The Reason Why Startups Fail in India is Different From Why They Fail in Silicon Valley

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Mukund Mohan founded and sold BuzzGain, a leader in Do It Yourself PR, to Meltwater in January 2010. Before that he founded and sold two Silicon Valley startups in the internet and enterprise software markets. Today, he helps startups at Microsoft Ventures and blogs about the Indian startup scene. You can follow him on Twitter and his blog. This article is republished with permission.


I read an interview with Steve Hogan recently about the reason for failed startups. Take a look at the number one reason why startups fail according to him.

Hogan says the biggest danger point is founders without a partner. “That is the single biggest indicator of why they got in trouble,” he says, adding that it’s especially common for sole first-time founders to fail. Sole founders. Number two was lack of customer validation and number three was the “company ran out of time” – or money.

From our India data, I can tell you that among technology startups, solo founders make up less than 35 percent of the companies. We track now in our database more than 15,000 entities. If you look at the reported closure rate, they are not significantly different from entities with multiple founders. In fact, in my own personal experience with 33 startups that I have closely observed in the last 12 months at the Microsoft Ventures accelerator, the number one reason for startups to close in India has been a misalignment of founders.

Let me give you some examples that I am not sure are uniquely Indian, but occur in India a lot more than in the valley.

First was a team of founders working on a B2B marketplace

Two founders we interviewed and accepted were related, but chose not to let us know about it. In the first two weeks at the accelerator, in multiple meetings they would often contradict each other’s views of their target customer’s pain points. One founder was a self-appointed “domain expert” and another was the “technical founder”.

The domain expert was an expert primarily because of the fact that she was not technical. She did not really have a background in the field, and neither was she all that experienced dealing with the potential customers. They had both stumbled into the problem while they were working in their previous jobs that were not related to their startup. After the first few weeks of multiple disagreements on the direction of the product, they chose to “keep their relationship intact” rather than to work on their startup.

Second was a team of strong technical founders

Both these founders were among the smartest hackers I’ve met in India. Pound for pound they would be among the best developer teams you could ever worked with. They had worked with each other for over five years at a large MNC and came highly recommended. Their pedigree was excellent as well.

The problem they were addressing was real and fairly technical, and you were compelled to go with the team just given their background and the problem they were solving. The trouble was their answer to every customer problem was to build more code. They were loathe to talk to real customers and after multiple fits and starts decided to split a few months ago. They still remain friends, but chose not to work on their startup.

Third was a strong team of founders, who had worked together for a year at another project

They were also folks with excellent backgrounds, great Ivy League college degrees and were solving a real problem that many consumers had in India.

After a year of working together, building what I considered a good team of five to 10 folks and an alpha, then beta product, they chose to go separate ways. In discussions with both founders after the split, each blamed the other for not “delivering”. One person was the designated CTO and the other was CEO and chief sales guy. They did close a round of funding, but the product went through multiple fits and starts. The problem they were solving was real and even I was an early user of the product.

In all three cases, I found that having the co-founder was the big part of the problem.

Lack of communication, inability to stick through tough times, and different visions for the company and product were the biggest causes for failure.

I’d like to understand from you what about our culture, our maturity as a startup republic, and whether our progress with technology makes these problems more prominent in India.

(Editing by Steven Millward and Anh-Minh Do)

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