Connecting Dots, Discovering Constellations: Sharing Stories, Part II

Part I 

The perfect night sky is a plethora of possibilities – shooting stars, manmade satellites streaming at a steady speed, a Tesla gliding in orbit (courtesy Musk), new constellations and old. And while we barely have time to pause and take in the beauty of that vastness and make sense of it all, our lives rush by in 24 hour cycles around our parent star. We seek North Stars in our startups, but in the spirit of our 7th anniversary, we look to a constellation of 7 guiding stars.

Our startup Saptarishis would spell as:

Patience

Perseverance

Passion

Principles

People

Products

Possibilities

in no particular order, as is with the beauty of any constellation form, each star-gazer to their own construct.

These characteristics define a great startup’s core reasons for existence, much like the promise and birth of a star and its planets in a distant galaxy. What are the odds of life on such planets? The same odds as the dent that these great startups want to leave in the Universe (to paraphrase the Steve Jobs quote). Its tough! To possess and practice any of those qualities at scale.

Towards late 2017, we shared the Havells’ story with our founders. The book was a memoir, a son’s homage to his father, the patriarch and founder. As I wrote a personalized note to each team in the portfolio, the above 7 words were the most recurring themes. Almost all my notes had some of those words interspersed. They were the phantom thread that spoke of each team’s journey to date. They were also what made Havells a great showcase of Indian entrepreneurship. These 7 stars are what guide Blume’s pick of founders. These are what define Blumiers – a new Constellation in the making.

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The unintended virtue of gifting all Blumiers a book is that the return gifts are trickling in. The Blume team now gets the founders’ favourite books for its own office library. The one I managed to breeze through over this weekend was Phil Knight’s Shoe Dog. An amazingly refreshing and brisk read, its worthy of a movie script. More importantly, the stars are similarly aligned. In the 2 decades of the Nike origins that the book captures, every one of these 7 stars shone through the moments of darkness.

 

Footnote: I asked Vijay why he gave me the Young Readers Edition of Shoe Dog :-). Was it to make me feel a bit better about rolling into the mid-40’s? He smiled and said it was because it would be a faster read. My daughter thinks it was meant for her and she’s devoured through half of the book in a couple of days, before I can share it with the Blume team. 

 

Connecting Dots, Discovering Constellations: Sharing Stories, Part I

The Blumiers arrived at Sariska on a chilly mid-December evening. A small bus-load of team members, half a dozen portfolio founders and a couple of colleagues from our extended family, Constellation Blu. We gathered around the bonfire for the feast – the feast was just not a warm drink and homely food, but a feast of dialogue, ideas, and, of course, music.

 

BonfireSariska

Like many a Blume Day (our 7th one comes up this week) and many an annual offsite, this year’s offsite too would be iterative, another orbit of the virtuous cycle until we reach Exit Velocity. We discussed everything from wildlife spotting to startup stories. The night descended into further darkness. The bonfire revealed nothing but the warm yellow glow on Blumier faces and the bedecked Rajasthani winter sky. Some of us fired up our Night Sky and Star Walk apps and the names of the Constellations unfolded in 180 degree arcs in every direction of the horizon.

It provided the spark for the Blume Day message. After all, the core skill of most venture capitalists is to connect dots. The joy is, however, in discovering Constellations.

You may have heard the sports phrase “in a zone” – a player or team hits a surreal form and all patterns congregate. Constellations emerge from a splattering of stars. These stars are connected to the naked eye, but millions of light years apart in reality. Constellations are cosmic connects, much like many unexplained facets of our life.

The Big Bear would keep looming above us through the night, rotated a few degrees further everytime we spotted it. The Big Bear is also known as Ursa Major or the Big Dipper and in India, by the ancient name “Saptarishi”. It is undoubtedly the most popular 7-star constellation that planet Earth knows.

Sidebar:

Curiously, the Saptarishis (the Seven Sages) change with every Yuga (aeon) in post-Vedic texts. The names of the current Saptarishis are Kashyapa, Atri, Vasistha, Vishwamitra, Gautama Maharishi, Jamadagni and Bharadvaja. (these won’t change for a long time – Kalyug has about 426,000+ years to go)  

We decided on the Blume Day theme “Connecting Dots, Discovering Constellations” in early Jan and the graphic was finalized. It was going through minor font tweaks as we reached the Republic Day weekend. As the Blume team was nailing this down for printing, the logo design emerged, with the Big Bear in the middle of it, showing off its signature question mark form or wheel barrow shape.

That weekend, I accompanied my daughter to the Karate Nationals where she represented Maharashtra.

Venue? Patanjali campus, Phase 2, on the outskirts of Haridwar.

Opening ceremony chief guest: Baba Ramdev.

KarateNationals

Closing Ceremony chief guest: Acharya Balakrishna.

State of being and the experience: Bouncing between surreal & calmness.

The 3-day experience deserves a blog of its own. But I mustn’t stray further.

I was walking past the hostels on the Patanjali campus (this phase housed students who studied at the Patanjali Ayurveda program) where we were put up. I remarked to my 9 year-old that the hostel names seem to be those of sages. #2 was Kashyap, #3 was Vishwamitra. We stayed in #4, Bharadwaj and so on. I wasn’t surprised – it was the Divyayoga campus. When I came back and looked up the names of the Saptarishis, the names were a perfect match – there were 7 residential buildings on the campus, named after the rishis.

As many hours passed that Sariska evening, the Big Dipper began easing into the other end of the horizon. We, on the other hand, were another year closer to bringing shape to our own Constellation: Blumiers. We sang late into the midnight sky, until the only sounds between our resort and the tiger reserve were our drummer’s fingers, the crackle of the bonfire and the music of this new constellation.

Part II

This year’s Blume Day theme is also a tribute to our own, incubated Constellation Blu that has now spawned its own little tribe, grown to 3x the size of Blume, and is gaining momentum, towards exit velocity, and towards more independence with every passing year. They complete five years in April 2018 – and are one of our prouder achievements.

 

(Re)discovering the valley – five insights from our recent visit

By Sanjay Nath and Rohan Paranjpey

This blog post comes after a recent visit to Silicon Valley earlier this month. Thanks to our association with the Draper Venture Network (DVN), we find ourselves, along with a handful of our founders, in the US now a few times every year.  This visit helped us discover some new learnings, while also re-enforcing earlier views.

Hope you’ll find these relevant and insightful!

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With Tim Draper, founding partner of Draper Associates and DFJ at the DVN Summit

 

1)  India-tech is unique (moving beyond transplants from US/China models!)As a start, there is no comparison. The three are very different markets with their own set of opportunities and challenges unique to them.  For instance,

  • India’s Per Capita Income at $1,500-2,000 is still far less than China’s at $6,000
  • Translating this statistic macro economically, makes India 1/5th of China and 1/8th of the US
  • Just three of many relevant examples of such India-unique disruptive models from the Blume portfolio, here:
  • Dunzo, chat based concierge service for offline tasks
  • Railyatri, a one stop solution for train travelers – furnishing an expanse of data-based travel discovery from PNR status information and live train status/trip sharing and even fun ideas!
  • Stellapps, Internet of Things (IoT) & Big Data to improve agri-dairy supply chain including milk production, milk procurement, cold chain, animal insurance and farmer payments

2)   There are two sides to the India opportunity

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Blume, portfolio founders, supporters and ecosystem friends from Blume/DVN Day, Nov 2017

We’ve discovered a neat separation between “two sides” of India tech –

  1. Built in India, for India – this traditionally still covers a majority of startups addressing a vast array of consumer internet use cases – A few examples from our portfolio include Turtlemint (insurance), Cashify (refurbished electronic items), Pitstop (after market car servicing).
  2. Built in India tech, for global enterprise markets – this segment has been growing at a fast pace, leveraging India’s talent of engineers who have comfort with English, with customer-facing teams adept at selling B2B tech products and platforms. Some examples include GreyOrange (robots for warehousing automation), Botmetric (AI for the public cloud), Dataweave (competitive pricing intelligence and analytics for strategic/financial decision making), Squad (AI + gig economy driven liquid mobile workforce for business process outsourcing).

 

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3)   Extrapolated to other frontier/fast developing economies, there are many similarities!

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  • Some examples – India (Bangalore), LATAM (Mexico City) and SE Asia (Jakarta) all have poor last mile infrastructure, which is an opportunity; enter the likes of Locus (logistics last-mile routing & mapping)
  • In Mexico City for example, on average a 3 mile commute by bike takes 20 minutes, whereas a car ride across the same distance takes 50 minutes! Eventually, cross investment strategies could help aggregate capabilities, resulting in strategic partnerships, M&A and so on

4)   However, Global Go-to-Market does not equal simply selling the India playbook

 

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Gabe Turner, Executive Director, Draper Venture Network

Often, sharper positioning/repositioning is needed

Typically, the first move from a founder-CEO targeting a global customer base is to hire that first “local” head of sales.  However, we see that simply taking the current playbook to market is not optimal.  What is needed is hiring someone who understands strategy and positioning equally well, tweaking the value proposition first before launching the GTM plan.  In other words, a chief strategy + business + sales/BD officer, all rolled into one!

Get out to the customer early

One of our learnings from Fund I – founders should go to where their customer is at the earliest possible. So, going to the valley only makes sense when that is indeed your target market and the startup is uniquely positioned to win.  If these criteria are met, then getting to early adopters can create network effects, accelerate customer wins and then drive virality/annuity.

In the US, think beyond the valley (not a one size fits all)                          

Broadly speaking, especially to Indian founders, Silicon Valley (the San Francisco Bay Area) offers the most comfort.  However, it may make sense to tailor your presence and be located closer to the customer especially if youre in a specialized domain:

  • Fintech, retail : ‘Silicon Alley’ (New York)
  • Hardware, AI/VR, manufacturing tech : ‘Silicon Beach’ (Southern California)
  • The intent is to be close to the ecosystem and to your early adopter user/enterprise customer base

Go big, go home OR find a great home!

Along the way, as you’re growing fast, be expected to be approached by larger companies that may offer different forms of partnering/outcome possibilities.  M&A is far more the norm than the exception (vs IPOs) and can occur at different points of your growth lifecycle

5)   The India story has been sold well, what we need to show is – performance

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What we know – thanks to decades of successful ITES/BPO/KPO services stories — is that India already occupies an entrenched spot on the tech world map.

However, translated to the world of tech/venture, some elements of performance has been missing to some extent – the frequency, size and scale of value creation / exitsThe current wave of product innovation is now in full swing and only likely to further increase, thanks to home-grown growth stories like Inmobi, Freshdesk, Druva, Grey Orange [Robotics], Delhivery, and more.

We need to transition the lens thru which the world looks at India/tech – performance (size and scale of value creation/exits) is the ‘enabler’.

So, here’s to collectively taking on this challenge and responsibility, helping transition the India/tech paradigm – from “India is interesting” to “India is a can’t miss, exciting opportunity!” 

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The Blume Fellowship: Leveling up

“…Bay Area, Beijing and Bangalore – that’s where the action is”, said Uber founder, Travis Kalanick, at a Startup India Summit held at New Delhi in January 2016. As exciting as that sounds for most of us in the ecosystem, it is also a pipe-dream for many when it comes to accessibility – a major chunk of the country is away from the action, with a pronounced dearth of exposure and mentorship.

Young potential entrepreneurs and students hungry to be a part of the startup world need entry into this high-octane environment. There is a large gap between some top-notch talent hidden in remote corners of the country and the kind of exposure it gets. More often than not, these students intern as cogs in the wheels of settled organisations where the internships can often be unvetted and there is seldom desire to invest time in these students.

At the other side of the spectrum – for the startups – building a strong brand is often an expensive and resource-intensive process. Nothing proliferates as rapidly and effectively as positive word-of-mouth – having these startups interact and invest time with these young students who then carry those experiences back to their campuses creates a significant ripple effect.

This gap can be bridged through a platform that seeks, screens and connects quality resources to high growth startups in need of that talent. The Blume Fellowship was conceptualized to help create branding for its portfolio companies amongst this young talent pool while attempting to bridge that gap.

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THE PARTNERSHIP

In 2017, one of India’s leading tech-focused early stage VCs, Blume Ventures, explored an opportunity to create a mutually beneficial program for itself and its portfolio companies by partnering with Skillenza, an online platform, working to disrupt conventional hiring. They wanted to see whether offering internships for their large sized portfolio (70+) would elicit any response from students across the country. 3,200 resounding yeses confirmed their suspicion. There was, in fact, an overwhelming demand for a chance to land an esteemed internship within the startup ecosystem… And so the Blume Fellowship was born.

From January 2017 through March, an online challenge was held to attract applicants. Only the top 2% of the 3,000+ applicants were shortlisted to go on to the interview stage. After the 78 chosen candidates whose Java, C and C++ skills were tested, learned that they were through to the next round, they then had to pick their top 5 companies. In the same way, of the 70 portfolio companies, the 22 that had expressed interest in hosting an internship had to shortlist their preferred candidates to interview. The candidates and companies were then matched and interviews conducted accordingly.

FIRST EDITION IMPACT

So, what was the point of this one of a kind partnership, that had never before been attempted in India. Blume Ventures’ managing partner, Sanjay Nath, described the opportunity as a “full stack experience” that was designed to be highly hands-on for students and beneficial to startups. It would give students insight into investing, operations, and mentorship opportunities while allowing the startups to try their hand at a completely new way of hiring interns.

For startups it was a means to explore an effective way of hiring interns. They were able to reduce their effort by 50% and cost incurred by almost 33%, while maintaining the quality of students they picked as interns.

For students it was an avenue to gain industry-specific experience, learn relevant skills and work on projects and problems in the industry currently being solved. Some of our students’ feedback can be found below:

Happy Kumar, a 3rd year student from NIT (Rourkela), maintained how the fellowship was a “great platform to kickstart [your] career” with. — [Blume Fellow at WebEngage]

Nilesh Hirani from NIT (Agartala), said the fellowship “provides the perfect platform for someone to gain industrial exposure at the right place.” — [Blume Fellow at iService]

Shubham Agarwal, a 3rd year engineer from IIT (Dhanbad), said “I learned a lot, and implemented my knowledge in a live, ongoing project.” — [Blume Fellow at Skillenza]

This is “where the action is”!

The Blume Fellowship in 2017 was a first-of-its-kind, pioneering programme in the country and started as an interactive platform for startups and students. We’re now looking at v2.0 for 2018, building on our strengths and lessons from last year, and culminating that into a better crafted experience. With exposure to a wider ecosystem, a more intense screening process, we’re leveling up.

 

Journey of Startup FINANCE teams in India | Outsourcing Finance teams to CFOs | (Part II of III)

PRE A ROUNDS / SERIES A ROUNDS / MONETISATION STAGE

The post endeavors to explain, how a startup start to hire finance talent just around their Pre A / Series A / A+ and the successful journey of scale up of finance teams mimicked with the business growth, fund raise and monetization.  Last post (I of III) was about seed funded companies and this post tries to build on that to explore how with higher round of funding and monetization role and scope of finance team needs to change.

In the situation of even a Pre A round of funding going through and company now going for monetisation it only makes it imperative for the founder to look out for a financial controller.  There is a possibility that an in house accounting professional is taking care of finance and related matters.  If such person has scaled to be able to handle finance of a growing and would be complex organization, then he can be tested to take care of financial controllership.  Else someone will need to be appointed for the same.  In some cases, the organization may have outsourced the operations to third party.  In such a case, handover is critical.  If there is an existing person it only helps.  In such a scenario, when the new person joins it acts as a great buffer to have basic things in place rather than getting a handover from an outsourced provider.  Alok of Constellation adds, “At times investors might insist a Big 4 auditor – in house FC might be in a better position to handle this as compared to a plain vanilla accounting support firm.  In house resource would also add value even in vendor negotiations etc e.g. Insurance , compliances ( FEMA follow up for FCGPR for e.g.).

At this juncture, finance structure must be developed inhouse.  That’s a non-negotiable and it has its merits too.  The caliber of the person doing the work at the outsourcing firm is never going to be way too high than the in house person, more so because the hiring of an inhouse person is in the hands of the founder and if he wants his investors. I have happily assisted few of our companies with this and it was a revelation on how much founders trust their investors. The advantage with the in house person is that – half a chance there is a deeper sense of purpose because of a long term career affinity by being in the company and growing with a startup and scaling quickly than being an accounting person and gradually moves up the value chain when a Series A happens.  Whilst most outsourcing firms may be able to do a satisfactory job on compliances and accounting entries, it does require someone within the firm to track burn and expense management on a regular basis.  While it’s inescapable to burn money at early stages of journey of a startup it’s inexcusable to loose track of the burn and preempt a need to work on raising the next round.  More importantly sounding alert that metrics are plateauing or not in line with expectations and force a discussion to consider corrective action is an important function that cannot be outsourced.

While the good founders are equipped to handle all of these, the best founder may not necessarily know it but will empower someone else to drive these with a sense of ownership.  The accounting resources in house comes in handy to support such a person. And over a period of time the system can be seamlessly handed over to the Financial Controller as and when he joins.  Good FCs can actually set up the processes, put up financial controls in place, estimate cash flows, establish revenue recognition policy, put out guidelines and framework that allows the company to launch into scale at an opportune time.  That way founders are not forced to play a catch-up and reactive approach if and when the subsequent funding round happens.  A handful of our portfolio has also benefited from appointing veteran mentors from successful biz to help and guide on these areas. These mentors have been successful CFOs and / or founders.

One can always argue as to what’s the point of keeping all this in place if the funding round (Series A) is contingent on factors that are not always within control of founders.  And if the round doesn’t happen time and money into setting these up, reporting is kind of waste.  Well I only would like to quote a small story here.

The village was going through a drought year for the second consecutive year.  The village heads decided to collect money from village and district authorities to perform a ceremony to please the rain Gods.  A young boy walked in and people started laughing becoz he was carrying a handful of umbrellas.  The villagers asked – in this scorching heat you find it funny to carry so many umbrellas. The boy’s answer stunned the seniors – we are performing the ceremony and prayers for rains to arrive.  I thought we shouldn’t get wet on our way back when the rain Gods choose to oblige.  That was faith.  If founders are optimistic enough to startup, why would they not continue the sense of optimism that it can become a biz.  Yes, appointing an FC does mean a cost and at times founders have mentioned that its better to spend money on growing biz rather than make long term investments.  Well, this is not an unreasonable point of view just that neither is it a fair argument to not appoint FCs at all.

Moving ahead in the journey of the startup, post the second round of funding (be it Pre Series A or a Series A round) as the company embarks on greater scale and traction, it does become worthwhile now to definitely create the function within the company.  No company having raised greater than Rs. 6 – 10 Cr cumulatively should not hire a financial controller and set up the function inhouse is my humble opinion as well as learning from the last few years.  It should be earlier if the company has commenced monetisation of its product.  The scales should only tilt in favour of adding some more teeth to the Finance function by adding treasury function, day to day cash flow monitoring, product pricing, unit economics assessment, forming quarterly as well as annual budgets, variances analysis between budgets and actuals to top up all of the above areas that have been listed above.

The organisation structure for finance team upon commencement of Monetisation should be Financial Controller heading the Finance function.  The ideal focus areas for FCs at this stage of the life of the company should be:

Formation of Accounting policies 

 Formation of policy and its annual review is a common process for companies but when it comes to startups, at times the company goes through change in business model.  This may warrant a change to the agreed accounting policy.  Besides, if there is a significant change in the biz model and offering it may also mean that company may have to write off of its IP costs.  This could also have a tax impact too and the loss upto that stage may or may not be available to be set off against future biz.

Day to day accounting / tax related processes

 Apart from day to day accounting this part also includes taxes (both direct tax ie Income tax and indirect taxes ie GST) management, working out the tax liabilities, deducting taxes, payment to government treasury, filling of returns within timelines.  I have already detailed out in my earlier post https://blumeventures.wordpress.com/2017/09/24/journey-of-startup-finance-teams-in-india-outsourcing-finance-teams-to-cfos-part-i-of-iii/

Girish Rowjee, Founder, Greytip adds, “As organizations starting hiring and putting in place the first set of people, it becomes important that they pay attention to a number of hygiene factors around their employee engagement and creating a conducive and high performance work environment for these employees.

Founders generally engage team members well around the work that has to be done. But in other areas like Payroll, Leave Management, providing basic employee services like maybe Payslips for a loan or Address Proof letter for a Credit card, proper attention is not paid. Many times this causes dissatisfaction among employees and impacts productivity and sentiment. Additionally, a primary responsibility of the Founder is also to ensure that all Statutory Compliance that are required are handled. Not handling this well will lead to penalties and legal consequences.

Today good tools are available to eliminate the need on the Founder’s time and energy. These tools can easily help organizations to manage their employee information, help them move many employee processes online so as to reduce any manual work and very importantly give an assurance and peace of mind all statutory calculations that are needed are done and the Payrolls are computed accurately. greytHR is a good example of such a tool and is also widely used among startups and businesses in India. Their very attractive and startup kind of pricing helps too.

In our experience, we have seen organizations gain significant benefits from putting in good processes around HR, Payroll and Compliances at an early stage of their journey. We have seen the Founders at these organizations spend much lower time on routine activities and their employees have far lower queries on Payslips, tax, etc. Compliances are no longer a headache. Additionally, as they go into their Due diligence for their next round of funding, they are able to easily clear these with far fewer queries when compared to others who use a manual or Excel based model to managing their employee processes.”

Financial / Book closure and audit

Significant bandwidth of the Finance team will be consumed at the end of the year in book closures and getting audit done.  Given investors are private and it’s well acknowledged that there will be losses anyways it’s natural for founders not to care about financials and audits.  To add to it, there is a thrust only on metrics earlier on in the life of the biz and not enough people really seem to care about annual financials and audited reports.  Even then, this is not a very smart thing to do.  These eventually come to haunt a DD in future or even a potential exit discussion.  Besides, things like loose financial processes would largely go uncorrected during the course of the audit if it is not done with some intensity.  Eventually, this would result into needless burn and poor use of company’s hard raised resources.  Partly due to madness of scale and because that is taken as a norm, the following should be avoided by every Series A founder team / FC of a Series A startup:

There are a high number of resources that the company would go after to chase growth. It is tough to get good people and that means, fairly over priced new hires on board somehow

  1. There is also a fair bit of wage inflation that hits the company as the salaries of existing team have to be hiked by way of an across the board hike
  2. Large part of the hiring process happens haphazardly and there is a fair bit of exceptions that become the norm

 Setting up of financial controls and policies

 How does sales payment flow?  What’s the correct method of accounting for inventory?  How do we keep a tab on payables?  Under whose signature do cheques get processed?  Policies for expenses, leaves, reimbursements, travel, onboarding of new joinees, exits of team members, acquisition of fixed assets, lease agreements, credit card payouts, etc.  These are things that need to be worked on and process frameworks be put into place to ensure that there are no re revenue leakages and expense management is in line with the intent of the founders.  Best of financial controls have the right balance between:

being tight enough not to be broken and in case violated – it does create flags as a part of the process

&

realistic enough to facilitate the achievement of the company’s midterm goals

Here, I have consciously avoided usage of the phrase long term only because, in the long term, financial controls would have to go through a complete overhaul anyways and savvy experienced professionals would be driving it or the existing team would have matured to fix the gaps.

 Cash management / Treasury

Firms typically get chunky amounts as investment rounds close and capital is wired by investors. These monies are meant to last till such time the company manages to raise next round of funding or till such time that it becomes Ebidta positive.  Preferably the later and not the former.  It’s the responsibility of the financial controller to work with the founders and ensure that the capital raised lasts the period it is meant to.  The immediate two to there quarters post a round of funding could mean exuberant hiring, spends on facilities and infrastructure and at times this happens beyond the quantum that was planned or still worse – beyond what is meant to be spent.  Best founders would expect from their financial controller to have a tab on this kind of behaviour and make sure that preventive mechanisms are built. Whilst it’s common practice to say – prevention is better than cure, this kind of areas are such that no matter what the cure is, and how quickly it was cured, time and capital are lost irretrievably.

Budgets

Most businesses have a budget.  Startups must have a budget. Many a times a certain plan is pitched to the investor and combination of factors lead to significant deviations from the plan post funding.  Startups always evolve in their journey and there could be learnings that lead to these shifts or there is some larger opportunity set that is discovered by founders as they set out with some experiments.  Or there are some experiences that lead to the change.  All of this is fine and welcome.  In fact – it’s critical to adapt in the ever changing environment.  What ends up hurting though is when – we do it without a plan and a structured roadmap to change.  It doesn’t mean that one has to call a board meeting with a 21 days notice and revisit all cells in the excel of the prior plan, take minutely considered feedback from every person involved.  When it comes to budgets and planning – it is always meant to change and realities will be different from what was envisaged.  It therefore becomes equally important on how you do it and not only what you do.  There needs to be a brief documentation between the core team outlining the projections and a rationale on the numbers that are being projected.  The assumptions behind the base numbers and the growth rates assumed are critical aspects to be covered in the note.  One also needs to add – key factors that are going to drive these numbers and how would we react to changes in key factors.  For example: demonetisation hit plans of a very high number of consumer startups.  This could have meant higher burn.  One needs to budget for developments beyond ones control and have a contingency fund to be able to tide through such circumstances.  At times impact is semi-permanent.  Example – GST implementation.

Internal and external reporting / MIS

This is self-explanatory though what I would like to emphasize on is, both quantitative and qualitative aspects of the MIS needs to be brought out.

ERP integrated with accounting systems

A high number of startups have their own systems for backend and operations which is well integrated with the front end.  They however opt to keep accounting on tally by simply posting sub-total manually by pulling numbers from systems. This is fine to start with.  But as company raises A round, they should integrate the accounting systems.  FC and his team will have a role to play in that as well. Creation of GL account heads, sub accounts mapping of entries, balancing, etc will have to be tightly done.  As scales grow this becomes tough if not integrated earlier.

All of the above seems like a lot of work.  Well, having worked with quite a few of our companies in the portfolio over the last 5 years, I can tell you that a sound financial controller / founder combination will make this not so tough process to implement eventually.  I have also had Constellation team take on parts of this role and keep growing with the company’s needs and then keep passing on as there is full time bandwidth in the company.  The key is – do it in steps. 

In the next write up, i would take up the next phase of growth and a case for a hands on CFO joining hands with the founder and the rest of the team to focus on what is the central function of a CFO – growing shareholder wealth !

Journey of Startup FINANCE teams in India | Outsourcing Finance teams to CFOs | (Part I of III)

Context

One of the key points that signify start up having matured is – Finance team, its functioning, leadership and how it collaborates with the CEO and rest of the core team to achieve the desired goals of the startup.  While working with the founders and Constellation team on solving for these questions, there have been some learning that I feel are good to share as a starting point. Each combination of founder and company creates a different circumstance and some parts of learning may need to be customized to suit your startup. Idea of this is not to create a template but only a framework to consider whilst building Finance organization in the company.  The 3 part post starts with how a startup would work with the help of outsourced finance professionals to start with at the time of their seed funding and the successful journey of scaling up of finance teams mimicked with the startup scale up and fund raise.  In this part, I am summarising the recommendations on early stage finance and accounting teams management with some notes on audit and reporting.

Outsourcing of Finance versus in house finance team – my belief

I have always been a firm believer that finance function is a core function and should always be an in-house function.  Having said that, setting up a full-fledged Finance function is a costly affair and has ramifications for the startup.  Setting it in house may be postponed or the set up can definitely be done in stages.  At a time when company has taken on seed funding and is in the mode of setting up a prototype of its product or beta version development, founders should hire a young accounting professional with experience in book keeping (day to day accounting management).  Founders have expressed concerns over the issue that when there are just a dozen coders and company has not even commenced monetizing, it’s waste of money.  Another genuine concern that has been expressed is – who supervises this person and how do we know what is happening is right.  Thirdly, accountants are young and could lack experience and expertise to do their job well and if we have to hire an expert, it’s a costly affair.  Fair point – if there is literally no more work than processing of payroll of a dozen people and a rent cheque to the landlord, I would gladly concede and acknowledge that it’s only fair to outsource the accounting function to a firm that can take care of it in line with a startup environment and not with conventional biz approach.  There are multiple things that need to be taken care of by such a firm.  For example:

processing payroll of the team (Monthly activity),

  1. Salary workings optimized for tax efficiency. While every member will have to suffer taxes, there are ways and means to optimize taxes on salaries on income and this must be borne in mind whilst building salary packages.  If done with proper thought and care, there are smart tax structuring options well within the ambit of the tax laws to ensure that employees earning as high as Rs. 10 lakhs of salary can save over half of the tax to be paid otherwise.
  2. Leave an attendance workings – earlier on there may not be leave policies but if there is any leave policy, accountants should take care of the same whilst disbursing salaries.
  3. Reimbursements – these must ideally be paid by separate transfers over and above agreed salaries as these are not subject to taxes
  4. Employee benefits like PF, ESIC, Gratuity need to be factored for and payments be made to government bank accounts each month. We had a scenario in a portfolio company where it was discovered during the DD that they hadn’t complied with this.  There is never an intent not to comply in most founders.  Just that its slips out.  Delays can be highly costly and can hurt retrospectively.  And these departments are not the most savvy or friendly government departments who will try and help or empathize with startups.  They would generally be pursuing penalty proceedings and issue notices; trust me its not fun dealing with these.
  5. When a new member on the team has joined, there are some basic processes to follow and ensure that their bank account is integrated to seamlessly process payroll, transfer of their PF accounts from old organization to the new, approval for their salaries, performance payout structures, etc should be in place.
  6. Reversal processes need to be carried out when an old employee has left the organization. There was a stray case that I stumbled on how an employee had left the organization and still the salary was being processed.  There are worse things that happen but here the issue was that the employee was refusing to return the excess paid and claimed that he was entitled to the same.
  7. vendor management (server expenses, infrastructure costs, rent, electricity, miscellaneous costs like stationery, reimbursements of costs for employees, credit card payouts for expenses incurred to overseas vendors (all of it may be monthly or quarterly activities). The tricky thing about these is that any disruption in services could have a catastrophic impact on the business.  We all know the story of how a famed service provider missed renewing of their portal name and then had to pay a fancy sum to renew the same.  These are highly embarrassing moments and are easily avoided.  I have been a big advocate of having an online register that carries various vendors and services taken and all of their details including time duration, renewal timelines, commercial terms, key service areas, etc
  8. tax deduction as well as indirect taxes collection

all of the above payouts have to be made with suitable deduction of taxes and indirect taxes payouts when startups are receiving fees.  There is a common belief that we should deduct these taxes amounts and once deducted rather than paying to the government treasure use it for working capital financing.  This is something that should be strictly avoided.  Creditors’, employees’ and regulatory dues should be paid as due and never end up being used as a working capital finance by any company, leave alone startups.

filling tax returns (both income tax and GST as appropriate),sending monthly or quarterly metrics to investors, tracking cash flows so on and so forth.

Now, let us try and understand as to what would be the costs of such a function that us outsourced.

Most third party consultants have charged costs ranging from Rs. 20,000 to Rs. 75,000 per month for these activities in addition to the annual audit that your auditor will carry out and the secretarial services that you will need to obtain from a Company Secretary.  If the fees of external consultants (put together for all of the services) are actually on the lower side of the threshold mentioned above – great.  Please go ahead and appoint them.  Even if these are in the mid range, it sounds to be a fair proposition if the concerned appointee firm has the requisite experience to handle and manage startups.  Do make sure that in such an environment, you have an independent, strong and a highly experienced auditor who carries out reviews quarterly to ensure things are happening the way they should.  Many a times, small practitioners simply offer an entire package of service including audit etc.  If audit function is led by a separate independent team, this approach is fine.  On the other hand, if you are paying any amount greater than Rs. 50,000, it definitely makes a case to appoint an in house person in charge of all of the above.  You may top it up by having a review by an independent third party on a quarterly or monthly basis as needed to ensure that you are always following best practices and have an expert overseeing the accountant.  Further, in compliances, filings, tax and related matters it also makes sense to have a double check and also the side benefit of such a review is that the third party could act as a mentor / guide for the young accountant.  No doubt it always will be a bit costlier to have this kind of a dual structure but the cost differential is not much and will be no greater than an increase of approximately Rs. 2-4 lakhs per anum at max.  Mind you, this cost is well worth it for one big reason.  If the in house person is a sharp young guy (maybe limited prior experience) he would be able to take care of lot of administrative issues as well.  Because (S)he is a full timer and in house, one can also expect that compliances will be done in a timely manner.  The person could also be made responsible for vendor management if he has that kind of an aptitude.  The icing on the cake will be – when there will be a follow up round of funding, company will have a better readiness to handle the due diligence mandated by most institutions.

 USING DSCs and PHYSICAL COPIES OF FILES WITH FOUNDERS /  TRUSTED AIDES

When working with outsourced providers and even junior accountants, it’s a common practice for startup founders to leave their company seals, Digital signatures with these teams.  This needs to be avoided unless the persons enjoy high trust from the founders.  Also, please try and maintain a clear record on who has it and how they would be using it.  Please note that using DSCs, lot of activities, fillings can be carried out and it’s a good idea to make sure that founders set up a process for themselves on how they would like their DSCs to be used / preserved.  On that note, it is also a good practice to ensure that as and when any fillings are carried out, a physical record is initiated and kept in a file that is maintained by the founder.  We have gone through a horrendous experience when we had appointed someone and they claimed they had been filling all things.  Handful of fillings had been missed out and so there was some notice from the government department.  When founder reached out to get access to the papers, the person who was managing this had already left the organization and it took much more time to procure these papers.  Of course, eventually we were able to submit these and there was not much of a fuss but then it was unnecessary waste of time for all of us.

 USE OF TOOLS

There are a handful of outsourced CFO offerings in the market.  Some of them are 1-2 member teams and come with stints with Big 4 or larger companies and are trying to cater to the startup market.  And then there are others who are trying to operate as a full scale organization.  There are certain tools that our portfolio companies have developed which I find very useful for all startups to try out.  For example – GreyHR solutions.  They support the in house as well as the outsourced finance team structures with their solutions for HR, payroll, leave and reimbursement management for employees.

SECRETARIAL SERVICES & COMPLIANCE / RECORDS KEEPING

It is a common practice for early stage companies to update secretarial records only at the time of a follow on round of funding or end of the year at the time of filling year end forms.  There are two issues with this approach:

  1. reporting and fillings under Company law has changed significantly over the period of last 2-3 years and it is no longer easy to get away with late fillings, back dated fillings and a small penalty or charge on ROC platform.
  2. Even if that were to be easy, it is only helpful for young startups to make sure that they have the long term goal of making a sound company out of their startup. This includes governance mechanism, reporting and timely fillings not for the sake of regulatory guidelines but also for the startups own record keeping and reference.
  3. Board meetings are normally just recorded with standard agendas and fillings are done. This should be fine from the regulatory purposes but from a long term startup story tracking point of view, it does not help.  Ideal board meetings should track the startup pivots as well as key milestones and decisions be recorded.  If done well, the minutes of board meetings can be very useful source of reasons and rationales for the decisions taken.

ANNUAL AUDIT

Audit from time immemorial has been treated as a mere formality, a cost burden and hassle.  If done with a larger sense of purpose, this can be a great utility as well as a detection mechanism of any issues in terms of book keeping, revenue recognition, internal controls, accuracy of profit and loss statement and compliance with financial reporting standards.

I have not been very successful in driving this aspect to my team that audit should be done for better than regulatory reasons and more importantly in a time frame that’s better than the regulatory timeline.  If done well, it can be immensely helpful in detecting issues in financial controls, revenue recognition and process weaknesses.  For this goal to be accomplished:

  1. auditors need to be given a freehand to dig deeper into the processes and push the finance team hard to force accuracy in recognition of revenue as well as fallacy in processes. This does pose a challenge at times.  Auditors would then insist that these weaknesses that are discovered need to be reported.  Well, insofar as these are not disclaimers and qualified audit reports, these shouldn’t be discouraged and be worried about.  Provided founders are going to insist to their finance teams that once an issue is discovered cannot be repeated again.
  2. Quality and costs of audit shouldn’t be controlled beyond a point. Its fine to NOT have a Big 4 as an auditor but it definitely isn’t acceptable to have the most affordable auditor who wouldn’t care to dig and guide the company deeper.
  3. It is not critical to appoint a Big 4 auditor. In fact we have come across issues earlier on when there are auditors who find it tough to relate to startup conditions and attempt to apply every rule in the book on the biz.  There are challenges to report unnecessary detail or disclose issues basis over application on the law.  In turn founders should never shy away from this reporting so far as reporting to the shareholders is concerned because that’s fine.

SUMMARY

INSOFAR AS THE COMPANY HAS VERY LOW LEVEL OF ACTIVITY, THEY ARE GOOD TO START WITH AN OUTSOURCED FIRM FOR AN ACCOUNTANT AND AS COSTS AND WORK INCREASE THEY ARE MUCH BETTER TO HIRE A FULL TIME PERSON.  IT ONLY ENHANCES VALUE TO HAVE SUCH A FULL TIME PERSON BE WORKING UNDER REVIEW OF AN EXPERT / MENTOR / FIRM WHO CAN GUIDE THE PERSON ON DAY TO DAY BASIS.

Building a Safe, Inclusive Culture and a Diverse Workplace: Part I

This is the 1st of a 2-part blog series on building culture and fostering diversity and inclusion within the workplace. Before we talk of what sets apart culture of one firm from another, the first box to be ticked is the safety and protection of all employees

Sexual harassment at the workplace is almost as old as time. Specific to India, relatively recent government policy (2013) plus lax law enforcement meant historically most people turned a blind eye or even lived in denial about such issues. The TVF storm earlier this year changed all that

​Well before the ​controversies made headlines, Blume ​had been working on initiatives to help bring standardization and best practices across the portfolio. We started last November with the release of​ an HR Policy Template, meant to help young companies struggling in the absence of a formal HR function/resource. Thereafter​, we recognized that a lot of companies​ would require assistance to fully understand and become compliant with th​e Sexual Harassment (POSH) Act. Since March, we’ve been engaging with several entities to identify partners who could ensure POSH-compliance end to end, at scale, and provide a host of allied services for fast growing companies. A stream of negative news surrounding Uber, TVF, Seedfund, 500 Startups, etc just added ​impetus to our efforts. Sharing here the summary of our learning curve along the way

Apart from the legal requirements, here are 3 good reasons why everyone should be POSH compliant:

  1. Avoid getting your startup/brand bad publicity/fines levied/handle messy escalations that can follow escalations of an untoward incident

  2. Best to not be in an adverse situation at a critical juncture for your company (eg fundraising, major PR initiatives etc) that can stall crucial efforts

  3. Protect your employees (both by way of having a committee in place as well as by the deterring signalling effect of being compliant)

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What is POSH?

The “Sexual Harassment of Women in the Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal)”​ or POSH Act was made effective from December 2013 by the Ministry of Women and Child Development with the objective of preventing and protecting women against sexual harassment at the workplace and for the effective redressal of complaints of sexual harassment

Who needs to be complaint?

The law is applicable to all organisations employing more than 10 employees including full-time, part-time, trainees, consultants, interns, contractors and outsourced staff, even if there are no female employees

What is the liability/ penalty is I am NOT compliant?

Companies that do not comply with the law are liable to a penalty ranging from Rs.50,000/- to cancellation of business licences or withdrawal, non-renewal or cancellation of registration

What all is mandatory for compliance?

  1. Formulate a Prevention of Sexual Harassment company policy (and updation when there are amendments to the law)

  2. Appoint an Internal Compliance Committee (ICC) of 3-4 members with at least 50% women and an external member (this acts like a quasi-judicial body)

  3. Display policy/ contact details of all ICC members prominently in the office (so the complainant can reach out to whoever they like)

  4. Provide awareness training and explain the law to ALL employees on what constitutes sexual harassment and forms of redressal (to educate and empower each one)

  5. Train ICC members to handle an incident and inquiries with sensitivity, abiding by the guidelines (members need to know their functions, responsibilities, and how conduct an inquiry into a complaint)

  6. Submit a report to the deputy commissioner every calendar year (customary annual paperwork)

  7. Conduct inquiries via the ICC with requisite documentation within statutory timelines (when a complaint is raised)

OK, so what do I need to do (as a founder)​?

Given all of the above, the best solution is for startups to empanel an entity with necessary expertise (via an annual retainer) who can provide turnkey solutions to ensure all aspects are fully covered. Blume has partnerships in place for our portcos in both BOM and BLR – if you want to learn more or sign up, just give us a shout​. I​t would be fitting to highlight that we deem it imperative for ALL FOUNDERS to attend the employee sensitization and ICC training sessions so as to educate themselves with the latest as well as to signal to their teams that they are serious about employee welfare

Up next, we plan to engage with our founders and learn how they are building their cultures and workplaces, to take best practices from our companies and share with one another – all to enable creation of an ecosystem that others can truly look up to.