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Craftsvilla Founders: Manoj and Monica [Published on YourStory.com]

This week Craftsvilla announced a Rs 110 Cr round led by Sequoia and supported by existing investors Lightspeed and Nexus and new investor Global Founders Capital. This is an important milestone for a company that has quietly been building out India’s largest marketplace for ethnic apparel and products.

In our view, Craftsvilla stands out from the majority of e-commerce companies for a few reasons:
– It has broken into the top-5 ecommerce companies in India by GMV scale
– Has grown 4x in scale in the last six months (and continues that trajectory)
– It turned the corner on cash flow breakeven while achieving such scale and growth

All this, on the $1.5M that the company cumulatively raised from Lightspeed and Nexus across its seed and Series-A rounds in 2011 and 2012. This performance is exceptional by all standards and is driven in essence by two key factors:

A. A fundamentally strong business model: Craftsvilla is going after the massive ($30B) market of ethnic apparel and products in India. This market is highly fragmented across a very large supplier base and thus needs a specialized vertical player to go after it. Since the supplier base is fragmented, it takes longer to build liquidity on the platform but once the critical mass of buyers and sellers are live on the platform, then the margins are attractive and entry barriers are very high. ETSY solved a similar problem for the US market and is currently valued at $2.8B post its recent IPO. Craftsvilla has gone through the hard part of getting the platform to scale and the quality of the current business is reflected in several metrics:

  • Marketing spend has stayed below 10% of sales while revenue has grown 4x in last six months
    • Organic sources contribute two-thirds of the total traffic
  • An active seller base of 12K artisans who by themselves upload and manage an inventory base of 2M SKUs on the platform
  • High fragmentation within the seller base: Median contribution of top-10 sellers to GMV is 1.5% and beyond top-10 no seller contributes more than 1% of sales.

B. Extraordinary perseverance and focus of the founders: There has been a frenzy of ecommerce funding in India. Instead of going down the path of driving GMV through discounting and at the cost of margins, Manoj and Monica went through the harder path of building the core of the business – bringing thousands of suppliers across the country on to the platform and helping them sell online. To continue to do this for multiple years while the industry was rewarding a capital led growth path needs strong founders with deep conviction. It is always helpful to look back at certain ‘forks in the road’ and learn from the experience.  The team made a number of critical decisions with crystal clear conviction that, in hindsight, worked well for the company.  These include the following:

  • A clear commitment to being a marketplace vs. a retailer (or mix of the two)
  • With this clarity, focused aggressively on aggregating sellers and building strong technology-led capabilities to on-board sellers and allow them to sell through the Craftsvilla platform
  • Letting the diversity of supply drive demand instead of using a discount led approach
  • Kept the team lean and fixed cost burden low: Manoj and Monica gave it everything they had and built a young and highly motivated team around them – a team of 15 people till a couple of months back! Conventional wisdom might have argued for a seasoned and pedigreed team that allows for accessing capital faster.

When Lightspeed, along with our partners at Nexus, made the seed investment in Craftsvilla back in 2011, we were struck by the founding team’s passion for, and understanding of, the market opportunity as well as more measurable factors such as market size, the potential for attractive unit economics and the scope to build a differentiated company that the horizontal e-commerce platforms would not be able to easily replicate. We also believed that this was a powerful opportunity to leverage the internet to unlock new markets within India and globally for artisans and vendors who, until then, were only able to serve their local customer base.

As the company looks forward, there remains much work to do – from iterating on product to building company leadership and replicating the platform in similar markets globally. They can do this with the very strong foundation of capital efficiency and product-market fit that has already been built. We are fortunate to be associated with the company and look forward to being a part of this journey with Manoj and Monica.

Also read Manoj’s post on how the Craftsvilla team created this magic.

limeroadbookThis morning, LimeRoad announced $15M in new financing to further their mission of building a social discovery and buying platform in the lifestyle vertical.  This is a significant raise for a young company and provides additional validation of their differentiated approach to addressing the large and growing online buying opportunity in India. For those that aren’t familiar with the company, LimeRoad aggregates lifestyle products from a network of brands and stores and provides its community of users tools to create and curate lifestyle content as well as to easily discover and buy unique and delightful products.

Here are some brief thoughts on why we originally invested in Limeroad and have continued to support the company in subsequent financings:

  1. A truly exceptional team that refuses to take short-cuts and instead focuses on finding scalable, long-term solutions to difficult problems.  Suchi and Prashant have been deeply involved in architecting and building consumer products of significant scale at companies like Skype, eBay and Facebook and bring similar aspirations to LimeRoad, along with an understanding of what it takes.  Every time there is a choice between an ‘easy fix’ or finding a less obvious, long-term solution to a core challenge, they choose the latter, even though that inevitably means stepping into the unknown and facing a higher probability of (short-term) failure.  It takes guts to choose the path less traveled, but we believe that this path maximizes the likelihood of substantial value creation.
  2. An early and intense focus on achieving product market fit. Here are some charts on user growth, supply growth, community activity (scrapbook creation) and marketing expense. We like it when growth and engagement charts are up and to the right while marketing is flat.  It tells us that something is working without significant external stimulation (or discounting). (Footnote 1)
    limeroad
  3. A belief that differentiation will be increasingly driven by front-end experience.  Fast shipping, real-time visibility into inventory and responsive customer service are now table-stakes, not a strategy to differentiate.  Pricing-led ‘differentiation’ (heavy discounting) is a questionable long-term strategy and can become a dangerous addiction for management teams who ignore quality of growth.  Instead, we believe that visual and social experiences that enable discovery and delight (especially relevant in the lifestyle category) will define the next wave of market-leading online companies.
  4. Visual and social experiences are perfect for mobile.  We all know what’s happening on mobile but the question is which types of businesses will benefit more than others.  We believe that products that are inherently social and visual will benefit disproportionately from smartphone growth.  LimeRoad sits squarely in this category.
  5. A large profit pool. At the end of the day, valuable companies must all have attractive economic characteristics and the margin pool in the online lifestyle category is perhaps the most attractive in Indian online commerce.

There is a lot more work to be done – and problems to be solved – but the LimeRoad team has already disproved many accepted notions in the world of Indian e-commerce – for example that it is not possible to grow without offering heavy discounts or that Indian users aren’t savvy enough to embrace deeper social activities like scrapbooking, curating collections or sharing.  We expect them to disprove many more and wish them all the best in the next phase of their journey.

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Footnote 1: In order to preserve confidentiality of company data, absolute scale is not provided in the graphs above. Base scale is sufficiently large that the above data is a representative indication of product-market fit, in our opinion.

appstore

[Also published on Medianama]

It has been only five years since the launch of the iPhone App Store in July 2008.  Feels like fifty dog years.  In reality this is not a long time, compared to nearly twenty years since the launches of Yahoo (February 1994), Amazon (July 1995) and the IPO of Netscape (August 1995).  Over these twenty years, not only have startups innovated on product/design and business models and but also on demand generation/user acquisition strategies.  Yet only five years after the launch of the App Store, the pace of innovation in mobile app user acquisition seems to have hit a brick wall… in the search for increasingly efficient methods of marketing, we seemed to have hit the efficient frontier.

In India, efficient user acquisition is a key problem area for developers targeting Indian users as well as global users.  Fortunately, marketing has gone online, along with placement, onboarding, monetization and payments. And mobile marketing can be done at world-class levels right in India.

So, what is this efficient frontier? What are the best practices for mobile user acquisition?

To provide some concrete pointers,  I organized several founders-only sessions on enterprise/SMB SaaS user acquisition as well as mobile user acquisition in Bangalore, Delhi and Mumbai. This month, I also organized and moderated a session on mobile user acquisition with TIE in Delhi.  Our eminent panelists included Harinder Takhar (CEO of PayTM), Pathik Shah (Head of Growth, Hike), Jamshed Rajan (Chief Product Officer, Nimbuzz) and Chandan Gupta (founder/CEO of PhoneWarrior).

So here’s a summary of what we discussed – please note the tone of the conversation was more around hacks and learnings from practitioners as opposed to some over-arching strategic viewpoint on mobile user acquisition.  Many of these tips fall into the non-scalable bucket but some are more scalable. I will leave it up to you to decide which is which.  Also, it was assumed that developers were tracking efficiency of marketing campaigns and funnels through some form of app instrumentation, whether through commercial solutions like Mixpanel, Apsalar, Flurry, Google Analytics etc or home-grown analytics.

CONVENTIONAL PRE-MOBILE TECHNIQUES

These include traditional PR/media outreach, analyst relations, direct selling and tradeshows/conferences.  These techniques are fairly inefficient and out-of-date for mobile apps as most target users/consumers are not reached through these means.

Blogs/websites: Chasing Techcrunch and other tech blogs does not have nearly the same effect it had a few years ago – previously, a post on Techcrunch could drive 50-100k visitors/downloads – now, this number is down to 100-500 downloads.

Vernacular newspapers: Targeting vernacular media outlets across India, as opposed to the English and Hindi dailies could provide some advantage. Regional language papers are hungry for technology news and can be quite effective in reaching regional audiences.

Localization: On a related note, for some apps, it makes sense to provide app store listings in several different languages, sometimes backed up by the product being localized as well but not necessarily.

TV: In India, it could be useful to get onto NDTV Cell Guru and other such shows.  These media outlets also have Facebook, web, mobile and video assets to drive awareness.

Print: Some panelists had tried this. It does not have any meaningful impact on mobile app downloads.

Offline: Some panelists had tried stationing people on campus to get some initial adoption. It does not work and the message gets diluted/warped when temporary employees are hired to do this.

MOBILE 1.0 TECHNIQUES

These include OEM/mobile operator distribution, mobile advertising and search engine optimization (SEO).

A basic deterrent is app size – especially in Tier 2 towns and beyond, people are wary of downloading apps greater than 10MB in size.  Really need to minimize app size.

Factory loading: Average OEM/carrier deals take 5-6 months at least and have to be positioned as helping the OEM/operator differentiate. Most OEMs are now looking at apps/services as revenue streams so this should be baked into the business case for them, perhaps as a rev-share.  Some panelists mentioned Rs 5-10 per install as what Indian OEMs are asking for.

If the app is already factory-loaded onto the product, this doesn’t drive activation either – factory-loading has to be on the homescreen and accompanied by an above-the-line marketing campaign (e.g. advertising or logo on device box) preferably paid for and driven by the operator/OEM.

Some of the smaller/newer OS/OEMs providers are being more aggressive in courting developers. These include Tizen, Intel, Amazon, and Blackberry.  If you build your app for these, you will maybe get an advantage and may get paid to build out on their platform. The flip-side, however, is that these platforms have small audiences and will most probably not drive a meaningful amount of downloads/usage.  Panelists mentioned Parag Gupta at Amazon, Annie Mathew at Blackberry and Priyam Bose at Microsoft/Windows.

Mobile advertising: General consensus is that users acquired through paid advertising tend to be less loyal than users acquired organically.  One exception may be advertising to users of competitor apps on Facebook and the use of promoted posts on FB. Panelists mentioned Google/Admob, Inmobi, Flurry, Tapjoy, Yieldmo, HasOffers etc.

Mobile advertising gets an initial burst of downloads to move up into the top rankings on the app stores and then some drip marketing is required to keep rankings high.  Some people expressed an opinion that any burst marketing should be done on one day rather than over several days and perhaps should be done on a Friday so the boost in rankings persists over the weekend.  The key is to get into the top 10.

One needs 100k-200k installs per day to get into the top of the charts in India. Can’t get there through paid advertising.  Advertising is not cheap.  Especially given the messaging wars between Line, WeChat, Whatsapp, Hike and others, mobile inventory seems to be sold out in India.

If you measure real CPI (i.e. CPI taking into account successful download rates, activiation rates and 3 or 6 month churn), actual cost of customer acquisition (CAC) ends up 4-10x as high as CPI quoted by ad networks. In India, iPhone CPIs are under Rs 120 ($2) and Android Rs 30 ($0.50) at low scale.

There are mediation layers from Flurry, Hasoffers, Mopub and others available so that developers don’t have to integrate multiple ad network SDKs into their apps.  All these SDK providers have their own ad networks but also connect with other ad networks. Meanwhile, publishers use SSPs to route between ad networks. It’s a complete spaghetti-like mess.

Incentivized downloads: Tapjoy/Flurry used to provide this but have moved away from this. Panelists urged developers to not even think about trying incentivized downloads as CPIs are high as are uninstall rates, given that users are downloading without any intent to use.

Search engine optimization: Most developers mentioned that web SEO did not work for them.  Content on the web does not bring traffic from the web to the app stores.  Some people mentioned content marketing e.g. blog posts and posting presentations on Slideshare as a way to drive some traffic.

Mobile web: Make sure you have a http://get.yourwebsiteURL.com mobile-optimized website up and running.  Apple and Android have special HTML widgets to include here that you insert once you know the OS of the device (through the header). These widgets redirect to the relevant app in the relevant app store.

Social media is not very effective for user growth. It is somewhat effective for engaging existing users as well as a support channel.  Adding social network sharing within apps does generate some virality, especially if sharing is encouraged at points within the app where users get a delightful experience.  Apps with social as their core may benefit from Facebook, including automated actions posting to Facebook (e.g. ‘read’ or ‘play’).

Virality:  Startups should track their k-factor/viral-factor and viral cycle time.  Even a k-factor of 0.2 really helps if it can be sustained over several months/years.  A viral factor anywhere close to or greater than 1 is phenomenal but can only be sustained for a short period of time.

MOBILE 2.0 TECHNIQUES

App store optimization (ASO): The panel talked about platform stores (like Google Play, iOS App Store, Blackberry App World and Amazon), indie stores (like Getjar, Opera, UCWeb and Appia) and operator portals/stores. Most indie stores have a paid/sponsorship model but CPIs are the same as ad networks.

Platform app stores require carefully crafted keywords (repeated in title and description), creative content (which is mostly only read by loyal users), quality screenshots/logos and a good demo video for Google Play (linked through Youtube). Do not to go overboard here e.g. do not stuff keywords in the title/description – you will look desperate.  Best tools for ASO include Google Trends, Searchman SEO, AppCodes.  Reverse engineer the search algorithms on the app stores by typing in keyworks to see output of apps appearance.

Getting featured is obviously great but is driven purely through relationships (for Apple and Amazon) and algorithmically (for Google Play) with the curation teams for each platform, sometimes on a geography-by-geography basis.  Always make sure to comply with the design guidelines provided by each platform – this makes it more likely you will get picked up for featuring. Use AppFigures and Appannie to track your performance and reviews.

App updates also drive additional downloads and push up ranking for a short period of time.  Since there are no well-proven A/B testing methods for mobile apps, it makes sense to try several variations with each app update.

Cross-promotion: Companies like Outfit7, Zynga and Google have very effectively used their large network of apps to cross-promote new app launches. Outfit7 has been able to get to one billion+ downloads and has cross-promoted new launches to tens of millions of downloads in a few weeks.

Barter: Many developers don’t think about this, perhaps because it only applies when their apps get to some scale (several million MAUs). The trick is to find mobile app properties that (1) have tens of millions of MAUs; (2) have users in demographics/regions that you are targeting; and (3) have a large proportion of unsold or remnant inventory i.e. low sell-through rates.  Bilaterally trading this remnant inventory can then be quite an efficient, not to mention cashless, way of driving downloads.

Referral schemes: Virality can be driven through incentives that provide an individual relevant app-specific user benefits in inviting people successfully. Examples include Hike (free SMSs for each successful invite), Dropbox (additional storage for each successful invite), Evernote (one month of free premium service with each successful invite) and Paypal ($5-10 for each successful invite).  These schemes do not work for single-user utilities if you hand out real money.  Users will try to hack around this system.

Beyond a certain point, only word-of-mouth/virality works, can’t use paid. This does not apply necessarily in the case of apps where the lifetime value (LTV) of an average user has been quantified, as can be done with many user-paid models like games, ecommerce and subscription services.

UNCONVENTIONAL TECHNIQUES

Use social influencers: If you can identify and target social influencers, it sometimes works to make them proponents of your app.

Gamification: Leaderboard-based incentivization does not impact new user acquisition.  Make sure that gamification works even if the user does not have any friends using the same app.

Push SMS marketing: CPIs end up being within 25% of where the ad networks are, so not much different in price.  Historically, SMSs went out to non-data, non-smartphone users as well so were not effective.  This can contribute to cheapening the brand. Also, TRAI has specifically banned sending spam SMSs to users on the DND list.

Restricted invite lists: This is what Mailbox did, as have many others.  A permanent beta is a less extreme example of this. This make sense for apps like email which need to be scaled up slowly given their complexity.  However, restricted invite lists only make some sense when there is a lot of PR and noise generated some other way to drive artificial scarcity.

Review sites: At small scale, this helps. Some developers pepper comments throughout review sites such as Appolicious, AppTurbo and AppBrain to drive some downloads.  This also build links into the developer’s website to drive Google search rankings.

4130567067_88b6acf45b

(Source: Ron Mader)

We are in an early eco-system here in India for technology startups.  It is hard to find strategic talent or mentors with experience in product management and marketing, as I have mentioned in my previous post on The Silent Killers of Startup Growth in India.

One treasure trove of learning and mentorship exists amongst the current community of practicing founders in India.  We are seeing a lot of grassroots efforts around the country where founders are getting together to talk specifics around areas such as product management, sales, marketing and fundraising.  These include iSpirt’s ProductNation roundtables, organized by Avinash Raghav – some blog posts here on this: sales & marketing, sales & lead gen, positioning & messaging) – as well as others organized by NASSCOM and various incubators/accelerators.

To do our bit, we decided to focus our efforts on bringing together founders in separate closed-door roundtables in Bangalore, Delhi and Mumbai over the past month. We had about 30 founders participate across all these sessions.

Our focus was on two sets of companies with somewhat different dynamics – enterprise/SMB software and mobile consumer apps.  The challenges for both sets are around finding rich seams of customers in India and/or abroad.

The discussions got tactical, in a very good way. This is where the learnings come from – from anecdotes and data about what has worked and what has not worked.  It felt as if the founders were happy to share learnings and were energized by helping each other out.  No generic platitudes, like we see at many conferences and panels.

I’ll report more on the specific learnings on the mobile apps side and enterprise/SMB software side in posts next week.

I hope more efforts like iSpirt’s roundtables are undertaken around the country.  Our eco-system needs this.

[Published in Mint on May 30, 2013. Here is the link to an abbreviated version of the article on LiveMint.]

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[Credit: Laurynas Mereckas]

Building a startup into a successful high-impact company is not easy – it is hard no matter where in the world the founding team may be located or which geography is targeted.

It is even harder in India, despite the macro outlook almost always looking rosy – 1+ billion people, strong economic growth, emerging market/BRIC, technical expertise, many underserved needs etc.

Many of India’s successful startups have navigated a maze of challenges, creating leading brands and sustaining for long periods of time.  Correspondingly, it is much harder in India, relative to the US/Europe, for competition to unseat leading brands.  Erstwhile startups that have created a successful brand include Cafe Coffee DayDr Lal’s PathlabsFlipkartIndian Energy Exchange (B2B), Indigo Airlines, Infosys (B2B), InMobi (B2B), Justdial, Makemytrip, Naukri (B2B), one97 and Snapdeal.  

Here are some of these environmental challenges that I see many startups facing here. These are almost never explicitly discussed. Perhaps this is because it’s like the air – it is just self-evident and it is hard to solve for these.

Market friction

Many of the successful companies we talk about today in India took 10+ years to get to escape velocity and impact.  Why? India-focused startups have to change buyer behavior and/or create infrastructure  (eg Flipkart’s several thousand people in logistics, Meru Cabs’ owned & operated taxi fleet, One97’s PayTM mobile payments infrastructure), as opposed to purely focusing on better/faster/cheaper solutions.  As a result, I generally see linear organic growth in companies targeting the Indian market.  There are some companies that have overcome this by creating low-friction offline models e.g. Dr. Lal Pathlabs with low-capex collection centers, and micro-finance businesses with repetitive hassle-free loans to the bottom of the pyramid.

Some other sources of friction include:

  • the need for offline presence (even for mainly digital companies).
  • difficulties in payment collection from consumers and businesses.
  • gatekeepers that have optimized for self-preservation/cashflow.
  • government-driven paperwork for compliance & set-up and regulatory uncertainty.

A series of small markets

Startups need large markets (Rs 2500cr+ or $500 million+) to get large and succeed.  This is hard to find in India, perhaps due to early consumer demand, unorganized markets, regional differences or foreign substitutes.  For example, digital advertising is a roughly $400 million annual business here, with mobile at 10% of that. To access and maintain growth, almost every new startup here needs to increase their focus on creating and evangelizing their category versus just focusing on their own startup’s growth.

Some examples of overcoming this challenge include:

  • spending large amounts of capital to create a category (eg ecommerce, OTA, wireless telecom).
  • expanding into adjacent markets (eg Info Edge, which expanded from jobs into matrimonials, real-estate, education etc.).
  • building or piloting in India and transplanting to the US (eg Zoho)
  • aggregating several emerging markets outside India, perhaps before proceeding to Western Europe and the US (eg InMobi, iFlexSubex).
  • attacking a large spend base (eg Micromax for hardware, Cafe Coffee Day for coffee/tea/snacks, BillDesk for bill payment).

While many startups choose to access existing categories abroad (eg smartphone apps), many Indian startups have successfully created India-specific categories, including inbound marketing (JustdialZipdial), B2B marketplace (IndiamartIndian Energy Exchange), assisted services (OneAssist, Onward MobilitySuvidhaa), MVAS (OnMobileIMIMobile), entertainment services (Dhingana) and transport aggregation (RedbusOla Cabs).

Lack of trust

Lack of trust is endemic in India, whether you are driving through the streets (and perhaps Delhi is an extreme example of lack of trust!) or negotiating with corporate partners. Examples include:

  • (some) people misrepresent themselves materially without any consequences (eg overselling).
  • (some) founders focus on control at the expense of value creation.
  • potential buyers have a hard time parting with payment details or paying for off-the-shelf software.
  • (some) people negotiate all the corner cases in extreme detail, to the point where the law of diminishing returns kicks in pretty strongly.
  • trust gap between regulators, law enforcement and business.
  • trust gap between promoters (aka founders) and investors and potential misalignment on timelines and strategy.
  • (some) government and companies focus on protecting themselves from the 1% of customers who are gaming the system at the expense of the 99% remaining customers.

Relationships, not contracts, govern deals.  Many brands in India are created from execution reliability at scale rather than product differentiation.  Brands  in India are disproportionately more valuable as they represent a trusted provider of products or services – think about the enduring value of the Tata brand in multiple unrelated categories.  As one consequence, I believe more startups should think about brand-building here in India relative to if they were in the US.

Hard to find strategic talent

Almost every entrepreneur and investor I speak with has this issue.  This is not easily solvable – the only potential solution is to focus on A+ people right from the founding team onwards and never compromise on that front, even if it means slower roll-outs.  Zoho and InMobi are often cited for building great teams.

Strategic talent is hard to find, including executives, product managers, product marketeers and design experts.  We find ourselves scouring large established companies in India for executives and many times find these executives short on ability to take career risk and lower startup-level compensation in exchange for equity.  We look abroad sometimes to import talent.   One other friction point tends to be lack of middle management willing (or empowered) to take their own initiative and a cultural bias for say:do ratio > 1 (interesting quote by an anonymous founder) which generally means that execution requires a lot of hand-holding.

The smaller pool of founder/co-founder and risk-taking startup employees results in lots of churn and inordinately long hiring cycles, although this is changing fast at a cultural level in India.  It is also quite stunning how many times people who have signed employment contracts do not show up on their first day of work.

Not enough experienced mentors

India has an early (but fast-growing) eco-system for new venture creation. I see successful founders giving back to the founder community in a big way through investments, mentorship and driving industry hygiene.

However, there aren’t enough successful founders yet to cater to the much larger group of new founders who need help.  Without the perspective provided by aligned mentors, many founders are finding it tough to pivot or accelerate.

I am optimistic on this front, as many experienced and competent mentors have stepped forward over the last two years.  In my opinion, this is one of the reasons driving the creation of many of the incubators and accelerators in India which are centered around these hard-to-find mentors.

Constricted access to capital

This has been an issue in India for a long time and is probably why there is a higher focus here on companies to get to cash-flow breakeven fast or to trade-off growth for cash-flow.  It is not surprising that the early successes in Indian ventures have mostly come from services-oriented business (e.g. outsourcing, BPO) or offline consumer businesses that grew organically for a while.

Many would point to investors being over-cautious and risk-averse.  I think that the environmental factors mentioned above are the causal factor for investor cautiousness and not vice versa.  I would argue that the $1.1B in 2011 and $762M in 2012 (source:  Venture Intelligence) that went into venture in India was perhaps more than the market could absorb efficiently.  Capital is abundant in the growth stage, once product-market fit and/or profitability has been achieved, and hard to come by in the development stage (ie pre-revenue and/or pre-traction stage).

Indian startups have developed a unique set of growth strategies to overcome the challenges mentioned above.  I will write about these different growth strategies (and perhaps deep-dive into some of the challenges) in subsequent posts.  I am hopeful and excited about companies in India that are overcoming these challenges.

Thanks to the brain trust, who provided feedback and contributed ideas, including Bhawna AgarwalKunal BahlRaj ChinaiAshwin DameraPranay GuptaRavi GururajRavindra KrishnappaSasha MirchandaniKavin MittalSuchi MukherjeePallav NadhaniHitesh OberoiJanhavi ParikhAvinash RaghavaAmit RanjanRajesh SawhneyVijay Shekhar SharmaAmit Somani and my colleagues here at Lightspeed Ventures Maninder Gulati, Apoorva PandhiAnshoo Sharma and Bejul Somaia.

Please note that three companies mentioned in this article – Dhingana, OneAssist and Indian Energy Exchange – are Lightspeed portfolio companies.

india_rupee

I think there is a lot of potential and hope, especially now, for founders to start online (only) services businesses. Indian consumers seem to be opening up to paying for online B2C services, where purchase and most fulfillment is online. This trend is a natural outcome of India’s increasing online population (>125M now) and familiarity with online as a channel (20M bought online in last 12 months, 7M of which were non-travel). Barring a few exceptions noted below, this space has historically been challenging but I hope to see that changing in future.

Successful examples of existing online services in India include matrimony (Shaadi and Bharat Matrimony) and also aggregators across categories like travel (rail, air, bus), movies and mobile phone recharge. While the aggregator segment has been more successful because of direct linkage to offline services, it is relatively less interesting (and more capital intensive) because of low absolute margin per transaction and dependence on offline delivery for scaling versus a service which is purely digital in nature.

Subject to a large potential paying consumer base being available, pure online services are fundamentally very attractive to entrepreneurs and investors because of:

  • High capital efficiency (high gross margins).
  • Become disproportionately valuable (given B2C/branded nature).
  • Ability to grow quickly, since they are not constrained by offline buildout (not applicable everywhere).

Here are a few examples below in categories where we are anecdotaly seeing early growth in new online consumer services:

  • Financial Services: Previously, the web was used primarily for lead generation.  Now, certain types of insurance (Auto, Life, Travel) that are delivered end-to-end online are gaining traction.

It is still early days for these trends – but I hope that the growth continues. If you know of other online categories or businesses which are getting traction, I would love to learn about them – please add to the comments section below.

PS: While mobile operator value-added services (MVAS) is a great example of online services, in my opinion, these services have not really been B2C.  As a result, I am not including MVAS in the list above.  My list also does not include businesses which collect revenue from offline vendors (e.g. Zomato) or have large offline delivery responsibility (e.g. goods ecommerce).

[Also published on Startup Weekend Delhi]

Founders start companies for many reasons.  They want to build something useful. They have identified a specific pain point in their personal or professional lives and the status quo causes them pain. They have analytically spotted a specific business opportunity.  They are inventing something that is a leap forward in their industry or disruptive in general.  Or perhaps, they see everybody else doing the same thing and want to jump on the bandwagon!

No matter how small or big the initial idea is at startup, the best founders step back and ask themselves what the high-impact success scenario is for them and what the purpose and vision of their project is.

Yet, why is it that, time after time, many founders fail to communicate this high-impact scenario and sense of purpose and vision?   Time after time, the first words uttered  by founders to the press or investors or recruits is what they did in the past month or the recent milestones that they have hit or the numerical goal they have in mind.  I believe these things are necessary, but not sufficient, to drive a company to high-impact greatness.

Having been a founder myself, I know that the day-in and day-out focus on getting things actually done (considerably higher friction in India than in many other countries) is all-consuming (and appropriate). Yet I think it falls on the founders and management team to have a deep sense of purpose and vision and communicate that to the whole company, through words and through translation into what-does-it-mean-for-me for their team. And I believe this translates into better decision-making and execution through your startup.

My goal with this post is not to drive you to spend a bunch of time creating vague marketing-speak vision statements like “Invent” or “The best technology services provider in the world” or “The largest ___ in the country.” My goal is to drive you to think through your high-impact scenario and actively drive toward it with a vengeance.

So, consider the questions below early during the life of your startup and perhaps weave the answers into your execution as well as the (hopefully reality-based!) story you communicate to your stakeholders, whether they be the press or investors or recruits or regulators or others:

  • What is the purpose of my startup and how does this connect to the impact I want to have?
  • If my startup achieves its purpose and vision, how will my industry or people’s lives have been meaningfully impacted?
  • How do I work backwards from this purpose and vision to instantiate a specific execution plan?
  • Why is my team the best team to deliver on this vision? If not the best team, how do I build this purpose-focused team?

Here are some purpose/vision statements that resonated with me. And lest you think that these are just purposes dreamed up after the companies had succeeded, please think otherwise. These companies had this in mind from day one.

  • LinkedIn

“Our mission is to connect the world’s professionals to make them more productive and successful…  Our solutions are designed to enable professionals to achieve higher levels of performance and professional success and enable enterprises and professional organizations to find and connect with the world’s best talent.” ~ LinkedIn Annual Report

  • Indian Energy Exchange (a Lightspeed portfolio company):

“We envision an India where the quality of life of the common citizen, rural or urban, is not compromised as a result of power shortages. We indeed envision a power-surplus India and a concomitant healthy competition in the electricity market for the ultimate benefit of the consumer, domestic and industrial… We will help accomplish the above vision by providing the nation with – and enhancing the utility of – our robust, scalable, and customizable electronic trading system with integrated solutions for trading, clearing, risk management, surveillance and counter-party trade guarantee.” ~ IEX website

  • Square:

“Several years ago, PayPal pioneered a new method of person-to-person transactions. Square takes this to a new level of personal accountability by enabling card present transactions with known payers. This is the next step in the cashless society.” ~ Jack Dorsey speaking

(Source: Chiot’s Run)

[Published on Pluggd.in]

Founders of consumer businesses inevitably face the dilemma around when to start scaling their companies. Sometimes the decision is outside of their control, for example if their service starts to grow exponentially, but more often scaling is a deliberate decision and involves up-front investments to drive and support growth, such as filling out the management team, growing the sales and/or engineering teams, and increasing marketing spend.  Because any of these activities result in increasing expenses and cash burn ahead of revenue or usage, the decision around when to scale is a critical one.

Our contention is that entrepreneurs should demonstrate product-market fit before investing in scaling up.  In the Indian context, where new web services are cloned on a weekly basis, waiting to get to product-market fit can be difficult to do. Founders may feel pressured to scale prematurely, justifying this decision with reasons such as “it’s a land-grab” or “first-mover advantage”.

Scaling out prior to product-market fit can be very risky. In many cases, you have to be ready for a high-burn scenario – access to capital becomes a key constraint here, as evidenced in many of today’s ecommerce businesses.  You may also cycle through lots of management (especially sales and marketing) if you haven’t got the product, value proposition and messaging right. And you may lurch around from product to product or positioning to positioning as the pressure to deliver financial results grows.  All of this can distract the company from answering a critical question – do customers really value the product or service you are offering?

So, what is product-market fit?  While there is no ‘silver bullet’ definition, we typically look for evidence that customers value the product or service offered by the company and engage in a manner that indicates that they cannot live without the product. For example, we look for signs of the following:

  • Traction: Large and accelerating growth in monthly active uniques (MAUs) and daily active uniques (DAUs).  Note the importance of the word ‘active’.
  • Scalable customer acquisition: Ability to acquire customers cost effectively through scalable (and ideally organic or viral) channels
  • Repeatability/Engagement: High amount of repeat visits from existing users and signs of ‘value generating’ behavior e.g. repeat purchases for an e-commerce site, songs streamed for a music service or community engagement for a social networking site.
  • Virality: High k-factor
  • An initial set of users who will pay money for what you have

Here are some examples from within our portfolio of companies that achieved product-market fit – along with illustrative metrics in each case of how this was measured:

  • TutorVista: increasing length of stay / subscription and declining acquisition costs
  • Itzcash: increasing organic transaction volumes
  • Indian Energy Exchange: acceleration in trading volumes and number of participants trading on the exchange
  • LivingSocial: Rapid viral adoption and repeatability of economics and customer / revenue ramp across cities

There are several different approaches or strategies to accomplish product-market fit – the blogosphere is full of wise advice from founders and investors on this subject (see below).  However all these approaches hinge around a common core, namely proving that there is a reason for your company to exist before spending more money amplifying your message or building your expense base.

  • iterating constantly, starting with a minimum-viable product (a la Eric Ries and Lean Startup)
  • focusing maniacally on actionable metrics (a la Dave McClure and AARRR)
  • keeping a low-burn with a small, nimble and technically-oriented team
  • getting detailed feedback by directly observing users interacting with your product (a la Scott Cook of Intuit)
  • clearly detailing a hypothesis on your value proposition and disproving and proving that through actual data
  • making things people want (a la Paul Graham of Y-Combinator)
  • optimizing customer sataisfaction, perhaps through tracking Net Promoter Score (NPS)

Once you have product-market fit, you have evidence of a strong value proposition for consumers, advertisers and other customers.  This provides a foundation for a viable business model. Now you can – and should – scale.

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