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

being awesome at Corp Dev

abridged thoughts on how to excel at Corporate Development

did a podcast with my friends at IVM Podcasts on this a few months ago.

https://player.fm/series/1444998/184888985

cheers!

How to think about Corporate VC investors

Couple of friends asked me this question recently, so I thought it may be useful for a wider audience.

Often during a fundraise process at startups, you come across the investment arm of an Operating Company (unlike VC’s who only invest and don’t run companies).

Let’s call them OpCo’s.

OpCo’s typically invest from their balance sheet, and do investments for one of two reasons:

  1. Strategic Investments (learn a new market, buy-in early into future potential new lines of business, build an ecosystem of partners around their core business, create more stuff to sell to their existing customer base, etc)
  2. Separate Investment arms [for capital appreciation, not only for (1) above]. In these cases there is often a strategic angle involved, but not explicitly a must-have. In these cases, capital is typically set aside in a fund vehicle.

Critical to know which type of Corp VC arm you are engaging. You can simply ask questions along the lines of (1) and (2) to figure this out.

Strategic investments should typically come with “more than moneybenefits. For example: supply chain, distribution channels (sales, user acquisition), unique/early access to tools, and some inside track on enabling you to build an unfair advantage in the marketplace.

To ensure you really (and tangibly) get these benefits, it is important to ensure that you secure buy-in from OpCo Executives who control those assets. In other words, don’t just trust the investment team to be able to deliver on these unless the operating team has bought in. In most cases it helps to make the OpCo Exec your champion within the company in the long run.

Another important question for Strategic investments is to ask about the time horizon for the investor. Typically OpCo’s will have a longer horizon (read: patience), and be willing to back you in future rounds as well as long as their goals are being met. That being said, if their goals aren’t being met, then they can be tricky to deal with.

For Corp VC’s that are setup as separate Investment Arms [(2) above], the best way to evaluate is to look at them just as you would another VC. Ask all the same questions you would a regular VC firm.

The Upsides of Corp VC can often be game changing.

  1. Getting access to (and locking others out) of proprietary “more than money” benefits can set you apart from competitors fast. It can help you achieve things at lower cost.
  2. Corp VC’s aren’t as active on your board as a regular VC. So as long as you are hitting broad goals, they won’t get in the way for most operating decisions. This is sometimes a negative too; all good boards help entrepreneurs avoid pitfalls
  3. Corp VC’s understand their markets & adjacencies fairly well. So, they are what I call more-committed capital, and will invest in adjacencies with deeper conviction than some VC investors (the few who are easily swayed by market sentiment).

Of course, there are potential downsides! … primarily two: Speed and Priorities.

  1. Speed of getting through internal decision making can sometimes be a challenge. It often also takes longer to turn around documents. Keep in mind, the OpCo isn’t setup like a VC (Monday meetings, standard contract templates etc) so some decisions aren’t as high frequency. Therefore, it also can take longer to get documents reviewed/signed etc. But this a minor thing in the grand scheme.
  2. Priorities of the OpCo often change from time to time, as they themselves see market transitions and competition in their core business. If you and your company are no longer a priority for the OpCo then you can find yourself in some level of stress. This can mean that the “more than money” benefits may not continue to be available or deliver as much value to you as intended, or the interest in doing follow on investments may not be the same anymore. This is the thing to watch for, and honestly the better way to handle this is to partner only with very strong companies who have durability on their own.

In conclusion, Corp VC’s can be very productive partners in enabling you to build and grow your startup; you just need to be smart about the process of getting to know how to extract the best value for both sides.

Bonus point: in some cases, Corp VC’s also make potential acquirers.

BSE Sensex validates that Food Tech revolution in India is no bubble

Consumers have more choice, and Pizza is no longer the only preferred home delivery option

I read this article in the Economic Times yesterday, and realized that the food-tech sector has just demonstrated its real impact and latent demand on two public stocks (Jubilant Foodworks & Speciality Restaurants)

http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/industry/services/hotels-/-restaurants/restaurant-companies-like-jubilant-foodworks-and-others-lose-market-capitalisation-as-consumers-cut-on-spending/articleshow/51161671.cms

Performance of Jubilant Foodworks & Speciality Foods on BSE SENSEX past 12-months

“Delayed recovery in same-store sales over the medium term seems not just cyclical but also structural. There seem to be no signs of revival,” Abneesh Roy, an analyst at Edelweiss Securities

Roughly 36% of Jubilant Foodworks sales were via online ordering (OLO as they term it), which contributes to approximately — INR 800 Crores GMV (run-rate) in annual revenue run rate across Dominos & Dunkin Donuts in India & Sri-Lanka. (Keep this number in mind)

The structural shift spoken about by Abneesh Roy, isn’t a slow down in the Indian economy, or consumers cutting back on spending as some others have conjectured.

Consumers have a lot more choice today when it comes to where they order home-delivery food from. Thanks largely due to the Food-Tech Bubble as many perceive.


Impact of Food Tech investments

The past 18 months have seen a significant surge in the quantum of Venture Capital investments in Food Tech. Collectively, the sector raised $375M in 2014 & 2015 across 55 companies.

A whole host of new companies got created as a result. Food delivery marketplaces, Internet-First restaurants (or “cloud kitchens” as some call them), a couple of physical restaurant brands pivoted to delivery only, Recipe Boxes, Chef marketplaces, and many more.

The initial sampling and surge of orders was driven largely by deep discounts offered by the likes of Foodpanda, Tinyowl, Swiggy, Zomato, Faasos, Freshmenu et al. And lets not forget the discounts offered by the payment gateways as well; PayUMoney & Paytm splurged lavishly on this category.

This was followed by a round of crash & burn, consolidation.

The exuberance has left behind lasting & meaningful structural changes:

  1. More choice for consumers — beyond QSR’s & delivery chains. 
    you can order from a restaurant that doesn’t have their own delivery fleet
  2. New infrastructure — delivery-riders available “on-demand”
    quoting RoadRunnr — ‘book, track, and manage deliveries at scale’
  3. Digital payments, Menu discovery, Repeat Orders
    simple but powerful features enabled by a variety of apps

Based on a couple of articles, and my conversations with people in the industry, I conjecture that an average of 100,000 orders @ average order value of INR 300 per order are being placed through new Fo0d-Tech companies relying on the online/mobile channel exclusively. These orders are delivered from nearly 25,000 restaurants.

That is roughly 1095 Crores GMV in annualized orders. 20% more than an established mega-brand like Dominos & Dunkin.

Couple this with growth rates of category leaders in the range of 15% MoM, the category should double every two quarters.

INR 1000 Crores in GMV in a short 18-months is no small feat!

What the future may hold

While the Food-Tech exuberance raised a lot of eyebrows in past 6-months, it has created new-infrastructure that brings more choices for consumers, and enables a broader spectrum of Restaurants/Chefs/Homecooks to deliver their product to a mass audience.

my prospection is the following:

  1. Emergence of new “delivery only” brands at the scale of Dominos, Chipotle, McDonalds enabled entirely via the new Food-Tech infrastructure. 
    (Freshmenu, Faasos are already getting to some scale; we will see 10–15 more)
  2. Tier-2 markets will latch on to this phenomenon, the same way they adopted E-Commerce.
  3. Micro-entrepreneurship for good home-cooks will flourish. A new form of scalable livelihood for many
  4. Palette expansion for the mass Indian consumer — international cuisines become more accessible at lower price points
  5. At least two or three nationwide online Food delivery marketplaces will reach sustainability, and see a path to an IPO in 3 years from now
  6. Consumers will be willing to pay for “assured delivery” at peak-hours. We may even see some platforms introduce Surge-Pricing like Uber & Ola

The worst of the Food-Tech correction is behind us, the revolution will continue on, and it just demonstrated its impact on two large stocks on the BSE SENSEX.

Now, I am going to go order a Starbucks coffee from Swiggy!


special thanks to Deepak Abbot & monagandhi for reviewing edits

tech media isn’t reporting the truly interesting stuff

there’s more to tech than fund raises & the next big social app

Too much of the tech media is obsessed with reporting the financial events around companies, rather than the products/services and innovation that occurs at these firms.

Sure there is a need to report fund raises, M&A, companies going bust etc, as they are pseudo indicators of market validation (or lack thereof); but that is only a portion of the story. I’d love to hear more about how the privacy model being proposed by the latest social network will enable users to have greater control over their data; or how this little startup innovating in imaging could change the way high-resolution pictures are captured on smartphones.

Before blogs and tablets became mainstream, that kind of reporting was typically done in long form magazines, such as the Wired Mag or the ACM’s Queue magazine, and the new age publications aren’t quite there yet. Even the Wired magazine is still focused on getting its content published through a packaged magazine, rather than an ongoing ephemeral stream.

Wired.com, TheNextWeb, Techcrunch, and a couple others are doing a decent job, but there is a lot more room around reporting the latest and greatest innovation in the labs at great schools like Stanford, MIT, IIT’s, and others.

what do you think? … are there tech news outlets that do this particularly well in your view?

talk to your skeptics

their feedback helps you hone you message & your work

startups and innovators encounter skeptics on a daily basis. most of them like to point at the umpteen shortcomings of your concept (or solution) and how the status-quo or the 800-pound gorilla in your field is better.

i am certain you are thinking “trying to create something new and change the world is hard enough ! … now you are telling me to listen to my skeptics ?!? …are you crazy?”

however, I have found that these skeptics often give invaluable feedback that you rather get from them, than your customers. Use them as a litmus test to help calibrate your solution !

It is because the skeptics are right about some things that they are so wrong about the whole thing. Simon Cox, The Economist

the genesis of my short post was this quote from Simon Cox in the book “Economics, Making Sense of the Modern Economy”, 2nd Edition, The Economist Newspaper Ltd.

Simon gives me hope !

Fight on my friends.

Annual Reviews

so what did you do all last year?

Every year in January, many of us sit down with our bosses, supervisors, and mentors to review the year past. Often these reviews are institutionalized (read:required) by our organizations, and closely tied to financial incentives (bonuses). Through the years, I have found these reviews to be a great look-back mechanism for what I achieved (or didn’t) in the past year. In conversations with friends and colleagues though, I have found that many of us don’t like these reviews as much as I seem to. So, I thought I’d write a short post to share my point of view.

Realizing that every organization does reviews differently, encapsulating thoughts on the subject instantly starts to look like multivariate calculus to some. I distill reviews into the following measures for the individual:

  • Have you defined the right measures?
  • Are you making progress toward your long term goals?
  • Do you like your organization and your team?
  • Does your manager really care about your career?
  • Was it a good year or a bad year?
  • How did you perform compared to your peers?

These are the questions I’ve asked myself, my team, and my organization every year. Some of these are obvious questions, and others are not. For example, the measures change through different stages of our career, life-stage, and external circumstances.

For organizations on the other hand, annual reviews are a good way to recognize, reward, and retain their top-performers; and at the same time introspect whether they have the right mix of people to meet the goals of the business.

How do you think about reviews? … like em? … hate em? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Note: this is a repost from my blog, and was originally posted in Jan 2013