Rajesh Sawhney: The ace mentor

The founder of food ordering platform InnerChef and start-up accelerator GSF on what he looks for in young entrepreneurs

Rajesh Sawhney. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Rajesh Sawhney. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

It’s a cloudy day in September, and Rajesh Sawhney has just walked in for lunch, carrying a rucksack and a dark green strolley. He apologizes for being late—the cab driver had missed the narrow lane leading to the restaurant. We are at Café Zoe, a trendy restaurant in Mumbai.

Sawhney, 48, is known for his stint at Times Internet and, more lately, for being the moving force behind GSF Accelerator, a forum that supports tech start-ups with mentoring, networking and funding. Sawhney turned entrepreneur last year—much to everyone’s surprise, he says—and started InnerChef, an online fresh food ordering platform, in Gurgaon, near Delhi, where he lives. InnerChef is now expanding to Bengaluru and Mumbai, and has just raised $2.5 million (about Rs17 crore) in addition to seed funding of $1.5 million raised last year. Sawhney is in Mumbai on business, for both GSF and InnerChef.

The salt-and-pepper-haired Sawhney is genial and expansive. “An entrepreneur has to be a hustler, a hacker,” he says. A misfit for most of his corporate life, he says he decided in 2010 that he did not want to retire as a corporate executive. At the time, he was president of Reliance Entertainment. But it would be another few years before he could make the break and begin meeting start-ups and investors.

“From January-June 2012, I met every start-up I could. I shortlisted 40 of these and called them to a conference I called the Global Super Forum, where I invited angel investors from all over the world.” This became GSF, the accelerator/incubator that he now runs. With a corpus from founder-investors such as Vijay Shekhar Sharma of Paytm, Naveen Tewari of InMobi and Anupam Mittal of People Group, the accelerator has funded more than 40 start-ups over the last three years. “While we haven’t had an Ola kind of blockbuster exit, many of our companies have made money,” says Sawhney, whose best- known exit was selling Little Eye Labs, a start-up that makes software to analyse the performance of Android apps, to Facebook.

It’s 1.45pm, and Sawhney scans the menu with the air of a man who knows what is on it. “The fish here is really good,” he says, and we settle on the grilled salmon, which arrives soon on a bed of mashed potatoes, flanked by broccoli and red and yellow peppers. “I suggested we meet at Café Zoe because this is the kind of food we supply, but at one-fourth the price,” he says. Price can be a touchy issue though. The competition in the food space is strong, and InnerChef has just been in a slugfest with Bengaluru’s FreshMenu. “They cut their prices when we launched, and that is unfortunate,” says Sawhney, who says he stands for “good food on the cloud” rather than e-commerce-style indiscriminate discounts to acquire customers. FreshMenu also used InnerChef’s name in online ads, for which it later apologized.

InnerChef has changed its business model since it first began. “When we launched InnerChef in Delhi, we started with supplying ingredient boxes. We thought we would be the first in the market, but there were 25 companies doing ingredient boxes that started around the same time, of which seven or eight were in Delhi,” he says. Today, all those companies have shut down. InnerChef survived because the founders accepted the reality of consumer preferences. They changed their business: They put together a set of salads and sandwiches, packaged them in boxes decorated with green checks (“for a picnic feel”) and sent them out. The response has been favourable (65,000 meals a month in Delhi and Gurgaon). But food is a tough business, even in India, where Sawhney says you can aim to feed a billion people in the long term. “You have to keep innovating,” he says.

Sawhney is working on developing a food ecosystem with recipes, as well as launching a koala bear “chatbot” that will take customer orders on Facebook Messenger.

Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

“Today, Artificial Intelligence (AI), Big Data and messaging are the hot areas attracting investment. After mobile, the next wave will be messaging. Chatbots that will use machine learning to talk to customers on messaging interfaces such as Facebook Messenger will replace apps and websites,” says Sawhney.

An engineer from the Delhi College of Engineering, Sawhney’s first job was at IT solutions company CMC, where he worked as a coder from 1987-88. From there, he moved to Bennett, Coleman and Co., working as brand manager of The Economic Times before moving on to Times FM and then founding and running Times Internet. In 2005, he left the group to join Reliance Entertainment as founding president.

GSF does not invest much money. What it does is give founders mentorship, networks and access to venture capitalists. Sawhney himself is well networked and has been so ever since his days at Times Internet, when he travelled to Silicon Valley and met the founders of Google and other Internet giants. “It was very informal in those days. You could just walk into Google, say you were from India and ask to meet the founders, who were sitting at regular desks in the office, just like anybody else,” he recalls.

More recently, he met Travis Kalanick, founder of Uber, at the Start-up India event in Delhi organized by the Prime Minister. “Kalanick is a bright and driven leader, very disruptive, with the idea that transport should be like electricity: just there. He is a fierce competitor, ferocious like Jeff Bezos; you can just see it in his energy,” Sawhney says. He looks for this kind of disruptive energy in potential founders.

"Breakfast excites Sawhney. “It’s a massive opportunity (for InnerChef). We do south Indian and we are very good at eggs. India likes eggs,” he says. They work with women entrepreneurs for desserts and other partners for different menu items."

“I heard that 500 start-ups in India have failed in the last 20 months,” he tells me. Of these, almost 50 were in the food business, in which well-funded companies such as TinyOwl have closed down. Sawhney is unfazed. Failure is needed for renewal and to fertilize the ecosystem, he says. He believes some of these founders will go on to start successful second businesses with lessons learnt, and some will return to the corporate world and infuse it with a start-up energy.

Sawhney’s favourite kind of founder is the kind who may succeed massively or fail spectacularly. “But the whiteboard founders—three college mates who sit around a whiteboard, toss ideas around and end up getting into a sector they know nothing about—are the most dangerous,” he warns. Eventually though, a founder should also be a talent magnet, attracting good people.

We have finished our main course and are now on coffee. After all the travelling, he is happy to eat a simple meal of rice and dal at home. His wife, a professor of linguistics at Delhi University’s Gargi College, would like to begin work soon on a start-up in education. His 15-year-old son Arjun often orders from InnerChef. Elder son Rohan is studying AI at Carnegie Mellon University in the US. “ I treat my sons as my mentors. I believe this generation is smarter; they are digital natives,” he says.

If he had to do it again, would he do anything differently ? “I would have become an entrepreneur sooner. There has never been a better time,” he says.

Note: This story has been revised from its original version to clarify a line on well-funded online food delivery start-ups that have shut down.