In the last week of March, eager entrepreneurs across India gathered in Noida, Delhi, in hopes of kickstarting their businesses at the ‘”world’s biggest funding festival”. Instead, they showed up to a mess of an event that ended with police intervention.
India’s start-up eco-system faced an unusual boom post-COVID, as companies raised record amounts, birthing unicorns and making overnight millionaires of several entrepreneurs. But recently, global headwinds have made investors more cautious, drying up liquidity. So ‘The World Startup Convention’, organized by “investors” Luke Talwar and Arjun Chaudhary provided a ray of hope for struggling founders.
Scheduled on 24th-26th March, the organisers billed the event as a platform to meet potential customers, network and pitch directly to investors.
According to WSC’s website, top Indian politicians including federal transport minister Nitin Gadkari and health minister Mansukh Mandaviya were among the chief guests. Other guests included state chief ministers and ministers, all from the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Mr Gadkari’s Twitter and Instagram pages had posted about his planned speech at the event.
Short promo videos featuring popular influencers such as Ankur Warikoo, Prafull Billore, Raj Shamani and best-selling author Chetan Bhagat also made rounds on Instagram. Advertisements for the event claimed that the likes of Masayoshi Son, SoftBank’s CEO; Gautam Adani, chair of the Adani group; Sundar Pichai, Google’s CEO; and Tesla’s Elon Musk would attend, along with 1,500 venture capitalists, 9,000 angel investors and 75,000 start-ups expected to participate.
But within only hours of the first day, something didn’t feel right. According to BBC, scheduled virtual events were getting cancelled and there was a rumble of discontent among participants. With no proper food, water or set up, by the end of the day, a group of 19 entrepreneurs had filed a police complaint, accusing the organisers of cheating and breach of trust.
Many of the attendees that BBC interviewed claimed that there were zero investors at the event and that the crowd of 4000 people was full of start-up founders.
Many of them had travelled all across India and spent thousands on travel and accommodation to attend the convention. According to Inc42, who attended the event, many of the participants were students, whose trip had been paid for by their parents. The convention itself cost around Rs 6000 to 8000 for attendees, but the event’s sponsors were in for an even bigger nightmare. The Bengaluru-based D2C brand Bambrew which makes sustainable packaging, spent over Rs 50,00,000 to become a sponsor for the World Startup Convention. Now, its founder Vaibhav Anant is preparing to take legal action, alongside many of the participants.
While the organizers of the World Startup Convention bore much of the brunt, it was hard to miss the discontent when it comes to influencers and their unverified claims. On social media, attendees have expressed disappointment and blamed the likes of Warikoo, Shamani and others. Much of the buzz around the event happened through dubious social media promotions, unverified claims by influencers and outright misinformation taking advantage of vulnerable young entrepreneurs. Some of the influencers have since tried separating themselves from the event, claiming that organisers used their videos without permission.
Over the past decade, the Indian startup ecosystem has come a long way, becoming the third largest in the world. But WSC may have set us back by a few steps. Many young students who are aspiring entrepreneurs may lose trust in investors and start-up events. Inexperienced founders who were already struggling with their businesses may face discouragement. The organizers of the event are denying all allegations of cheating, claiming that the second and third days of the event went smoothly. The attendees writing hundreds of negative reviews on Google and preparing for a lawsuit paint a different picture. Regardless, the damage to smaller, more vulnerable parties involved, is already done.