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Updated: February 7, 2013 18:35 IST

Schooling for success

Nita Sathyendran
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GUNNING FOR INNOVATION Freeman Murray
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GUNNING FOR INNOVATION Freeman Murray

Angel investor Freeman Murray talks about setting up StartupSchool.in to mentor youngsters who want to start tech companies

He’s been there, done that and, as a result, is one of Silicon Valley’s success stories. Now, renowned entrepreneur, angel investor and tech wiz Freeman Murray is in Kerala to teach young entrepreneurs the tricks of the trade. Freeman has set up StartupSchool.in in Kochi. It’s a three-month residential mentoring programme designed to help a new generation of entrepreneurs create mobile and internet-based start-ups. The programme is hosted by StartupVillage.in and is run in partnership with Jaaga, a Bangalore-based art and technology space that Freeman co-founded in 2009.

“The time is right to be an IT entrepreneur in India,” says Freeman, who was in the city to share his success story at the TEDx talks organised at the College of Engineering Trivandrum. “In India there is a very large, very young population who are eager to be part of the internet revolution. Now the mobile revolution has sort of added on to it. However, there is a lack of experienced developers. The world is hungry for high-end software developers and India seems to have potentially millions people who are eager to do this. And so the soup here is very exciting,” adds Freeman. He should know. After all, he was “lucky enough” to grow with the World Wide Web as it happened in Silicon Valley in the 90s.

“Growing up in California, I was always fascinated by my dad, John Murray’s work as a software developer/ entrepreneur. It was when I was studying computer science at the University of California, Santa Cruz, that the World Wide Web happened and the first word processor came out. So, I guess, it was inevitable that I too be a part of it,” explains Freeman.

While in college, at age 21, Freeman helped a few of his college-mates with the programming of IUMA.com, the first internet music start-up to distribute independent music.He then joined Sun Microsystems and was part of the original Java team and worked on the Java server project. “It really was the beginning of the internet wave and Java was the centre of it all. It was a special place to be,” recalls Freeman. He quit Sun in 1998 and with colleague Pavni Diwanji founded Kendara.com, which developed browser plug-ins providing users with information relevant to the web pages they visited. Ever since the duo sold the company in 2000, Freeman’s been an angel investor in several start-ups in India and the United States. “I’d always had this dream of doing an incubator and had a sort of a religious conviction about the power of the internet. I felt that there was too much to do, to actually do everything myself. So I wanted to help other people explore the web’s unexplored territories. I feel that the internet is a special place where there is the opportunity to do something meaningful to make the world better and earn money in the process,” says the 40-year-old.

After experimenting for a while in California, he upped and moved to India in 2005. “I realised that in the Valley I would be just another entrepreneur. Whereas, here in India, with its incredible technological potential, I realised I could really make an impact.”

Kolkata was his first destination. “I used to walk along the streets of Kolkata and everywhere I went, even in shanty towns, the most common ads I would see was calling applicants for Java and C++ training! I was convinced that I was in the right place,” says Freeman, with a laugh.

Pune beckoned and he became part of firms such as Mixercast.com and several non-profit ventures too. Freeman, though, made a name for himself in tech circles in India for managing the popular iAccelerator programme of the Centre for Innovation, Incubation and Entrepreneurship, Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. Later, he moved to Bangalore before setting up shop in Kochi. StartupSchool was kick-started on January 7 with eight young entrepreneurs on its rolls.

“While at iAccelerator, I realised that there are few exits for software companies in India. The most likely scenario is that once it’s deemed successful those companies will be taken over by another company. That’s what happened with Kendara. Only one in a million companies really go public. This sort of exit is not happening here very much. We were doing a good job of getting a viable, profitable company going, but they were not always getting funded immediately. Angel investing is still kind of slow here. For an A plus developer/team, funding is readily available at the moment. I was more intrigued by the prospect of doing something on a similar scale for those programmers who are interested, eager and ambitious but are not fundable in the conventional investor sense. I wanted a space where these youngsters could work on their ideas without worrying if it was the best way of doing things. Hence, the idea for StartupSchool. Besides, I was also impressed by Startupvillage’s social agenda to get Kerala seen as a centre of technology and innovation,” says Freeman, who keeps referencing India’s software scene as we, ours…

“Well, I identify more with the Indian start-up scene than that back in the Valley. This is home.”

The way forward…

At StartupSchool, participants are mentored by those with experience setting up successful Internet companies. They live and work in a creative environment buzzing with mobile and internet startups. Their living expenses are covered leaving them to focus all of their time and energy on learning skills and working on their ideas. “It focusses on getting teams to ramen profitability (just enough to pay the founders’ living expenses) without relying on outside funding. Our participant Nikhil Vishnu has already launched MobApper.com to help people create mobile apps from their Wordpress Blogs, and most of the others have great ideas in the works too.” For information log on to http://startupschool.in/

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