Spectacular turnaround in the digital economy and the aggression of investors to invest in these startups could lead to a hiring spree. But are we going too fast…?Continue reading
Every Monday, I sit with my team to review the funding activity of the previous week. From that list, I pick out three companies that I would have loved to invest in or find founders that are doing similar things. Click here to know about my rationale behind this weekly exercise.
While the funds raised by India’s startup ecosystem (barring Jio) fell, it was heartening to note that we continued to maintain 2 deals per day average with 13 startups raising $27 million. Out of the 13 deals, 10 were in the early-stage (compared to 13 last week) rounds, which made the cut for my weekly analysis.
Name: Myelin Foundry
Amount Raised: Undisclosed from Pratithi
What does Myelin Foundry do?
Edited from Traxcn: Myelin Foundry is a video distribution solution provider. It helps to deliver ultra HD zero-rebuffering streaming, on any network and reduce the time and cost to market and deliver AI-powered content.
Why do I like Myelin Foundry?
At first look, Myelin reminded of Pied Piper from the show Silicon Valley. However, after checking out their products page, I am very excited about the tech stack that Myelin is attempting to build. If they can stream HD content through EDGE network – it could be a game-changer!
Name: Ameliorate Biotech
What does Ameliorate Biotech do?
Edited from Traxcn: Ameliorate Biotech develops recombinant therapeutic proteins and diagnostic kits. They have developed their technology to produce a recombinant protein in an antibiotic-free process. They are developing biosimilar products for treating oncology, Autoimmune disease, ophthalmology, and nephrology.
Why do I like Ameliorate Biotech?
I am not a fan of biotech startups because of the long development cycle and high mortality rates of these companies. However, I like the experience the team of Dr. Rashbehari Tunga & Dr. Binit Tunga has in this field, and I’d want them to succeed.
Amount Raised: $3.3M from Nexus Venture Partners and India Quotient
What does YoloBus do?
Edited from Tracxn: YoloBus is an online platform for travelers that provides intercity bus services. Travelers can select their route, choose pickup/destination, enter travel date & make bookings via the app by making an online payment. Their app is available for iOS & Android devices.
Why do I like YoloBus?
This one deserves another mention as I had shortlisted this deal in February 2020. Intercity travel must start once again, and I expect domestic tourism to boom first. However, the quality will trump cost when it comes to matters of health, and YoloBus has a great chance to capitalize on this new trend!
Several founders wait with bated breath as the Indian economy reopens after a 76-day hibernation. Many of them wait in anticipation that there will be an outbreak of indulgence consumption or revenge buying that will flood the empty coffers of revenue starved companies. It is (however), not the time for founders to get complacent. There is a long road ahead once the dust settles and we will see the clear signs of permanent behavioral changes after this temporary hysteria fades away.
I believe that we will see permanent behavioral changes starting from the way we lead our lives to the products or services that we consume (and the way we consume them.) Although I agree with Fred Wilson that companies in telehealth, food delivery, and work from home would benefit from these behavioral changes, I would add a few more for those of us living in India.
One of them is online education. In the past, most online education platforms suffered as the instructors were camera-shy when providing instructions to an online audience. Many instructors also found the technology tools daunting and they avoided using them. However, I do not expect parents to enthusiastically send their children back to school. The lockdown provided an extended incubation period pushing instructors to overcome their fears and shortcomings. I believe that the imparting of education through online mediums will continue to expand. Vocational classes are next, then hobbies and even working out, creating great business opportunities. I have current and prospective investments that will benefit from this behavioral change.
Another one is neobanking. It is a travesty that our banks continue to function with 20th-century design and tech infrastructure. I had hope that the lockdowns would have forced them to take a relook at their online banking offerings and improve services for customers. However, our banks are too big to move quickly. This creates a great opportunity for neobanks that add a friendlier design and process layer over the old banking infrastructure. The next 18 months would be crucial for neobanks to scale massively before the traditional banks catchup. I have current and prospective investments that will benefit from this behavioral change.
Another one is multiplayer online gaming. Social distancing is disrupting the hospitality sector especially the nightlife industry with authorities in Japan going as far as demonizing nightlife districts. However, the human need for socializing is driving us online and onto apps like Ludo, Houseparty, and Tambola. Ludo King reported a 4x increase in DAUs with more than 50 million users interacting with their app daily. I believe that the joy of online gaming companies has just begun.
Like Fred mentioned in his post, the next 6-18 months will be an interesting period to study these behavioral changes. It is an important period for founders as they must navigate these uncertain waters, readjust, once again achieve product-market fit and then start scaling up again.
Yesterday was the 60th day since we shut down our office, but it feels much longer. Partly because of the roller coaster journey I have had with a concept that I could not understand, i.e., working from home. In the last 60 days, I have gone from hating to loving the work from home concept and from working myself to the bone to appreciating the freedom and higher productivity this concept brings to my team and to me.
There are several posts on how to manage employees that are working from home, but very few focus their attention on the founder that is leading their startup through troubled waters. I had 6 distinct learnings that reshaped the way I thought about working from home:
- Hyper-productivity has its limitations
I was guilty of indulging in this mistake for the first 30 days. Theoretically, I saved 90 minutes of commute time; therefore, I decided that I could take on more tasks and responsibilities. Thus, in addition to my duties as a fund manager, I was reworking budgets with our portfolio companies, took on the chief editor role for Artha’s blogs, and I was conducting multiple team calls a day to keep the team focussed and engaged.
It was exciting and new the first couple of weeks, and I enjoyed working myself to the point of exhaustion because it kept all the negativity around the crisis out of my mind. However, hyper-productivity began providing diminishing returns the more I indulged in it.
It started with general irritability and slight distractions, but eventually, the focus on work suffered, and the list of tasks pending on me started to pile up. Finally, there was just a general numbness to all the work. The enjoyment of completing one task was quickly replaced by the groan of watching the tasks list continuing to expand.
I became aware of the toll my hyper-productive avatar was having on my physical and mental health. Eventually, it started affecting my interpersonal relationships – at work and at home. With some sage advice, I toned down my hyper–productivity ambitions and focussed on quality instead of quantity. I concentrated on completing 5 tasks per day (nothing more or less) and utilizing the extra time to expand my knowledge horizon.
- Recognizing and dealing with Zoom fatigue It was fun to be on an endless stream of Zoom calls. The meetings were shorter, I drank fewer calories, and I could do double the number of meetings. Then as Brad Feld put it, I started to experience Zoom Fatigue. I caught myself replying to emails, responding to internal team chats, or editing investor newsletters during these online meetings. I was there, but I was not present. It did not help that I made my meeting schedule so tightly packed that there was no room for error; therefore, if there was an unscheduled call, it would be a couple of days before I could get back to them. At the start of this month, I reduced the time I allocated for online meetings. Encouraged with the results, I have limited my online meeting schedule to just 3 hours a day from this week. This workaround will give me ample down-time to catch up with my inbox, tasks, and team chat – allowing me to be fully attentive during the online meetings.
- Taking a break It is ironic that I would find it challenging to take a break from working while working at home. The opportunity to take a break (my TV) is less than 10 steps away, the bed just another 15 steps. Despite my intense working schedule over my 15–year working career, I continued to watch at least 1 new movie a week on average. However, in the last 9 weeks, I have watched a grand total of 2 new films, and I had to split watching each one over 2-3 weeks. The fact that the opportunity to take a break was so close developed a false sense of comfort that I could take a break at any time. That time did not come because there was always something pressing that needed my attention. Although it was late, the benefits of taking breaks finally dawned on me. A couple of weeks back, I took a 3-day weekend (I still ended up working for half a day), caught up with friends, and on my sleep. I had a fresh perspective on projects & a spring in my voice when I resumed work, convincing me that taking a break is an imperative undertaking for any founder.
- Setting boundaries When we are done with work, we shut our laptops, stuff them into our bags, we commute back home, switching off all the work-related tabs in our minds and refreshing the tabs for our personal lives. What happens when that commute is cut down to 90 seconds? In my first month I was taking work calls from 8 am to 10 pm daily, I slept with work and woke up in it. There are several times in a year when VCs must put in those types of hours, especially when we are closing multiple deals. However, this was different. I did not have time to work out, I took tons of notes with a mental promise to review them but could not find the time to do it. Many a time, I could not remember what I ate for dinner and in what quantity! These endless hours started to take a toll on the team as well. I instituted a 7 pm deadline on myself for all work–related meetings. Everything that could not get completed by 7 pm would get pushed to the next day. To commit myself to this deadline, I started working out on cure.fit with a partner who would ensure that I did not miss workouts, therefore, ensuring that my work-day had an ending. Without boundaries, the boon of working from home can quickly turn into a curse. Therefore, it is a good idea to schedule winding up and winding down activities so that there is a psychological boundary between work & home.
- Schedule tasks into your calendar There is a big difference between being busy and being productive. One can be busy all day but have nothing to show for their busyness at night. On the other hand, productivity demands results, it demands focus. I learned an excellent productivity hack that has worked wonders for me. Instead of having a to-do list or a task list – I get my tasks directly scheduled into my calendar, thereby blocking out time to focus. The scheduled slots are limited to 30-45 minutes chunks, with a 15-mins break at the end for contingencies and to report to the team after the job assigned to me is completed. There is an excellent post on Effective Scheduling for more on this.
- Take a vacation It sounds ironic that I would propose vacation time amid an economic crisis, especially when we are working from home! However, a lot of founders have forgone summer vacations due to the way this crisis creeping upon us. As a founder, we must recognize that vacations are essential with several scientifically known benefits of what breaking routines do for our minds & bodies. While there are minimal options for us to travel for a vacation, there are other ways to take a break from the world and give the body & mind time to recharge their batteries. The Washington Post provided an excellent resource for vacationing at home, aptly titled, The completely correct guide to vacationing at home. Oh! You will find the perfect vacation auto-response in my 18-month-old post, Perfecting the vacation auto-response.
Every Monday, I sit with my team to review the funding activity of the previous week. From that list, I pick out 3 companies that I would have loved to invest in or find founders that are doing similar things. Click here to know about my rationale behind this weekly exercise.
Another 2 weeks of lockdown (probably more for metro cities) should not dampen the investment spirits. Deal activity continues to temper, but it hasn’t completely stopped. Last week saw 13 startups raise $88 million – 8 of which were in the early-stage space.
Amount Raised: Undisclosed from Vijay Shekhar Sharma, Anupam Mittal, others
What does Refrens do?
Edited from Traxcn: Refrens is accounting software for freelancers. The features of the product are expanding customer base by referrals, budget planning, creating GST invoices, reminders, and more. The product is free for freelancers such as software developers, logo and graphic designers, digital marketers, to name a few.
Why do I like Refrens?
The recent economic earthquake and the related job losses will give wings to the gig economy. Several platforms help gig workers promote their wares, but not many that will help them with organizing their back-end operations. The stellar angel investor star cast backing this deal should provide Refrens an edge over the indirect competition.
Name: Log9 Materials
Amount Raised: USD 164K from Deepak Ghaisas
What does Log9 do?
Edited from Traxcn: Log9Materials is a startup in the nanotechnology space. It focuses on graphene-based materials. Also, it undertakes custom synthesizing orders. R&D is centered on energy-efficient technologies based on graphene derivatives. As of November 2016, the company is developing graphene quantum dot-based LEDs and foldable displays and graphene composite based water purification systems. They have developed ‘Smoke-Free’- graphene-based cigarette filter and claims to reduce the risk of getting cancer by 90%.
Why do I like Log9?
I had looked at Log9 in the past when they were utilizing graphene-based technologies for fuel cells & filtration. However, their new product, CoronaOven could get serious traction as the importance of disinfecting things before using or consuming them is taken seriously. If the technology works as it is supposed to, there is a massive market for this product.
Name: Scribble Data
Amount Raised: Undisclosed from unnamed Angels
What does Scribble Data do?
Edited from Traxcn: Their platform, Enrich, helps prep data at scale (feature engineering) for data science, and our consulting services are aimed at turning every data science team into well-oiled machines.
Why do I like Scribble Data?
ML engineers love challenges. These engineers take on projects that test their skills and will build their reputation. Eventually, the projects get completed, and they venture out to find a new challenge, and the cycle repeats – but there could be a better solution. Scribble Data’s ML engineering as a service could offer exciting projects to keep ML engineers engaged but, at the same time, provide continuity at a more affordable & flexible payroll for the company. I have asked a couple of my portfolio company’s to reach out to Scribble and test out this hypothesis – the proof will be in the pudding.
Image Credits: @Buck_Taylor_ on Instagram
Entrepreneurship is an inspired action. Many people equate entrepreneurs as business people, and that assumption could be valid most of the time, but it does not work vice versa. Therefore, an entrepreneur can be a businessman, but not all businessmen are entrepreneurs. There is a big difference in the mental model, as businessmen are analytical thinkers, while entrepreneurs are possibility thinkers.
Yesterday, I read a fantastic story of entrepreneurship, published in the New Yorker, Thirty-Six Thousand Feet Under The Sea. It is a story of Victor Lance Vescovo attempt to become the first person to reach the deepest points in the earth’s 5 oceans. He called this attempt the Five Deeps Expedition. Vescovo got another first along the way.
He covered the most considerable vertical distance (64,869 feet) without leaving the earth’s surface getting the Explorers Grand Slam, i.e., he is the only person in the world to have successfully summited Mount Everest (2010) and plummeted to the bottom of the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench (2019).
The New Yorker story covers the ups and downs of Vescovo’s entrepreneurial attempt in a gripping narrative. It reminded me that, like entrepreneurship, there is minimal room for errors when there is 36,000 feet of water above your head, the pressure is immense literally and figuratively.
Vescovo’s story will resonate with budding entrepreneurs and reinforce or answer several questions. Here are a few of them that it did for me
- Hire for attitude
- Perfection is the enemy of progress
- Half done is well begun
- You can throw money at the problem, but that will not solve it but the will to do it will!
6 months ago, I wrote about the real cost of customer acquisition after visiting the offices of a prospective startup that we were evaluating. After writing the blog, I provided the founder with explicit feedback on why I was passing on the investment. I had laid out our rejection feedback mechanism a couple of years ago, and we continue to follow it at Artha even today.
Handling rejection is not easy. I was in sales for many years, and I still consider myself to be in sales as I sell the opportunity of investing in our fund to prospective investors. As a sales manager, I trained, managed, and fired thousands of salespeople for almost a decade. Therefore, I have directly or indirectly dealt with rejection, a lot.
Hence it does not surprise me when I get a range of reactions to our feedback emails from founders. Their responses range from the grateful and gracious to anger fuelled expletive-laden multi-pager emails, giving feedback to our feedback. I do remember that this founder fell into the former group.
I believe that my post is more relevant today than at the time I wrote it. In 2019 (it seems so long ago now), the early-stage investment market roared on the back of a surge in micro-angel investors & a flood of friends & family capital. These uninitiated investors, many of them investing directly into equities outside of mutual funds, for the first time. They were lured in by stories of the 100s of Xs someone they knew had made.
Unfortunately, their ambitions made them blind to runaway gross losses their investee startups were making, i.e., the direct cost of revenue exceeded the actual revenue brought in. In layman terms, it meant that for every ₹1 of income the startup earned, the direct cost of generating that income exceeded ₹1. Not a sound business situation in any market condition!
My team and I met many of these hyper funded startup founders. We tested their penchant for profitability, at least at the unit economic level, but those were different times. The founders commanded and received unbelievable valuations. My team and I sat and gaped on the side-lines as we saw our anti-portfolio list swell faster than the list of startups that were in our portfolio! I wondered if we were facing a new normal, like a valuation black hole where the laws of economics did not function.
Unbeknownst to the world, a novel virus was raising its ugly head some 4348 km away. In the flash of an eye, the funding flow stopped. Many founders were caught unprepared, and unfortunately, their cheap capital fuelled startups died a quick but painful death.
As investors have realized many times in the history of euphoric investing – it is a startup’s dharma to make a profit. One cannot run (or fund) a startup that makes losses, not for too long. A startup can be accused of buying revenues when its direct cost of bringing in the revenue exceeds the revenue brought in. In a cruel twist, a startup making a gross loss assigns a zero or negative value to the operations apparatus that keeps the doors open. It won’t take a valuation expert to tell you that if opening the doors is worth less than zero – it is profitable to shut those doors.
To clarify, I do not endorse a net-profit strategy for startups that want to grow and scale. However, profitability, at the unit economic level, is a must before a founder decides to chase growth. Fast-growing startups must invest in creating long-term assets (tangible or intangible) to manage hypergrowth because minor issues quickly become massive at scale. Therefore, even the best-managed fast-growing startups build capacity before productivity can catch up, leading to net losses.
A part of the cost of growth gets compensated by adding positive unit economics of every transaction, creating gross profits for the startup. The gap (if any) is filled by venture capital or private equity investors that want to capitalize on the startup’s growth potential.
Even in a harsh fundraising environment, a startup with gross profits can survive. The founders can cut non-critical investments & expenses, utilizing the gross profits to grow the business, even if it is slow growth. Only a gross profit-generating founder can choose to sacrifice growth for sustenance.
However, founders that attempt scaling despite unfavorable unit economics do not possess that luxury. They need a perennial source of capital to continue their revenue buying program. If there is any threat to their source of money, their startup will be in trouble, deep, deep trouble. Just how big is their issue, these founders and their investors are beginning to find that out now.
Moral of the story: gross profits are worth their weight in gold. 24-carat gold.
Calling the shutdown caused by the Coronavirus pandemic, an economic crisis is a gross understatement. It could be a crisis for the established business ecosystem, but it is the equivalent of a tsar bomba for the early-stage startup ecosystem. If all of us do not act quickly, the entire venture capital ecosystem is staring down at years of effort, getting incinerated in a matter of weeks.
When the Prime Minister, Mr. Narendra Modi, announced the Janta curfew, he talked about blackout drills and wartime curfews to a population where the majority hadn’t witnessed one. It was a reminder of a dark 15-20 period when India went through several wars with Pakistan & China. That ignited a mortal fear in me as well.
I feared that this crisis could destroy the decades of work that it took to provide confidence to young graduates to convert themselves from job seekers to job creators. We had to show years of results to convince Indian & global investors to pour money into startups via venture capital funds, angel networks, superangel syndicates, and venture debt funds. All this effort all this sacrifice, of the tens of thousands of people that make up the entrepreneurial ecosystem viz. over 39,000+ founders, 10,000+ angel investors, 500+ VC funds, several visionary politicians & government officers is on the brink of collapse.
However, real entrepreneurs are problem solvers, optimists, and overachievers. Any challenge, even something that challenges their mortal existence, will help an entrepreneur find another gear within them. As they say, even in adversity, they only see opportunity.
My team and I started to sound out Artha Venture Fund’s founders on the business impact the coronavirus pandemic was about to make a couple of weeks before lockdown. We asked our founders to create new budgets to account for the onset of nuclear winter in the fundraising world, bring their expenses down to the bare minimum, and to show patience along with courage at this time.
It has not been easy to convince the optimist in them to slow down for now and conserve energy to speed up later. Last week we put all our heads together on a zoom call to chart out an action plan for saving their dream – their startup.
I summarized the call in a 21-point action plan to save your startup memo for the founders. My team went a step further to make it into a beautiful & impactful presentation. In the spirit of joining hands during this adversity, I am sharing that presentation with you:
It is important to remember the immortal words of General S Patton:
Together we will win the coronavirus fight in our homes, in our businesses, and our minds. Let’s roll!
While redoing our website, I accidentally stumbled upon an interesting piece of information.
I wanted to create a portfolio filter that would allow a visitor to create portfolio cohorts using factors such as the year of our investment, whether we were current investors, which startups we had exited from, or which sector the startup operated in and so on.
While tagging the startups, my team discovered that 4 of Artha Venture Fund’s portfolio companies had at least 1 female founder, i.e., 66% of the fund’s portfolio! This statistic piqued my interest as I stress the importance of being gender-neutral when it came to choosing our founders. Yet our female founder representation was far higher than the 20% female founder representation reported in CrunchBase EoY 2019 Diversity Report published in January 2020.
I dug further to look into our upcoming pipeline, which told me that out of the 5 deals which were at an advanced stage of closure, 3 deals had at least 1 female in the founding teams – 2 where the female founders held the CEO position!
I still felt that my sample size was too small to form an opinion. So I widened my search. My team & I started an investigation into my previous portfolio that I had set-up through our family office, i.e., Artha India Ventures.
The team keeps granular information on my past performance to report to institutions and family offices that need the information as a part of their due diligence. It took a few hours to figure it out, but 22 out of the 69 startups I had previously invested in had one female founder, i.e., almost a 33% representation!
The team went deeper to uncover that the female founder cohort delivered a 41% IRR with 4.3x multiple on invested capital in comparison to an overall portfolio IRR of 56% with a 4.6x investment multiple. Though the female cohort performance is lower than the overall performance; it does not tell the entire picture.
Our 330x multiple in OYO skews the numbers in favor of the XY chromosome cohort, but several of our female founder companies are raising new rounds of capital. One of them is months from becoming a unicorn, so it is a matter of when (not if) when the female cohort will be the alpha for the portfolio. While an eye-opener, I am not proud of beating the gender bias – not this way.
What I am proud of is that diversity happened without gender bias in favor of the XX chromosome. I am very vocal in stating that we do not favor a particular gender in our employees or founders. I believe that being entrepreneurial is a gender-neutral trait, and to invest in someone because they have or lack a Y chromosome is foolhardy.
Despite these results, I continue to stand up for what I said in last year’s blog post, Why I refuse to promote Women’s Entrepreneurship.
“The moment that I start treating a founder differently because they are women, it means that I do not see them as equals. I will skew my thoughts to cater to my bias, and it will hurt them as much as it will hurt my bank balance.”
To investigate if my lack of bias was something I felt or did it percolate down to our treatment of our female founders, I asked my XX founders whether they felt any bias from our end. Besides, I asked them why they gave a seat to Artha for their entrepreneurial journey. This is what they had to say:
In closing, while global reports state that the penetration of female founders in startups is very low, I have little concerns for the same. People whose investment lens has a filter against a particular group of people due to their color, country, or chromosome will lose out – lose big.
I am glad that our lens is crystal clear and that my team chooses the best people for the founder’s job. We follow an incredibly meticulous approach when it comes to choosing our founders.
Not always do we have the most qualified founders, but we attract the most passionate founders’ with a deep internal drive for the problem they are solving. We trust in our process of channelizing a founder’s energy to win one battle at a time and create category-leading companies.
Now if that means that our winning portfolio has a disproportionately high number of female founder companies – then so be it!
Most founders deem that their relationship with their board will be adversarial and combative. I assume that the founders must get sleepless nights before the board meeting. Maybe it provides the founder flashbacks to the nights spent they spent rolling their beds as they tried to present their school report card to their stricter parent, usually their dad.
Why do I think that?
The creative ways I see founders avoiding calling (forget conducting) board meetings as if it were the plague. Founders drum up excuses for delaying the board meetings, much like my classmates and I did to avoid submitting our signed and acknowledged report cards. Founders get sick; then a family member gets sick, then the ICU and next the morgue. Next when the health issues run out, then the team members are blamed; the reporting systems cop the blame – the list is endless. It is comical to witness the founder’s unnecessary creativity. However, the board is not a founder’s dad, waiting to rap them and it does not need to be that way.
That start-up boards must not have an adversarial relationship with the founders. This relationship should not disintegrate into that abyss is the responsibility of the investor board member and the founder.
For starters, the board must not get into the day-to-day working of the company unless there is a crisis, and the board must over-ride the management – it is rare but required. How can a founder avoid this situation is to be honest, in the founder’s hands.
A first step to building trust in the board-founder relationship is for the founder to get into the habit of organizing, conducting and following-up on productive board meetings.
- A board meeting must be conducted every quarter – at the very least.
- Some start-ups may require monthly board meetings, but a long-term plan of conducting monthly board meetings is onerous – on the founder and their board.
An important distinction that many founders fail to make is that a board meeting is not an investment pitch, but neither is it the investor update. A board meeting’s purpose is to get into the meat of things that the founders are working on versus the sizzle that sold to current and prospective investors.
If you, as a founder, are confused about what to discuss at your board meeting, I believe that Mark Suster’s How to Prepare for a Board Meeting to Make Sure you Crush It is a must-read for you.
Essential points that Mark delves into are the importance of a well-thought-out agenda, a solid deck and providing enough time to your board members to prepare for the meeting.
Now, if you’re scratching your head on what goes into a board deck, then Bryan Schreier’s post on Sequoia Capital’s website, aptly titled, Preparing a Board Deck should be in your reading list.