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Venturing into the unknown together

Sid Talwar
20th January 2020

Sid talks on growing businesses together and venturing into the unknown with various subscription models

How did you come about education and Embibe? How did that happen?

So, Embibe was a very interesting company. My partner Sandeep had met with the founder first and then the two of us met with her, Aditi. I think we were just blown away by both her the vision that she had for the education space in India. But more than that, just her own energy. And when you’re making investments very early. The one thing  is the most important and people argue one way or another on this, but any business plan is more of a guideline. You’re not really gonna Oh, why didn’t you read this number? Why’d you hit that number and the chances that one will have to pivot figure something out, is very high. And so if you’re going to invest, be on a plan or invest behind a market because you’re not sure if the plan is going to work or not. You’re taking undue risk, or at least risk with multiple x factors involved. But if you invest behind a person, which is what we do a lot, and Aditi was the first person we invested behind as well, in our fund. You know that that person will figure things out no matter what happens. And you’re betting that that person is going to make a success out of whatever cards are dealt to her. And Aditi is one such person. You can’t get to know that person over a cup of coffee or when they come and present in a room in your fund. Right. You have to spend that time with it. We spend so much time with Aditi. I think over and over again, she showed that she doesn’t have all the answers. But she will go to the ends of the earth to find those answers. And she will not give up. And I think that was the crux of how we decided to go after her and try to convince her to take our money.

 

And was this same case with Furlenco also while you are thinking of an online subscription business for furniture produced in your own factories?

 So we were not thinking of furniture or subscription at all, I’ll be honest with you, we’d seen a bunch of money in furniture just by virtue of reading newspapers and, seeing announcements from companies like Pepperfry and UrbanLadder and several others. But, we, Ajith,  the founder actually reached out to us, and it wasn’t a technology business at all. But we decided, Okay, let’s slice and dice this industry, let’s understand what the need is. And this is a great example of that. And you know, quite honestly, from the time that Ajith actually came to us, to the time that we finally made the decision, and the money went in the bank was almost eight to 10 months. In that time, we would have met Ajith, God knows how many times, in our office, in his office, over Tea, over lunch over dinner. Many of us, me one on one. We went for drinks. We talked about life. We talked about India, we talked about experiences, we talked about family, what’s important to us, what’s important to him, what’s important to me. We got to know each other. We flew together on airplanes. And it gave us an ability while we were working on deciding whether for Furlenco was the right model. And Ajith was the right person to move that model forward, gives an opportunity to know each other. For me, to pitch to him as much as he was pitching to me, for us to know that we could work together. I think, It’s a difficult business. It’s a tough business. That’s why you don’t see that many businesses like this. There are very few. Globally, there was no call for this business. There’s nothing to look at and say, Oh, this will be this of India. For Furlenco was an unusual idea and for the first time being launched, and that also in India, very unheard of. And so, one had to kind of figure out well, how do we even know what the market we don’t know what the market is? That’s great to figure out a market when you know the market or people say, well, the market is good here there was no market. So how do you know what the market is? We are to specifically believe that we will figure this out and Ajith will figure this out along with his team, and so absolutely, it’s exactly the same for Furlenco more so because we had to believe that we would create a market. It’s exactly the same thing with Rebel Foods as well. It believed that they would create a market where people would order from Cloud kitchens and not from recognized brands that were offline that they would normally have gone to from the restaurant creating that market.

 

Isn’t it scary when you are building a subscription market in India when it’s never been proved before?

Absolutely. I think it’s very scary. Most people won’t believe you. And I think, Ajith will be the first to tell you, we’ve gone to talk to so many different investors, and the early years, everyone was massively skeptical of any business being created like this. But who is going to take this rent? Who’s going to subscribe to this furniture? Well, I don’t know why I wouldn’t do it. So why would anyone else do it? This is a general mentality. And I think, this is where I hope and what we wanted to be able to achieve as a fund as well. Of course, Ajith be the right person to ask, or any other founder our portfolio, but, it suddenly starts becoming very lonely. You’re like, Oh, my God, maybe I’m not going down the right path. And as an investor, sometimes you feel it and as a founder, sometimes you feel that and it was really the relationship that we had with Ajith, where whenever he was down, we would be like, Listen, no, we’re here, man, don’t worry, it’s going to happen. And sometimes we were like, Oh my god, what’s going on? He’s like, I’ve got this, don’t worry. And we were together. And it’s interesting, Aditi and Ajith, they’re single founders. And so, their ability to be able to lean on anyone else is much more difficult, because they’re more working for them. And I found when I was an entrepreneur, I was a single founder as well.

"Sometimes, it’s scary to say what you feel to someone who’s working for you because you don’t want them to get scared. Not because they won’t support you, but you’re mentally scared to say anything. It’s your fear. But when we hope that as a fund, we’re able to build a relationship and rapport with founders where they can share with us. And we equally can share with them without either of us making a judgment on the other and that takes time. It doesn’t happen overnight, or by virtue of you giving money or by virtue of you have a cup of coffee together once or once a month, or once a quarter, or maybe having a drink, if you’re in town. It is a planned exercise of continuously trying to work together to build a relationship, a real relationship, because no one can fake this. So, I think, I hope that we don’t lose that"

 

In most cases, the founder wants the capital because his first motive to interact with a venture capitalist, not to partner but the capital to come into the company that he can do what has to be done?

 I absolutely agree. And I think Furlenco was an unusual case in that. It was one of our early investments as well, right after Embibe. And it was something that, again, asset heavy, capital intensive from an asset standpoint, you’re not spending the money on Google and Facebook, you’re spending the money holding the asset. You have to own the full stack, deliveries on you, warehousing is on you. What is this market? All those things came into play very early. But I think one of the things that’s important is you have to do your homework, but you have to be aware of the timelines contingent on the founder, and and the company. In Furlenco’s case, luckily, it was a smaller business. And so they were able to continue to manage. But we were very aware of that. And so we did take a little bit more time. And I’m glad that we did because I didn’t want to say no, but I didn’t know how to say yes. Because I wasn’t in ready to say yes. And we worked towards finding the answers we needed to move forward. I think people underestimate how difficult it is to truly evaluate a business when most things are x factors.

 

“ It’s not about just financial models. You’re trying to understand a very emotional state of a consumer. And that you need to triangulate in a very different way. Now, I think we’ve gotten better at it, but certain things take time. And, I think, one of the big things is managing expectations.”

 

When a founder comes and let’s say I’m speaking to that founder. I think one of the things I always say in the very beginning is I can tell you no very quickly. But saying yes is going to take me some time. These are all the things that I am planning on doing to be able to support you. Now, absolutely, you might be speaking to 10 other people, and they might decide to fund you first. And I completely understand that. But until I’m able to get this sorted, I’m not sure I can move forward. In this period of time, I’m going to spend this much time with you. I hope that the time that we spend with you adds value to you. And that’s something that we measure ourselves on, whether we invest in a business or not, if we’re spending time with that business, we hope that we’re able to add value to them so that our discussions are meaningful for them. Something they can take home and say, Hey, you know what, they didn’t invest. But these are the four or five things that they did that I’m really grateful for. And that’s something that we think about, and are very adamant about for ourselves, rather than what we don’t want to do is lecture. What we don’t want to do is tell people what we think they should do. That happens quite a bit. What we don’t want to do is listen to our own voice rather than listen to them. And I think that comes also because we’re entrepreneurs ourselves. We’ve been on both sides of this table. Our first instinct is not to give advice. Our first instinct, our second instinct, our third instinct is to listen, ask questions, more clarification sake, not to dilute what’s being told to us. That’s really important to us. It’s important to how we evaluate business.

 

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