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Tag Archive : India

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A mentor should not cost the company money.

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

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

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

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

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

This point is a personal favorite.

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

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

A founder should have multiple mentors.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Nikunj’s Wedding and a Business Idea

Over the last weekend, AVF Associate Nikunj married Chandni in a beautiful and intimate ceremony that took place in Vapi. The newly-wed couple looked like they were made for each other and I wish them the best for their married life together!

A bunch of us from Artha attended the nuptials, witnessed many memorable moments and made some amazing memories that included dancing on the streets of Vapi.

One of the things that struck me during the wedding was the omnipresence of the camera crew during the ceremonies and many other moments. Since they were right in the front, they got the best view of everything that was going on. It caused the people behind them to strain their necks just to get a glimpse or end up with a partial view of what was going on.

The obstruction caused by the camera crew who were capturing moments for future viewing actually took away more from the moment than their work could deliver in the future, because:

  1. There was no way that the camera crew could have covered all the angles
  2. 99% of the people that attended the wedding won’t be watching the wedding video. In fact, many of them were trying to capture the moments on their own cameras!

Camera crews are present at almost all Indian weddings and corporate events. The 3-4-person teams usually charge up to 25-30K per day which shows that there is a large enough budget. I do not need to establish the number of weddings or events that take place in a country of 1.2 billion people that have such video crews – so there is a sizeable market to figure out a better solution for!  

Nowadays, everyone owns a smartphone with a decent camera. Hence, it could be a good idea to find a way to aggregate the photos, classify them based on time and place, curate the best ones and eliminate duplicates to provide a wholesome view of the event.

This collaborative project would lead to an amazing collection of some of the never-before-captured moments. It will also give the guests a feeling of having added a personal touch to the special moment of the bride and groom. Quite a power pull. Lastly, it would ensure that all attendees get a full view of every moment of the event.

I did a simple Google search to see if there were any companies working in this area and I found a list of companies curated by Shutterfly but none of them were building it for the Indian audience… maybe it’s time someone did!

15/2019

My Jabalpur Visit Confirms that Bharat is Booming!

I was part of the final jury that was judging business models at a weekend hackathon in Jabalpur. It was a massive event with almost two hundred teams competing to build the best solution to different problems. I was impressed by the progress that some of the teams made in the short span of 40 hours.

The Executive Director of Jabalpur Smart City Limited (also the organiser of the event), Mr. Chandramauli Shukla encouraged the audience of over 400 budding entrepreneurs to work with the government. He committed to the top 30 teams that the government would be the first tester or consumer for their solutions, since they were working to solve problems that had been put forth by the government itself.

There was a palpable energy at the venue, and the teams presented with confidence regardless of their preference of language. It was powerful stuff.

Even outside the venue, Jabalpur is a town on the move. The city is getting a rapid upgrade with the implementation of multiple projects under the Smart City program. Roads are being concretized, filthy lakes are being cleaned and beautified, garbage bins are being given RFID tags and the data from them is being analysed. There are multiple but unheard-of restaurant chains like Chai Sutta Bar that are choc-a-blocked with teenagers. The city will also get an autonomous traffic management system soon. I was told that the citizens have responded positively to all these developments and I even met people who have moved back to Jabalpur after emigrating to developed countries like China!

What I saw was a stark contrast to the image I had in my head of a Tier 3 start-up ecosystem like Jabalpur. I was pleasantly surprised.

Just under a year ago, I had written about the transforming effect that Jio and GST would have on the Bharat that exists beyond India and the importance of positioning my VC investment gun on start-ups that cater to these underpenetrated ecosystems. Since then, I have made a conscious effort to visit the start-up ecosystems of Bharat like Udaipur, Kharagpur, Kanpur, Goa, Lucknow, Chandigarh, Mysore, Guwahati, Indore, Surat, Raipur and now Jabalpur. During my visits, I witnessed the wave of change that is taking place with my own eyes and I cannot emphasize any harder (as I already have before) that the next wave of start-ups will come from Bharat. However, after the visit this weekend, I realized I have underestimated the speed and the size of that wave.

A truly Mera Bharat Mahan & Jai Hind moment for me. 

9/2019

Rewriting the India Investment Narrative

Over the last 3 weeks, I attended 3 family office conferences, where I was one of the very few Indian (India-based) family offices/venture capitalists representing our nation.

At these events, I noticed that many global investors are keen on investing money in India, but sceptical from having burnt their fingers the last time around.  Some of the reasons (verbatim or paraphrased) for their scepticism include:

  1. Investment managers who deviated from the investment idea that was originally pitched and subsequently lost money
  2. The complicated and tedious procedure to get money out of India for winning investments
  3. Overzealous tax authorities that terrorized investors
  4. A lack of strong legal recourse to bring Investee companies who siphon off money and fraudsters to task
  5. India being a tough place to do business and an even tougher one to make money

Although I agree that India is one of the toughest places to do business, I can proudly say that over the last 5 years the government has made significant structural reforms to make it easier to do business, invest, realize returns, curtail the proliferation of black economy and most importantly, bring economic offenders to task.

While these messages are clear to those who continue to maintain a presence in India despite the hardship of previous decades, they have not been effectively communicated (or if at all) to the investors that are generously pouring money into China and other competing nations purely based on hygiene factors.

So, I continue to make my impassioned pitch about how there might never be a better time than today to invest in India- the largest democracy and fastest growing economy in the world. Despite all its hardships, India has independent institutions, a robust banking ecosystem, a free-floating currency, and an equity market that has delivered 600% returns since January 2000 (Shanghai has returned 44%). Bottom line being: India cannot be ignored.

96/2018

Perfecting the Vacation Auto-Response

I have been finding ways to manage the dual stress of entrepreneur and venture capitalist through 7-day breaks with the simple objective to ensure that

  • I am (almost) completely off my digital devices
  • I have time earmarked every day to read books
  • I am disconnected from work, especially my emails
  • I am pursuing a hobby or spending quality time with family

So, as I write this blog post from the departure lounge at the airport, embarking on my 4th 7-day quarterly break I am excited about the benefits these breaks have provided me. I return from these breaks with my creative batteries recharged, armed fresh perspectives on solving issues within Artha or the portfolio we manage and (most importantly) my energy levels are renewed and restored to 100%.

However, a major stress factor for me before (and after) these breaks is the massive pile-up of emails that I am supposed to go through once I am back. I thought that my auto-response emails that inform the sender that I am out of network and my replies will be limited until I am back would reduce the influx. However, I would also come back to a bigger email problem than I had assumed and I would get hounded by people in the first 2-3 days after I was back in the matrix.

I realised that the issue was that the auto-response implied that as I soon as I was back I would be responding to those that had sent emails in my absence which wasn’t going to be the case. Therefore I needed to try something new. So when I read a post from Brad Feld from 2015 wherein he talked about dealing with the same issue that was plaguing me, I was all ears!

Brad’s post was refreshing because it puts the onus of being on top of my priority list, on the sender of the email, not the receiver. I believe that the approach is brilliant but for someone of Brad’s stature especially as Indians are highly affected by the tone of something more than its intent. I deliberated over this for most of the evening and I decided that I should test whether my fears are grounded in reality. Therefore if you are one of the people that emails me in the next 9 days you will receive an immediate response that will say:

I’m checking out for a vacation until the 24th of September, 2018. I’ll be completely off the grid.

When I return, I’m going to archive my inbox so I’ll never see this email. If you’d like me to read it, please resend it after the 25th of September, 2018.

If you need something urgently, please email sandesha@artha.group and she’ll either help you or get you to the right person at Artha Group to give you a hand.

Cheers!

Anirudh A Damani

I am going to test out the hypothesis that those that really wanted to reach out to me will make the effort to reach out to me on the 25th of September and if their issue requires an urgent resolution the competent hands of Sandesha will be available. In essence, I have made the decision that the renewed energy I bring from the 7-day breaks should be expended on my portfolio companies and my team instead of cleaning up my inbox!

88/2018

Why did we Invest in Haazri?

There is a serendipity in deal-making once one summarises the events that lead to its closure. Today, as I announce our investment into Haazri, that is how I feel. My first interaction with Haazri was unbeknownst to me, during the long hours that I spent at Yash’s office ordering numerous cups of the chai that almost immediately gave me a kick. I profusely praised Yash’s peon assuming that it was his magical hands that had prepared the perfect cup of chai every time, when in fact the magic was happening downstairs, at Haazri’s kiosk in the Naman Midtown lobby.

It was at an IIM-Indore event that I realised my praise had been misdirected. Haazri was pitching at this event and had brought in batches of their freshly prepared chai for the investors to enjoy as a part of their presentation. I immediately recognized the flavour and feel of the chai. It was intriguing how the young founding team – Dhruv Agarwal, Karan Shinghal and Arjun Midha had cracked the code of making the exact same awesome cup of tea without having any previous experience in the food industry. To test the product further, I invited them to our office for a follow-on presentation nudging them to bring a batch of their tea. They arrived with a thermos full of the chai that I had grown to love. It tasted the same and gave the same kick which was hard to replicate; I was hooked.

What I found interesting about Haazri’s business model was their approach to standardize and limit each menu item right from the outset. For example, ingredients for the chai are individually weighed at a central warehouse and distributed across their stores, which are then used to make a single batch of fresh chai. Perishable items like milk are procured directly from brand distributors and delivered straight to the store, thereby ensuring that there is no adulteration. A similar practice is also followed for the food items on their menu.

In fact, the founders have gone a step further to train the staff on when to add specific ingredients using a stopwatch. This ensures that there is no alteration in taste and that the final product is identical to the last, every single time.

I have studied and invested in many food plays in the past; my family also owns a couple of restaurants & cafes, but rarely have I ever found the level of preparedness that the Haazri team displayed. In their quest to provide the exact flavour & texture of tea to the nth customer, they have developed robust SOPs which have had an exponential effect, something that they themselves could not have imagined. For example, since each food preparation comes with the raw ingredients weighed and individually packed at the central warehouse, the founding team keeps a tight lid on pilferage. They make sure that the number of packets consumed from the inventory either lead to a sale or have a solid alibi. When there is a discrepancy, the founding team investigates and penalises the store staff responsible, thereby letting them know that they are always watching. This level of granular control is what made me jump out of my chair and pursue them further.

The Haazri team maintains a limited menu of food & beverage items which reduce wastage, inventory, staff requirement & sophistication. Additionally, it reduces the capex investment per store to the sub 5 lakh range (including rental deposits). The low capex, opex and wastage significantly improve their bottom line, allowing them to provide items at a fraction of the cost of Chaipoint or Chaayos but at a slight premium to the roadside food & tea vendors – a premium that people are willing to pay for standardised items with better hygiene. The more we dug into Haazri, the more we realized that this fits perfectly into our fund’s investment strategy. Therefore, we decided to start working with them to gain a better understanding of the team.

First, we asked them to explore a B2B option for small offices that in our opinion run an inefficient pantry and delivered substandard products. With Haazri’s low-cost base and fresh standardized products, they could easily replace the live tea & coffee services, or machines. They made an earnest effort towards this approach and have more than 50 B2B partnerships onboard today. This avenue helps them pay for the stores fixed costs and provides a fixed base revenue each month.

Then I asked all three founders to join me in Kolkata where I had convinced the founders of Wow Momos and Chaibreak (an AIV investee), to share their experiences on finding a niche, building a bootstrapped brand and continuing to innovate & dominate their respective niches. While there is no better teacher than experience, learning from the experiences of others comes in at a close second. I am thoroughly indebted to Sagar Dariynani, Muftir Rahman, Aditya Ladsaria and Anirudh Poddar for taking out the time to guide these young entrepreneurs because these interactions led to a positive change in Haazri’s founders’ attitude towards their business.

Once the boys were back from Kolkata, we were ready to issue Haazri a term sheet. The team decided that the company should raise enough capital to be able to open 20 new stores in the next 12-15 months and produce an MRR of Rs. 2 lakhs from each store, so that they could break even at both a store and central level. The founders immediately subscribed to this advice and were excited about the scale that Haazri could generate. However, the DNA of the company to provide products at a slight premium to the roadside vendor but at a fraction of the cost of competitors was always a priority for us as well as the founders. Our research indicated that people in our target market were increasingly concerned with what they had been consuming and didn’t mind paying a slight premium for the guarantee of a standardised, hygienic product.

The investment committee was happy with the work we had put in so far and suggested that we add a coffee option to go along with the tea so that it catered to the larger palate of the target market. I pursued a vendor from Bangalore to provide the raw material that would allow Haazri to sell filter coffee without having to build the complex infrastructure that is required to deliver the perfect taste of filter coffee. The investment committee was happy with the terms of investment and gave their approval. We were all ready to roll.

After a couple of days, our team noticed that the margins had started to plummet. Since Haazri was on our weekly tracker, we investigated the matter further immediately. This revealed that the founders had expanded their menu options based on customers’ feedback. The number of menu items skyrocketed from under 10 to over 30! Deeper questioning revealed that the founders were trying to increase revenues per store by providing more items. My counter view for them was that: while it is easy to maintain the new menu for 4 stores, it would be a nightmare when they achieve scale, running 25-30 stores. They would either have to raise prices or suffer major losses. So, the founders and I concurred on eliminating the menu items that weren’t selling and introduce new ones.

Their fear that the revenues would drop after this change was quickly dispelled as Haazri’s revenues & margins per store improved within just a couple of weeks. This short experiment convinced the founders even further on the value of staying close to their DNA.

Besides the objective of opening 20 new stores, this round aims to build Haazri’s management team to prepare them for rapid scaling. We are looking for a Marketing Head to build a digital presence for the brand through a quirky marketing campaign and an Operations Head who has the experience of selecting, opening and successfully operating multiple stores. The job descriptions for these positions are almost ready and we will share them soon but if you know someone who could be apt for these roles, please do refer them to us.

In addition, Haazri is on the lookout for store locations within Mumbai’s Metropolitan Region. The ideal location would be in a corporate tower; food court, lobby or next to a cigarette vendor’s store. You can reach out to my team by emailing us on portfolio@artha.vc with leads.

In conclusion, I am excited to add Haazri to the Artha portfolio and see a bright and exciting future for them. Now let’s get back to work!

83/2018

Hats off Manjit Singh!!!

Amid all the din surrounding the Wizard of Omaha’s endorsement of Paytm’s pole position in the Indian Paymentech space, an endorsement which must be the proudest moment for any entrepreneur, but the day belonged to another Indian. This is the story of an Indian runner who has (reportedly) never won a gold in any national level race. He was considered the rank outsider in the 800m finals of the ongoing Asian Games in Indonesia, in fact, he was the second best Indian in the final. But what happened over the next 2 minutes is going to be remembered for a very long time.

Manjit Singh who hails from Haryana, came from nowhere to win the gold medal for India and pipped India’s best runner, Jinson Johnson to 2nd place. This gave India a very rare 1-2 finish at the Asian games. I could not find a better video of the proud athletes accepting their medals draped in the tricolour but it so rare a moment that even the poor quality video cannot take away its sheen.

Jai ho Manjit Singh & Jinson Johnson!!!

73/2018

Who Will Save India from Bad Customer Service

It took a lot of painstaking effort and careful planning to ensure that I would be in my hotel bed in Hyderabad between 11:30 pm and 12 midnight so that I would be fresh for the conference I was attending today. Bad weather coupled with lousy pilot scheduling resulted in a 4-hour delay, most of which I spent sitting on my seat waiting for Indigo to send out a new pilot to commandeer the aircraft. I finally reached my hotel at 3:30 am and fell asleep around 4:30 am thinking to myself whether the airfare I had paid to Indigo was cheap enough for me to endure the toll this lack of sleep would have on my body today. As you might guess, it is not, and will rarely ever be.

It is time that the enterprising youth of our country got together to create a service along the lines of Resolver. It is a known fact that consumer courts have the highest resolution rates in the country; add that to the rapidly growing internet population statistics and a growing consumer market with many new brands and there could not be a better time than today to start such a venture.

Karishma and I have worked on this idea previously and we are very passionate about investing in this space. If you or someone you know is working on this or anything like it… reach out to us ASAP!

69/2018

Making Sense of the UPA vs NDA Economic Growth Debate

A heated political debate has been brewing between two accomplished lawyers, namely the last two finance ministers of India, P Chidambaram and Arun Jaitley. The debate began on the backdrop of the data released by the National Statistical Commission which stated that the GDP growth rate under the UPA was higher than the current GDP growth under the NDA government 

Of the various arguments that have been put forth by different parties of the political spectrum, I  resonate most with the arguments put forth by ET’s Saubhik Chakrabarti in the article “UPA vs NDA: Why higher growth doesn’t matter when followed by policy delinquency“.  

I believe that a lot of economic numbers achieved by UPA were because of the stable platform handed over by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee Government and the steroid (read: debt) fuelled hyper-growth of the worlds’ economy. The mirage of the strong economic power-house created by the UPA between 2004 and 2010 was blown away by the huff & puff of a crumbling world economy.   

UPA entrusted PM Modi with a country that was in turmoil: banks saddled with massive NPAs, high inflation, policy paralysis, low growth numbers, tax terrorism that was driving away FDI, Government-run SEBs that were out of money, runaway spending on thoughtless welfare schemes and most dangerously a demoralised & disillusioned class of entrepreneurs that had been maltreated by the government. UPA’s policies & constant infighting stifled any hope of supporting growth and innovation.  

I find myself sympathising with the Modi-led government because it braved strong headwinds in the global economy, maintained fiscal prudence and smartly bailed out the banking, power and manufacturing sectors from the brink of collapse, to bring India to the position of the world’s fastest-growing major economy. 

I believe that my contradicting views of the two governments are best represented by the contradicting mindset that I woke up with in these two time periods. When I woke up under the watchful eyes of the UPA government, I constantly felt that the worst was yet to come, however when I woke up today to write this post at 4 am, I was certain that the best our economy has to offer – has just begun!  

66/2018

How Would You Deal with Superstardom?

For today’s post, I had decided to write a book review. But while browsing through espncricinfo.com, I came across a brilliant piece of journalism on Virat Kohli, undoubtedly the most famous man in India. The journalist, Wright Thompson followed Kohli for a day and wrote about how Kohli dealt with his superstardom daily. He brought to light the two different sides of Kohli; the outside persona which is what the public sees and the inner, softer, a more personal side that he keeps concealed. The trials and tribulations of this Indian superstar are a must-read for anyone who dreams of becoming one.

Kohli has been an enigma for me. Although I do not like his batting (since it lacks the poetry I heard in Tendulkar’s stroke play), I love the way he responds to a challenge. Kohli always aims to dominate a challenge and invariably prevails because of his limitless perseverance that always lasts longer than that of the challenger. He never lets the pressure of a situation show on his face or in his body language, consequently helping him find the clarity to make tough decisions.

So, while I might not like watching Virat Kohli bat, I do love to watch him play. And after reading about him in this story, I seek to emulate him, just a little.

55/2018