You are currently browsing the monthly archive for May 2012.

(Source: Zen)

[Published in Medianama]

Ecommerce in India has gone through a cold spell, but there is hope for warmer days ahead. There appears to now be a clear focus on contribution margin and sustainability versus the previous race to buy topline. As Bejul explained in his post, customer lifetime value is a metric that Lightspeed believes is critical to measure and optimize.

The ecosystem is a key enabler of sustainability for an industry. For example, it is unviable for all ecommerce players to build end-to-end logistics and payments/wallet capabilities internally. Certain ecosystem trends are emerging which may help ecommerce businesses become more viable over time:

Capabilities of logistics service providers aren’t static

Logistics is where rubber meets the road, and ecommerce glamour meets the offline reality filled with dust, sweat and lost/wrong/delayed shipments. Some ecommerce specialist players now provide:

  • End-to-end ecommerce solutions, including inward, racking, picking, packing, shipping and collection.
  • Transparency into logistics company’s processes through APIs, which can reduce returns (and costs) and bring predictability.
  • Variable warehousing bills (per order shipped) that help manage costs at lower scale, and a projection for reduction in per unit cost with increasing scale of the ecommerce business.

There are several new and old companies worth calling out:

  • Dedicated ecommerce divisions within traditional players like Bluedart, Aramex, etc
  • New ecommerce logistics specialists such as Delhivery, Holisol and Chhotu. These companies and teams tend to be more hungry, innovative and nimble than their traditional counterparts but are still building their capabilities. Also interesting is Mudita for bulk inter city shipments.

Payment gateways/aggregators are trying to address pain points

Payment gateway failure horror stories are common, with failure rates as high as 35%. This continues to be a lost opportunity, and a very expensive one, as it costs up to Rs 1,000 to get the customer to that point.  Here are a few improvements/innovations that are coming up:

  • Wrapper technologies that work with multiple banks to minimize probability of transaction failure.
  • Deep analytics and visibility into customer’s intent to buy: For example, ecommerce companies can track a list of failed transactions (with customer and cart details) so that their teams can follow-up and close offline.
  • PCI/DSS compliant widgets which simplify the payment experience for consumers.
  • Capability to handle payments originated over mobile web.

There are traditional names like Billdesk, CC Avenues, EBS, who are incrementally adding value but the new teams that are coming up quickly are Citrus and PayU, in addition to GharPay which collects cash from consumers’ doorsteps when no physical delivery of goods is involved (e.g. tickets, collection in advance of shipping).

The industry is maturing

Some of the more recent trends I see are:

No-poach agreements: After the initial land grab in the OTA space, Yatra, Makemytrip, Cleartrip got into such arrangements. Leading ecommerce players are now discussing these. It is good from a talent pool perspective too, as people apply themselves to fix hard problems versus moving to the next job.

CoD Blacklist: CoD is a key part of Indian ecommerce. However, high CoD return rates (upto 25% in some categories) cause operational challenges and working capital burden. Some players are discussing creating an industry wide CoD customer blacklist – this can drive significant efficiency for ecommerce / logistics companies and a better experience for genuine customers.

Trust from OEMs/Brands: Brands/OEMs are putting more trust into ecommerce now. Eighteen months back ecommerce was not strategically important to brands/OEMs, but brands are now launching their own ecommerce platforms, and/or have a clear strategy for ecommerce as a channel. Senior executives with years of core category experience are now excited about ecommerce and are considering opportunities in this retail format.

These trends are still in their infancy but if they continue the situation will be very different a few years from now. The key question is to what extent and in what time frame will these developments move the needle in making ecommerce sustainable.

Some thoughts for ecommerce entrepreneurs

My thoughts for entrepreneurs building ecommerce companies are to:

  • Assess if you can derive value out of any of these services / trends: For example, compare if your current logistics / payment provider (in-house or outsourced) is competitive with the changing environment or revisit if you can bring in top talent from the domain into your team.
  • Step forward to support the ones you find relevant: For example, you would take risk when you test a new partner in your order flow (logistics or payment), or when you commit to not hiring from competition, but these partnerships can pay off very meaningfully in the long run.
  • If you are a new startup, identify and focus on your core competence: Logistics and payments contribute significantly to direct costs but they are only necessary and not sufficient for success.  So unless you plan to differentiate on these, leverage the ecosystem.

This list is by no means exhaustive, so please feel free to add more names / trends / thoughts in the comments section.

[Published in Pluggd.in]

I was looking at some stats on growth of consumer social and mobile platforms between 2008 and now. Even though it’s an obvious point, the contrast is quite stark and shows how much the world has changed in a short time.  It’s almost hard to imagine a world where Facebook was a startup, LinkedIn and Twitter had very small user bases and iOS and Android each had less than 10M users. But this was the case in early 2008.

The numbers above are based on Crunchbase, SEC filings and news reports – I think they’re directionally correct although there may be some numbers that are not exactly right.

While all these above-mentioned platforms or quasi-platforms (and others I have not mentioned) have impacted startups in the US and Europe, I think Facebook and Android are the real game-changers in India as opposed to LinkedIn, Twitter or iOS.

Why Facebook and Android in India?  Here’s why: When I think of consumer platforms (a much abused term), I think of a few criteria:

  1. a large, engaged and fast-growing audience (100M+ users)
  2. a developer friendly culture and technology base
  3. a monetization vehicle that is providing enough return to developers for their time

In my opinion, three platforms stand out today and meet this criteria – Facebook, iOS and Android – in many parts of the world.  However, they all fall down in India when it comes to #3 (monetization) and (for now) #1 (audience size).  I have no doubt these platforms will get to the right audience sizes in India in the next 12-24 months – Facebook claims ~50M users and Android has <10M in India. In the meantime, Google reigns supreme for reaching users.

So, the upshot is that now is the time to start companies leveraging these platforms in India.

[previously published on Nextwala blog]

(Source: Marttj)

[Published in VCCircle]

I have worked with the Slideshare team, as a user, investor and board member at different times, from 2008 till late last year.  After the Slideshare + LinkedIn announcement last week, I have been reflecting on how much has changed and how much (or little, depending on your perspective) I have learnt from this experience since starting out in the venture business several years ago, as well being a founder myself in the late 1990’s.

Here’s what I learnt from Rashmi, Jon and Amit about best practices of founders.  I appreciated their willingness to work with me and be patient.

Passion & Focus

  • Passion about your userbase is contagious. It impacts the employees and their retention, it impacts your core user base and their retention, it impacts customers and their retention.
  • Focus, focus, focus on honing the product – UX, scalability, security, data, analytics and more – but keep trying new product angles quickly to iterate toward high engagement and clear value.
  • Focus on crystallizing value to paying customers – make it easy for customers to understand value (packaging, positioning, messaging), connect value to price, and make it easy to pay as customers receive value. To do this, understand who your super-user segments are and why.

Growth and (or versus) Monetization

  • Be frugal (if possible) but keep innovating, so you are around when lightning strikes in terms of user growth, revenue or outcomes.
  • It’s tough to balance growth versus monetization versus profitability. There is definitely a trade-off. Get lots of input on this from people who have made these trade-off successfully.
  • Understand path from user acquisition to engagement to retention to monetization early on and track associated actionable metrics (a la Dave McClure’s AARRR). Especially for user-generated content, there’s no automatic connection between usage and revenue.

The Outside World

  • Acquisitions and successful partnerships take time to develop.  They generally come from engaging over long periods of time. At the end of the day, it’s about people getting to know people.
  • Keep tabs on competition, don’t obsess about them though – most companies die of self-inflicted wounds, not because of competition.
  • Investors are people. Sometimes your investors and board members know what they are talking about, sometimes they don’t, hopefully more of the former.

Becoming a Better Board Member

Through hit (and miss), I also learnt some lessons on how to become a better board member over time:

  • Be respectful w.r.t. founders – they known their business better than you do.
  • Be patient – there’s no such thing as an overnight success – don’t get too impatient but still hold management’s feet to the fire
  • Be thoughtful and have a high bar when suggesting workstreams for the company – their time is precious, don’t waste it.
  • Focus on strategic impact – as an investor, focusing on daily management decisions (i.e. micro-managing) will not have a positive impact on the company (and may have a negative impact). Focus on strategic changes, such as building the best management team, making the right bets on monetization, making the right introductions to partners/acquirers, holding people accountable for outcomes.
  • Conduct board meetings for the right reasons. Board meetings should not primarily be about reporting only but also about trying to solve problems together and laying the groundwork for scale.  The real action happens outside of board meetings though.
  • Align with founders on outcomes. Understand your goals and risk-profile as an investor early on relative to goals and risk-profile of the founders & management team.  Align.
  • Angels and VCs are not at loggerheads. As long as companies continue to build value in a large enough market, angel investors and venture investors are aligned.  All the media hype about the two communities being at loggerheads with each other is overdone.

(previously published on Nextwala blog)

[Published on Yourstory.in]

So, how long will it take to get a term sheet?

This is a question that most entrepreneurs appropriately want to know.  While there is no one size fits all answer to this question, the focus of this post is to ask what I think is an equally important question for all entrepreneurs – what does a term sheet really mean?

The reason this is important is because all term sheets are not equal.  Some firms issue term sheets early in their investment and diligence process (Firm A), while others issue them at the end of their process (Firm B).  While Firm A will be able to issue a term sheet more quickly than Firm B, there is likely to be a higher risk that the deal does not close as most of the detailed diligence is yet to be done.  Conversely, while Firm B might take longer to issue the term sheet, if/when when they do so, they will likely have a very high likelihood of completing the investment, thus providing the entrepreneur with a higher certainty of close.

Since most term sheets contain exclusivity clauses that restrict the entrepreneur’s ability to speak to other firms and evaluate other financing options, wouldn’t you rather accept a term sheet that has a higher probability of close, even if this takes a little longer? So next time you ask an investor how long it takes to get a term sheet, be sure to also ask what level of commitment their term sheet represents.

Our colleague Dev has posted on his Nextwala blog regarding his search for a utility app for local news aggregation. The article was also published on VCCircle.

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