Category Archives: India

How the risk appetite of entrepreneurs affects their exits in Silicon Valley, India and Africa

I run this fun experiment each time at most events I speak at. I ran is again yesterday at the CII event yesterday in Bangalore. The experiment is to gauge the risk appetite among entrepreneurs. It is not scientific nor is it structured. It has though, given me a sense for the risk appetite among the entrepreneurial class.

I have run this experiment now over 30 times and have had fairly consistent results. If there are over 100 people in the audience, I ask folks three questions and request a show of hands.

Q1. If I gave you a 10% chance of making $2 Million from your startup, how many of you will take that outcome? I get a show of hands at this point.

Q2. If I gave you a 1% chance of making $20 Million from your startup, how many of you will take that outcome? Show of hands again.

Q3. If I gave you a 0.001% of making $1 Billion from your startup, how many of you will take that outcome? Final show of hands.

Over the last 3 months, I have spoken at 2 conferences in the US, 1 in Zurich, 1 in Africa, Singapore and over 5 in India.

The results give me a quick sense for the hypothetical risk appetite for entrepreneurs in that community.

In the US at both the conferences, the distribution was 30%, 10% and 60%. In Zurich it was 60%, 30% and 10%. Africa was very close to the US surprisingly, at 35%, 15% and 50%. It is almost as if Africans have nothing to lose and Americans don’t care for small outcomes, but both end up at the same place.

In all the conferences in India, it has been 70%, 25% and 5% (and that’s being generous in 2 conferences including yesterday, where 2 out of 150 people opted for the 3rd choice).

Rather than draw quick conclusions about the risk appetite, I thought I’d think about it more and understand why Indians are happy with smaller outcomes.

Given that the effort over several years to create a $10 Million outcome at your startup is the same as one that has a $1 Billion outcome, why dont we focus on the large opportunities?

  • Is it fear of failure?
  • Is it that we are “happy” and content with even the small things?
  • Is it that $2 million is such a large change in our lives that the $1 Billion does not seem worth it?
  • Is it that we really don’t aim big? Notice I did not say think big, I said aim big? Nuance, but a big difference
  • Is it lack of exposure to large markets?
  • Is it that we are not hungry enough?
  • Or is it something else?

I don’t quite have an answer. When I mentioned that I dont have an answer to the moderator Mohan Reddy yesterday, he expressed dismay. He was looking for an answer – was it our cultural background, our education system, our values, our government – someone or something had to be blamed.

I dont know the answer, but have a deep desire to find out.


As we start to invest in the early stage startup ecosystem in India, it is important to calibrate the possible returns and allocate funds associated with the returns. If most entrepreneurs in India are okay with smaller returns, it makes sense for us to allocate fewer fund here than China, Israel or Africa.

From our experience at the accelerator, where, over the last year we have “invested” our time, resources and energy in 23 startups, we know that the risk appetite is much lower among startup founders in India, compared to those in Israel for example.

We have already had 2 small “exits” and 3 closures in India. Israeli companies are still out there, fighting for their series A and beyond, while 1 company had pivoted dramatically in Israel, only to start again.

Is the reason something completely different? Is it that we are realists and don’t think the billion dollar outcome is even possible?

As Henry Ford said:

“If you think you can do a thing or think you can’t do a thing, you’re right.”

Which universities produce the most #startups in #India?

It is not uncommon to see most startups have founders from IIT and other top schools in India. I wanted to only take a look at the funded startups (Yes, that funding is not a guarantee of success is not lost on me). While Crunchbase only has about 103 startups from India in their database, most of them are not funded.

I expanded the list of early adopter VC’s in India to take a look at their portfolio list from their websites (yes I know that many dont list all their investments on their website, but we have to start somewhere). That produced a list of 219 companies in total.

Thomson Reuters gives us about 316 companies funded both by angel investors and VC’s since 2010 in technology. This is possibly the most comprehensive source of funded startups.

This produced a total of 478 founders and co-founders. Of those, 228, 47% came from the IIT’s and IIM. That’s a lot. Even for funded companies that is a lot.

I only took the top 9 colleges (since there were 3 colleges that all were #10). All this data is from Linkedin (where available). I also realize that most people do not put all their educational qualifications on Linkedin, so this data may be slightly off. I do know that 60% of the LinkedIn profiles associated with the founders were complete.

There were 11% of these (52) that had both an IIT degree and IIM degree. Here is a list of those colleges and the # of founders.

Tech founder universities in India
Which universities do tech founders graduate from

Keep in mind these are funded companies alone, not all companies. I was not surprised that IIM A and IIM C were near the bottom of the list, but what surprised me was that IIT Kanpur was lower than IIT Mumbai. Why? Most of the folks I know in the US (entrepreneurs and others) are from IIT K. The image has IIT Bangalore, which does not exist, and it should say IIM Bangalore.

This does raise a few questions that I would like your opinions on. Lets just dwell on one question first.

Why is it that nearly 50% of funded companies have founders from top colleges? Is it a selection bias – given that over 60% of investors (VC’s) are from IIT and IIM?

P.S. I know all the data heads and junkies want access to the “raw data”, but Thomson Reuters, which is a paid service, will not let us share this.

P.P.S If you compare this analysis to top universities in the US for funded startups, they make up a far less % of funded statups.

My thoughts on the Flipkart fund raising

I got 4-5 calls from journalists and reporters wanting my feedback on the Flipkart funding news yesterday. I am biased, and I like the folks in the company a lot.

That said the main questions I got were: (NB: these were actual verbatim questions from reporters).

1. Does this mean game over for other “ecommerce players”?

2. Does this news mean that the “keep inventory model” will work? Is the snapdeal model better? Which one will “win”?

3. Why does this business need so much money?

4. Will eCommerce ever be profitable? Will flipkart ever be profitable?

5. If Amazon decides to come to India, will Flipkart’s first mover advantage still remain?

Rather than answer the questions one by one, I think I will set some context first and address the questions as I see the macro picture emerge.

Indian retail market is a ~$500 Billion market. It is large. Most of this ($350 Billion) is grocery. Unorganized retail (Kirana stores, small shops, etc.) make up 92%-95% of this market.

Besides grocery, the largest number of stores are called “fancy stores” – selling everything from pencils and books to tupperware and brooms. Jewelry stores are next (in terms of revenue they might be larger than fancy stores).

Of the organized offline retailers (totaling about 1500) , fewer than 5 (changed to 5% based on IBG data) are turning profit. Everyone else loses money. Why? High real estate costs and high payroll costs, compared to unorganized retail.

When Amazon started in the US (circa 1994), they were going after a 90% organized retail market. Fewer than 5% of US retail companies were unprofitable.

Amazon was going after big box organized retail in America.

Organized retail in India is a small part of the puzzle.

Flipkart is going after the 90+%, which we know as unorganized retail.

3 major trends that drive retail in India, for the next 10 years will be increasing urbanization, worsening traffic and higher commercial and retail real estate rentals. The fourth (if it ever passes, will be FDI). I am not holding my breath for that one.

The flipkart model will do well is my perspective, given their dense logistics coverage in urban areas and minimal rentals thanks to warehousing.

Amazon surprisingly will do well as well if and when they go direct in India. The market is very large.

I dont think its game over for other eCommerce players, just like many years after Amazon, came Etsy, Zaapos and others. In India, though those markets are currently small and will grow over time, so in a few years or a decade, things will change again.

The inventory model that is flipkart’s strategy seems to be working for them. That’s the reason to raise $200 Million.

The no inventory model for snapdeal seems to be working for them as well. Snapdeal will try to help many of the unorganized retail players compete with the organized players and flipkart.

I am not sure about whether the online players will actually get profitable over the next 5 years since the offline retailers have still not gotten there in 10+ years, but the online players have a better shot at becoming profitable.

A discussion with Rajan Anandan on #startup trends and the 2020 outlook

Prolific angel investor, MD of Google India and all around nice guy, Rajan Anandan was at the accelerator yesterday to meet our startups and other investors. He mentioned a few very interesting stats and trends that he gets to view at a macro level from his vantage point.

Along with Sandeep Singhal and Aarti Kapoor we had a chance to talk about key trends that will affect startups in India over lunch.

  1.  Android is growing very rapidly in India and smartphone growth has hit an inflection point (across all brands). The estimate for Indian smartphone growth is there will be 40+ Million new smartphones (of all types) overall this year sold and that compares to an existing base of 25 Million smart phones. So, 65 Million smartphones out of a total of 600 Million unique phone users in India. By 2020, over 350 Million phones will be smartphones in India and most of them will be connected (Compared to only 25M connected smartphones in 2012).
  2. Large brands (not digital companies like eCommerce and others) are now beginning to bring their brand campaigns online and digital is complementing TV and print in a significant way. Over the next 3 years brand spending will move to digital in a meaningful way.
  3. SMB spend online accounts for a small 10% of advertising spend online, but is growing dramatically. Given that some estimates put the # of SMB in India to be 45 Million, even 20-30% of them going online in the next 7 years is a dramatic increase in # of SMB  websites in India.
  4. Video will be a key driver of brand advertising in India. While search is a very powerful performance medium, YouTube has grown by leaps and bounds in India and is also strong growth engine.

What does this mean for startups?

  1. Companies focused on getting SMB’s online with a simple and easy to use product will do well he said.
  2. Since the number of English speaking Indians is much smaller than Indic languages, indic language focused startups will have a very bright future
  3. He also was bullish on the Indian eCommerce market, given that FDI in retail will be addressed at some point of time. Companies that have the wherewithal to last the next few years and grow profitably will be ripe for acquisition in a few years.

The “meaning” metric for your #startup is more important than any other #entrepreneur

I often get questions from startups around the metrics they should track. While I am of the belief that many are immaterial, it is good to gather as many as you can, but only focus on ones that you believe will truly make an impact to your business. Which is hard, because it keeps changing.

Sometimes I do get an enlightened entrepreneur who asks me more existential questions – Why do you think we should exist? Which is the toughest question to ask and answer. It is not that they dont know the answer to that question. They are asking me so they can get a sense of their business and if they are focusing on the right things.

I spent all of yesterday, with 4 tremendous entrepreneurs who are shining examples of social entrepreneurship. I was at the Ashoka Innovators panel trying to see how we can help them scale their organizations.

I used to think that most social entrepreneurs were tree-hugging, not-for-profit, mission-over-business folks. I was also ignorant enough to think that they were all NGO’s.

One young entrepreneur in particular impressed me much.

Shashank, is the cofounder of FarmsnFarmers, a very impressive young entrepreneur, enough to put 90% of the technology startups that I work with to shame with his excellent metrics.

His revenue growth, maturity and the deep understanding of his business impressed me tremendously. I can confidently say he was in the top 5 of the list of entrepreneurs I have met this year, and I have met over 2000 this year alone, in the US, China and India.

In 2 years the business has gone from 0 to over 5 CR ($1 Million) in revenue and will do 15 CR ($3 Million) this year. He and his cofounders are both IIT alums and they are both under 27 years of age.

While the revenue metric is impressive in and of itself, the meaning metric is more mind-blowing.

Their goal is to try and get as many marginalized farmers from the “poverty” line to the “lower middle class” line. A difference of nearly Rs. 5000  – Rs. 8000 ($100 – $150) per month in rural Bihar, which arguably is among the poorest of states.

That metric – the # of farmers they bring out of poverty is their meaning metric. If they do that, then their business succeeds and their revenues will grow as well.

That’s something every startup should focus on, not just those who are social entrepreneurs.

The meaning metric answers the ultimate question – “So What”?

How have people’s lives changed because of what your are building?

Even if you are building a social network or an eCommerce site, I would highly encourage you to find and communicate your meaning metric.

P.S. The # of farmers Shashank & his team bring out of poverty directly correlates to their revenues. Just so you get a sense of ambition, if he tracks on his 3 year operating plan, or even misses by 30%, he will be in the top 50 of Indian startups in 3 years, by revenue growth, in any field, including eCommerce.

Above all, he is a force of good.

Should accelerators in India help entrepreneurs “fail fast”?

I was at Delhi for the TIE India Internet Day, last Friday. Over 400 entrepreneurs, investors and startup enthusiasts gathered at the Sheraton in Saket for a day long session. There were 8 startups chosen to pitch at the event and there was an investor connect session as well.

Alok Mittal chaired a panel with 4 of us including 2 VC’s (Shekhar Kirani from Accel and Sanjay Nath from Blume) and 2 Accelerators (Sameer Gugalani from Morpheus and myself).

There were 3 slides that Alok presented about the maturity of the Indian startup scene, which were to serve as a backdrop for our discussions.

One particular slide generated a lot of discussion. The slide showed that 20+% of companies went from one accelerator to another and from one seed round to another without progressing, which indicated that they were “surviving” but were “living dead”.

Alok’s question was if we were not helping our entrepreneurs “fail fast”?

First off, let me state my bias – “I dont like the concept of fail fast”. Absolutely detest it. Whether its in the valley or India, failing fast is way overrated is my opinion and an excuse for folks not willing to spend more time learning about markets and drilling deeper into the problems faced by customers.

I think there are multiple reasons and subtleties to  the question, specifically in India.

First, Indian entrepreneurs dont take (or dont get) enough money in each round at the very early (angel, seed) stages, since the cost of money is too high. If you are giving up 10%+ at the angel and 25-30% at the seed stage, that money is ridiculously expensive. So entrepreneurs tend to think they can get liftoff with very little funds, and that ends up hurting them in the long run since they go back and dip into the same set of investors for another round, when they realize they are not ready for a significant up round.

Second, Indian entrepreneurs pay a lot more for talent, since startups are perceived to be risky  and so it is not uncommon to see talent getting 110% of their salary with some stock options, since the options are considered “worthless” in India. I know there are some folks that are the exception.

Thirdly, the cost of startup failure is fairly high in India already. Failed startup entrepreneurs rarely start again in India. According to our own research, over 50% of failed entrepreneurs, head back to a bigger company after their venture to pay of debts, “settle down” or bow to social pressure and get a fat paycheck.

Given these 3 arguments, I think it is absolutely important that we nurture our entrepreneurs and ensure they stay very lean until they find the product-market fit or liftoff. That takes a long time in India, thanks to fewer early adopters or paying customers.

Bottomline, “failing fast” is not a mantra we should support or promote among Indian startups, is my perspective.

Delhi entrepreneurs will outsource technology, Bangalore will outsource sales, and Mumbai, everything but finance #startups #entrepreneurs



I put a half serious tweet last week based on several conversations I have had with entrepreneurs in Delhi, Mumbai, Pune, Bangalore and Chennai. I have been to Hyderabad as well, but the numbers are low.

I have limited data, since I am not in Delhi often. My observations are based on looking at 51+ applications from Batch 1 and about 60+ applications from batch 2 of our accelerator from NCR.

Besides that I have interacted in 5 events in the last 6 months at Delhi – Think Next at Saif, Reverse Pitch at 91 spring board, one VCCircle event, one at Leela with people matters and an event of Media companies and startups at Le Meridian. In all at these events I met a cross section of about 120+ companies and founders.

The following are my observations, so use a grain of salt.

1. I met fewer than 5% of developers and technical architects in these events and fewer than 2% of founders from our applications at NCR. The deep technical people dont come to these events or apply to our accelerator. We prefer meeting and dealing with developers, technical folks than generalists such as domain experts, marketing or sales founders. In contrast to those numbers, developers make up 14% of Bangalore applications and Pune a close 10%.

2. Delhi founders dismiss strong technology plays as “engineers building solutions in search of a problem”. This statement is my interpretation of a “show of hands poll” that I did in 2 events.

3. In our internal database of 402 technology and software companies we track at Microsoft based in Delhi, our own biased, internal ranking of “technical” expertise at these companies, our average rating is at 2.9 on a scale of 5. Bangalore and Chennai top at 3.7 and 3.5, followed by Pune at 3.3. I cant share more details about the ratings yet, but will do so as we get more comfortable with sharing this data and not getting people flaming us for that.

While we are certainly not dismissing Delhi as a non-technology startup hub, we certainly dont see deep fundamental technology startups in storage, cloud infrastructure or networking from Delhi. Bangalore or Pune are likely better bets for those. This data was reconfirmed to me by both SAP and Intel who have startup engagement programs in those cities.

India eCommerce future: The “XYZ of the month” Club or Subscription eCommece companies

There are now according to my own count (not comprehensive) about 141 subscription eCommerce companies in the US that send you a package of “stuff” every month – from food to cosmetics, and toys for kids to cigars.

Subscription eCommerce is the fastest growing category of eCommerce according to Internet Retailer magazine.

So will this come to India soon?

There are a couple here already, but none that can solve the logistics problems with any amount of significance.

Which sub categories are ripe for subscription commerce in India?

I think subscription commerce in apparel, books and electronics are fairly niche markets. Whereas food and snacks, daily personal needs and music might be more suited for it.

Who are the likely players? New ones or the existing players?

Given the problems of managing subscription payments monthly (some may take the entire money of the 12 month subscription upfront) I suspect most existing vendors will start to offer this as a service to their partners. Which means new providers in these categories will work with Infibeam, Flipkart, Snapdeal to fulfill their customer’s request. I think there’s room for 1 or 2 good new providers, but the markets they will target will be fairly niche.

How will the new providers manage logistics?

I think there will be a smart local+central logistics player in eCommerce who will start to work this model well and deliver the goods from a local vendor.

What do you think? Any good subscription eCommerce companies in India that you are using? Are they delivering? Are they good? Am I missing any categories?

The Indian startup ecosystem should look at Israel as a role model

I love Israel. Having been there 7-8 times over 5 years when I worked for a company (Mercury Interactive, acquired by HP) that had its development center there, I believe they have some of the best developers, product thinkers and execution oriented folks.

They are also amazing at marketing. They have successfully convinced the world that they are the “startup nation“.

Never mind that they have 1/3 as many product startups as India produces annually and never mind that Indian companies acquire or get acquired twice as much as Israeli companies. Indians also make up 52% of Silicon valley startup founders, whereas Israelis make up less than 8%.

Take a look at those 3 data points and tell me they are not facts. The PWC report is for 2012, so its relatively recent. The # of companies we track in India versus Israel startups in our database is three times as well. The # of companies on Angel list or Crunchbase reveals a similar statistic.

Still its Tel Aviv that creeps up on Silicon Valley as the top startup center. If you read the startup genome report, you’ll be convinced of the same based on their methodology.

What are the arguments I have heard against India being the startup nation?

1. Quantity not quality:  We produce numbers, but not quality. Many of our startups are clones of Silicon Valley companies featured on Tech Crunch 3 months post launch. I looked at the 3 top Israel incubators and found that over 60% of the companies they were helping were clones as well.

2. Exits: We dont have a significant number of $billion or hundreds of million $ exits. I have found that while we do not have those exits, the number of companies listed on the stock market in the US for both Israel and India are comparable.

3. Market access: Israel has excellent knowledge, insights and know-how about US markets. Since Israel itself is a fairly small market, most Israeli entrepreneurs focus on US markets solely, even though they are geographically closer to Europe. Technically the # of people with market knowledge of the US in India far exceeds that of Israel, but they are not in product startups but at large companies.

4. Services mindset & positioning: Thanks to the ginormous success of Indian services companies who helped position India as the “world’s backend” (comparable to China being positioned as the world’s manufacturer) we have been already positioned as low value, low margin, consulting providers.

5. Late start: Even though Israel is 60 years old and India as a nation is a little older, we had a late (2001 or so) start to technology startups. Compared to Israel which had some interesting companies (need references here, what I have heard is mostly anecdotal) in the late 90’s as well.

Why do I still say Indian startups should look at Israel as a role model?

1. They champion their startups very well. They are very well vested in their startups success. They are constantly talking about how good their startups are, how they are possibly better than the valley and why they have the best talent in the world focused on startups.

2. They take significant risky bets. The # of investors in Israel (seed, angel and institutional) is comparable to those in India even though the number of startups is a third.

3. They look out for each other. The community is so well connected with each other that they genuinely look out and help each other. I dont know of any other place that supports their own as much as Israel does.

If you have been to Israel or have lived / worked with Israeli’s please tell me in the comments if there are a few data points I missed.

If you have any good data (not anecdotes, I have enough of those) to counter any of my arguments, feel free to call those out as well.

The goodness from the eCommerce bubble in India

Over the next few weeks and over the last few months, many naysayers have been & will be talking about “why the eCommerce bubble is going to  (or has) burst”.

Its true but misses the point.

Yes, over 21 companies that raised over $500K in funding have “merged” or have “been acquired” for paltry sums.

Yes, the model was unsustainable with discounts ranging from 30-70% off list price.

Yes, end consumers made hay while many institutional investors funded their “free shipping”, “COD” and “no questions asked returns policies”.

I am undoubtedly an optimist, so I see many wonderful first generation entrepreneurs that came out of the ordeal alive.

That can only mean one thing – serial entrepreneurs are for the taking.

Assuming some / most of them start companies again.

Some of them have talked to me about how they learned from the experience and how it will shape their new venture. Others are venturing into investing in startups.

The BEST thing that’s happened to Indian startups in the last 5 years is the rise and fall of eCommerce.

Of the 450+ eCommerce companies (of which 75+ raise some money either from VC or seed investors), a full 63% were first time entrepreneurs. (source: Microsoft India startup research).

That’s amazing. Really awesome.

They will live to tell the tale and venture again.

I have one request though:

The next time you meet an entrepreneur who had started an eCommerce venture and moved on, thank them for taking the risk. They did something so its easier for you to convince your family and relatives that starting a company is glorious. Even if it is not a runaway success it teaches you about taking risks, venturing on your own and going down a not-so-well-trodden path.

Side note: The hare and tortoise story though still has a lot of merit.

I personally know 5 companies in eCommerce, growing at 30-50% annually (not monthly as the VC’s wanted 2 years ago) and breaking even. A few companies chose to not raise capital (or truthfully no one would give them capital when they tried to raise it) were forced to focus on profit and sustaining pricing models. They are stronger and better after their experiences.