Tag Archives: indian startups

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.

 

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Why forced mergers in the eCommerce space is a good thing

Right now there are many distraught entrepreneurs and industry watchers who are either a) saying “I told you so” or b) saying “this is bad for startups”, when they read the latest “forced merger” between several eCommerce companies. While many felt it started with Flipkart and Letsbuy, the most recent BabyOye and Hoopos has more commentary on the negative side.

While we in India, have been witness to these mergers only in the last few years, this has been happening in the valley for eons  The new age name given to some of these funded startup exits is acqui-hire. Somehow acqui-hire in the valley is great and forced mergers in India is not.

There are and were many naysayers when there was a raft of funding in the eCommerce space a few years ago. Many folks were right about unsustainable business models, rampant discounting, unsustainable customer acquisition costs, etc. To them I say:

From Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem In Memoriam : 27, 1850

“‘Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.”

The eCommerce bubble in India has created a new set of entrepreneurs. They did it with other people’s money. No one really lost except for the LP’s who I am sure are now once bitten, twice shy about returns from Indian startups.

Honestly though, I have talked to 5 Limited partners at large organizations who are disappointed with returns from Indian Venture capital, but also realize they dont really have much of a choice but to stay invested.

There are some that claim that other deserving entrepreneurs, who were working on non eCommerce startups, were ignored during the eCommerce bubble. That’s absolutely nonsense.

In India over the last 3-5 years, if you were a good entrepreneur with a good business, great team and chasing a large market, you were able to raise money. The ones that did not get funding, either were chasing smaller markets, were going to grow slowly or were not sufficiently good teams.

Now what do I claim that mergers are good for Indian startups?

1. They help companies and their employees consolidate to create one large player in a mid-sized to big market, instead of 10 players chasing the same market and being extremely competitive.

2. They provide a means of employment for the many employees at those companies who were not the founders or the investors.

3. They give hope to the many entrepreneurs in the making that you can have a “failure” and still be considered for another opportunity in a startup.

4. It provides the investors an opportunity to consolidate their portfolio and hence double down on their winners, without spreading themselves too thin. That way the remaining portfolio companies win.

5. It frees up time from several investors having to spend time on middle-of-the-road companies, and gives them more time to spend chasing new opportunities.

6. It is easier to merge a company in India than it is to shutdown. The process to shutdown a company is also a lot more expensive.

Anything I missed on the other goodness from the eCommerce forced mergers?

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.

Why do founders split? Performance and Execution

Both A & V met at their company cafeteria a few months before they decided to work together and start their venture. A was a front-end developer and V was a SEO and web analytics consultant. They both worked at the large company separately for 3+ years but did not have the chance to work together at all.

They were both in different teams and their paths did not cross very much. While standing in the cafeteria line, they got chatting about a weekend event and found they had several common interests and similar aspirations.

They decided to spend the next few months, talking about various ideas they had, mostly around starting a new venture in the eCommerce space. Neither had much experience in ecommerce, but they figured they would be able to add an operations person later.

4 months after their meetings they chose to build a online platform (one that held no inventory, but sold multiple products) for computer and mobile accessories of all kinds.

A, built the first version with some help from another friend who was the backend expert who offered some time in exchange for coming on board full-time if the venture got funding.

V focused his efforts on talking to suppliers and also helping A on some of the SEO work. Besides setting up their social media profiles, he also spent time taking to courier, payments and logistics partners to setup relationships.

3 months after starting they did a launch with friends and family. Response was good (relatively speaking), with 3 orders in the first day and over 5 in the next week.

I met them when V sent me their plan and asked for a meeting to discuss their seed funding requirements.

Given that I have had a poor track record with eCommerce companies and I dont like investing in them I declined the meeting.

A few months later, I met V at a startup event, when he mentioned that they both had split. He mentioned that the site kept going down and A was a good front-end engineer but not a strong developer overall, he said that they both had decided to shut down their venture.

I have not met A, but did check out his work and website. While I would not call his work legendary, it was not too shabby either.

The second biggest reason why founders split besides having differing vision is they both dont believe the other person is performing or executing as well as they are.

Rarely do they look in the mirror to see their own shortcomings.

There have been 2 other cases where I saw this similar situation. One person is either not executing at all – for various reasons or a deliverable or two is missed and friction sets in.

In one case a founder had a new born child within a month of the venture getting off the ground and had to spend a lot more time at home, which made the co-founder irritated and angry. They split and eventually closed the company.

I was surprised that they did the venture together knowing that one of them was going to have a baby.

When a pattern of execution and delivery on commitments is not set, then friction sets in very easily.

Its very hard to figure out if someone is executing well based on their “resume”. Most resumes are inflated (I am guilty as well) to “sell” and “position” the candidate in the best light. Even if they have worked at a position where its fairly easy to determine if they deliver and execute or not, it is mighty difficult to discern whether they were good because of the system built around them or because their manager extracted the best from them.

The only way to determine that is working together.

What takeaway do I have from this second reason for founder’s splitting?

I prefer to fund teams that have worked together in their new venture for more than 6 months. That’s an arbitrary number no doubt, but I dont have an alternative.

Teams which have worked together before, need to be working together again before I am sure that they know how to work with each other in a new environment without the support system they had before. There are exceptions, but they are rare.

I am hoping again that this is a demand and supply issue that resolves itself in a few years. Right not there are too many opportunities (thanks to Angel List) for good companies with high performance teams that have worked together for a while for me to even consider teams that have relatively younger working histories.

The startup ecosystem in India is schizopherenic

Okay now that I have your attention with that ridiculous headline, let me define a few things first.

Schizophrenia is a complex mental disorder that makes it difficult to:

  • Tell the difference between real and unreal experiences
  • Think logically
  • Have normal emotional responses,
  • Behave normally in social situations

Lets try and list all the players in this ecosystem. I have provided this list sorted by the importance of the player to the ecosystem (obviously this is my opinion and hence biased).

1. Entrepreneurs – the heart and soul of the ecosystem

2. Talent for the entrepreneurs (meaning people to hire)

3. The early adopters (Both consumer and businesses)

4. Investors – Angels and Venture Capitalists

5. Incubators and Accelerators

6. Universities & research institutions

7.  Advisors, mentors, coaches

8. Startup communities, media and events organizations

9. Service providers – lawyers, accountants, etc.

10. Larger companies for partnerships, distribution and marketing

11. (Dare I say) Government – yes for things such as incorporation, taxes, etc.

12. Cheerleaders and poster girls (or pinup guys if you like).

13. Successful startups and successful / failed entrepreneurs

14. Associations, government liaisons and trade organizations

15. Interested public

Do I have an exhaustive list? Probably not, but this is a good enough start.

Every player has something unique they bring to the table and has a perspective on what’s good and bad about our Indian startup ecosystem.

Even if we mostly stick to the technology space, we say one thing and do the exact opposite.

No wonder most entrepreneurs get confused.

1. We want more innovative product companies but we end up funding mostly me-too eCommerce companies.

2. We want to build the next facebook and Google and yet most entrepreneurs have a “consulting / services” company on the side to make money.

3. We want to work on cutting-edge technologies, but end up picking yesterday’s tech stack since “there’s a lack of talent’.

4. We want to encourage the government to participate, but end up bad-mouthing them at every event (One panel member even suggested they were out to kill startups).

5. We want to have a clean incorporation, but still choose the cheapest service provider to incorporate the company (a lawyer even told me yesterday, he has to turn down 2 companies a week who want his services for free).

6. We want to be first to try a new piece of technology but are unwilling to pay to be an early adopter.

7. We want to encourage more entrepreneurs to participate in an incubator, but keep ridiculous anti-dilution clauses to maximize upside.

I could go on, but you get my point.

Is this an India thing alone? No, I have seen many of the same in Silicon Valley as well.

But at the center of the valley is an entrepreneur with an idea who wants to change something and everyone else is rooting for her.

In India I dont believe we quite know who’s at the center. We make rock stars of our VC’s, large company CEO’s and Government officials.

So if you are part of this ecosystem I would request you to please keep only one question in mind when you have to make choices:

” Will this help more entrepreneurs get excited about starting a company in India?”.

Then please do the right thing and don’t just say the right thing.