The Startup Hype That’s Literally Killing Entrepreneurship in Kerala

There was a saying once in Kerala – You throw a stone and 90% of the time it’ll hit an engineer. Fast forward to today and you hear a modified version of the same – You throw a stone and 90% of the time it’ll hit a startup entrepreneur.

Kerala has seen a huge boost in the number of startups being formed and the number of entrepreneurs taking reins of their self-made career. While it is definitely a positive sign, the increased frequency of students turning to entrepreneurs is alarming. So much so that, the extra sweetness is rotting the teeth.

Here is what I mean.

When me and most of my entrepreneur friends started off with our respective startups, entrepreneurship was seen as voodoo and a career choice for people who “couldn’t secure another job”. Not to blow our own horn, but it did require balls of steel and nerves of iron to go ahead with the decision. While some of us were written off as failures by the extended family, some others like myself were thrown out of home for “being a rebel“. And even few others had to break-up with their girlfriends because they didn’t have a “secure future”.

From there, came a time mainly around 2012-2013, where entrepreneurship started getting the respect it deserved and entrepreneurs were no longer looked upon with as much contempt as compared to the years before – thanks to initiatives likes the Startup Village and other policies by the State Government. People started accepting the “heroism” associated with entrepreneurship and it became the new hype.

Every single college student (especially engineering students), started dreaming of being the next Jobs or the next Zuckerberg.

the startup hype in kerala

And the hype continued. Fuelled by various factors and various institutions/organizations, the hype grew. The spark, which was meant to ignite the right flames, started getting out of control and turned into a raging wildfire, engulfing various wrong mindsets along the way. Owing to the hype created, instead of wanting to turn a solution or a product into an organized structure in the form of a firm, entrepreneurship came to be interpreted as starting a company first and then finding the answer to what it is we have to do. Kerala started seeing it’s first bunch of Business Card CEOs.

This is not to say that the right people weren’t getting into entrepreneurship! The support provided by the incubation centers and the mentoring by various esteemed organizations like TiE, did help build a few good ones – ones who sustained, ones who grew, ones who were more focused on solving the business problem rather than focused on updating their FB Profile as the CXO of XYZ Pvt Ltd.

In my interactions with various CXOs and industry experts, majority of whom I met via IEEE and KMA, over the past 12-18 months, I have seen a common trend in their responses when I ask them about the Startup Community in Kerala. The most common response can be summed up as –

It’s definitely good to see the startup culture grow in the state. But what we are instead seeing is a bunch of wannabes who want to flaunt a CXO Business Card in their pocket and boast about their startup, without as much knowing how to generate a sustained revenue model. These wannabes break our faith in the startup community, which in turn affects the rest 10-20% who are in it with all passion and seriousness. It’s better to have 10 successful sustainable startups than have 1000 ones who start off with no aim for the future. That is what the policy makers should focus upon.

And I totally agree to that. From personal experience, ever since these so called wannabes have come up, it has become difficult (to a certain extent) for startups to pitch to clients. Almost every second person is of the mentality that these are a bunch of college kids running a startup for the hype sake and they’d just shut town in a few months. So why bother.

On talking about this mentality with couple of my clients, I came to know that they can’t be blamed for this thought. Many of them have had their hands burned when they trusted some work of theirs with a startup company only to know that they had shut down in a couple of months time. In some cases the work remains incomplete whereas in some cases one of the founders of the so called “startup company” works freelance and completes the work for namesake. By then, the client is famished with the experience and they decide never to trust work with these minuscule startups again.

Yes, you see in the news that all is rosy and red for the startup community with VC Funding, mentoring, assistance, Govt. Funding and what not. Medias shine with the glimmer of each new startup on their Page 3 everyday, only to never ask the question of “What Happened to them?”, in a couple of months time. The startup entrepreneurs are also happy to see their smiling faces on the sheets of the newspaper, whereas a revenue model for their firm would be the least of their worries. Parents and neighbours are happy to say “Mera beta TV main aaya!“, but they do not care to ask whether the beta has a clear vision in mind about his startup.

startup community kerala

And to put it frankly, though the steps taken by the government in promoting entrepreneurship are applaudable, the implementation cuts a sorry figure. Crores are being rolled out. To whom and where, heaven knows.

Just pause for a moment here and take a look at the benefits rolled out to promote entrepreneurship in the state, in the recently presented Kerala Financial Budget 2015-16That is more than Rs. 150 Crores for entrepreneurship development related activities alone!!

Where will all this go, I guess we all know the answer.

I still remember the announcement made at YES Kerala last year where Shri P K Kunhalikutty, Hon. Minister (Industries and IT), launched the KSIDC Angel Fund of Rs 20 Crores for development of startups in the state, which saw Mr Yusuf Ali, MD, Emke Group, adding his contribution of Rs 2 Crores seed fund. Well, no one heard about what happened to those 22 Crores, except the recently launched KSIDC Business Incubation Centre in Kochi (If you did, please let me know, and forgive me for my ignorance in that case then).

If given a choice, I’d rather go to the previous scenario where Entrepreneurship was looked upon as voodoo, rather than the present scenario where it’s seen as child’s play. The issue is that in the process of trying to get the numbers going high, the policy makers and the incubation centers have rather diluted the concept of entrepreneurship to a good extent. As people in-charge of the implementation, I’d say it’s their duty to ensure that the spirit of entrepreneurship is showcased in the right way.

Stop glorifying it with gold and glitter. That phase comes much later on.

Stop showcasing entrepreneurs as gods. They are humans who survived shit and still kept going.

Stop focusing on highlighting only the positives when you very well know that the initial years can be hell in a frying pan for a startup.

Most of all, STOP sending the wrong vibes to the student community. They are easily influenced by the pomp and glamour you put in front of them – It’s not their fault per se. It’s how their psychology is!

If this trend keeps going forward, what Kerala will see in 2-3 years time is a whole bunch of unemployed youth, who only hold the experience of designing Powerpoint Presentations and explaining imaginary bar graphs. God forbid that happens, but if it does, that just might be the end of the entrepreneurship mindset amongst the youth in the state.


Disclaimer : I do not claim to be a successful startup entrepreneur, nor a wise mentor. All thoughts are personal and based on the common sense with which I have analysed the things happening around me. The pointers shared here are my views, formed as a result of a series of cumulative discussions I have had with various startup entrepreneurs, senior personnel from the industry – including Startup Mentors, HR Managers, Tech Leads and CXO Level Executives. You are free to agree or disagree.