My Funding Picks For The Last Week (W21)

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.

After sifting through the news (aggregated from Tracxn, Inc42, and YourStory), I picked out these three as my favorite funding news from last week!

 

Name: Refrens

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.

A Pleasant Surprise on the Upside!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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WhatsApp Image 2020-03-09 at 7.24.53 PM

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

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

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

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

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

My Funding Picks for Last Week (W47)

I am starting a new section for my blog.
Every Monday, I will share my favorite early-stage startups that have raised money (i.e., <Series C) in the last week. This exercise is a win-win on several levels:

  • It helps me develop the right habit of reviewing deals that took place last week.
  • I am going to write this blog every Monday so that the news is fresh and relevant.
  • It offers perspective to the founders (that read my blog) on the themes that I find interesting; therefore, I expect (fingers crossed) to create a new deal sourcing mechanism!
  • I’ll attempt to connect the start-ups I discover here, with the start-ups in my portfolio; it opens up the possibility that both startups could work together for mutual benefit

Several platforms provide weekly reports on funding news, but I am going to concentrate on YourStory, Inc42*, and Tracxn. These three sources offer the best-researched information on Indian start-ups; therefore, if I utilize all three, there are remote chances of missing out on exciting funding news.

  1. Svami – $1 million

I learned about Svami from my friend and co-investor, Nikunj Shah. A month back, he was raving out about Svami when we met at our offices. At that time I regretted it was too late for AVF to get into the company as the deal was beyond the fund’s investment mandate. Even then, I continue to track the venture, that just raised a $1m round led by Rukam Capital Trust.
Svami team’s branding strategy and their passion for their product is something that other D2C brands could emulate. They have opened up a blue ocean in the premium beverages space with their tonic waters. I recognize that I may have a bias on Svami as I see synergies in distributing their drinks through Daalchini’s smart temperature-controlled vending machines, or through VistaRooms’ to the luxury home rental’s customers.

  1. myHQ – $1.50 million

I am personally extremely bearish on the coworking/co-living space. My pessimism stems from the numerous co-working pitches that I have heard from the founder, real estate groups, and family offices. Each of them claims that they will achieve a pole position in the coworking space within the next 3-4 years with 1 million seats. Unfortunately, when I hear this promise so many times and from so many people that it is easy to see the space over-capacity and low realizations in the future for this space.
What concerns me the most is that none of these promising founding teams has kept tabs on the number of seats their competition is building. I suspect that in the next 12-18 months, there will be a slew of shutdowns consolidation and belt-tightening.

If I am this negative on the space, then it is a pertinent question as to why have I put this round led by India Quotient on this list?

What aroused my interest is the Work Cafes model on the myHQ site. While not precisely similar, it reminds me of the Anticafé model that I saw in several places in Paris. Their concept is simple. They charge their users by the hour that includes food and drinks effectively, making it a coworking café. I found the idea intriguing enough to attempt incubating the idea in-house but could not find the right people to get it going.
Therefore I chose myHQ because of the Work Café model because, in my opinion, it is an idea worth exploring!

  1. Perfios – $50 million

It is difficult to call a 12-year-old company a “start-up,” but I like Perfios’ tech stack that makes credit assessment, monitoring, aggregation, and fraud detection easier for banks and NBFCs.
As an early investor in Karza Technologies, I understand and appreciate the pain point addressed by Perfios, and it is the leader in its space. The new round led by BVP and Warburg, the company, shall be utilized to expand Perfios’ geographic reach and to make acquisitions. I believe that Perfios and Karza could provide a killer product for banks and NBFCs if they worked together as the former utilizes company data to make assessments and Karza uses proprietary databases for the same.

  1. WMall – 64 crores

I am intrigued by the influencer marketing and social commerce space, and WMall offers the best of both worlds. As an early investor in Coutloot, I have followed this space for the past few years, and it will be interesting to see who will dominate this space.
*I am an investor in Inc42 through Artha India Ventures

Fluff Metrics

An interesting phenomenon has been noticed in startup presentations over the past few weeks. Founders have come up with innovative ways of showing large numbers that have nothing to do with what counts as revenues to the startup.
Let me share a few examples with the explanations as provided.

  1. Gross Transactional Value: this the value of the transaction that is taking place because of the service provided by delivering the service. Therefore, a simple example would be that if a truck delivers 5 MT of steel the GTV is the value of the 5 MT of steel which has no correlation to the revenues of the trucking company since that is dependent on the route or no of kms
  2. AUM (Assets Under Management): the value of the videos that have been uploaded to sell to customers. This has no correlation to the revenues as they are made on a pay per click model. How the videos are being valued and by whom – I have honestly no idea
  3. MRP Sold: the sticker prices of the items that were sold. These were very different from actual revenues as there were coupons and discounts that were given. So, if I stick the price tag of a Mercedes on a Maruti the MRP sold would be ginormous but the actual number would be a fraction. These MRP’s are set by me so MRP sold is also in my hands. Do you feel fooled just yet?

Do founders really want to attract investors that are awed by such numbers? Of what use will those investors be who themselves don’t understand that these numbers are useless?
My sincere request to founders is to have the courage to tell me the real numbers. They may not be as awesome as the fluff metrics, but I’ll respect you for your honesty and I’ll work with you until your actual metrics look like the fluff metrics that your peers are showing me.
Just remember this immortal quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln:
359048-Abraham-Lincoln-Quote-You-can-fool-some-of-the-people-all-of-the
24/2018

Why We Must Become that Asshole Investor (from time to time)

2018 started off with a bang for Artha India Ventures. 4 of our portfolio companies successfully raised new rounds with pre-money valuations of more than $5 million. As a team, we are very happy with the solid multiples that we received on our investments and it validates our thesis of getting in early, building solid value and increasing wealth for all shareholders. These are the times when we look forward to celebrating with our founders for a job well done and to wish them luck on the new journey that has just begun (with the incoming investor).
However, there are a couple of founders that bring forth disturbing issues at the time of signing documents that hold up the entire round of investment. Usually, I can classify the issues that force this reaction into two buckets. The first and most contentious issue is the diktat issued by the incoming investor to disallow any of the previous investors from participating in the new round.
As an investor who invests in multiple stages, we have specific clauses in our investment documentation that allow us to participate in future fundraising rounds of a company. Whatever the logic the new investor can provide (more on this in a later post) we as the early backers of the venture expect the founders to stand up for us and remain loyal to their word and contract, that were negotiated and signed when we initially decided to back them. While many founders ensure that we get to participate in the new round (thank you to them), we do not have sympathy for those who behave this way even without being coerced by another investor.
At the time when these founders needed the money, they eagerly signed the documents with these terms clearly being stated, but when it comes to actually following through for a follow-on round they want to cry foul. To completely sell yourself to the incoming investors and screw over your earliest backers doesn’t bode well for our ecosystem. Firstly, the new investors will only put in stronger clauses to ensure the same doesn’t happen to them in the following round and secondly, the later investors will be way more cautious and hesitant when considering the opportunity to participate because of your past behavior towards investors.
Unfortunately for them, Artha does not respond well to oppression tactics and while we can understand the occasional tough spot a founder finds himself/herself in, the founder cannot always cry wolf.
To be involved in a bitter conflict at a time when we should be celebrating victory is a situation I want to avoid at all costs, but founders need to understand and respect that just like them we too are running a business and to deny us the rights that we mutually agreed before entering the relationship, tinkers with our business model. Just like they would not like to tinker with a business model that is doing well – neither do we!!
21/2018
 
 

Farming as a Service

At a personally & professionally challenging time in the 2nd quarter of 2016, I went out and stayed at Damodar Farms in Vapi for a short while. The serene setting of a farm, farm-fresh vegetables, raw milk and Mahatma Gandhi’s The Story of My Experiments with Truth allowed me to cleanse my soul and reset internally.
In addition, the farm stay made me realize that what I eat, and drink plays an important role in determining how I feel. That awesome feeling got me hooked on an idea. Those who experience the joy of eating high-quality nutritious food will not want to go back consuming the “dumb” calories provided by chemically sprayed, industrially produced or genetically modified food.
Months after returning from the farm, I continued to eat only farm fresh produce. I was so motivated to get the freshest produce that I embarked on a quest to buy farmland, rear cows for milk, grow vegetables and supply the produce to my family, possibly making this my side business. I scoured the internet and my WhatsApp groups to seek advice on where I should buy land and what the infrastructure and setup costs to run a dairy & fresh produce farm would be. The deeper I got into this play, the more I realized that this couldn’t be managed remotely, at least not by me.
What I required was a group of individuals who had farming experience, strong motivation, excellent organizational skills, marketing, and branding experience to educate the audience about the benefits of buying fresh produce. My part would involve investing the capital to buy land and equipment, aid marketing & sales strategies and put together a solid team who would run and scale the business.
However, there was a major glitch in my utopian plan. The growth of the team was directly proportional to the amount of money that I could invest every year and therefore made it necessary to weigh in the team’s aspirations. Since putting a lid on expectations wouldn’t work, I started looking for startups who do farming as a service. The business offering is simple – the venture will identify the land, provide an in-depth ROI analysis and facilitate the investment. The abundance of liquidity in the market coupled with the idea of purchasing profitable real estate would bring onboard many HNI’s with both money to spend and willingness to pay a service fee based on returns.
Nikunj Thakkar from our team is in charge of finding me a startup who does farming as a service startup to invest in. If you know someone that is pursuing this (or you are the one) email us on prospects@artha.vc attn: Nikunj Thakkar.
20/2018

Beware of This Type of Angel Investor!

Exactly a year ago, I wrote about a growing malaise in the angel investment ecosystem in the post You are NOT an angel investor. It is serendipity that I am writing about sub 5-lakh ($7500) investments from angel investors that are starting to cloud the cap table.
Founders that are raising multiple small cheques from many different angel investors are only shooting themselves in the foot. They should take a moment and ask themselves (and hopefully the investor) why the investors aren’t willing to put in a respectable investment of at least Rs. 5 lakhs?
Do they

  • Lack conviction in the venture?
  • Are hedging their bets by spraying and praying?
  • Are they testing this new investment class?
  • Do they not have the liquidity required to invest more?

If the answer to any of these questions is a “yes”, the founder has reason to be gravely concerned. Investors that lack conviction in your venture are coming along for a ride only if it is smooth, the moment your ship starts swaying in rough waters, they will be the first ones to jump off. The scenario isn’t any better for the spray and pray investor. Both these investor types will create havoc for the founders not only by paying late on the investment but also reneging on their commitments if the company goes through stormy weather. If the cheque size is Rs. 5 lakhs or more, it is still worth getting these passive investors albeit they pay on time. However, to raise a small cheque from an unreliable investor are two variables that can be best avoided.
The investor that doesn’t understand angel investing or doesn’t have to wherewithal to invest a respectable sum of money into your start-up, is only making you the petri dish to understand a new investment class. Why should your venture be that experiment? Why don’t these investors just pay for executive education programmes on angel investing in India or abroad? This will only set them back about the same amount of money that they are willing to invest in your venture. Let them learn investment lessons on their own dime (and time) and not use your bandwidth to do so. In addition, you can avoid the mess that these rookie investors will, later on, create by needling on non-issues or holding up later rounds because they didn’t get the upside that they envisioned.
A second thing that the founder should be wary of is an investor who has a limited net worth and is investing it in a highly risky investment class like startups. What will they do if the investment goes south, like a majority of startup investments do? (it’s the truth, whether we like it or not) Can these small investors gang up and sue you for selling them an investment opportunity that they did not understand? In most western countries, only accredited investors who have the money and understanding of sophisticated investing are allowed to invest in startups. Despite petitioning different government organizations to bring in this type of accreditation, I have seen no action. Why should your startup become the case study to create that accreditation in India?
I have personally been in investments where these small cheque investors were invited with much fanfare. They were responsible for ruining good opportunities for exits, acquisitions and even raising new rounds of finance. The reward you will get from this small investor is just not worth effort. Avoid this investor at all costs.
 18/2018
 
 
 

Enterprise Building 101

This was one of those weeks that reminded me why I love my job so much. I am lucky to have access to some of the brightest entrepreneurial minds in India (possibly the globe) working to build powerhouses that are revolutionizing traditional industries. Every day, I learn about problems that my business is facing and unique new solutions to fix them. This information also benefits the entrepreneurs in our portfolio and under my wing.
I met with 2 founders that have built solid businesses and are also active angel investors. Out of the various topics that we discussed here are two nuggets of wisdom that are pure gold for founders & investors.
I learnt the importance of delegating responsibility From Pravin Agarwal (Founder of Better Place) –We are coinvestors and board members of Confirmtkt
Pravin advised the founders of Confirmtkt to identify the main pillars of their business eg for Confirmtkt these pillars would be Tech, Operations, Data Mining, B2B partnerships and B2C and appoint/recruit (from outside or within) a person to oversee each one. This person must have significant expertise in that department and can drive its growth. Although the other founders and heads of department may have certain things to add, the buck ends with the person in charge of that pillar. By dividing the responsibilities and having just one person concentrating his/her entire focus and effort on one pillar the speed of execution and decision making would significantly increase.
While this sound like common-sense, the way Pravin explained it was pure gold. As a founder, I have in the past, felt the need to be involved in every aspect of my business and I see this attitude being mirrored in many of the founders that I work with daily. However, in my opinion, the empowerment of individuals through the proper delegation of responsibility creates a leadership hierarchy that will propel a company forward. This is advice that I not only preach but also practice.
I learnt the importance of motivating each employee to be inclined towards generating a profit to achieve profitability for the entire organization from Mr. Ramakant Sharma (Founder of LivSpace)
Employees at every level must make any and every decision with grave responsibility keeping in mind not only its impact on their team but also on the organization. I have come across many startups, who end up making losses at the unit economics level because junior employees who operate the day-to-day functions and deal with them are given no say in any decision-making processes. This is a problem at the eye of the storm.
Therefore, as a practice, Mr. Ramakant advocates that everyone should understand how their role affects the bottom line, i.e. the larger mission of the company. They should strive to achieve individual profitability, the profitability of their team and those that report to them and therefore the profitability of the organization. He also encourages front-line feedback on why profit targets are not being met or what are the changes that are needed to bridge the gaps.
It only makes logical sense that a company that has a profit culture that percolates down to the last employee, will be profitable. This isn’t just left up to the top management to ensure. Employees at every level that imbibe this culture are sure shot superstars and destined to rise.
Implementing these two core strategies can transform any company and its fortunes.
Like I said, it’s experiences like these that make me love my job!!!
13/2018