A Long US Visit

Published April 3-7, 2023


Five Weeks

I spent almost five weeks in the US from late February to the end of March. This was my second longest visit in the past 30 years – since I spent two months in late 1994. There were two trade shows which bookended the visit and where Netcore-Unbxd had booths – eTail West in Palm Springs and Shoptalk in Las Vegas, with much of the intervening time spent in the Bay Area and New York. For me, the trip was about working through a strategy for Netcore’s US business – because most of our next $100 million is going to come from that market.

This stay had many similarities with the 1994 visit. That was a trip when I was searching for what to do next after a series of failed ventures. It was during those two months that I worked on the business plan for IndiaWorld. During this trip, I brainstormed with my colleagues on how to build our US business. While Netcore has a strong presence in India, South-East Asia, Middle East and Africa, growth in the US has been slow. Our acquisition of Unbxd a year ago was the first step in laying the foundation for strengthening the US presence. The US is the largest single market globally, and the next horizon for Netcore. (As an example: the ESP – email service providers – market in the US is 100 times larger than India.) For us to build an enduring great company, we need to win in the US.

I had planned the visit initially as a short one: a week-long stay to attend Shoptalk in Las Vegas. I then got an opportunity to speak at SaaSOpen in New York which meant I had to leave a week earlier. And then I decided that I should also attend eTail West to give myself an additional opportunity to interact with prospects. Thus, one week became two, and then finally five! The length of the trip meant that I had a lot of time to fill up, which in turn helped me schedule many meetings to learn more about the US market.

I made the decision to extend my trip to a longer duration very quickly. I decided that if I thought too much about it, I would find many reasons to stick to a shorter trip. But the entrepreneur in me is always ready for a sense of adventure. The trip turned out to be exactly that. Starting and ending in San Francisco, I took 10 domestic flights in just over a month. There were 32 consecutive nights in hotels; one good outcome is I am now a Marriott Gold Elite customer! And through the weeks, bit-by-bit, a better plan has emerged for the US. The coming year will determine how successful we are.


Trade Shows

The US does trade shows with a precision, efficiency, and scale that I have not seen anywhere else. Shoptalk had 10,000 attendees. In a unique innovation, they had set up almost 2,000 tables covering five football fields to host 50,000 1:1 double opt-in 15-minute meetings. Every session began and ended on time, with multiple tracks. It was amazing to see how the booths got set up literally out of thin air; on Sunday afternoon, the exhibit area resembled an empty shell, and by Monday morning, it was all ready to host attendees with everything perfectly in place. eTail was also similar, though at a smaller scale.

The conference and trade show format works very well. Buyers and sellers meet – some pre-planned, others accidentally. The conference tracks are very good for knowledge-sharing and learning, while the booths are where business opportunities get opened. The pandemic had interrupted this two-way engagement and that also hurt us because for a new company seeking to build a brand, trade shows are an important part of the mix. While Netcore and Unbxd had a booth last May at IRCE in Chicago, I had not spent much time at the booth then – choosing to be in conference sessions to learn the new marketing vocabulary. This time, I balanced conference and booth time better, and thus had a lot more conversations with potential partners and buyers.

Here are a couple pictures of the backdrop and the hanging sign we had at our Shoptalk booth:

The focus for us was on two innovations: AMP in Email (what we termed as All-in-Email) and AI-enriched catalog (which is the key to getting product discovery and personalisation right).

For both Netcore and Unbxd, both shows were good – an opportunity to connect with the right audience, and open up a strong pipeline for future conversations and conversions.

For me, the sessions gave a good overview on some of the top-of-mind themes: the state of US consumer spending (luxury doing well, some downscaling in other categories, but overall consumption still going strong), omnichannel to unified experience shift, the opportunities with Generative AI (especially as copilot and autopilot, as a speaker put it), the innovations in physical retail (unattended checkout, drones for in-store inventory checking), the rise of retail media networks, and the possibilities with video and livestreaming. Profitable growth was a consistent theme across the CEO keynotes.

For me, being at such events and the complete immersion drives new thinking. The mixing of what others say combined with my mental models helps refine ideas for the future. During the IndiaWorld years and early years of Netcore, learning came from the conferences and walking the exhibit floors. This time, it was the booth conversations which created the lasting impressions.



I had the wonderful opportunity to talk about my entrepreneurial journey at SaaSOpen, the event organized by Nathan Latka in New York. Here is the video.

Some of the slides from my talk:

It was a fantastic event for SaaS founders. Getting to hear the behind-the-scenes stories of what it takes to build a company with financials is what makes it unique. For me, the best sessions were Nathan’s 1:1 conversations – I have not seen a better questioner than him!

While valuations in SaaS have normalised, gritty founders are working to build sustainable businesses. Operational efficiency and profitability are now central to building businesses. My talk about building IndiaWorld and Netcore as “proficorns” (private, profitable, bootstrapped, and highly valuable) resonated well – I got a lot of good feedback after my presentation. For me, the journey has just begun. There are many more mountains to climb, as I said at the end of my talk.


Observations – 1

What follows is a collation of experiences from my trip.

For the first time, I took a flight to the US that left India during the day. Air India’s Mumbai-San Francisco nonstop departed Mumbai at 2:30 pm in the afternoon and arrived in SF at 5 pm. (This was also the first time I flew nonstop to SF; Jet Airways used to have a SF flight but that had a stopover in Shanghai).

Air India’s planes on the BOM-SFO sector have excellent interiors in business class. A friend said these are the planes leased from Delta and thankfully, the interiors have not been changed. Each seat becomes a mini suite with its own door. And thankfully, there is no middle seat in business classes. Of course, the prices are more than double pre-pandemic but that doesn’t seem to have impacted demand.

Indian restaurants have also upped their prices 60-70% from pre-pandemic levels, again with no visible impact on demand. In fact, delivery platforms have probably widened their market opportunity. In New York, I stuck to the four Indian vegetarian restaurants which have a wide selection of Jain options: Kailash Parbat, Pongal, Ahimsa and Saravana Bhavan. (I missed Vatan this time.)

All the 12 flights I took during the trip were pretty much on time. The longest delay of an hour was on my return flight from SFO to BOM because of runway closure in Mumbai at the scheduled landing time. At over 17 hours, it was also the longest flight I had ever taken.

My new favourite hotel in New York is Residence Inn Marriott at Times Square. The rooms have a kitchenette which is very helpful. The breakfast spread is outstanding, the location is perfect, and the views from some of the rooms (Empire State Building!) are superb. In the Bay Area, I stay at Corporate Inn Sunnyvale – very reasonably priced and great location on El Camino Real; I have been their customer for more than 15 years now. With Chaat Bhavan within walking distance, I can also get hot Indian food when I want!

The two startups which have been much maligned in TV series were also the most impactful: Uber and WeWork. Uber’s magic of cab-on-call brings in so much travel efficiency for people like me who do not drive. In California, it helps me do 5-6 meetings in a day. WeWork’s fractionalisation of office space is ideal for startups who can pay by the month. I spent much time at the WeWork on 37th and 7th where Netcore’s two-seater office is located.

Commercial real estate in the US is in for challenging times. Besides rising interest rates, the work-from-home reality means that there is a lot of empty space. I cannot see employees in tech going back to the office five days a week. But that also has implications for productivity. So, it is a fine balance. But seeing huge empty offices struck me as a bit eerie and scary – almost “ghost offices”!


Observations – 2

This was an almost all-digital payments trip. I probably spent less than a hundred dollars in cash throughout the entire trip. Between my three Indian credit cards and a Thomas Cook prepaid travel card, I didn’t need cash.

While weekdays were busy with meetings, the weekends would get a bit lonely. The cold weather ensured walking around NY was not something I could do a lot of, though I did make the most of the few days the sun was out, and the temperatures were relatively higher. Strand and Barnes & Noble around Union Square are two places I love. Following a recommendation from a friend, I also went to the Museum of New York – and got an amazing history of the city’s 400 years.

The one mishap I had was when I tripped on the pavement in New York after exiting from the subway at Spring Street. I did not see the indentation in the pavement, lost my balance (“sudden change of my centre of gravity, as a friend described it), and fell. Luckily, I escaped with bruises on my knees. As I was telling Bhavana and Abhishek, it was a near-miss – I could have broken bones and that would have been a disaster.

I had a very wide array of meetings: from old friends to customers to potential investors. Most went well, but a couple taught me the value of time and story-telling. In one of the meetings, my long-winded stories about Netcore’s past and my background were cut short (“tell me why exactly you are here and what you want from me”). Another was cut short because the other person did not see any value, much to my chagrin. I now come to the point very quickly and have learnt to make every minute useful for the attendees.

From a business standpoint, the absolute amazement that I saw time and again when I showed the demos of search and payments inside emails was most heartening. The challenge now is to convert this “wow” to a “win”. It means switching brands away from their existing ESP and martech stack to Netcore. I am hopeful because what we have is a real game changing innovation which can do wonders for conversions.

The best memories of the trip are the times I spent with my colleagues at Netcore and Unbxd. They are the ones who have had faith to join a startup in the US, because that is what we are. Seeing their enthusiasm and passion gives me hope for the future of Netcore US.

As I write this a day after my return to Mumbai, the month gone by is a blur. So many conversations, so many ideas. I have 800 pages of notes from the trip – with plenty of ideas for future blog posts! Most importantly, I have a plan to grow Netcore in the US. It is a 0 to 1 play – something I really like. That for me is my next challenge, the new mountain to climb.