Summarizing my exit interview with a venture capital intern 

Two interns finished their learning cycle with Artha this week. One of them wanted to speak to me and get my feedback on his performance during his 4month internshipThe schedule short feedback session went on much longer, and at the end of it, we got into an exciting topic – the importance of forming an opinion.  

I believe our discussion applies to anyone who wants to work in the investment business, especially earlystage venture capital. I am sharing a synopsis of that conversation with the permission of the intern.  

 

Intern: What is one piece of advice for me? 

Me: Form an opinion and be vocal about it. It is acceptable to be wrong, completely wrong, and heinously wrong. However, it is cardinal mistake to have the ability to accumulate and analyze data but lack the courage to form a decisive opinion. The best investors have often sought out views from their peers and from people who could provide them with a fresh perspective. In fact, the investors I emulate often seek out contrarian views to their own to test their hypothesis.  

 

Intern: Why is the trait of forming and communicating our opinions so important? 

believe that investing is the ability to predict future outcomes of current decisions, and an investor’s brilliant foresight finds appreciation only in hindsight. That is why I consider investing more of an art than scienceA room full of experienced appreciators of art would almost inevitably have deep-felt disagreements on the value of Van Gogh. They could all be right or be wrong – we would only find out once the money gets transferred into the sellers account 

 

What should an intern do?  

fondly remember eyeopening realizations I have had during discussions (sometimes heated) with interns, associates, principalspartners, coinvestors, and even entrepreneurs over the last 10 years in venture capital. Initially, it was intimidating for me to showcase my opinions in front of the experienced hands of this game. But I realized that I wasnt learning anything by keeping them to myself. I learned more by expressing my incorrect opinions and recognizing the gaps in my understanding, over keeping my opinion to myself for fear of getting called out.  

A newcomer to the investment industry should seek out experiences where they can form these opinions. Join investment clubs, seek out investors who have strong opinions, even if they are contrarians to their own, but learn how to build and present your investment viewpoint. 

 

Don’t be afraid of being wrong; we learn best through the mistakes we make. Expressing your opinion is a win-win situation. You either get called out and learn where you went wrong, or your opinion contributes valuably to the discussion. Most importantly, you grow with each interaction and learn to receive constructive criticism. 

Silver linings: Lighting up a revolution (with a pair of binoculars)

I am continuing on the same thread upon which I wrote last week, i.e., Finding Silver Linings in this lockdown.

Yesterday we completed 40 days of working from home. Amongst several pivotal moments that define the turning points for Artha, sparking off a blogging revolution is definitely the most satisfying one.

For a very long time, I tried to convince my team to start blogging. I tried several approaches, showed them how my own blogs helped me express myself creatively and develop a robust network & following. However, the fear of getting criticized publicly made the team members shy away from expressing themselves – whether I offered them a carrot or the stick in return.

I could have got their blogs ghostwritten, but I wanted our blog to be genuine expressions that resonate. After several frustrating failed attempts, I threw in the towel. I stopped pushing the team to write because even when they wrote blogs due to the fear of disappointing me, they were half baked as the attempt to writing them was.

Then the lockdown took place. With commute times dropping to a few seconds from the hours endured earlier, a few members decided to utilize the extra time to creatively express themselves.

As the editor to our blog pages on Medium, any team member that completed a blog for publishing would assign a task to me. I had to review, make final edits, and approve their blog to publish from our Medium publications. Most of the time, it would be weeks, and even months before I would see assigned tasks in my editorial bucket. But things changed quickly.

Within the first week of working from home, I got notifications that I was assigned 2 blogs for publishing! This is interesting, I thought.

The first blog was published on Artha Venture Fund’s blog page. Farhan wrote a playbook for anyone that wants a VC job, i.e., Breaking into VC.  He frankly shared his personal journey of hounding my inboxes until he got me into meeting him face to face. He impressed me enough with his enthusiasm to secure an internship at Artha. With a foot in the door, Farhan converted the opportunity into a full-time role.  Farhan offered his playbook as a model for others to emulate. His post received a fantastic response with 300+ views in 3 days on our otherwise dormant blog page.

Unbeknownst to me, Deepanshu wrote and published a fantastic blog while sitting on his la-z-boy chair at his home in Delhi. Deepanshu’s take on the new work paradigm aptly called Corona: Ghar se Kaam KaroNa, We did it, did you? got published at the appropriate time and it lit up the Artha India Ventures blog page on the same day that the AVF blog saw a massive spike in its activity.

Farhan & Deepanshu’s unrelated but perfectly timed efforts sparked off a content creation race in Artha. They (thankfully) weren’t shy about the attention that their blogging debuts brought to their LinkedIn inboxes. It made others jealous and smashed the glass ceiling that kept the team from expressing themselves. All of a sudden, every person at Artha was lining up to write whether it was partners, principals, legal associates, junior analysts, even our interns!

There was so much content to review & publish that our internal PR team had to put everyone on a publishing calendar. Every team member got assigned 1 day a week to post their efforts on the company blog. I blocked out an hour a day to review the final drafts before publishing. But when I look at the list of blogs waiting for my review, even a couple of hours a day will not do justice.

In the end, I learned a valuable lesson. The thrill of competition drives a person harder than the fear of retribution. I tried igniting a creative explosion within Artha with the right intentions but the wrong strategy. Eventually, the age-old tactic of replacing my stick with a pair of binocular to keep up with the joneses got me to my long-held goal of creating a thriving blogging culture at Artha. That is a silver lining for me to cherish!

Here is the list of the 25 blogs we have published on our blog pages in the last 33 days

Date Blog Name Author
24-03-2020 Breaking into venture capital: A brief playbook Farhan Merchant
24-03-2020 Corona: Ghar se Kaam KaroNa, We did it, did you? Deepanshu Sidhanti
27-03-2020 From Polo to Venture Capital Dhruv Thadani
31-03-2020 21 Point Action Plan to Corona-Proof Your Startup Dream Anirudh A Damani
01-04-2020 Book Review: ‘Start with Why’ by Simon Sinek Gauri Kuchhal
02-04-2020 Humanity First: Hyderabad Man Distributes Free Food Outside Hospital Sandesha Jaitapkar
04-04-2020 3 Takeaways After Evaluating 200 Startups Farhan Merchant
07-04-2020 Book Review: ‘How to Stop Worrying and Start Living’ by Dale Carnegie Gauri Kuchhal
07-04-2020 Week #14: What are our investee companies doing this week? AIV Team
10-04-2020 Silver lining in the dark cloud — Looking up after 22 days of home arrest Shweta Tripathi
10-04-2020 From selling my startup dreams to buying into the startup dreams of many more like me Deepanshu Sidhanti
13-04-2020 MERC Listens — Part 1: Impact on Industrial & Commercial consumers Animesh Damani
15-04-2020 5 things I have learned after 365 days in Venture Capital Dhruv Thadani
17-04-2020 Gordon Ramsay Would’ve Been a Top Tier VC Farhan Merchant
17-04-2020 Flashback Friday: My first startup investment — United Mobile Apps AIV Team
18-04-2020 Week #16 Investment Update: The coming of age for Farm to Fork startups? AIV Team
20-04-2020 Finding silver linings Anirudh A Damani
21-04-2020 My experience of lockdown & work from home Piyali Das
22-04-2020 Book Review — ‘The 21 irrefutable laws of leadership’ by John Maxwell Gauri Kuchhal
21-04-2020 Drawing parallels. Similarities between parenting and investing in early-stage startups Deepanshu Sidhanti
23-04-2020 Impact of the lockdown on the power sector Animesh Damani
24-04-2020 Work from Home — Boon or Curse? Aakash Javeri
24-04-2020 Flashback Friday: CarveNiche Technologies Anirudh Damani
25-04-2020 Week #17: AIV expands funding to SEA AIV Team
27-04-2020 10 things I learned from my 5-year startup journey — Executive Assistant to COO Sandesha Jaitapkar

21 Point Action Plan to Corona-Proof Your Startup Dream

Calling the shutdown caused by the Coronavirus pandemic, an economic crisis is a gross understatement. It could be a crisis for the established business ecosystem, but it is the equivalent of a tsar bomba for the early-stage startup ecosystem. If all of us do not act quickly, the entire venture capital ecosystem is staring down at years of effort, getting incinerated in a matter of weeks.

When the Prime Minister, Mr. Narendra Modi, announced the Janta curfew, he talked about blackout drills and wartime curfews to a population where the majority hadn’t witnessed one. It was a reminder of a dark 15-20 period when India went through several wars with Pakistan & China. That ignited a mortal fear in me as well.

I feared that this crisis could destroy the decades of work that it took to provide confidence to young graduates to convert themselves from job seekers to job creators. We had to show years of results to convince Indian & global investors to pour money into startups via venture capital funds, angel networks, superangel syndicates, and venture debt funds. All this effort all this sacrifice, of the tens of thousands of people that make up the entrepreneurial ecosystem viz. over 39,000+ founders, 10,000+ angel investors, 500+ VC funds, several visionary politicians & government officers is on the brink of collapse.

However, real entrepreneurs are problem solvers, optimists, and overachievers. Any challenge, even something that challenges their mortal existence, will help an entrepreneur find another gear within them. As they say, even in adversity, they only see opportunity.

My team and I started to sound out Artha Venture Fund’s founders on the business impact the coronavirus pandemic was about to make a couple of weeks before lockdown. We asked our founders to create new budgets to account for the onset of nuclear winter in the fundraising world, bring their expenses down to the bare minimum, and to show patience along with courage at this time.

It has not been easy to convince the optimist in them to slow down for now and conserve energy to speed up later. Last week we put all our heads together on a zoom call to chart out an action plan for saving their dream – their startup.

I summarized the call in a 21-point action plan to save your startup memo for the founders. My team went a step further to make it into a beautiful & impactful presentation. In the spirit of joining hands during this adversity, I am sharing that presentation with you:

 

It is important to remember the immortal words of General S Patton:

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Together we will win the coronavirus fight in our homes, in our businesses, and our minds. Let’s roll!
Continue reading

Founder Playbook: Getting ahead of Covid-19

The aftermath of the pandemic spread of the Covid-19 virus has hit financial markets where it hurts the most – their ability to bank on the future.

These are unprecedented times as countries close their borders, the Italian government shuts down businesses, and schools, colleges, and universities are shutting their campuses and moving classes online. The disruption in business and how it will get conducted in the near term has created a tectonic shift that is rattling global markets.

When the most capitalized financial market in the world starts oscillating like a 5-year-old getting on a swing for the first time – it is time to sit-up and take notice.

Even we felt the tremors far away, i.e., in the venture capital ecosystem. Sequoia’s calling Covid-19 spread The Black Swan of 2020. This spread is dangerous, and the situation could spiral out of control – quickly.

Therefore earlier this week, Vinod and I had organized a conference call with Artha Venture Fund’s founders to address this growing situation and to work out how we could get ahead of the problem. Here is a brief synopsis of how our founders are tackling this issue (thank you, Arvind, for these notes):

  1. Do not panic but stay vigilant
    1. Keep an eye out for a demand drop in the next 3-6 months
    2. Respond to it quickly and decisively
  2. Remember that a typical downcycle in VC lasts for 18-24 months
    1. Survive this period, and you will thrive when the tide is back
  3. Investors are tightening their belts
    1. Be prepared for long delays in fundraising
    2. Drop-off in valuations
  4. Prepare fresh budgets
    1. Be conservative in revenue estimates
    2. Cut unnecessary & discretionary spends
    3. Find ways to control the burn, i.e., increase revenues or cut the costs
  5. Despite your best efforts if you envision run out of money in the next 6-9 months, then
    1. Raise an additional buffer right away and extend your runway to 15-18 months

As an optimist contrarian, an economic upheaval offers the best opportunity to gain on the competition. One must remember that people will continue to consume goods and services, but the way they consume it is going to change – temporarily.

A founder must watch the customer’s consumption patterns closely, prepare to pivot the business to serve his customer base, and capitalize – even in these adverse business scenarios.

A note: I do not attempt (in any way) to disregard the seriousness of this virus. The severest impact of this is on the part of the population that has pre-existing medical conditions. To me, it means that entrepreneurs are in the higher risk category due to entrepreneurial stress they undergo (I have written about in the past). The recent turmoil is just adding to that stress.

Therefore stay calm, stay positive, keep your ears close to the ground but keep your hands clean and off your face. 😊

A Pleasant Surprise on the Upside!

While redoing our website, I accidentally stumbled upon an interesting piece of information.

I wanted to create a portfolio filter that would allow a visitor to create portfolio cohorts using factors such as the year of our investment, whether we were current investors, which startups we had exited from, or which sector the startup operated in and so on.

While tagging the startups, my team discovered that 4 of Artha Venture Fund’s portfolio companies had at least 1 female founder, i.e., 66% of the fund’s portfolio! This statistic piqued my interest as I stress the importance of being gender-neutral when it came to choosing our founders. Yet our female founder representation was far higher than the 20% female founder representation reported in CrunchBase EoY 2019 Diversity Report published in January 2020.

I dug further to look into our upcoming pipeline, which told me that out of the 5 deals which were at an advanced stage of closure, 3 deals had at least 1 female in the founding teams – 2 where the female founders held the CEO position!

I still felt that my sample size was too small to form an opinion. So I widened my search. My team & I started an investigation into my previous portfolio that I had set-up through our family office, i.e., Artha India Ventures.

The team keeps granular information on my past performance to report to institutions and family offices that need the information as a part of their due diligence. It took a few hours to figure it out, but 22 out of the 69 startups I had previously invested in had one female founder, i.e., almost a 33% representation!

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The team went deeper to uncover that the female founder cohort delivered a 41% IRR with 4.3x multiple on invested capital in comparison to an overall portfolio IRR of 56% with a 4.6x investment multiple. Though the female cohort performance is lower than the overall performance; it does not tell the entire picture.

Our 330x multiple in OYO skews the numbers in favor of the XY chromosome cohort, but several of our female founder companies are raising new rounds of capital. One of them is months from becoming a unicorn, so it is a matter of when (not if) when the female cohort will be the alpha for the portfolio. While an eye-opener, I am not proud of beating the gender bias – not this way.

What I am proud of is that diversity happened without gender bias in favor of the XX chromosome. I am very vocal in stating that we do not favor a particular gender in our employees or founders. I believe that being entrepreneurial is a gender-neutral trait, and to invest in someone because they have or lack a Y chromosome is foolhardy.

Despite these results, I continue to stand up for what I said in last year’s blog post, Why I refuse to promote Women’s Entrepreneurship. 

The moment that I start treating a founder differently because they are women, it means that I do not see them as equals. I will skew my thoughts to cater to my bias, and it will hurt them as much as it will hurt my bank balance.”

To investigate if my lack of bias was something I felt or did it percolate down to our treatment of our female founders, I asked my XX founders whether they felt any bias from our end. Besides, I asked them why they gave a seat to Artha for their entrepreneurial journey. This is what they had to say:

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The diversity of the artha eco-system is felt in all the events we come together with Artha- where we meet entrepreneurs working on awesome ideas - pushing through- without feeling any differenc

In closing, while global reports state that the penetration of female founders in startups is very low, I have little concerns for the same. People whose investment lens has a filter against a particular group of people due to their color, country, or chromosome will lose out – lose big.

I am glad that our lens is crystal clear and that my team chooses the best people for the founder’s job. We follow an incredibly meticulous approach when it comes to choosing our founders.

Not always do we have the most qualified founders, but we attract the most passionate founders’ with a deep internal drive for the problem they are solving. We trust in our process of channelizing a founder’s energy to win one battle at a time and create category-leading companies.

Now if that means that our winning portfolio has a disproportionately high number of female founder companies – then so be it!

Weekly Review Meetings to Create A High Performance Culture

Yesterday, I did my 8th continuous weekly review meeting with Artha’s interns, analysts, associates, and heads of departments. I did a similar exercise during my last year at the family office and carried it forward to the first team of analysts at the fund. Due to specific personal and professional commitments, I broke this habit until my EA reminded me of the benefits of that practice. I re-read Ken Blanchard’s One Minute Manager in October last year, and immediately, I restarted the weekly review practice in November, adding elements of Tony Robbin’s RPM methodology, something that I wrote about in my first post of 2020.
The format of the weekly review meeting is simple.

  • The meeting is conducted 1 on 1 with each team member for 30-45 minutes
  • Their direct reporting manager’s presence is a must
  • We first discuss the outcomes promised by the team member for the current meeting
    • If the team member misses their committed outcomes, they provide
      • Reasons why did they did not fulfill their promises?
      • How will they avoid this situation in the future?
      • What help or resources they need from us to get to their goals?
    • If a team member meets or exceeds their promised outcomes, they explain
      • Why were they successful?
      • How it felt to achieve their promised outcomes
      • How can they repeat this performance in the future?
      • How could they help others in performing like them?
      • What was their learning from this exercise?
    • Then the team member provides their commitments to delivering outcomes before the next review meeting.
      • The outcomes promised for the following week are recorded on a shared excel
      • It is updated during the meeting and shared in an internal Team’s channel created for weekly review

It is clear at the outset that this meeting is not the time to get specific things reviewed. I conduct weekly reviews to clearly define what each individual is doing for the firm and how their efforts get them to their outcomes and (as a result) help the firm reach its outcomes. Therefore the most crucial part of this meeting is the quality of information on the committed outcomes, therefore:

  • Be specific and quantifiable
  • Challenge the individual to continue to grow in different aspects of their job role. For example, an analyst working with me must commit to complete the following outcomes before the next meeting:
    • The number of deals that they will source directly from their efforts and input into Salesforce. During the review, they must
      • List out the deals sourced
      • Highlight the deals they like and why
    • The number of transactions that will be completed and move out of the active pipeline
    • The number of ecosystem events they will attend and during the review, they must
      • Give details on what they learned and how it benefits their job role
    • Give the number of events that they will attend over the next 30 days
    • Read a book, write a book review and distribute it internally for feedback
    • Prepare an essay, presentation, or report on a topic of their interest or on a subject that is essential for their job and have it:
      • Distributed internally
      • Amended and finalized based on peer feedback
      • Present the final version for sharing on the AVF blog
    • List out activities that they are doing for the investee companies assigned to them and provide the latest news on them and their competitors

I like this style of review meetings because it separates the wheat from the chaff. It exposes the team members that are excellent at presenting an image of competence but are slowing down the team. The weekly review system compels them to show me how they are helping the team reach their goals and that they are improving themselves to take on more significant challenges.
As their leader, the periodic review allows me to figure out which team members are struggling, plateauing or spiraling down. I pay close attention to their weekly reports and their overall attitude during the meeting. It allows me to identify issues quickly, isolate them down to a lack of skill and/or understanding and/or environmental problems and create a plan on how to check the slide and get the team member back on track.
Unfortunately, this practice identifies a small subset as misfits for the requirements of the jobs or culture of performance. Those people will quickly find ways to avoid attending the weekly review, scheduling professional or personal appointments, or running away from any reporting that exposes them. I try to reach out to them to the best of my ability, but if the situation does not improve, I must let them go, or they quit. I do not take those losses to heart because a misfit’s departure makes space for some who can, will, and wants to run with the baton.
The new weekly review format has me excited, and the improvement in the team members is encouraging me to make it the central theme of my week. The most significant benefit of this exercise is that it connects me with the person at the frontline of my businesses. I can empathize with their struggles and those of the company and course-correct before things spiral out of control. It also provides me valuable information to decide when I should to press the accelerator or hit the brakes.
Once again I have blocked out a day a week to conduct these reviews, and I am teaching the leaders around me to start doing weekly reviews. It frees up the management from micro-managing and gives the team members the freedom to chose their outcomes and how they will get there. The go-getters love it, the pikers hate it, and the firm enjoys massive gains in productivity!

Setting Outcomes for 2020

On our last working day of the decade, i.e., the 27th of December 2019, I asked the Artha team to congregate in our conference room. At 5 pm, 24 Artha team members stuffed themselves into a space built for 8, and another 6 joined in from Ahmedabad on Zoom.
First, I enquired how many attendees had written down their resolution for 2020 – it was less than 10%. From that sliver, I picked on the newest hire, to share her resolution for 2020. Along expected lines, the newbie said, “I want to be fit.”
Thanking her for sharing their personal goal, and I also made a solemn promise that unless she changed how she worded her resolution, she was going to fail. She was shocked, but my reasoning was straightforward.
Her resolution was so generic that even a 100g drop in her body weight would mean that she had achieved her goal. Instead of pointing the finger at their colleague, I asked the team to utilize her example and replace their resolution setting or list of “to-dos” with plans to deliver outcomes that they wanted to achieve.
To help them understand the outcome setting concept, I showed a Tony Robbins video on the Rapid Planning Method (RPM).

As Tony says in the video, it takes a bit of effort to retrain oneself so that we make plans for outcomes, not activities. The good news is that the brain adapts quickly to the new system and starts to deliver fantastic results! I utilize the RPM method for planning and for my weekly reviews with team members that directly report to me. It takes some effort at the start, but I am amazed at the tremendous ability of the mind to find new ways and energy to deliver an outcome. It should not be a surprise that I am a big proponent of this planning method.
I even had a clear outcome for conducting this training. I wanted my team to internalize the message and put the outcome planning into action. Therefore I tasked each team member to share 3 outcomes that they wanted to achieve in 2020. The had to find 3 outcomes for the personal, professional, and social/charitable spheres of their lives in the next 4 days and share it on the company-wide group on Microsoft Teams.

Why share the outcomes publicly?
If writing the outcomes is half the battle, publicly committing to those outcomes is the other half – the winning half!

Because my team (obviously) includes me I, too, wrote down my 2020 outcomes. But in addition to sharing it with my teammates, I am sharing them publicly, today. I had done a similar but unfocussed exercise in 2018. Overall, it delivered fantastic results because of the pressure it put on me. Why then, I thought to myself, should I change something that is working!
So without further ado, here is my list of outcomes.
Professional

  1. Increase Artha’s assets under management to over Rs. 300 crores+ ($40 million+)
  2. Invest in 25+ new start-ups
    1. When I achieve this goal, I will complete a century of start-up investments!
  3. Pay-out bonuses of 60 lakhs+ ($85k) to deserving team members

Personal

  1. Go to Tony Robbin’s Unleash the Power Within with a family member and an Artha team member
    1. Besides, go for Tony’s Date with Destiny and Business Mastery workshops
  2. Author a book
  3. Complete 50 scuba dives

Social/Charitable

  1. Support a crowdfunding project every week (#FundingFriday)
  2. Set aside 2 hours a week to mentor a child (@mentormeindia)
  3. Build or Upgrade ONE school along with the Artha team

That’s the list for you to track and me to deliver, let’s roll…
I wish you a happy new year full of achieving outcomes!
1/2020

My funding picks of the last week (W49)

Most funds are winding down their operations in December; therefore, there wasn’t enough funding news from which I could shortlist. Yourstory reports that there were 17 deals in total with less than 50% meeting the criteria of the early-stage deals for this section of this blog.
The launch of the first cohort of Sanjay’s 100x.vc should change that this week, and I should have a tougher job to choose my top picks next week!
 

Sarva.com raised ₹20 crores from Fireside Ventures

What does Sarva do?
Sarva is a wellness start-up that offers a wholistic ecosystem for mental, physical, and emotional wellbeing that utilize the ancient practices of Yoga. Sarva’s website claims to provide 25 forms of yoga taught through studios in 14 cities and has membership plans similar to Cure.fits memberships.
Why do I like Sarva?
The success of offline plays like Cure.fit and Bombay Shirts have brought back confidence in the augmented real estate brand plays.
Yoga has a mass appeal, and while Cure.fit does offer Yoga classes, I like the specific niche that Sarva’s is pursuing. Several Yoga schools in various cities provide personal trainers, but very few (maybe none) have tried launching a national brand like Sarva. The rest of the ecosystem is fragmented and regionalized.
I am a frequent user of Cure.fit (when I am in town) I love the flexibility of choosing classes that work with my schedule at a location closest to me on a given day. I suspect that with their war chest full of money, Cure.fit could quickly launch a Yoga studio vertical too. However, I suspect that the difference could be in the execution.
I found a Sarva studio in Nariman Point, and I will take a trial class to compare the two before I say any further.
 

Indyfint.com raised $2.1 million led by Saravanan Adiseshan

What does Indyfint do?
IndyFint offers a plethora of bank-like services for businesses (as per their website) as well as a marketplace to provide loans to merchants, employees, and students (as per the YourStory article.)
Why do I like Indyfint?
I am a big believer that the Indian banking system is ripe for disruption. Banks use IT systems, policies, and operating procedures that are decades behind the business requirements of today. Previously (and in frustration), I had written a wish list for what I would like for a bank to do for me (as a corporate customer).  Therefore I have a soft spot for those attempting to take on the big banks!
I am not 100% sure that IndyFint is attempting to become an alternative-banking platform but I like the services they offer on their website. Just like them, several other start-ups are trying to break the stranglehold created by Indian banks. I support the disruption, and I forward to helping one of these disrupters with our money as well!
 

Dhruvaspace.com raised ₹5 crores from Mumbai Angels

What does Dhruva do?
Dhruva builds nano-satellites that work with ground sensors (also produced by them) for applications in agriculture, weather monitoring, infrastructure, etc.
Why do I like Dhruva?
Space is the unclaimed territory. Nano-satellites flattens the playing field that was previously occupied by big corporations or large governments. With billions of dollars at their disposal to send up massive satellites, their money power acted as a moat to fully exploit real estate a few hundred kilometers above our heads.
Nano-satellites and alternative delivery mechanisms democratize access to space. They provide access to applications that were (until now) were outside the reach of most of the world.
I believe that the market for nano-satellites will be worth tens of billions soon and add to that this is an Indian company that is attempting to compete in this space (pun intended). It is difficult not to love that!
 
Artha India Ventures invested in Kratikal’s Pre-Series A round. The announcement took place last week, but I chose not to review that investment in this section.

My Funding Picks from Last Week (W48)

I am back with my favorite funding news of last week! I had shared my purpose in starting this weekly post, and I have received much positive feedback. Therefore, I was eager to dig into the top news from last week to share with you today.
Last week was a stellar week for fundraising, with over $1 billion raised. There is some deviation in that number as YourStory claims that the total was $1.18 billion, while Inc42* claims that the total was $1.08 billion. However, both agree that over 90% of the money comes from the $1 billion round for Paytm announced through VSS’ twitter handle.
However, Paytm does not fall under the parameters of an early-stage start-up; therefore, within the early-stage funding news for the week, these were my favorite:

Tripeur.com – $1 million from SenseAI, Better Capital, Patni Wealth Advisors, Incubate and Rajul Garg and Alacrity India

What is Tripeur?
Tripeur is a cloud-based corporate travel expense management solution. They utilize AI/ML technology to reduce corporate travel expenditure by 30% (as claimed) with better reporting and productivity gains for the travel admin. They claim to have served over 50,000 business travelers and booked 1.4 lakh trips for them through their online platform.
What do I like Tripeur?
I have slowed down investing in travel over the past few years, but it still makes up almost 25% of my overall investment portfolio. We evaluate travel start-ups as it continues to be a significant investment theme for AVF.
Within travel, I have found corporate travel to be the ripe space for disruption. I had identified corporate travel as the number 1 pain point to solve in my October 2017 post on the travel space.
While I haven’t utilized the Tripeur platform yet (I sent them a demo request over the weekend). However, I can speak from experience that a decent corporate booking platform can expect a very sticky customer base. They must provide access to the best prices with easy booking and cancellation options along with accurate reporting for the finance team.
These pain points are widely prevalent across all corporations, big or small. Therefore, people would readily refer customers to Tripeur if they can do what they promise, providing significant savings on CAC.
Tripeur could find much value in associating with many of my portfolio companies – Confirmtkt, Repup, OYO, VistaRooms, and others.

FirstU.in – undisclosed round from India Quotient, FirstCheque and Farooq Adam

What is FirstU? 
FirstU is an online platform that provides subscription-based periodic services for automobiles. Users buy monthly subscription plans and avail regular services such as vehicle inspection, repairs, washes, accident assistance, etc.
Why do I like FirstU?
Several start-ups attempted to solve the problems of the fractionalized vehicular maintenance space. Most of them tried to upgrade your neighborhood mechanic, but the cost of retraining and retaining them far outweighed the benefits provided to the revenue accounts. The few that have been attempting setting up a company or franchise-owned multi-brand workshops have done better, but even then, they continue to burn money.  Their LTV / CAC ratios are quite unfavorable as there is a long time gap between repeat services. Therefore, the start-up must resort to deep discounting to attract new or repeat customers.
I have written about my love for subscription start-ups as they develop the habit of their customers paying them. Once they form this habit, it takes a massive effort for a newcomer to “break” the psychological pattern of paying the same company. It creates the ideal “sticky” customer relationship. It is precisely the spending relationship that I love to see my start-up get into with their customers.
Once FirstU expands outside of Bangalore, I’d love to explore a B2B association between Everest Fleet and OneWay.Cab and them.

GreyAtom.com – $1.2 million from Montane Ventures, Pravega and Ritesh Arora

What does GreyAtom do?
GreyAtom provides a boot camp for learning data science and web development. The “students” work on real-world problems, get reviewed by their peers, which accelerates their learning curve. The claim to have upskilled over 35,000 learners with 87 percent making a career pivot of their choice.
Why do I like GreyAtom?
That working knowledge trumps the knowledge learned at a prestigious school is a known phenomenon. Therebefore the GreyAtom platform providing the workers of today the opportunity to upgrade and update their skills, but alongside their current roles is the need of the hour.
GreyAtom creates a win-win for the individual and the corporate. For the upskilled individual, it means better prospects at their current employer or the ability to switch over to a new role for which they were previously unqualified. For a corporate, incentivizing their existing team members to upgrade their skills would reduce attrition, improve job satisfaction, and reducing hiring and training costs. There is a lot to like about GreyAtom!
All I could wish for is that someone would come up with a similar platform to improve the skills for finance and marketing people. I’d be their first investor and a corporate customer for life!
*I am an investor in Inc42 through Artha India Ventures

My PR Experiment

Yesterday was an interesting day. I started off by tasting different blends of single shot coffee made by a start-up that we have been eyeing for a while now. They have been some gaining significant traction and the tasting culminated in the issuance of a term-sheet. In my next appointment, I visited several branches of a food aggregator that provides home cooked meals in an IoT enabled device. The heavy dose of caffeine from the morning helped me stay awake after an extraordinarily heavy lunch, but I really liked what the company was doing, and so we issued them a term-sheet too. In the last meeting of the day, I was with two entrepreneurs who are looking to fill the niche left open by Bira in the beer industry, and so I ended up tasting their different beers. Their product, taste, packaging and brand positioning are all unique and I’ll be honest, we are contemplating issuing them a term-sheet too. But no, this blog isn’t about tasting and issuing term-sheets, it’s about the commonality I observed in all three funding outlays, which I asked the founders to rectify i.e. instead of outsourcing it to an external agency, build an in-house marketing team to manage social media channels, PR and internal-external communication.

I used to erroneously advocate outsourcing PR and media management, but that viewpoint was permanently altered. I conducted a yearlong experiment in which I discontinued the services of our external PR agency and brought those functions in-house. Not only did I gain more control on what Artha (and I) wanted to communicate, but we also got more media mentions, got covered by the top journalists and were invited to renowned events around the globe. We also started publishing separate monthly and quarterly newsletters for our LPs and well-wishers.  All this effort has paid off through a marked increase in business for all the Artha entities, but most importantly, we achieved all these objective at 60% off our previous costs.

All of our PR (yes, all of it) was organic and genuine i.e. unpaid for. We did not sponsor events, pay for advertising in publications or authored articles. Things are moving so well that this year we are expanding the internal team by bringing in a Social Media Head that can move us from prose to video. Since we understand that the entire process isn’t a one-man job, we are allocating him/her a budget to recruit a team to facilitate this transition.

This massive cost saving got me questioning the PR/Media management agency model and whether it really works for an early-stage startup. I am afraid it does not. It takes many months and a lot of effort to get a brand new startup relevant and unpaid media attention. Unfortunately, early stage start-ups do not have the budget to compensate top-level agencies for their effort or even tier 2 or tier 3 players (unless they can secure a strong referral). Therefore, start-ups end up working with PR firms that themselves are starting up.  These PR firms overload their staff with multiple projects, to make ends meet, distributing the employee cost over the projects to make operations profitable. However, that divided cost also means divided time and focus on each project – a situation that does not bode well for start-ups trying to make a dollar for every penny invested in marketing. In fact, I have seen PR agents pitch 4-5 ideas to the same journalist in a single bid hoping to get any of them published. Is that really how you want your start-up to be pitched?

Another issue that works against the interest of the start-up is when a PR agency works hard to meet the KPIs they have promised and manages to do so in the first 15 days of the month. Having met their KPIs, they go radio silent for the rest of the month. This essentially means that their promised KPIs are the limit and not the base on which the agency works – completely opposite to how founders set KPIs for their internal team. After all, you can only create value for your company when you get more value than you pay for, isn’t it?

Therefore, I have come to a conclusion that PR agencies are useful for short sprints or Big Bang announcements, but the marathon work of building an image and brand for your startup should be done by an in-house team. In fact, even the 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing recommends the same!

37/2019