Reflections: as we Venture through the VC Highway

Past Perfect, Present Continuous!

Venture Highway (VH) is 9 years old and we are young in an investing world, known for its excruciatingly long feedback loops. As the year draws to a close, I reflect on our journey against the backdrop of bull runs, Covid, bull runs again, global wars, bear runs – some important lessons and stories of personal growth!

When I joined VH in 2018, just after exiting my start-up, I felt like having moved straight from the factory floor to the corner office – why? Suddenly everyone was accepting my LinkedIn invite! Little did I realize then, the high mental agility and execution chops required to be an investor, especially when Venture Highway did and continues to operate like a Startup masquerading as a VC (This is our real tagline!)

The last 5 years have been ‘coming of age’ for VH, as we earnestly went about building the institution, trying to move the center of gravity from the “people behind it” to the Organization! 

The foundational question: Why should founders take our capital?

We are paranoid about this question, however, not for the most popular reason that one shouldn’t miss the next ‘AirBnB’ or ‘Google’! Large outcomes, after all, are an output metric, even if the most important one in Venture math. Our real focus has always been the ‘process’ – how we show up, how earnestly so, how soon, with respect & integrity. One example is our commitment to ‘high ROI for founders’ time’ (Yes we have an internal dashboard that measures #days from 1st engagement to saying “No” or “Yes”) 

One incident stands out in memory: We had to, with a heavy heart, bow out of an investment, and did so within 24 hours. In our 1st 3-hour marathon session with this highly experienced founder, we felt the chemistry and shared a deep empathy towards the problem statement. This depth of engagement also made us realise, unfortunately, that some slivers of the offering could compete with an existing portfolio, in the future. “I would have loved to have you guys on board, but a fast “No” is something I value even more”, he said. 

Sometimes our real wins have been great founder relationships, even if at the cost of a deal!

“How do you win deals against the popular names in your industry?”, is an oft-asked question by our LPs (Limited Partners). Our answer: “We don’t play the brand card, we play the ‘see our work’ card”. Some of our most cherished investments have been so organic that we failed to realize the line when we crossed over from being “brainstorming partners” to becoming an investor. However, this style comes with its costs, the most expensive being when, after the engagement, we still miss the opportunity to partner with these amazing founders. Yes, we feel absolutely gutted when it happens, fortunately very rarely so, but we would never change our ways – ‘GoodWill’ cannot be hunted after all, it has to be earned!

Part of acting like a startup requires us to reimagine the venture landscape ever so often at a foundational level. Nurturing and growing young talent for the startup ecosystem is one such foundational aspect, we are committed to contribute towards. In the last 3 years, we have had the privilege of working with 37 amazing Student Venture Partners (SVP), students from the country’s marquee institutions. These young girls and boys were part of our structured 8-week ‘all you need to know about startups’ SVP program. At the end of every season, our favourite question to these folks would be “Why consulting and not a startup?” Their recurring answer: “We did not know much about the startup ecosystem, until this program, but consulting is well understood and seniors can help us”. We aim to change this and help young talent discover the world of startups and starting-up early on: after all, two of our portfolio companies were started from dorm rooms!

What is a business, if not its people! One of our trademark questions to founder teams is “What collective skills & attributes solve for your individual blindspots?”. It applies to VCs as well – each of us a product of our biases, heavily weighted lessons from the last failed or successful investment, some of us more intuition-first while some analysis-first. When I look back at all our VH team interactions over the last many years, our diversity covers for our individual blindspots. One of my biggest lessons as a leader is that radical transparency starts with You and being comfortable showing your vulnerability to your team even if it is saying “I was wrong”. At VH, we have always celebrated owning our mistakes and being able to rely on each other’s intellectual and moral support. Safe spaces inside and in our Board rooms, in our view, are fundamental to authentic conversations. 

Specifically, as we look back at 2023, perhaps the most excitingly tumultuous year in the history of the world, the Venture ecosystem was also deeply impacted. As Ray Dalio says “the best lessons are learnt in painful situations” – the lesson being valuations, investments, and funding climate are and always will be the variables behind that single constant: that one idea/technology that would be the foundation of a sustainable enterprise, structurally strong and deeply impactful. Anchored with this 1st principle belief, VH has invested in 9 deals in 2023 across areas in fintech, AI, manufacturing tech, and SAAS to name a few. Rajit Mehta, MD of Max India, one of our panellists at our recent founder’s event, which brought leaders from bootstrapped, family businesses to exchange ideas with our funded startups, said “As a business, we think of survival and that we are here to stay, this drives many of our business decisions”. 

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In a social media world that rewards black & white opinions, the reality of the nuance is often lost – painful corrections are part of evolution and only lead to stronger foundations.

If I were to summarize one big lesson in all these years, it is that:

As an investor, one needs to have loosely-held opinions and very tightly-held values

In this context, while one cannot necessarily model out the bull runs, pandemics, wars, and bear-runs etc. etc., what will always stay is the founders’ thirst to create, innovate and impact.  In this world of Creation, as VH learns and grows, we would continue striving to become the most ‘mindful and conscious’ partner to these visionaries. 

2024 here we come… 

ONDC: Build for Bharat

The ONDC: Build for Bharat Hackathon provided an immense opportunity to learn about recent developments in ONDC.

The network’s nascence did not deter 200+ builders and investors who came together to support their belief in ONDC’s potential as the UPI moment of e-commerce, to onboard the next 500M+ digital consumers into the folds of the digital economy. 

Industry veterans, builders and investors shared their roadmaps for incorporating or adapting to this new digital reality and areas where they see deep value creation in the coming years. 

Sharing below an overview of ONDC and key takeaways from the discussion.

ONDC is about Freedom. Freedom to Innovate, Freedom to Prove and Freedom to Fail, and Try Again

  • Thomas Koshy, CEO, ONDC

The Open Network for Digital Commerce (ONDC) connects buyers and sellers to facilitate digital commerce.

As a brand owner in the physical world, you decide your terms of trade, your campaigns and your advertisements, exercising complete control. When it comes to the digital world, however, you do not have the same freedom. You had to play by the rules set by somebody else. ONDC gives that ownership back to me: I get to decide my terms of trade in the digital world as I did in the physical world, with an ecosystem of partners, and specialists managing their nodes, enabling these transactions.

  • Owner of a Global Lifestyle Brand

That is the value of an open network of ONDC. It democratises access to e-commerce: handing back the reigns from platforms to sellers.

Overview

ONDC is an interoperable network based on the BeckN protocol. It unbundles digital commerce and makes it interoperable/platform-agnostic by bringing buyers and sellers on a single network making them globally accessible with ecosystem services ensuring a seamless transaction experience.

A simplified comparison:

A buyer can use any buyer app on the network to access products across suppliers. A purchase transaction is communicated from the buyer app, through technology rails on the network, to the seller app. The seller takes ownership of the transaction and picks a logistics provider from the network to deliver the goods, paying commissions to the seller and the buyer app for facilitating the transaction. 

Contrast this with traditional e-commerce. You can purchase goods only listed by a seller on a specific platform. The platform takes ownership of the transaction, hires logistic providers, delivers the goods to the consumer, collects money, and pays the seller after deducting its often unclear fees and commissions, withholding the buyer’s information.

Need for ONDC

With $70B+ in gross merchandise value (GMV) transacted by 50M+ households through online retail channels, we must ask ourselves: Why do we need ONDC?

ONDC solves two critical problems in digital commerce:

  • Access
  • Price

Access

Forget Tier-2+ India, marketplaces are still unable to serve people in larger cities. I was not able to purchase a television for my relative living in <Indian Metro City>. Despite an order value of INR 64,000, a large e-commerce platform did not service that pincode. I had a similar experience while buying air purifiers.

We were wondering who would purchase electronics online through ONDC and were surprised to learn that a local provider had listed an air-conditioner with a discount offer which was purchased through our application with installation service also being provided.

  • Vijay Shekhar Sharma, Founder, PayTM

While e-commerce is growing fast, 25%+ Y-o-Y, the penetration is still 8% with a lot more to go. Major E-Commerce platforms today have solved for the 50M+ households who live in Metro/Tier-1+ regions but for the UPI moment to happen for E-Commerce, to reach 300M+ users, we need to provide greater access to Tier-2+ India.

ONDC’s value is not just in disrupting existing e-commerce markets/supply chains today, but in creating newer markets, providing local sellers in Tier-2+ regions with broader demand visibility.

These sellers will no longer struggle with managing multiple platforms’ listings with their own rules. Onboarding on one seller app will provide them access to a global demand network while expanding the option set for consumers, giving them more competitive choices.

Price

The keyword for Shampoo has become more expensive than the cost (MRP) of the Shampoo itself

  • Aman Gupta, Founder, BoAt

With digital acquisition costs increasing, it has become more expensive to acquire customers, which, combined with the rising marketplace commissions, has made it uneconomical for certain categories of products to be sold online.

In ONDC, with marketplaces no longer exercising disproportionate control over the network, the value they could potentially capture decreases. Open access to the global supply and demand network increases competition, driving down commissions.

The use of horizontal service providers offsets these costs. The switch from a platform to a network provides fertile ground for creating an ancillary network of shared services across technology, logistics and dispute resolution, for instance in areas like catalogue management, RTO, vendor reputation management etc. 

Democratic access to transaction data is expected to allow horizontal network participants to operate on a lower cost base than a single entity. This is expected to reduce transaction costs in the network, providing better economics.

Solving For Trust

A critical question asked of ONDC is the development of consumer trust, ensuring goods/services get delivered per consumer specifications.

While there is no clear answer, a few technological interventions to build consumer trust and drive adoption were discussed:

  • Reputation Systems – Building a reputation ledger that tracks the past performance and reviews of sellers, buyers, logistics partners etc. Positive track records can be incentivized.
  • Standardized SLAs and Dispute Resolution – Common service level agreements around delivery timelines, product quality etc. with transparent dispute redressal processes help build trust.
  • Digital Credentialing – Technologies like blockchain can digitally credential and verify the identity, location, and licenses/certifications of sellers to assure their legitimacy.
  • Payment Guarantees – Solutions like escrow payments assure buyers that funds are only released to sellers after confirmation of delivery/acceptance.
  • Community Reviews – Aggregating user reviews and ratings on different entities helps buyers evaluate trustworthiness based on crowdsourced feedback.

Much like the early days of e-commerce in India, the expectation is that over time, the market will weed out poor network participants.

Governing the Network

Governance in ONDC is expected to be community-led, playing an enabling role rather than being overly controlling. Some key principles discussed:

  • Set baseline standards for reliability, transparency and consumer protection without being overly prescriptive. Allow flexibility for different contexts.
  • Oversee and facilitate collaboration between participants rather than directly managing operations. Let the ecosystem self-organize with light coordination.
  • Incentivize good behaviour through reputation/rewards systems.
  • Continuously crowdsource feedback and make governance principles emergent based on learnings.
  • Prioritize problem-solving over process compliance to quickly address issues as the network scales. Keep regulations relevant.
  • Be transparent in decision-making and give participants recourse/appeal rather than operating as a “black box”.

The goal of governance should be enabling open innovation, not controlling it. If done right, light-touch governance can help ONDC maximise its potential as a self-organising digital ecosystem.

The Future

There were 4 key takeaways on the future of ONDC:

  • Outstanding vs Outspending: Much like a third party in national elections, ONDC is expected to emerge as an additional e-commerce player, eventually occupying the primary spot. This will be driven by its ability to catalyse digital commerce for the 300M+ Bharat consumers who are not serviced by traditional commerce. The network strength could eventually overtake traditional e-commerce players by providing better services without heavy discounting to drive adoption, paving the way for sustainable business models.
  • Expansion of Supply: The lower commissions on the ONDC network could seed the online uptake of products/services that were previously unfit for digital commerce, due to lower margins. For instance, delivery in a 0.5km radius from your local Kirana may be possible even for smaller AOVs, driving higher sales of low-value items hitherto picked up only at the store/during checkout. A similar example but on the other end of the spectrum is the delivery of high-value furniture over shorter distances. 
  • Market Structure: There are expected to be fewer buyer apps with a much higher proliferation of supplier apps since consumer trust is more difficult to capture, and manage than businesses that prioritize business value creation. Existing businesses with a large, active consumer base like PayTM/Ola/MagicPin have built the guardrails and/or set up dedicated teams to enable commerce via ONDC.
  • Cross-Border Commerce: ONDC could be the fabric enabling cross-border digital commerce for Indian brands. Like UPI’s expansion to other countries, ONDC’s export-ready supplier network could eventually be picked up by buyer apps in other countries, expanding the demand for homegrown consumer brands in international markets akin to what Shein has done for fashion. 

Closing Remarks

With rising per capita income, consumers of Bharat will demand higher-quality products and services, and the convenience of digital commerce.

Despite open problem statements around cultivating trust, driving adoption and governing ecosystem behaviour, with 1 lakh+ daily orders, early green shoots are visible. 

We are excited to see founders build on this new fabric of commerce. If you are building on ONDC, please reach out to me here.

Reimagining Values in the New Tech Era: Founders Unplugged 

At Venture Highway’s yearly founder event, we had a mix of tech-first founders and old-school leaders. 

Merging modern and traditional approaches, we exchanged stories that offered fresh insights into business. In the context of differing ideologies—Traditional vs. Tech—the event sparked genuine and thought-provoking discussions. It became a unique gathering where the old and new schools of thought converged, delving into the intricacies of building companies from various perspectives.

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Founders from the VH family Mohit (Chalo),  Abhilash (Ivy Homes), Pravin (GoBetter), and Aditya (Cheq), along with Stalwarts like Dr. A. Velumani (Thyrocare), Irshad Mecca (Farida Group), and Rajit Mehta (Max India) delved deep into their journeys, navigating differences to find common ground

Why This Dialogue Matters:

In a world with varied business philosophies, the significance of this dialogue becomes evident. The landscape is shifting, with once-abundant VC funding facing seasonal drought, putting profitability at the forefront. In this evolving scenario, where the ebbs and flows of business dynamics are more pronounced than ever, we hope that the insights shared by our tech and traditional leaders will help future founders plan their way forward.

The heart of the conversation lay in unravelling the distinct thought processes of bootstrapped/family-run businesses and venture-funded enterprises. The dialogue at the event wasn’t about highlighting differences, but about finding value in diversity. It was an exploration of how values, rooted in authenticity and adaptability, can thrive in the dynamic landscape of the new tech era. We dissected topics like capital allocation, hiring strategies, and board management.

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Here are some highlights from the conversation:

Broader Values

  • VC-backed businesses often focus on short-term growth, aligning with the expectations of investors who have to think in terms of milestones, ensuring the company is growing in the right direction, to continue injecting capital. 
  • Traditional models on the other hand, due to the consistency of capital, can prioritise a broader set of values, including employee well-being, long-term customer relationships etc.
  • Picking investors who understand your business philosophy, and gestation timelines, and can provide patient capital will help VC-backed founders have more leeway for long-term experimentation.

VC Money Mindset vs Bootstrapped Mindset 

  • Bootstrapped enterprises focus on achieving self-sufficiency and maintaining steady progress as they build a foundation for sustainable growth.
  • In contrast, VC-backed ventures place a premium on adaptability, openness, and continuous experimentation, often speeding up the pace of learning to stay abreast with recent developments, and capitalising on industry/market changes to disrupt the incumbent.
  • Traditional founders can learn to experiment with multiple initiatives, fail fast and discover value pools sooner. Adapting to the agility of VC-backed businesses will help them increase the longevity of their companies.

Capital Planning 

  • In contrast to VC-backed enterprises, family-run businesses often exercise caution against excess capital, emphasising a measured and mindful approach to expenditures and workforce expansion.
  • VC-backed ventures often get tempted to increase spending and hire rapidly due to a readily available short-term supply of funds.
  • This underscores the difference in financial strategies, with family-run businesses prioritising a more frugal and value-oriented use of capital. VC-backed businesses need to value their equity and plan capital more cautiously, avoiding the short-term allure of high valuations, which may set them on a dangerous path.

Strategic Triggers for Growth

  • Family-run businesses effectively utilise triggers like financial metrics, market feedback and team dynamics during new project launches, team expansions etc as proxies to understand and initiate strategic steps tailored to their unique journey.
  • VC-backed enterprises should adopt a comparable approach, employing distinct triggers and corresponding actions when activated.
  • The varied triggers and responses underscore the importance of the founder’s perspective in making practical decisions for sustainable growth.

Preserving Organisational Culture 

  • Family-run businesses can prioritise organisational culture, for instance, by providing job security with a “no layoff” policy during business downturns and cultivating employee loyalty.
  • VC-backed companies embrace strategic hiring and firing in line with capital constraints and growth requirements. The ambitious startup talent may also be very distinct from the employees of a traditional business, prioritising personal growth at the organisation instead of thinking more long-term about the employer-employee relationship.

Aligning your Board

  • Family-run businesses foster close-knit founder-investor relationships, emphasising personalised understanding, while VC-backed scenarios prioritise formal interactions and transparency.
  • Distinct communication styles in both dynamics underscore founders’ importance in adapting to unique environments.
  • The entrepreneur-investor dynamic thrives on trust, transparency, and open communication, creating a collaborative environment for growth and success.

Conclusion

Reimagining values in the new tech era isn’t merely a theme; it’s a call to action. 

The fusion of traditional and hyper-growth mindsets birthed a narrative of shared wisdom and collective growth. 

As we reflect on these conversations, we’re reminded that the future isn’t about choosing one path over another – it’s about embracing the richness that lies in the convergence of diverse ideologies. 

The dialogue continues, echoing the heartbeat of innovation and shaping the values that will steer businesses into the new tech era.