Tag Archives: founders

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.

Why?

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.”
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The reason why #startups fail in India is different from why they fail in #silicon valley

I read the interview with Steve Hogan yesterday about the reason for failed startups. Take a look at the #1 reason why startups fail according to him.

Hogan says, is that they’re sole founders without a partner. “That is the single biggest indicator of why they got in trouble,” he says, adding that it’s especially common for sole first-time founders to fail.

Sole founders.

#2 was lack of customer validation and #3 was “company ran out of time” – or money.

From our India data, I can tell you that among technology startups, solo founders make up less than 35% of the companies. We track now in our database about 15,000+ entities.

If you look at the reported closure rate, they are not significantly different from entities with multiple founders.

In fact in my own personal experience with 33 startups that I have closely observed in the last 12 months at the accelerator, the #1 reason for startups to close in India has been mis-alignment of founders.

Let me give you some examples that I am not sure are uniquely Indian, but occur in India a lot more than in the valley.

First was a team of founders working on a B2B marketplace.

Two founders we interviewed and accepted were related, but chose not to let us know about it. In the first 2 weeks at the accelerator, in multiple meetings they would often contradict each other’s views of their target customer’s pain point. One founder was a self-appointed “domain expert” and another was the “technical founder”.

The domain expert was an expert primarily because of the fact that she was not technical. She did not really have a background in the field, and neither was she all that experienced dealing with the potential customers. They had both stumbled into the problem while they were working in their previous jobs that were not related to their startup. After the first few weeks of multiple disagreements on the direction of the product, they chose to “keep their relationship intact” than to work on their startup.

Second is a team of strong technical founders.

Both these founders were among the smartest hackers I have met in India. Pound for pound they would be among the best developer teams you have ever worked with. They had worked with each other for over 5 years at a large MNC and came highly recommended. Their pedigree was excellent as well.

The problem they were addressing was real and fairly technical, and you were compelled to go with the team just given their background and the problem they were solving. The trouble was their answer to every customer problem was build more code. They were loathe to talk to real customers and after multiple fits and starts decided to split a few months ago. They still remain friends, but chose not to work on their startup.

Third was a strong team of founders, who had worked together for a year at another project.

They were also folks with excellent backgrounds, great Ivy league college degrees and were solving a real problem that many consumers had in India.

After a year of working together, building what I considered a good team of 5-10 folks and an alpha, then beta product, they chose to go separate ways. In discussions with both founders after the split, each blamed the other for not “delivering”. One person was the designated CTO and the other was CEO and chief sales guy. They did close a round of funding, but the product went through multiple fits and starts. The problem they were solving was real and even I was an early user of the product.

In all three cases, I found that having the co-founder was the big part of the problem.

Lack of communication, inability to stick through tough times and different visions for the company / product were the biggest causes for failure.

I’d like to understand from you what about our culture, our maturity as a startup republic and our progress with technology makes these problems more prominent in India.