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Headstart Network Foundation: India’s Nonprofit Engine for Entrepreneurship

Ten years since its founding, Headstart Network Foundation is one of India’s largest startup communities and grassroots organizations dedicated to supporting entrepreneurship. It’s also powered almost entirely by volunteers.

As Headstart Network Foundation gets ready for Challenge Cup Bangalore, Challenge Cup Jaipur, and Challenge Cup Mumbai on September 23, we asked Director and Co-Founder Amit Singh to discuss the origins of his organization and how it fits into India’s growing startup ecosystem.

How did Headstart Network Foundation start? Tell us your origin story.

Back in 2006-07, when we started Headstart, India’s startup ecosystem was at a very nascent stage. Techies were omnipresent, but they didn’t want to work in small, no-name companies like startups. The media wasn’t interested in covering startups. Seed capital was nonexistent. VC firms had just started setting up shop in the country.

All the founding members of Headstart were passionate organizers of unconferences called Barcamps in Bangalore. We observed that almost every startup that demoed at a Barcamp (some of them very promising) folded within a year. So we decided to do something about it. We brainstormed, debated, fantasised, and ended up with a list of things that needed to be done:

  1. Connect different stakeholders in the ecosystem to each other.
  2. Get senior entrepreneurs to mentor the next generation.
  3. Make working in startups cool.
  4. Make funding accessible to early stage entrepreneurs.

We started by hosting a conference named “HeadStart” in 2007 that brought together different stakeholders from the startup ecosystem. We had 10 promising startups presenting to an audience comprising of early adopters, investors, influencers, media, academics, and startup enthusiasts that included about 2,500 people over two days. The media took notice. We then began hosting closed-door sessions with startup founders where we would get experts to provide feedback on startups’ products and positioning.

We soon expanded to include networking and stories of how successful founders had gone about building their current businesses. These events became known as Startup Saturdays. Since there weren’t any seed stage funds or active angel groups, we tied up with big corporations to get into joint ventures with early stage startups. We co-created an incubator at the Indian Institute of Science, India’s leading tech university, and several other initiatives. All of this was done in a completely voluntary capacity.

We used to passionately discuss how we could use entrepreneurship to change India, and subsequently the world, in a private mailing list called “Wings of Fire.” But by 2009, we had outgrown ourselves. Some of our team members had moved to different cities in India and continued our initiatives there. So we decided to form a nonprofit organization.

“We had two ideas for the name: Headstart Network or Headstart Foundation. The clerk sitting at the Registrar of Companies decided to call it Headstart Network Foundation, and that’s what we are today!”

Since then we have expanded to 23 cities across India. We have created over 20 different initiatives to add value to early stage startups in the country. Most of them have been spectacular failures, but some have made a dent in the local and national ecosystem, too. Startup Saturdays are among the most popular startup events in the country today and have crossed their centennial edition (100 consecutive months) in several cities. Companies that made their first / early stage demos at our initiatives have cumulatively added over $20 billion to the Indian economy and created over 400,000 jobs. We do not know the exact number, but we guess we have facilitated the creation of about 10,000 new ventures (not all of them startups) and facilitated over 150,000 direct connections through our online and offline channels.

We continue to be volunteer-run. Today we are a team of nearly 150 volunteers and just 1 employee (who we fondly call our full-time volunteer), all passionately contributing to India’s startup ecosystem.

StartupSaturdays1

Where does most VC funding come from in your startup ecosystem? What do you think would help local startups gain increased access to capital?

The most active VC firms in India are Blume Ventures and Sequoia Capital. As per my understanding, nearly 60% of venture capital comes from domestic funds, while 20% comes from US-based funds. Some big ticket investments (to the tune of a couple of billion dollars) have been made by Chinese and Japanese firms, too.

There is no dearth of capital in the Indian startup ecosystem. Local startups need to get the basics right but they also need to be more ambitious, and investors need to show a higher appetite for risk with bigger investment horizons.

“India’s exit frequency is low, but this will improve over the next couple of years. Once VC firms begin to see better initial rates of return, investments will flow from all quarters of the world as ours is a fairly fast growing economy and domestic consumption is over 50% of GDP.”

StartupSaturdays2

How does your startup ecosystem affect the local economy and institutions?

Fostering entrepreneurship is central to India’s economic development. India is populous and young, with a median age of only 28, but this demographic dividend can only be reaped if we find gainful employment for our youth. This will require creating more than 200 million jobs over the next 15 years, which cannot happen without a large-scale entrepreneurial intervention. The Indian government is implementing very progressive policies to facilitate such an intervention.

At Headstart Network Foundation, we host more than 250 startup events per year, touching the lives of 30,000 people directly and reaching more than 900,000 people digitally.

Applications for Headstart Network Foundation’s Challenge Cup Bangalore, Challenge Cup Jaipur, and Challenge Cup Mumbai close on September 10. Startups can apply find UNION application links here.