The endgame for venture investing in India

The future of India’s nascent venture capital scene hinges on the outcomes of the battles between homegrown start-ups like Flipkart and Ola and American rivals Amazon and Uber


If Flipkart and Ola list their shares or sell out at attractive prices, it will usher in a golden period for VCs; if, however, either one or both of them fail to generate investment returns, some VCs may have to shut shop. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint
If Flipkart and Ola list their shares or sell out at attractive prices, it will usher in a golden period for VCs; if, however, either one or both of them fail to generate investment returns, some VCs may have to shut shop. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint

Venture capital firms and other investors have poured roughly $6.5 billion into Flipkart, Snapdeal and Ola (and their units), since 2010, betting that they will be able to keep their American rivals Amazon and Uber at bay.

The investors reckoned that the headstart that online retailers Flipkart and Snapdeal and cab aggregator Ola enjoyed, their superior local knowledge, nimbleness, and the passion and ability of their founders would keep them ahead of the American technology giants.

Amazon.com Inc. and Uber Technologies Inc. were perceived to be slower in taking decisions and hesitant in giving too much power to the management of their local units. Unlike “pure-tech” businesses like Google Inc. and Facebook Inc., which are dominant in India, any operations-heavy tech business such as e-commerce and cab hailing would favour Indian start-ups over US firms, the investors believed.

But the speed at which Amazon and Uber have expanded over the past 18 months or so has shocked venture capitalists (VCs), putting their investment thesis at grave risk.

The transformation has been so sudden that Snapdeal, whose CEO Kunal Bahl predicted in August 2015 that it would become the largest online marketplace in the country, is now already considered an also-ran in the market share battle.

Consequently, the future of the country’s nascent venture capital scene, in its current form, hinges on the outcomes of the market share battles between Flipkart and Amazon and Ola and Uber, according to VCs and entrepreneurs.

Flipkart and Ola didn’t respond to emails seeking comment.

If Flipkart and Ola list their shares or sell out at attractive prices, it will usher in a golden period for VCs; if, however, either one or both of them fail to generate investment returns, some VCs may have to shut shop and investor sentiment towards Indian start-ups will take a serious hit.

Big names, Big money

The numbers are staggering: Together, Flipkart (valued at $15 billion) and Ola (valued at $5 billion) along with online marketplace Snapdeal (valued at $6.5 billion) accounted for a mammoth 55% of the cash raised by all Indian start-ups in the go-go years of 2014 and 2015. Their combined valuations constitute 65-70% of the valuations of all Indian Internet start-ups, according to Mint research.

These three firms are backed by practically all the best-known venture capital firms operating in India: Accel Partners, Kalaari Capital, Sequoia Capital, Matrix Partners and Nexus Venture Partners.

Apart from traditional VCs, three of the most influential bulge-bracket start-up investors in India, Tiger Global Management, SoftBank Group and DST Global, have poured huge amounts of money into Flipkart, Snapdeal and Ola.

Flipkart, Snapdeal and Ola are at the top of the list of the handful of Indian start-ups that have gone through all the stages of the venture capital investing model: angel investors fund a potentially great but nascent idea, VCs provide early capital to convert the idea into a mid-size start-up, then growth-stage investors pump in large amounts of capital to try and turn the start-up into an established company.

“There’s a lot riding on Flipkart and Ola,” said Sharad Sharma, an angel investor and co-founder of iSPIRT, a software products think tank. “If these two companies can deliver returns above the watermark, then we will have a soft landing for B2C (business to consumer) sector. If, however, in the worst-case scenario, they don’t deliver basic returns, the investor sentiment towards Indian consumer start-ups will turn bad.”

Until the 2015 surge of Amazon and Uber, investors believed all the three firms were on track to listing their shares in the near future and deliver the hard-earned blockbuster returns they craved for.

SoftBank, Kalaari, Nexus and Tiger Global declined to comment. Accel and Sequoia didn’t respond to emails seeking comment.

Lure of big exits

VCs have been investing in India for a decade or so, but they have struggled to deliver good returns to their backers, called limited partners (LPs). Typically, a venture fund is said to have performed well if it returns four or five times the capital invested. For this to happen, the fund needs to make one or two investments that will deliver an exit of 10-50 times the capital invested.

For VCs in India, Flipkart, Snapdeal and Ola are those bets, along with a handful of others such as payments and e-commerce firm Paytm, online marketplace ShopClues and enterprise software provider Freshdesk.

Many VCs including Accel Partners, Kalaari Capital and Nexus Venture Partners have raised new funds over the past 18 months, partly on the back of selling some of their shares in Flipkart and Snapdeal at attractive prices.

In general, most VCs even in the US fail to return the funds invested to their LPs, studies have shown. Since 1997, venture capital firms in the US have returned less cash to LPs than the invested amount, according to a 2012 report by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a think tank.  What keeps LPs coming back, however, is the lure of big exits such as those of Facebook, LinkedIn Corp. and Twitter Inc. in recent years and those of Intel Corp., Apple Inc., Microsoft Corp. and hundreds of others in the early years of Silicon Valley.

Indian VCs haven’t seen any such blockbuster exits, which is why Flipkart, Snapdeal and Ola are so important.

And it’s not just that Flipkart, Snapdeal and Ola have raised disproportionately large amounts of cash. Their founder duos—Sachin Bansal and Binny Bansal (Flipkart), Kunal Bahl and Rohit Bansal (Snapdeal) and Bhavish Aggarwal and Ankit Bhati (Ola)—are considered to be the best entrepreneurs in the country and role models for start-up founders.

“The likely scenario is that Flipkart will exit through a big IPO (initial public offering); then, the funding market will go through the roof,” said Abhishek Goyal, co-founder of Tracxn, a start-up tracker. “In the worst-case scenario, if Flipkart’s valuation dips to $5 billion or below, opportunist investors will flee India for the short term and a few venture capital firms may close down. But there’s so much interest in the India growth story that it will continue to be one of the most attractive start-up markets.”

IPO or sale?

The endgame for Flipkart, Ola and Snapdeal is far from clear. Though analysts say Amazon and Uber currently are favourites to emerge winners because of easy access to large amounts of capital, Flipkart and Ola have formidable strengths while Snapdeal has changed its strategy to focus on cutting costs and growing net revenue rather than boosting gross sales through deep discounts and extensive advertising.

“We have a clear strategy to build a long-term oriented, profitable e-commerce business and have been making tremendous progress in that direction over the last year. The decision to go for an IPO rests with the board of the company and they will take it up when appropriate,” a Snapdeal spokesperson said in an email response. “We have witnessed a clear shift in investors focusing on revenue market share and growth vs GMV (gross merchandise value) market share over the last few quarters. Hence, we are witnessing significant inbound interest from investors who believe this is the right strategy for Indian e-commerce going forward. That said, we are currently well-capitalized and have no immediate needs to raise a round.”

Also read | Start-ups that are clear market leaders will gear for IPOs: Tracxn

Flipkart is still India’s largest e-commerce firm, has a near-monopoly in online fashion (a key category) and a large- enough cash war chest to keep up with Amazon’s spending power, at least over the near term.

Ola is a clear market leader and it has shown it can hold its own against Uber. 

Even if Amazon and Uber were to overtake Flipkart and Ola at some point, as long as the Indian firms remain within touching distance of their US rivals, the chances of successful exits are high.

“I am certain that Ola and Flipkart will certainly be among the largest Indian Internet companies a number of years down the road,” said Avnish Bajaj, managing director at Matrix Partners India, one of Ola’s largest investors. “The likes of Bhavish (Aggarwal) and Sachin (Bansal) have the ability, the staying power, personal will and the financial backing to carry their companies to an eventual IPO, and not be forced to sell. They will inspire future Indian entrepreneurs.”

And if there are IPOs, India’s start-ups would’ve achieved their holy grail, he said.

“The biggest challenge will be for the first one to get to an IPO. Once that happens, the floodgates will open for others. But I expect an Indian start-up to do an IPO within two-three years,” added Bajaj.

Others believe some sort of consolidation among Indian e-commerce start-ups is inevitable. China’s Alibaba Group, which is already an investor in Snapdeal and Paytm, is believed to be one of the only suitors which can drive consolidation. In case of such consolidation, it’s difficult to predict what will be the financial outcome for investors.

Copycat investing

This year, investors have already started diversifying away from consumer Internet investments. Apart from taking more time to strike deals, investors have also turned more demanding.

Last year start-ups in hyperlocal groceries, food delivery and hyperlocal services attracted large amounts of capital partly on the basis that they were replicating similar business models from the US or China. That has changed to a large extent so far this year.

In the first half of the year, start-ups in enterprise software, financial and automobile technology, and online pharmacy were popular with investors, according to data from Tracxn.

To be sure, investors and entrepreneurs will always keep an eye on the US and China for start-up ideas. Some of the investments in fintech, for instance, are inspired by start-ups that have come up in the US and China.

But what may change is that start-ups and investors will have to be smarter in adopting these ideas in India and even come up with ones designed specifically for the Indian market.

“Investors will focus more on the uniqueness in operating models and not just on how these models have worked in other markets across the globe,” said Deepak Gaur, managing director at SAIF Partners, a venture capital firm. “We too have started to look for business ideas that are not easily replicable and are trying to solve problems unique only to India. Even entrepreneurs will witness this change and you would see less of business ideas that are me-too of US or Chinese companies.”

In consumer Internet, investors are looking for sustainable business models beyond pure-play marketplaces and niche verticals, said Sanjay Nath, managing director at early-stage fund Blume Ventures. “Redbus and Freecharge have shown India-specific models can create differentiated value vs simply replicating Chinese and Valley unicorn models. The best founders are building a strong technology and operations moat rather than just a capital moat. Another interesting area is enterprise-for-global markets or SaaS (software as a service). Here, start-ups can yield higher margins and gain global customers while leveraging India’s cost advantages,” he said.

READ MORE