How angel investors can boost the start-up ecosystem in India

Senior professionals, moderately successful entrepreneurs as well as high net-worth individuals (HNIs) have been expressing an active interest in investing in start-ups. Individuals who are keen to explore start-ups as an asset class, however, have to recognise that investing in them is a high-risk, high-return game.

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They need to get comfortable with the fact that they could lose their entire capital in some of the companies they invest in, and that most of the start-ups they invest in may not succeed.

Anyone who has the ability to spare Rs 5 lakh or above a year — and not lose sleep over it — could look at co-investing in two-three start-ups a year, so that over a two-three-year period, they are able to build a good portfolio.

With a diversified portfolio, investing in start-ups can provide better risk-adjusted returns. Existing angel groups and investors typically invest in start-ups raising upwards of Rs 2-3 crore, as their members do not usually want to write smaller cheques.

Continue reading “How angel investors can boost the start-up ecosystem in India”

We need to think of entrepreneurship beyond VC-fundable ventures

The startup ecosystem in India is progressing at a very stable pace. The percentage of young individuals as well as experienced professionals thinking of entrepreneurship as a career option is growing due to a number of reasons:

  • There is an enabling environment for entrepreneurs. Boot camps, accelerators, and incubators guide first-time entrepreneurs about converting concepts into ventures. The number of funding options is increasing, including venture debt.
  • The emergence of some media houses that cover the startup eco-system, as well as mainstream media that gives some space/time for startups is creating a better understanding of startups, and entrepreneurship as a career option.
  • The words startups and entrepreneurship have entered the vocabulary of the government and there is an expectation of policy and resources that will turbo-charge entrepreneurship.
  • Parents are now a lot more willing to let their children give up lucrative job offers and pursue an entrepreneurial dream thanks to what they have seen and heard in the media. There is now a critical mass for startups and entrepreneurs to not be considered an oddity, but one of the top career choices, at the beginning or in the middle of a professional journey.
  • Also, as a society, we have started becoming more accepting of failures, and have come to recognise that entrepreneurship is a set of experiments, some of which succeed and some fail. Till a few years ago, we used to say that in the Silicon Valley, failed entrepreneurs have a higher chance of getting funded because they have learned what does not work. Glad to notice that the same is happening in India too.

Overall, it is a great time to become an entrepreneur in India.

However, the entire entrepreneurial community, as we think of it today, is  minuscule in comparison to the much larger number of aspiring entrepreneurs in the country.

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Continue reading “We need to think of entrepreneurship beyond VC-fundable ventures”

Changing dynamics in India’s startup eco-system

2014 was a defining year for the Indian startup ecosystem. Compared to the rest of the decade, a number of significant events and activities had changed the very nature of the startup world. Companies like Flipkart,Snapdeal, PayTm, Zomato, etc had redefined ‘scale’ and investors had started placing big bets on them. These companies darted ahead of the pack, to not just dominate their markets, but to grow it too. Of course, they were helped by a conducive environment – mobile phones, internet connectivity etc – but they also built infrastructure, people and processes that could handle a different order of scale than what they themselves could have imagined a few years ago. These startups demonstrated the potential and the competence to build world-scale companies and created new goalposts for entrepreneurs to aspire for.

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As a result of e-commerce, a number of enabling technology and service companies started becoming more meaningful. Analytics, online engagement platforms, delivery companies etc found a much larger market to address their business case, and therefore their investment-worthiness became stronger. What remains to be seen is how effectively the e-commerce industry will retain customers once the discounting era is over and customers have to buy on the fundamental value proposition of e-commerce i.e. ease of access and choice. We may see some changed market dynamics at that stage, and the transition phase may throw up some new, unexpected leaders.

Continue reading “Changing dynamics in India’s startup eco-system”

India needs 10,000 more angel investors to build a thriving startup ecosystem

Only a very few aspiring entrepreneurs from among 1000s are able to convert their ideas into a business.  And one of the key reasons for this is the lack of access to capital that is required to start something new.

Out of 1000s of investment-worthy startups, less than 300 are able to get initial capital in India.

The present environment is very conducive for people to think of entrepreneurship as a career option. Entrepreneurship cells, incubation centres in colleges, boot-camps, hackathons, and other forums for entrepreneurship promotion, as well as a vibrant media for startups – all have inspired very few to become entrepreneurs.

Angel investor groups, accelerators, and incubators get over 5,000 applications every year. Nearly 10,000 startups send their profiles to media houses every year. While quite of few of these large numbers may not be serious contenders, there is a significant number of aspiring entrepreneurs with the competence, commitment and concepts that can become strong businesses. And quite a few of these can become profitable investments for angel investors.

Yet, only about 300 or so of these aspirants are able to get initial capital to get started. And mostly those, who require capital between Rs 2 to Rs 5 crore range. That’s the declared ‘sweet spot’ of most angel investor groups and VCs who participate in early-stage deals.

Why are there less than 300 early-stage investments in India?

VCs and Angel investor groups are unable to do smaller deals because their members do not want to write smaller cheques, and the efforts required to review, process and close a Rs 50 lakh deal is as much as it takes to close a Rs 5 crore deal. The largest angel investor network in the country does less than 20 transactions in a year.

The number of startups whose funding requirements are less Rs 50 lakh is significantly higher than the number of startups requiring Rs 2 to Rs 5 crore. In fact, many a businesses can get going with just Rs 25 lakh.

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Significantly, If we don’t find a way of funding 1000s of deserving entrepreneurs, we would end up frustrating that segment.

Continue reading “India needs 10,000 more angel investors to build a thriving startup ecosystem”

What are the differences between angel funding, venture funding and crowd funding? In what scenarios can they be exploited for maximum benefits?

(My response below, to the above question on Quora)

Different investors participate in different stages of a venture. Angel investors invest at the very early stages – when the founders only have an idea or when the idea is being or has been developed into a prototype. They provide enough capital for the idea to be tested and proven in the market, so that another set of investors can bring in more capital after the model is proven and when the venture needs more money to take the proven model to a wider base.

Continue reading “What are the differences between angel funding, venture funding and crowd funding? In what scenarios can they be exploited for maximum benefits?”

Guest Post – Team, the most important ingredient in a startup

Ask any investor or successful entrepreneur, and they will reiterate that the most important factor in a start-up is the quality of its founding team. A team is more important than the idea or the size of the market or the technology or the business case, or indeed any other factor that investors will review to check the investment-worthiness of a venture.

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Even if  – the product is great; the technology is cutting-edge; the market is large and the company has a strong chance to be a dominant player in that large market – investors will hesitate to invest in the venture if they do not get the confidence that the founding team can deliver in the market.

What investors seek is a team that is passionate about the subject, is enthusiastic about the opportunity, has a good grasp on the dynamics of ‘business’ and not just the product/service, and who can demonstrate commitment to fight it out in the market.

While it is good to have experience in the domain, that is not a must, as that will exclude a number of bright people who either do not have work experience or are from a different domain than the concept they are pursuing. However, what is important is that even without experience in the sector, the team should have studied the sector enough to understand it very well. In fact, that is also why passion and interest in the sector is critical, because that makes it easier for a person to study the sector well.

Continue reading “Guest Post – Team, the most important ingredient in a startup”

M&A: Why small exits matter? The big value of small exits (#iSPIRT-OEQ)

iSPIRT Open Ecosystem Questions(OEQ) Series. The conversation around this exciting session was lead by Sanat Rao (iSPIRT) and the speakers were Jay Pullur (Pramati Technologies), Sanjay Shah (Invensys Skelta), Pari Natarajan (Zinnov), Karthik Reddy (Blume Ventures) & Vijay Anand (The Startup Centre).

Sanat initiated the conversation with an observation that it was only the bigger exits that are picked up by the media. Smaller exits do not get any media attention at all. , We all hear about the big bang “home runs”: WhatsApp sold for 19 billion USD to Facebook, Google acquires Nest for 3.2 billion USD, etc. However, studies show that 65% of VC funded companies in the US return 0-1x to their investors. Even among the remaining 35%, the exit valuations are relatively small: since 2010, the average M&A deal size in the US/Israel is 100 million USD. Only a small 0.1% of VC-funded companies are home runs (50X returns). And not just in India. In Israel too, from 2010-14, out of the 88 exits, two deals on Viber and Waze accounted for a whopping 25% of the total M & A value.

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Given these statistics, why do we promote the myth of a multi-billon $$ exit? Why don’t we recognize the value of these smaller exits? Should we not be promoting and helping product startups to find an exit at an earlier point in their lifecycle, rather than treating these exits as a worst case scenario? Continue reading “M&A: Why small exits matter? The big value of small exits (#iSPIRT-OEQ)”

Bootstrapping – Boon or Bane for Product Startups?

On August 14th, 2014 iSPIRT, the industry enabler that is creating a vibrant eco-system for promoting, encouraging, supporting and enabling product companies out of India, organised a very useful online discussion on the concept of bootstrapping. Titled  ‘Bootstrapping – Boon or Bane’, the discussion explored various facets of bootstrapping, including its relevance, benefits, limitations, and challenges.

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Sharad Sharma, founder of iSPIRT kicked off the conversation with a very incisive observation that the startup community, largely driven by the media, tends to celebrate and showcase startups only when they receive angel or institutional funding. How true is that!!! There are a number of very successful and modestly successful startups, many of who are deserving of the praise and showcase, but they get reported about only when they close an investment round. (I am not sure if the media is to blame entirely. I suspect companies too reach out to media only after they have received an investment round, perhaps because they believe that funding makes the ‘story saleable’ for the media.).

Continue reading “Bootstrapping – Boon or Bane for Product Startups?”

Crowd-funding for startups. Is it a good idea?

Crowd-funding is certainly gaining popularity in certain markets. However, for crowd-funding to work well for all parties, it is important that the entrepreneurial eco-system in that market is mature and has investors & entrepreneurs who have seen some cycles of ups and downs.

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Here’s why: Funding startups carries the highest level of risk. The percentage of startups that become successful AND are able to provide a exit and good return to an investor are very low. Hence, unless the ‘crowd’ comprises of folks who understand the underlying risks (or unless the investor group managers educate the investors well in advance), there is likely to be too much friction due to mismatch of expectations of returns on individual deals.

Inexperienced investors who invest because they have ‘heard’ or read in media of sky high valuations for some startups, often are not aware of the risk ratio in investing in startups. They may often not be aware that investors most likely lose money in 6-7 of the 10 companies they invest in. May be one or two out of 10 companies may return the money invested, may be with some modest returns. And, probably one of the 10 may provide a decent return to make up for the losses but also provide the surplus to deliver a decent return on the total capital invested. Given this kind of stacking of successes and failures, over a 4-5 period most investors, if lucky, are not likely to make signinficantly more money than they would have on their overall portfolio of investments (stock markets, commodities, real-estate, etc.). A far cry from the ‘solid valuations and handsome & quick returns’ in startups they read about in the media. (What one sees in media are exceptions and one cannot plan life assuming exceptions to work in your favour… and certainly not consistently).

Now, in many cases, when inexperienced investors are expecting breakout results, and are instead faced with losing capital in a company, they may start getting anxious and therefore pose challenges of investor expectation management for the founders of the startup. They could get interfering and imposing their views. These are real challenges, and certainly an unwanted distraction.

However, that does not mean that crowd-funding per se is not a good option. It just means that you need to take care of a few basics before you accept ‘crowd-funding’:

  • Make sure that the investors in your startup understand the underlying risks. If you are accepting money for individual investors (friends & family included), be sure that you draft clear and understandable agreements. Make sure that you explain to them the risks associated. (Do explain to them that they should not invest in startups unless they have an appetite to invest in at least 10  deals over a 12 – 18 month period. AND that they should invest only as much as they are willing & able to lose without losing sleep.)
  • Be clear and honest about the plans, milestones and plan B in case the original pans do not work out as planned (they usually don’t). Giving investors the confidence that you are in control even when things are not going right is often comforting for them.
  • Keep them posted of all developments – monthly reports and quarterly calls with all investors are good. Inform them about bad news before they ask. Provide them a view of what you plan to do to address the issues. Be transparent. Be direct.
  • Define clear proceses for communication between investors & entrepreneurs. Define how and through whom the interaction will be routed. A good option is to agree that one or two members from the investor group represent the group on the board or act as the ONLY communication & interaction point. Individual investors should route their queries or suggestions only through this/these designate individual(s). Only during the quarterly calls should all individual investors be invited to participate in direct interactions with the team. Even then, individual suggestions should not be binding and it should be made clear to the suggestion giving investor that the suggestion will be considered by the management and discussed with the board before taking a decision. This should be the standard procedure.

Hope you have a great experience in crowd funding your startup. Do let me know about your experiences, and any additional suggestions and learnings that you may want to share.