. But we work with B2B clients, so we provide a service. If we consider that the listener of the podcast is the end consumer, then we are a B2C company. We mainly use iTunes, Facebook, and WhatsApp to distribute our podcasts, and we don’t really see the need to develop an app. And finally, our shows range from bedtime stories for children to using analytics to improve productivity in businesses. Unfortunately, this makes us outliers. Or maybe it is our inability to tell outright lies.
When a Startup is not investor friendly
The end result is that our startup is uncool or unsexy because most people are not able to put us into a bucket. And this has also caused one hundred percent of potential investors to say no to us. The most common questions we get asked include:
Are you a product company, or a service company?
Why don’t you develop an app?
WhatsApp? How do you use it for podcasting?
Are you an aggregator? Aggregators are a great way to drive traffic, we like aggregators of all types: matchmaking, priests, food, artists, plumbers… you see, these are scalable businesses. Content creation is not. What are your thoughts about it?
Every time, I respond to the above questions, I begin to question myself: why are we different? Why aren’t we operating in a space that is cool, sexy and one that investors and customers have an appetite for? For the past several weeks, I have been tempted to go mainstream, but that is not why we started our venture. Launching a business in an area that is talked about is great, but if you don’t have a passion for doing what you do, then what’s the point? This was validated by the following incident.
The other day I was at a startup event where one guy was talking about his business. He was in the machine to machine communication area, and his startup was incubated in IIT Mumbai’s incubator. Out of curiosity, I asked him, “What made you start your venture in this space?” For a long time he as at loss of words. Then he replied, “IoT is a happening market.” The rest of the conversation went downhill. He was not passionate about the area, he was not sure what was the problem he was trying to solve…and YET his startup got accepted into the incubator simply because it was working in a space that is considered HOT.
No incubation, no acceleration. Only paying customers
Over the past four months, we have applied to five or six accelerator programs, ranging from those run by Microsoft accelerator to Google. Then there was NASSCOM 10000 startups. This initiative has accepted several startups so far, some of them are doing well. But I personally know three startups that were launched this year and have already shutdown, one of them was a podcast aggregator. We have applied three times to the NASSCOM Program, but they have not even bothered to write back to us. It does to matter that we have paying customers, and we have received thousands of listens and hundred plus five star reviews for our shows. It is sometimes frustrating that aggregators with 4,000 downloads for their apps get accepted into such programs. That’s when epiphany strikes.
We do not call ourselves as technology company, and maybe that is why we do not qualify for their programs. And my honest, jargon-less pitch probably sucks. I’ve always believed that technology is an enabler, and not the solution to the problem we are trying to solve. After much thought, we have decided to bootstrap, and pitch to customers instead.
So, where do we go from here?
This morning, I told my wife that we should give an ‘image makeover’ for our startup so that it will sound sexy and cool. Not because we need the investor money , but because we want to see the expression on peoples’ faces. I spent a good part of this morning working on describing our startup using the right jargon. Starting today, here is what we would like to describe ourselves:
“We are a B2B CAAS (Content-As-A-Service) company and we provide digital media solutions to our customers to give a voice to their brand, increase engagement and maximise return on investment on their digital marketing spend.”