Saturday, December 16, 2017

Does Business need Investment Alone?

Published in Silicon India

I am reminded of a Tenali Rama’s tale in which one infant was claimed by two mothers as their own. When they could not resolve, the matter reaches King Krishna Deva Raya. He asked his courtier to suggest a solution and his wise courtier Tenali Ram was entrusted with this task to find out the truth. He feigns after intense discussion with the two women, that he could not arrive at the truth and now solution lies only in dividing the infant among the two mothers. Division could be by cutting the infant into two and giving a piece to each so called mother. One woman agreed to this idea, while other wailed in pain at the thought of her child’s death. This was enough for Tenali Rama to pounce back on the conclusion that only real mother would have pain.

Out of nearly average ten founders each week that I meet since the past 6 months, nearly 85 percent of the people are roaming around, meeting people and talking only for investment, as if they seem to have everything else needed in the business in place! About five years or prior ago, you would come across people in business at events coming for networking and learning leadership skills, making contacts, generating business ideas, setting up their own channel, securing bank finance (debt), hiring or identifying key people, among other things. All these were very natural and aimed at enhancing the value of business. When the money was available as Debt, founders (who had the intention to return the money) were not mad about acquiring customers at any cost, not at supersonic pace, and not definitely for short term gain. Business was developed for lasting and sustainable value proposition. Debt was at high cost, but that was also the reason for relative cautious approach in spending it. These days, I woefully miss this vocabulary from the venture founder, most of the times.

What has changed?

In 2016 and H1 2017, over 200 visible startups in India failed. It is not that all of them failed due to non-availability of funds, but in-fact otherwise.

On analyzing the invested startups, we can draw conclusion that many startups failed either because they got more money they could chew or they were starved off the funds. Many Hyperlocal companies like PepperTap, LocalBanya, GrocShop shut their shop in 2016 and 2017, due to their splurging big money in customer acquisition, to the extent customer acquisition costs were higher than lifetime value of the customer! In case of PepperTap, they offered a discount of 20 percent on grocery to first time users and got volume of orders from each new user id, but mostly at repetitively same address, which missed the analysis at management level. Local baniya pocketed the deep discount, while PepperTap bled. This problem occurs when money is available in plenty and our desire is to scale fast, even fulfilling artificial KPIs and focus is only on one KPI–growth in new customers.

On analyzing the invested startups, we can draw conclusion that many startups failed either because they got more money they could chew or they were starved off the funds
I do not see the focus on mentoring, business value creation, profit margin, profitable lifetime value of the customer or revenue sustainability. Atal incubation center (Niti Aayog) as well as DST gives most weight and asks from their funded incubators the most prominent parameter of success as funds secured by their incubated startups. Accelerators also rate the performance in terms of ratio of funded startups versus incubated startups. This myopic dedication to judge the performance of the eco-system partners to arranging funds, has everyone working overtime to arrange just that – funds. Other ‘doing business’ parameters are just being given a step motherly treatment. Why don’t we generate statistics for number of jobs created, revenue growth (value and percentage), profit earned, market share gained, ROI etc. 

This behavior is giving impetus to the venture founders behaving successful as soon as they secure the funds, irrespective of their struggle thereafter. Many founders believe the journey was up till here and loose interest soon after. Other fly-by-night operators by hook or the crook also join this race and get the funds (which are relatively easy to get these days in the absence of proper due diligence by fund managers, as they have to show the numbers in disbursements) and close the shop. All this is giving a bad name to the sustainability of the startup India movement itself. Promoter’s share keeps reducing at every successive tranche of investment. Hiving off shares of one’s company is not frowned upon, and promoters are ready to settle for a minority share, dividing their company, without pain, just the same way as deceptive mother in the Tenali Rama’s story, as not many are interested in saving the baby. 

Let’s re-think our focus and approach.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Startups - A new investment opportunity

“What’s the use of savings? It hardly provides enough returns.”

If someone ask, why is interest rate reducing, the answer is all developed and high growth economies tend to be business friendly. In that process, cost of money i.e. interest rate at which individuals or corporates get the funds from banks, reduces to make putting business venture attractive. If lending to businesses are low, interest on deposits are lower too. Developed countries like USA has interest rate of 1.25% on savings, UK has 0.5% and so are with the other developed nations.

Traditional avenues of investment in Gold / Silver, Forex, Real Estate, Equity, Mutual Fund, Fixed Deposit among others have diminishing ROI over the last 5 years. Here are some statistical facts 
  • Ø  Silver and Gold have slipped from $32 to $17 & from $1608/oz to $1270/oz respectively, over the last 5 years
  • Ø  USD, EUR & GBP [against Rupees] have moved from 55, 70, 87 to 65, 72, 83, giving returns of 2.7%, 0.5%, -0.8% respectively over the last 5 years
  • Ø  Sensex moved from 19427 to 31109 and Nifty from 5905 to 9605, giving returns of 10% and 10.4% of an investment on index based funds, over the past 5 years
  • Ø  FD returns have changed from 8% to 6.25% and trend is reduction in interest rates further
  • Ø  CAGR returns on Real Estate investments have been roughly about 8% (over last 5 years), 13.4% (over last 10 years), 10.8% (over last 15 years) and 6.2% (over last 20 years) [Source: Morgan Stanley]

Indian prices are directly proportional to prices quoted above in dollars. All the above returns are pre-taxed. Trend is not only relevant between the end node points of these last 5 years but also applicable equally during these last five years.

Investment in Real-Estate and Gold were giving positive and healthy returns when substantial investment was being funneled through black money. It is still possible but it is becoming difficult basis various government initiatives.  It may not be worth such a risk.


If better returns are to come from business, why not invest in the business itself. If you believe start-ups have a promise in the near future, not only to solve problems in our society but also for financial returns, please read further on. Investing in the startups as angel investor, to start with, is new asset class.

India has caught on start-up culture after USA (Silicon Valley), UK, China and Israel. Investment in start-ups is being done by family and friends at ideation stage, by angel investors at seed stage and by venture capitalists at growth stages. With high availability of quality founders, bright mind and unmatched passion, many startup founders are succeeding and generating returns of unparalleled magnitude to their investors.

With so many startups failing, is investment in startup not risky? Yes and No. Like any investment – be it equity – primary or secondary, silver, gold, real estate, etc. you are not sure any longer of positive returns. I will be surprised to see a portfolio manager committing any returns at all, if not investing in gold bonds. In that sense, Startups too are risky. However, this risk can be reduced, just like knowledgeable people who manage your money in other asset class, The Startup Board and others, who understand due diligence process, reduce the risk, by considering level of risk consciously. It is just like in a business.

Consider the benefits to individual angel investors – a) high possible returns from this new asset class, b) opportunity to mentor the invested founders and keep a watch on the risk, c) spreading your risk profile into new asset class, balancing the portfolio d) enhancing tax incentives for your portfolio, e) possible position on the board of possible next wave technology startup, to help solve problems in the society (also making money).

For big corporates, instead of setting up new R&D or investment into product development, let it be left to a startup, who can turn-around the idea into execution much quickly and inexpensively. Services companies, who know little on product development and management, can better partner and take the offering to market together, to their customer or startup selling it to others, thereby getting better traction with low operating expenses. A hands away approach immune the corporate brand, in case product does not succeed. Both corporate and startup can avail tax incentives that exists. It also rejigs the innovation landscape of the organization, from an external catalyst doing innovative thinking, product development, roll-out, all of which organizations take longer in refreshing themselves. Startup company, with such close watch, may be good inorganic investment opportunity too for the corporate.

How to invest
If you have sensed benefits already, there are multiple ways to go on to identify the startup and invest. You can do it yourself, take help from those working in the eco-system and know startups and market trends better, or approach through chamber of commerce.

Key parameters needed to look in the startups (in that order) are a) value system of the founders b) their educational and experiential background c) potential of the sector in which venture is operating in d) business model of the startup and e) scalability of the business, model or sector

Once these basic things are in place, it is all business acumen of the investor or advisor. Happy investing.

Ashish Jain is Chief Evangelist at The Startup Board

Published in Financial Express, Delhi on 10th Nov 2017

Monday, October 30, 2017

Tips to avoid failure in startups

Investment or mentoring - Which should be first?

In 2016 and H1 2017, over 200 visible startups in India failed. It is not that all of them failed due to non-availability of funds, but infact otherwise.

On analyzing the invested startups, we can draw conclusion that many startups failed either because they got more money they could chew or they were starved off the funds. let me explain.

Many Hyperlocal companies like PepperTap, LocalBanya, GrocShop shut their shop in 2016 and 2017, due to splurge in customer acquisition, to the extent customer acquisition costs were higher than lifetime value of the customer!

PepperTap got $50m including $36 from SnapDeal and they continued their operations on negative transaction cost over a long period, inviting it attracting for local grocer to make a purchase, pocketing a discount of 20% (offered in the name of new user discount) and sold to his customers as otherwise he would have. Operations were not reviewed and trends not seems to have been analysed. This problem occurs when money is available in plenty and our desire is to scale fast, even fulfilling artificial KPIs.

On the other hand, food delivery startups, who started with promise as last mile delivery is still a issue to be resolved efficiently, TinyOwl, ZuperMeal, iTiffin, BiteClub all folded up, as money which was easily available last year, isn't available this year that easily, as investors have tied their purse, witnessing bloodshed at the marketplace. Scale of these startups needed, as per design, higher infusion of capital and that was not available this year.

In both of these situations, somehow, the trust between founder and investor got broken.

I am of the believe, before investing, due diligence should happen over a period of time when founders should understand the investors and like wise the reverse. This can happen when mentoring happens before the investment in the venture.

With this view, we have structured our next accelerator program, different from the market offerings. Accelerators generally give money first and then mentoring take place. The Startup Board is coming up with a accelerator program in which about 15 founders and over 30 top industry CXOs will meet every Saturday for 16 weeks, and virtually thereafter for over a year, to not only expose connections, guide as board of directors guide the management team, but also hand-hold on strategic direction and resolution of strategic issues. This approach will be better to build trust and consequent investment, when maximum weight investors have started giving on the execution capability and value system of the founders.

I would love to get your views.

Cheers! Ashish Jain

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Chandigarh - a city of start-up opportunities

Start-up eco-system in Chandigarh
Chandigarh - ‘The City Beautiful’, is an appropriate mix of entrepreneurial spirit (many big business houses are here) and government employees (being the two-state capital).
Chandigarh is first planned Indian city, wide roads, efficient administration and good infrastructure and well educated and well-off residents. It is 2nd highest per capita income city in India. It boasts of educational hub with fine mix of engineering, architecture, medical, management and arts colleges and universities. It also has higher education institute like reputed Indian School of Business.
Chandigarh boasts of an emerging IT Park and along with its sister cities – Mohali and Panchkula (together known as Tricity) – is home to some major multinational corporations like Quark, Infosys, Dell, IBM, and TechMahindra.
Chandigarh is in close proximity to Haryana, Punjab and Himachal Pradesh and attracts a lot of talent from these states. The availability of a large number of motivated and talented people ready to take up new roles and responsibilities is one of the biggest advantages that the city provides.
Morpheus is the India’s first private sector incubator and is from this city. It has 80 odd startups including CommonFloor, Practo, and Akosha. ‘The Hatch’ (now defunct) founded by Puneet Vatsayan was another incubator that grew out of Chandigarh. In-fact Flipkart founders Bansals belong to this city.
Some of the prominent names in the start-up from Chandigarh are

- uTrade Solutions - a financial trading technology startup
- Jugnoo - auto rental and food delivery startup
- Exito Gourmet – Food Delivery
- Bulbul – Beauty service on demand
- Bistro Offers – Restaurant offers on mobile
- Soulbowl – Groceries delivery (like
- DSDInfoSec - Network Security
- MobiProbe - Efficient App Diagnostics
- INOEVE - Internet of Everything 
- Naukri Se Pareshan - Exciting opportunities beyond office life
- Olai - A flexible static pages engine

plus more than 100 more start-ups

Advantage Chandigarh
  • ·         High availability of youngsters (due to large number of educational institutes)
  • ·         Some of the big corporates in IT
  • ·         Better living standard than tier 1 cities
  • ·         Low attrition
  • ·         Entrepreneurial spirit due to presence of historical business community in Punjab and Haryana
  • ·         Efficient administration with great infrastructure

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Equal Partnerships? No.

When starting a business, founders tend to divide ownership equally among the partners. Many start-ups are incepted with founders knowing each other. When friends join together, they are equal and hence they must get equal share in the venture they are starting with. If the partners are not contributing equally, is it desirable?

Let me share a case example. Ankit, Joseph and Dimple were in the same college. Ankit is one year senior to the other two and is also the harbinger of starting this venture. He knew Joseph, for his technology passion and Dimple for her outgoing public speaking and reach-out skills. Ankit, quite convinced with his idea, shares it and asks them to join him. Joseph has issues with non-supporting family to his start-up idea and Dimple can’t relocate to the city the venture is starting in.  Still, Ankit is left with these two, as he has approached many others in the past three months, with a promise of they joining him but never did. Ankit settled for this option. They agree that Joseph and Dimple will be in full time job and support the venture by contributing Rs 20,000 each month, besides shouldering some responsibilities relating to their area of passion, for an equal share in the venture. Dimple plans to join Ankit, full time in a year’s time.

The understanding is innovative as is expected from a startup founder. But there are two problems in this arrangement. One, Ankit is left alone to manage the affairs of the enterprise with very selective and specific role shouldered by others. That makes his team a no-go before any investor. Second, the venture needed about Rs 20 Lakhs over two years, 50% of which Ankit will need to invest from his side. Ankit is full time. Joseph and Dimple are not. Major risk is borne by Ankit.
If we analyze further, simplistically, let’s take only two key parameters into consideration – role and investment.

There are roles of CEO, CFO, CTO, CMO and CHR to say the least in any venture. In the above case example, CEO and CFO roles are with Ankit, CTO with Joseph and CMO/CHR with Dimple. If not in full time engagement, would Joseph and Dimple be able to perform their CTO and CMO roles completely or any spill over will need to be managed by Ankit himself or through outsourced help? Joseph being at Mckinsey argues that his technical prowess and work environment will help him come up with better technical solutions faster, to make up for his less time involvement.

The investment share of three is in 50%, 25%, 25% composition. It is also unequal. In such a scenario, should the share of three in the venture be equal? I feel no.

What is likely to be fallout from such an arrangement? Is it not an innovative method of win-win-win situation created by the founders of this venture?

The venture soon will see the frustration of not only Ankit, but also of other two. Most likely decisions will be taken by Ankit, sometimes not in consultation, as generally is demanded of the situation in any small organization. Also, Ankit’s un-intentional encroachment on CTO or CMO roles, as necessitated, may not find approval from Joseph and Dimple. Soon, based on human psychology, every chance is for Ankit to feel cheated and frustrated for doing ALL the work, while others are not contributing enough, but is equal partner.

The solution thus is to make unequal partnership based on these two factors – role and investment. Give weightage of 70% to the role and 30% to the investment. This is also the way to indicate defined leadership with adequate authority to make final decision and sufficient compensation to remain motivated. In the scheme of things, only distribute 90%, keeping about 10% of the share reserved for ESOPs that will come handy to attract key talent later. Considering each of Joseph and Dimple are able to contribute about 75% to their role in this fashion and kind of investment mentioned, the share of partnership should be 38%, 26%, 26% amongst Ankit, Joseph and Dimple respectively. When Dimple joins full time after a year, this percentage should change to 35%, 26% and 29%. Whatever is the share, keep a period of vesting from 3 to 4 years at least.

It is equally important to note what happens in the real life. Circumstances change and partners do quit. In the identified situation, some partners due to their peripheral involvement have low risk to quit the venture and thus have more likelihood. It is pertinent to design the smooth exit safeguarding the interest of all involved. As revenue results and valuations may not be available (quit decision less likely if they are available and sound) by the time quit decision comes from any of the three, it is prudent to provision for about double the market rate returns (of 10%) on the invested amount in the year 1 and triple the returns in the year 2.

The given solution is indicative and variations in situation may impact a change in the share, keeping approach the same.

I support the arguments of un-equal share in partnerships even if all the co-founders are on-board full time. Differentiate by small percentage, based on the amount of investment, but the governance structure must be clearly defined in case of disagreements. All significant decisions must be made on consensus, transparency kept fully else partnership will break sooner than one thinks. However, clearly defined conflict resolution goes a long way in smooth running of the enterprise and bringing in order.

Ashish Jain, Chief Evangelist

About Author - Ashish mentors founders of start-ups on strategy

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Social pullback from Start-up dream

Start-up dream is now-a-days seen by many youngsters but not everyone ends-up with his /her start-up.

I happen to know a youngster, who passed out in 2015 from a prominent southern private engineering college. Let’s call this youngster Pranav. He has been active in college fest, organizing activities for “societies” and getting “tech-app” made from his juniors. Highly connected with students, professors and evangelists from other colleges in the area, he had a dream to commence with his own start-up and even had firmed-up his ideas on technology and domain to venture into. On campus placements, he rejected four such offers, including from the big Indian IT companies and consulting MNCs. He knew, for sure, the challenges he was likely to face in his start-up. Usual ones were finding a team with same zeal and passion as he had, funding it, getting the product ready, competing against competition, sustaining the various ups-and-down of a startup and then making it big to succeed. He graduated and was ready for all of these challenges.

He was ready but his family was not. He has discussed the options with his parents before rejecting his campus placement offers, but parents were under pressure from the “society”. Few relatives were skeptical of his choice in life and were not seeing the vision and life he was seeing for himself. Anyone, Pranav or his parents discussed the idea with, brought the rejection of the start-up idea in favor of more established options of higher studies (post-graduation) or taking up a job.

Pranav isn’t along. There are numerous graduates, hailing from middle-class, who are facing challenges even before starting their own venture. The society in India is yet to reconcile to what’s-the-big-deal-to-failure mentality. Is it a big blow if someone fails in an experiment? What about the learning from such a failure?

I did a simple arithmetic of the options that are available to be engineering graduate, soon after college.

Please allow me to exclude the outliers from IIT and IIM.

Based on latest figures, an engineering graduate gets about Rs 3 – 3.50 lakhs as his starting salary. Assuming everyone, who gets into a job gets an increment of 25% in the year 2 and 3 appraisals, 20% for the next two and 15% subsequently, as the base salary is growing and this percentage reflect the general 60% of the candidates who fit in the middle of the bell-curve. An engineering graduate gets about 11 Lakhs after about year 9, unless he reskills himself or switches jobs too frequently, with a cumulative earnings of Rs 61 Lakhs after 9 years of service.


Year 1
Year 2
Year 3
Year 4
Year 5
Year 6
Year 7
Year 8
Year 9

Job, Right now


Higher Edu India - PG (2 Years)


Higher Edu Abroad - PG
(2 Years)


Startup - Failed, Join Job after 2 years


Startup - Successful


Consider the same graduate going for higher post-graduation studies within India. He invests about 10 Lakhs in the fees and hostel and gets to start at about Rs 7 Lakhs. Assuming the same increment percentages as earlier, his CTC at year 9 is at 16 Lakhs, with cumulative earnings of 71 Lakhs over 9 years of service. If the same graduate had gone for higher studies abroad, he had to invest about Rs 40 Lakhs an would have been much better taking CTC of Rs 23 Lakhs (cumulative 76 L) after the same period.

Consider starting a venture. What does it take for founders to start a venture and take it to a level recognized in the industry? He needs to build product (technology savvy), understand market dynamic including competition (marketing plan with branding), define go-to-market strategy (led sales), arrange funds (CFO role), hire and retain people (CHR role), manage organization growth, address regulatory compliances, etc. If this venture has made its presence, founders have learnt which no other course in the world can teach them! Innovative and modern outlook companies are constantly looking for such people who are not only all-rounder, but also possess fighting spirit and attitude to solve problems as they come. It makes these founders in-valuable, whether they lose out on their venture or make success out of it. Anyone who fails still has a better market value and conservatively valued at 15 Lakhs as starting salary, if he had to resume job after venture failure. Not to mention, he is better off than any of the earlier discussed cases, even if he has burned about Rs 20 Lakhs of his own.

What if he succeeds? There is no looking back. What one earns is un-comparable to job that could have given. Pranav has been able to convince his parents to travel on this path.

If one argues higher education in India or abroad provides connect with fellow batch-mates and this can be leveraged for better opportunities in life. This is no-doubt a take away. However, this is much more explicit had one started his venture.

It is also pertinent to mention that business is not for everyone. Only some have the aptitude and attitude to take the risk and have the endurance to undergo the hard work physically and emotionally. So, for all those we are appropriate for it, startup venture is the right way to go.

It is time that as parents we support our wards to take the path less traveled and enable them to be the torch bearer for the generation to come, without compromising self-interest.

Ashish Jain

About Author - Ashish mentors founders of start-ups on strategy