Monthly Archives: July 2011

Lets Blame It on Rio (and not the Ecosystem!)

Having read so much on blogs, forums, one on one interactions with entrepreneurs, VCs – I conclude that “Blame It on Ecosystem” is the favorite game for people in Indian startup space (both included – entrepreneurs & the investors). And the blame game continues – Entrepreneur complaining that this VC just “does not get it” when their pitch does not make it; Investors complaining that they are “yet to find a Bn dollar company” from India.

There is a lot of rant already over this topic without much reasoning. Unlike my other posts on this blog – I will not try to express any personal opinion about a business domain here; but just highlight why the Indian Startup scene is about 10 years behind Silicon Valley.

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Indian VCs don’t take risks –
Entrepreneurs have higher appetite for risk than investors. Every investment in any investor portfolio is a risk. There is a calculated risk that every VC takes, be it Indian or US investor. Indian VCs don’t take risk is a incorrect statement, the right way to put this is – risk appetite of Indian VCs is more inclined towards proven business models of west. After all a entrepreneur takes a risk with belief in his idea, VC with his money in entrepreneur’s belief to execute.

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Only Validated Business Ideas get VC invested –
OTAs, Daily Coupon Sites, eCommerce, Finance Lead Generation & similar., these are proven business models with metrics that are well defined.
– X visits result on Y transactions at average value of Z
– X spends result in Y leads and Z conversions from it

This is a low risk appetite investment, where it is not a rocket science to determine how to scale up the business and predict profitability & revenue projections. Knowing these metrics and a good team – the VC is more comfortable & confident with such investments in India.

Compare the same for an Facebook, Foursquare, Quora, Twitter, Dropbox or Evernote. If such businesses are pitched at early stage to VCs here, most of them would have no clue on what metrics to use for basis of their investment. All such platforms raised a angel round or small VC round before the metrics were clear.

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Lack of 2nd/3rd Generation Entrepreneurs –
Now why did I mention initially in this post that India is ten years behind Silicon Valley? – because Silicon Valley today has entrepreneurs & investors who have done 2X/3X exits. Living up a 2X or 3X full company life cycle till exit gives an incomparable experience, the next company they build is ‘better product & platform’ than the earlier and so on.

In India, with notables of Naukri, MakeMyTrip and few others we have started seeing first generation exits now, both Sanjeev Bikhchandani & Deep Kalra are doing the right things with spotting new investments for the next mile. To have more entrepreneurs going 1X, 2X or 3X exits, is anywhere between a 5-10 year game plan.

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Pre-Revenue Investments –
There is a big misconception that in Silicon Valley companies get funded in pre-revenue stage. Yes, they do – but not all; not the ones without strong user engagement, not the ones without a solid team behind the product or platform. And for B2B products, not the ones who have initial set of customers who swear by the product!

This might not be false for India as well. If Sanjeev or Deep Kalra want to start their next entrepreneurial journey – who will not invest?

Pre-Revenue Startups like Facebook, Foursquare and many others did not raise large investments or achieve high valuations in their first round. These companies themselves raised either an angel investment or a very low value Series A investment to start, validate their product, get users/customers and then went for a big round of investment/valuation.

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There are no Early Adopters –
Unless an entrepreneur agrees that his product is bad or not a market-fit or has not tried enough, in my opinion this is the biggest excuse. How can one justify the same in a country of 1 Billion people. In a country which easily figures among the top 10 countries by users for any successful web product in valley – from Orkut, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Foursquare, Quora and many others!

For B2C products – you have not tried enough!
For B2B or Enterprise SaaS products – did you guys not hear of Wingify or Fusion Charts or InMobi. This is digitally connected world – no one has bounded a company by geographical limits. These are proven models of product driven startups from India.

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Disconnect with Valley –
The kind of companies that are funded in India today are the ones that were funded in US about ten years back. I have no disrespect for the Indian companies – infact they are building the base for the next wave of Internet boom – exactly the same that happened with US.

With a whole lot of first generation entrepreneurs in India – we expect at least the VCs to bring an perspective on whats happening in US & other parts of the world, not the obvious answers that everyone knows. The learning from valley does not come or has not reached to many investors in India.

My point of disconnect with valley here is that many in investment community today are still unaware of Quora, Spotify, Dropbox, Evernote, Airbnb, Rovio, and so many others. In one of my meetings I had to tell a investment analyst about 500startups, Angellist and in another one that Ashton Kutcher is also a technology investor! And in one more, someone explained if a American company like Lenovo can be big in China, others too can (? – OK)! And that people in investor circles are still unaware of Yuri Milner & DST.

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No Product Focus –
There is a buzz within investor circles that the next Google, Facebook, Amazon of the world will come from India. With comfortable investment decisions in validated business models like eCommerce – post my above experiences I sincerely doubt if Indian investors will be able to spot such opportunities when it knocks your doors?

The current series of investments about eCommerce in India are a hunt to find the next Amazon. But, Amazon itself has ceased being an eCommerce company long time back, it is a product/ a platform and much more beyond all that – view Amazon’s Hidden Empire .

In US, investors invest in products & platforms; in India – they invest in companies. Huge Difference! When did you last hear of an eCommerce (leaving aside daily deals and private shopping, though a format of eCommerce itself) or Online Travel company getting funded in Silicon Valley?. If you are building a B2B or B2C product/platform company in India, all investors will be to help you with money & connections, but only handful of investors in India will be help you with product or platform – choose wisely!

Disclosure: Experience – I reached out to two venture capitalists at some point of time for role as investment analyst with experience in diverse products & platforms – was rejected outright for lack of ‘relevant experience’. No sour grapes, but I could have saved some millions for them :-)

I am of a strong opinion that there is a huge need of in-house product & platform management advisory in many Indian venture capitalists. All ecosystem changes are driven by improvement & innovations in products & platforms, not by revenues. Lastly, it is only the consumer products that will scale up and be a billion dollar company!

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Everyone wants to invest Early Stage / Series A
Everyone wants to invest at early stage, but no one wants to take risk. So investments will happen early – but validated business models only. Some good examples for early stage investments in India are redBus, InMobi – while some good early stage misses are Infibeam (which has grown significantly larger without any outside investment).

Angels and Seed stage funds are well positioned to spot early opportunities than institutional investors.

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Premature Incubation Model
Going for a incubation model – make sure you choose the right one among the ones you are joining. Reason to say this – incubation models in US have mentors who have great experience in building products & platforms at scale. Y Combinator – has Paul Buchheit (creator of Gmail & Google Adsense), 500startups has Dave McClure (PayPal, FBfund, Simply Hired and more) and mentors from hottest companies and startups in valley; and so many others.

I have simple belief – Internet & Mobile startups are as good or as bad as the products you build. If you are choosing a incubation model – make sure it compliments your actual requirements. Last reason an entrepreneur should choose a incubation mode is money!

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The Know-It-All Attitude
This goes to Entrepreneurs – if you have, please shed away this attitude and get in a mode to learn, to take advice and asking right questions. Relationship status between an Entrepreneur and Investor is complicated – you can’t live with them or you can’t live without them, so you might as well accept them the way they are.

While closing your meetings / pitch with prospective investors – take feedback on the product, business model and the pitch. They will advice you based on their best strengths and experience, but only if you ask! In my personal experience – I managed to get some key improvements & suggestions on the product I am building.

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Please learn to say No
Entrepreneurs learn to say no to investors who do not see and agree with the vision you hold for the product.
Investors learn to say no, and fast. Entrepreneur’s time is equally important as yours! If the product does not match your investment interest – communicate it as fast as possible. Saying no immediately may not so bad; but keep a hope alive may be frustrating for the entrepreneur.

PS: Please respond faster to emails! I exchanged few notes with some of ‘the investors’ in Silicon Valley – always found a reply within 12 hours in all cases, some of them in less than 30 minutes.

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Quality of Press Releases & Coverage
The state of ecosystem is also reflected by the type of news coverage & press releases one reads on Indian Blogs. People movements – in most cases of those names who we have never heard of before, New sales office in Middle East, Forward looking statements on revenues & projections, Surveys that say the obvious in press releases, Claims & unacceptable figures, and so much more! Damn – we would like to know more about your products & platforms, everything else is just crap!

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Concluding Remarks –

Startup ecosystem is built with entrepreneurs, their companies, their early customers and then the investors. You control 75% of the ecosystem already, investors will follow. In the same context I remember one of Sameer Guglani’s tweet – “Founders r creators / accelerators, angels, VCs r service providers. our business runs because founders start companies & not other way arnd.”

The point I am trying to convey here is that if you think or perceive that ecosystem is not evolved in Indian start up scenario, stop complaining and don’t be an entrepreneur. There is no point in waiting for a right time to build your startup, the time to start is now. Get started!

Ecosystem or no Ecosystem – it did not stop a redBus, Naukri, MakeMyTrip, Flipkart, InMobi or SlideShare* to be what they are from India. Why should it stop you!

The term ecosystem means lot of other components as well. Feel free to add more to the comments based on your experiences.

 

What problems are the Mobile Payment Services trying to solve?

When I heard of Twitter founder Jack Dorsey’s announcement of mobile payment startup – Square, I loved the simplicity of the service. Few months Jack Dorsey tweeted that Square is processing transactions worth $1Mn per day – that is a cool revenue run rate of $10Mn per year for a two year startup (Square charges 2.75% charge per transaction when paid through credit card)

With very little knowledge of how offline transactions work in US, but it is definitely a card driven economy. Coming to Indian scenario – unsure if any Mobile Payment Services company in India will declare the value of transactions it processes per day. For a country like India, although the opportunity for mobile commerce looks huge – unable to relate if existing mobile payment services are trying to solve any consumer problem.

Back in 2006, when penetration of mobile phones in India was growing at an exponential pace – with falling talk times, it was predicted that India will be one of the largest telecom markets in the world. Well, that has surely come true. In internet world – there was another wave of prediction. Analysts & Enthusiasts found another buzz world – mCommerce which was supposed to be a multi-billion dollar industry by 2010.

With time, the definition of Mobile Commerce is itself a cliche’d.

  • Is it mobile commerce when a consumer books a airline ticket online, gets a confirmation and PNR number on to his mobile number . Displays the PNR ar airport counter and gets ticket?
  • Is it mobile banking when consumer receives confirmation of debit/credit transaction on his mobile
  • Or is it when the discovery, intent & transaction for a product/service starts and ends on mobile phone?

The definition is now debatable – but with mobile communication included, online transactions and services have scored a big mile.

The proposition of Mobile Payment Systems is (or was) very simple:

  • Offline Merchants – Allow consumers to walk-in to any shop with his mobile phone, buy stuff and make payments
  • Online Merchants – Tie-Up with multiple online eCommerce/Travel portals – allow them to purchase products through their payment service
  • Own Marketplaces – Create own marketplace on mobile that combine eCommerce, travel, utility services etc and enable payments for such transactions through their own system

Honestly, this would have sounded amazing to everyone back then. Undoubtedly very huge potential – Offline retail transactions are worth billions of dollars everyday, Online Merchants wanting to reach out to very high percentage of consumers who have not come online due to lack of internet connectivity and mobile device seemed very logical, & of course with own marketplace strategy they too wanted to own a sizable chunk of users/revenue and be a destination for commerce.

The mobile boom did happen. It is very difficult to find someone these days without a mobile phone. But then why is it so rare that we don’t get to find people using mobile payment services as it was predicted earlier.

Trying to analyze why did this zillion dollar plan on paper did not translate to even millions of dollars in reality. Here are few thoughts, there may be many other reasons as well that contributed to this –

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Limited size of Market –
With 95% mobile subscription in country on prepaid, and average ARPU of less than 200 INR (& steadily declining with time) – mobile payments or transactions is definitely the last thing on such user’s mind. Addressable market for this service is considerably very small and will be a subset of eCommerce market.

Active Credit Cards in India are declining –
According to recent numbers published in this TOI report – number of active credit users in India has tumbled down from 20.7 Million (in March 2008) to 10.8 Million (in November 2010).

eCommerce Services discovered Cash on Delivery –
India is a cash driven economy and most eCommerce services have realized this by today. COD accounts for anywhere between 30% to 60% of transaction for players who have enabled it. IVR payment mechanism also has widespread acceptance for ordering directly through call center.

Banks play their own Game –
In fact they already have started playing their own game. Banks are launching their own mobile banking applications and promoting it aggressively. That leaves mobile payment services out of their own play-field.

The 3G Magic may not happen –
The 3G magic shall happen to other services, but in my opinion nothing dramatic will happen for mobile payment services companies. There is simply no connection between acceptance of 3G by consumers and why ‘new consumers’ will subscribe to credit cards or link up their bank accounts to a mobile payment service company. They will fight for existing consumers between competition and the banks.

Radical shift to app-economy –
Smart Mobiles & Tablets devices are making a huge difference to the way consumers are accessing services on handheld or portable computing devices. With advent of app-stores and in-app payment systems – the mobile ecosystem has grown more radically than any of these players would have thought about.

Money was always Mobile –
If the pain point that mobile payment systems were (or are) trying to solve was allowing consumers to do transactions wherever & whenever they want – then this consumer pain never existed. Money in whatever format – cash or card was always mobile.

 
I see and hear of Mobile Payment systems usage in India only in the context on prepaid recharges & utility bill payments. But that was not what they aimed for, correct?

To sum up the article –

  • Money was always mobile; the consumer pain point mobile service providers were trying to solve never existed!
  • These businesses were way ahead of time; and in most scenarios got investments before validation.
  • mCommerce model evolved differently and in a way that kept such players outside the ecosystem.
  • mCommerce will evolve along with eCommerce; will go hand in hand – but definitely not before.

In my opinion this vertical is classic case of ‘ahead of time’, ‘investment without validation’, and ‘dynamic changing ecosystem’. Lesson for entrepreneurs and investment managers – make sure your companies are a part of “validated ecosystem” and solves a “valid consumer pain.”