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Category Archive : Investment

Navigating the Indian Seed Landscape

No one can doubt that the Indian PE/VC ecosystem is going through a golden run. The amount of money flowing into the ecosystem is breaking records –records set just the previous year! If I narrow the PE/VC down to just “start-ups” then Indian start-ups have raised $11.3 billion this year – up from $10.5 billion raised last year – the good times are truly here.

This massive influx of money and strong tailwinds make it seem as though raising capital is getting easier. But, with the number of start-ups growing as fast (if not faster) than the money supply, the real picture for a start-up raising money today is – disconcertingly different. The discussion of what metrics does it take to raise a round, what the different stage VCs focus on when you raise, etc. is a polarizing topic. One that I regularly have now with founders who are raising, founders who have raised and with funders of all stages – but there isn’t a silver bullet.

Therefore, when Yuki Kawamura shared Pear VC’s report, aptly titled, Navigating the New Seed Landscape, he could not have sent it at a more opportune time. Mar Hershenson, Managing Partner of Pear VC, created this report analyzing the US VC ecosystem but there are several parallels we can draw for our ecosystem here. For example:  

  • It confirms something that seed investors have long known, i.e., the time, amount and metrics required to raise a Series A round has increased, therefore;
    • The money needed to get a venture ready for Series A has also increased
    • Series A investors want to see positive unit economics and traction before putting in growth rounds
  • Traction has a direct correlation to valuation
  • Second time and successful founders get a premium valuation
  • Where you locate your start-up does affect its initial valuation

There are several other learnings in the report, but the one slide that stuck with me is:

Just replace the names of columns (from the left) with Seed, Pre-Series A (or Angel), Series A, and Public to translate this to our ecosystem’s lingo. However, the vertical order in those columns stays the same
  • A seed investor (like me) backs the team
  • The angel investor backs the traction, and
  • The Series A investor backs the market.

The report then gets into further details as to what your start-up must emphasize when you are raising a new round. It provides a founder the VC view on where your venture must be before attempting to raise that the Seed, Angel, or Series A round. I believe that this presentation is manna for founders. I Whatsapp’d it to my founders in the morning. Now I share it with you!

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The art of how much to raise

In the past several weeks, I have been astonished at the size of seed rounds that founders expect to raise in their first round. My jaw hits the table when a founder blindsides me with requests to raise seed rounds of $1 million to as high as $3-4 million!*

These are the start-ups that have

  • Opened their doors for business within the previous 12-18 months.
  • Have an ARR of less than two crore rupees ($300k).

Surprised at the massive requirement of capital, we go through their financial model. Within a few minutes of looking through the model, the spreadsheet would give out a chilling fact:

The founders first decided the amount they were raising; then, they decided how to utilise the amount that is raised!

It may seem like smart scheme when pitched to novice investors, but it is a foolhardy attempt to do that to an investor with experience.

For instance, to show full utilization of the amount the founders pad certain numbers. So, a close inspection of the fund utilization plan exposes the founder’s true intentions, i.e. that they wanted a reverse calculated an ego-boosting valuation for themselves. To achieve that goal they were willing to misrepresent facts. How does a founder come back from that image?

The good news is that – there is a better way.

My advice for founders that are creating their fundraising plans is to start with a well thought out answer to a famous Peter Thiel question

What is the one thing you know to be correct but very few agree with you?

In simple words, what do you need to prove to your team, your advisors, investors, etc. to elevate their belief in your idea? Whatever you need to do to gain their confidence that is the goal of your fundraising efforts.

For example, if everyone in your inner circle does not think that your company cannot sell x number of your whacky widgets in a specified period – then that is precisely the thing you must prove! Your goal must be specific, measurable, attainable, and realistic, and time-bound so that you aren’t on a wild goose chase.

Second, estimate the time and the resources (servers, people, space, travel, etc) required to achieve your goal. Pay close attention that your estimations do not have un-utilized or under-utilized resources. In fact, I advocate allocating 20% fewer resources than your start-up needs. It forces your team to innovate, after all – scarcity is the mother of innovation!

Third, figure out the exact cost of your resources over the period of their requirements. This exercise is a crucial step. Because if you had correctly estimated the resources and the time they’re required, you will (now) have the EXACT amount you must raise to achieve your goal.  

Fourth, add 25% top of the number you had in the previous step. The extra amount is your buffer, i.e. it is the extra cushion you’ve kept to account for any mistakes you may have made in your calculations. The extra cushion gives you the breathing room to commit errors – an essential fail-safe for an early-stage startup.

Now you have the exact amount your start-up needs, not a paisa more and not a paisa less. Next, go out there and raise this amount!

This proper prior preparation will give you the confidence to answer questions about the “why” behind your fundraising efforts. Your confidence will impress your prospective investors as you come off as a professional founder instead of a novice founder who thought they could pull the wool over the eyes of a seasoned investor.

As an investor that has sat on the other side of the table for almost eight years, this level of preparation and maturity from a founder is rare. But, when I meet a prepared founder it invokes confidence that the founders will utilize my precious and expensive capital judiciously. In fact, I may be swayed to give a premium valuation to such well-prepared founders – exactly what the founder wanted but now he/she earns it with respect!

* – Oddly enough, the high expectations were from founders who spoke in millions of dollars instead of crores of rupees. It ignites the patriotic fervor residing in Vinod – a sight to watch!

How to deliver bad news to investors

Hey founders, today I’m going to address a crucial topic: When to update your investors with bad news. If you’re an entrepreneur and running a business, you will have to give bad news at some point.

There are many ways to give bad news. One of them is not to give any news at all, let everything go down, and then explain why you have only ruins and not a building on fire. This method isn’t recommended, but some people choose it – I don’t.

There are minor issues or bad news that can be managed in your monthly and quarterly updates. Like missing your quarterly numbers by 3-4%, or if you’re having a tough time recruiting people, or if a particular distributor who was contributing a large part of the business dropped you for reasons unknown or customer complaints. These are the kinds of things you can manage in your monthly and quarterly updates.

However, certain kinds of news shouldn’t be neglected. These should be communicated to the investors immediately. If a co-founder has left, or one of the co-founders has been diagnosed with severe disease and will not be available for the next 6-8 months, or your fundraising efforts are falling through, or a significant client that contributes a substantial chunk of the profit has left. These are the kinds of situations that need to be communicated to the investors immediately, preferably not on e-mail.

What I recommend is organizing a conference call or an in-person meeting. Explain what is going on to the investors face to face, in a way that is direct with no sugar coating. Be humble about the fact that things have gone wrong. Don’t try to play up things to avoid the investors being angry at you. If the situation is terrible, investors have a right to be irritated and will point out things that could have gone better. You should take criticism in your stride as you’re expected to execute successfully. Take responsibility, be direct, and you’ll find that investors will probably come back with solutions for you to manage the mess.

In adverse situations, you should have a turnaround plan. I would recommend having one if you’re going to have a face to face meeting. If you don’t have one, let the investors know and get back to them in a few days or a few weeks. There may be some questions the investors have, for which you may not have the answers. I would recommend not making up turnaround plans on the spot. If you don’t have the answers, tell them. Mention that you’re going to get back to them in 5, 7 or 10 days (or whatever number of days you believe you need) but ensure that you keep those promises.

Delivering bad news should not be difficult. It’s only tricky when you don’t want to give bad news, and you feel hiding is the best way forward. But it doesn’t solve anything. In fact, it only leads to the problem of getting bigger. If hypothetically, the company shuts down, and investors find out that you knew in advance, you could find yourself in a hot legal soup.

I’ll leave you with that, and I would love to know how some of you guys have shared bad news in the past. Also, if you have tips for other entrepreneurs, do share them in the comments.

The passionate vs the obstinate founder

Recently, I had a long conversation with someone about the challenges I faced working with an obstinate founder that they referred to me. The person countered that the founder was passionate about their business idea, and I misunderstood their passion. I disagreed with their assessment.

During the week, I have contemplated the difference between obstinate and passionate. I realize that it was difficult to separate the two. Obstinate is often misunderstood to be obsessive; a term often used to describe Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, Brian Chesky, Elon Musk or Jack Ma.

I love obsessive founders. I considered myself an obsessive founder. I am probably even more obsessive as an investor. Why VCs love obsessive founders is well explained by Mark Suster in this Medium post titled Why I Look for Obsessive and Competitive Founders. If you are a VC investor, then you should read this post.

Moral: Obsessive is good, but obsessive is not obstinate.

Obstinate is what Oxford defines as stubbornly refusing to change one’s opinion or chosen course of action, despite attempts to persuade one to do so.

Obstinate founders can take a fantastic thing and reduce it to rubble because their need to be right is more important than their need to win. It is the classic winning the battle but losing the war syndrome.

Gordon Tredgold wrote a wonderful article explaining the difference between stubbornness and determination, aptly titled Don’t Confuse Stubbornness with Determination.

In it, he provided a list of signs that can warn a founder whether their stubbornness is becoming an issue.

  • If you never win and you never quit, you’re an idiot
  • Will power vs. Won’t power
  • Remember that your goals must be measurable
  • Think about results
  • Consider adaptability
  • Your goal will remain the same, but your plan for achieving it will be different

His suggestions are absolutely banging on. I encourage you to read the article if you constantly find yourself butting heads with prospective and/or current investors.

The Indo-African perspective on the role of mentors in your startup

Over the weekend, I was a guest of Baljinder Sharma, a serial entrepreneur and a highly respected individual in the India & Africa startup scene. He put together the first India Africa Entrepreneurship & Investment Summit in Mauritius.

The event started as an idea to create a bridge between two ecosystems that houses over 1/3rd of the world’s population. It culminated in a 2-day event attended by over two hundred illustrious participants of the African & Indian early-stage ecosystem.  

The number of close relationships forged at the event is the barometer of success for such an event. On that scale alone – this event was a resounding success. I made several new friends, some from India and many from Africa. I will strongly encourage Baljinder to make the event a permanent annual feature for both ecosystems.

On the first day of the event, I was on a panel with an impressive list of panelists viz, Stephen Newton, Jonathan Mazumdar, Eric Osiakwan. Atim Kabra deftly and expertly moderated the panel channelizing our experiences and energy into a coherent narrative. Our discussion topic – the role of mentors and incubators in our respective ecosystems. Our discussion on mentorship got extremely engaging so much so that we did not enter into any meaningful conversation on incubation.

My co-panelists came up with a host of discussion points, but we unanimously agreed that the title of “the mentor” was thrown around very casually in our respective ecosystems. Often, service providers are self-anointed mentors, and their misrepresentation can have disastrous effects for the founders, their startups, and their investors.

On Sunday night as I boarded the flight back to Mumbai, I put down those discussion points that resonated with me; here is that list.

A mentor should not cost the company money.

This point is not to say that the mentor should work pro-bono. However, mentors that offer hourly/weekly/monthly/annual payment plans are service providers. If your proposed mentor charges money to meet you for an evaluation – please be smart and avoid them. 

A mentor’s role is to guide, not to become the founder.

I have committed this mistake a few times, so it hits home. Many times, founders start abdicating the decision-making role to the mentor, and there are several times the mentor starts getting too deeply involved. The mentor is not the CEO or a co-founder, but neither are they above the CEO or the Founders.

If you have crossed this line in your mentor-mentee relationship already – it is time to scale it back maybe even take a break. 

A mentor’s job is to do /advise you on what is best for you, not to make you happy.

This point is a personal favorite.

The mentor’s role is like that of a coach – they are present for the overall success of your company, not your success alone. Therefore, they must offer advice which is best for the company.

A self-respecting mentor will promptly quit if they get the message that their presence is to be a rubber stamp to your whims.   

A founder should have multiple mentors.

This learning was new to me. A founder should seek out multiple mentors that can help them with different aspects of their business or challenges. As the startup grows, there should be a churn in the mentors with new mentors taking over from the mentors that have finished their role/utility.

A good mentor stands on the side-lines while you make mistakes.

An extension of point 2. Experienced mentors sit on the side-line while you make mistakes even if they could help you avoid them. The lesson of letting you experience failure and learning how to prevent future mistakes is more important than the experience of getting saved by the mentor.

A good mentor will warn the founder of the challenges but leave the final decision on them.

The mentor’s role is to guide the founder through their decisions, but in the end, the founder is the one that must pull the trigger. When a mentor starts making decisions for the founder stops taking responsibility for the results.  

It would be best if you chose mentors that have substantial previous experience in the areas you need help

If you want to learn how to build a billion-dollar startup, who would you go to for help? The founder that built billion-dollar startups a couple of times or the founder struggling to get their startup out of their garage? 

Even though this sounds like a simple point reiterated – I am surprised how many times founders commit this mistake.

The best mentors only take on mentoring projects that challenge them.

Good mentors get sought, but they aren’t running after the money. They are looking for a challenge. A challenge that will stretch them and help them grow thereby (and in most cases) helping the mentor and the mentee.

Mentors that are running after money will accept any project, regardless of whether it intrigues them are not the right choice for you and your startup.  

The very best mentors get involved before the founders know that they need them and leave before the founders question their existence.

An involved mentor that is “in-sync” with their mentee knows precisely when to increase their involvement and when to decrease or terminate their relationship. A mentor that must be asked to leave has stopped paying attention.

It would be best if you convinced the mentor that you are worth their time investment, not the other way around

When a mentor is chasing you, explaining why you “need” their mentoring or pestering you to “sign-up” with them, they are a service provider. Service providers have other motives driving them but they are most likely not in line with your mentoring requirements.

The best mentors are so busy with their projects. They place a high value on their time. Therefore, you must convince them that you are worth the opportunity cost of their time – without using money as the offset.

My takeaway from the panel: Choosing is a mentor isn’t rocket science, but neither is it a game of roulette. Choose wisely through the generous application of common sense.

Be prepared for due diligence BEFORE your fundraising!

There are very few things that I do not love about venture capital but taking a founder through due diligence is one of them. I have written about the importance of due diligence in the past and a best-case scenario, due diligence should not take more than 30 days to complete. But realistically it takes anywhere between 90 to 180+ days. The delay is due to minor oversights made by the founder that pile up over a 12-18-month period but majorly it is their overall lack of preparedness for due diligence that delays due diligence.  

The unpreparedness of founders for due diligence is baffling to me. It should be advertised that successfully completing due diligence is more important than the fundraising itself! Because if a start-up loses an investment offer even after advance negotiations, they can recover from that but if they lose an investment offer during due diligence – it is the death knell for them!

This about it – who would want to invest in a company that has failed due diligence with another investor?

Therefore, I stress the importance of “preparing” one’s start-up for due diligence even before beginning the fundraise. Over the last 12 months, I have specifically told each of the founders that raised or attempted to raise money from Artha Venture Fund – to be prepared for due diligence if they want to see our money in the bank account as soon as possible.

For the uninitiated there will be several levels of due diligence like

  • Financial DD – that is carried out by an accounting or audit firm to verify that: –
    • All transactions and its bookkeeping have been done as per standard accounting norms
    • The traction numbers provided by the company are accurate
    • The financial model can be compared to the numbers in the books of accounts.
  • Legal & Compliance DD – that is carried out by a legal firm working in conjunction with a company secretary to verify that: –
    • The company has made all their necessary filings (monthly, quarterly and annually)
    • The commercial relationships that the company has entered have been captured in a proper legal contract that protects the company’s interests
    • All employees and independent contractors have signed contracts for the employment or services with the company – including the founders
    • All registrations, licenses, and permits that are required to operate the business have been procured and are current
  • Valuation – this is something unique to the Indian ecosystem and this usually carried out by a merchant banker to:-
    • Review the financial model for the company and its future projections
    • Deduce a valuation based on the above information
  • Internal DD – this differs from investor to investor but in our case we: –
    • Speak to former employers, associates, references and even your school to get a background on the founder
    • Speak to current or former employees, contractors, advisors, industry experts, suppliers and customers of the company to get their perspective on the company, the founder and the internal working
    • Conduct mystery shopping campaigns to verify/validate that the product/service is of the quality or efficiency that is being promised
    • Conduct on the spot checks on the company and its operations

Unfortunately, due diligence isn’t something that can be wished away by an investor in a sound frame of mind therefore founders would be better prepared if they would just prepare themselves for due diligence. So, if you are someone that is looking at raising money from us here is our standard due diligence checklist – be prepared for this before you send your pitch deck!

40/2019

v36.003

I Invest in Risky Assets but I am not a Gambler!

A few days ago while rushing into a meeting, I heard someone call out my name. I was in a hurry, but I knew the person, so I politely spoke to him for a few minutes. During the conversation, he reminded me of a venture he had recommended that I almost invested in i.e. I committed capital, but backed down due to serious concerns with the founding team. I am aware (and as he went on to remind me) that that company went onto become quite big and it frequentlty comes up in conversation with people and our prospective LP’s as a part of our “anti-portfolio”, but I do not think that I “missed out” on making the investment, because even if it were offered to me today (under the same conditions), I would stand by my decision and refuse to invest in it.

I have been thinking about why I continue to abide by certain principles because eventually monetary returns are every investor’s ultimate goal, right? I know my reasons for abiding by by certain principles, but it is only today as I was getting ready for my day, that it struck me how to explain it.

I am not a gambler, but an investor in extremely risky early stage companies. Each investment has a thesis behind it. That thesis is validated by my team, my close circle of investor friends, my inner circle, venture partners, the external and internal due diligence teams. They ensure that these theses are in fact not a figment of my own imagination. I also have an independent investment committee (IC) who have to agree with my investment decision (Thesis) for the fund to be able to invest in it. Out of the 8 deals that we have taken to the IC 3 have been rejected. Although it may be disheartening at the time, we have later thanked them later for making those decisions. All these steps and hurdles are taken to mitigate the risks of early stage investing – these are done by design and that design is respected for the risks it mitigates.

That is not to say that I don’t test out new theses or edit my theses from time to time. Last year, I invested in Lyft (through my family office) to test whether the precursor to pre-ipo rounds in tech companies makes investable sense. For the record, even though we’re up 2x, I would’nt do it again.  That being said, these are educated guesses and even though it may look like a gamble to an outsider – it isn’t. Whether that thesis is right or wrong is a different matter.  

Therefore, I believe that when I allow a sense of adventure and gambling in our investment style it can quickly spiral out of control for both me and my team i.e. if the gambling starts to make us money. Our risk mitigations, the paranoia that we could be missing out on something, and the fear of the risk that comes with each investment would quickly dissipate because with gambling success comes a sense of invincibility that encourages taking larger risks. This process ultimately ends (and has) disastrously when the market drops which is inevitable at some point.

Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked.” – Warren Buffet

So yes I am aware of all those investments that I missed out on that could have made me millions, but it would have been a gamble and gambling is not my business.

38/2019

The Udupi Approach

In many cases, food-tech founders extend their line of products to capture as many customers as possible, if they aren’t convinced about the size of their target market. There is a business case for extending into multiple product lines to provide complementary options to a loyal target market, but the decision to go wide right at the start is like opening a new udupi restaurant in Mumbai  that serves all cuisines to cater to  every guest but loses its core of serving the udupicuisine. Therefore, I jokingly call a ‘go wide’ approach of an early stage founding team as the ‘udupi restaurant approach’ as this approach is harmful whether you are in food-tech or not.

Let’s be honest, sales matter. But when you have limited resources in an increasingly noisy world, the quality of sales matter even more. Therefore, it is important to build a niche and own that space in your target segment. That will make your customers your best salespeople i.e. they will recommend you to their network which will bring in tons of new customers. For example, when I randomly asked people in my network for the best place for South Indian food in South Mumbai the answer was Muthuswamy, for people in Central Mumbai it was Madras Café, in Bangalore it was MTR and in Hyderabad it was Chutneys. These people were willing to advocate why their recommendation was the best.

However, when I asked the same audience for the ‘best food place’s in their vicinity, – they were stumped. They almost immediately questioned me about what my preferred cuisine is, whether I was looking for a family restaurant or a date place, what my budget was etc. They did not know how to answer the question until they had some clearer direction. Can you imagine (now) what happens when your start-up does everything? Even your best and loyal customers will not know what to recommend you for!

What is dangerous is that they could be recommending you for something that isn’t even the path you planned.  More dangerously, the customer who is promoting your product may not even be in your target segment. And most dangerously, they may not be promoting you to people who fall under your target segment. Such a sale is more toxic than beneficial!

I understand that it is scary to be focussed but there is a lot of value in doing so. Customer feedback focussed on a concentrated product line will indicate whether you should pivot or accelerate your build-out. However, when there are multiple product lines catering to several audiences it pollutes the feedback, creating a lot of noise, making it hard for you to tune out the disturbance and assess what’s important in order to drive decisions – much like choosing what to eat at a Udupi restaurant at mealtime!

36/2019

Catching Dragons

An LP who had read AVF’s monthly newsletter inquired why we had rejected one of the deals based on the fact that the founders were raising 12 crores. He asked why we didn’t co-invest or take a small chunk of a larger round if the deal was good. This is a common and frequently asked question not only by our LPs but also by founders, their advisors, our advisors, our investment committee and almost every employee. Despite the overwhelming number of times we reject deals based on their valuation or the size of their raise, I continue to stick my neck out on the line for our investment strategy. It has been devised with an important mathematical, strategic and logical reason.

While later stage funds invest at a time when the business has achieved a product market fit, positive unit economics, solid revenue streams, etc. we, as an early stage fund invest when the founder is still contemplating the answers to these questions. Therefore, I stay grounded to reality in expecting that 90% of the early investments we make will fail and return nothing, and the remaining 10% should:

  • Return the total corpus of the fund
  • Deliver a return to the fund’s investors

This is difficult unless there is a clear strategy and discipline while investing.

A fund makes money for its investors by selling its ownership stake in what is called a ‘liquidity event’. This liquidity event can take place in many ways; by selling our ownership to buyout funds, to an acquirer or to the public during an IPO. But how much we make from a liquidity event is decided by two numbers

how much stake we own * how much the company is valued at = size of exit

Considering the small percentage of successes I expect, it is important for each successful investment to have the capacity to return the whole corpus of the fund or be what Kanwal Rekhi calls a “dragon” exit. To figure out at what valuation an investment becomes a dragon for the fund, you can use the same formula

20% X 1000 crore valuation = 200 crores

10% X 2000 crore valuation = 200 crores

5% X 4000 crore valuation = 200 crores

2.5% X 8000 crore valuation = 200 crores

The chances of an early stage fund getting an 8,000-crore exit are slim but if the fund team has picked and worked on such a winner, they should ensure that the exit will have a significant return i.e. multiple times the fund’s corpus and not just the corpus. Therefore, holding a 2.5% stake in such a winner will only return the corpus and I would need 4 such investments to return 4X of my fund – the odds of which are far and wide.

I have modelled our portfolio on an exit ownership between 15-20% with exit scenarios of 1,000 to 2,000 crores over 4-6 years. One such exit will return the fund’s corpus and the rest is just the icing on the cake.

Such a portfolio construct is good for the founders as well. Chasing $1 billion exits promotes behaviour like excessive marketing spends, massive hiring, multiple (and massive) fundraises, lots of founder dilution and an overall impatience to deliver results which cause long term issues. It is simply not sustainable.

Therefore, while I regularly review our investment strategy and thesis, changing the portfolio construct to have lower average ownership just doesn’t make mathematical sense to me. And while numbers can tell a story, they cannot lie.

33/2019

Video Of The Week: Vishal Krishna Interviews Confirmtkt Founders

A few days ago, I saw a Facebook live interview of Confirmtkt’s founders, Dinesh & Sripad. Early on, I had led a round of investment into Confirmtkt and also sat on their board for a few years along with Pravin Agarwalla.

Back then, we both went through a very tough phase with the founders (and the venture), which the founders recount as something that gave them “sleepless nights” in this interview. While I quit the board last year, my eyes were full while watching the two of them. I’d credit the interviewer, Vishal Krishna for bringing out this story so well.

Vishal’s interviewing style is awesome. He is extremely well read and well-prepared with questions for the people whose venture he is interviewing. This thorough preparation helps him delve into the deeper delicate, intricate details with the interviewee that would otherwise have been missed out. I can vouch for this because he has interviewed me before and dug out some details that even I had long forgotten.

The video focuses on Dinesh and Sripad’s journey of becoming responsible and established leaders who grew Confirmtkt into a category leader and a sustainable enterprise. This is what makes it my video of the week as well as the inspiration for my blog post tomorrow.

24/2019