The sad decline of the Nasscom Product Conclave into a self-serving carnival

Image: Reuters/Altaf Hussain
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I remember attending the first Nasscom Product Conclave (NPC) 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 organisers 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 NPC 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 NPC kicked off in Bengaluru, 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.

Who cares about products?

As far as I can tell, NPC 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. It seemed like a great platform to announce a product, 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 other founders who were launching their own products. There were a couple of other unaffiliated audience members, but I suspect they 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, founding partner of venture capital firm Seedfund, 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 Murthy 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 tailored to sponsors, not audience

This year, the choice of sessions and speakers was even more bizarre.

For instance, there was one from a representative of the Estonian government (unsurprisingly a sponsor). But the one that took the cake was the one that featured the redoubtable Alok Kejriwal and his gang of gurus pontificating about the art of living/winning.

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?

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.

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 recognised.

This is in the form of the “Emerge 10” award that is conferred during the course of the NPC.

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 venture capital firms sponsoring the event.

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 flag-bearer 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  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.

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