How Indian tech startups win by repeatedly expanding their market

(Successful consumer Internet companies often start with dominating what looks like a niche market, but then expand their market repeatedly. For successful Indian startups, this often happens much sooner in the lifecycle than say Silicon Valley startups. How should founders and investors use this to inform their decisions?)

Take a look at the list of startups that are closing angel financing on the leading fundraising platforms this month, and chances are, that many would appear to be focused on rather niche markets. Are we reaching a point where a bulk of the mobile and Internet value creation is done, and only small problems are left for companies to solve? Are startup teams thinking big enough?

Flipkart CEO Sachin Bansal recently had an engaging Twitter conversation with several early stage investors and startup enthusiasts revisiting the classic debate of whether investors prioritize founding team or the idea in their funding decisions. The overwhelming investor response was that they bet on the team first and foremost.

The two observations above are linked. Successful startup teams start with a great idea in a market segment that may initially look small, but then build upon initial traction to either significantly expand the market or catapult into broader adjacent market segments. That is why investors say they look first for team quality (along with size of the broader market), and also the reason why a handful of the niche-sounding angel funded startups may turn into unicorns a few years from now.

Many Indian consumer Internet startups that are reaching superlative scale and valuation numbers today started by addressing niche markets at their early stages. Take Zomato for instance. If you looked at them in 2011, it would have been very hard to envision the scale that the market is expecting them to reach now. At the time, the company primarily monetized by tapping into the Indian restaurant brand advertising market. This market is tiny, and almost none of it was online at that time. If you used reasonably liberal extrapolation, the total available revenues in five years would top out at perhaps $20-25M. The company has, via the ingenuity and drive of its founding team, continually expanded its market by growing its core offering, entering new geographies and bolting on new business models.

A recent post by Todd Francis (“What Billion dollar companies look like at Series A”) touches upon this ability of high performance founding teams to expand the market:

“However, successful companies often start with executing very well on an initial concept that is the beginning to a much bigger offering.”


In India, this market expansion often happens much sooner in the lifecycle of companies than it does in say US (or China). That’s what we have found over the past several years looking at various investment themes across US, China, Europe and India. Many market segments in India could be relatively thin due to low monetization levels, but that hasn’t prevented the best entrepreneurs from building companies of massive scale. This is one of the key reasons you see disproportionate amounts of investment going behind stellar teams which at present may operate a business that does not appear to justify reported valuation levels.

The tech industry, unlike say the airline or telecom industries (which also deliver services to consumers/businesses), allows platform businesses to leverage their customer bases, data and market knowledge to expand into adjacent segments rapidly, and to disrupt status quo dramatically. Tech companies can create new experiences, use cases and price points which can alter market size significantly.  Benchmark’s Bill Gurley has written an insightful post on how Uber has expanded its market size well beyond what conventional wisdom would have entailed.

Here are some ways successful Indian startups have been expanding their markets beyond their initial niche:

  • Expand into adjacent verticals, and verticalize offerings. Flipkart at Series A was a tiny online book-seller. Many other vertical-focused eCommerce sites were funded in the same general timeframe, but Flipkart rapidly built on an early lead and expanded systematically into many other large eCommerce verticals. Similarly, Ola is beginning to leverage its market position in the taxi/transportation vertical to enter various other logistics/delivery verticals (e.g. food, grocery deliveries), which would help it grow into its heightened expectation and valuation levels. Quikr in an example of a successful internet company that is expanding by driving deeper into its verticals of focus.
  • Expand into adjacent market segments. Some successful startups use their expertise, data and customer base to offer a different type of product that builds upon their position and enhances customer stickiness, revenue per customer and sales ROI. Vizury, which started off with an ad retargeting product, has expanded its product portfolio to include various big data and marketing-tech offerings that it sells to its marquee client base. Netmagic added cloud offerings and managed services to its solid datacenter business, which helped it get to a substantive sale to NTT in 2012. Snapdeal, one of the leading online marketplaces, started off as a card-based couponing play, and expanded or morphed its model several times before getting to its current broad marketplace model.
  • Expand geographic footprint. Companies such as Vizury, Zomato and InMobi expanded into multiple other countries very early in their evolution, and are creating a global or transcontinental footprint with products that would have appeared to have a relatively small addressable market in India. These companies built strong products in India and ventured out into distant markets at a time when there were few successful precedents. These days we see geographic expansion highlighted as a key growth lever in many pitch decks, especially those for B2B product companies. Expanding into foreign countries for early startups is never easy, but there is often great value in doing things that are not easy.
  • Expand business model.  Many companies start with a business model that suggests a moderately sized market, but later tag on deeper monetization models e.g. JustDial and Zomato, which initially focused on listings/lead generation models, are actively moving into transactional local commerce models
  • Use low margin consumer aggregation products to get into more attractive segments. PayTM (which recently raised $575M) and FreeCharge (recently acquired by Snapdeal) both used low margin mobile recharge models to rapidly aggregate massive bases of transacting customers, and are now beginning to funnel these consumers into marketplaces for a wider range of products. In the process, they sidestepped competition from the leading eCommerce marketplaces, which had a significant head start at the time these two started
  • Integrate vertically: Many eCommerce platforms including FashionAndYou, Healthkart, Myntra, UrbanLadder and others have focused extensively on private labels and vertical integration in order to drive higher margins than the base e-retailing business. eCommerce marketplaces building their own logistics networks is another example.
  • External Investments and Corporate Development: This classic growth tool was nascent in the Indian startup/Internet ecosystem till about a year back (except perhaps Info Edge, which has used this tool well for almost a decade). This is starting to change rapidly with Flipkart, Snapdeal, and Amazon building out significant capabilities for minority investments and acquisitions that will help them expand their markets further. We are now starting to see smaller companies leverage corporate development/M&A successfully in India, and are likely to see much more activity on this front.

The above list has an obvious selection bias. It only lists a handful of companies that succeeded in expanding/reinventing their markets, but there are of course hundreds of other funded startups that failed to do so.

So if you are an entrepreneur starting off with a new venture, how to do you decide whether your idea, which may appear niche, is worth pursuing?

Or if you are a tech investor, how do you take a call when it may seem that most early startups you look at are operating in small market segments?

Here are some thoughts:

  • Team, team, team. Clichéd but true. The above list is a testament to why angel/venture investing is first and foremost about team. Great teams can expand their business well beyond the initial idea or model. In addition, the ability to raise future financing rounds of increasing size has now presented itself as a core requirement of any team looking to drive towards a large outcome. Unfortunately, the above abilities are nearly impossible for investors to predict based solely on the team’s resumes or institutions they attended. These are also often hard to evaluate based on an initial meeting. It takes a several meetings, some smart background work and/or observing over a period of time to see evidence of the persistence, drive, ingenuity, single-mindedness, passion, resilience and leadership skills needed to continually expand the pie. 10x founders leave their fingerprints in various aspects of the business, and smart investors learn to pick those up.
  • Keep an eye on new disruptive technologies, and how your venture/investment may be able to harness those to ride a massive upcoming wave. Internet of Things, Wearables, Drones, 3D Printing, Autonomous Driving Cars, Deep Analytics, VR/AR and AI will provide today’s early stage ventures with powerful catalysts to explode their market, just like mobile, social, local and cloud did for many of today’s unicorns
  • Founders must define their target market more broadly for the medium and longer term. If you are an entrepreneur, lay out a plan, perhaps a decision tree of segments/models you could eventually expand into and disrupt. This will not only help in your conversations with potential recruits and investors, but also serve you and your employees as a guiding light at various points in the journey. Your eventual path will almost certainly look different from your initial plan or decision tree, but a well-thought plan will help immeasurably. Similarly, investors sizing an addressable market must look for and understand large adjacent markets that the team, if successful, could address. Build out your outcome scenarios layering in different levels of success with addressing these adjacent segments
  • On the flipside, management teams and investors should keep in mind that many existing consumer Internet leaders or startups can and will enter your space, since they will also look to expand their And the massive amounts of funding that is going into leading Indian consumer Internet companies will only accelerate their expansion into adjacent segments. Have a plan to deal with this. Identify the moat you are building, and build it fast.
  • Investors must think critically, maintain high risk appetite and create a broad, balanced portfolio. While a few select teams will expand markets, ride new S-curves and create massive value, a vast majority will spend their time tackling the base market, and may stumble along the way. Out of ten very high caliber teams in ten large markets ready for disruption, you may only get one outsized outcome if you are fortunate. That’s the law on which venture investing works. In the new world of massive private funding rounds, this dynamic will only accentuate further. Be prepared.

Comments and feedback are welcome.

(Anupam is a VC investing in mobile, internet & technology businesses in India and the US since 2007. Companies linked to are NGP portfolio companies. Data and facts cited are based on public sources. Views are personal)


Revisiting Product Innovation in India

Reduced down to the core basics, a successful business involves building a product (anything of value) and selling it. Both building and selling are core to most businesses.  However, typically one of these areas is the main differentiator, which makes a company the leader in its space, while the company ‘checks the box’ in the other area.

Amazon, Facebook, Google, Apple and most other global consumer Internet leaders today are product driven companies. Product is their core strength. They are (usually) good at sales too, but that’s not where they differentiate. They are  simply outstanding at building products, and consumers self-discover their products/services and stick with them.

The Indian tech landscape has looked different historically. The first wave of IT and Internet leaders in India excelled at sales and execution, while (often barely) meeting the baseline on product. Market leaders emerged from innovative use of offline sales forces, larger marketing spends, offline presence, stronger sales teams, partnerships and better distribution. Product development was secondary. And rightfully so, given the market dynamics that existed.

There have been both demand and supply side reasons for this. On the demand side, the online consumer base was small, non-so-discerning and spread-out. Good self-discovery mechanisms didn’t exist. So market leadership was established primarily through sales, distribution and reach. On the supply side, there wasn’t enough availability of product talent or venture money. I blogged a few years back about this.

I think we are starting to see an inflexion point in this dynamic now. As customers get more savvy and approach a critical mass, they figure out ways to beat down a path to the product that works best for them. In the era of social, this is easier than ever. The game is changing quickly from constant paid acquisition and re-acquisition of customers to virality and retention. On the supply side, the number of ‘product’ persons (engineers, architects, UX designers, visionaries) is slowly building up, propelled in part by global osmosis. Venture money is abundant now, even for product plays. Consequently there is an increasing number of Indian offerings now with great products and user interfaces.

This momentum will only accelerate, as the above is a virtuous cycle – Consumers become more discerning after using better products.  We’ll see an era of intensely product focused businesses disrupting the Indian online space. Some of these products will also go global. Those companies that don’t pay sufficient attention to product and continue to play by the old rules would do so at their own peril.


The future of (online) retail?

The digital and traditional commerce worlds have been colliding.  Look no further than Amazon’s recent offer to award retail shoppers with small discounts for walking into and out of retail stores. There has been an inherent tension between traditional retail players and eCommerce players, as eCommerce  disrupted retail and traditional retailers largely took to eCommerce as a defensive measure. Moreover the DNA of the two industries has been vastly different.

There is tremendous innovation possible at the intersection of online and offline commerce if it were driven by an innovator in alliance with B&M retailers. However, since traditional retailers perceivedly have more to lose from this in the short term and have large stores to run, this innovation is currently driven outside-in by eCommerce companies and startups.

What if we were to design commerce from the grounds up, ignoring the above market pressures, and design instead for optimal economics and consumer experience? Today’s technologies could enable a very different and much more efficient system than the one we have today. Consider this scenario: Large traditional stores in expensive locations get replaced by smaller ‘showrooms’ that display sample merchandise or their holograms using the latest technology. You browse through lots of merchandise without having to hike through a maze of aisles. You scan  merchandise you like with your smartphone, compare product features and read online reviews. Perhaps you even ask a few friends on social networks and chat with them. You decide on a product you like. Finally after selecting everything you need,  you ‘checkout’ at the spot by just tapping your phone at a counter and head back home. Just after you reach home, the products you ordered are delivered at your doorstep from a nearby warehouse.

For many consumers, this solution is a better experience than traditional retail (don’t have to hunt through aisles or carry back large bags; better product information) or eCommerce (can see/touch/try products, shorter lag to product delivery). It is also economically more efficient than traditional retail since it requires lesser use of expensive commerce space. The cost base for such an offering should be more comparable to that of eCommerce. This would imply lower prices for consumers than traditional retail.

The exciting part is that all the technologies for this setup are available today, and we are seeking some early steps in this direction. Walmart and Amazon are clearly fighting towards a piece of this opportunity. So when do we actually see the world move towards a showroom and warehouse model?

Big ‘unsolved’ problems in the Internet world

Thought I’d take a moment to jot down a few big problems/opportunity areas in the Internet world. The technologies to solve each of these exist today, but an elegant solution that scales massively still seems to elude us on each of these.

Here are some such areas that come to mind (in no particular order):

  • Linear TV. Why do we still use remote controls from the sixties to look for content? In the era of search, discovery, AI, predictive analytics, social, mobile we surely have better solutions, but haven’t yet found a scalable way to mass adoption. Till we do, happy channel-flipping.
  • Personal Information Management. We live in the age of information explosion, from all directions – twitter, blogs, news sites, pictures, videos, email, facebook, calendar items, youtube, deals, sms, chats, iTunes, yada yada. Too many passwords. Too much useful information. Too much content. Too much news. Too much personal data. More than one can manage. Dropbox, Evernote and Flipboard are addressing various pieces of this problem, and have  built spectacular businesses already. I think we’ll see immense further innovation in this space
  • Digital payments. Beyond the Paypal variety. Pulling out your credit card and entering the digits and your address, and/or your password is so 20th century. How about if there were a system that you could use from any device anywhere, using biometrics, and transfer any amount however big or small to anyone else? No passwords. No credit card numbers. No addresses. No minimum amounts. Just a swipe of a finger or an iris scan. Just imagine the kind of consumption this would fuel.
  • Online content monetization. There is so much great content being created all over the world, but how does it get paid for? Advertising is great, but its not the one-size-fits-all for monetizing all content. A couple of years back, I wrote about the huge opportunity in micropayments. Micropayments have indeed continued to take off significantly since, but I believe we are still in the early phase. There is still no good model to universally purchase content. Movies, news, books, TV shows, music, games, whatever. On one platform seamlessly, from any device. Amazon, Apple, Netflix are all moving in that direction, but we aren’t quite there yet. Consumers are consuming content voraciously online, and sometimes willing to pay for it. And content owners (ask the studios or publishers) are desperately searching for models that help them better monetize their efforts online. There just isn’t any good universal platform yet to connect this demand and supply.

Internet and the art of world domination

Over the last 15 years, the most dominant Internet company has been the one that has managed to act as the leading entry point to information on the web. As information has grown exponentially, entry points haven’t kept pace, and have eventually been disrupted by newer ways to organize information. And thus new contenders to the top spot have arisen:

Pre-1995: The web is a potpourri of gopher, ftp and then http sites, with no easy way to search through or organize them. The average user’s entry point was the address of the site that the user wanted to visit.

1995 – 2000: There are now way too many websites for every user to remember. Yahoo, with its directory approach organizes the websites neatly by category, becomes the primary entry point for Internet users, and thus becomes the dominant Internet company. As of late nineties, it’s unclear what or who will unseat this powerhouse.

2001 – 2006: By now, the Internet has way too much information to be organized and accessed using directories and portals. Google, with its keyword search approach, and ability to index billions of pages, becomes the de-facto entry point to the web. As of early 2000’s, Google appears set for world domination, and it’s not clear what or who could match Google’s strength.

2007 – Present: There are so many information sources and forms of media that keyword search by itself is inadequate for information discovery. Users want to visit information sources that are relevant to *them*. They want to consume information that they didn’t even know existed – how could keyword search do that? In comes facebook, along with other social networks, which provide ways to not only stay connected with your social circle, but also a more personalized way to discover and consume news, photos, videos and other media that have proliferated over the past few years.  It appears that Facebook will dominate the world and Zuckerberg shall be king.

2013 and beyond: ??

History tells us that change is, indeed, the only constant at the top of the Internet world. Although facebook’s and twitter’s reign at the throne appears uncontested as of 2010, please rest assured that forces of innovation, disruption and exponential growth are hard at work, and the 5-6 year cycle of Internet domination should only get shorter over time.

A couple of years back, I wrote about prevailing themes and trends in consumer Internet. Those themes are as true today, and trends of long tail content, convergence, mobility, social media and user-generated content have only accentuated with time. The result continues to be increasing information overload. The next generation Internet companies would be the ones that can address this.

My conjecture is that the next dominant Internet company would come with an angle of intelligent personalization and context-aware services, and would build upon the current generation social networks. What’s your take?

Product Innovation in India

I was recently asked to comment product innovation in India – i.e. the often-raised questions around why we haven’t seen extensive product-based innovation from Indian companies, what the challenges have been, and how that can change etc. I have given thought to this issue a few times in the past, and I’ve copy pasted some of my thoughts below.

Product innovation is a step in the life-cycle of an industry’s evolution that comes after significant maturity. Product innovation requires a complex interlinked talent pool (engineers, researchers, designers, managers, executives, lawyers etc), sufficient amount of risk capital, and proximity to the customer. None of these had achieved critical mass in India till a few years back, but this should happen soon (possibly with the exception of the ‘researchers’ category).

Moreover, the need for path-breaking innovation wasn’t very apparent in the past. Most consumer needs were best satisfied by taking concepts already invented elsewhere, and customizing those to the Indian landscape. This still continues to be the case – after all, what is the point of reinventing the wheel? The best returns to customers, investors and entrepreneurs still continue to be from these so-called incremental products. However, the zeal within a lot of Indian entrepreneurs, engineers and even investors for helping build some truly innovative products is tremendous.

However, there clearly are several encouraging success stories now in the product domain in India (especially wireless equipment and mobile apps), but I think there is still some ways to go for Indian products in the areas of:

  • User interface: The UI of a large chunk Indian products and websites has a lot of catching up to do. There are obviously some notable exceptions though, and the situation will change as UI design talent availability in India improves. The core of the IT ecosystem in India has been composed of teams working on outsourced or off-shored work, and in the past, the UI design work was typically not done in India, which propagated the dearth of UI design talent in India.
  • Product management and customer focus: Most products and services built in India in the past were targeted at a Western/foreign customer. Innovation is an exercises that is intricately intertwined with customer input and feedback, and becomes an order of magnitude harder if the innovator is removed from the customer. 
  • Focus on quality
  • Research-based Innovation

We are now seeing some decent products coming out of Indian startups. Also, large tech companies such as Google, Cisco, Microsoft, Adobe etc are now developing a few of their products almost entirely in India. This will create a viruous cycle that iteratively reduces the intensity of the aforementioned challenges. 

I think that the first wave of products is/will be around areas where there are direct customer touch points in India, so this would include areas such as:

  • Information and advertising services tailored to more restricted interfaces such as SMS, VoiceSMS etc
  • Payment and micro transaction mechanisms
  • Products around new media formats such as interactive TV, digital signage and animation
  • Gaming (both mobile and otherwise)
  • Wireless equipment
  • Productization of services such as security testing, banking software, specialized accounting etc

I believe (and hope) that we would start to see extraordinary companies of the magnitude of Apple, Google, Microsoft and Facebook being created in India within the next 5-7 years.

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