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Business News/ Opinion / Online-views/  Unicorns: The new normal

When online healthcare services platform Practo last raised capital from a consortium of investors including Chinese Internet giant Tencent, its valuation reportedly crossed half-a-billion dollars from under $150 million. Eleven months later, the Bengaluru-based start-up, according to The Economic Times, is sprinting towards a valuation of over $600 million as it negotiates with investors to raise another $50-60 million.

If Practo does breach the $600 million valuation mark, it will be within striking distance of a billion-dollar valuation and enter the coveted club of unicorns—start-ups valued privately at a billion dollars or more.

The business of making unicorns, however, isn’t terribly popular these days. A series of unicorn valuation markdowns by investors around the world, and in India, may have something to do with that. After the deluge of unicorns in India last year, there’s a definite lull. This year, we have had only one entrant so far—Gurgaon-based e-commerce marketplace Shopclues. The company, founded in July 2011, scored a $1.1 billion valuation in January when it raised an undisclosed sum from Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund GIC, Tiger Global Management and Nexus Venture Partners. Separate media reports put the size of the round at between $100 million and $150 million. Prior to that round, the company had raised $131 million, according to data compiled by Crunchbase.

India currently sports eight unicorns, according to data compiled by research firm CB Insights. Six—Snapdeal, Ola, InMobi, Zomato, Quikr and Paytm—popped up in rapid succession within just 12 months between May 2014 and May 2015. Together, they had already raised hundreds of millions of dollars from multiple investors by the time they were christened unicorns. Flipkart and Mu Sigma had joined the club a little earlier, in 2012 and 2013, respectively.

Bengaluru-based e-commerce player Flipkart’s path to the billion-dollar valuation club opened the floodgates to the unicorn frenzy in India. The company hit a valuation of more than a billion dollars in August 2012 when it raised $150 million from an investor group that included South African media company Naspers Group and San Francisco-based family office Iconiq Capital. Including that round, the total capital raised by the company at the time stood at $230 million. It was barely five years old and not profitable. It is now nearly nine years old, valued at $15 billion (based on the last time it raised funds) and is still not profitable.

Snapdeal, the country’s second most valuable start-up, became a unicorn in May 2014, less than five years after the New Delhi-based e-commerce marketplace started up. The valuation bump-up came on the back of a $100 million round of funds that it raised from Singapore’s Temasek Holdings and US-based asset management firm BlackRock, among others. By this time, the company had raised well over $200 million, based on data compiled by Crunchbase, and was not yet profitable. It still isn’t and is currently valued at $6.5 billion. Unlike its rival Flipkart, however, it has not faced any markdowns of its valuation yet.

Finally, Ola, the third highest valued Indian unicorn at $5 billion currently, entered the big league in October 2014 when Japanese Internet and telecom conglomerate SoftBank Group Corp. led a $210 million funding round in the company. Ola hadn’t yet completed four years since starting up. With the SoftBank-led round, the total capital raised by the company stood at nearly $260 million. Like Snapdeal and Flipkart, it is not yet profitable, and unlike Flipkart, its valuation has not been marked down yet.

In the present day, the path to the unicorn club, given past experiences, is turning out to be a bit different. Less is more, certainly for investors. Companies will raise less money and over longer cycles in their quest for fabled valuations. It’s well known that investors are now more keen on seeing the path to profitability, the faster the better. Big valuations are welcome, but not at the cost of profitability.

That puts a lot of pressure on companies such as Practo and other unicorn club hopefuls such as budget stays aggregator OYO Rooms and on-demand grocery delivery service Grofers.

Practo’s trajectory, in particular, could be instructive. The company got off to a slow start and didn’t attract serious venture capital till 2012, about five years after it had started up. It started as a business-to-business patient management software platform for doctors. A $4 million Series A funding round from Sequoia Capital in 2012 saw the company turn its focus to the more valuation-friendly business-to-consumer market. It is now better known as an online doctor search platform.

Practo also hasn’t raised a lot of money. Last August, it garnered $90 million from Tencent and others, taking the total capital raised to $125 million. It isn’t profitable yet. Mint reported in January that the company had seen its losses increase 30%, but had grown its revenues more than 10-fold for the financial year ended March 2015 and had a reasonably low cash burn rate. Where there may be some concern is the sharp jump in valuation, more than 200%, between its last two funding rounds. The two rounds happened within six months of each other.

That said, Practo isn’t going the Flipkart or Snapdeal way yet. The question is, can it hold back long enough to have a solid business model in play before investor expectations go crazy again?

Snigdha Sengupta is a consulting writer with Mint. She contributes stories on venture capital and private equity.

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Updated: 08 Jul 2016, 09:04 AM IST
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