Startups, Angels, Venture Capitalists and the 2017 India Budget

It is Indian budget season for the new fiscal year starting in April and just like every year, the pundits are all weighing in with what they would like to see and what they expect to see. We’ve seen some very positive moves by the India government in terms of setting up a company and various benefits under the “Startup India” program. However, there’s still a long way to go before the true potential of the Indian market is realized.

This is a very important budget for Indian startups and investors. 2016 was not a very pleasant year for global startups but especially Indian startups and investors. Many startups raised follow-on rounds of capital but most struggled to raise the next round of financing. In 2016, the pendulum definitively swung to favor investors once again. Many investors took advantage of the lack of capital by sticking unfriendly terms into agreements, others, simply battered companies with down-rounds. I hope to see more moderation over the long run and expect increased competition amongst investors to create better terms and pricing in the market.

In 2014, I had written about various initiatives which I felt would be beneficial for startups and investors. We’ve seen some of the ideas implemented in various capacities and there’s no doubt that the overall Indian ecosystem has matured significantly since 2014.

I still maintain that the best thing any government can do to spur innovation is to remove or, at least, minimize regulations, provide for a highly educated workforce, enable a robust infrastructure (physical and digital) and get out of the way so that private markets can move unimpeded. However, I’m pretty sure a laissez faire approach to startups and tech investing isn’t going to be the norm in India anytime soon, so below are some suggestions that can have a high impact with some good planning and execution.

  1. Ease of Doing Business – The Indian government needs to understand that over-regulating any industry will put it into a strangle-hold, even with the best intentions in place. Fledgling industries like tech startups, venture capital and angel investing are no different. In fact, they are more susceptible to dying a premature death because of the high risk nature of the business.

    Startup India and other government initiatives have had an overall positive impact but very few startups have been able to take advantage of the various benefits because of continued red tape and regulations left to interpretation by bureaucrats.

    Solution: Simplify or remove specific regulations that continue to make it difficult to do business or invest in India. A large portion of the focus should be on foreign investors for reasons highlighted in the next point.
  2. Downstream or Follow-On Capital – Additional capital at later stages continues to be a major constraint, even after several new funds closed money in 2016. Perhaps the cooling off by foreign hedge funds, mutual funds and corporate investors has had a larger negative impact than was anticipated.

    Solution: Make it simpler and less onerous from a compliance perspective for startups, angels and VCs. India needs to attract more capital domestically and internationally. Make it easy for these stakeholders to participate in the Indian innovation economy with more speed, thru less regulation and less onerous or duplicated compliance.
  3. Accredited Investors and Qualified Institutional Investors – Define what accredited individual (angel) and qualified institutional investors (venture capital funds, accelerator programs and incubators) are in India. For example, in the US an accredited investor is a person who earns $200,000 per year over the last two years or has more than $1,000,000 in assets, not including their primary residence. In India a similar definition could be used.

    Solution: A one time, online only registration with SEBI should allow accredited domestic and foreign investors to easily fund startups with no additional compliance requirements placed on the startup or the investor.

    For foreign investors, the unique identification number can easily be submitted to the RBI when wire transfers are received from international sources. Thus, removing additional compliance steps (and costs) for a startup when it receives an investment from a foreign investor. Many of these suggestions can easily be used outside of investing in just tech startups.
  4. High tax rates and a complex tax code – The current tax rates are very high. Investors take significant risks when investing in startups which have a very high failure rate. Coupled with a very complex tax code, investors, especially smaller ones providing risk capital, don’t have significant financial benefits when investing in high risk startups.

    Solution: Give accredited investors a zero tax rate on long-term capital gains when invested in technology startups. Perhaps a modest 15-20% flat short-term capital gain tax would be appropriate. Currently, foreign investors are subject to 40% withholding.
  5. M&A – It is still incredibly complex for an international company to acquire an Indian startup. It’s also very expensive for all parties involved. This limits the number of smaller acquisitions or acqui-hires that can take place in India. Smaller companies finding modest exits (less than $25 million in value) also helps turn the wheel of tech startups and needs to be addressed.

    Solution: Regulations should be simplified to allow both domestic and international companies to easily acquire or merge with Indian companies. Specifically, smaller companies. In the worst case, a one-time review by a single window, online, clearance entity to approve international acquisitions with minimal government related paperwork or government compliance can be put into effect. This could be an entity under SEBI with participation from the RBI and Invest India.
  6. Single-window clearance for the Startup India program has been wrought with typical Indian bureaucracy. The program needs a complete revamp. Rework the program to automatically grant “startup” status to any company funded by accredited investors (foreign and domestic venture capital funds and angel investors). Status should be granted via a single online form submission with validation from the investor/incubator/accelerator.
  7. Pervasive users – Digital access is still too expensive for most of the non-english speakers in the country.

    Solution: Make “broadband” accessible and affordable.

    1. By putting more government services like BHIM online, citizens, especially those in rural India, will have an additional need to have Internet connectivity.
    2. Fiber optic infrastructure has been put into place across much of India but it’s been expensive to provide. Consequently, demand has been low because price is high and usage beyond WhatsApp or Facebook for much of India has been unnecessary. TRAI should redefine broadband as, at least, 25 megabits per second preferably, closer to 100 mbps. Anything less that this leaves video and audio content out of the hands of hundreds of millions of people.
    3. Encourage telcos to re-invest into infrastructure and provide minimum broadband speeds of 25 megabits per second over wired and wireless. Provide tax incentives for them to re-invest in India’s digital infrastructure and even bigger breaks if they provide higher speeds in rural parts of India at discounted rates.
    4. Invest in an ultra highspeed national Internet backbone.
    5. Invite international companies (e.g. Google, Facebook, NTT Docomo, Verizon, Deutsche Telekom, Telenor, etc.) to invest in the Indian digital infrastructure and compete on a level playing field while maintaining the fundamentals of Net Neutrality.
    6. Provide subsidies to the poor and rural parts of India to get online. Require an Aadhaar card to be eligible.

All of this aside, I think the government will have more far-reaching issues to address in the budget, some will likely be linked to demonetization and the affect it has had on GDP but we can all hope that Indian startups and investors get some love this year.

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“Show Me The Money”: India’s Big Promise to VCs

According to CBInsights, there are seven Indian startups are already valued at more than $1 billion. If you include Micromax, Mu Sigma, and InMobi, the number would be ten. Merely 2 years ago, there were only five unicorns.

It won’t be long before large exits confirm India’s ability to deliver meaningful returns to startup investors. There have been more than sixty mergers and acquisitions in India’s tech sector worth more than $800 million in just 2015. Indian IPOs increased nine times in 2015. Also in 2015, “21 IPOs were launched on the BSE, the Bombay Stock Exchange, compared with five in 2014, the highest number since 2011, when 37 IPOs were launched.” Sure they weren’t tech startups but it shows that the domestic appetite for IPOs is on the rise – something, tech startups are very excited about.

While many Indian startups may not take the typical path to an IPO, the opportunities for exits are real and more options continue to emerge. Here are a few of these promising signs for Indian startups and investors.

IPO Me, Please

In September, the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) approved e-commerce firm Infibeam’s plan to sell US $68 million in shares. Infibeam was India’s first e-commerce IPO in March 2016, clearing the way for future e-commerce companies. Snapdeal hopes to go public in India within the next few years. It was valued at nearly $5 billion last year, and has said it is likely to IPO in India rather than on a foreign exchange. Flipkart is, also, likely to IPO in the next few years, although rumors of a merger between Amazon India and Flipkart keep making rounds. Other tech unicorns like PayTM, MuSigma, Micromax may also entertain IPOs either in India or in the US. As they go public, they will act as proxies for the broader digital startup sector where many larger investors can’t easily participate.

Acquisitions and Investments by Major Players

India’s major startups are spending significant amounts of money to round out their portfolios as they prepare for their next, more public phase of competition. Snapdeal acquired mobile prepaid recharge provider, FreeCharge for $400 million in April, then launched a digital wallet for their bundled  services in September. They’ve acquired ten more firms over the last year, such as online loan platform RupeePower, luxury goods retailer Exclusively, and MartMobi, a mobile apps developer and TechStars alum.

Meanwhile Ola, another member of India’s Unicorn club, acquired rival rideshare service TaxiForSure for $200 million. Ola also acquired Qarth and trip-planning company, Geotagg.

According to Crunchbase, Flipkart wasn’t sitting on the sidelines either, publicly announcing three acquisitions in 2015 as well as PhonePe so far in 2016.

MakeMyTrip, the NASDAQ-listed travel firm, picked up last-minute booking site MyGola, 500 Startups’ first investment in India back in 2011, and has launched an “innovation fund” to invest in more startups.

It’s not just Indian firms who are doing the buying – Twitter picked up ZipDial, an Indian firm that turns missed calls into smartphone alerts, for an undisclosed amount (also a 500 Startups portfolio company). Yahoo bought Bangalore based, BookPad in 2014.

Times Internet, part of the media heavyweight, Bennett, Coleman and Company, recently announced leading an investment of $11.2 million in Haptik, an Indian concierge service. FreshDesk, another Tiger Global backed startup, recently announced its 5th acquisition.

What’s In It For Investors?

The Reserve Bank of India recently made it easier for foreign investors to sell or transfer their stakes in Indian startups, and loosened disclosure requirements. Relaxing rules like these should go a long way in attracting new investment dollars from overseas investors as well as continuing to make investing in startups attractive to local investors.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has promised to make it even easier for investors to both enter and exit startups through its Startup India Plan. This initiative, launched in January, intends to expand the country’s culture of innovation in technology startups to other areas, such as agriculture, manufacturing and healthcare.

India Accelerating

There were 141 M&A deals worth US$1.26 billion involving Indian tech startups in four years from 2010 to the end of 2013, a stark increase from years prior.  If you consider the massive growth in mobile phone penetration, the second largest Internet user base in the world, acceleration of e-commerce in India (which is expected to top $17 billion this year, having quadrupled since 2010) and a government that is committed to creating the next “Startup Nation” of 1.3 billion people, then the future of exits in India starts looking far more interesting.

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Why India is the Next Frontier for Mobile

Girl Talking by Ramesh LalwaniUnmodified picture by Ramesh Lalwani under Creative Commons 2.0

All over the world, opportunities are flourishing for mobile development (and investment). In some countries, like the U.S.,64% of adults owned a smartphone in 2015. In China, 68% of adults have a smartphone. Yes, these countries still offer room for growth. But not like India.

Indian use of smartphones is rapidly growing. Google-sized companies will be created over the next decade to satisfy user demand, which is significantly more than in the U.S. and China over the same time period. Here’s why India is primed for massive mobile growth. This is why we are getting more aggressive in India.

Mobile Growth All Over the World

It’s hard to believe that just 20 years ago, the world had about only 80 million mobile phone users, representing 1% of the world’s total population.

By 2014, the world’s mobile phone user base had grown to 5.2 billion, or 73% of the population. 40% of that user base had a smartphone.

Based on these stats, it’s hard to argue against mobile development as a lucrative business endeavor all over the world. Even so, growth in countries like China and the U.S. is slowing. Based on what I’m seeing as I invest and work with Indian companies, India offers the greatest opportunity for mobile investment. According to a report by IAMAI and KPMG, the number of mobile Internet users is set to double by 2017 to 300 million!

India already has over 900 million mobile phones, representing 79.39% of the population, and it’s on the path to having more smartphones than the entire U.S. population. It has the second highest number of mobile phones in use, after China and before the U.S.

In 2014, the number of smartphones in India grew 54%, and is expected to reach 651 million by 2019.  In 2013,  only 6.2% of Indian people owned a smartphone. India’s smartphone usage is growing faster than any other country. It’s currently the third largest smartphone market in the world.  

Indian internet penetration is also rapidly increasing. India currently has an internet userbase of at least 232 MM users. This is only 19% of the population, which leaves quite a bit of room for growth.

Scalability

Having a population that is four times bigger than that of the U.S at 1.27 billion people, offers a massive opportunity to scale a business. Though, margins in India are typically pretty low, the numbers are massive. There are hundreds of millions of people across India  who will access new technology for the first time via their mobile phones. They will want entertainment, content, services, and communication. Startups that can figure out how to meet the demands of mobile-first urban and rural Indians will create multibillion dollar companies. Even now, most people use a mobile phone to access the Internet vs a computer or desktop – “According to Meeker’s report 65% of people accessing the internet in India do so from a mobile device and 41% of e-commerce in India takes place on mobile.”

Growth in India

According to the App Annie Index, “Emerging markets grew as low-cost smartphones continue to penetrate India and Southeast Asia. First-time smartphone owner numbers are on the rise.”

I also think that people are inspirational at their core. If you provide the best hardware, QoS, content, and services, they will pay for it as long as their payment options become easier and ubiquitous.”

Takeaways

Indian use of smartphones is growing rapidly. The cost of smartphones continue to decline. “In 2015, the number of mobile internet users from rural area doubled from 2014, and in 2016 the growth percentage is estimated to surpass all the previous figures.

  • India is a market that can’t be ignored by corporations, investors, and startups
  • Growth in mobile usage and GDP is surpassing the US and China
  • Internet penetration is second to China and there’s still a tremendous amount of growth left with less than 25% of the population online
  • India is one of the youngest countries on the planet with a massive workforce

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What’s For Dinner? The Foodpocalypse.

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The trouble that some Indian startups are facing is being touted as the harbinger of a coming apocalypse. What happened at TinyOwl in Pune with employees holding the founders hostage was an embarrassment to all of us.

Dazo shutting down. Zomato laying off employees. Foodpanda, well, just Foodpanda. These are normal occurrences at startups. Most of them are, in any case. Some things are hard to comment on without knowing details.

6 months ago, almost all of the bloggers and reporters were writing about how foodtech is the second coming of the Indian startup economy and how VCs are falling over themselves trying to get into as many deals as possible. Today, those same folks are pontificating on “the bubble” and the coming apocalypse.

I recently read a post on Quartz about how the demise of food delivery will result in the end of the Indian startups. It’s difficult to comprehend the reasoning behind a small sector setting off a domino effect of collapses across startups.

One small, and I mean TINY, sub-sector does not a bubble make. Contrary to what people would like to think, food/grocery delivery is a very very small part of the much larger Indian startup world. PayTM is going after everything from m-commerce to taxi booking payments on Uber to hotel bookings to hyperlocal to movie tickets. Flipkart, Snapdeal (though far from startups any longer) have changed the way Indians fundamentally think about purchasing products. Freshdesk, FusionCharts, Wingify and many others are going after global markets and are seen as serious threats to incumbents. Even some of our Indian companies are changing the way people think about hiring, education, commerce, gaming and finance. Companies like CultureAlley and OnlineTyari are taking language learning and test preparation to the masses at affordable prices thru the only device they need – a smartphone. Consider how Kraftly is giving cottage industries where men, women, and even children are making baked goods or clothing or art at home and able to easily reach and transact with customers not only across India but overseas as well or how SwitchMe is making refinancing your home loan quick, painless and cost effective.

My point is that the Indian startup scene is far broader and diverse than this one small sector. The food and grocery delivery vertical has been overfunded. Some of the companies closing rounds forced me to scratch my head and ask, “what am I not getting?” That’s Ok. You know why, there are amazing entrepreneurs and developers, and designers and financial wizards building solid businesses. And guess what, it’s not going to stop. What else isn’t going to stop? The funding of great companies but also of companies that aren’t run very well.

Would I invest in Zomato today? Definitely. Deepinder and the team don’t give up. They will make the hard decisions when required and they will continue to push the limits of what’s expected from them and at the same time, force the rest of us to compete better.

Would I invest in a pure food or grocery delivery business that picks up veggies from the local mandi or from the 3 restaurants in my neighborhood and deliver it to me? Not likely, though, I have invested in ChalDal in Dhaka. I would definitely consider investing in entrepreneurs that understand warehousing, logistics and supply chain to provide grocery delivery via distributed warehouses in a city. Or a food company that understands how to manage large centralized kitchens, and has an expertise in logistics. Oh wait. Didn’t the Harvard Business Review write about a cooperative that does this? In India.

So all of you talking about the rot in startupland, keep doing what you’re doing. You will get your clicks and likes and shares and eyeballs with sensationalist headlines but all you’re really doing is scaring a young dreamer’s parents into not letting them work at a startup or start a business or get married because they aren’t working at Microsoft, Infosys or TCS. Once the cycle completes, you can begin again. This time writing about how those parents are unfair and ruining their child’s chances of starting a multi-billion dollar startup. Please, just ask yourselves, how any of this helps anyone.

One has to let loose a lot of arrows before learning to shoot and hitting the target. Even after learning to shoot, we will still miss. Often.

At 500 Startups, we’re not going to slow down our investing in India. In fact, I love all this talk of doom and gloom. Why? It’s going to send wannabe founders, angels (who figured they can make more money investing in startups than real-estate) and the glory seekers running for the hills. This means less noise, serious founders pushing the limits of creative destruction because they will have to do more with less, and investors, in it for the long haul, getting access to great founders building real companies.

Cover photo from https://pixabay.com/en/apocalyptic-war-danger-apocalypse-374208/

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