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Welcome to That's Lit, the Lightbox podcast, where a venture capital firm based in Mumbai, investing in consumer businesses in India. On this podcast, we're going to be talking about all things consumption, culture and technology. Our idea is simple. We love to learn. Come learn with us. Together, we'll dig into new ideas, new ways of thinking and new approaches to solving problems from industry experts across various fields. We hope you enjoy!
Hi, everyone. I'm Sid Talwar, and I'm here with my partners, Sandeep Murthy, Prashant Mehta and Jeremy Wenoker. We are VCs and we run Lightbox and like most VCs, we are forever apprentices. We love learning new things and we learn from everyone - academics, students, entrepreneurs, startup executives, journalists, pundits, lawyers, accountants and, of course, other VCs. They teach us about customer experience, new technologies, business models, new learnings in management design, complex corporate structures, legal matters and so on and so forth. Every year, the four of us sit down and discuss all the things that we want to become more familiar with. Learn more about. All the questions we want answered. And what we love about the word question is that within that word, there's a quest. And so every year we go on a quest to learn more. And in 2021, we are on another quest to learn even more. This year, we want you to join us, and that's what this podcast is all about. So let's get Lit together. Actually, I don't think that came out very well. I think we can cut the last bit.
Sid: Maybe it means different things in different languages. Actually, I think it rhymes in Hindi.
Sid: Yeah, no. I don't I don't think that we can say Jhalao Also, I think this is just an English podcast
Prashant: That wasn't made exactly clear.
Sid: A lot of this is going to be about. I mean, since we do so much on the consumer side, a lot of this is about consumer companies as well. But I think one of the things that you know, you had mentioned, you know, you've been talking about a lot of these is why this is a really good time to be a consumer in India. And, you know, so you want to talk a little bit about that as well and how we'll kind of bring that into the podcast.
Sandeep: I think that one is a great time to be a consumer, I guess because of all the changes that are taking place and all the new products and services and offerings that are coming about. But also
“ I think it's really interesting to see how consumption is going to evolve in India for a new class of consumers who are just starting to consume and can start to consume branded products because of the organization that's coming about through technology. And I think that a big part of what I'm hopeful about in a big part of what I think we're trying to accomplish with the investments we make is try to drive a more mindful method of consumption ”
And I think that's great to have Indian consumers be at the forefront of hopefully defining new ways to consume. And if we can do that through the companies that we invest in and the businesses we create, I think we'll have done a great thing as a result. So I'm hopeful that that approach of really just being able to create new methods of consumption, trying to figure out how to ensure that the world's a better place is exciting. I think that's exciting for us and I think for consumers, it should be exciting also.
Prashant I think we've. In the past six, seven years, also, we met some phenomenal founders. So I think it's actually going to be a fantastic opportunity for a lot of new founders to gain insights and perspectives from people that we've met. Both are portfolio founders. Other folks in the industry and with, I think, where India is headed now, given all the development and infrastructure that's been put in place, especially around getting access much faster and much cheaper access, we have a smartphone. Some of the progress we've made also along getting the unique ID and aadhar card out to hundreds of millions of consumers. And of course, some of the financial independence that we're starting to see. I think it's a phenomenal time to to gain perspective from people that have that are connecting with these consumers as we go forward.
Sid: I think it was really cool, also that we're all startup founders ourselves, and now we're doing it all over again for ourselves. And so, you know, a lot of the stuff that we're talking to them about, I think, you know, we've experienced at different times. I mean, some of us much earlier than others. But don't you think, Jeremy?
Jeremy: Well, I go back to the prehistoric ages. So there's a lot of things that you learn cartwheels down with rocks that change with ones and zeros and other things are digitized. The wheel, the wheel. A wheel is a big invention. It was nice to see.
Sandeep: I think was your friend who invented it, right, Jeremy? I think it was Mr. Wheel
Sid: Mr. Wheeler?
Jeremy: I was there. I was around when I was around, when they invented fire too. You know, the funny thing is we're all basically the same age. No, I mean, Sandeep and I have been working in this industry now. It's a long time. It goes back. Twenty four years. Twenty five years, which is crazy to think that it's a quarter century that at the time it was it was something new and novel. And now it's it's involved in every facet of every business in the world. I mean. It touches everything that you do on a daily basis.
Sandeep: Actually, I was talking to someone the other day and we were talking about co-location facilities, and it's tell me something about someone who sold their co-lo facility, and I was going back to thinking about the early days when you used to have to actually go and physically host a server somewhere. And you know, when you have to move co-location facilities, you actually went and picked up your servers and moved them. And today, you know, it's just it sounds so archaic and insane. But I remember literally walking into exodus and picking up servers and driving them down to the next place. Now we're in a world where pretty much anyone can turn on a website within a couple of hours, you know, get going with things and it's radically changing. I think just the nature of the types of things that are happening. And I think that's all kind of cliched and said and done. But it's I think it is useful to just take a step back and think about how much we've seen, how much has changed and also probably how much doesn't. I mean, some of the basic ideas of what to do with the business are still the same. And I think that's also interesting to just reflect on as we start talking to people and looking at, you know, how much, how much is new and how much is is still constant
Sid: It's so much of running a business doesn't change in as much as the technology keeps changing so many things. People have realized and learned and tried to implement, and you can learn so much from them and so much comes out of them explaining why they went a certain way, which I'm really excited about. And the more we have, you know, the people that have done things in the past. From a management standpoint, that's really exciting to me. I'm really looking forward to kind of hearing what they have to say. And and I and quite honestly, I think, you know, just between us as well the kind of things that we've kind of been through and can reflect on in different countries. I mean,
Sandeep: Actually, you know, I I do think that our stories are quite nice to recap as well, and I think that I'm looking forward to that. Just I think every time I hear Jeremy or Sid or Prashant, you guys tell the stories of things you've been through and stuff that's gone on. There's always some new perspective that comes about and some new thoughts, and I think that's actually going to be quite interesting as well, framing our experiences in the context of some of the other stories that we're going to talk about over the coming weeks. I think just also brings out some interesting thoughts and ideas, so I'm excited about how that how that's going to play out.
Sid: No, absolutely. I think, you know, in fact, I was just I was just remembering just earlier, right before that you started this. It's incredible how many different things we've just been through between between us. And one of the things I didn't want to make sure that we did very, very quickly is just perhaps just take a couple of minutes just to introduce ourselves a little bit on this. Jeremy, do you want to start real quick and just say a little bit about your background and who you are?
Jeremy: I'm Jeremy Wenokur. I am a corporate tax lawyer by training and saw that the technology boom was happening. And so I left my job there in Salt Lake City, Utah, and moved to San Francisco to try to find a job in technology. And unfortunately, back in 1996, maybe 97 nobody would hire a lawyer other than to be a lawyer. And so I went to go work in a law firm in the Bay Area working with startup clients, and I used to go to a thing called the Churchill Club. Every month they had a speaker and a big event, and there are lots of engineers and I was there just to find clients for my law firm. And I ended up meeting four guys from Sun Microsystems who had an idea for an online web calendar. And I was like, That sounds pretty cool. I can help. And so we tried to get that funded. It turned out there were five other teams from Sun trying to do the same thing when Dotcom couldn't get funded. And one night after a night of drinking, playing cards, doing whatever, one of the engineers had this idea for a online directory like Yahoo. But instead of having paper paid editors, it would be done by volunteers around the world. We're like, We must be drunk, because that's a really bad idea. And he said, now it's a great idea, encoded it and launched it. And in a matter of weeks became. The largest one of the largest, if not the largest, directories of websites we've launched in July of 98 and by November 98 we had sold it to Netscape, nobody had worked there full time. It was the first. User generated content business sold, I believe. And when we got in that ship shortly thereafter, Netscape got acquired by AOL and. And everything blew apart, but we needed to find a search engine, and I was tasked with finding a search engine and was told that there were two guys at Stanford, we needed to see those guys turned out to be Larry Page and Sergey Brin. We tried to buy Google for Netscape. Couldn't get it done. They wanted too much money at the time for a two person company. And so we ended up doing the first commercial deal for Netscape, and I proceeded to go work not that long after to be there to run corporate development at Google, which I ran for five years, from 1999 to early 2005 and I then went to work with APACS Partners, working on leveraged buyouts and became an angel investor. And so my good friend Sandeep called and said you need to go see what's happening in India. I think things are going to blow up here. And so we ended up starting Lightbox. Not that long after.
Prashant: Jeremy, I feel like every time I hear the story, I learn something new.
Jeremy: I have to tell it in a different way to stay interesting.
Sid: Prashant, you want to go?
Prashant: So I was born about five kilometers from here
Sid: oh my god, id we're going to start when you were born, this is going to go on. I mean, there is a time limit for this podcast. I mean, just speed it up here.
Prashant: Spend a few early years in India, then ended up growing up for a bunch of years, you know, in Zambia, South Central Africa eventually ended up in the US. But did college like most parents of my generation age kids. They were two choices either go study engineering or become a doctor. I thought engineering was too hard, so I picked the easier route, got a degree in biochemistry, only to figure out that in my last year of college, as I was working through and paying for all of college, a friend of mine came and said, maybe we should start a bank. And I thought, Wait, I don't have any money. How do you start a bank? And he said, that's exactly why you start a bank when you don't have any money. I gave up the medical path, started a credit union for my university at Rutgers for the people and just loved it, loved it a lot better than being in a lab with the coat on. From then on? Ended up spending some time more in New York and Philadelphia. Got a degree in business and entrepreneurship from Wharton and eventually ended up at Yahoo. When I spent about eight and a half years, most of the time in California at their headquarters and then my last couple of years moved out to Singapore with a partner of mine there to help drive their emerging markets business. And it was just a fantastic experience. Got me back to being an entrepreneur. I certainly felt that way, being so far away from the mothership. We opened up offices in fun places like Vietnam and Philippines, Indonesia, Middle East and really got to see the world from a very different lens. Got to also see how what it takes to build businesses in different countries in different regions, taking into account not only the social fabric of each country and region, but also some of the rules and regulations, you know, from Vietnam to Philippines and and was really trying to enjoy that time during this time. I ended up also spending a lot of time visiting India because I was a key part of our our market thesis and and where a lot of growth for Yahoo was coming from. Eventually decided that it was time for me to go back to being an entrepreneur full time. So quit Yahoo! Move to India. With three young children, I also thought it was a great time for them to, you know, get inculcated in our culture, get to spend some time with their cousins at an early stage and thought that I was moving here for about three years. Twelve years later, we ended up building a company called Komli, which had a sister company called Pubmatic that we split off back in the day and after five years left Komli, at which point I had already met Sid and Sandeep many years earlier and really thought what they were building was something really fun. So I joined the bandwagon back in 2014.
Sid: Sandeep, do you want to go should I go.
Sandeep: We're going by age, right? I think you've got to go first.
Sid: Oh, we're the same. What? Oh, we can't swear on this podcast. Yeah. So let me see. I don't want to start as far back as Prashant did. Oh, I will start off. I mean, Sandeep and I have known each other for over 30 years. We were in school together along with Prashant's kids hahahaha
Sid: I moved back to India in 2000. I started an education company, got funded by the Singapore Government Sovereign Fund. There was no ecosystem here really to to raise venture funding at the time. That company evolved in India first as a vocational training business and then after raising more money from from Singapore, grew it out into the UAE, Pakistan, Vietnam and the Philippines and eventually decided to sell it to NIIT, which is a very large, publicly traded education company in India and worked with them for a couple of years. In fact, now I mean, and I tell them this as well, I honestly thought that one day I would be running that company. But lo and behold, that was not going to be the case. And so two years into that came out and started talking to Sandeep and Jeremy about Lightbox. And then that was it. And then. A few years later, Prashant decided, Oh, I know these guys. They went to school with my kids. That's awesome. Yeah. One hundred percent, I'll join you.
Sandeep: Yeah, first time, actually, probably you're that succinct
Sid: Yeah, no, actually, that's not true at all. No, that's not, you know, it's not true at all. I'm going to say my whole life is short and succinct.
Sandeep: All right, well, So I guess my journey, I'll start from ninety eight down to California. The time I was working at Credit Suisse doing tech investment banking had an idea every day. Jeremy's girlfriend from that time, I think, just got tired of listening to me with my crazy thoughts. And said you should really talk to Jeremy. And that sort of began the journey of chatting about every random thought that came to mind. And thankfully, Jeremy was kind enough to humor me through the years and listen to them all and follow the crazy journey that I kept going through. And I think, in fairness, he probably told me many of the ideas were stupid, and nonetheless, I think I pursued too many of them. But we did a digital music company after leaving Credit Suisse, which was incubated by Sony Music. Spend some time doing that, learning about big companies and how that was a difficult place to build new businesses, then ended up doing a reverse auction business where we dealt with things like corrugated boxes, freight and pallets and realized after a while, I didnt want to deal with corrugated boxes, freight and pallets and so left that joined Wharton's executive MBA program just to meet new and interesting people. That was kind of nice for a while and then moved to New York, joined a company called Interactive Corp, finished the MBA program. That was the time that I had called Jeremy up around 2004 and said, Okay, how about India? And you've seen a lot of it and saw that there wasn't a lot going on yet. And so that makes sense. Why not. Ended up moving to India in 2005 now with a brand called Sherpalo which is Ram Sriram's family office and Kleiner Perkins, made investments with them for about eight years. And Jeremy, actually during that time as well. And during that journey, Sid and I used to talk about what he was up to ended up meeting Prashant and talking to him about what was going on in Komli as we invested in InMobi. And so I guess the thought had always existed to eventually set something up on our own and try to try to operate independently. And that's how, I guess in two thousand ten or so, Jeremy, Sid, myself and Sunny at that time met at a hotel in Delhi sat down and said, All right, let's try to give this a shot. We made a couple of angel investments that worked out really well, and in parallel then we started the process of figuring out how to set up Lightbox and got it up and running. And I think that's kind of been the bulk of of life now. And if I think about it, the last 15 years has been all leading up to this, and I got to say it's it's been I finally feel a little bit like we've got it sorted out. We now understand what we're doing, although in fairness, things keep evolving and changing on us regularly. But I do think we've managed to put in place what we originally talked about then, and we've managed to create an interesting environment in which to do it in. And I think I'm really excited about now. Watching it all play out in the next couple of years are going to be really exciting for the portfolio that we've created. And I think that will hopefully be the first steps of along the journey that we've been on.
Prashant: Well, you know, I just wanted to spend 30 seconds, which is on my experience at Komli because I do feel that it's relevant. And I think a lot of us, as you mentioned, Sid earlier, have built businesses in India. We've been. Not only have we been entrepreneurs, but we are actually joined or started at a very ground level in companies in India. And I do believe strongly that that's going to continue to hold us in a really strong manner as we work closely with our founders. And I guess the only thing I wanted to add was that one of my key lessons in building Komli was that
“ In India, so much of success is based on execution and not necessarily just technology versus in markets like, say, even Israel or the US. Technology can play a key role in how you grow scale of business ”
In India, I still continue to believe that a lot has to do with execution now over time, technology will become a greater and greater part of that plate. But that's one thing. And really, what that comes down to is the single most important factor is how do you build and retain and motivate teams in India? And I think a lot of the time we end up spending with our portfolio is around this area. So. I could write a book about this, or if we have a podcast dedicated to me, I could keep going, but I will stop here.
Sid: Okay, this is going to be us having fun, learning new stuff our way and keeping you the listener there for the ride. We are who we are, and we hope that you guys can relate to us, learn with us and teach us and tell us what you think and how we can. We can do other things. And so we hope to make this something that is more interactive through the comments on the bottom, through any social media or just writing into us on our email address. So I think we're excited and I hope you guys are as well.
Listen to all the episodes on your fav streaming platform:
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We’re Calling it Operating Venture (till we think of something better)
Hitendra and I discovered this opportunity through an iterative set of conversations that took place prior to funding the business. It was this deep engagement and exchange of ideas, even before there was an economic incentive that allowed for a strong relationship with an open exchange of ideas to develop.
When we first met to discuss starting a fund, one of the things that we all had in common was that we were entrepreneurs. We had launched our own companies, gotten rejected by investor after investor, produced good and bad products and experienced failure after failure. We were start up warriors and had the battle scars to prove it.
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