I remember attending the first Nasscom Product Conclave in 2007.
It was a small intimate affair that brought together folks from product companies who openly shared their learnings and experiences with one another. The organizers themselves were founders of product companies as were all the speakers.
As a founder of a fledgling product company myself, I found the experience akin to taking an invigorating walk on the Bellandur lakeside – a convivial gathering of peers aided by a bracing draft of transparent learnings and fresh insights.
I remember attending the Nasscom Product Conclave in 2012.
It was to put it mildly, a mindless frenzy – a grotesquely over-the-top carnival celebrating every possible excess abounding in the Indian startup ecosystem.
I was struck by how far the event had strayed from its founding ideals – what was once an idyllic lake was now polluted beyond recognition.
As the ninth edition of the Nasscom Product Conclave kicked off in Bangalore, I couldn’t help noticing how its degradation mirrors that of the Bellandur lake. A fomenting miasma that is only 5% water and 95% sewage and pollutants…the toxic foam runoff a silent but eloquent reminder of how far the event has fallen.
A Product Conclave that couldn’t care less about products
As far as I can tell, Nasscom Product Conclave was originally conceived to serve as a platform for showcasing Indian product companies.
In 2012, I was offered an opportunity to launch my product at the event. Despite the rich price tag for entering the event, I decided to take up this opportunity as it seemed like a great platform to announce a product and get some media visibility and nuanced feedback from experts. However the actual experience was a disaster.
Rather than showcasing the product launches in the main hall, I was shepherded into a small dark room in an obscure corner of the hotel where the only other folks in attendance were my fellow founder saps who were launching their own products! There were a couple of other unaffiliated audience members but I suspect there were here primarily to catch up on a few winks away from the hustle and bustle of the main hall.
What was in the main hall?
That was where Mahesh Murthy held court about how one can hack travel and see the world on a shoestring budget.
Which of course, was precisely what one would hope to learn in a conclave about tech products!
This was all the more tragic because Mahesh is an incredible raconteur but more than that, he has a wealth of knowledge on products and management that would have been far more valuable to this audience.
This pandering to frivolous and sexy topics over substantial but unsexy product aspects is a common occurrence across NPC editions.
Sessions that are tailored to sponsors and acolytes rather than a startup audience
This year, the choice of sessions and speakers is even more bizarre.
For instance, there is one from a representative of the Estonian government (unsurprisingly a sponsor).
But the one that takes the cake is one that features the redoubtable Alok Kejriwal and his gang of gurus pontificating about the art of living/winning!
— The Art of Living (@ArtofLiving) October 9, 2015
While I would find it mind-boggling, I won’t be surprised if the folks at Nasscom claim that such sessions are an attempt to provide a “syncretic, holistic” perspective towards life in general. In which case, why maintain the pretence that this event is about products at all?
Of circle-jerking and perpetuating the old boys club
The other thing that I notice about NPC is that it has now become the epitome of an old boys clubs, exclusionist and discriminatory. Where participation is determined by not what you know but who you know.
Successive episodes of NPC largely feature the same set of speakers speaking about the same set of things usually about topics that have little to do with products per se.
This sense of circle-jerking permeates through the overall event and with things like invite-only dinners that only the privileged few can attend.
The faint stench of cronyism
While the product startups largely get the short shrift within the event, thankfully there is one part where accomplished startups are called out and recognized.
This is in the form of the “Emerge 10” award that is conferred during the course of the NPC.
This year’s winners are covered here:
While the entire process of selecting these companies is rather opaque, that is not a major sin in itself and is par for the course as far as startup awards go in India.
What is irksome is that there are some glaring conflicts of interest that carry the faint stench of cronyism.
For instance, two of the ten companies selected this year are the portfolio companies of one of the VCs sponsoring the event.
Even more glaring is that three of these companies are ones in which the chairman of the Nasscom Product Council has a vested interest.
The first is a company which is part of the accelerator this gentleman was previously a part of.
The second is one in which he is an advisor.
And the third is one in which he is an investor! While the press note completely glosses over these affiliations for the first two companies, for the third one, it is mentioned in passing. This particular company is just a year old and one that very few in the ecosystem have heard of and it is moot if this company has done anything that merits a “India’s hottest startup” tag.
The dashing of hopes and the destroyer of dreams
In my opinion, the biggest way in which Nasscom has been remiss with respect to the event is that it has abrogated its responsibility as the flagbearer for the Indian software product community. From being a body that lobbied selflessly for the small but ambitious product fraternity, it has degenerated into a figleaf self-serving entity whose presence is only felt in conferences and junkets that prey on unsuspecting newbie entrepreneurs.
Much like Bellandur Lake, the rot is deep and true.
“Stylistic punctiliousness must not get precedence over what needs to be expressed with unvarnished honesty”