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Negative one to zero: South Park Commons, a startup ‘unlike any other’ | Company

Ten years ago, when Aditya Agarwal was chief technology officer and vice-president of engineering at San Francisco-based Cloud storage firm Dropbox, he happened to meet Flipkart’s co-founder Binny Bansal. What was meant to be a 45-minute meeting lasted nearly three hours.

“We went deep into everything — technology to the product Flipkart was building,” recalls Agarwal. “It was one of those meetings where you get the sense that there is a lot of potential in a relationship, and I joined the Flipkart board.”

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A decade on, Bansal has joined the early stage venture fund South Park Commons, where Agarwal is a partner.

“I’m going to be involved in everything, especially in India, including helping [build] the team, mentoring the founders, and bringing other founders into the network,” says Bansal, who this year exited the board of Flipkart. “What we are working on here is inspiring more founders in India and helping them navigate the journey from the negative one to zero phase.”

What’s that?

South Park Commons, or SPC, is named after a San Francisco neighbourhood. It was started in 2015 by Ruchi Sanghvi, who is known for being the first woman engineer at Facebook. She later came to work at Dropbox when it acquired Cove, a company she had founded in 2011, and headed product, marketing, communications, and recruiting.

Agarwal is her husband. Conceived as a collective of founders, researchers, engineers and others interested in startups, SPC went on to raise funds to support early stage founders, but with a twist.

Bansal says SPC is different from other early-stage funds because it focuses on technologists dreaming of building something and helps them get started and try things out. “Something like that does not exist,” he says.

It seems aspiring entrepreneurs can knock on SPC’s doors even before their idea has taken proper shape. Most other funds, even the early stage ones, like to see an idea and some sort of a plan.

That is what SPC means when its founders speak about the journey starting at negative one.

“We are helping founders in this minus one to zero phase where they have no support,” says Sanghvi. “Whenever a founder has an idea that makes sense or has some sort of product market fit, there are tons of people who are willing to invest. But when they are navigating to find out what they want to build, there is no support. And that is what we are trying to provide.”

Industry experts say it is a leap of faith that the people who join the SPC community would be able to launch startups. A lot of founders or technologists who come to SPC come even before they have an idea or before launching a startup. This is the negative one to zero phase.

A top technologist who recently met SPC to understand its programme corroborates this. “There are several incubators and accelerators. But they all focus on the zero to one part of the journey of startups, where they pick the right entrepreneurs who may already have an idea or a very early-stage firm,” he says. “At SPC, the focus is on the negative one to zero phase, which I have not heard of before in India.

So, let’s say you take a break from work and have not figured out what to do next. SPC would tell you not to worry. Once you join its programme, you will meet others who are in a similar stage as you. You can join them and together embark on an idea, with interventions and support from SPC.


Born out of experience

“When I left my job at Dropbox, I wanted to start another company. But when people asked me what I was doing, I was embarrassed to say I was doing nothing. It took me 18 months to tell people that I am trying to figure out what I want to work on next,” says Sanghvi.

So, she started a community of her peers and technologists who were in the same state as her. “We created this environment where it was okay to fail, and as a result we were able to discard good ideas for the great ones,” she says.

Before SPC, she was an angel investor in companies such as Gusto, Pinterest, Paytm, Brex, Figma, and Stemcentrx. 

Agarwal came onboard with SPC’s first fund in 2018.

In India, SPC will build on its community’s reputation as a destination for early-stage artificial intelligence (AI) researchers and founders. The earliest members of SPC included future founders of companies like Anthropic and Imbue, as well as early engineers from OpenAI.

“We want to bridge the gap between the AI community here in India and San Francisco, and I think we are uniquely positioned to do that,” says Sanghvi.

SPC typically invests $1 million, which is split into two tranches. Agarwal says it has so far created about 150 companies, which have…

Read More: Negative one to zero: South Park Commons, a startup ‘unlike any other’ | Company

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