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The story of a startup for startupsSeptember 15, 2021

Prema Sagar

Chairperson, BCW India Group at Genesis BCW and Six Degrees BCW

I have always had a soft spot for startups and entrepreneurs—because, as most of you know, I began my journey as one. The spark of a new idea, setting it up as a business from scratch, getting people together around it to believe in it…all of it gives me such a thrill! Perhaps that is why the idea of an offering focused on startups was something that immediately appealed to me.

The seed of a new idea

The year was 2012, and we had just launched a new training programme for our emerging leaders. The programme, named LEAP, was aimed at giving these leaders the skills and coaching to go to the next level of their career in terms of managing their teams, their business and their clients. One of the sessions was on business planning and they were asked to create a business plan for a new PR firm. Vishal Gaba and his team decided on the idea of a firm focused on startups.

Around the same time, we would often have startups reaching out to us—especially our Technology practice—for public relations. The challenge, however, was usually in matching needs with budget. Vishal Gaba, who had been part of LEAP, and Parekhit Bhattacharjee, who was passionate about startups, were both part of the Technology practice. They were involved in handling communication for a few industry associations, like Indian Angels Network and NASSCOM, which had the 10,000 Startups initiative. These associations didn’t just expose them to the start-up landscape, but also inspired them. Vishal and Parekhit dove deep into the eco-system, realising the huge need in the segment.

The LEAP project was married to the business ask and that became the genesis of the idea of Step Up, which we formally launched in 2014 as a division of Genesis BCW.

Packing a punch in a lean offering

So, what did Step Up set out to do? We understood that as startups look to scale up, they need more access to investors, customers, and talent. Given my own experience and based on our conversations with other entrepreneurs, we knew that every brand has its own aspirations and vision, so we were clear there couldn’t be a one-size-fits-all approach. As their communications partner, Step Up taps into its range of expertise areas to create customizable integrated solutions, which could include traditional media, digital and content, to reach and engage with their target audience. Incubating Step Up at Genesis BCW is especially interesting for two reasons. One, because it allows startups to tap into a larger ecosystem and adapt it to a leaner and agile model at an affordable cost or through performance-led compensation terms. The second reason is that as these startups grow, our partnership with them grows as well and they move to the more specialized part of our business with full-service offerings.

All that glitters is…not a startup!

When Step Up just started out, there were some interesting learnings along the way. The biggest of those was that everything from a mom-and-pop shop to a fly-by-night operation can come under the ‘startup’ umbrella. Vishal and Parekhit recount a hilarious incident when they were called to a decrepit apartment in New Delhi. When they entered, they saw a wall lined with wrenches and other tools. A non-descript guy sitting there told them he was the ‘CEO’ and pointed to another guy and said he’s also the ‘CEO’. It was a mobile phone repair shop, with pretty much zero credibility. Not only did Vishal and Parekhit quickly get out of there (doubling up laughing along the way with the absurdity of the situation), but they also realised that there needed to be a filter that we had to apply.

Being seen, and how!

Several of our people were moved by the energy of the startup universe and joined in, growing the team. When Vishal left the firm (interestingly, to start his own entrepreneurial venture), Parekhit took up the charge of the division under the leadership of Piyal Banerjee. It was time for the butterfly to take wings and fly higher. Parekhit would look for opportunities for Step Up to get more visibility in the market. In one such instance, he recalls participating in an eclectic event where you would get a speaking room based on the number of people who signed up for your talk. Expecting not more than 50 people to sign up, imagine his surprise when ~500 people signed up! He was given the largest room and relinquished the stage to film director and event headliner Anurag Kashyap.

Taking wings

The success of the team reached our APAC region colleagues and there was a proposition to launch Step Up in China, another country with a growing entrepreneurial environment. After being part of setting up and scaling Step Up in India, Parekhit was asked to help create the same division in China in April 2015. He went on to work at the Beijing office for four months to help get the division up and running. When I asked him what he remembers the most, he said, the working lunches! Most of his meetings would happen over lunch and he wasn’t very good at eating with chopsticks back then. So, while his colleagues and prospects would comfortably eat and talk, the poor guy would be too conscious to eat and therefore end up hungry!

Relentless, resilient, resurgent

Over the years, Step Up has continued to grow and adapt to the ever-changing startup environment. During the pandemic, the team has truly partnered with their clients in their specific struggles. In the beginning, it seemed like the segment had been given a body blow that it wouldn’t recover from. However, the resilience, as well as agility of startups, helped turned the story around. Communication was key in this, as these companies tried to ensure they kept their stakeholders engaged through it all.

According to NASSCOM, India added 1600 tech startups in 2020, making it the third-largest startup hub in the world. And 2021 is showing no signs of being left behind, with 10 startups already achieving the unicorn (with USD 1 billion valuations) status. Clearly, the need for a service like Step Up has never been keener. I am really proud of the team we have and the passion they have been showing in not just adapting to the disparate needs of their clients, but also thinking like a startup for their own business.