Category Archive : Technology

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!



My Angle on the Union Budget 2019

I would rate the budget presented by FM Piyush Goyal, a solid 4 out of 5. The budget managed to do the difficult dance between fiscal prudence and a sustainable, stable but progressive tax policy. More importantly, it provided security to two of the weakest links in India’s growth story i.e. the unorganised work force and the marginal farmers.

It is a common gripe amongst taxpayers that they do not get the benefits of paying taxes which they pay honestly (or otherwise) but various data sources suggest that we have one of the lowest tax revenues to GDP ratios in the world at ~11%. Compare that to Mexico who at 16% was the lowest amongst the OECD countries and most of these countries in this list are developed economies unlike India, where even the most basic infrastructure is being developed. The developing and growing economy is being supported by 6.8 crore taxpayers paying 120+ crores, which is dismal. Until we get to 30% tax revenues to GDP, we as tax payers will continue to bear this burden.

Unlike previous governments, I am happy with the way this governemnt has invested and spent my tax rupees and the change it has brought is visible. In the last 12 months, I visited at least 15 cities that can be classified as Tier 2 or beyond and I travelled to these places by planes, trains and automobiles. I have witnessed the benefits that these infrastructure investments have brought for the people who live in Bharat. Some of the areas that have seen the biggest ROIs are:

  • Connecting North East India with the rest of the country via rail & highways
  • The massive highway construction program
  • Upgrading the intra-city railway network, cleaner and better-equipped railway stations
  • Faster, more efficient and punctual intra-city railway services
  • Sanitation, electricity and home construction coverages

No money has been spent mindlessly. Almost all major urban centres are set to have intercity metro services, the defence spending has improved our security infrastructure and we now have a space programme that will put an Indian in space, with technology that will be developed within the country. These are all developments that I, as a taxpayer, am extremely proud and shall continue to support, with my tax rupees.

In the same vein, the Rs. 6,000 rupee direct cash transfer to farmers should be looked at as the start of an experiment that has its roots in the immortal words of late Rajiv Gandhi who had inferred that only 15% of the money given for welfare of the poorest and weakest sections of society actually received those benefits. This statement was made in 1985 and since then, the situation has barely gotten better.  In fact, the elected representatives have looted everything from seeds, urea and fertilisers that were meant for farmers. So a direct deposit of Rs. 6,000 would actually be equal to Rs. 40,000 benefit that the government would’ve had to dole out in order to achieve the same outcome. The only people that are making the most hue and cry about this are those that have made a living on such ill-gotten gains. However, this time the money will not be fattening the pockets of middlemen who have stolen my tax rupees. Instead, this will be the beginning of the process of plugging the gap. I am supportive of the initiative because the direct benefit transfer has saved us over Rs 90,000 crores according to UIDAI as well as the ancillary gains of the accurate welfare amounts reaching the intended recipients have been significant. Therefore, with this direct income support, it will be yet another nail in the coffin of the middlemen.

My only real grouch with the budget was the lack of support to the VC ecosystem, especially the VC funds. Other than the Rs.10,000 Crore fund of fund allotment (which is extremely difficult and complicated to avail) there hasn’t been any incentive for investors to put money into VCFs. Investing in VC funds is a new phenomenon for most investors, therefore, a tax incentive like offsetting tax on capital gains from real estate or listed securities by investing into SEBI registered VCFs would have provided a boost for investors. Secondly, reducing the tax on gains from VC funds to those from listed equity funds or even lower would have been a positive move.

However, in the end, the government did it’s best to support the ones that needed it most and modestly rewarded those who have contributed to the nation. There was a clear message that the government will encourage consumption but in a way that it directly benefits the targeted beneficiaries. I (as a taxpayer) am extremely satisfied and hope that the successive governments learn and follow the same path.

Lobbying for lower taxes can wait.


Seeking Email Nirvana

I have been looking for a single solution email app for the past 2-3 years but with limited success. On an average, I receive 300 emails per day in my two company accounts and around 100 in my personal accounts.

Until now, I have been training Sanebox to parse these emails and send them into folders based on conditions like-whether I am in ‘cc’ or the ‘to’ field or whether the email is an invoice or a newsletter. Off late, Sanebox has been creating more issues than it is solving. For example, I was in a conversation with a broker in the US who regularly sends me deals. We were deep into a deal when his emails stopped showing up in my inbox. I thought he wasn’t interested in pursuing the matter further until I found out that he had replied, but his genuine email could not be deciphered from his newsletters and went into the wrong folder. This is not a one-off instance because Sanebox has made such mistakes (and vice-versa) many a time.

Another issue with Sanebox’s AI engine is that it won’t send me reminders of emails that have been lying unread or unarchived in folders that it sent them to unless I check those folders myself. The AI also doesn’t allow me to route certain emails to specific people without manual intervention (meetings to my EA, prospects to my team), nor does it automatically put emails from contacts that I am most in touch with, at the top of my contact list. Since Sanebox is a service to analyse incoming emails (and not even a good one at that), it does not provide any help with sending, tracking or scheduling (sending) emails which makes its price quite onerous.

I track emails that I send out to ensure that they have been read and the files or links within them clicked and based on that report I follow-up with the recipients.   

After a lot of research, I honed down on Yesware about a year ago and it is a good solution. But it frequently crashes my Outlook, does not work without an internet connection (i.e. I could not schedule emails when I was on a flight) and surprisingly lacks an option to schedule sending emails, without reopening my Outlook client. To solve that, I switched to Boomerang, which does have a solution to schedule emails but comes at the cost of a horrible tracking feature. So right now, I am contemplating using BananaTag which promises to solve the problem of scheduling emails that I wish to send but doesn’t work from a mobile device.

I would gladly switch to another service but haven’t found any that do half as decent a job as Sanebox on incoming emails or Yesware/ Boomerang/ BananaTag for outgoing emails. That is not saying much for any of them because I wouldn’t give any more than 2 stars (out of 5) for their problem-solving skills. However, I continue to keep Sanebox & company, just like my society keeps the unfit, old security guards because they provide a mirage of security when it’s clear that they are incapable of doing the job that they were employed for.  

So, this morning I thought about what I was looking for in an email client and the list was quite simple.

  1. It should have the ability to combine all my email accounts
  2. Intelligently analyse which ones are important based on my previous conversation history
  3. Suggest responses that match my style of writing
  4. Set automatic reminders for me to answer, archive or delete emails that have been lying in various folders since kingdom come
  5. Reach out to people that I have not spoken to in a long time.
  6. Track how recipients are interacting with my emails
  7. Remind me if an email remains unopened or unanswered (with suggestions)
  8. Schedule sending emails   

I believe this is a problem that is screaming to be solved because almost everyone I speak to, is dealing with some version of stress derived from email overload and if there isn’t a good resolution soon, people are going to start giving up.

Radicati Group estimates that every day over 281 billion emails are sent out (almost 50%of it spam) to 3.8 billion email accounts and this problem is only getting worse. Has anyone figured out a way out of this mess?  Let me know!


Predicting 2019

Brad Feld, Fred Wilson and BillGates’ new year blogs inspired me to write this post today.

To the cosmos this is just another day but to humans this is that time of the year where they expend a tremendous amount of energy in planning, changing and predicting how the next 365 days are going to be. I did not see the value of this futile exercise until last year when I put my goals down on paper and then announced them on my blog and all my social media handles. I know for a fact that I have missed out on achieving several goals that I had set out for, but the ones I did achieve had a different sense of achievement.

While I introspect on the reasons behind the misses, one of the serious flaws in my goal setting was the lack of thought in predicting the status of the economy and events in 2018 and how they would affect my goals. For example, if I would have predicted that there would be a slowdown in venture funding due to the collapse of the angel investment ecosystem, I would have known that achieving 10 new investments for AVF would amount to nothing but a pipedream. Not foreseeing that set me off by 80% on that goal. Therefore, this year it made better sense to put down my predictions first and then plan my goals with those predictions in mind. So here goes:

I believe that 2019 will be a fantastic year for India, (that is) if India continues to enjoy a single party majority after the May 2019 assembly polls. I would prefer a strong leader like Narendra Modi to continue to lead the country instead of a council of ministers with their own agendas clouding the judgement of the prime minister.

The chances of Modi’s return are high as there are strong signals that the economy has gained momentum and is continuing to grow much better than what was expected post-GST implementation. Banks have seen better recovery from NPAs than what was predicted and with stronger balance sheets they will be out lending once again. There is also a good chance that the RBI will reduce interest rates due to lower than expected inflation on the collapse of crude prices. These events could flood the market with liquidity which is an ideal scenario for the incumbent party before an election because it improves the views about the incumbent in a short-lived public memory. With all this in mind, I believe that Indian GDP should grow at 8% in 2019.

The uncertainty over global trade wars have reduced significantly, and a buoyant Indian economy would lead to a record year for the stock market indices. I believe that this would percolate to the start-up ecosystem through an increase in M&A activity and many Indian corporates would setup CVCs to keep up with innovation and justify their high valuations. I believe that the government will bring in clarity to the use of Aadhar verification which will help to revive Fintech activity and implement guidelines for bringing cryptos back to India. The guidelines may not be along the lines that crypto purists would appreciate, but it will be a significant step ahead in comparison to the current situation. This is also going be a pivotal year for the start-ups raising money as we will see a rise in the number of active funds looking for deals and that will quickly fill the vacuum created by the angel networks. The better-informed entrepreneurs will avoid the “large” & distributed format angel investment networks and instead choose to have closer relationships with their funding partners. Entrepreneurs will seek funding partners like professional investors like VC funds, super-angels and family offices and we should see in rounds that have a smaller number of “professional” investors but with a larger investment per investor, and this trend will continue. The loss of good investment opportunities to professional investors will drive out the marginal angel investors that make up the bulk of India’s angel networks. These marginal angels will also experience their first round of write-offs which many of them aren’t prepared for, so they’re going to leave in droves.

The serious angel investors will demand much better deal flow and portfolio services to continue to invest their capital, something that will be difficult for marginal angel networks to achieve since they have not built these capacities. I believe that the angel networks will start to shut down – marginal ones at first and the larger ones becoming marginal, eventually ceasing to exist in following years.

When it comes to the overall Artha portfolio I believe that LenDenClub, Coutloot, ChaiBreak, Fynd, Karza Technologies, BabyChakra and X-Prime to have a headline sort of a year which will firmly put them in “pole” positions in their respective spaces. If they do not convert this year of opportunity into something substantial, then I believe a golden opportunity would be lost, forever.

In terms of where I would like AVF to invest, I am excited about the prospects of e-Sports and its growing popularity across the globe and in India. I think it would be interesting to evaluate an esports company for investment as I believe that this format can generate massive scale in a country where the average age group will be below 30 for the next 10 years. 

Statistic: India: Average age of the population from 1950 to 2050 (median age in years) | Statista
Find more statistics at Statista

I would also like to see founders developing sustainable business models from the opportunities that the Ayushman Bharat health insurance scheme provides for rural healthcare. Healthcare has been a very small portion of Artha’s portfolio and this year could be a good time to increase our exposure in the space.

So, here are my predictions for 2019.

I wish you and your loved ones a very happy 2019!


Venture Idea: A Vendor Backed Credit Rating System for Corporates

It is hard to gauge the independence of a rating provided by a rating agency since the company being rated is the one who pays the agencies’ fee. So, any agency that gives a company a rating that negatively impacts the company’s business bears the risk of losing the client to a competitor willing to give an insincere but higher rating. Therefore, each time an IL&FS type fiasco takes place (where the rating agency is caught napping), it increases my conviction to find a team that can build an alternative, credible rating system.

One of the reasons rating agencies are out of tune with a business’s current affairs is because audited documents provided to them are already several months old. In contrast, vendors of the same company have a constant finger on the pulse the business, because they frequently transact with the company. A delay or default in payment tells vendors that the business is in financial distress. Although litigation is the next logical solution, vendors have traditionally avoided it due to difficult enforcement and lengthy court procedures. However, this changed under the recent NCLT laws that allow an operational creditor to take a company to court to get its dues quickly.

In many cases, a simple legal notice from the creditor could lead to a resolution because the defaulting party wants to avoid NCLT and the risk of all its creditors demanding their dues. Therein lies an opportunity!

If there was a platform that allowed vendors to create and send legal notices to its debtors and track how many were resolved and how many got taken to NCLT, it could use this information to create a reliability index for companies. These ratings could then be listed on a separate website accessible to vendors looking to trade with a company. A vendor/company looking to do business with a new company can use this platform to assess reliability by viewing a transparent record of the company’s payment history. On the other hand, this will incentivize defaulting companies to clear their dues and improve their rating, thereby attracting better business terms.

A need for this alternative rating system is evident from the 9000 cases that were filed on the MSME Samadhaan platform to recover 2600+ crores. The 50bn owed by Essar Steel to its operational creditors is another prime example and this is the tip of the iceberg, but a massive business opportunity.


Learn from Elon Musk: be Careful of What you Promise Publicly!

The fiasco around taking Tesla private has dwindled Elon Musk’s credibility, making it hard to believe anything that comes out of his mouth. This brilliant piece of journalism aptly titled “Private’ mess: Elon Musk’s credibility goes from bad to worse” explains why this badly handled episode in Musk’s history can be considered a harbinger of worse things to come.

In fact, it is an important lesson for any founder who makes public statements of bravado in the pitching room or to the media- only promise what you can deliver because once that promise has left your mouth… it cannot be taken back.

…and by the way Mr Musk, I want my $1000 deposit on the Model 3 back!!!


Is Hong Kong’s Octopus Card a Model for Mumbai?

I am in Hong Kong attending the Rise 2018 summit.  This is the first time I walked out of the Hong Kong airport and my expectations of this city were based merely on what I had heard about Hong Kong from the people who live here. Little did I know that I was in a for a surprise.

The first thing that I noted about Hong Kong is the lack of digital penetration when it comes to modes of payment i.e. digital wallets, debit cards and credit cards are useless here as Hong Kong thrives on cash as a medium of exchange. My first experience with the lack of digital options started when I tried to get into a cab from the airport to go to my hotel but was denied service as I did not have any Hong Kong dollars on me. I had to go back to the ATM inside the airport so that I could pay the cab service.

Another incident took place when I was trying to buy some groceries from a store at the MTR station and the store didn’t accept any of my cards.  The experience at the bakery a few doors down wasn’t any different. It was a surreal experience considering how deep the digital payment players have penetrated the Chinese and Indian lifestyles and since Hong Kong is supposed to be the gateway to investing in or out of China I just expected digital payments to be universally accepted here. In fact, this peculiarity stumps even the local expats, especially those that often visit China and I think it is a phenomenon worth further investigation.

While I spot an opportunity for a smart founding team to penetrate the Hong Kong payments market, they could face fierce competition from a local closed loop card called the Octopus card. This closed loop card is just like London’s Oyster card or Delhi Metro Smart Card in that,  it allows the user to deposit money to utilise the public transportation infrastructure. However, the interesting thing about the Octopus card is that it is an acceptable mode of payment at most pay points that did not accept digital payment mediums. Take for example this morning, I ordered an amazing breakfast smoothie at the local breakfast place, the cashier would not take my credit card but they had a reader to accept the Octopus card. I found the experience weird and brilliant at the same time.

It made me think of creating a similar closed loop payment ecosystem in an Indian metropolis like Mumbai or Delhi. A payment card could be used to access the public transport infrastructure, pay at stores, maybe even pay tolls etc. The card (like the Octopus card) should be partly owned by the local government so that there is a strong trust with the consumer as well as the merchants accepting the card. To ensure a seamless experience, the card will require an able tech team, an ambitious entrepreneurial team and a strong network infrastructure.

However, the transaction data, the fees from merchants and interest from the balances on the cards could create solid revenue streams. Introduce the ability for banks, P2P lenders and NBFCs to provide the consumer & the merchant credit based on the transactional data and it is a serious business!


Contact Management Solution for Gifting

This year, I have chosen to simplify several things in my daily life, one of them being my 5000+ member contact list that grows by 100-200 new contacts every month.

Currently, I use FullContact to manage all my contacts. It scans business cards, merges duplicates and scrapes the internet to find and attach all the social media accounts of my contacts to update me on their latest activities.

Additionally, I have been using Accompany. It sends me a daily email digest with the latest media articles involving anyone from my contact list. It also allows me to sync my calendar and sends me a bio of the people that I am scheduled to meet. It usually includes their latest media mentions and articles, giving me the chance to build a strong rapport at the beginning of every conversation.

However, there is one service (or a feature) that I wish there was an app to address. It would save my team and I the time and effort we spend doing this task manually every year.  Every year we go through an arduous process to send gifts to my contacts on their birthdays, anniversaries or religious occasions like Diwali, Eid, Holi, Christmas, etc. A feature or service that could semi-automate this process, providing an easy solution to this problem could be an interesting concept that an enterprising group of individuals could work on.

My idea for this model is:

  1. Connect with my (the user’s) contact list
  2. Scrape through online sources for birthdays and anniversaries of my contacts
    • Also, try to figure out the religion they follow so that a personalized wish can be sent on their respective religious festivals.
  3. A week before someone’s birthday/anniversary, ask me the budget that I would like to allocate to their gift and try to find them an interesting card, bouquet or a gift that can be sent on my behalf.
    • Then the service could send me a variety of options for gifts based on the budget that I had allocated and allow me to pick the one I prefer most.
  4. This service will also need to get in touch with the person I am sending the gift to, for their latest address, a response that the person getting the gift can choose to keep hidden from me or let me update on my contact list with the latest info.
  5. The service can start to learn and over a period, start getting smarter in terms of the budget and the gifts that I like to send
    1. They could also start to classify who I prioritize from my contact list based on the budgets and frequency of gifts that I send that person
  6. A similar exercise can be done before a religious occasion on a larger scale.
  7. As my contact list continues to increase, so does the business for this service

There are two ways the company makes money. Thus, the revenue model could be:

  1. Convenience Fee

If the company decides to charge this fee it is imperative that the quality of the gift and of the service is of the highest order. A low-quality gift or shoddy service will ensure that the user is lost forever due to the embarrassment it would cause him/her.

Secondly, the company should ensure that the prices they provide for their gifts are the best prices in the market. I have tried Wishup and Quintessentially to solve this problem in the past, but they tried to price gouge me, dissuading me from using their service again.

  1. Affiliate commissions

The company can get affiliate commissions from their vendors and then decide to share a part of it with their clients by providing better (cheaper) prices than they could find anywhere on their own. As the number of gifts grows, the relationship built with the vendors and customers would act as a significant moat against competing service providers.

There are numerous articles that can tell you that the size of the gifting market in India is huge. In fact, this research report from Technopak estimated the size of the market to be $40-42 billion, and a more recent article from TOI estimated it to be $65 billion. There is already an abundance of digital players trying to make their mark in this space. However, most of them do not provide as in-depth a solution as I have drawn out here, which opens up a blue ocean in an otherwise red sea.

Karishma Kirpalani from our team is in charge of finding me a startup that provides this service. If you or someone you know is pursuing this, email us on attn: Karishma Kirpalani.


The 3 Pillars of US Consumer Industry that India Should Emulate

I have been in awe of the US consumer industry for the past 2 decades. A quick Google search showed me that US consumer spending hit an all-time high of 12 trillion dollars in the first quarter of 2018!

It is a well-known fact that Indians have money to spend. However, we continue to lack the 3 major pillars on which the American consumer industry was built. I am using my own experiences to provide examples of what those 3 pillars are.

  1. In-Store Credit Cards

As the sales clerk was ringing up my bill for the shirts I was buying at the Banana Republic, she tried her best to get me to sign up for the in-store credit card. She went as far as offering a 25% discount on my bill if I signed up for this credit card!

In-store credit cards make a lot of sense as they would drive up the average revenue per transaction and incentivize consumers to come back to that store for future purchases i.e. drive loyalty. It is easy to decipher that the availability of in-store credit cards acted as a major catalyst for the US consumer market. In fact, over 381 million store credit cards were expected to be issued in the US in 2016, compare that to the grand total of 35.5 million credit cards in circulation as of December 2017 in India.

Why the D-marts, Big Bazaars, Flipkarts or Godrejs of the Indian ecosystem have not explored in-store credit cards is truly a mystery, especially as they must have studied the stellar success of Bajaj Finance in consumer credit.

  1. Customer First Attitude

Some of the shirts I was buying from the Banana Republic were priced higher in the store’s computer system than what was on the tag. The store manager found that the shirts had been mistagged and she had a choice i.e. turn the customer away to preserve the store profits or take the hit and ensure customer satisfaction.

It did not take even a moment’s hesitation for her to edit the already deeply discounted price even further and ensure that the customer (me) did not leave dis-satisfied for their mistake.  Giving front facing staff the authority to ensure customer satisfaction is an important quality for Indian retailers to emulate.

  1. Consumer Conflict Resolution

America has extremely strong consumer protection laws which have increased the confidence in buying products and services in the US. However, the increase in confidence can be directly linked to the services provided by organizations like the Better Business Bureau. BBB provides ratings on businesses based on the number of complaints filed (and resolved). I have had to use BBB a few times to resolve issues with service providers during my decade-long stay in the US and each time the fear of getting a negative strike on BBB resolved the issue.

The ease with which BBB provided me protection as a customer directly reflected in my confidence to buy more products and services from new businesses and merchants, especially online.

Indian consumer courts have been doing an excellent job at protecting consumers by providing quick and effective relief to the customer along with (in many cases) exemplary compensation from the service provider. There still exists a space for a BBB type player in the market which will provide carrot and stick for merchants to resolve consumer issues.


Tala closes the Loop by Reentering India

News broke out yesterday that Tala raised $65 million in a round led by Steve Case’s Revolution Fund. Most of the news headlines are stating that Tala raised this money to enter the Indian market making this is one of those interesting anomalies because Tala started its business under the name InVenture in India. As a DSA for MFIs, the regulatory environment in 2012 didn’t permit the sustainability of InVenture’s business model.


As a tough entrepreneur, Shivani decided not to quit just yet but move her business to a place where digital money was ingrained in the daily habits of people i.e. Kenya. There, her model transformed from a credit assessment platform to a lending app and now it is out there creating history! She used the capital raised from IVP, Data Collective, Lowercase Capital, Ribbit Capital, and Female Founders Fund (who have all participated in this round) to expand Tala’s reach to the Philippines, Mexico, and Tanzania.

Now she is returning to the nest where it all began, with a war chest and model that has much more relevance in transforming the digital payment space in India. In my opinion, there could not have been a better time for her return.

This morning the Artha India Ventures team and I spoke to  Zach, the head of Tala’s Indian expansion team and he shared a laundry list of people that he is looking to hire. Once I have those JD’s, I will share them in a separate post. I can safely vouch for the fact that you will be working for a company and leader (Shivani) that I deeply respect, and one that I believe will make a huge impact in India and in the world.

Best of luck to Shivani and her Tala team. The Artha team is by your side every step of the way!