From launch to growth: how sisters Tanvi and Disha Singla bootstrapped Supreme Incubator to help startups succeed
[This article is part of Startup Hatch, a series by YourStory on incubators, accelerators, makerspaces, and coworking spaces in the startup ecosystem. See earlier profiles of initiatives at IIT Bombay, IIM Bangalore, BITS Pilani, NCL, Tata Elxsi, Axilor, NID, IIIT-Bangalore, IIIT-Hyderabad, Vellore Institute of Technology, PSG Coimbatore, Electropreneur Park, Workbench Projects, Makers Asylum, NetApp Excellerator, TechStars, Indigram Labs, WeWork, Z Nation Lab, Sandbox Startups, Brigade REAP, Target India Accelerator, Maersk, Anthill Studio, UnternehmerTUM, AZO, EXIST, InsurTech Hub Munich, Afthonia Lab, CoWorks Foundry, and Ashoka Innovators.]
Sisters Tanvi Singla and Disha Singla founded Supreme Incubator to help entrepreneurs in Tier-II, III, and IV cities in India, not just in their home base of New Delhi. The incubator has now gone virtual, and is targeting overseas startups as well. Eight startups have already graduated, with 12 more in the pipeline.
Tanvi and Disha join us in this interview with YourStory on the vision, achievements and future plans of their incubator, along with words of advice for aspiring founders.
Edited excerpts of the interview:
YourStory [YS]: What was the founding vision of your incubator, and how is it supported?
Tanvi Singla and Disha Singla [T&D]: Supreme Incubator was founded to empower founders where they are, enable equal access to mentorship, resources and infrastructure to build the next wave of innovative companies, and boost their local ecosystems.
Our mentorship-based programme seeks to enable early-stage entrepreneurs to build on strong foundations from the very start, via expert guidance and a strong collaborative community.
For first-time entrepreneurs, especially those hailing from Tier-II, III, and IV cities, it can be incredibly difficult to get pertinent business advice, build a support network, and get access to capital, all while building one’s product. So, the idea behind Supreme Incubator, as inspired by the pioneers of incubation around the world, was really to offer Indian entrepreneurs a structured six-month support system to get these three things: personalised advice, network, infrastructure.
Personalised advice: We focus on small cohort sizes of 10-15 companies for better peer-to-peer feedback and learning. The goal is to effectively leverage the network of startup-Supreme, startup-startup, and startup-mentor communities. Additionally, the programme is built in a way to enable a cohesive tailored support system around the incoming founder: dedicated advisor, peer network, a pool of mentors, industry-specific talks, and more.
Network: Network exposure is one of the strong pillars of our programme. Each startup is given opportunities to network with over 100+ industry leaders through various events, meetups and groups. We regularly organise group meetups to check-in and foster founder relations, and take personalised efforts to leverage the strengths and weaknesses of each startup and match them with resources and experts to augment their skills.
Infrastructure: The programme provides workspace, digital infrastructure and tools support to support the founders in the six months they are incubated with us. With tie-ups with leading investment syndicates, groups and funds, the startups in the programme get opportunities to get funded by marquee early-stage investors. Prior to that, the founders go through coaching to build sustainable businesses first, and look at external financing as and when needed.
We are bootstrapped at the moment and have invested our own funds to build the programme and team from the ground up.
YS: What's your background as incubator founders? What independent entrepreneurship experience do you have?
[T&D]: Having grown up in an entrepreneurial family, both of us have previously worked together on new initiatives, launching a digital forex portal (as part of the family business), and a shared workspace venture.
Tanvi is a graduate from Shri Ram College of Commerce. After graduation, she joined her family business to lead initiatives in the space of digitising financial services. She was involved in social enterprises through her undergraduate extracurriculars. She aims to introduce a social entrepreneurship track at Supreme soon. She is also Global Shaper with the New Delhi Hub, an initiative of the World Economic Forum.
Disha is a chartered accountant and did her articleship training from PwC. She launched financial services initiatives as part of the family business. She pursued an MS in Entrepreneurship at the University of Florida, where her fintech startup was selected as a part of the university’s incubator. She thus experienced the incubation model first-hand, and also connected with Silicon Valley startups and mentors. She is working on her own health-tech venture as well.
We each bring very different perspectives into Supreme. While Disha has finance and management as her core expertise and experience with the startup ecosystem in the US, Tanvi leads the operational and strategic arms of relationship building with stakeholders and the development of the programme.
Together, we’ve leveraged our personal networks, and networks of our community to build a strong mentor network, investor network and partner network, each of which are critical to the success of our programme.
YS: Which startups have graduated from your incubator so far?
[T&D]: Eight startups have graduated so far.
Myways, founded by Samyak Jain, is an AI and psychometrics-empowered personalised career growth platform for students. It helps students become employable in their desired field through upskilling, internships, courses and training.
SportsThat, founded by Sheetal Arora and Nikhil Aneja, is an online sports information and a fan engagement platform for sports fans. Fans can connect with each other, share their love and passion for sports and players, and flaunt their fandom to the world.
Qwerty Thoughts, founded by Prateek Gupta and Jasleer Kaur, is a social reading, book discovery, promotion and self-publishing platform. Readers can read a book with others, discuss and share their experiences in real-time. They can connect with larger audiences across geographies.
Foodensils, founded by Tushar Bhardwaj, provides a range of edible cutlery to replace single-use plastic cutlery in dine-out and delivery restaurants.
YS: Which startups are currently being incubated?
[T&D]: 12 startups are now being incubated.
TalkEng, founded by Subhra Deb and six others, teaches English in a natural way through conversations with personal tutors at affordable prices. It facilitates job opportunities for its learners and gives employment opportunities for teachers as well.
Big Dipper Exploration Technologies, founded by Abhinesh Srivastava, is in stealth mode. It is building AI-enabled autonomous rovers for space exploration, at a time when space missions are making preparation for human arrival in space as well.
Coegii, founded by Vivekanand R. Umrao and Santosh Kumar Das, helps owners find reliable two-wheeler mechanics. It provides rate card, location, reviews and ratings of garages, with a 30-day service warranty. The application is live in an area of Mumbai.
Learnogether, founded by Shubham Pandey and Shubham Jaiswal, uses an AI engine to build unique learning paths for students. The app analyses the skillsets of the students across quantitative aptitude, English and coding.
Cognixa, founded by Shivansh Sethi and Tushar Bhatnagar, is a cloud-based AI engine offering AI-as-a-Service. Examples include video analytics involving drones or IT devices, for analysing TV footage or reading car license plates.
SoDo, founded by Gaurav Sood and three others, is a platform to find service partners and freelancers for business categories in a hyper-local area. Examples include IT services, marketing, and design.
Hyoristic Innovations, founded by Hari Shankar RL, Niveditha A, and Swetha M, are developing technologies to make space more sustainable by monitoring high-risk debris. This will depend on procuring satellite data beyond what current radars can capture.
Farmer007.com, founded by M Srinivas and six others, is developing a hyperlocal information portal about government schemes for Indian farmers. It works with a network of local language websites.
Hecod, founded by Anand Mishra and three others, is a decentralised aggregator for small health institutions. It is based on blockchain for patient management systems.
RoyalEnfashion, founded by Deepak Kumar, Abhigyan Mandal, and Tanay Singh, is a fashion-tech startup using AR for online apparel purchasing. Virtual trial rooms can improve the look and feel of the products for customers.
Coffers, founded by Shubham Jadhav And Abhiraj Karkhanis, is an e-commerce marketplace where small businesses can create their online stores. It helps them connect directly to customers.
Youngfibre, founded by Aishik Dutta, is at the idea stage and aims to develop an e-commerce aggregator platform for sustainable fashion/apparel brands.
YS: What would you say are the top three opportunities for Indian entrepreneurs?
[T&D]: Entrepreneurship in itself is a challenging journey. In addition to timing and resources, founders should first be very sure of their commitment to solving a problem for the customer, and for giving it their all.
Timing: While at first glance it may seem that a pandemic may not be the best time to start a business due to unstable market conditions, history shows that paradoxically, black swan events in the past have churned out some of the most innovative problem-solving companies. This includes Uber, Airbnb, WhatsApp, Groupon and Slack. Customer behaviour is undergoing never-seen-before changes, and there is large-scale availability of talented people who can be critical to a startup’s growth.
Resources: With support systems like incubators and accelerators stepping up to empower entrepreneurs, a booming investment industry to support scalable ventures, and no dearth of talented innovators, India is in the midst of an entrepreneurial revolution. It is critical for founders to be resourceful in leveraging such network connections and infrastructures to build right from the very start.
Industries: There are some industries picking up that we personally are excited about, and the ones that may align with overall changing trends and habits of consumers worldwide. These include sustainable goods, health, and D2C niche brands.
With the human consumption of natural resources and the resulting waste rising by the minute, there is an increased spotlight on brands with an ecological conscience. This presents an opportunity for sustainable consumer goods, enabling the typical user to join the climate action revolution through reusable, compostable or recyclable alternatives to everyday products.
With a push towards digitisation and increasing penetration and usage of e-health services, there is scope for this generation to experience healthcare like never before. At the same time, this also is the generation where wellbeing and mental health are gradually being given due priority. This has opened up space for innovation not only in creative alternatives to conventional healthcare, but also in solutions to consumers looking at greater wellbeing, mindfulness and better living.
With pandemic restrictions on physical stores, brands born and delivering online are seeing a slew of new users – customers discovering and trying alternative products online to fulfil their needs. While this is a highly concentrated space, niche D2C brands with quality products and strong digital and social presences can build a sizable base of the targeted user.
YS: What are the key challenges faced by startups in India, and how can you help bridge the gap?
[T&D]: Key challenges are lack of network access, personalised support, and proximity in community reach.
Startups from Tier II/III/IV cities aren’t always able to as readily access the startup networks as their metro counterparts. Supreme Incubator is a location-agnostic virtual program, with the majority of our founders joining from Tier-II, III, and IV cities in the country. Through the networking opportunities in the programme, the founders are able to build strong ties with industry leaders around the world, while building their ventures in their own cities.
In addition to the commonly available structured programmes of three/six/nine months, startups seek personalised support and 1:1 regular coaching to boost their success. We focus on a tailored approach for each venture, with founders in our cohorts coming from different backstories, views and visions. We build strong one-to-one relationships with each founder to chart the way that works best for them.
These founder communities from smaller towns are spread out. Entrepreneurship is a lonely journey, and it can go a long way for founders to get regular mentorship and build their ventures alongside a community of fellow entrepreneurs on the same ride. Currently, there are several digital groups and spaces for founders to connect with one another. However, these are highly spread out, with very few meeting on a regular basis to create a sense of community. In our cohort, founders meet at regular intervals through the meetups and sessions organised to foster peer relationships, feedback and learning.
YS: What are the unique challenges for social entrepreneurs as compared to tech or profit-led enterprises?
[T&D]: From our limited experience of working with social enterprises directly, we’ve seen that, as compared to the traditional profit-led startups, social enterprises may face greater hurdles in impact measurement and subsequent fundraising.
Impact or success measurement in a profit-led enterprise is done solely through an economic lens, that takes into consideration quantitative metrics such as profit, user retention, sales, and revenue. On the other hand, social entrepreneurs set up their businesses with an objective of creating both financial and social impact value. The latter segment comprises a collective impact on society and environment, metrics for which are mostly qualitative in nature.
For any investor, the objective is to earn sizable returns on their investments, something which can be reasonably measured with the quantitative metrics of a profit-led enterprise. But this may not be as easy to foresee for the blended metrics of a social enterprise.
This may also lead to a duality of direction for the social entrepreneur – who must align the social impact and profitability objectives of one’s enterprise. Large scale investors might look for growth and scalability, wherein the founders would have to ensure equivalent sustainability and scalability of the social impact to stay true to the nature of their business.
YS: What is the selection criteria for startups in your incubator?
[T&D]: We look for mission-driven founders. We look for early-stage founders who are truly passionate about their ventures, and driven to take a customer-oriented approach to solve key problems.
We seek dedicated teams, who ideally are internally self-sufficient in building an MVP, and have a strong reason to be doing what they are doing. One question we always ask founders who apply to our programme, is why they feel they are uniquely suited to implement their idea to its potential. This helps bring out the vision of the startup founders and how they associate themselves with solving that problem of their target market. When it comes to the stage of progress, we generally take in teams that are post-MVP or at an early launch stage.
On average, the startups incubated in our programmes have been working on their ventures for a year, and have built a version of their product with some level of validation with customers. This only is an average, and we have had startups in the past on the opposite ends of the scale from idea to revenue making. The underlying criteria are focussed on teams primarily, and market and idea, second.
Geographically, with the programme now being delivered virtually, founders from any part of the world can apply and get access to mentors, resources, investors and an inspiring peer community. With this move, we intend to expand this support to founders who are building solutions in places with under-developed startup ecosystems.
The application process is very straightforward – anyone can apply and be notified of the next opening cohort for which their application would be considered.
YS: What percentage of equity do you take in your startups?
[T&D]: The programme takes single digit equity in the venture, with the range varying from startup to startup. It depends on metrics like stage, traction, team and progress.
YS: What kinds of IP are being created by your startups?
[T&D]: The startups are from varying industries, and where applicable the founders have, or are in the process of taking due IP protection for their innovative creations. As part of the programme, we ensure to reiterate its importance through regular meetups with IP experts, as well as one-on-one consulting as needed.
YS: Who are some of your institutional partners, and what kinds of agreements are in place?
[T&D]: We have knowledge or co-incubation partnerships with global players in the entrepreneurship ecosystem to provide network or domain expertise to the founders. Faster Capital is one such partner, it is a global virtual incubator with a “CTO” programme offering for founders without technical expertise for the implementation of their ideas.
We have vendor partnerships with startup service providers that graciously have offered free or highly subsidised services to support the startups in our programme. Examples include Amazon Web Services (cloud credits), Exotel (cloud telephony), MSG91 (SMS), and others.
YS: Can you describe some of the facilities of the incubator?
[T&D]: We started with a vision to build an entrepreneurial hub in New Delhi, offering mentorship support, infrastructure and hands-on coaching under one roof to early-stage entrepreneurs from around the country.
Gradually, and with the advent of virtual working, we’ve expanded the scope of the programme to startups and mentors from across the world, seamlessly connecting and participating in our cohort-based programme virtually.
The office space is still available for interested founders who want months of serviced and managed office space in New Delhi. It is a 100-seater workspace located in a premium DLF building, with the highest infrastructural facilities for entrepreneurs to work, collaborate and network.
YS: What support and services do startups receive in your incubator?
[T&D]: We are extremely grateful to be supported by a powerful and highly inspiring community of advisors and mentors, who bring in immense knowledge and expertise with their passion of supporting early-stage founders in learning, scaling and succeeding. The programme, while primarily mentorship and networking driven, also provides infrastructure and external capital access.
Our programmes typically last for 24 weeks, with a curriculum-based structured support, in addition to the personalised hands-on mentoring of each startup. Even once the cohort is complete, the startups have extended support and access to the incubator’s resources, networks and mentors for guidance.
Early-stage entrepreneurs join a community of other founders and, together get off the ground with meetings with experienced mentors and advisors. Founders go through network immersion into the specific vertical and larger startup ecosystem through multiple meetup events and office hours. The sessions are organised at regular intervals throughout the programme to build group cohort accountability, and also to maximise opportunities to network with industry leaders and successful entrepreneurs.
Founders get six months of free workspace, tools and credits through global partners, and a programme built to get startups ready for, and connected to a network of early-stage investors
In short, the six-month programme enables many targeted networking, fundraising and scaling opportunities for the startups, while also helping them figure out their fundamentals. So as the founders focus on building their ventures, we work on enabling a support system around them to help them build for success.
YS: How would you differentiate your incubator from the other incubators in the field?
[T&D]: The startup enabler space has several players and is growing with a simultaneous increase in innovative startups being founded by dedicated teams. There are numerous amazing startup ecosystem enablers in our country and around the world, each with its own unique reason to support entrepreneurship. While many are for local or regional development, there are also programs for vertical niches like education or health and corporate-backed innovation centres.
We differentiate ourselves in our hyper-personalised support offering for founders at the early stages of developing their ventures. To balance the strengths and weaknesses of each team, we work hard to find the right fit with the right mentors to advise a startup and have developed a structure to ensure accountability of each stakeholder as a support pillar for the startup in the programme.
What also sets us apart is our geography. We accept startup applications from around the world, and don’t limit the founders to have to locate to our headquarters in New Delhi. Additionally, we’ve built the programme around helping “early early-stage” startup founders – a critical stage for startups to build strong foundations and build right from the start.
There is also a highly talented pool of 100+ mentors who are on the platform to engage with startups for office hours, and provide domain-specific guidance in areas such as blockchain, artificial intelligence, digital marketing and more.
YS: What are some challenges you face, and how do you plan to overcome them?
[T&D]: Incubators and startup support ecosystems, as a whole, are going through the same magnitude of change with the advent of virtual working environments, as all companies across the globe. The only bigger challenge here is that such systems thrive on community relationships and learnings – which can be enabled only to a certain extent through a web conference.
Most of the peer learning and programme structures rely on face-to-face interaction among the founders and mentors. With the virus outbreak, we immediately shifted our base online – transitioning to virtual meetings, mentor matches and sessions.
In virtual meetings, it can be challenging to enable more peer-to-peer connections, something we believe to be the core of our programme. But we’ve come to adapt different ways to keep the conversation going and augment this gap, from exploring smaller and more intimate meetings to building a technology infrastructure to take our programme further.
The challenge has primarily been involving the community in an engagement outside of a bunch of web/video conferences. While the energy of an on-site programme is unmatched, going virtual has its own benefits – we can cater to startups across the globe, we can engage mentors from anywhere in the world, there is increased participation, and we can explore exciting ways to offer deeper on-demand support for entrepreneurs, in a bid to redefine incubation as we know it.
YS: What would you define as success for your incubator?
[T&D]: Success for Supreme Incubator comes through more entrepreneurs succeeding, building enterprises and creating jobs. Our vision is to build a worldwide network and support founders where they are, and enable them to build strong local entrepreneurial communities.
So far, eight startups have graduated from our pilot cohort in Winter 2019, and 12 startups (30 founders) are enrolled in the current Summer 2020 cohort.
We also envision building programme structures to bring people outside of our target segment of founders – to engage with our programme. For this, we regularly organise events designed to curate the entrepreneurial community and share the “startup experience.”
For example, 98 startup founders participated in a Startup Bootcamp series we organised early in the lockdown, in collaboration with LaxmiRamaVarma Capital. Around 30 founders participated in our mentor-matchmaking programme. More than a hundred students participated in our virtual entrepreneurship fest, a series of events including a startup ideation contest and a pitching demo.
Another critical metric of success for us is the number of companies or startups referred from our alumni, something we saw a leap in right after our pilot cohort, all thanks to the inspiring founders who joined us for the first batch.
From 102 applications in our first cohort, we saw a leap in the applications to almost 350+ for the second cohort. We witnessed a lot more founders coming in from the network of our alumni founders. Additionally, we’ve seen promising traction in the events we’ve organised to curate the community – mentor-match series, live sessions, business plan competitions, and more, with over 500 entrepreneurs participating in different capacities.
We strive to make the programme an inclusive and safe community. One of the most inspiring changes has been the spread of applicants geographically. For the current cohort, we received applications from all parts of the country (Dehradun, Hyderabad, Kerala, Chhattisgarh, Lucknow and more) and some even from countries like the US, Uzbekistan, Mexico, Kenya, Mauritius, and Bangladesh.
In short, our success comes from building a diverse programme that graduates companies that go on to create positive impacts in their local communities, and see value in our programme to further refer their peer startups.
YS: What are your plans for the coming three-five years with respect to new startups?
[T&D]: We are all about entrepreneurs. Our mission is to support passionate founders and help them get their innovations into the world where they can have an impact and make a difference.
Going forward we aim to expand the scope of services offered through strategic partnerships, and expand the mentor pool to more global networks, something we’ve started building already to provide further networking and market expansion opportunities to the startups.
We will introduce niche verticals to build mini-microcosms of support systems for startups from similar industries. To this extent, we are in the midst of finalising applications for our upcoming fintech incubation track – built with majority seats reserved for startups from the financial technology domain to get targeted mentor, network, partner and resource support.
YS: What challenges has COVID-19 posed for Indian startups? And at the same time, what new opportunities are opening up?
[T&D]: Undoubtedly, startups weren’t shielded from the rapid spread of the pandemic’s impact on businesses worldwide, leading to avenues of growth for some, and turning points for the others.
Owing to lower revenues as well as more careful investments by funders, cash reserves of many founders depleted rapidly in the last six months, particularly those belonging to high-touch industries like travel and event management.
In times of change, entrepreneurs have led inventions and creations that not only meet immediate demand, but also lead to permanent changes in societies and consumer habits. In the current scenario, there are ample opportunities (as well as rapid adaptability) for innovations in telemedicine, remote personal care, medical equipment, home delivery, food processing, remote working, online education, and more.
Today’s rapidly changing environment can be an ideal period to pause and re-evaluate the fragility of one’s current model, product and operational approaches. Emerging from the pandemic, many startups may have to reinvent current business models and rebuild themselves, or pivot to an offering that is more in demand.
Now more than ever, instead of looking at fundraising or growth as immediate milestones, the sentiment should ideally shift to survivability, profitability and sustainability of one’s startup.
YS: How can better partnerships be forged between incubators, industry and universities?
[T&D]: Corporate-incubator partnerships are a great pathway to enable greater corporate buy-in into the ecosystem of emerging startups. Both early stage innovative startups and corporates have reciprocal benefits from potential collaborations. With the advent of remote working and accelerated digitisation, there has been a shift in the fundamental environment of operation for corporates – making room for next-gen startups to introduce their disruptive alternatives to conventional tools.
Incubators, being at the forefront of supporting such startups, can be an enabler of such partnerships. Corporate partners can not only mentor but provide benefits like market access, enterprise customers, or opportunity to co-create solutions using their established infrastructure.
The goal of such a partnership can be to foster symbiotic relations between industry-specific corporates and startups in a structured approach. This could be achieved through networking meetups or niche programme tracks, eg: fintech, ed-tech.
Universities are breeding grounds for students from different disciplines to connect, collaborate and co-create. Partnerships with incubators can play a crucial role in stimulating entrepreneurship opportunities and catalyzing the spirit of innovation in young students. Both institutions can curate programmes to offer opportunities to students to plan and execute business ideas, get mentored, test their ideas, and step into the shoes of an entrepreneur to experience it firsthand.
Not only will such collaboration augment the academic experience of the students, but it will also create a great platform for potential entrepreneurs to meet and experiment ideas.
YS: What are your recommendations or words of inspiration to the startups and entrepreneurs in our audience?
[T&D]: We have four recommendations with respect to customers, support, resilience, and mental health.
Find paying customers early on: It is very important to find customers who’ll love or pay for your product early on. It is easy to talk to the first ten seemingly-interested customers and start building the product. But when it comes to that number going from 10 to 100 to a 1,000, only products that truly understand and meet the unique needs of a customer will prevail.
Leverage support: There is no dearth of inspiring entrepreneurs, investors and even ecosystems like incubators, who are ready to support a founder who is clear with vision and is building a problem-solving product. With such systems, it is critical for the founders to be proactive and responsible with the support they get – connecting with mentors, sharing updates, following through meeting times and schedules and being open to listening to expert opinion around their idea.
Resilience: It's very important to build resilience early on. While entrepreneurship is a thrilling journey of achievements and satisfaction, it is also marked with disappointments and an unexpected number of learning curves. Resilient entrepreneurs take the highs and lows in their stride, and emerge as stronger and better founders and enterprises.
Emphasise Mental Health: It is crucial to remember to tune out and rejuvenate, as entrepreneurship can be mentally and physically exhausting. Founders must take active measures to work towards improving their own – and their team’s – mental health, a measure that could lead to multiplier improvements in overall productivity and efficiency as well.