Upekkha’s inaugural cohort has achieved a remarkable milestone, surpassing the $1 million annual recurring revenue (ARR) mark. Out of the first 20 startups in Upekkha’s portfolio, 11 have crossed the $1 million ARR mark, and three have crossed the $5 million ARR mark while remaining profitable. In addition, 20% of the startups in the cohort are experiencing impressive growth rates above 50% year-on-year.
For many entrepreneurs today, the rapidly changing landscape can be overwhelming. With challenges like product-market fit, fundraising, talent acquisition, and scaling, it’s easy to feel like you’re falling behind. That’s where Upekkha comes in, providing founders with the necessary tools, resources, and guidance to overcome these challenges and achieve sustainable growth.
By empowering startups to grow responsibly, Upekkha is helping to create a thriving ecosystem that benefits everyone involved.
Join us as we explore the world of startup acceleration with Prasanna Krishnamoorthy and discover how Upekkha is transforming the future of entrepreneurship in India and beyond.
YC: Hi Prasanna, welcome to Yellow Chapter. During our conversations, we aim to learn more about you, your life experiences, and your choices. Additionally, we’d like to understand Upekkha better.
Prasanna Krishnamoorthy: I was born in the government hospital in Bodinayakanur. The last stop for the westward railway track from Madurai, where my grandfather worked for the railways in the late 1970s. My grandparents lived there for a few years before moving to Madurai.
My parents are professors, my mom taught Tamil, and my dad taught Computer Science at Anna University’s Guindy College of Engineering in Chennai.
I grew up in Chennai with my younger sister Nithya, who is five years younger. Post-Marriage my sister did her MS in the US and now resides in the Bay Area.
I attended St.Michael’s School in Chennai. I was an average student, but I used to read a lot. We had a lot of books at home, and my mom used to take us to the annual book fair in Chennai. Every time we went, we would get books and encyclopaedias.
Engineering was the only career path that interested me, and my parents also supported my decision. There wasn’t much pressure at home, and I do not easily succumb to stress. I scored well in grade twelve.
1996 – I joined the College of Engineering, Guindy.
YC – Many engineering students read my blog. What advice would you give them to make the most of their BTech or MTech?
Prasanna: It is absurd that the Indian Education System compels students to select their stream by the 11th standard. This approach needs to be revised as career opportunities rapidly evolve, and individuals are unlikely to remain in the same profession for their entire lives. What one studies today may not be applicable in the next four years.
But the following five pieces of advice remain the same regardless of your chosen stream or subject.
1. Importance of Fundamental Learning – I believe higher education and college should prioritise preparing students to learn deeply, especially fundamental concepts and develop the ability to learn new things effectively. With the rapidly changing job market and technology, it’s crucial to have a solid foundation in basic concepts + the ability to quickly adapt to new tools and skills.
2. Importance of General Skills – If I had to prioritise the most important things to learn in life again, the ability to work effectively with people would be number one. Learning how to collaborate with others to achieve something greater than what one could accomplish alone is essential.
This skill applies not only to sports, painting, art, and organising cultural events but also to academics, such as working on a research project. It is essential to learn how to work with others in an environment where failure is acceptable and where one understands that the outcome is not a matter of life or death.
While technical skills are essential and may vary based on the degree, college, and job requirements, they alone are not sufficient for success in life.
3. Importance of Teaching Finance and Economics – It’s important for individuals to have a solid understanding of finance, economics, and the value of money. These topics are often more relevant and valuable than many of the math and other subjects taught in undergraduate studies. As an engineering student myself, I can attest that many of us needed to utilise the full four years of education we received.
4. Sales – Gaining experience in sales would be invaluable. I made door-to-door sales in the early 90s when satellite TV was emerging, and I found the experience very enlightening. Whether it’s door-to-door sales or working as a salesperson in a store or any service-oriented business, sales skills are critical for everyone. It can help you in all aspects of life.
YC: How can people make sure they don’t end up in the wrong job or workplace after a few months?
Prasanna: Firstly, it’s okay to make a few mistakes. Don’t be too harsh on yourself. However, it’s also important to prepare for career growth. A few things to keep in mind are:
1. Long-term Thinking: Plan for your career by thinking beyond just getting a job. Know what you want to achieve in the long run and what you’re passionate about. Take calculated risks that align with your long-term goals and be open to different opportunities.
2. Master the Art of Self-Promotion: Develop your people skills and sales ability to sell yourself and land a job. In today’s competitive job market, qualifications are not enough. You must be able to communicate well and pitch yourself effectively in interviews and other professional settings
3. Find Mentors: Find successful professionals in your field doing exciting things. Building relationships with such people can be invaluable for your career growth. Mentors can provide guidance, support, and access to new opportunities. Look for those who have achieved the success you aspire to, and respectfully reach out to them for advice and mentorship. Be persistent but also respectful of their time and expertise
4. Skills to Develop for Career Success: Develop technical, sales, and people skills to craft the career you want. While technical skills are necessary for many jobs, strong sales and people skills are also essential. Consider taking courses or training programs to develop these skills or seek opportunities to practice them in real-world settings.
Building a successful career is a process that involves continuous learning and skill development. Consider the skills that are most in demand in your industry, as well as the skills that align with your interests and long-term goals.
5. Top 1% in Two Intersecting Fields: To succeed in any field, the top 1% is rewarded substantially more than the remaining 99%.
To become unique and create more value, aim to be in the top 25% of two intersecting fields. It’s important to be exceptional at what you do to stand out in your career. However, being exceptional in just one area may not be enough to set you apart from others. To differentiate yourself from the competition, aim to become highly skilled in two or more related areas.
For example, you can combine technical skills with business skills to become a specialist in a niche area and make yourself more valuable to employers.
YC – Why did you pursue an MS at The University of Texas at Dallas from 2000 to 2004, and what should be the decision-making framework when considering an MS versus an MBA versus a job?
Prasanna – Although my initial goal was to gain international exposure, my experience exceeded my expectations and helped me grow professionally and personally. Here are a few suggestions based on my experience:
1. Pursuing a Master’s Degree for International Opportunities: Pursuing a Master’s degree can be an excellent option for those seeking international opportunities. It can provide individuals with the necessary skills and qualifications to secure a job abroad and potentially even lead to opportunities for permanent residency.
It can open up avenues for an H1B visa and, eventually, a green card. However, it’s important to note that pursuing a Master’s degree can be expensive and time-consuming, so it’s crucial to weigh the potential benefits against the costs before making a decision.
2. MBA Recommendations and the Value of Real-World Experience: Pursuing an MBA right after college may not be the best decision. An MBA requires real-world experience to be truly valuable and relevant, so gaining some work experience is essential before considering an MBA program.
Unfortunately, many institutions in India try to sell MBAs to fresh graduates, but I strongly advise against this.
Instead, I recommend individuals interested in business gain experience in sales. This can be in any industry, whether computer software or another field. By learning how to sell a product or service, individuals can gain valuable skills and insights that will be highly beneficial when pursuing an MBA later in their careers.
It’s best to wait at least four to six years before pursuing an MBA to ensure you have gained enough experience and better understand what you hope to achieve through the program.
3. Importance of Gaining Long-term Work Experience in a Job: In my experience, switching jobs too often can hinder one’s ability to learn and grow within a particular field or industry. I recommend sticking with a job for at least three to five years, especially with a product company.
By staying in a job for multiple cycles, individuals can better understand the company’s operations and the industry. This knowledge is invaluable and can help them make better career decisions. Additionally, putting in hard work and effort to excel at the job and develop a real-world skill set that can be applied in future roles is essential.
4. Building Real-World Skills for Career Development: More is needed to have a degree or certificate simply – employers seek individuals with practical skills and experience.
I recommend seeking summer jobs or internships that offer real-world experience. It helps to gain a competitive advantage in the job market. Put in the effort and seek meaningful experiences rather than just going for an easy internship that may offer little real-world experience.
YC – Can we talk about your professional road map and learning on the way?
Prasanna: Sure, I started my career with Tejas Network.
2004 – 2005 – R&D Engineer @Tejas Networks – (A global broadband, optical and wireless networking company).
Interested in the startup industry, Tejas, a company specialising in optical networking, caught my attention. With a Master’s degree in the same field, it was a perfect fit. Introduced to Tejas’ CTO through a professor at the University of Texas, I had a phone interview, which resulted in a job offer. This marked the start of my journey with the company.
Really nice place to be in, very fulfilling. One of my mentors there Gopi Krishna was great. He later became my co-founder at Wignite.
2005-2011 – Multiple Roles @Elina Networks – (Builds networking and integrated services software).
Building a product is not enough; someone has to sell it – I joined Tejas as a company with over 100 employees, but I desired to work in an early-stage startup to experience building a business from scratch.
Hence, I joined Elina, where I was the second of only five employees working in the same room. Initially, we were all developers and engineers without sales or marketing expertise. Although we were confident in our ability to create anything we could envision, we soon learned that building a product was not enough; we also needed to sell it.
We made a good product at Elina and had it implemented in 1500 locations. However, we didn’t make enough money to grow the company. The financial crisis in 2008-2009 hurt our funding, and we lost potential investors due to the Lehman Brothers’ bankruptcy and the Mumbai terror attack. As a result, we struggled to keep the company going for several years, with no salary increases and barely enough money to get by. After five and a half years, we sold the IP to another company and made some payouts to employees. I decided to leave then.
2011-2012 – Co-founder @Wignite Software Innovations – (Attempted various products in the education space)
I teamed up with Gopi, who was running his startup. We started a new company called Wignite. Our approach was to sell first, then build. We came up with many ideas and finally developed software for colleges in the UK.
We also looked into service-based ideas. Some colleges wanted us to move their data or assist with certain tasks. Although these projects would have paid well, they were one-time only.
In contrast, the software we developed generated yearly recurring revenue. The colleges agreed to pay us upfront and place an order, so we decided to pursue this avenue.
In 2012, we decided to close our business. Looking back, if we had stayed focused on our college software, we might have had better results. At the start, we sold our software to a few colleges and were making enough to break even. We even hired a couple of employees.
However, my co-founder Gopi was feeling the heat after four years of doing startups, while I had been in startups for 6+ years. Furthermore, colleges in the UK were experiencing funding cuts for the first time following the 2009 crisis. The people we were selling to were running out of money, making it challenging to sell anything, especially software.
Looking back, we could have offered solutions that saved them money. Sadly, we lacked the necessary knowledge and experience to think things through then.
1. Secure purchase orders: We realised it’s essential to get orders from many customers or receive payment upfront before starting a project to avoid financial problems.
2. Engaged customers can make a small market profitable: By focusing on customer satisfaction and loyalty, we were able to generate revenue and grow our business. This taught us that finding a niche market with dedicated customers can be just as valuable as entering a larger, more competitive market.
3. Align Energy Levels and Goals with Co-Founders: Gopi was at four years of doing startups, while I was fatigued from my previous startup experience. This misalignment of energy levels made it challenging for us to focus on developing even one product, let alone three. We realised that unless co-founders are in sync and share a common vision, it’s challenging to keep the company moving forward.
4. Focus on One Product to Gain Traction and Success: Our failure to concentrate on a single product was another reason for our lack of success. Two of our ideas didn’t take off, but the one we focused on had potential. Looking back, if we had persisted with that product, we would be in a better position now.
Ultimately, we had to get jobs to support ourselves after losing momentum and our team.
2013-2014 – Product Manager @Amazon
There was a ton of learning but two most important being:
1. Benefits of Effective Writing Skills: Amazon’s emphasis on documenting ideas clearly and concisely helped others understand our goals, which was helpful in all aspects of work.
2. Patent Filing: During my tenure at Amazon, I successfully filed for three patents, two of which were approved.
Patent 1 – Content tagging
This experience provided me with valuable insights into the workings of the patent system. I didn’t intend to leave when I departed from Amazon, but I received an opportunity through a friend at the Microsoft Accelerator.
2014-2017 – Product/Growth, Microsoft Accelerator @Microsoft
Working with founders of funded (Series-A, seed) and bootstrapped startups, I assist them in achieving 24 months of growth within just 4 months. My main focus is on helping founders align their products, market, and growth strategies.
- SaaS startup achieved a 10x increase in the pipeline from $130K to $1.1M and grew ARR from $100K to $360K in 4 months.
- A B2C marketplace posted seven times more jobs within four months.
- Enterprise startup reduced sales cycle to 18 weeks and increased pipeline value SaaS startup achieved 50% QoQ growth rates, reaching 10K MRR through product/growth alignment.
- A structured growth plan helped a SaaS startup secure hundreds of pre-launch signups for a new product variant.
- A B2C startup achieved consistent month-over-month growth rates of 10%.
My agreement with my wife was that I would work for four to five years, pay off our home loan, and then start another business. I fulfilled my commitment by working at Amazon for a little over a year and spending three years at Microsoft. It was time for a new chapter.
During my last 6 months at Microsoft, I was networking and talking to people in the startup ecosystem to figure out my next step. I discovered that running an accelerator for B2B startups in India would be a good fit for me.
Drawing from my experience in helping founders build successful SaaS businesses, I launched an accelerator for B2B SaaS companies.
2017- Upekkha – Value SAAS Accelerator
B2B SaaS is a space like IT services from the 1990s or 1995. It’s just starting, but it has a
YC – How do you determine the selection criteria for founders joining your accelerator program, especially with so many SaaS product builders?
1. Our primary focus is on selecting founders who have the potential to achieve significant revenue growth, $10 million, $25 million, or even $100 million.
2. Founders should have extensive knowledge in their specific domain, often with 10+ years of experience in the industry before starting their startup journey.
3. We prefer founders who have built and sold a viable product, even if it’s just for a few customers.
4. High integrity, community engagement, and a strong work ethic are also important qualities we look for.
5. Founders should be able to clearly explain their vision for the company, why they are targeting a specific market, and how they plan to monetise their product.
YC – Can we talk about some numbers, please?
Prasanna – Sure.
Business Model – We’re an accelerator which invests $100K into the startups we select for our program. For this, we take 9% equity.
Users – Currently, we work with 120+ startups. Among the first 20 startups, we worked with between 2017 and 2019, three have crossed $5 million in revenue. Another six to eight have surpassed $1 million in revenue. Despite not having raised much capital, most of these startups continue to grow and make profits, demonstrating our impact on their success. While the industry was screaming about growth at all costs in 2021, we were asking our founders to be prudent, and now that’s turned out to be the right bet.
Team – We are a team of 40 people right now.
Competitors – We only have one accelerator competitor, Y Combinator, in the US, and they also do an excellent job as well. For founders who are doing B2B, especially cross-border, I believe we’re a better choice.
Plan – So we plan to continue working with the startups that we currently have. In 2023, we will work with 50-60 startups, and in 2024, we plan to have even more, possibly exceeding 60. Depending on the industry’s growth rate, we might work with anywhere between 60 to 100 or more startups.
Rising trends in SaaS – AI is going to shake up the SaaS industry like it is shaking up everything. SaaS founders will have to dig deep to find what is of real value to customers, and see how some of that can be enabled through AI, using new interfaces, perhaps chat, perhaps something else. We also recently launched a new report along with Ernst & Young (EY), which talks about the core advantages of the India B2B SaaS startups vis-a-vis US startups. This is becoming even more important given the funding winter.
Detailed report – EY-Upekkha – The Bellwethers of Indian B2B SaaS Report
YC – Learnings from Upekkha so far?
Prasanna – 1. From our experience, earning a dollar is often easier than earning a rupee. For many founders, it’s best to concentrate on global SaaS businesses instead of only selling to India. Creating and promoting from India is cost-effective and allows us to offer more value to customers at the same price as a US-based company.
2. In the past few years, Indian tech, UI/UX, and product development have advanced significantly. Presently, many Indian products are on par with global startups in terms of quality and usability, and sometimes even better. Nevertheless, Indian products often lack the polish necessary for success, particularly for founders not well-exposed to global trends.
3. Indian founders often undervalue the benefits they offer their customers. Selecting customer segments that are too poor can make it difficult to generate significant revenue. Hence, it is essential to choose the right customer segments and excel in marketing to scale the business.
4. Founders often select the wrong market to enter, focusing on their strengths rather than what the market demands. For instance, if you’re good at sales, it’s best to pick a startup where your sales experience can help you acquire customers. Otherwise, competing in a crowded market where your expertise isn’t valuable can be challenging. So, it’s essential to choose the right game and leverage your strengths to gain an advantage.
5. Startups must pick the right fight, and founders must understand the game they’re playing. Many founders pick the wrong game or focus, such as a sales founder who emphasises sales in a market where marketing is critical. This can lead to failure if they can’t market effectively. Therefore, it’s vital to choose a game that matches their strengths and gives them an advantage.
6. Success in startups is not just about marketing, sales, or product development. It’s a combination of factors, such as your skills, knowledge, product, sales, and marketing abilities. To succeed, you need to know where you stand and what you’re up against. Focus on things you can control rather than relying solely on blog posts or irrelevant information.
7. I have one suggestion for sales and marketing: Talk to more prospects, customers, and other companies. Surprisingly, many people overlook this critical step.
YC -Based on your experience, what common mistakes do founders of SaaS startups tend to make?
Prasanna – 1. Avoid selling to customers who cannot afford your product. It’s crucial to target customers who have financial stability and the ability to sustain your product. This is especially important in B2B SaaS, where your customers’ profitability, margins, and cash flows directly impact your own.
2. Don’t assume that your product will change the market. While it’s important to have a unique value proposition, it’s unrealistic to expect to revolutionise an entire market. Instead, focus on providing a solution that solves a specific problem for your target customers.
3. Keep in mind that B2B SaaS products typically have higher margins than marketplaces, which are harder to get right. To make a profit, target customers with high-profit margins and healthy cash flows who will be willing to pay for the value your product provides.
4. Don’t undervalue your product. Remember that the price point in different markets can vary greatly. So it’s essential to do proper market research and price your product accordingly. Selling your product for too little can lead to missed revenue opportunities.
5. Focus on selling value rather than shooting for just quick small wins. Customers who see the value in your product will be willing to pay a premium for it and will be less concerned with paying quickly than with getting a product that saves them time or money.
YC – What keeps you motivated? What is your mantra?
Prasanna -In my opinion, discipline is underrated, while motivation is overrated. It’s not enough to just enjoy doing something or be good at it. You also need to have the discipline to keep doing it even when it gets hard. Sometimes people are good at something, but they lose motivation when it becomes too easy. Then they move on to something else. But it’s important to stick with something for a long time, even when it’s difficult.
We at Upekkha have been doing this for six years now, and we plan to continue for another seven to ten years to see if our efforts are fruitful. Many accelerators close down after three years because they expect quick results, but we understand that success takes time. Sometimes, it takes five to seven years for the first signs of success to appear. From the beginning, we knew we had to give it at least that long to see if our approach was working. Once you find a winning strategy, it’s vital to remain focused and eliminate distractions to achieve success.
While we’re on the subject of what keeps me motivated, I can’t help but mention my wife – Lavanya. She has encouraged me to seize every opportunity that has come my way, even if it meant taking risks. She has helped me put things into perspective and see the silver lining in every situation. I am grateful for her unwavering support throughout my career, and Upekkha wouldn’t be where it is today if it weren’t for her. She herself is an entrepreneur, an ultra-marathon runner who has won a 100K race and a Duathlon and has amazing drive and shoots for very high quality in whatever she does. On top of this, she is a Machine Learning Scientist, keeping up with the latest in tech & helping thousands of others learn from her videos.
While it’s hard to give just one recommendation, I would suggest that tech professionals interested in learning about sales and marketing check out “Selling the Wheel” by Jeff Cox. Despite being published in 2000, it remains an excellent resource that offers valuable insights.
If you’re a tech enthusiast looking to create products that can positively impact people’s lives, “The Goal” by Eliyahu Goldratt is an excellent book to read.
Thank you for taking the time to speak with us today! We appreciate your willingness to share your knowledge and experience with us, and we wish you all the best in your future endeavours.