A Wonderful Time to be an Entrepreneur in India

Spoke recently with Silicon India on the entrepreneurial and investment opportunities in India. Here is the version that was published:

“Founded in 2005 with offices in India, U.S., China and Europe, Nokia Growth Partners (NGP) has over $700 million under management and invests largely in mobility, communication and internet.

Areas of Focus & Emerging Technologies to Bet On

There is immense ongoing innovation surrounding the mobility space. NGP has always focused on mobility and within that space, we have outlined five key investment areas that we have focused on for a decade and built up strong thematic expertise in. In each of our areas, we see long term fundamental shifts and disruption which creates good investment opportunities. Those areas include:
Local Commerce driven by deeper digital intermediation of offline consumption, SMBs coming online and the rise of the sharing economy. Investment examples include India’s Quikr and Ganji, Quikr’s equivalent in China.

Mobile Enterprise driven by the ongoing shift of enterprise software from premise-based monolithic systems to the “mobile+cloud” paradigm. Investments include NetMagic and Kaltura among others.

Big Data, Analytics & AdTech driven by a number of disruptive shifts in advertising towards technology-driven programmatic buying using AI and algorithms as well as a need for larger data management capacities and analytics driven businesses. Here great examples of companies we have invested in are Rocket Fuel, PubMatic and Vizury.

Mobile consumer-facing platforms are rapidly raising consumption of content and services over smartphones, tablets and other platforms. Here, we have investments in UCweb, Babbel and MAG interactive just to name a few.

Connected Car driven by the use of connectivity to the cloud to deliver better safety, entertainment, navigation and utility services to the automobile. We have a number of companies in the portfolio specializing on sensors and location technologies.
We also focus on growth stage investments, meaning that we invest at a later stage in companies who already have a shipping product and a few million in revenues. Our approach is global with offices in India, China, Europe and U.S.

The envelope of innovation is expanding swiftly beyond mobility, towards a more comprehensively connected world – with significant activity in areas such as wearables, connected car, smart homes and Internet of Things. Nokia recently announced its vision and new focus around this “Programmable World”. NGP has a keen focus on this space, and is looking to back strong entrepreneurial teams with solid execution skills and differentiated technology in these areas.

Indian Venture Capital Ecosystem is Nascent Yet

Each venture market has a combination of common universal fundamentals and specific local practices and flavors. The Indian venture capital and entrepreneurial ecosystem is relatively young, but shaping up nicely. The ecosystem now already has many companies of a caliber which is comparable to the best globally.
Teams in India tend to be earlier in their careers, but are often very high on energy and optimism. There are very few serial entrepreneurs around, simply because the ecosystem has not existed for very long. Companies often have to build basic infrastructure and systems along with their core product, and deal with significantly more baseline friction in getting businesses off the ground. Enablers such as digital payment mechanisms and reliable logistics, which are taken for granted by global companies, often need to be created from scratch or worked around. Hence, execution capabilities, resilience and resourcefulness become paramount.

The Indian market offers significant first order opportunity for value creation, as many segments are growing rapidly with increase in overall consumption or shift from offline to online. However, for companies selling to the Indian market, monetization is often tougher, acquiring customers tends to be expensive, collecting receivables is hard and scale could be elusive. So, entrepreneurs need to be very thoughtful, frugal and ingenious in order to create a viable business. The good news is that once you get the business off the ground, the aforementioned challenges create a large natural barrier for competitors and make your business more valuable.

The pace of value creation in the Indian startup ecosystem is rising rapidly, digital platforms (Internet, mobile, social) are reaching scale, and we are starting to see many successful cross-border companies. With this, many of the differences and challenges are beginning to diminish.

My Piece of Advice to Entrepreneurs

Great companies begin by solving a real customer pain point in a large market and becoming the best solution for that over time. Once past the hurdles of getting to a product-market fit and getting the basic business model right, keen use of analytics and metrics to drive growth and leveraging best practices from other companies, industries, and geographies can provide the edge in a competitive business environment. This is where the right board, investors and mentors who have a view into a broader set of companies and geographies can be instrumental.
The tech startup ecosystem in India is at a very exciting juncture. With mass adoption of digital platforms, rising propensity to consume online, and increasing proof points around cross-border product companies, it is a wonderful time to be an entrepreneur in India.”

Capitalizing on opportunities in local commerce

Wrote the following guest post recently for Techcircle/VCCircle:

The retail commerce market in India is estimated to be worth nearly $500 billion per year. Despite several years of rapid growth, e-commerce still constitutes well under 1% of the retail market. The remaining 99% of retail is still offline and mostly local, which represents a large business opportunity. As a larger number of consumers in India are getting digitally connected, they are making use of online platforms like mobiles, smartphones and tablets to influence their offline purchase decisions, opening up massive new market opportunities.

Global disruption in local commerce

Globally, significant value has been created in the local commerce space by platforms that help buyers connect with local sellers and service providers. The last decade has seen the rise of B2C local commerce companies such as Angie’s List, Yelp, Groupon, Zillow, Trulia, RetailMeNot and Opentable – each a public company with over $1 billion in market capitalisation. These platforms help small merchants get discovered or chosen by consumers using various models such as listings, reviews and recommendations, deals, deep information and table reservations. Each of these models succeeded by aggregating a large number of local merchants on one side, and consumers on the other.

Over the last few years ubiquity of mobile, local and social has enabled a new class of collaborative consumption platforms, exemplified by AirBnB and Uber. These models have successfully opened up new forms of supply beyond traditional local merchants as well as transformed consumer behaviour meaningfully via the use of a social layer to create trust, the use of mobile, better UX and analytics to increase convenience as well as reduce information asymmetries between buyers and sellers. Innovative companies in this genre are beginning to disrupt large existing industries such as car rental and sharing (GetAround, RelayRides), local services (Thumbtack, TaskRabbit), ride sharing (Zimride, Ridejoy), car repair (Your Mechanic), local freelance work (Gigwalk), local experiences (Zozi, Sidetour) and even food consumption (Grubly). While the collaborative consumption space is still young, several of these companies will transform the way people discover and consume local services and products.

Local commerce in India

In India, the local commerce space is starting to see meaningful traction. JustDial has gone public and commands an impressive valuation. redBus built a valuable business by painstakingly aggregating numerous small bus operators to give the consumer a unified platform for bus bookings. BookMyShow and Zomato are growing rapidly with their vertical specialisation on entertainment and F&B industries. At NGP, we focus on this space and are investors in Quikr, a leading classifieds platform, DealsAndYou, a local deals and couponing platform, and several other companies globally.

The local commerce space in India is large and its digital intermediation is still in an early phase. The rapid penetration of internet and mobile internet along with consumers’ increasing propensity to transact online enables rapid future growth. There are 45 million small merchants in the country, of which under1% are estimated to currently have an online presence beyond basic listings. A growing number of merchants are looking to leverage online platforms in order to get discovered more effectively by consumers. Local merchants, especially those that sell higher margin services, spend a significant percentage of revenues directly or indirectly on various forms of marketing and customer acquisition. A substantial part of that spend will move online over the next several years.

Opportunities come with challenges

A brief way to summarise the key challenges in the Indian local commerce space is that there are limited barriers to entry, but tremendous barriers to scale. Creating a basic local commerce platform and getting it to market is not very hard. But getting and retaining a large number of merchants and consumers onto the platform in tandem is. Let’s summarise some key challenges and decision points associated with scaling local commerce platforms.

1. Developing a clear value proposition

There are already many types of digital platforms that help consumers connect with local businesses—search advertising, social pages, listings, classifieds, merchant websites, mobile apps, vertical specific content sites, deal platforms, ticketing and booking engines and much more. It is increasingly harder and more expensive to get consumers’ attention with yet another local commerce platform—unless it solves a large unmet need, enables a new experience, saves money or significantly reduces friction in an existing activity. Similarly, urban local merchants are confused by the large variety of platforms that they could potentially promote their businesses on. They may not typically understand technology or complex marketing terms, but implicitly look for good, demonstrable ROI on their spend and repeat business.

It is imperative to have a clear, compelling and ideally measurable proposition for both consumers and merchants. Eventually, for a local commerce business to sustain, there needs to be a natural pull from both consumers and merchants for the service. Aggregating merchants via large sales forces and aggregating consumers via marketing are otherwise likely to be ineffectual.

2. Creating the sales machinery

In India, convincing small local merchants of the value proposition of a new platform often involves multiple face-to-face meetings with the right decision maker, typically the proprietor. Moreover, small businesses are notoriously hard to collect payments from. Self-serve models are ideal, but will only work once the market reaches a higher level of maturity. Telesales and channel sales, which predominate in Western markets, only work in selected cases in India and often only in combination with own feet-on-the-street sales.

Creating and managing a well-oiled feet-on-the-street sales force is thus one of the key challenges to scaling a local commerce business in India, especially in the near to medium term.

For instance, JustDial has a team of thousands of sales people, and spends a significant percentage of its revenues on selling activities. The local sales infrastructure is one of the key barriers to entry for its competitors.

It is important to get the dynamics and unit economics of the sales team right. This involves careful, continuous planning and refinement around key areas such as: what type of sales persons to hire, which localities to focus sales efforts on, how to incentivise sales persons, what the up-selling strategy is, how to improve cash collection cycles, what the right target for ROI on sales costs is, and much more.

These questions don’t have any stock answers and each organisation must evolve its own set of answers.

3. Customer acquisition

On the other side of the demand and supply equation is customer acquisition. Getting consumers onto a platform is a slow and hard process—organic methods typically call for a great product with strong value proposition, and a long baking period for network effects, high search rankings and social virality to kick in. Trying to scale platforms any faster than the natural viral/SEO growth process entails higher spends on customer acquisition which is capital intensive.

Many local commerce models have strong network effects (i.e. scale provides disproportionate value to both buyers and sellers), and are consequently “winner-take-most” businesses. Therefore, unless a business has the luxury of limited competition for a long period of time (like what Craigslist did in the late 90s and early 2000s in the US), there is a compelling argument for ramping up customer traction rapidly.

The key is ensuring visibility into the right unit economics before investing heavily in customer acquisition. That is, can the customer acquisition costs be realistically offset by the customer lifetime value? It is here that many daily-deals oriented models faltered when they indulged in expensive marketing too soon.

4. Balancing marketplace dynamics

In local marketplace businesses, demand and supply need to be scaled in lockstep, locality by locality. The marketplace needs to have sufficient liquidity at the locality level in order for it to be relevant and valuable to both consumers and merchants.

The key questions then are: Given finite resources, do you go deep in a few localities (and risk leaving other markets to the competition), or do you go after a wide footprint and risk low liquidity and poor customer/merchant experience? Do you focus on one vertical or do you enter multiple verticals in an effort to expand more quickly? What metrics and proof points do you need to see in order to trigger expansion to additional cities?

Here, different platforms have taken varying strategies. Yelp grew organically for a number of years. It initially focused on a few cities, developed a set of processes for starting and scaling a new city, and then methodically rolled its platform out market by market, with a clear model to reach critical mass within a few months of entering a new city. Groupon, on the other hand, expanded across markets rapidly via heavy spending on its sales force and marketing, and additionally made a number of acquisitions in markets it hadn’t already entered.

5. Scaling operations and customer experience

Local commerce businesses can range from being purely informational to highly transactional. Typically, the closer a platform is to the transaction, the deeper the monetisation potential and ability to ‘own the customer’, but the more operationally intense it is.

For many local commerce businesses, the transaction (or merchant discovery/selection) happens in the digital layer, but the fulfillment happens offline, often by a merchant who may not directly own the customer. The presence of multiple parties in the transaction chain makes operations challenging. Moreover, customers tend to implicitly expect a higher level of customer service from online/mobile platforms than from local offline merchants. The online taxi dispatch and food delivery spaces are examples of local commerce businesses with high operational complexity due to the above reasons.

It is imperative to invest early in creating the team, culture and processes to put in place an operations function that not only supports the business, but also becomes a source of differentiation by creating customer delight.

It is challenging to build and scale up a local commerce platform, especially in emerging markets such as India. However, the opportunity is large and well worth the effort. Businesses which are able to overcome the aforementioned challenges create natural barriers to entry and are hard to replicate once at scale with defensible margins.

In this series of blog posts, we will take a deeper look at some of these opportunities, challenges and strategies related to scaling local commerce businesses.

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.

Agree/Disagree?

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.

The case for a new telecom operator in India

Yes, the title of this post sounds a bit crazy, given the intensely competitive telecom industry in India. Allow me to explain.

Large telecom operators in India are still focused primarily on new customer acquisition. New customers acquired in the market today are marginal, and must be lured using rock bottom pricing. Rock bottom pricing means rock bottom costing, which means low quality customer service, deprioritzation of network investments, and a generally poor experience for all customers. That’s why you and I can’t make a 15-minute call without dropping it or having connection issues. While operators struggle to maintain profitability.

Now imagine a telcom operator that doesn’t drop calls, delivers fast data downloads, respects you when you call in, and resolves your issues efficiently and politely. In other words, the AmEx of telcos. I am willing to pay more for such an operator, and my back of the envelope estimate is that there are at least 10M other such customers in India, and growing faster than market.

Most other services get segmented, and you see consumers willing to pay more for higher quality experiences. Think hotels, airlines, credit cards, retail, restaurants and real estate. Think Taj, Kingfisher, AmEx, Spencers..  You can choose to pay more and you generally get a better experience. Not so in telecom. There you only have the option of rock bottom pricing with rock bottom service.

One reason is that Indian telecom industry has till recently been focused solely on new customer acquisition for growth. This should change now, given that the market has been virtually exhausted. Another reason is that telecom is a scale business and  larger operators have a significant advantage over smaller ones. However, given that these 10M+ consumers are mostly concentrated in a few geographical areas, it may be viable to run a smaller, but highly profitable telecom operator in India that focuses on quality rather than quantity. Any takers?

eCommerce in India

Recently started answering a question on Quora about the future eCommerce in India, and realized that it was turning into an article. So I thought I’d share it here.

Question: What is the future of eCommerce in India? And who’s going to lead the pack in terms of profitability by 2012?

My Answer:

Very broad question, but I’ll take a stab. Let’s divide eCommerce into three categories:
1) eCommerce for physical services
Already taking off in a big way – e.g. travel ticketing, jobs, matrimony, events etc. Some leaders already visible in various categories. Larger number of consumers are becoming comfortable paying online (or are finding someone to do it for them). This category was helped by the fact that fulfillment of digital orders is not a logistical nightmare, and the alternative (standing in line) is a royal pain. This category has opened the path for the following two categories by generating consumer awareness and creating the enabling layer (payments, analytics, support/logistics software). This category appears set for continued success and perhaps accelerating growth rates as the whole ecosystem grows, payment mechanism bottlenecks are reduced, and consumer awareness increases. The market is really betting on this category with MMYT trading at 30X real revenues.

2) eCommerce for physical goods
This is the category that is currently riding way up the hype cycle, with new startups/stores launched every day. First avatar of this category was a relative non-starter with players like Indiaplaza and even eBay India remaining at limited scale. However, v2.0 disrupted here in true Clayton Christensen fashion.
Apart from early leaders such as Flipkart, Infibeam, Homeshop18, Indiatimes etc, expect to see slew of additional horizontal and vertical retailers over next couple of years selling everything from mobile phones to pet food. Expect price wars, shakeouts, extensive warehouse buildouts, monster fund-raises in this space, but not profits. Great for consumers, but I’d personally stay away from investing here at the current point. Remember, it took Amazon a decade to turn its first profit – in a much larger market.
I’d expect there to be some successful smaller players in this space that come from the left field with innovative models around delivery, or niche product sales, or as providers of enabling services.

3) eCommerce for virtual goods (Music, Software, Movies, In-game etc)
Has been a relative non-starter in India so far, largely due to piracy issues and perhaps social mindset (“who pays for virtual stuff”)?. The only green shoot in paid digital content is the anachronistic operator MVAS model. Expect significant changes in that equation over the next few years. Looking for someone to disrupt this space, by getting some Category 1 customers above to start paying for virtual goods as well. Let me know if you find such a company 🙂

So to answer your second question, I expect a company from the first category to lead in profits (or be closest to profitability) in a couple of years. A few large player from category 2 might have respectable revenues, but are likely to be far from profitability. Also likely to be some smaller interesting players from category 3.

Note: I have not touched upon the local commerce (couponing, LBS, checkins, yellow pages, classifieds etc) space in this answer, which is starting to have significant overlaps with eCommerce. The local commerce space can be a topic for a PhD thesis in itself!

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