How can I get my million-dollar idea off the ground? This question weighs on the minds of many entrepreneurs. With funding difficult to come by and accelerators and incubators hard to access, the thought of jump starting a business is often daunting.

Many startups lack a solid business strategy and need guidance on the execution of their big ideas. One Million by One Million is a global virtual incubator/accelerator that aims to provide support to all entrepreneurs looking to increase revenue, get ahead of the pack, and develop their companies.

The venture provides an inclusive and beneficial network of like-minded entrepreneurs, helping startups access the benefits of physical incubators like Y-Combinator with few barriers to entry.

1M/1M founder Sramana Mitra, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and strategy consultant, took the time to share her perspective with the CourseTalk community and answer our questions. She offered her thoughts on entrepreneurship, edtech, and the future of online education.

Sramana Mitra, 1M/1M Founder


What originally motivated you to start a virtual incubator (One Million by One Million)?

I have been a serial entrepreneur in Silicon Valley since the mid-nineties, and have experienced multiple booms and busts through the years. I have also thought deeply about the dysfunctions in capitalism, and today, I am working on a venture that is aimed at fixing some of them. But let me tell you a bit of a story, first.

In November 2009, I wrote an important piece on my Forbes column called Capitalism’s Fundamental Flaw. In it, I underscored the observation that capitalism has been hijacked by speculators, and value creation and entrepreneurship are no longer at the center of the system. The modern financial crisis is but a manifestation of this fundamental problem, and rather than focusing on the rich vs. poor debate, we need to focus on how to rehabilitate the capitalistic system to put the emphasis back on value creation and entrepreneurship. This piece triggered a huge discussion all over the Internet.

In October 2010, I defined what the new form of capitalism needs to look like, and called it Capitalism 2.0.

My vision of capitalism 2.0 is a democratic, distributed capitalism that puts the emphasis on entrepreneurship on a very large scale. As a Computer Scientist who did most of her undergraduate and graduate research in the area of scalable parallel and distributed systems, my thought process in the domain of economics and capitalism has also been focused on designing a scalable, distributed entrepreneurship development methodology, educational curriculum and delivery model, as well as a virtual incubation and mentoring process that entrepreneurs from anywhere in the world can access and benefit from.

So then what do you see as the main advantages of 1M/1M as compared to a physical incubator?

In the One Million by One Million program, we offer a case-study-based online educational program, video lectures, and methodology, online strategy consulting at public and private online roundtables, as well as introductions to customers, channel partners and investors (pre-seed, seed, angel, VC, bank, alternative financing). The public roundtable is a free program accessible from anywhere in the world. The rest of the services are for paying members only. The $1000 annual fee grants paying members unlimited usage of the service.

In her recent article on 1M/1M, Marylene Delbourgh-Delphis explains the benefits of the program’s inclusiveness:

Physical incubators, even the largest, can only host a limited number of companies, which means that the vast majority of entrepreneurs are on their own for all sorts of reasons. 1M by 1M doesn’t have to select or exclude entrepreneurs to function, and thus can accept companies regardless of their prospective TAM or the speed at which the business will grow…Changing the world for the better is a collective effort, where each entrepreneur defines his/her vision of effectiveness, while benefiting from sharing lessons learned. [You can read her full article here.]

Indeed, we’re not exclusive at all. We want every entrepreneur to have access to our curriculum and services, and give them an opportunity to build their businesses, irrespective of the scale of their entrepreneurial aspirations. After all, there are many more $5M, $10M, $20M ideas out there than $500M or billion dollar ones. The latter is the domain of venture capital, but the former is what we need to also nurture to startup America. [You can watch a video on this subject to understand more about what VCs do and don’t fund, and why.]

I have learnt a great deal being based in the heart of Silicon Valley for the last 18 years, and having access to its inner circle. However, as I started designing 1M/1M, it was clear to me that what we have learned and fine-tuned here at such a furious pace needs to be encapsulated and made available to the larger world of entrepreneurs. No, you do not need to come to Silicon Valley to learn entrepreneurship. With 1M/1M, we have packaged the lessons from the trenches of over 600 entrepreneurs. We have synthesized a methodology that draws from their best practices. We have created case studies that help you get an up-close-and-personal experience of sitting down with some of the best entrepreneurs of our time, and sharing, perhaps, a cup of coffee with them.

Building off of that, what do you see as the advantages to online education as opposed to in-person instruction?

The way we teach the program is by bringing together the tribal knowledge of hundreds of successful entrepreneurs on one scalable, portable platform. This is just impossible to do in-person. Do you think we can bring 600+ successful entrepreneurs from around the world to Buenos Aires, or Brussels or Bangkok on a daily, 24-hour basis? The ONLY way we can do this is online.

How do you think online learning will play into the future of higher education? Will it continue to gain traction?

Yes. Today, we have a generation of young people who are growing up as digital natives, being exposed to online learning very early on in their lives. These behaviors will continue to breed increasing adoption and usage of online learning.

In your opinion, what is the most promising or exciting new trend in online education? The least promising?

The most promising trend is that Internet penetration is growing, and more and more parts of the world are getting online, able to access the same things that were once only available to elite users. My mother’s cook lives in a slum in Kolkata. Her daughter is a savvy smartphone user. In due course, people like her will become savvy consumers of online education. It will take another decade or two, but the trend is irreversible.

The least promising trend is that the Internet is full of free loaders. People expect value to be available for free. I simply do not believe in this. It isn’t free to create value. Why should it be free to consume value?

Some people are starting to take advantage of free business-oriented MOOCs as a substitute for a b-school education. There’s been a lot of hype about this lately, but could it actually work? Could it at least give some entrepreneurs the background they need to be successful?

B-school education, by and large, is not for entrepreneurs. It is for people looking to get hired by large companies for fat salaries, so that they can pay off their $150k-$250k debt accumulated to finance the b-school study.

If you have that kind of debt on your shoulders, you cannot sustain the compulsory bootstrapped phase of a venture. Every venture requires 6-24 months of bootstrapping, before you can raise any financing.

Entrepreneurship education, therefore, for the real entrepreneurs, happens on the job. That is why, we have designed 1M/1M as a flexible program that can be used simultaneously, while building a business, and it costs only $1000 a year. In exchange, we provide an ROI of $375,000 (cash) + 5-10% equity. There is no entrepreneurship education program out there that has this kind of ROI.

We’re also mindful of the fact that a lot of people want to bootstrap a company while holding onto their full-time jobs and their paychecks. 1M/1M encourages this practice. We’re fine with aspiring entrepreneurs joining the program without quitting their jobs, so that they can learn, and start validating their ideas.

What about credit for online courses in general? What’s your take on the growing debate surrounding credentials for MOOCs and other online courses?

Well, the MOOCs are providing proctored testing and certification in some cases. Those would count for credit. For us, it is a moot point. We are teaching entrepreneurship, and our success metrics are customers, revenues, and profits for our members.

I know that Big Data is an important topic on your own blog and website. How do you think Big Data could help improve online education?

Big Data, coupled with Machine Learning and Personalization can help identify and plug skill-gaps. That’s the greatest promise, thus far unrealized.

What about the social aspect of online learning? What work still needs to be done there and do you have any insights into how important online peer-to-peer or professor-student interaction actually is?

Let me use the example of our public and private online roundtables. Every week, we have online mentoring sessions for our community. They run like reality shows. Somewhere between 3-7 entrepreneurs join the Webex session in interactive mode, while the rest of the room participates in public chat. I anchor the sessions, and I coach entrepreneurs in real-time. The philosophy is case-study based learning. Peers learn from each mentoring session. Why don’t you try one of these sessions? They’re cool, fun, and inspiring.

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Everyone seems to have tablet, a smartphone or both. How important do you think the mobile aspect of online education is or will be?

Very important. As I said earlier, people in the slums of third world countries have smartphones. They will access learning through mobile devices. It will be pervasive, and so it should. Total democratization, I hope.

You wrote The Other 99%, a collection of essays, in which you attempt to explain why over 99% of entrepreneurs who seek funding are rejected. You say that funding is actually optional to the entrepreneurial process. Do you see any trends in terms of funding for edtech startups? How difficult is the process for them? How necessary? How do the trends in funding vary per industry?

The problem with EdTech is two-fold: (1) The market is full of free-riders (2) As a result, it is almost impossible to build high revenue-growth businesses, a requirement for venture financing. Barring a few exceptions, my observation is that you can build excellent bootstrapped businesses in EdTech, but venture-scale businesses will be hard to build. But, there will be some. If the subject interests you, read these two articles I wrote recently:

Are We In A Golden Age of EdTech?

Venture Capital in Slow Growth Markets: India, EdTech, CleanTech

Trends in funding do, indeed, vary from industry to industry. They also vary according to cycles – boom and bust. Social Media and Mobile Messaging Apps have been in boom cycles recently. But these are unpredictable, so we emphasize fundamentals: customers, revenues, profits.

What qualities do you look for in a successful edtech startup? Do you have any particular advice on business strategy and execution for those in education technology? Are these trends similar or different to startups in other industries?

We emphasize business models. Free is not a business model. If your service is free, even if millions of people use them, you don’t have a business. This, by the way, is our philosophy across the board. We’re interested in helping you build businesses, not foo foo nonsense.

Finally, where would you personally like online education to go within the next 10 years? Beyond what you think is likely to occur, what would you want to see happen?

I would like to see discipline in the learners. You see, learning is not a switch that you flip, and you become enlightened. Learning is work. Learning has always been work, so why should it be otherwise once it’s online? People don’t seem to have this expectation straight yet. They think learning is technology – you put an app or a chip into your brain and you become learned. Not so. You need to learn to learn online.

I want to see people learn to learn online.

Once they do, the possibilities are endless.


Be sure to check out more from Sramana Mitra and her exciting venture, One Million by One Million, on CourseTalk!

One Million by One Million (1M/1M) is a global virtual incubator/accelerator that aims to nurture a million entrepreneurs to reach a million dollars each in annual revenue and beyond, thereby creating a trillion dollars in global GDP and ten million jobs.