Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Proto.in - thoroughly unimpressed

Uh. Where do I start. After posting this, if I become persona non grata for all the future Proto.in events, I wouldn't be too surprised. But at the beginning, it didn't start this way. I am familiar with Proto.in and the people behind it pretty much from the beginning. If I'm not wrong, it all started with BarCamp Chennai, and it was a great event. It is so sad that it never happened again.

Anyways, the idea for Proto.in originated sometime around that time, and the people behind BarCamp and Proto.in became The Knowledge Foundation. The proceeded to organize such wonderful events like WikiCamp, BlogCamp, SearchCamp, etc. Indeed, all these people are amazing, and I know many of them personally. Perhaps that is what makes this post a little painful. But what has to be said, has to be said. Mostly, because it is painful to see a good idea being wasted.

First beef - the cost. The first Proto.in, priced at 500 Rs., was fantastic value, was only one day, had great food, and in the simple environs of IIT Madras. I liked it. But I was always a little perturbed by the fact that Proto.in mailing list never seemed to elicit any feedback, ideas or opinions. It is organized by a few people, and preparation for it is pretty much behind closed doors. If all the other events were about community, and Proto.in doesn't seem to be too community-oriented. If it is, then it is not very evident in its' mailing list. It is more or less like a newsletter.

So the second edition of Proto.in was 1000 Rs. And for two days. I kinda enjoyed it, but watching startups present all day is pretty tiring. You can't even say/ask something about them immediately. That too, a couple of talks came off like just marketing speak. I highlighted it then, and nothing really seems to have improved on that front - eliciting feedback from the audience seems like a second thought. The same vein continues - no encouragement for the community to talk, discuss and take ownership. I tend to be the most passionate about events/organizations that let me express opinions freely. Unfortunately, Proto.in started out very promisingly, and it became very much like one of those event-management company promoted events.

The third edition, is bigger, but by now has lost all its' charm for me. Starters, the entry is fixed at 1500 Rs., and is organized at a 5-star hotel. Being the cheapo that I am, I was quite offended. An event that is about startups, has no business charging that high a fee. As an entrepreneur, where it is held is almost irrelevant for me. I don't come there for the food, or 5-star amenities. A university hall is as good a place for organizing these kind of events. If not for the free entry given to all OCC members, I wouldn't have even turned up for the event.

Perhaps those are all ignorable - but what sounds like a sell-out for me is that charging 10,000 rupees each from the startups which are presenting. This is wrong on so many levels that I can't fathom that decision. The event is supposed to benefit the startups. And as pointed out by somebody on stage, 10k happens to be a substantial amount for most of them. By charging the startups, Proto.in turned into something very common place - like those outfits who approach people that they will honor them in a social function, only you need to pay some money first.

Fortunately, some of the companies presented there seemed to be truly deserving of the exposure. Good going. But they definitely deserve a better platform. And surprisingly, or not so surprisingly, there are no numbers as to how many of the companies are actually funded. Without empirical evidence, we would naturally doubt the truth about any claim. So where are the numbers? Seems like Proto.in is going to other cities from the next edition. Frankly, I'm not the least bit saddened. Perhaps, it is time OCC did its' own startup event, which has a real community behind it. I'd throw my hat in, for one.


Vijay Anand said...


Well, it's a bit unfortunate that you feel that way, but I do agree with you that we have a long way to go and certainly things to improve on - let alone evolve with the so-called ecosystem.

While there are some very valid points from your side, I also do think that Proto, as an event is not a community one, but an effort to bring the community together - there is a difference between the two. The minute we start selecting particular companies and showcasing them, there is a certain neutrality that needs to be maintained far from the startups/entrepreneurs and from the investor community and that inevitably happens.

The real community as you rightly pointed out will come from groups such as OCC, but I also think the minute OCC starts getting into events, you'll get into the same space that TKF eventually has gotten themselves cornered into.

In my vision, proto is a rendevous point, and in other words an event (atleast as of now) for startups to come together along with the other players in the ecosystem to make a connection and celebrate those who stand out.

As someone rightly pointed out, it is the high that occurs once in six months to bring together people from across the country.

As for the pricing, we tried something by relying a bit less on the sponsors, but I guess we are back to begging and pleading days and lowering the price - in that case, we'll hear complaints about the sponsors doing too many of their own talks! *sigh* :)

PS: The google group is a announcement mailing list, the more active community is on facebook.

Vamsee said...

Vijay, I apologize for assuming it is a community event - probably too much of open source does that to you :). I think I'm expecting the same level of openness from everything.

Coming to OCC, should it choose to do such an event, I don't think it will be cornered into a situation like TKF, if you call it that. Of course, here also I am assuming the level of openness of OCC - ideally, I think OCC should let the community decide who gets nominated and who gets chosen to demo.

Did you notice that almost none of the startups, software ones included, did an actual demo of their product? Probably you can blame it on WiFi non-availability, but I guess they can run it on their own machine and show it.

But anyways, my apprehensions not withstanding, I do appreciate your effort. All the best to you.

Prashanth said...

I missed proto.in, but a note in general is the presence of conferences (even academic) in hotels. Somehow, the environment is just not as conducive for networking as in the hall ways of a university. I understand that there are many more amenities (even food! ;-)), but yet the special touch is missing.

Dorai said...

Vamsee, you make good points. As a person who has seen proto.in from its original roots, what you feel is definitely justified.

This is my first proto.in. And I participated only the second day. I was pleasantly surprised since I did not know what to expect. I came with a free pass from OCC.

I went to a Web Innovation Conference in Bangalore last month. They charged Rs. 6000 and did it in a big hotel. They had a bunch of big sponsors. And most of the talks were from sponsors. I was very unhappy and expressed it to the sponsors.

I think doing it in a cheaper or free place and charging less is a good idea. Reducing the number of presentations (or having parallel tracks) and providing a lot more time for interaction may be even better.

One of the events I used to attend in the bay area had a great format that helped startups.

After each session (of 3 presentations), they would split the audience into 6 groups (2 for each company that presented) and make them go to a place and brainstorm the idea presented by the startup. The audience would then come back and present suggestions - on how to market, how to get funding, how to get the first customers, who their potential competitors are, etc.

I thought the companies that presented got more than their money's worth.

I am going to check out the FB community that Vijay mentioned. It is good for people to speak out so that proto.in can be improved.