Why Accel remains the best fund for founders in India
What I learnt after almost 4 years of working at India’s most successful VC firm
Today is my last working day at Accel in India.
If that seems like an inappropriate way to start a post about a VC fund, please bear with me!
Nearly four years back, I joined Accel as a Community Evangelist.
It represented a leap of faith on both sides. For Accel, it was about creating a new role that didn’t have any parallels in the Indian VC ecosystem. For me, it was a jump from the world of startup communities to the world of startup capital — scary and exhilarating at the same time.
At that time, I wasn’t sure about what I was getting into and quite frankly, even what exactly I was supposed to do. The only thing that was clear is that this was an attempt to do something new — something that would benefit Accel, its portfolio startups and the broader startup ecosystem in some meaningful way.
I was comfortable taking up this role for two reasons.
Firstly, because it played to my strengths and experience around building communities and close-knit networks.
And secondly, I had the opportunity to work with Shekhar Kirani of Accel in my previous avatar at iSPIRT. Shekhar was the humblest and most approachable VC that I had met and I had heard that the whole team at Accel fits the same pattern. So it was a great opportunity to get to know these folks and deliver some impact working side by side.
Did we succeed?
Let’s just say that I am happy with the impact that I helped with both within Accel and outside.
Thanks mainly to the support of the leadership team.
I may be biased but I feel that Accel has built the best community for founders in the Indian startup ecosystem today. We have genuinely helped founders without really expecting anything in return. We have, in the truest sense, paid it forward.
When I joined Accel, there was no role of a Community Evangelist in the Indian VC ecosystem but today, most VC firms have recognized the value of community and have someone to specifically manage this facet.
In the case of Accel, the road towards building a community was kicked off with a Blueprint SaaS workshop that was done even before I joined and in the last 3.5 years, we managed to build some awesome communities. You can read my blog post on Accel’s journey to building an Entrepreneurial Community in India.
Personally speaking, working with the people at Accel has probably been my finest experience in my professional career. The credit for this totally goes to the leaders at Accel for building an amazing culture.
While a lot has been written about the companies and founders that Accel has backed, there is precious little information about the partners themselves. What are they like behind the scenes? What kind of people are they beyond the professional aspects? What drives and motivates them?
To fix this gap, I thought I would take the liberty of introducing you to the people behind Accel — both in terms of how they evaluate and work with founders and also give you a small glimpse into the kind of individuals they are — an anecdote here, an observation there. I would like to add the disclaimer that these are strictly my personal opinions and as the blurb on the ad says — “your mileage may vary”!
So, let me start with Subrata Mitra, who might be the most knowledgeable and humblest person I’ve ever met. He is like the Bhishm Pitamah for Accel and even for the VC ecosystem in India. One thing one absolutely notices about him: He is incredibly punctual and will be in the meeting a few minutes ahead of time; he says that in our line of business people’s time is the most valuable commodity, and this is the best way to show respect for others (by respecting your time commitment towards them).
Subrata is usually jovial in hallway conversations, but walks into every meeting with full attention to the speaker, being open to learning new things. He would often challenge entrepreneurs in pitch meetings, but only with the idea to learn more from them and understand their depth of knowledge. But he also admits that 1–2 meetings is too short for us to truly understand a founder & his/her learning curve and that it would normally take several months/quarters to effectively find out which some certainty which founders are really a class apart. Subrata loves really early investing, many times working like a “founder” to define the product and GTM. Many of his successes have come through this track. He indexes very high on founder capabilities and strongly believes that the best founders build the best companies. If you can find an opportunity to go on a morning walk with him, that’s probably the best time to get advice/inputs.
Beyond the professional world, Subrata is a fun-loving person and enjoys playing and watching cricket, driving long distances, and nature photography. His heart is in the past — joyfully singing vintage Kishore Kumar songs — but his brain is focused on the future than in the past. He would repeatedly mention in board meetings that while it was important to look at historical performance, the future is more important — where are we headed/what are the strategies that would make a company truly exceptional in its class? It is this repeated push towards being forward-looking that is a silent force behind a lot of successful portfolio companies.
He is always human-first, starting every conversation by asking how the other person is. No problem is too hard or too abstract for Subrata, and no matter how many VC successes he has, he will always be an entrepreneur at heart.
The second person with whom I got to spend a lot of time is Prashanth Prakash. He is someone who has backed some amazing ideas, and is always looking for the off-beat, the untested. Prashanth was the first to invest in agritech space before it was popular.
He takes quick decisions and will always be very supportive. Before you meet Prashanth, there are chances that he might have done a background check on you. He normally would get one of his investment team members to look at a business and come up with his own thesis.
He has a deep understanding of a lot of sectors and loves to understand why something big has not been built in space before. This gives him the understanding he needs to take large bets. He also has high customer empathy, really tries to understand customer pain points, and how the business can be built around that. Prashanth is again an ex-entrepreneur who always keeps the founder’s interests at the front. This is a theme you’ll see recurring here.
The next partner is Mahendran Balachandran. He was one of the co-founders of Erasmic which became Accel later. He is a highly sought after mentor to many founders and helps them personally with scaling their companies and their management skills. His expertise includes enterprise solutions, brand building, and Fintech to name just a few areas.
I have heard things from my colleagues that Mahendran had a large role to play in Accel’s famously exemplary, founder-friendly culture. My only regret in Accel is that I didn’t get to work with Mahendran very closely.
The next partner is Shekhar Kirani. He is someone who will do a tremendous amount of research before a meeting. It is always advisable to go very well prepared for meetings with him. If you are not prepared, don’t go. You will at times get only one chance to make an impact.
Shekhar will really go deep in your business and will bring in some amazing ideas that you will not have thought about. I have always seen him adding value to the founder. Shekhar will also try to figure out how serious you are about the business, and he has his ways to find this out.
Do show the amount of effort you have put into researching the landscape, the competition and the market itself. This will be more important than showing him the product. In fact, something Shekhar tells entrepreneurs often is to not write a single line of code before they do all the research they can.
I have actually written a blog from one of Shekhar’s sessions on what he looks for in founders. You can read that here.
And this is also where I want to acknowledge that Shekhar is also the person who has changed my perception of the VC industry in India.
Shekhar is amazing at telling stories and explaining complex things in a very simple manner. He is a kind soul and also someone who really pays it forward to the ecosystem. He is very passionate about entrepreneurship in India and is always trying to do something to help the overall ecosystem.
The next partner is Dinesh Katiyar. Many of us in India may not have heard about Dinesh as he is based in the US, and does most of the cross-border deals at Accel.
Dinesh has been an entrepreneur thrice and at first glance comes across as very serious, but in fact is the most fun person at Accel. His sense of humor is amazing.
I have observed Dinesh to be a great listener. He will always allow the entrepreneur to complete his pitch and give his feedback or ask questions after. Dinesh is always looking for new ideas in the B2B/SaaS space.
Dinesh is still a founder at heart, and probably the investor who is liked by all the founders in his portfolio.
The next partner is Anand Daniel, someone who shaped me within Accel.
He was my mentor and he believed in most of the ideas I proposed. Anand is super good with numbers. For Anand, the market size is very important, anything he wants to invest in has to be a large market. He knows how unit economics work, and that’s probably something which he would go deep in meetings. If Anand is distracted in the meeting, it doesn’t mean he isn’t paying attention, he is probably doing some calculation on his phone or doing some research about the space.
Anand is very hands-on, and an extremely organised person. If you have sent him an email in the past or have met him somewhere, he will remember that.
Anand is like the parent at Accel. Every word he says, however fierce or negative, is always for your own good. Over the years working with Anand, every conversation is something you can learn from. His organization, clarity of thought, relentless drive to win, and never-give-up attitude are just a few things that make him so beloved amongst founders.
The next partner that I want to introduce is Abhinav Chaturvedi.
If you are my age, you will remember the very first Indian serial on Doordarshan called Hum Log. This was in the 80s. The protagonist of the show was called Nanhe, and the actor who played the role was also named Abhinav Chaturvedi. Nanhe was an aspiring cricketer, and our Abhinav is a cricketer too. This is a connection that I always tell everyone about.
Coming back to pitching to our man, be aware of his blank impressions in meetings; It’s on you to figure out what that means. He is also a first principles person. He will always look at the business fundamentals, whether they make sense or not.
He is a man of few words, but very sharp. He will look at your body language, how you speak, how you present in the meeting, and note all of that. He makes notes in his notepad, and is a minimalist in these things. But he does his homework very well, makes it very hard to BS even a little bit.
But then that’s with most of Accel.
The next partner is Barath Shankar Subramanian, probably one of India’s most knowledgeable investors in the healthcare space. He has a wide range, from startups trying to help cancer patients to SaaS and supply chain companies. Barath again is a man of few words, but very sharp when it comes to business domain. Barath is also someone who backs the founder once he has committed even in the toughest times. He is a gadget freak and very prompt when it comes to responding to messages.
The next partner is Prayank Swaroop. Prayank is super-cool and a fun loving person. He has some amazing stories on how he got into the VC ecosystem. He is extremely very well-read and can also share stories of how he missed a couple of startups which turned to be larger than unicorns.
His special quality is that he comes across as a friend/confidante rather than a board member. He gives high importance to cofounder compatibility, and helps achieve that. He is also a very jovial person in meetings, and makes sure that everyone is in a good mood to talk serious stuff.
But you have to wait for some time for Prayank to become that fun person in the meeting. And for that, he has to be convinced in the founder and the company. Once he is, he takes care of a lot of the heavy-lifting.
I have shared what I know here, but I urge you to do your own homework, and understand the partners on your own too. But yes, you can use this information for your pitch, or just to build your relationship with them.
But to do that, you also have to be aware of why Accel is different and special.
The Accel way
Accel’s DNA is very different from other VCs. You will only experience that when you work with or become part of the startups Accel invests in.
I have heard many stories from founders who have been backed by Accel and how they add value. In fact, this was one perk I really enjoyed at Accel: The goodwill that came along with being associated with the firm.
The better part is that now through the SeedToScale platform, we have managed to spread that goodwill and knowledge with even more founders in the ecosystem.
Some things I have observed is that Accel really wants to be a partner for life. Once they invest, they have your back, always. They are also very conscious of being fair to founders, and take pains to ensure that the founder wins the long game.
Basically what I’m saying is that if you are lucky to get Accel as an investor, go for it. They are some of the best minds in the ecosystem, and just great people to have along in your journey.
I’m also very grateful to the founders and the leadership team of the Accel portfolio companies who always supported me in creating new programs and initiatives which helped their peers. Some of the seed stage founders actually thought of me as the PR person at Accel. Though honestly, I have no idea about PR, I managed to get some visibility for our startups.
I also enjoyed working with the wonderful team at Accel who always supported me in executing things — right from the admin, finance, legal, tech, and the awesome investment & development team. Special thanks to Siddharth Ram who believed in the community platform and to Sairam Krishnan for trusting me and taking the leap into the VC world.
I have also enjoyed working with friends — Pranay, Shrrinesh, Harjas (my best friend), Manasi, Rachit, Radhika, Pratik, Sid Jain, and Sid Dang. If you are pitching to one of them and need advice, I’ll be happy to help you.
And of course, the very very supportive people — Venkatesh, Naveen, Shivani, Meera, Vinod (my badminton buddy), Susan, Mamatha, Sneha, and Pooja who always helped me with everything I requested. And Rashi, with who I could freely talk about work and culture and what we needed to do more at Accel. I’ll miss every one of them.
One of the things we started at Accel was the Product Growth initiative, which is an initiative to recognise and celebrate product leadership in India, something which I have been trying to do for many years. I will continue to volunteer for this initiative along with Ajay Sethi and Akhilesh Ravishankar
Also, there are some special people I have to name. Kumara is the admin at Accel and would help me a lot in getting things organised and delivered for all the things we would do. Without his support, I couldn’t have delivered many things. There is also Wilson, our security head at Launchpad, who did an amazing job of managing the startups and their needs. He does an amazing job and is always with a smile — Accel culture at its best!
Another person who used to always wear a smile on his face was Ashok, our pantry person. Inspired by our startups, he also became an entrepreneur once Covid hit. He moved back to his hometown and opened a bakery there. He requested some help from all of us, and his seed funding from the Accel team (personally) was oversubscribed.
It really is a long list, but I want to thank the entire team who have been very supportive and helpful.
What next for me now
I have come a long way from working for non-profits. I wanted to check if I could return to a corporate environment, and it looks like I managed to do that.
In my next avatar, I will continue to be part of the SaaS/startup ecosystem.
Give me a couple of weeks and I will update everyone on what I’m doing next. I am excited as I will continue to play a similar role of building a community and this time, take a shot at building the culture as well.
Lastly, and again, thank you Accel for everything that you have done for me. It was a joy to be part of the team.
I had written a blog post documenting my first year at Accel and my learnings and takeaways in that period — it is something that I often go back to reflect. Even if I am no longer a part of Accel, I will always have that Accel “gene” of being humble and respectful of founders and their seemingly crazy dreams. You can take the person out of Accel but you can’t take Accel out of anyone who is lucky enough to have spent time here.
Thanks to Shrrinesh for helping me with inputs and to Sairam for editing this. Without their help, I don’t think I could have done this blog post. There is also a good friend of mine who has really helped in this blog….he remains anonymous :)