According to serial entrepreneurs and strategic investors K Ganesh and wife Meena, starting a venture and investing in a venture are as different as acting in and directing a movie. The couple, who has successfully started and exited four companies, besides incubating and investing in another six, has been playing the challenging dual role with great finesse. The husband-wife duo, best known for setting up the education-cum-consumer internet services firm TutorVista Global Pvt Ltd and selling it to UK-based Pearson Plc in a $213 million deal, is looking for startups which are solving a real problem/pain point of a 'last-mile consumer', for strategic investment through their early stage fund-cum-incubator Growth Story. With a sector-agnostic approach, the couple is now entering the Indian primary healthcare space where they see a massive opportunity.
In a chat with Techcircle.in, Ganesh talks about Growth Story, the new healthcare service venture and the performance of the duo's portfolio firms. Excerpts:
You are a familiar name in the e-learning space, having started and exited TutorVista and IT&T, among others. You have also incubated and invested in firms operating in different sectors. What is your success mantra? Have you regretted any of your past investments?
You should actually ask this question to the likes of Narayana Murthy and Azim Premji who have built multi-billion IT ventures (laughing). For us, there is still a long way to go.
In my opinion, the single-biggest factor for success is luck, in terms of timing and identifying the right trend/sector before everybody picks/enters it. Moreover, we have had a very good core team working with us; we managed to convince them and sell the concept, we identified the right talent and ventures, and we have had good investors to back them.
We never had to regret for making investments, as we knew there is only 5 per cent chance for success. We are minimising the risk by choosing the right entrepreneurs and sectors and benchmarking them. It is almost like playing a Blackjack in a casino. We haven't written off any investment yet; we may write off in future. My humble understanding is that you can be terribly wrong at times and if needed, you will have to pivot your business.
There were reports that you are starting a new business that will use technology to deliver healthcare services directly to homes. When are you launching this venture? Can you share the details?
The new venture is into the primary healthcare services space. It is a technology-enabled healthcare service provider which is aiming to deliver services at the doorstep of the needy. We are in talks with various device manufacturers in the US to come up with a proper plan on how we can leverage technology to address the needs of geriatric, post-operative and chronic patients. We are looking to deliver the services in 10 prominent cities in India, including Bangalore, Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad and Chennai.
Is Growth Story a classic incubator where you pick up ideas/startups, incubate them for a certain period and then invest? How many startups are you incubating currently? How much money do you put in them on an average?
Growth Story is entirely different from classic accelerators/incubators. We don't call it an incubator where you pick ideas from a single domain and incubate them for a certain period of time and then put in money. Growth Story is sector agnostic. We have six startups—OnlinePrasad.com, MustseeIndia.com, BookAdda.com, Delyver.com, BlueStone.com and BigBasket.com. We have two more in the pipeline which are in the stealth mode. All these startups are operating in different sectors and have different target audience. All of them are trying to solve problems of the 'last-mile consumer'; that is the common thread that is holding them together.
We pick ideas/early-stage companies, and provide mentorship and invest in them. There is no time frame for incubation. We put in $8400-170,000 (Rs 5 lakh-2 crore) in our incubatees. We call it strategic investment. We let large funds to enter and invest in our portfolios.
How is the startup ecosystem shaping up in India? In an interview with us, you said in e-learning business, one investor usually sells his stake to another investor and listings are not always the ultimate exit route. Is this perception changing?
About three years ago, there were only a handful of angel investors in India. Now that scenario has changed. There are many seed and angel investors in the country who are willing to support startups in their early stages. Every other business tycoon is a seed investor. Investors are also ready to infuse money in the later stages of a business. Large PE funds and VCs are doing a great job here.
However, there is a huge Series A crunch in India. Startups are finding it difficult to raise Series A funding. This phenomenon is not restricted to India alone—startups in markets like the US are also facing this challenge. These two markets are facing similar problems and challenges.
When it comes to the e-learning business, there is still an aversion in the market. Stock markets don't understand the e-learning business easily. E-learning ventures are not the darlings of the stock markets. Education business is a long-term game. Better exits will come from an investor to another one rather than through traditional exit routes.
How are your incubatees performing? What are your expectations from them?
We always wanted to be able to create a category leader and solve a very fundamental pain point of the customer. My definition of success is not IPO exit. TutorVista and redBus sorts of exits are very rare. What is more important is that you need to be so valuable to your consumers. We have reached that stage with our e-grocery firm BigBasket.com. It means that you have to create value for them. The consumers should cry if we shut the shop.
Another common theme I see in my incubatees is that there is a very strong potential for disruption. They are building value without competing with the Tatas or Birlas of the world. The other key thing is the ability of the team to face uncertainty. I think all our startups have that skill.
(Edited by Joby Puthuparampil Johnson)