FOCUS!

I first heard it as we passed a Buddhist temple en route to the Forbidden Palace in Beijing. The guide was a very talkative cherubic lady, named Ta-ta. She was well informed about most things Indian, including her namesake Ratan. And amongst various statistics and facts that she rolled out, she mentioned that a little over 90% of Chinese don’t have a religion. The others are split between Taoism, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity and even Maoism. Most of the atheists do go to pray – largely at Buddhist temples – when they are afraid or need hope – exams, relationships, and business success but there is no doctrine that guides them in the name of one religion or the other.

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[It’s the second time in a year that I had heard the shunning of religion by a rebooted economy. The last was in Estonia, where similarly, Signe, a friendly startup evangelist had a meal with my family over summer. She said young Estonians didn’t see how religion helped at all, when the Russians ruled them – it seemed futile to them. The only religion they wanted to have was ‘enterprise’. A segment of young Estonians actually think software is the way for them to make a dent in the world – and their role models are emerging – I’m predicting that they will continue to create many more beyond the clichéd Skype example. 

The significant difference is of course size! Estonia has all of 1.3 million people, a good chunk of them in the capital Tallinn whereas China is India plus some more]

Then, I heard it again and then a third time in Shanghai – the 90%+ (statistic) of the population who cited no religious preference. Coupled with this was the oft-repeated and fabled work ethic of the average Chinese – we had witnessed it even back in India – day of the week and time of the day have no boundaries for them – they are ever-ready to take a meeting that furthers business.

And then, that Sunday afternoon bus ride in Shanghai suddenly built on this theme. I said it aloud to a few of my fellow India tech-trekkers over a bus ride or two and it became very clear suddenly!

The single-minded purpose and FOCUS towards income generation, wealth creation, prosperity, quality of life – all as a surrogate to achieving “happiness” is the core driver of the nation.

It’s much easier when one is stripped off of all “distractions”. And that’s what the Chinese have gradually moved towards.  Here you go:

(The word “No” below is intended for dramatic effect and not for debate on what is the scale and % of each of the deviances from “No”)

–       No religion – they’ve just make it redundant and irrelevant at scale

–       No politics – at least not of the divisive kind – the people have ceded control to the state, even more over the past 25-30 years, the tradeoff between democracy and the state delivering the promised improvements in quality of life seems like a compromise that the Chinese have (somewhat) happily made. As someone put it, they’ve learnt to trust the single party government to take care of their well being as a people.

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–       No organized crime and limited or reducing petty crime / corruption – fear of the government and its scrutiny keeps them at check

–       No Bollywood or other such ‘woods – film-making is driven by a cultural or political agenda or simple action stuff or import of foreign films without an agenda. There is not much need or room for silly romancing or silly ideals.

–       No cricket – I’m simplifying the notion to contrast it with a nation obsessed by cricket. India has many other emerging sporting passions and the Chinese follow international sport and play to win in many others but there is no comparison in how many man-days we would spend/waste on cricket as a nation compared to all their sports fandoms.

–       No language barriers – the state has directed the centralization of Mandarin gradually to drive out the differences of multiple language variants

–       No chaotic large families – Two week-long breaks in the year mean that families throng to reunions from across the country and shut the country down in more ways than one. So, there is chaos – but it’s somehow incredibly packed into those half-year windows. The single child policy (now relaxed back after 40+ years) has also meant cousins and families are somewhat controlled in size. Family roles across generations are fine-tuned to meet the economic purpose and stability of a household. Mothers earn, grandmothers take care of children and parents take care of the grandparents economic well-being.

–       No biases towards domestic products – unlike most Indians, who would happily pay for overseas products but undermine local brands, the Chinese are proud champions of their own products

–       No infra bottlenecks – of course, they have massive traffic jams, but everytime they see a bottleneck, they ruthlessly keep eliminating them with newer spends.

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–       No fear of new cities – India needs to build large long corridors of rail and road infra and build a handful of mega cities alongside each of them – there is no way to rebuild our large cities or expand them effectively much more. “New” is the answer as the Chinese keep finding for themselves – not adding to creaking older infrastructure.

One can debate state intervention and control of people’s lives for weeks together. One shouldn’t forget that China has been obsessed about this level of discipline and single mindedness for much longer than almost anyone else in the world. One just had to take a glimpse of a km stretch of the Great Wall, be told that it was 10000’s of kms long, and your heart instinctively feels the weight of the deep rootedness of this obsessive alignment between a 1.3 billion population. This is very different from the large set of fragmented princely states that was the basis of modern day India during the same 2000+ years.

I’m not going to explicitly spell out the differences on each of the above points relative to India. The differences scream out of the unwritten sentences.

This FOCUS, seldom seen in most other countries, added to their fearless forays into the rest of the world means that they can become a world power like none other. They are unafraid of winning over political ground with business and economics as the primary driver and have no baggage in terms of biases. They will, in my opinion, overtake American capital in a very short period of time in Indian tech and startups. They see the opportunity with far more clarity than most others in the western world.

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The Chinese are very proud and jingoistic and have been pronouncing the one country, one people mantra for millennia. It’s not a new found post-1947, post-independence phenomenon such as modern India. Coupled with the above characteristics, despite being a nation of its size, the conditions suddenly create an unparalleled juggernaut.  They are going to be driving a lot of the world economy across our lifetimes at least.

 

This piece is featured in the The Little Blu Omnibus – a compilations of articles and notes authored by the team and our founders. To read the rest of the articles, go ahead and download the e-book via this link.

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In March, Blume Ventures along with 40 portfolio founders took a 10 day trip to China, as part of the ChIndia TMT Dialogue 2017, to interact with internet giants, government officials, and some of the best startup minds in the country. Hence, we thought it would be a great idea to share some of our learnings and key observations that could be helpful to our ecosystem. We are pleased to offer you the e-book here

Finding Exit Velocity: Flashback! [Part I]

For the last 3 years, at every mid-Dec Blume offsite, we have tried to understand the State of the Blume portfolio. And as a forward looking corollary, what should we expect for the portfolio in the year ahead given the larger VC trends in the country. The investing, the scaling, the pipeline selection and the portfolio management are all consistent discussion points, but what ends up as a theme on our Blume T-shirt on Blume Day in February is a manifestation of what’s top of our mind as a team.

In 2015, this was “Go Big or Go Home” – the year ended with 3 great exits (serendipitously, within a quarter – TFS, Zipdial, Promptec), 4 acquihires which returned 1-2x of capital, many write downs + “fractional price” acquihires. It also marked the first breakouts in the portfolio that were either companies reaching profitability / sustainability early or finding larger Series B and C rounds. It was a year well executed – the Blume team and the portfolio got the message and we rode some of the expected macro-momentum for that year.

In 2016, the focus was in figuring out Fund II’s portfolio construction. The legendary punchline from Hans Solo: “Never Tell Me the Odds” in Star Wars V (“The Empire Strikes Back”) guided our courage to pick outlier founders once again as we constructed the first 50-60% of the Fund II portfolio over late 2015 and all through 2016. It was also weaving the then new Star Wars “The Force Awakens” to show the power of 5 years of work – that Fund II portfolio would experience a much superior Blume platform and community offering.

 

In 2017, while witnessing some incredibly strong businesses coming out of Fund I, we yet realized that there are NO Series A/B/C formulas or templates to building a credibly large and profitable business. One has to fight the incredible odds of building in India with very little capital and all the constraints that crowd startups looking to head from Zero to grand Exits. “Exit Velocity” is an aspiration and a guide for our buildout of Fund I portfolio for the next 3-4 years (we’re 6 years in already! Feels like just the other day when we went in with our hopeful pitch and begging bowls to raise a 100cr Fund I – a miraculous 100% Indian LP fund). We knew it then but were guilty of wishing away this issue of Exit Velocity. Indian LPs were always incredulous about our pitch since they knew that if we are funding at seed over years 1 to 3, we can’t get to Exit Velocity in time for the 8-10 year exit period for the Fund. The historical evidence was on their side. It’s still our onus to prove them wrong. They are right in most part but if I have a few examples in the next couple of years that can help me return my principal at least + lots of marked up gains to harvest (that’s the target we’re playing for at Blume), we can make a huge point.

I think we can win the argument that we have started a revolutionary startup cycle of birth to exits for investors and founders in India, if we reach these milestones in more and more funds between now and 2020.

We convinced ourselves that there will be small M&A’s, large M&A’s, the emergence of more aggressive IPO buyers into growing but loss-making companies and we hoped that the relaxing of rules for smaller IPO’s on a small cap exchange will trigger another listing option. All these trends are, at best, half-hearted today and, at worst, non-existent.

So, the discovery has begun in earnest – to learn the paths to Exit Velocity, I think we will have to park most of the seemingly glorious stories of the last 7-8 years and flashback all the way to pre-2005.

Revenge of the Profit-Seekers

What’s common between these companies:

 

All public or on the verge of getting there.

All at 100’s of crores of net revenue.

Most fascinating fact – even if a couple of these firms were born/reinvented post 2001, the founders all turned entrepreneurs pre-2001. This was the era of the pre-2001 founder – who didn’t know he would be ever allowed to build an unprofitable company beyond a few years. No one told them it was possible – and the VCs hadn’t come in – and that was a good thing!

There are many others – this is not an exhaustive list – there are companies like Directi, and Photon and Zoho in Chennai which have never even raised a single $ of VC money though their journeys.

The scarcity back then (coupled with no funny money to back their competitors much more than them) helped them build robust profitable models even if they took a couple of extra years in the process. Eventually, this healthy business model helped them go public and continue to grow at a healthy 20-30% growth clip for years after going public as well. It’s wonderful. How and when this became so unsexy is beyond me.

And then over the last week, as I bring up this topic, everyone I speak to has a few names to add to this list. Citius, NetroPlus, Rategain, Fractal, lots of B2B plays that exited etc. Of course, we’ve built  incredible stories post 2005 similar to the ones above. They sit across many VC portfolios. However, the VCs’, the media and the new-age post 2013 founders have not at all played up these companies and their arduous journeys of profitability and value creation enough. They should be given the pedestal to speak from. In between, there was a joke that it was too unsexy to be profitable.

We’ve had companies like E2E and Printo in the Blume portfolio be profitable from even before we invested. They’ve grown 3-10x and stayed profitable every year in between and with ZERO outside capital and yet, there is no respect for what’s achieved – just the scale issue of whether they can get to $100’s of millions of valuation has become a holy deterrent. Now, in the last 12-18 months, we’re adding more and more to that list – Exotel, Mettl, Threadsol, Grey Orange, IDfy, Webengage, Nowfloats – some are investing in growth with their new rounds and some are boostrapping away to sustainability from their last round. I think every one of these can easily grow 5-10x from where they are today with very little growth capital over 3-4 years.

(every company in this above paragraph is already at 20cr-50cr actual annual revenues OR ARRs with the exception of GOR which is a breakout)

EVEN IF the 15-year old stories highlighted above are NOT fair comparisons to the slightly more “VC-led capital-dumped” startup frenzy of the last 3-5 years, there are some great lessons from those good ol’ founders and their startups. Talking to Hitesh @Naukri/Infoedge and Ashok@Teamlease at Blume Day (Feb 10, 2017), we picked up some valuable lessons which compound the learnings of the first 6 weeks of inputs we’ve had in 2017 – from bankers, small cap fund managers, strategics etc. All that and more coming soon in part II.

Note: The videos of the fireside panel with the both of them and the 1-on-1’s with Hitesh and Ashok will be published shortly and I won’t be able to do justice to all their wisdom (you’ll have to wait for the full recording for that) but will share my takeaways in Part II.

 

EXIT VELOCITY (Fluchtgeschwindigkeit!)

Fluchtgeschwindigkeit!

“What the Flucht is that?” asks my colleague!

“It’s German for ‘Escape Velocity’” I replied, “and Flucht is ‘Flight’” – more inspiration, or perhaps goal setting, for this year’s #BlumeDay.

Why German? There is a subliminal connection. The word ‘Blume’ is not just a phonetic play on the English word Bloom, but won the naming match for our fund in 2010, primarily, since it was the German word for ‘flower’. And with this new word discovery, I quite loved the velocity of Fluchtgeschwindigkeit!

It’s our 6th edition of Blume Day. Wow! We’ve been feeding off our own optimism for a long time. Time for a shift of gears now. Ditto for the rest of the VC ecosystem. If our founders and us (and I speak for all of India VC in some sense) don’t get our act together, we’re going to lose more precious time building the promise that is the Indian startup story. It’s inching along but inching isn’t quite the mandated acceleration towards the requisite Exit Velocity.

It’s the Year of the Rooster in China. It’s the Year of the Exit in India. Correction: It’s the beginning of the Exit Era in India. 6 years for Blume Fund I, 10 for most other Fund I’s in other Fund portfolios, even 12 years in some cases. Lets collectively figure out what engines need to revved to achieve EXIT VELOCITY. In this same timeframe (post 2005), Elon Musk has built rocketships that Escape Earth and land back too, at will. Long way to catch up. We’re just figuring out Escape Velocity from India-only revenues in most cases yet. Just saying.

No – I’m not talking paper markups, I’m not talking about the one Hail Mary (NFL jargon) exit in some portfolios. I’m talking about building a systemic and endemic path to EXIT. That doesn’t mean every company and/or its founders have to sell – it just means the company has to become good enough that someone wants to buy. There is a difference in wanting to Fund and wanting to Buy.

Exit Velocity (for the purposes of this post) is interchangeable with the concept of Escape Velocity. Without delving into the depths of physics, I tried to adapt the conventional formula for my own ability to rationalize why this isn’t working yet in India (see Inset – it’s just me trippin’, wired in with some Coke Studio music).

exit-velocity-flucht

 

 

What the Flucht is wrong with the Indian startup ecosystem? How does one make sense of the vast amounts of $ deployed and nothing back in terms of massive profits in these companies or acquisition-led $ returns or listing-related capital gains back to the investors. What’s gone wrong?

We have not invested enough into understanding what it takes to hit Exit Velocity in India. I’ve been trying to sit down and understand this with Avendus and other bankers, strategics like Amazon and Ad giants, from the online and offline worlds, Small Cap managers in the Indian public markets and it’s only been 6 weeks into 2017. Lot more of this to be done all year, hell, actually all of the coming decade. Every VC in India needs to wake up and set up a dedicated force (even if of 1 person!) to ponder, scope, build new “accelerators to Exit Velocity” and obsess about this full-time. Instead, we keep building more wannabe YC-clone accelerators, seed funds, angel groups and shoving more and more down the funnel that’s clogged the drain to Series A and how!

I can write a multi-part series on the thoughts/angst in my head. However, let me just summarize as thus.

We are, and should be, a country proud of building many many $100-$250 million exits – both in the local and cross-border markets. In INDIA CONSUMER, this means profitable businesses and/or great gross margins in sub-sectors that are growing at 2-3x of GDP growth rates. In India-built B2B, this means highly profitable $20-50 mill revenue businesses. If the ingredients hold after these milestones, just keep building – trust me, no one is complaining post that point. Just get there (Yes – am hoping founders are listening – play for the goals that matter – not just some mumbo jumbo unicorn math)

Prospective and existing LP’s in India VC also collectively need to wake up and smell the hatti kaapi at B’lore airport once in a while rather than the Java Chip Frappucino at Starbucks (which I admit, is my favorite Sbux, as is the mini small print Rs 20 kaapi at the former – the budget kaapi is the real India, jfyi). I’ve been unashamedly telling all the LPs that I meet that we need to design Funds for India where we are proud of seeing 8 of 10 great portfolio co exits being in the $100-$250 mill range and the other 2 escaping to another Orbit and then hitting a $500 mill to $2 bill exit velocity. That latter goal alone screws with too many heads of too many Series A VCs in India – who apply the entry framework of an Unicorn exit too often to all 10 of 10 – hmmm, that’s not right at Series A stage.

I’m not letting founders off the hook here. Most don’t understand the construct of the VC industry as it exists in India and expect capital to be available at will and at any size of round and at terms that are dreamy. I wish it were that simple. The collective responsibility of the Exit lies with all stakeholders. Haven’t delivered any? Don’t have friends who have delivered any? Then, don’t try to teach rules of engagement to capital providers. Run your story without Venture Capital or play by the rules of the capital’s goals. (Can write more separately about what founders’ roles are in propagating this cycle – Write to me if you want me to elaborate via a new post re: my expectations from founders)

Back to VC’s – my suggested mantra for India VC is:

Raise small funds, get these “relatively smaller” exits, keep a deep reserve for the BIG hits and park this reserve outside the fund, deploy quick, put harvesters (Read EXIT VELOCITY generators and EXIT teams) in place, go back to planting seeds and saplings and flowering plants before another harvest and rinse/repeat with 2-3 year primary sowing cycles of deployment with smaller corpuses.

The local EXIT Velocity formula should drive Fund sizes – not the other way around – by salivating for Valley Exit Velocity formulas (see Inset again on how to benchmark).

The VC Fund Structures should budget and accommodate add-on capital at will (maybe through a perpetual capital entity or listed entity)– not force fat fund sizes upon managers at inception of the Fund, accompanied with the pressure of a “big 3-4x multiple” Gun-to-the-head on that fat fund.

VCs need to revisit their own operating models in India. Least innovation and the most cut/paste in India has happened in the mothership of capital guzzlers of the startup industry – the Venture Capital Funds!

Cut/paste works if the Exit Velocity frameworks converge – they are nowhere near convergence relative to China and the US (this is probably true of overfunded cut/paste startups too)

2017 will mark the beginning of the Exit era; where the needle gets pushed by both VC’s and Founders, with whatever means available, towards EXIT Velocity on the speedometer. May the best portfolios prosper! Jai Hind!

 

 

Author’s Note: I don’t claim any scientific veracity of my adaptation of the formula – its something that I came up with to humor myself and wasn’t why I started writing the main piece. The formula doesn’t matter that much actually. It’s just a ploy to illustrate the principle. That said, I will see if the formula holds the test of time and valuation math.

Servify: one destination!…for any gadget, anywhere in lifecycle

Chapter 6, The Portfolio Chronicles

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Once in a while, you come across this second-time entrepreneur, even more wired than his first stint as a founder, even though she or he has a very good (sometimes, great) story already chronicled. When you chat with Sreevathsa (Prabhakar) and see him operate, flying from city to city to convince brands and service partners to be onboarded onto his new baby, Servify, its remarkable to witness the energy levels.

Sreevathsa’s first venture, The Service Solutions (TSS) was acquired by B2X, one of the companies under the German supply chain solutions conglomerate called the Barkawi Group. Sree had painstakingly convinced brands like Apple (no less) to hand over their entire backend for authorized service (software, outlets, parts, warranties etc) to the service store chain he set up for them in India. It’s a commendable bootstrapped story and since it’s a private company that’s now in B2X’s hands, I can’t reveal much. Let’s just say that B2X is very happy (revenues are now at 6x from when I first ran into Sreevathsa 4 years ago in a different context) and are, grudgingly yet willfully, happy to see him leave a new leadership team behind at B2X India and launch himself into the most challenging of problems – fixing customer service across all electronics and white goods brands in your home or office.

Clearly, from the TSS experience, Sreevathsa is the rare founder who knows how to build frugally and bootstrapped, all the way to a sizeable exit. And while this is a tougher consumer play and requires much more upfront capital to scale rapidly, he didn’t need to work with Blume from the earliest days, given his personal resources from the exit. But he chose to; and for that, we’re both glad to have partnered. We’ve always said that Blume is not about the money and we love working with founders who get that the most about Blume! Its about having a partner for a lifetime. This rare ability to know that greatness comes from partnerships is why everyone loves Sree. And he’s begun to add them in all directions – most importantly, building a versatile and seasoned leadership team: Pravin, Chandresh, Anupam, Mahesh, and Sriram; adding to the team he had when our cheque went in – Vivek, Swapnil and Naveen). Servify has already onboarded 20+ brands to work with the company. And most recently, we added Teru-san and Beenext to this party! They’re great co-investors and great allies to have, as Servify will explore South East Asian pastures sometime soon.

Sreevathsa has always believed that Customer Service and After Sales Support are seen by the brands as a pain to deal with. These are never perceived as cool jobs or departments inside companies and in a resource-starved country, top talent is NOT likely to be opting for these functions as a first priority. Its not surprising that nothing has seemingly changed even after a few decades of large foreign brands entering the country. Whether its your water purifier or an air conditioner or a TV or a mobile or a laptop, whether the frequency is once a quarter or once a year, installation or service or repair, the average experience always seems to end with an emotion = “what a nightmare!” One prays that they don’t ever have to call that brand’s service center again till they’re ready to replace the gadget / appliance.

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That’s where Servify comes in!

Stripping out the nuisance of dealing with over a dozen brands, that are likely present today in every household, is going to be the promise to deliver on, for Servify. Would you guessed that the average middle class household they surveyed had between 15 and 35 different gadgets /devices/ appliances per home?! (basically, anything that needs electricity and is not a light bulb or a fan) It’s staggering when one puts the size of the problem out there as a sum total, even if we just added the numbers amongst the top 50 Indian cities. (Clue for scale prospects: And the ambition doesn’t stop with India)

And contrary to popular opinion, only about a small % of the entire market is serviced either a) outside of its warranty / extended warranty period and b) by a non-authorized repair shop. So, while every “aggregator” out there is struggling to bring sanity to this “unorganized / non-authorized” market opportunity (which is just like adding a layer of unreliability to the existing nightmare), Sreevathsa and team @Servify know the ins and outs of what they’ve done for over half a decade – delivering authorized service and the best possible service / parts / installation that you can get. In this organizing of the service network and delivering standardized pricing and predictable service levels lies the holy grail of this problem.

Servify will change the way you map your household and not deal with the randomness of gadget and appliance servicing. Next time the TV or refrigerator or your laptop or phone breaks down, don’t fret or sweat yet; see if the brand is covered by Servify. In a year, if not earlier, they should’ve mapped out close to the top 75-80% of all brands in every category!

 

I’m already a happy customer, with a TV repair done and a full home A/C service package scheduled for later this week. I can see every one of my gadgets getting onboarded over the next 12-24 months, as and when they are needed to be serviced, replaced or installed anew. (you can download Servify on the app store / play store and enjoy the same luxury)

Our bets on the founding teams of Dunzo and Servify are testament to our thesis on a remarkable pattern of seeking new ways to solve for the new Customer Service / Customer Delight paradigm in India. Wherever these journeys leads the founders and us, we know we’re going to be delighted by the journeys that will unfold. (We’re on the verge of announcing a third company in this space that will further augment the value chain in Customer Service in mobiles, complementing our Servify and Cashify investments)

Investment announced: 2016 (Blume Fund II) + Follow-on Investment announced: 2016 (along with Beenext and existing Round I investors)

[Olympic DayDreams] Don’t write off the Startup Anthony Ervins!

Somewhere in an old khakhi bag in my parents’ Chennai home, there is a notebook that has a log of every (yeah, every!) event in the 1984 Olympics and the medalists. That’s how stats obsessed and sports obsessed I was to be between the ages of 10 and 17, possibly like some other Indian boys in that post-TV, pre-Internet era. So, when I landed in the US in 1999, and saw that the packaging of the Olympics by NBC (the channel that has a lock on the broadcasts there) was entirely around storytelling, a younger me thought it was American TV marketing gone soppy.

As the personal mission in life has gradually shifted to Blume and our tagline having evolved to “Stories Imagined, Stories Scripted”, the present consistent theme in my pursuits and beliefs is that we all live for the stories in our life – either scripting them or watching them unfold, fictional or otherwise.

The Olympic spirit resonates with this buried heart murmur more than most other stories, given its stage and grandeur. Four-year cycles, 100’s of nations, 1000’s of athletes, struggles, losses, tragedies, and victories – what’s not to love! The stories are going to come tumbling out if you’re paying attention.

Anthony Ervin

Anthony Ervin!

I’d forgotten the name, entirely (ironically, I remember Gary Hall, who shared the gold with him in 2000), until I read it in the papers this morning. He won the same event after 16 years! And which one? The 50m freestyle! – the “fastest man in the swimming pool” event!

Ervin was 19 when he tied Hall for the 50m gold in Sydney 2000. I was in disbelief seeing the bullet points in the article today (so, to the extent that I can fact check in Wiki and elsewhere on the Internet, I did)

  • Gave up swimming in 2003
  • Worked in a tattoo parlor (adequate proof on his upper torso)
  • Auctioned off his 2000 Gold Medal for a (2004) tsunami victims charity
  • Went into depression and attempted to kill himself
  • Came back to the pool and trained and qualified for 2012 and ended 5th
  • Comes back to Rio 2016 and wins the Gold, at the ages of 35 – eclipsing Phelps, literally overnight, as the oldest individual Olympic winner in the pool

(source: Wikipedia)

Amongst the randomly selected viewing of the 2016 Rio Olympics, I also caught a woman’s 25m shooting final – won by a determined young Greek woman: Anna Koraki. While she held her nerve against her German competitor for Gold, the story that enthralled me was already done: the Bronze medalist from Switzerland, Heidi Gerber; who had just beaten her much younger competitor, the world No 1 from China. Heidi is 47; and had started shooting for the first time when she was 39! (source: TV commentary; she also competed in both shooting events in 2012 and 2016 and this Bronze was her only top 25 finish in those 4 attempts)

Heidi Gerber

Cut to the startup scene: We have plenty of the more oft-quoted stereotype – of young, bright and supercharged founding teams, freshly minted with academic markers and/or an alum credential from a fancy larger startup brand, who are now embarking on a new “cool” journey.  And these hot startups are the ones that get most html pages or reams of newsprint devoted to them. Proof of any hotness = funding by VCs and nothing else. But why? It takes many years and sometimes over a decade to convert that original spark of success (of a funding round) to real revenues and a real business.

The minute the tough stretches hit these startups and their founders, all the ‘cool’ news outlets stop reporting! Now, imagine that these founders were even “less sexy” (if I may be pardoned for the phrase for our friends in the >40 year old founder group)! Somehow, there doesn’t seem to be enough respect for surviving many wars and battles and coming to the daily morning startup fight week after week, year after year.

The number of times I’ve heard the “less sexy” bias play out towards some of our founders leaves me numbed – it’s less subtle and more overt. The startup world will be quick to write off and move on, as it always seems to be the easier thing to do in our 21st century A.D.D-lives.

There are two possible versions usually at play. Either there’s a spark in the startup Olympian, who touches a pinnacle and then retreats into a struggle, but doesn’t give up. Or the founders are considered too old or unfashionable to back. Do not write off the Anthony Ervin in your pipeline or the Heidi Gerber in your portfolio! And founders – be the Anthony Ervin that you are capable of becoming!

When we’re done with Fund I and all its success stories and exits, I promise you there will be a grand piece celebrating all the Anthony Ervins and Heidi Gerbers in our portfolio! (As I finish editing this, there is an Uzbek finalist in the vault – Oksana – who just finished her possible final performance ever, at the age of 41, in her 7th straight Olympics)  Hail the Olympic spirit and may there be many such stories in our fledgling Indian startup ecosystem.

SlicePay – Student Lending

Chapter 4, The Portfolio Chronicles

(originally, this post appeared as “Buddy”, prior to the rebranding to “SlicePay”

slicepay-logoIts a spiral in motion – with the advent of eCommerce and more rapid channels to reach a national market, brands keep increasing their frequency of product launches. This, in turn, has created a huge untapped aspirational college student market. This base has the latent intent to purchase and keep up with trends, but has very limited financing options – upfront payments are tough for this segment of customers.

There are multiple entities, including banks, who provide Digital Product Financing focusing on the secured (credit card / debit card) segment. A huge segment of consumers that don’t have access to traditional credit are unfortunately left behind. The entire challenge with this segment is inspecting the ability to pay, along with the security of collecting monthly instalments.

"Dude! I'm writing a letter to my parents. How many N's in money?"
“Dude! I’m writing a letter to my parents. How many N’s in money?”

In Slicepay, the founders, Rajan and Deepak, believed that college students do have the ability + intent to repay for the product purchases; the key is to a) quantify the ability over a particular period of time, b) enable it through flexible payment plans curated for them and c) delivered along with a robust collection engine.

SlicePay lets college students shop online from various ecommerce websites and split the payment into EMIs. Through a combination of online signals and offline checks centered around the student, SlicePay is developing (and constantly improving) its proprietary credit engine, which then provides immediate confirmation or rejection on the product purchase. In this cycle, the entire process of product identification, loan processing and collections will be automated through online and offline mechanisms.

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The founding team of Rajan and Deepak have considerable experience managing risk and e-commerce at scale in their previous avatars at Flipkart and PayPal-eBay.

Globally, especially in mature examples such as the Chinese eCommerce market, multiple players like JD and Tencent have focused on the college student segment as an acquisition channel to reach consumers from the inception of their purchases.

SlicePay would eventually provide college student credit cards with variable limits based on their proprietary risk engine. Every college student sees his or her education as a path to employment and a great job. Along the path, the college experience just became much richer for every student, through their new Buddy.

SlicePay is a Blume portfolio company based in Bangalore. With the rise in student purchasing power and aspirations, there is a need for a customizable lending platform to manage their needs. Buddy, through it’s proprietary and constantly evolving credit engine, collects and analyzes 1000+ online and offline data signals, which help segment students into different risk profiles translating to a credit score. Blume has been a believer for some time in O2O – Online to Offline, accompanied by a full-stack delivery experience – we recently announced our investment in Turtlemint (our insurance investment from mid 2015, the last investment from Fund IA) and Zopper (one of our emerging stars from Fund I).

Investment announced: 2016 (Blume Fund II).

The Force Awakens [Part 2]

[This is Part 2 of a two part series reflecting on a slice of 2015 and celebrating the beginnings of a new chapter at Blume, as we turn 5 this month] Part 1 is here.

We are all Jedi…if we want to be!

SW-THE-FORCE-AWAKENS

The grand finale of ‘2015, a Space Odyssey’ was the treat that lived upto the expectations of the Star Wars fan base and brought a few new generations of kids into the Force field. I was not a die-hard fan of the cult, but had seen all the films over the decades past. But they were such discrete experiences at one level because of all the time gaps and prequels being delivered 20 years after the originals etc. So, when circumstances led to being holed up in wintry NYC between Xmas and New Year, I got the larger family hooked to the idea of binge watching Parts 1 through 6 (released in 1999, 2002, 2005, 1977, 1980, 1983, in that sequence – Parts 1 through 3 were Prequels to the originals and Part 1 was made 16 years after Part 6, for the benefit of Star Wars newbies – get with the Force, people!), before we savoured the new part 7 in theatres. By the end of the week, the Force was strong through the household and its entire new fan base.

Star Wars is set so far out in its imagination that while there are humans around, they are but broadly incidental, at least in our Earth-like avatars. The mutations are pretty much the majority of that Galaxy. However, the imagination displayed in Star Wars has its inspirations in all of our own mythological past (across various cultures and continents) and the understanding of our spiritual and metaphysical present.

While its an epitome of classic ‘good vs evil’ storytelling, it extends the notion to the farthest point in the human understanding; which is the equivalent of the “Force” or what manifests itself in karma and nirvana, positive and negative energies etc., which are usually symbolized by our own individual and collective searches for spirituality or God, aka something to hold onto meaning in life. While this is not a sermon on any of that, the Force (in Star Wars parlance) to me is a symbol of how you can extract out of a collective energy source and build something for the public good.

The film, along with most superhero films of this 21st century timeframe, also show what is an interesting philosophical strain at Blume – there are no singular winners and losers – one has to be a part of a collective to have the possibility of scaled impact. And in that strain of thought and in that community we are trying to nurture at Blume, is the secret sauce of what keeps our engines humming to the tunes of the Force everyday.

While we’re always overwhelmed with the possibilities, while gradually building Blume’s place in the Indian startup ecosystem, I’m also constantly surprised at the shallowness in junta’s understanding of what scale does for us at Blume. We see disbelief and skepticism rather than cautious optimism and hope around our quest to make our model successful. Scale is perilous and scary no doubt, but if we are encouraging a generation of startup Jedi to emerge from within this scale, we are channelizing the Force at an unprecedented scale in this country. It may not be specific persons who represent the Dark side of the Force but, collectively, there are enough societal banalities we’ve created over decades now in India, that represent Darkness. We need a startup collective and the Blume portfolio is just one of many host planets for these Jedi.

For a startup founder, if there was a mantra I would lend, it’s this:

“We are all Jedi, if we want to be”

It’s so easy to flip to the Dark Side – corruption, corporations of old, malaise, excuses, ‘chaltha-hai’ attitudes, bureaucracy, silly VC / vanity metrics etc. As an India-based startup founder in 2016, especially in tech, your good fortune is that you have a choice between the Dark Side and the Jedi force, a choice that wasn’t as easily available for a few generations of entrepreneurs before you. When enough of these Jedi are trained and assembled, as we’d like to believe is our attempt, it’s but obvious that, then, the Force Awakens!