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Angel Investing at Scale with Fabrice Grinda

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Fabrice Grinda is the founder of Zingy, Aucland OLX and FJ Labs, a VC firm and venture studio based in NYC, focusing on marketplace businesses. FJ Labs has invested in hundreds of companies such as Alibaba, Bla Bla Car, Zolostays, Brightroll, ZoomCar and many many more. In 2018, Forbes named Fabrice the #1 Angel investor in the world. On this episode of Invest Stream, Fabrice shares his journey as an entrepreneur and how that led him to invest in startups in France and Europe, his thoughts on the cryptocurrency vertical, what approach he took to working with the entrepreneurs that he invested in and much much more.

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The Rise of Indian Venture Capital

Over the last twenty years, India has seen a tremendous amount of economic activity in the tech arena. The startup and venture capital ecosystems were a bit slow to pick-up, partly due to low Internet penetration until just a few years ago. That, however, didn’t prevent the creation of unicorns like Flipkart, Snapdeal and others. Since 2017, India has seen numerous new venture capital firms being launched with domestic and foreign capital. Japanese and Chinese investors have poured billions of dollars into Indian tech startups and venture capital firms over the last 5 years.

In the next Invest Stream Live, we’re going to chat with Ankita Vashistha, founder of the Saha Fund and Rahul Chandra, founder of Arkam Ventures. Both Ankita and Rahul have been active investors in India and both of them have very unique fund strategies. We will discuss broad trends they are seeing in India right now, what drove them to formulate such unique theses for their respective funds and what they see in store for Indian startups and other VC firms over the next year.

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Twelve Years of Indian Startups – Part II

After landing in India, I realized the bureaucracy was going to make it really difficult to get started. I won’t bore you with the details but it took me eight months from the day I landed in India to having all of the required papers in place in order to setup a Private Limited company (or corporation). I’m sure the process is much easier today to set up a company but it is definitely not easy to shutdown a company in India.

The view from my balcony

Once I got the company registered, I started looking to hire a few people. I used headhunters, job boards, and, of course, asking people I had been meeting in Delhi. I tried pretty much everything under the sun that I could think of. I hired two interns, one of which was the younger brother of another founder I had met. A few weeks went by and I hired my first full-time hire.

To be honest, though my long-term vision for a reverse auction platform serving the labor force in India was something clear, I had no idea what the magnitude of the problem was and the kind of people I needed to hire. I thought I needed developers so that’s what I tried to hire before anything else.

I interviewed anyone that was desperate enough to to work at a startup (in 2007 working at a startup was definitely not where the cool kids were). Finally, I found another developer who was a Microsoft dev and didn’t quite have the technical background in LAMP technologies. I made a bunch of mistakes in the interview. I should have asked more in-depth technical questions but, instead, I was satisfied with theoretical answers to my questions. I wound up letting this developer go on their first day, partly because of my own mistakes in interviewing and hiring and, in part, because the developer only had theoretical knowledge and wouldn’t be able to contribute to building the product for a long time.

A few months later (probably around April 2008), I was out of town for a funeral. The two interns were working on an important piece of the project. Unexpectedly, I got an email that they were both quitting. Together. Effective immediately.

Most interns didn’t get paid in India back then. I was paying them from day one and relative to what other recent college graduates were getting paid, these college students were getting paid very well. Needless to say, I was furious and shocked at the lack of professionalism by these two interns. They quit right in the middle of an important deadline with an email while I was out of town. I have the email they sent me and my response. Perhaps I will redact some of the emails and share them.

At this stage, I was completely and utterly dejected. I had no idea what I was doing. I was beaten down and there wasn’t a day that went by where I didn’t want to throw in the towel and head back home, to New York City.

I Kinda felt like this truck…or what was left of it.

I still had enough money left to continue bootstrapping this small company, so I continued to push ahead (completely uncertain in which direction I was actually going). The same acquaintance whose younger brother bailed on me was working out of small incubator in Okhla, Delhi. I went to check it out and see if I can get some space. I moved in with my sole developer. I was more confused than ever about how to build out a team that could build the product I needed. I dusted off the cobwebs and started teaching myself PHP while looking for a designer to join us. Eventually, I found a designer and hired him. He wasn’t too thrilled about using Gimp instead of Photoshop but I wanted to see what he could do before spending the money for a product no one else knew how to use. I never really got the chance to find out. After multiple absences during his first week of work (on one instance, his mother called to tell me he wasn’t feeling well), I had to fire him as well.

I’m a little hazy on the time lines now but somewhere around the middle of 2008, I got involved with organizing BarCamp Delhi and that eventually led me to co-founding the HeadStart Network and launching Startup Saturday Delhi. My initial reason for getting involved was to broaden my network and find good people to hire. Also, around this time, I met two people from IAN (Indian Angel Network). They both wanted me to come and pitch IAN but I wasn’t ready to raise money. I viewed raising money from outsiders as something I should do only after I figure out the basics of building this business.

I can’t find any screenshots but we did a soft launch of Semblr in August of 2009. It was a rough and rocky road getting there but we got there. Building a two sided market was much harder than I thought. I quickly found that not having background checks in India was going to be a problem and scaling the process of doing “police verifications” across the city was going to cost a lot of money.

By December, I was almost out of money and I decided to start doing some services to generate a little cash to pay my employees (I had hired a few folks again). That didn’t work out so well. Our first client didn’t pay me for the work we did and instead, hired away my employee that was working with them.

That was pretty much the end of Teknatus Solutions. More or less, that day, I decided to shut it down. I told my last employee (also my first full-time hire) that I would help him find another job but I was done. He was the last person to walk out of the office and turn off the lights. I still try to see him whenever I’m in the same city.

Running a startup in India was an incredibly difficult and it forced me to reexamine a lot of what I had learned about doing business and running operations over the previous 10-15 years. It was more importantly, extremely adventurous, exciting, and educational experience. I wouldn’t trade it in for anything. I learned a lot more about doing business in India than I ever would have in a MBA program or at a job. The experiences gave me a lot to digest and learn about myself which I may not have had the chance to learn had I not taken the leap. The opportunity for introspection that “failing” in a startup gave me has been invaluable but most of all, the people I met and the relationships I built over the last twelve years is something I will always cherish.

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Twelve Years of Indian Startups – Part I

March 11th 2019 marked the twelfth anniversary of the day I landed in New Delhi with my family with the intention of starting a company. It was a complicated, difficult, enlightening, fun journey and I thought it would be nice to share some details of how I decided to move to India, the challenges I faced, the failures I dealt with and all of the different adventures I had over the last twelve years.

I had been pretty lucky having gotten a job at JP Morgan & Co right out of college and two years later, landing a highly coveted job at Long-Term Capital Management which then turned into being one of the founding employees at GlobeOp Financial Services (a fintech startup that wasn’t called that in 1999, which went public in 2007 and was eventually acquired by SS&C in 2007).

After leaving GlobeOp in late 2004, a friend of mine from high school and I started working on our first tech startup. It was a social network before social networks or social media became a thing. My friend and I both weren’t developers but we started coding away furiously in Perl to get the first version of the application out the door. Unfortunately, we never actually launched the network. With LinkedIn and Facebook gaining ground rapidly, we really weren’t sure how just the two of us could keep up. We both wound up getting new jobs but continued working on this idea at nights and on weekends.

Trust me, this is incredibly embarrassing ( a la Reid Hoffman) but here are some screens circa 2005:

I think we finally stopped all further development of the project around the end of 2005 but we open sourced all of the code. While working on this project, I developed an insatiable appetite for all things tech entrepreneurship. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much happening in NYC in 2005. I became an avid listener of Podcasts in 2005 and 2006 (specifically tech podcasts like John Furrier’s PodTech.net and Greg Gallant’s Venture Voice). Between TechCrunch and these podcasts, I had the entrepreneurial itch – again. I just needed to figure out how to scratch that itch. 

I began thinking of my problem. I loved listening to podcasts about tech entrepreneurship. However, this was before Apple Podcasts, Soundcloud, Spotify, Google Podcasts, etc. The only way to find podcasts was using Google. Unfortunately, Google didn’t index and make audio very searchable.

The Problem: Podcasts are hard to find

The Solution: Offer podcasters a service which will transcribe their podcasts for them and allow them to post the text on their blog/website with the podcast audio in an RSS feed.

I left the job I was at in middle of 2006 and started working on learning about the transcription industry. I found out that medical transcription was a huge business and a lot of it was run out of India. I started investigating and talking to companies that ran transcription businesses as well as offshore “development” shops that I could work with to build out an MVP for a marketplace. The solution above would be a reverse auction platform where podcasters can specify the length of their audio and put out an amount they would be ready to pay to have that transcribed. Transcribers in India, the Philippines and other places would be notified of these projects and could come in and bid on them. Payment would be helped in escrow by us and upon completion of a project, payment would be released to the transcriber and of course, both sides could rate the other (much like eLance, upwork, etc.)

As I started talking to these offshore development shops, I began realizing that most of them were a couple of friends moonlighting. I tried out a couple of them with very small work and was thoroughly annoyed but not surprised when things weren’t done. Notice, I never said I spoke to any actual podcasters.

I decided to take a trip to India in late 2006 and meet some dev shops in person as well as attend some conferences. The first entrepreneur in India I met was Amit Ranjan, author of Webyantra and co-founder of Uzanto (which eventually became Slideshare). I went to TieCon Delhi and a few other conferences but one thing really stuck out while I was in India. Every one of my relatives kept complaining about how they couldn’t find domestic help – a nanny, a cleaning person, a cook, a chauffeur, etc. I didn’t really know anyone in India other than relatives but as I was meeting people I started asking more questions about domestic help. I started seeing a pattern. It’s hard to find good help. It’s hard to retain help. It’s a word of mouth business, e.g. your cousin can ask their driver if he knows of a good driver and he will send someone to you (of course, your cousin’s driver will get a cut for helping him get a job).

It’s hard to find digital pictures from the pre-iPhone/smartphone days

I thought, this whole situation really could lend itself to a reverse auction platform so instead of focusing on transcribing podcasts, why not create impact by helping people to get jobs. With this idea and this alone, I convinced my wife that we should move to India and I should start a business to do exactly this.

More to come in Part II

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Fighting Fraud Thru a Cashless Society

Photo by Flickr user Weldon Kennedy

Emerging markets often leapfrog technologies. For much of Independent India, it was very difficult to get a fixed-line phone. They were expensive and the wait  could be as long as five years. In the 1990’s came the mobile revolution and people across India were able to get a communication device for a relatively small amount of money and they could take the device with them everywhere. Most importantly, they didn’t have to wait years, but only a few hours for the phone to start working.

When it comes to the adoption of non-cash payments, India is in a similar position. Cash has been the preferred source of making and receiving payments since Independence in 1947. Credit cards still have very low penetration across the country. While debit cards have slightly more penetration, mobile wallets (a method of storing credit/debit cards and cash on a mobile phone) have seen quick and widespread adoption. By some estimates, there were 19.9 million credit cards across India in 2014. PayTM and MobiKwik, two of the largest mobile wallet providers in the country, claim to have 20 and 12 million active users respectively.  It’s pretty evident that India is fertile ground for cashless transactions, but also has plenty of room to grow.

With the recent developments in government, essential steps for promoting the use of electronic payments, including withdrawal of surcharges, service charges, convenience fees on cards and digital payments are soon to be rolled out across the country. While the adoption rate of mobile, card-based, and online transactions is currently lower than many other countries, payments via online platforms still accounted for 14 percent of all spending in India last year.

India, with most other emerging markets, faces the challenge of regulating transactions and removing illegal “black money” from the system. A recent study has India ranked fourth in the world for illicit money outflows with an astounding $51 billion leaving the country per year between 2004-2013 alone. Yesterday, Prime Minister Modi took a bold step in curbing the use of “black money” by changing the status of the ₹ 500 and ₹ 1,000 notes as no longer legal tender. This could have short-term implications on GDP since cash purchases still made up a large chunk of the Indian economy. The Indian government will eventually introduce new notes in addition to the ₹ 2,000 that was just launched.

These changes are going to create a significant amount of intended strain on the country’s parallel “black” economy but it’s a blessing for Indian startups and new age, digital first, financial services solutions. It also helps advance the government’s policy of financial inclusion by bringing the unbanked into the financial system.

The Solution to the Black Economy: Going Cashless

Cashless transactions with the right security measures in place would remove customer reliance on underground markets (also known as the “parallel economy”). At the moment, high transaction fees, time to complete a transaction and potential security problems are hindering the popularity of cashless transactions, but legislative progress on both fronts does suggest a positive outlook moving forward.

Enabling people to make inexpensive and easy payments using a phone or a fingerprint is convenient both for buyers and sellers and offers tighter security. This ultimately limits fraud and decreases the circulation of capital in the shadow economy, which, in turn, will lead to more tax revenue.

Shining a light on the parallel economy is something that has challenged governments all over the world for ages, even in established Western countries. In Italy, these underground activities are believed to make up 21% of the economy.

The Indian government understands that a cashless society will make it easier to curb the illicit outflow of capital and is taking steps to encourage technology solutions that scale with the size of the Indian economy.

Trust in a Transaction: Know Your Customer (“KYC”)

Knowing the parties in a transaction has always been difficult but in the digital age, a whole new level of uncertainty and potential for fraud exists. It’s part of the reason banks make customers jump through hoops for seemingly minor and mundane information to authenticate identity.

The ongoing work by the Unique Identification Authority of India to collect biometric data and issue all residents a universal ID number (called the Aadhaar) is unprecedented and early results are promising. The program has continued to grow rapidly over the last seven years with recent enrollment passing one billion citizens. However, the infrastructure needed to effectively implement Aadhaar throughout the country still needs workaccess to localized bank branches and ATMs, for example, is not readily accessible to millions – yet. Though the program is still in the early stages of implementation, it represents a major leap towards a financial infrastructure with strong safeguards in place.

The tweet above by Sanjay is indicative of how Aadhaar is going to change the way verification of parties in a transaction (“eKYC”) and transactions themselves take place for more than a billion people. The largest mobile wallet in India, PayTM, has reduced paper based KYC to 1%.

In order for cashless transactions to catch on, mobile-to-mobile payments also need to be streamlined. Last year the National Payments Corporation of India launched the United Payment Interface (UPI) to make mobile-to-mobile payments easier. The system allows for the quick transfer of funds across different banks with the use of a single identifierremoving the need to exchange sensitive personal information during financial transactions. 

All you need to do is download a UPI enabled app and let the fun begin. Startups like Instamojo have been pushing the limits of how digital payments can be made or received for years. Now, with the policy finally catching up, they can make it even simpler to send money or receive payments with nothing more than a cell phone.

Transparency and Portability

The Aadhaar number is a good step in bringing a scalable identification system to an incredibly diverse population of more than a billion people. However, coupled with blockchain technology, solutions providing more financial transparency to the entire country can easily be developed. With blockchain, an open ledger of all transactions could be recorded in a secure and transparent network linked to the legacy banking system.

With a blockchain, customers could have account number portability when moving between banks. That portability is something that politicians in India are already calling for. Imagine, switching banks or brokerage accounts to a new service provider and taking your account number with you. Potentially, not having to deal with changing routing numbers or providing your employer with new banking information ever again.

NASDAQ is currently testing blockchain technologies in a trial program. Last year, nine of the world’s biggest banks announced a partnership to create a blockchain framework that could be used globally.

The Future

With all of these developments on the horizon, disruptive technologies and solutions around payments, financial inclusion, remittance, public market investing and broader financial services are going to be boundless. As India adapts and implements the proper security measures and makes bold policy decisions, digital transactions will continue to become accessible, easier, less expensive, and, hence, more frequent.

Customers will have peace of mind about their accounts being protected thanks to biometric security. Business professionals will also find comfort in knowing that blockchain technology records all transactions and protects them from fraudulent activity.

Arguably the biggest winner of all will be the Indian government. With such a system in place, it could greatly reduce its much-derided bureaucracy. The government will also be closer to it’s goals of banking the unbanked, stamping out corruption and black market activities while simultaneously increasing revenues and GDP (by adding in cash transactions that were previously not being captured by official mechanisms).

While India still faces some complex challenges, the country is certainly heading in the right direction with regard to a more sustainable cashless society. If history is any indication, India will, in fact, fully embrace the shift just as it did with mobile a decade ago, though, not without some teething pains.

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