2019, an exponential year

when I entered 2019, it seemed like it would be like any other year, but boy its been a rollercoaster like never before.

here is a short list of stuff that got done (where i’ve been involved) …in no-particular order.

  1. Haptik acquisition by Reliance Jio (exit)
  2. MPL series-A (new start)
  3. Upraised – a new beginning for my partner Mona
  4. Invideonew capital (angel)
  5. Shuttl – follow on capital (growth)
  6. PocketFM – seed cheque & follow-ons (new start)
  7. Byjus secondary (exit)
  8. Classplusseed cheque & follow-ons (new start)
  9. Myra acquisition by Medlife (exit)
  10. MX Player – Series A & partnership with Tencent (growth)
  11. Tookitaki – new capital (angel) (growth)
  12. Dilmil acquisition by Dating.com Group (angel) (exit)
  13. Third Wave Coffeenew investment (angel)
  14. Oxfordcaps series-A (new start)
  15. Parkwheels – new investment (angel) (new start)
  16. Ayopop – new capital (angel) (growth)
  17. Two other meaningful developments (still in stealth)

Phew! … In any other year, I’d be happy to have achieved even 1 or 2 such milestones!

In many ways, this year has been a culmination of compounding effects building up over the past few years. Relationships, investments, product strategy decisions, and karma of the past all converging into an incredible and highly improbable sequence of events.

It has also been a tough year emotionally, perhaps the second toughest year in life after 2016 (when my father passed away, and my daughter was born within a short window of a mere 46 days).

Many tricky transitions, and decisions that tested my resolve to conduct myself and my peers in a fair and appropriate manner. Delivering win-win outcomes in many cases is far tougher than meets the eye!

Exits are momentary conclusions, before they become legacies; while new investments and ventures are the beginning of many new aspirations and fears. I’ve had way too many of them this year.

Above all a sharper awareness and focus around my own purpose/utility came afore.

Thank you 2019 I am grateful, and thank you to each of you who I’ve had the luck and good fortune to be associated with 🙏

ending with a poem to look back to 2019 with!

ये लम्हे , ये पल हम , बरसों याद करेंगे … ये मौसम बदल गये तो … हम फ़रियाद करेंगे !
ये लम्हे , ये पल हम , बरसों याद करेंगे … बरसो याद करेंगे

Hariharan, for the movie Lamhe (c 1991)

… and a clip from the movie Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara called
” तो जिंदा हो तुम ”

onwards into 2020!

private boom v/s public gloom

how startups need to adapt in such a capital cycle (India)

August 2019

the India market is in a unique spot for early stage tech entrepreneurs, at least in recent history. with this post, I’ve attempted to explain the disconnects in the market, and a shared a few pointers for founders on how to navigate in the short-term.

public markets are cautioned by a slowdown in consumer spending across many sectors; banks & nbfc’s are going through a prolonged correction cycle; and between the India/Pak + USA/China + UK/Brexit geo-political complexities – there is enough caution in the winds globally.

Apr to Aug 2019 MMI data from Tickertape.in
relative scale legend: Green is Greed, Red is fear

here is some evidence: auto, garments, FMCG, real-estate.

what might this lead to? —> consumers will likely delay non-essential spends, enterprises will likely delay capex & try to reduce opex. effectively, purchases & upgrade cycles will be delayed. there are many spiralling effects to this which are unpredictable even to the most sophisticated market observers.

on the contrary, private markets (at least in tech) are at a new local-maxima of optimism. Seed & Series-A rounds are closing faster than I’ve witnessed in the past 5-6 years. Repeat/successful founders are raising outsized first cheques, and Series-B+ rounds are happening at rich valuations! … almost as if private tech investors aren’t even looking at what is happening in the public markets & the global macro.

to a large extent, I get why private tech investors do not worry about short term pessimism in public markets – they are backing entrepreneurs & ideas that will take shape and grow over the next 18-24 months – hoping things will turn for a positive very soon.

for Founders, here is what worries me

  1. when you raise capital, there is an urge to rack up costs – team, infrastructure, marketing, etc.
  2. one or two quarters in, you will start to feel the pressure to show “hockey stick growth” to your oft impatient investors
  3. in a negative sentiment cycle in public markets, there is little you can do to change that, despite our best intentions & strategies.

public market sentiment is a real-time reflection on the broader economy (beyond the tech bubble), and when/how that turns and what brings it back is an N dimensional multi-variate calculus problem. Ultimately, both markets are connected, and so when public markets are in crises, private markets won’t be left far behind.

as Entrepreneurs, what should you consider doing?

  1. manage your fixed costs carefully
  2. look for structural ways to extend your runway
  3. set expectations with your investors/board — have that tough conversation sooner rather than later (the good ones will be supportive/accommodating)
  4. get laser focused on quality metrics over vanity metrics
  5. some companies/products thrive in such environments, if you are one of them, double down and get more aggressive (but this is rare)

I don’t mean to be an alarmist, but you have to regulate your behaviour when the external environment has fundamentally changed – and for most of born in/after the 1980’s we haven’t really seen a true recession in recent memory. If we end up in one, don’t let that kill your startup!

(discount-led products/services could see an artificial surge in usage, but that could be a double-whammy to your burn rates & possibility of surviving the cycle)

thx to Mona, Tarun, Sai, Aakrit, and Soaib for feedback

the curse of 10%

a 10 percent improvement means that you’re basically doing the same thing as everybody else. You probably won’t fail spectacularly, but you are guaranteed not to succeed wildly.

the curse of 10%

Larry Page succinctly described, in the above quote, the 10% growth syndrome that companies get into and miss out on doing great things.

Don’t get me wrong, it is extremely challenging to run a large company and motivate the team to work towards a common goal of 10% growth, but at the same time our business leaders owe a debt to society to attempt great things with the resources at their disposal

I hope more business leaders and politicians would see the roles the way Larry Page does.

You can see the entire interview with Larry Page in Wired mag here.

Reacting to competition

As an innovator, you are often ahead of the curve in introducing products and services to a market.

Then come the battery of fast following competitors who copy your capabilities, or yet others who say they’ve already got what your latest and greatest innovation is.

How you react in these situations can often make or break your leadership with customers.

Making a better product isn’t the end of the story: market it better, deliver it better, support it better, and make the usage experience better, be honest, and be human !

Take your advantage to the next level by out executing your competition across all aspects of your solution, rather than fighting with copy cats or looking at their tactics.

Competition is a good thing, and in most markets buyers will gravitate to the best overall package.

startup culture — where does it come from ?

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One of the most mysterious elements of startup culture is question that Naval Ravikant posed in his tweet above.

So, where does it really come from ?

Culture is mostly intangible at the earliest stages, and tends to be dictated by the relationship amongst the founders (or the founding team). In my time at Feeva, and my startup project at Virginia Tech, the culture of the group could primarily be described as a function of the relationship the group shared among themselves.

At the same time, culture morphs at various stages of team size and the product lifecycle of a startups offering. In the very beginning, everything pretty much happens around the one and only conference table (if you have one that is) and all decisions around hiring, strategy, fund-raising, marketing, tactics, etc are made. I think this changes at somewhere around 15 people or so, when the company needs to start to institute a basic abstraction of decision making by a few for the collective. This evolution in a young companies life (or need for change) is a seminal moment for the long term culture of the company.

And naturally, a company and its organization continues to morph at 50, 250, 500, 1000 employees and upwards and onwards! It is critical for the founders/founding-team to think about their culture at each of these stages to define how they want to make decisions and conduct business. In the long run, the relationship between the founders/founding-team really drives the culture of the company.

There are umpteen examples of this: Google (with its college campus lifestyle), Facebook (the hacker way), Twitter (and its emergent chaos), my own experience at Feeva (though not public), and several others out there.

what do you think?

Tying it all together — the end game of present day silicon valley (circa — October 2010)

As silicon valley goes about disrupting one industry after another, it has at this point in time, laid it’s sights on the combined fuzz of commerce, social networks, mobility, and payments.

In the quest of the holy grail for a system that understands consumers and anticipates their likes and dislikes across several dimensions, a group of companies are at the precipice of a massive opportunity to build the ultimate system of systems (SoS). This SoS combines identity, commerce (online & brick-mortar), social networking, mobility, and likes/dislike across services (both traditional services, and information services).

Let’s first start out with my premise of why we are far from the end. As much as we like to believe otherwise, the vast majority of commerce still occurs “offline”, i.e. happens away from your computer desk. The majority of this offline commerce also happens within a relatively short driving distance of the domicile or work place of the average consumer. Therefore, while the world is flat, you still buy the majority of your consumables from your neighborhood. Note: my argument is focused around the “transaction”, and not the production of goods and services.

I will now describe the capabilities of the SoS, and then towards the end of the article prescribe a method to tie it all together.

The SoS is a platform that provides each user with a hub for the consumers digital life: an interface to manage and manipulate incoming/outgoing communications of all types (personal, professional, social, financial, medical, entertainment, news, etc). This first piece is an anchor tenant of the system: since this is the interface which enjoys the greatest amount of #attention from a user. Until 5 years ago, this interface was the desktop computer, and today that is changing rapidly toward being untethered. The race to own this piece is being fought by the giants of information technology today, and there are several flavors of solutions out there. The vocal debate sparked by Chris Anderson of Wired summarizes the shifting landscape of this interface well. Let us name this interface “the hub”, for the sake of this article.

The SoS then extends the hub to the mobile experience, and brings along a few key elements such as: identity, a communication end point, the social network, a financial toolset, and some sensors. For users with smartphones today, you know what I am talking about.

Now that we’ve covered the interfaces extended by the SoS to consumers, let’s shift our focus and think about what it does for merchants and service providers.

The SoS provides merchants an interface similar to the hub, let’s call it “the register”. The register is a system that comprises of a point of sale interface, ties into the merchants CRM system, interfaces with social networks, and ties into the merchants accounting solutions. We hardly find a lot of discussion about innovation in this arena and I believe this is facet of the SoS that is the most under developed at this point in time. Yes, IBM has had point-of-sale solutions for decades, but they have hardly changed in my life time. With the exception of Square (by Jack Dorsey), I don’t know of a single startup or tech major focusing time and R&D efforts on “the register”.

Tying the millions of registers and billions of hubs together is the central fabric of the SoS that extracts context from transactions conducted between the various hubs and registers connected with each other. While the central fabric is built on top of the Internet, it is not the internet itself: but has a combination of capabilities possessed by a search engine, a recommendation system, a social broadcasting system, and a trusted provider (bank). These different components put together comprise the SoS.

The end game that the tech giants are chasing is to build and own this central fabric, its engines, and it’s interfaces for consumers and merchants.

Google and it’s Android platform are best suited to realize this SoS.

The Google search engine is a dominant onramp to the internet, Gmail and the Google Apps suite is fast supplanting the Microsoft Windows desktop paradigm, and Android is fast becoming a pervasive mobile hub. While Google has failed to own the social networking experience, they play well with tying into them from other Google services.

The biggest gap in their portfolio is a foray into owning “the register”, and providing a value exchange to merchants to incentivize them to adopt. The Android platform in it’s tablet avatar is a good starting point. Tie it with other services described above and allow the transaction to flow. Merchants get subsidized analytics and broadcasting tools in exchange for adopting the Android platform.

If I had a venture fund, or access to large financial resources, I would invest in a business or a project to go after the register.

working on the business versus working in the business

often at times, I find it hard to context switch between working on our business, versus working in our business.

this problem is especially aggravated for startups, where there is little time to sit back every once in a while to take in the big picture; given the scarcity of human resources.

working “on” the business, for example, is thinking about how to position your business in the marketplace; how to slot yourself versus competitors, and what type of allies to attract for strategic growth.

working “in” the business, on the other hand is making sure you deliver (or exceed) on customer commitments, delivering on engineering deadlines, and financial milestones to investors.

I am in no way implying that it is easier for larger companies to do this, and albeit better than startups.

at the end of the day — companies and executives that are able to work on their business while working in the business side by side, are the ones who are most likely to succeed (or at least enjoy the ride more than others).

Credits: I would like to acknowledge my colleague — Jeff Popoff, for a conversation that sparked this post.