The entrepreneurs, investors and deal makers who are driving e-commerce in India
MintAsia profiles the 25 most influential people—entrepreneurs, investors and deal makers—driving Internet commerce in India. E-commerce start-ups have collectively raised more than $8 billion from private equity and venture capital investors since the start of 2014, including nearly $4 billion this year alone, pushing their valuations to lofty heights. Meet the people who have made online commerce the next big thing in Asia’s third largest economy.
AMAZON’S MAN IN INDIA: Amit Agarwal, 41
—BTech, Indian Institute of Technology-Kanpur; MS, Stanford University
—Because Agarwal launched and heads Amazon India, which has become the biggest challenger to local e-commerce firms. Agarwal has been the head of Amazon’s e-commerce business in India since 2013
—Long-distance runner, former rock band member
Under Amit Agarwal’s leadership, Amazon is keeping Flipkart, the poster boy of Indian e-commerce founded by two former Amazon employees, on its toes.
The former technical advisor (2007-09; he has six patents in the US, while 13 more are pending in the US and eight outside) to Amazon chief Jeff Bezos has charted the company’s course in India with the precision of an academic and the composure of a Zen master. Maybe it’s because of the running. “You learn the value of long-term thinking and about running the distance, not against others," says Agarwal.
Sample this. In the June quarter this year, Amazon’s sales—net of discounts, product returns and taxes—surged more than 300% and unit sales grew more than 500% as against the year ago period. In comparison, Flipkart’s unit sales grew by 150% this far in 2015 while Snapdeal reported a 222% increase in gross merchandise value in the April-June quarter.
Despite the success of Amazon, Agarwal, a die-hard Amitabh Bachchan fan, maintains that it is early days for e-commerce in India. He should know; he launched Amazon’s business in Italy and Spain, before coming to India.
“These are very early days for Indian e-commerce and there’s a massive opportunity to innovate on behalf of the customer. India is uniquely placed with its large, entrepreneurial SME (small and medium enterprise) ecosystem keen to take advantage of the digital economy and become national and global businesses," says Agarwal.
TRACKING START-UPS: Abhishek Goyal, 35
—BTech, Indian Institute of Technology-Kanpur
—Goyal is a sports buff
—Because there’s so much happening in the space that it requires special skills and a start-up like Tracxn to keep track of it all. Goyal founded Tracxn in 2013
Abhishek Goyal is a man of many parts—techie, entrepreneur, venture capitalist and start-up tracker and champion (he admits he is “irrationally optimistic").
With co-founder Neha Singh (formerly of Sequoia), he set up Tracxn Technologies Pvt. Ltd, a data analytics firm to track start-ups around the world. It is currently used by over 100 venture funds, including Andreessen Horowitz, Google Capital, Sequoia Capital, even some companies such as Dropbox. It gives investors a perspective of around 100 sectors ranging from legal tech to blockchain applications apart from information about start-ups. Tracxn claims to have the largest team of analysts tracking start-ups globally and data on about 20 million companies.
“I think the current frenzy (about start-ups) is only the beginning of a mega-trend. India is almost the last large consumer market and its openness is very exciting—it allows global players to come to India and push the boundaries of innovation—and at the same time, it open doors for Indian entrepreneurs to go global and open much larger markets," said Goyal.
Still, no matter what Goyal achieves with Tracxn, he is always going to be known as the man who convinced his employer Accel Partners to become the first investor in Flipkart and Myntra. After Accel put up cash, Goyal worked closely with both start-ups to build their teams. He also ran the beauty and fashion online retailer, Urban Touch, from 2011 to 2013, until its sale to rival Fashionandyou. Now, Goyal is back to investing in start-ups as a side job. He has invested in more than 30 start-ups, some in his personal capacity and some through TracxnLabs, the start-up incubator. Some of his investments include Delhivery, which most recently raised a series D round of funding of $85 million, Travel Triangle and Zoomo. “I am hoping to back more global companies in future," said Goyal.
THE SURVIVOR: Avnish Bajaj, 45
—BTech, Indian Institute of Technology-Kanpur; MBA, Harvard Business School
—Takes ‘workcations’, spends all his free time with kids, going trekking, playing chess or even cycling
—Because Bajaj was part of India’s first dot-com boom (and bust) and now backs some of India’s largest start-ups. Bajaj sold Bazee in 2004 and co-founded Matrix in 2006
At one point of time in the past decade, Bazee, founded in 2000, at the peak of the first dot-com boom, was the biggest e-commerce company in India. It was founded by Avnish Bajaj and Suvir Sujan and built around the eBay model. Not surprisingly, it was acquired by eBay in a deal that reportedly valued Bazee at $50 million.
Two years after the sale, Bajaj founded Matrix and while the firm missed out on early e-commerce deals—Bajaj, particularly, rues missing out on Snapdeal—it now boasts a portfolio that includes ANI Technologies (which runs Ola), Quikr India Pvt. Ltd, and Practo Technologies Pvt. Ltd. The three are among the 10 most valuable start-ups in India currently.
True to his provenance, Bajaj backs entrepreneurs, not companies—one reason why Matrix led the second round of investments in ANI. Over the past 18 months, Matrix has made 10 seed-stage investments. It has so far exited (fully or partly) five-six firms, and is looking to make five-six more next year. It also sees itself making around 12 investments every year.
THE TRANSPORTER: Bhavish Aggarwal, 29
—BTech, Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay
—Does not own a personal vehicle. Only uses Ola cabs to commute
—Because Ola is a clear market leader, already a unicorn and also holding its own (so far) against the world’s most highly valued start-up Uber. Founded Ola Cabs in 2010 (along with Ankit Bhati)
ANI has raised $700 million of capital thus far and is raising $500 million more at a valuation of $5 billion. It is up against San Francisco-based Uber Technologies Inc., recently valued at around $50 billion.
Yet, this is no David vs Goliath battle. The dominance and tactics of Ola (the brand under which ANI operates), have made Uber the follower, not the leader in India. And earlier this year, Bhavish Aggarwal moved quickly to buy smaller rival TaxiForSure for $200 million in a deal that helped expand Ola its lead and consolidate its status as the most attractive alternative to Uber for investors who want to bet on cab services.
ANI was quick to bet on the mobile Internet boom and Aggarwal is convinced the good times will last.
“Mobile penetration is growing really fast in India. India is on its way to becoming the second largest smartphone market globally in the coming year after the US. My view is that consumer Internet will be driven by mobile in the coming years. Positively skewed demographics, lower data charges, better connectivity with superior options like 4G and extremely affordable handsets are making this a reality. This is the time for on-demand businesses to consider going mobile first if they already haven’t," Agarwal said.
THE ORIGINAL: Deep Kalra, 46
—Post-Graduate Diploma in Business Management, Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad
—Because he pioneered online travel booking in India, and not just survived the dot-com meltdown but also went on to list on Nasdaq in 2010. Kalra founded MakeMyTrip in 2000
Online travel and holiday websites, which facilitate the booking of air tickets and hotel rooms, are dime a dozen in India. But MakeMyTrip has held its own. Just like it survived the dot-com bust.
Deep Kalra, the company’s founder, is also a member of the executive council of the National Association of Software and Service Companies (Nasscom), charter member of TiE (The Indus Entrepreneurs), and angel investor; but back in 2000, he was just another entrepreneur starting up a company in the biggest and worst market there is for start-ups—the US. The company launched its Indian operations in 2005.
Kalra has seen it all—the dot-com bust, the crisis the travel industry went through after 9/11, and venture capitalists who pulled out. But Kalra persevered. In 2010, he listed his company on the Nasdaq. This year, the company announced the creation of a $15 million innovation fund in September to support early-stage companies in the travel space.
But Kalra’s biggest achievement is changing the way India travels.
THE SEED-CAPITAL MAN: Deepak Gaur, 38
—BTech, Indian Institute of Technology-Kanpur
—Fitness enthusiast. Meditates regularly, plays badminton
—Because he is the India pointsman for a firm that has, for 14 years now, been one of the most active early-stage investors in India. Gaur joined SAIF in 2006
It may be fashionable to be an early-stage investor now. It wasn’t in the middle of the last decade, around the time Deepak Gaur joined SAIF.
SAIF counts online travel company MakeMyTrip and search services firm JustDial among its successful exits, and Gaur has continued in the same vein, making big (and early) bets on online furniture seller Urban Ladder, movie and events ticketing site Bookmyshow, logistics provider Rivigo, budget accommodation start-up Treebo Hotels and food delivery site Swiggy.
With stints in McKinsey and Co. and IBM Global Services in India, Gaur is well equipped to look at investments in Internet, information technology services, consumer and the industrial space. That should be seen in the context of the $350 million SAIF raised for a new India-focused fund in March, according to a filing with US regulatory agency Securities and Exchange Commission.
“We believe that the quality of execution and customer experience, in addition to sound unit economics will be a big differentiator as the industry matures and capital becomes less freely available. We saw that playing out in the last 2010-11 time frame when there was some consolidation in e-commerce and is very likely to pan out in next couple of years," said Gaur.
FIRST FOODIE: Deepinder Goyal, 32
—BTech, Indian Institute of Technology-Delhi
—Parents are teachers, while wife is a professor
—Because he changed the way people looked at food ordering and created the first global app from India. Goyal founded Zomato in 2008
Few entrepreneurs dare to expand in several international markets while they are in their early stage of business. Deepinder Goyal, the co-founder of Zomato, took that plunge headlong.
Goyal, 32, and friend Pankaj Chaddah founded Foodiebay, which was later renamed Zomato in 2010. The idea was simple: to change the way customers browsed for restaurants or eating joints.
Zomato started as a simple website carrying menus (usually scanned) and featuring the phone numbers of restaurants. It is now a business valued around $1 billion that allows customers to order food, book tables, and, in some markets, even pay for it.
The idea, conceived when Goyal was a consultant at Bain and Co., has become an enterprise that spans 10,000 cities across 22 countries, including the UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.
Goyal has been an active and eager acquirer. In an acquisition binge last year, he acquired seven companies including Urbanspoon in the US.
Goyal doesn’t shy away from speaking his mind on public issues and is very active on micro-blogging site Twitter. He stood up for Net neutrality when leading telecom service provider Airtel launched a platform, Airtel Zero, which would allow free access of some websites on it network.
“He inspires many entrepreneurs by having a successful business globally. Now they know that a company can build a product in India, for India and then that product can succeed globally as well," said Mohit Bhatnagar, managing director with Sequoia Capital, one of the investors in the company.
While Goyal stays away from mentoring new start-ups or playing an angel investor, he has invested in hyperlocal business Grofers and a mobile marketplace for crowdsourced work SquadRun.
EVERY START-UP’S I-BANKER: Gaurav Deepak, 41
—BTech, Indian Institute of Technology-Kanpur; post-graduate diploma in business management, Indian Institute of Management-Calcutta
—Because Avendus is the biggest deal maker in the dot-com space
In a recent listing of bulge bracket investment banks released by Thomson Reuters, Avendus came second only to Morgan Stanley. According to that listing, Avendus made $7.8 million in terms of i-bank fees in the first half of 2015.
That position is courtesy the deals the bank has done in the digital space. And that is largely because Gaurav Deepak decided Avendus would create a team to focus on the space, and then went out and hired Aashish Bhinde to head it. Bhinde has since emerged the No. 1 rainmaker in the e-commerce space.
Deepak himself is very hands-on as well, as the head of the firm’s financial advisory business and the international operations.
The firm has raised capital for online classifieds business Quikr, Internet marketplace ShopClues, logistics firm Delhivery, music streaming company Saavn and furniture and home products site Pepperfry. It also worked on the $200 million acquisition of TaxiForSure by cab hailing company Ola this year.
THIRD TIME LUCKY: Kunal Bahl, 32
—Graduate from University of Pennsylvania–The Wharton School
—Foodie, passionate about adventure sports; wife has her own start-up supplying cotton candy for parties
—Because he may well be the dark horse in India’s three-cornered e-commerce race. Bahl founded Snapdeal (along with Rohit Bansal) in 2008
Few entrepreneurs are brave enough to change their business model (termed pivoting in start-up lingo) once.
Kunal Bahl has done so twice.
First, he transformed his physical couponing business into an online deals-only platform.
Then, in 2011, he transformed this into an e-commerce marketplace.
It’s been third time lucky for Snapdeal (the company’s name is Jasper Infotech), which is backed by Japan’s SoftBank, China’s Alibaba (the company it is modelled after in its present form), Foxconn and a clutch of global and Indian investors.
“Kunal isn’t afraid to change gears…," said Ken Glass, one of the early investors in Snapdeal. “Kunal also has an uncanny ability to see beyond the short-term and though pressure is high at the moment, his clarity of vision allows him to consider the more significant lasting effect of decisions."
Snapdeal isn’t Bahl’s first tryst with entrepreneurship; he floated a detergent company back in the US while he was a student at the Wharton Business School.
Since the time it was founded, Snapdeal has acquired around 12 start-ups.
In April, Snapdeal acquired mobile recharge services firm Freecharge for $450 million in a move to create the largest mobile commerce business in the country.
Bahl, who now owns less than 5% in Jasper, turned an angel investor early on and picked up stake in Ola, a company worth $5 billion today. He has also invested in food tech start-up Tinyowl and hyperlocal services business Urbanclap.
RIDING THE TIGER: Lee Fixel, 35
—Co-head of global PE and VC, Tiger Global Management, a venture capital firm
—A graduate from the London School of Economics. Also studied science, business administration, finance, accounting from Washington University
—An Indian investor in the skin of an American
—Because he is the man who bankrolled e-commerce in India and is the driving force behind Flipkart
He isn’t seen much, although he is a frequent visitor to India, but until the entry of investors such as SoftBank Corp. and DST Global last year, Lee Fixel was quite simply the man who bankrolled e-commerce in India.
People who have worked with him say that Fixel is an Indian in the skin of an American Jew.
His decisions, they say, aren’t just driven by the strength of ideas and the size of market opportunities. There are other factors as well—age (the lower the better), entrepreneurship track record (none preferred), and a high rank in the entrance examination to the Indian Institutes of Technology..
New York-based Tiger Global Management has been on the prowl in India since early 2005. Globally, it is largely known as a tech-heavy hedge fund which once invested mostly in late-stage companies. It was only after its successful exits from US and Chinese start-ups that Tiger started looking at India, investing in companies such as MakeMyTrip and JustDial. Both worked for it, and the company bought into the India story.
Since Fixel’s first investment in MakeMyTrip in 2007, he has invested in around 35 start-ups—from Flipkart to Ola to Chaayos to Ather Energy. Though Fixel spearheads Tiger Global Management’s India operations sitting out of New York, he is in the country once in two months. Fixel moves swiftly on deals, giving him an edge over other venture capital firms. “What makes Lee such an amazing investor is his ability to take quick decisions based on detailed research and homework. He has an uncluttered vision of the big picture and tends to back his entrepreneurs to the hilt," said Deep Kalra, founder of MakeMyTrip Ltd.
GLOBAL, BUT HYPERLOCAL: Mohit Bhatnagar, 46
—Managing director, Sequoia Capital, a venture capital firm
—MBA from University of North Carolina
—The former Airtel executive worked in various product management roles before becoming an investor
—Because Sequoia was the first real VC firm to enter India
Sequoia is the 800-pound gorilla of the Indian venture capital business; the US West Coast firm that was an early investor in Apple Inc., Oracle Corp., Cisco Systems Inc., Yahoo Inc., and Google Inc.
It was, for long, the only genuine venture capital firm to operate in the market. It funded a spate of interesting start-ups that have gone on to become winners—Hector Beverages Pvt. Ltd, Vasan Eyecare and Micromax Informatics Ltd.
Yet, it was also a firm that chose to either sit out the Indian e-commerce opportunity (for whatever reasons) or missed it entirely (depending on which version of the story you buy). Mohit Bhatnagar is one of the men driving Sequoia’s strategy in India. It is a strategy that is built around several consumer businesses, hyperlocal start-ups and new media. Two of India’s most successful apps—Dailyhunt (formerly Newshunt) and Zomato—are Sequoia portfolio companies.
Bhatnagar, who has worked for Bharti Airtel Ltd and Ericsson AB, believes the future is in hyperlocal (which could explain why Sequoia has investments in seven such firms), and that the concept of local rapid product and service delivery will become as all-encompassing a trend as mobility.
“Five, six years back we used to say, companies are going mobile because the mobile trend was coming and every company will shift there. In a similar way, all companies are going to go hyperlocal," said Bhatnagar, who describes his role in portfolio companies as hands-off and akin to that of an air traffic controller.
THE THIRD BANSAL: Mukesh Bansal, 40
—B Tech, Indian Institute of Technology-Kanpur
—Loves working in start-ups. Bansal founded Myntra in February 2007; firm was acquired by Flipkart in May 2014 for an estimated $350 million
—Because Myntra held its own against deep-pocketed rivals before its sale, and, because, since then, Mukesh has become the third Bansal at Flipkart
Mukesh Bansal scripted one of the most valuable deals in Indian e-commerce when he sold Myntra, an online fashion store he co-founded in 2007, to cross-town rival Flipkart for an estimated $350 million. At that time, it was the biggest deal in the homegrown consumer Internet space until Snapdeal coughed up $400 million for Freecharge almost a year later.
Start-ups have been Bansal’s bread and butter, barring a two-year stint at Deloitte. In earlier interviews, Bansal said he worked with four start-ups, two of which bombed.
This, however, did not deter him from launching Myntra with his personal savings of 30 lakh. The company started out with personalized products, but pivoted soon to online apparel sales. Subsequently, Myntra went on to raise about $160 million before merging with Flipkart, where Bansal has risen the ranks to become the chief of Flipkart’s commerce business and a board member.
Under Bansal’s stewardship, Myntra pioneered online fashion retail. The company convinced people to buy fashion by offering a wide selection, deep discounts and fast and free delivery. Myntra also launched private brands, which was then unheard of in Indian e-commerce. Until its sale in May 2014, Myntra had held off competition from two rivals, which had far deeper pockets: Flipkart and Jabong. The sale catapulted Bansal into one of India’s most successful entrepreneurs. Even so, his rise at Flipkart has surprised many analysts. Bansal is one of the top three leaders at India’s most valuable e-commerce firm, along with its founders Sachin Bansal and Binny Bansal. As head of Flipkart’s commerce platform, Mukesh Bansal is in charge of the company’s bread and butter. This is somewhat of an exception in the Indian start-up ecosystem, where big-ticket takeovers entail exit of the founding team of the acquired company (TaxiForSure and RedBus for instance).
With Flipkart taking up most of his time, Bansal recently decided to step down as Myntra’s CEO. He is now chairman, while former McKinsey India director Ananth Narayanan has taken over as CEO.
Bansal believes that the spurt in Internet penetration and mobile phone adoption will boost the growth of e-commerce in the next five years or so.
“The Internet is evolving rapidly with almost 85% of traffic generated through mobile phones and almost all of it being on the app. This year alone, over 120 million smartphones will be sold in India, as compared with three million laptops, clearly indicating the move to a mobile-focused economy," he said.
SECOND ACT: Nikesh Arora, 47
—MS (Boston College); MBA (Northeastern University); Bachelors in Electrical Engineering; Institute of Technology in Varanasi
—Because Arora runs the VC business of SoftBank, which has become one of the most influential investors in Indian e-commerce. Arora has been investing in India since 2014
As second acts go, Nikesh Arora’s will take some doing to beat. In the first, he was head of sales at Google, perhaps the fourth most visible figure at the firm, after Eric Schmidt, Sergey Brin and Larry Page. India and Indian industry adopted him in the overwhelming way in which they make their own any Indian who has achieved success on the global stage. Then he quit, to join SoftBank Corp. And was soon named the person in charge of the firm’s venture capital business. Many see him as a heir to the legendary Masayoshi Son.
The big bang entry of SoftBank, an early backer of China’s Alibaba, has changed the Indian start-up scene. SoftBank is a genuine tech investing powerhouse. The company owns roughly one-third of Alibaba, which has a market value of more than $180 billion. It is also one of the most prolific start-up investors with a portfolio of anywhere between 1,300 and 1,500 companies.
Since joining SoftBank last year, Arora helped lead large investments of more than $900 million in Jasper Infotech Pvt. Ltd-run Snapdeal, Ola and Housing.
In July, Arora announced that SoftBank will avoid investing in early-stage firms, and shift its focus entirely towards backing more established start-ups.
PEACEKEEPER: Rahul Matthan, 44
—BA LLB (Hons), National Law School of India University
—A photography and travel enthusiast who is also a gastronome/food connoisseur
—Because he is rapidly emerging as the go-to person for clarity on several legal aspects of India’s emerging digital landscape
If there is a company whose business model relies on user-generated content, and some users post obscene or anti-national content, who will be held liable? How do e-commerce companies deal with users’ private personal information? Who is liable when a logistics delivery person gets into an accident because of over-speeding—the e-commerce company whose parcel he was delivering or the logistics firm he is a contract-employee of? Are the steep discounts given by these firms anti-competitive?
New-age companies have to deal with new-age challenges and old-world laws.
There are few lawyers who deeply understand technology and the structural challenges that these companies face. Rahul Matthan, a founding partner at the legal firm Trilegal, is one such. He advises firms such as Flipkart , Practo and InMobi.
“My clients find that the old regulations which apply in the real world are the ones which come in the way," says Matthan.
Investors in several new-age companies, who are for the most part, foreign, also face some restrictions as they need approval from the Foreign Investment Promotion Board, Matthan adds, even as he questions the restrictions on foreign investment in e-commerce.
A foodie and travel enthusiast, Matthan edits two sections related to these on the blogging platform Medium. His eponymous website directs you, not to a bio of his work, but to a collection of photographs of people and places from all around the world.
THE ORIGINAL BANSAL: Sachin Bansal, 35
—BTech, Indian Institute of Technology-Delhi
—Father and brother are both businessmen, wife is a dentist
—Because he (and co-founder of Flipkart, Binny Bansal, no relation) remain the first names that come to mind when one talks of e-commerce in India
It started with books. It started with Sachin Bansal and co-founder Binny Bansal standing outside the once iconic Gangaram bookstore in Bengaluru’s MG Road and handing out Flipkart bookmarks to anyone who came out with a book. It started as a Amazon clone.
Eight years on, Flipkart is valued at $15 billion, the posterchild of India’s e-commerce boom. It has staved off (so far, at least) competition from Amazon (and its $2 billion war chest for India). And Sachin and Binny Bansal have backed companies such as electric scooter maker Ather, online art platform TouchTalent, news portal News In Shorts, Internet-first kitchen Spoonjoy, start-up incubator TracxnLabs and offline games start-up MadRat Games.
People who have worked with Sachin Bansal say the hard-earned success and personal wealth—he holds about 8-9% stake in Flipkart—has not got into his head. They claim he is still grounded and spends more than 12 hours a day devising Flipkart’s next big leap. With a bevy of senior executives from Google and Motorola on board, Sachin Bansal is gradually moving away from overseeing day-to-day operations in the company and increasing focus on strategy and new projects. To begin with, Bansal is spearheading the company’s entry into the advertisement business.
INDIA’S JOBS MAN: Sanjeev Bikhchandani, 52
—Post-graduate diploma in business management, Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad
—Because he is one of the few Internet entrepreneurs in India who managed to survive the 1999-2000 dot-com bust, now runs an Internet conglomerate, and is an investor to boot. Bikhchandani founded Info Egde in 1995
In 2000, after saying no for years, Info Edge’s Sanjeev Bikhchandani finally said yes and raised $1.7 million from ICICI Venture for his jobs site Naukri.com. But the dot-com bust happened. So, Bikhchandani put the money in a fixed deposit.
Today, Info Edge is a conglomerate. It runs real estate classifieds site 99acres.com, matrimonial website Jeevansathi.com and education classifieds business Shiksha.com, apart from Naukri.com. And Bikhchandani himself has sort of emerged the elder statesman of the Internet space in India, although his pet cause is education (he is involved in Ashoka University, which aims to push the case of liberal arts education in India).
Naukri was born at a time when print ruled the jobs classifieds business. For its first six months, the website just uploaded appointment ads from newspapers and magazines (for free).
Bikhchandani is an early investor in food discovery and ordering site Zomato. He made a $1 million investment in it in 2010 and has followed it up with investments worth a total of 327 crore. As of September 2015, Info Edge owns a 47% stake in Zomato. Besides Zomato, Bikhchandani has invested in insurance advisory and lead generation site Policybazaar India and education site Meritnation.
START-UP SHAMAN: Sharad Sharma, 51
—BE, Delhi College of Engineering
—Because hi-tech product start-ups need a voice, a cheerleader and a champion, and Sharma is all rolled into one
Sharad Sharma is a bear and that is not an entirely bad thing. Even as the valuations of consumer Internet unicorns soar, his is a singular voice of reason—urging people to be cautious, innovative and understand that blindly following precedents set elsewhere in the world will not do. Through iSpirt, the active angel investor and CEO of BrandSigma (he was previously head of Yahoo’s research and development arm in India), has been pushing his innovation agenda and championing the cause of new software product start-ups. “There is copy-paste entrepreneurship, and there’s innovation-led entrepreneurship and in China copy-paste entrepreneurship has worked because it’s a closed market. Global competitors cannot operate in that space. But India is not China. So copy-paste entrepreneurship will not work. And, therefore, India has to focus on innovation-led entrepreneurship, and all the Chinese, Japanese, Russian and American private equity money that has come to support copy-paste entrepreneurship will be disappointed in the future," says Sharma.
Sharma’s own angel investments include Stayzilla, Ezetap, Druva software, MyPoolin, Wishberry, LetsVenture, Ciafo and Frrole.
DIE-HARD ANGEL: Sasha Mirchandani, 43
—Post-graduate diploma in business management, Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad
—Hails from the Onida family (Mirc Electronics Ltd); his wife, an alumnus of LSE, is a CFO
—Because he’s one of the most respected angel investors and has backed companies such as InMobi and Myntra. He founded Kae in 2011
Sasha Mirchandani, the buzz in India’s start-up world goes, is the man to call if you have an idea. He understands both traditional and new-age businesses, the first the result of his lineage and the second, his experience. He is also very well connected to investors with deep pockets as well as investment bankers. Both combinations are difficult to find in one person—and they are just the things young start-ups need.
After trying his hand at a healthcare back office company and running the Indian operations of a global venture capital fund, Mirchandani decided to become an angel. In 2006, at a time when few people realised what angel investing meant, he set up Mumbai Angels (an individual investment network). He has made personal investments in companies such as InMobi, Healthkart and Myntra (acquired by Flipkart). In 2011, he set up Kae Capital. Its investments include companies like Trulymadly (dating app), Frsh (food tech) and Porter (logistics). The fund has seen one international exit through Zipdial that was bought by Twitter in 2015. He is in the process of raising a second fund this year.
While he backs some companies even in later stages, Mirchandani has a strict rule of not putting more than 10% of his fund in any single company. In short, he doesn’t bet his house on one start-up.
THE CHIEF OPERATING INVESTOR:Subrata Mitra, 49
—BTech, Indian Institute of Technology-Kanpur; PhD in computer science, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
—Because Accel has invested in companies that have become the standard-bearers in their respective domains. Mitra has been involved in four acquisitions
Subrata Mitra, a former entrepreneur, has been a part of four successful acquisitions: Flipkart’s buyout of Myntra; Western Digita Corp.’s all-cash acquisition of Virident Inc. for $685 million; Ameriquest Mortgage Co.’s acquisition of Tavant Technologies Inc., where Mitra served as managing director; and Ubiquio Corp.’s acquisition of Firewhite Inc., a company he founded.
Before Accel, Mitra, Prashant Prakash and, a third Accel partner, Mahendra Balachandran, ran Erasmic Venture Fund. Erasmic was bought by Accel in 2008.
Mitra is a hands-on investor. Be it guiding Myntra during its transition from a personalized products business to a fashion destination, helping Flipkart figure out which operating metrics mattered in its early days to helping Virident hire a software team, he has done it all. “I was effectively the first chief operating officer for Mu-Sigma for the first six to eight months, helping hire the entire senior team, talking to early customers...," says Mitra, who serves on the board of Flipkart, Myntra, Mu-Sigma, CommonFloor and Virident.
These investments, and more like them in Bookmyshow, TaxiForSure and Freshdesk have made Accel, the venture capital firm to watch in India.
THE SOCIAL RETAILER: Suchi Mukherjee, 42
—MSc, London School of Economics
—A hands-on mother of two—a son and a daughter; Mukherjee is married to a Barclays banker
—Because she launched social commerce firm LimeRoad, which is trying to take on the likes of Myntra and others by selling fashion in a new format. She is also one of the few Indian women entrepreneurs who has created a valuable business online
It’s a bad name to mention in September, but Suchi Mukherjee’s first job was as an investment banker at Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. That’s where she learned about telecom. In 2003, she moved to the consumer division of Virgin Media Inc. And in 2006, she moved to eBay Inc., where she was part of the teams managing Skype and Gumtree.
The launch of LimeRoad can, in some ways, be explained as the distillation of all those experiences. Mukherjee was always passionate about fashion, clothing and accessories; she clubbed this passion with a mission to reach out to Indian and global markets through an online medium. Her idea was to create an online magazine that would capture current trends and make women feel the need to buy into them instantly.
Mukherjee’s business model was way ahead of time, but fashion discovery, a curated marketplace, and content were the pillars that build LimeRoad. She didn’t go down the discounting route. And she wanted her business to always generate more cash than it burned; the company looks at margins of between 20% and 25%. LimeRoad has raised a total of $50 million in funding so far. Matrix Partners, Lightspeed Ventures and Tiger Global are investors in the company. While many e-commerce companies in India have male founders, Mukherjee is one of the few women (others include Richa Kar of Zivame ) who has created a valuable business and a name for herself in the Internet business.
THE INDIAN VC TO WATCH: Suvir Sujan, 43
—Founder and managing director at Nexus Venture Partners, a VC firm
—MBA, Harvard Business School
—Because, with Sequoia and Accel, Nexus completes the trio of VC firms that has been most active in India, and it is a home-grown firm
With partner Avnish Bajaj, also a venture capitalist now, Suvir Sujan, a former Boston Consulting Group consultant, founded Bazee, modelled on eBay Inc., and then sold it to, who else, eBay. In 2006, he co-founded Nexus with Naren Gupta and Sandeep Singhal.
Sujan’s headline investments include online marketplace Snapdeal, logistics provider Delhivery, food ordering app TinyOwl and real estate portal Housing. Of these, Snapdeal and Delhivery, valued at an estimated $4.5 billion and $400 million, respectively, are two of the top six most valuable start-ups in India. Sujan’s other high-profile investments include advertisement technology firm Pubmatic and classifieds site Olx. These bets have helped make Nexus the pre-eminent Indian venture capital firm. Nexus invested in both Snapdeal and Delhivery before their business models became popular with investors. “We took a contrarian bet and focused on marketplaces and e-commerce enablers (b2b) when “inventory" and “consumer b2c" were the buzzwords a few years ago. So far, we feel that most of our bets are market leaders in their spaces and are playing out well," Sujan says.
As a former entrepreneur himself, Sujan prefers the light touch while dealing with start-up founders.
“We like to be ‘invited guests’ on the board. (We) help where the entrepreneur wants help. (But) generally entrepreneurs seek our help given our operating backgrounds," Sujan adds.
—Went to engineering school at 16. Climbed Mt Kilimanjaro; runs marathons
—Because she has been more adept than most other investors in identifying inflection points. Kola has been investing in India since 2006
“In our first meeting, she asked us so many tough questions that I thought the meeting didn’t go well. I expected never to hear from her again," says Kunal Bahl, co-founder of Snapdeal, one of Kalaari’s investments.
Indeed, Vani Kola has something of a bad cop image in the start-up ecosystem.
But she called back in a couple of hours—with more questions, adds Bahl.
Kola, a successful tech entrepreneur in the US for two decades, returned to India in 2006. Along with her partners Rajesh Raju and Kumar Shiralagi, she has built an enviable portfolio: Snapdeal, Myntra (acquired by Flipkart), Zivame, Urban Ladder, SimpliLearn and HushBabies, among others. Kola has been ahead of others in identifying inflection points, and encouraging her companies to pivot—refine or change their business models. For instance, she encouraged Mukesh Bansal of Myntra to pivot the start-up to a full-fledged online fashion retailer from a seller of personalized products and backed Snapdeal’s Bahl when he wanted to shift to an online marketplace from a deals site.
SPEED RACER: Vijay Shekhar Sharma, 37
—BE, Delhi College of Engineering
—Because the Indian economy is rapidly becoming a cashless one and he is at the vanguard of the transformation. Sharma founded his first start-up when he was 18
Vijay Shekhar Sharma loves speed. Whether it is driving at 200km per hour, sky diving or creating a $100 billion company, he wants pace in his life.
“One company differs from other not in ideas and strategy, but only in the speed of execution," says the entrepreneur, who hails from Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh.
Sharma, founder of Paytm, a mobile wallet and e-commerce marketplace, is among the 11 recipients of a payments bank licence from the Reserve Bank of India (RBI). He is also the most recent entrant to jump into the fray in India’s hyper-competitive e-commerce space. He was derided by some analysts when he announced he wanted to enter the marketplace business and take on Flipkart, Snapdeal and Amazon. He stuck to his plans and convinced China’s Alibaba to pump in at least $575 million into Paytm earlier this year. He is betting that Paytm’s large customer base of 22 million people can be converted into shoppers for mobile phones, tablets, laptops and other products.
Sharma was only 18 years old when he founded his first company in the digital services space—Xs Corp.; three years later, he sold it for $1 million. He then founded a mobile content company, One97 Communications, in 2001. In 2006, the company expanded into mobile marketing. The business generates over 100 crore of profits every year, Sharma claims.
In 2011, Sharma launched Paytm with the aim of creating India’s largest payments network. Born to a retired school principal and a home maker, Sharma is known for his humility and a sharp mind. And his unrivalled ambition. He claims he will build Paytm into a global business. “I believe India has the potential to generate their own Alibaba, Tencent and Taobao," he says.
THE LISTINGS MAN: Venkatachalam Sthanu Subramani (VSS Mani), 49
—Didn’t complete either his bachelor’s degree in commerce or CA
—Because he’s one of the very few tech entrepreneurs who’s delivered actual value to shareholders by taking his company public. Mani had started JD (AskMe) in 1989
Venkatachalam Sthanu Subramani, the chief executive officer of India’s largest search engine JustDial.com (JD), has successfully managed to digitize the telephone directory and his company owns one of the biggest databases in the country.
In a business that is increasingly become data-oriented, that is a big advantage. Originally conceived as AskMe in 1989, Mani has made JustDial synonymous with classifieds after its reincarnation in 1998.
His efforts attracted over $60 million in venture capital funding before the company went public in 2013 and decided to sell shares worth up to 950 crore. It remains the second biggest initial public offer by a domestic Internet company. And unlike tech entrepreneurs who are left with single-digit stakes in their companies after a few years, Mani and his family still own 32.6% of the company’s shares.
The company has a market capitalization of 7,600 crore; it posted a net profit of 33.17 crore in the first quarter of 2015-16 and directly employs close to 11,000 people.
JD has helped local handymen widen their reach and laid the foundation for the boom in the on-demand service sector in India. While JD is facing competition from a host of new start-ups, it still gets over two million enquiries per day.
“We have not even scratched the surface as yet," Mani says and adds that only 2.5% of the businesses listed in JD pay money. JD is now launching lifestyle apps and entering new segments to further expand the scope of a company which started off by merely getting and listing phone numbers.
SERIOUS ABOUT TECH: Yuri Milner, 54
—Theoretical Physics (Moscow University); MBA (Wharton Business School)
—Married to contemporary artist Julia Milner
—Because he’s one of the few genuine tech investing powerhouses operating in India and holds stakes in several large start-ups
Billionaire investor Yuri Borisovich Milner has time and again proved his keen eye for a profitable venture. The 62nd richest man on the planet with an estimated $3.1 billion of wealth, according to Forbes, Milner’s early bets include social media giant Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc.
His venture capital firm DST Global is now trying to replicate that success in India. DST holds significant minority stakes in two of the three largest start-ups: Flipkart and Ola. Milner, in his personal capacity, has also invested in Practo and Grofers, two other fast-growing start-ups. The four start-ups referred to above are collectively worth nearly $20 billion—not bad for an investor who entered India barely 15 months ago.
Compiled by Ashna Ambre, Mihir Dalal, Priyanka Sahay, Sadhana Chathurvedula, Sayan Chakraborty, Sharan Poovanna and Shrutika Verma.
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