Just came back from one more of my quarterly trips to India. Based on meeting scores of founders, investors, and operators, here are a few interesting insights on the current state of the Indian startup ecosystem:
1/ 4-6 quarter lag between US and Indian private markets
There appeared to be investor consensus that the real shakedown in overfunded/ overvalued tech startups in India hasn’t really started yet. Most VCs believe that 2024 will be brutal for many of their portcos that are on the wrong side of things and are, therefore, expecting brutal downrounds and recaps.
Given that the US private market correction started sometime in mid’22 and is still ongoing (eg. Convoy, a digital freight brokerage last valued at ~$3.6Bn, recently shut down reportedly under stress from creditors), there seems to be a significant lag between the US and Indian private markets.
With US VCs expecting startup shutdowns to peak in 2024, assuming the above lag, we are potentially looking at a weak fundraising environment in India continuing deep into 2025.
For India-based founders, this underlines the importance of having enough runway to tide the next couple of years out.
2/ Current fundraising environment is worse than I thought
Over this trip, I heard of at least 10 deals falling through at the final legal documentation stage. Anecdotally, I could identify a couple of reasons:
- Smaller funds are facing capital call challenges with LPs, given tough global macros and general pullback from venture as an asset class.
- The bar for financial diligence has really gone up. Funds are willing to walk away if even a few issues crop up in the typical Big 4 fin DD. A common issue I heard is a founder signing a term sheet on the claim of say $1Mn ARR, and post-fin DD, true recurring revenue as per accounting standards turns out to be $200k. This is a deal-killing red flag!
3/ Valuations have significantly compressed
Based on triangulating numbers from convos with multiple investors, these are the generally prevailing valuation ranges for each financing stage right now in India.
(1) These numbers are highly anecdotal and will vary a lot case-by-case depending on sector, team, and traction. However, I validated these broad ranges from multiple Indian VCs.
(2) Am also including a comparison with current US benchmarks as per Carta.
|Pre-Money Valuations (as of Oct’23)||India||US|
What’s striking to me is how compared to the US, the valuation ramp with each stage of maturity is relatively low in India.
4/ The rise of Rupee denominated capital in venture
I remember the Managing Partner of the VC firm I used to work for more than a decade back, having a strong thesis that similar to China, India’s venture ecosystem will truly be unlocked by the participation of domestic capital pools. On this trip, I saw encouraging green shoots of this view, with Family Offices like the Mariwalas and Hindujas allocating to venture capital both actively and passively.
One interesting trend here is how the younger, next-gen heirs to these family businesses want to play an active role in working alongside the new crop of Indian founders. I sensed a passion and excitement in their approach, which transcended from startups being mere wealth management or portfolio allocation decisions.
To me, unlocking INR LP capital is a hugely encouraging trend and one that will make the local innovation economy more resilient to geopolitics and global shocks.
5/ Deeptech becoming a mainstream venture theme
Deeptech seems to have transitioned from being a fringe venture theme for many years, to now being one of the core theses of all mainstream VCs. Peak XV’s latest Surge batch is dominated by AI and deeptech, Accel is running an Industry 5.0 program via its Atoms accelerator, deeptech specialists like Speciale Invest and Pi Ventures are busier than ever, and I heard of many investments in-process in the semiconductor space.
The cornerstone of my investing thesis is – “India started by exporting software services in the 90s-early 2000s. It then moved up the value chain to become the global hub for software products/ SaaS from the mid-2000s till 2020. Over the next 20 years, India will move even further up the value chain and export cutting-edge innovation to the world”.
This time, I saw strong signs of this thesis on the ground in India.
6/ Corporate governance clean-up in progress
It was clear that both founders and investors are owning up to the corporate governance mishaps over the last year. The problems have been recognized, accountability taken, causes diagnosed, and learnings accepted and assimilated. I heard many instances of deep clean-up happening within companies, right from the board to the lower operating levels.
I see this as a major growing-up moment for the Indian venture ecosystem as a whole, and post this clean-up, everyone will be better off for it. I expect a whole crop of young founders and venture investors to emerge battle-hardened from these experiences, and from here on, focus their energies on building generational companies.
7/ Hard questions being asked of application SaaS
Similar to the sentiment at Bessemer’s recent Cloud100: Rise of SaaS in India Brunch 2023** in SF, Indian VCs are now starting to ask some hard questions about competition and product differentiation to application SaaS startups.
The Zoho playbook worked in the early 2000s. The Freshworks playbook worked in the 2010s. In this rapidly changing, post-AI world, whether these old paradigms are still applicable needs to be questioned and discussed in an intellectually honest way.
**Key SaaS takeaways from this event here.
8/ Very early signs of the domestic B2B software opportunity
While the India cross-border SaaS opportunity is now well established, I am also hearing scattered anecdotes of startups going after large ACV, domestic B2B opportunities. While VCs continue to be generally bearish on domestic B2B software, founders have started taking note of the journeys of the likes of Perfios and Netcore. Some of these companies have shown that though it takes time, it’s possible to build large ($100Mn+ ARR) domestic software product businesses.
In fact, over the last year, I have seen several enterprise startups reach $3-10Mn ARR by serving large Indian customers. Maybe it’s time to be more open-minded and take a nuanced view of the domestic B2B software opportunity?
9/ Tech-enablement of legacy domestic verticals
Applying technology to improve the growth and efficiency of legacy verticals like construction, procurement, automotive parts, logistics etc. is emerging as a key business opportunity. While horizontal B2B commerce platforms like Udaan, OfBusiness, and Moglix are already mainstream, am also seeing the rise of a new set of more specialized, vertical platforms.
These are really large TAM opportunities given the amount of GMV that changes hands in the brick-and-mortar portions of the economy. As India grows from a $3.5Tn to a $10Tn economy, the tech-enablement opportunity in these broader spaces will grow even faster.
10/ Didn’t see a clear thesis on AI
While almost all Indian VCs are deploying in AI startups, I didn’t hear any clear thesis or POVs from most of them. Not to be too harsh on them as barring the emerging hyper scalers like OpenAI and Anthropic, the early stage AI scene is pretty fuzzy even in Silicon Valley. PS: check out my recent post ‘AI Musings #1 – How The Odds Are Stacking Up?‘.
11/ Promise of IPO’ing in India
I heard distinct excitement around the potential of late-stage startups doing IPOs in the Indian market. Over the last couple of years, Indian public markets have shown a strong appetite both for tech growth stocks as well as small to midcap SMB stocks.
I spoke to a founder who recently listed his tech services company at a relatively small scale. His experience in managing the compliance and related overheads of running a publicly listed company in India has been fairly smooth so far. In fact, he has enjoyed both interacting with and learning from well-prepared large institutional investors.
Similar to INR LP capital, unlocking domestic public markets for IPOs of new-age companies will be a huge boost and de-risker for the local innovation ecosystem.
Other memorable moments…
LetsVenture, my very first angel investment, completed 10 years. I still remember the first brainstorming session with the founders when it was just an idea on a blank sheet. The company has since emerged as the leading infrastructure layer for private market investing in India. I am in awe of the tenacity of Shanti Mohan (Co-founder and CEO), and how she has selflessly contributed and fought for organizing private market investing in India. PS: some special moments at the celebratory dinner with early backers – Subrata of Accel, Sharad Sharma of iSpirt, and others are here.
I was also on a panel at LetsIgnite with one of my oldest friends Anirudh Singh (Avataar Ventures), alongside Vishesh Rajaram (Speciale Invest) and Uday Sodhi. It was an unfiltered discussion on everything from portfolio construction, diversification, and power laws to entry prices and exit approaches. It was also the first time I presented my investment strategy to any external audience, so this particular event will always stay close to my heart. PS: some key insights from the panel are here.
Towards the end of the trip, I partnered with my friend and collaborator Arjun Rao (Speciale Invest) to do a closed-door, no-holds-barred type session with select infrastructure SaaS founders in Bangalore. The main theme was the US-India corridor. I like to keep these sessions very raw, no-gyaan, only brassstacks around operating and financing challenges that US-India enterprise founders are dealing with daily. PS: some key takeaways from the session are here.
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