If I had a Rupee every time I heard the words “If only Venture Capitalists were more active in building the Indian Product Eco-system….”, I would be a rich man!
I am guessing that this is because of a lot of mis-conceptions about Venture Capital and how they play in the product space, in India as well as elsewhere. As a Software Product entrepreneur, you owe it to yourself to understand VC money in all its complexity to make wise decisions about whether it is even suitable for you, and if it is, how to get it, and if you get it, what are you in for?
It is impossible to capture all of the complexity of Venture Capital in a single article but here are seven basics every software product company in India should be aware of:
- Understanding exactly what business Venture Capitalists are in – They are not in the technology advancement business, not in the entrepreneur eco-system business but in the money multiplying business! They have bosses too – people who have given them money to invest expecting at least 10 to 20 times back! Unlike a bank that loans money to low-risk, low-reward businesses, VCs are expected to invest in high risk, high reward businesses. They can afford to take losses on 5 to 10 startups to make a 100 times return on that one big block buster – an Instagram, a facebook or Google!. Many startups return them 5 to 10 times the money and across all startups with other failures, they will be successful if they return 20% per annum over 10 years. After the Dot com bust, many VC firms returned less money than was invested and Of course, they are out of business also! You get an idea of why VCs are looking for that big block buster company! So you will be wasting your time and theirs, if your startup does not promise that kind of growth quickly!
- Understanding Exit Strategies for you and them – If you are planning to build a software product company, grow slowly over 10 to 20 years and have a leisurely IPO, Venture Capital may not be suitable for you. VCs need to return the money their investors have given them – usually in a 10 year time frame. So they really have a clock they are working against. Exits through acquisition by a larger company or through an Initial Public Offering (IPO) is how they get the money they have invested out. So if this does not suit your plans, VC money is not for you.
- Understanding what can increase your valuation periodically– VCs like to bring on other VCs to share the risks in the companies they invest in. They also would like to see the valuation of their investments rise rapidly so that the acquisition price or the IPO price is justified when that event is reached. Valuation is a notional concept (just what someone else is willing to invest their money for) till it hits the acquisition event or IPO when it becomes validated by the general marketplace (till then it is done by the private VC marketplace). Growth metrics usually provide the justification for the increase in valuations.
- Understanding how Market Adoption Rates and Penetration Help you get there – If your startup is dependent upon the 4% smartphone adoption rate in India as opposed to the 56% adoption rate in the US, you can get an idea of how fast your key metrics will grow to make your case for the first or the next round of VC money. It does not mean you are in a bad business. It just means that your business may not be a good candidate for VC money! If your business is already making money, then that needs to reflect this rapid growth or at least the promise. If you are following a freemium model or you are postponing the question of monetization for a later date but are focused on building membership, visitors and engagement, your metrics need to show this hockey stick growth. It is not because VCs have an illogical liking for hockey stick growth rates – those are the ones they can show the next group of VCs or others that want to invest in subsequent rounds and ask for a higher valuation! I wrote about this topic in my previous article – Develop and Pray is Bad Planning in Product Startups!
- Understanding what Riding the Tiger means – When you watch Flipkart raise more money and doing all kinds of acquisitions, what you are seeing is catching the tiger by the tail, getting on it, and riding it! You don’t have an option of getting off, since the tiger will eat you if you do! Once you raise venture money, you need to plan for rapid growth and riding the tiger. Don’t even look for venture money if this kind of company building is not for you.
- Understanding that Venture Money is not the only way to build a Software Product Company – If you have a secret sauce in your product that no one else can copy in their product easily and you have a five to ten year advantage, you can afford to build your company at a slower pace, taking one or two rounds of angel investor money, keeping expenses low and ploughing back initial profits into building the company organically! Unfortunately it is less likely in the consumer space that you have Intellectual Property that cannot be copied easily than in the enterprise space. Also if you are successful in the consumer space, just for building out your infrastructure you may need to raise large amounts of money – usually that’s venture capital. You might have seen this portrayed in the movie The Social Network with what happened to facebook in its initial years.
- Go Big or Go Home if you plan on taking Venture Money – Unlike Services Companies, software product companies depend upon rapidly establishing a large market share in an emerging space. In almost every market, consumer or enterprise, you will see one or two large players splitting almost 70% of the market between them and a couple of other players splitting the rest. The bright side of this is that there is so much innovation possible in the software product space that you can always define a new marketplace and become a leader in it! But for that you need to show rapid growth in revenue, members, visitors and active engagement. So it’s Go Big or Go Home!
Venture Capital is a vast subject with nuanced differences with every VC company, country or company they typically invest in. For the software product entrepreneur there are some common basics that can help them understand how they all operate in general, whether you are a good candidate for VC money and if you are, what is expected once you take it! At worst, if VC money is not for you, it will force you to do better planning. How will you sustain your company and grow, even if it is at a slower place that you are comfortable with? Have you thought about all of this?