Vineet is the founder and CEO of Teliportme, an India-based start-up. Having first called-out three major issues with the Indian start-up scene, last week he tackled the problem with mentors. Check back later for his third and final part. You can follow him on Twitter.
My last post got me some flak from friends and fellow entrepreneurs. Their take was: Why are you writing the truth? My answer is: Because it’s important. I imagine this post about the venture capital (VC) environment in India is what I would call a double-edged sword. I am an entrepreneur and I will need funds and I will reach out to VCs; yet the more I write exposés about the start-up scene here, the lesser the likelihood of my team and I getting investment. Having said all that, I feel this issue in India needs to be talked about and hopefully I can point out both the good and the bad.
There is a fundamental issue with the VC investing world which creates what I feel is a huge gap between VCs and entrepreneurs. It’s essentially that young entrepreneurs are living in the world of today wanting to build a company for tomorrow where people’s habits and ways of living have changed. But most VCs have built companies in the past using business models, and ways of thought, from the past. Typical human psychology is that we understand what we know.
Indian VCs also tend to keep bringing up this topic of “first principles” of business and think Silicon Valley is all fluff. By first principles what they mean is that a business should make money and have a strong business plan. And whilst I do concur with that, most entrepreneurs believe that the first principle of the web is product; generally a bad product will fail however great the business plan might be. While I have met VCs and angels who have an understanding of this, the product doesn’t tilt their boat as much as an Excel spreadsheet does. This is unfortunately true even at the seed stage. The web is massive and good products will always beat bad ones and that company will then make money. That is the truth as I see it.
Also, do not even bother discussing customer service as a differentiating factor because that will just never fly by an Indian VC – even with so many successful examples out there on the web.
I remember having met with a VC who asked me the most sensible question you would ask any entrepreneur: “What if Google does it?” My answer to that was to suggest asking Mark Pincus, Mark Zuckerberg, Ev Williams, Andrew Mason, Drew Houston, or such-like people. It seems that is a typical question Indian VCs ask, and I have made that my stock answer for that question. I recommend all entrepreneurs use that answer.
Another reason why you would have a difficult time getting funding if you are a first-time founder of a web start-up in India is that there is a large onus on experience in the market in which you are trying to build your company. What this means is that if you are young and you have no experience you can say goodbye to 40 percent or more of your company irrespective of the amount the investors put in. I would love to name the VC firms that do this, but that would be too harsh. (Perhaps DM me on Twitter, or email me to find out specifics). This also means that you will never find companies that break through the clutter because you are never given a chance to do so.
Rest assured, I am not trying to make this into a rant, because we have had great conversations with VCs, and got some term sheets, but have not taken-up on any because of this fundamental lack in belief from them. But I realize that one day when the chips are down this will come back to bite us.
One good thing about India is that there is a lot of money in the growth stage. If you are decently successful you will get follow-up rounds. The money in the seed stage is typically from angel groups which are not very well organized. Some angels who are part of this group have discouraged me from taking money from such sources. The risk-taking can also be measured on a local basis – companies with an Indian focus are more interesting than a global focus for Indian VCs. This has to do with the fact that building web start-ups is already difficult in India and hence most VCs invest in enablers rather than disruptors. The exits are fewer, as very few large corporations acquire Indian web companies, so one of the most lucrative ways to exit is an IPO on the Indian stock exchange. This means you will have a better chance if you build a website that sells dogfood in India than founding the next Google.
Indian VCs also have a fascination for copycats. This can be confirmed by seasoned entrepreneurs who know this behavior among investors. Of course, VCs will completely deny this – but the evidence is in their investments. The moment something booms in the US you will find one of these serial entrepreneur guys start a similar company and then VCs will fund similar companies. It’s like the craze for GI Joe toys when you were a kid – you needed to have one so as to boast about it to your friends.
One thing I want to caution most entrepreneurs: VCs are very good at networking so they will drop names as if Larry Page were their best friend. But be careful, as most Indian VCs have a lot less clout – or, indeed, Klout – on the international scene than they’d like you to think. The ones who do have some clout are actually in Silicon Valley, so an Indian investor’s boast of opening doors might be somewhat hollow.
If you can find a VC who understands all these issues and concerns (and one who doesn’t live in his own bubble of self-importance), and is ready to roll up his sleeves to work for you rather than just build castles in the air, take the money even if the terms are bad. I have not come across an Indian VC like that – but I am sure several exist.
On the other hand, VCs in general have a very hard job too; in a way they are like entrepreneurs. They have taken money from someone telling them they will convert that into ten-times the sum, and if they don’t they fail at being a VC. For every dozen bad decisions taken by a VC, there is typically one good decision. Just hope that you are that one good decision.