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Why I refuse to promote women’s entrepreneurship

Why I refuse to promote women’s entrepreneurship

Tomorrow I am judging a start-up competition in Delhi that awards its winner up to Rs. 5 lakhs to start their business. Since the contest is only for women, I have received several messages thanking and congratulating me for promoting women’s entrepreneurship. Unfortunately, I am not a big believer in “women’s” entrepreneurship.

I believe that word entrepreneurship is asexual and to treat someone, mainly because they are a female founder (or entrepreneur), with a different mindset is simply not right. Why should we denigrate a founder, just because she is a woman? Does her X chromosome make her business any less valuable, profitable, or exciting?

Therefore, it irks me that there are events, panels, discussions, specially curated to promote women’s entrepreneurship or female founders, exclusively. Most female founders and executives that I have interacted with see it the same way. We all know that anyone discriminating against a business run by a woman leader or refusing to fund a female founder hurts the person holding the bias much more than it hurts the woman – not only in terms of mindset but also on return on investment. 

When I look at my portfolio, I see amazing founders. It is just an afterthought that over 50% of them have women co-founders like Prerna at Daalchini, Kanika at Jadooz and Dhanya at KabaddiAdda. Even within my family office portfolio, several of our most successful investments are powered by female founders like Shivani at Tala, Avneet at CarveNiche, Mahima at Coutloot, Naiyya at BabyChakra and many more. They have made us several x’s on our investment (and no I do not keep nor intend to keep a separate portfolio performance based on sex), and some of them will turn into unicorns in the future – one of them very soon! 

However, none, nada and zilch, of these founders or their start-ups are in our portfolio because they were women. They earned every bit of the success they have achieved, and I respect them for their blood, sweat, and sacrifice – as an individual. In my interactions with them, I see them as entrepreneurs NOT as women founders, and I hope that they know and feel that they are equals.

Therefore, I do not see any good reason to promote female founders or entrepreneurs, because I have experienced excellent returns on my investments by treating each founder as an individual and backing their businesses based on merit. 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.

So I am going to continue to be supportive, critical, effusive, disappointed and elated by my founders without discriminating on them because of their race, age, color, sex, national origin, religion, and physical disability. I believe this approach is the best way to promote any founder.

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The fastest path to the CEO chair is very different than what you might believe!

The Fastest Path(s)

Last week I concluded the appraisals for 2019 as well as inducting two analysts into our team at Artha Venture Fund. I attempt to have a conversation with each of the new inductees, and one of the questions I ask them is where they see themselves in the next five years. Most of them have plans on doing an MBA or becoming a manager, but very few have plans to become entrepreneurs.

Therefore when I do their appraisal, I ask them the same question once again, and it isn’t surprising that most of them have had a shift in their five-year goals. Invariably they would like to be in some entrepreneurial position whether that was in a start, proprietorship, NGO or as a fund manager. I hold the entrepreneurial energy that flows within the walls of our office responsible for this shift, and I am confident that I am the one responsible for dropping cans of fuel to flame any evidence of an entrepreneurial spark.

While I have recalibrated the goals for many team members, I have found that like the entrepreneurs that I have met, my team holds misconceptions about the path one should take to becoming a CEO/Founder. I could harp on my own experiences as a case study for them to follow, but it was a pleasant surprise to learn that the team of Nicole Wong, Kim Powell, and Elena Botelho were conducting a study that I could share!

In a ten year study, the trio assembled data on 17,000 C-Suite executive assessments, studying over 2,600 of them in-depth. They wanted to analyze who gets to the top and how and they went onto publish a book based on their findings called, The CEO Next Door.

Their study (aptly called the CEO Genome project) took a close look at the career paths of individuals that they have (once again) aptly called, CEO-sprinters. Their study discovered that on average, it took 24 years from the date of joining their first job to become a CEO. Therefore CEO-sprinters are those individuals that got the CEO title before 24 years.

Some of the data sharing from the study are thought-provoking:

  • 24% of the CEOs had an elite-MBA
  • 7% graduated from an Ivy League school
  • 8% did not complete college
  • 45% had had a significant career blow-up

The study concluded that the CEO-sprinters had three types of career catapults that got them to the CEO chair early viz:

  • Go Small to Go Big
  • Make a Big Leap
  • Inherit a Big Mess

Understanding these career catapults and experiencing them is crucial. Their importance is inferred by the fact that:

  • 97% of the CEO-sprinters had had at least 1 of those experiences
  • ~50% had had at least 2

I will review the book in a future post, but until then you can learn about the career catapults as well as other findings from the CEO-genome project at   

I concur with the findings of the CEO Genome project, and it has once again confirmed what my mentor & ex-boss used to ingrain into each leader that was led by him

The people that solve the most problems make the most money!

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

On whose advice should you pivot?

A founding team must (not shall) display a strong belief and deep commitment to their business. The teams that constantly shift their business model on the feedback of funders eventually find themselves lost at sea. So, there are many times to pivot your business – but a failed attempt at raising a round of capital just isn’t one of them!

As Investors, we evaluate businesses with a limited vision periscope and often, “tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.”

At Artha, we remind ourselves and founding teams through the disclaimer in our rejection emails.

Please note, these are only recommendations and as venture capitalists, we are only required to be right 20% of the time to be amongst the top VCs in the world. We can be (and are) wrong 80% of the time in our investments, so please do not consider this as the final word for your business.” 

Therefore, it is sane advice to any founding team out there that is currently raising capital.

  • Utilize the funder’s feedback to alter your business’ investment pitch.
  • Utilize the pitches that didn’t result in a sale to alter your business’ sales & marketing pitch BUT
  • Only take your customer capitalist’s (read: paying customers’) feedback into account, to pivot your business

39/2019 v36.002

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

Would you rather hear me or read me?

Yesterday I was in Lucknow attending SIDBI’s first Investor Day in honor of their foundation’s 29th anniversary. Over 40 fund managers were present, representing thousands of crores in capital available for investment. Considering the dry powder that was going to be available in the room, the SIDBI team sourced 20 start-ups to pitch to the captive audience. The standard of the start-ups, the quality of their pitches, the professionalism and punctuality with which the event was carried out was truly unique. I have congratulated the SIDBI team privately for executing such a well-organized event but would also like to do so once again publicly through my loudspeaker (read: blog).

After the event, a few of us (fund managers) got together to catch up over drinks and hunt for Lucknowi kebabs. Since we rarely get the time or occasion to meet outside events, we took this opportunity to share several things with each other, from the books we were reading to the morning routines we were following. One of the heavily discussed topics was the podcasts that each one of us was listening to. The list includes; Joe Rogan Experience, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History amongst others.

By the time I got back to my room, it was midnight. I had a full stomach and my mind had been stretched in many new directions. All in all, it had been a day well invested!

This morning on my flight back to Mumbai I replayed last night’s conversations about the podcasts that my fellow fund managers were listening to. It got me thinking whether I should move my own blog to a podcast – or have it co-exist with the writing?

There are few (if hardly any) podcasts that capture the perspective of an early stage VC in India. I was wondering if it would be more convenient for the 9,000+ followers of showmedamani.com to hear my podcast instead of reading my blog. The biggest benefit for me (and my team) would be that, it will be easier to project my dry sense of humour (accurately) through voice modulation over prose. So, my question is…

38/2019

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

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

The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing

There are some books that instantly connect with me because they take various vantage points I hold and put it together in a single coherent narrative.

The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing has it all; good research, umpteen number of examples that are woven into a compelling narrative and an easy to understand explanation of marketing rules that any and every founder must follow. I found this book so engaging that I just couldn’t put it down. I finished reading it in a day (which could’ve been done in a couple of hours if I wasn’t so busy underlining or writing in the margins).

The book was written in 1993, by two marketing gurus and best-selling authors Al Ries & Jack Trout, so most of the examples they describe are dated. Yet, it amazes me how accurate their predictions about the decline of brands like New Coke, GM, IBM, 7UP, etc. were and how they pinpointed the exact laws of marketing that these brands flouted that got them there.

In fact, I can easily identify present day companies that are underperforming due to flouting a marketing law and companies that are winning by meticulously following one. It is extremely engaging stuff.

What did I like about this book?

Its simplicity. The laws are extremely easy to understand, and the marketing rationale is explained using real world examples. The authors avoided being verbose and have kept the book concise and engaging.

I love the way in which they’ve given the laws because if I ever find myself in a quandary regarding a marketing decision, I can simply just open the relevant chapter and read it, to guide my thinking. In a way it will be my personal bible for marketing problems.  

My favourite laws?

In order of preference:

  1. The Law of Sacrifice – this one hits close to home because I have seen how flouting this law has hurt several of our companies i.e. when they tried to do everything and ended up becoming nothing.
  2. The Law of Leadership – learning that a leading brand is perceived as the better-quality brand was an eye opener. It answered the question on why investing in a challenger has (for the lack of better word) challenges.
  3. The Law of Category – This taught me that when you cannot win a category… you should create one!
  4. The Law of Focus – the most successful marketing teams are pros at associating their product or service with a single word – a word that they’ll always own.

Who is this book for?

This book is for anyone who is involved in making marketing (digital or otherwise) and branding decisions for the company that they founded or are employed at. It can be helpful to adjust their marketing efforts to work for and not against their company.

This book should be in the purse, bag or back pocket of any founder or marketer – it just that relevant!

35/2019

281 and Beyond

Vangipurapu Venkata Sai Laxman aka VVS Laxman played cricket for India for 16 years (at the international level). When his cricket career came to an end, only 12 other people had played more cricket than him, 2 of whom were his teammates (Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid). He was a vital cog in the Indian batting line up and one of the fab four of Indian batsmen in the 2000-2010 decade. Except at the time of retirement, he wasn’t involved in too many controversies. On the outside, it seemed as though Laxman had it all, but his autobiography reveals how many trials and tribulations his beautiful career faced beneath what looked like a shiny surface. In that sense, 281 and Beyond is like the behind the scenes video of a top-grossing movie.

In my opinion, 281 and Beyond is not a book about cricket. It is a book about a child’s journey to fulfill his childhood dream- to play cricket for his country. He describes how he went on to achieve his goal through discipline, performance, and hard work, only to realize that the toughest part wasn’t getting there but consistently performing to remain at the top.

The child is forced to grow up quickly by the constant scrutiny of a billion Indians, that hero worship their national cricketers, following their every move, carrying them high during the victory, but each believing that they could do a better job when their heroes fail. The anxiety of consistently performing at the top under different coaches, captains, the backdrop of match-fixing, and an inconsistent and poorly-managed selection policy and how Laxman overcomes each of these with runs made from the blade of his willow is the crux of this book.

What does it take for someone to continuously play to such a fickle gallery? How does one come back after a string of failures? How does one keep themselves sane against an insane backdrop? Laxman answers all of that, and beyond.

Why did I like this book?

I love autobiographies that are written from the perspective of the protagonist, in this case, VVS Laxman. I like to visualize the autobiographies that I read. So, when the author delves deep into the inner turmoil and emotions that they were feeling during certain key moments in their lives, it provides a greater level of understanding that makes them more real, relatable.

In this book, I appreciate the frankness with which Laxman has discussed why he believes he was wronged several times during his career, his opinion about teammates, captains, coaches and how much they contributed to his journey as a cricketer.

As a keen cricket follower, I could remember most of the performances and events that Laxman was referring to. So, not only did the book take me over my frustrations (on the defeats) and jubilations (on the victories) of those matches but also provided the context to what was happening behind the curtain i.e. in the locker rooms, the training sessions, the team bus, and even the hotel rooms. It helped me forgive the Indian cricket team (and Laxman) for several frustrations, except the humiliation at Barbados in 1997, a defeat whose aftermath he talks about on himself, his captain (Sachin) and the team – riveting stuff.

What I learnt from this book?

There is a lot of commonality between the lives of entrepreneurs and performers i.e. actors, sportsmen, musicians, etc. Both groups must innovate to stay ahead of the competition while consistently giving good performances to retain their target audiences. Both groups wish to leave behind a body of work that will be remembered for eons after they are gone. In both groups, competition is challenging and only a few make it big enough to be remembered, and even then, their moment in the sun could be eclipsed faster than it took to get there.

The ability to perform at the top and stay relevant in a rapidly evolving world is something that only a few have managed to do and yet people continue to sign up for these jobs. What is their motivation? Why do they keep coming back? Do they not fear failure? 281 and Beyond answers all these questions and more.

When I wrote the post on Things Not To Do If You’re In The Entrepreneur’s Inner Circle, I was only 40% of my way through this book. Completing it only vindicated my thoughts on how important the role of your inner circle is in your success. Throughout the book, Laxman credits his wife, parents, uncle, coaches etc. (i.e. his inner circle) for the roles they’ve played in his success – which at times was not to interfere at all.

Who is this book for?

This book is for anyone who wants to fulfill their dream but fears the negative consequences of failure. The toughest part (as you will learn from this book and real life) isn’t the quest to achieve your dream but to continue to live it.

34/2019