The problem with venture capital investments 

Recently I read this book called Chaos Monkeys which is about a former Goldman Sachs guy who first worked for a startup, then started up himself, sold his startup and worked for Facebook for a number of years. 

It’s a fast racy read (I finished the 500 page book in a week) full of gossip, though now I remember little of the gossip. The book is also peppered with facts and wisdom about the venture capital and startup industries and that’s what this blogpost is about. 

One of the interesting points mentioned in the book is that venture capitalists do not churn their money. So for example if they’ve raised a round of money, some of which they’ve invested, liquidating some of the investment doesn’t mean that they’ll redeploy these funds.

While the reason for this lack of churn is not known, one of the consequences is that the internal rate of return (IRR) of the investment doesn’t matter as much as the absolute returns they make on the investment during the course of the round. So they’d rather let an investment return them 50x in 8 years (IRR of 63%) rather than cash it one year in for a 10x return (IRR of 900%). 

Some of this non churn is driven by lack of opportunities for further investment (it’s an illiquid market) and also because of venture capitalists’ views on the optimal period of investment (roughly matching the tenure of the rounds). 

This got me thinking about why venture capitalists raise money in rounds, rather than allowing investors continuous entry and exit like hedge funds do. And the answer again is quite simple – it is rather straightforward for a hedge fund to mark their investments to market on a regular basis. Most hedge fund investment happens in instruments where price discovery happens at least once in a few days, which allows this mark to market. 

Venture capital investments however are in instruments that trade much more rarely – like once every few months if the investor is lucky. Also, there are different “series” of preferred stock, which makes the market further less liquid. And this makes it impossible for them to mark to market even once a month, or once a quarter. Hence continuous investment and redemption is not an option! Hence they raise and deploy their capital in rounds. 

So, coming back, venture capitalists like to invest for a duration similar to that of the fund they’ve raised, and they don’t churn their money, and so their preferences in terms of investment should be looked at from this angle. 

They want to invest in companies that have a great chance of producing a spectacular return in the time period that runs parallel to their round. This means long term growth wise steady businesses are out of the picture. As are small opportunities which may return great returns over a short period of time.

And with most venture capitalists raising money for similar tenures (it not, that market fragments and becomes illiquid), and with tenure of round dictating investment philosophy, is there any surprise that all venture capitalists think alike? 

Sweetshop optimisation on festival days

As I mentioned in my earlier post, while Varamahalakshmi Vrata is considered rather minor in my family, it is a rather big deal in my wife’s house. So I headed to a nearby sweetshop called Mane hOLige to fetch sweets for today’s lunch.

Now, this is not a generic sweetshop. As the name suggests, the shop specialises in making hOLige, also known as obbaTT, which is a kind of sweet stuffed flatbread popular in Karnataka and surrounding areas. And as the menu above suggests, this shop makes hOLige (I’ll use that word since the shop uses it, though I’m normally use to calling it “obbaTT”).

I had been to the shop last Sunday to pick up hOLige for a family gettogether, and since I asked for the rather esoteric “50-50 hOLige”, I had to wait for about 30 minutes before it was freshly made and handed over (Sunday also happened to be yet another minor festival called “naagar panchami”).

Perhaps learning from that experience, when heightened demands led to long wait times for customers, the sweetshop decided to modify its operations a little bit today, which I’m impressed enough to blog about.

Now, as the subtitle on the board above says, the shop specialises in “hot live hOLige”. They are presumably not taking VC funding, else I’d imagine they’d call it “on demand hOLige”. You place an order, and the hOLige is made “to order” and then handed to you (either in a paper plate or in an aluminium foil bag, if you’re taking it away). There is one large griddle on which the hOliges are panfried, and I presume the capacity of that griddle has been determined by keeping in mind the average “live” demand.

On a day like Sunday (naagar panchami), though, their calculations all went awry, in the wake of high demand. A serious backlog built up, leading to a crowded shopfront and irate customers (their normal rate of sale doesn’t warrant the setting up of a formal queue). With a bigger festival on today (as I mentioned earlier, Varamahalakshmi Vrata is big enough to be a school holiday. Naagar panchami doesn’t even merit that), the supply chain would get even more messed up if they had not changed their operations for the day.

So, for starters, they decided to cut variety. Rather than offer the 20 different kinds of hOLige they normally offer, they decided to react to the higher demand by restricting choice to two varieties (coconut and dal, the the most popular, and “normal” varieties of hOLige). This meant that demand for each variety got aggregated, and reduced volatility, which meant that…

They could maintain inventory. In the wake of the festival, and consequent high demand, today, they dispensed with the “hot, live” part of their description, and started making the hOLiges to stock (they basically figured out that availability and quick turnaround time were more important than the ‘live’ part today).

And the way they managed the stock was also intelligent. As I had mentioned earlier, some customers prefer to eat the hOLige on the footpath in front of the store, while others (a large majority) prefer to take it away. The store basically decided that it was important to serve fresh hot hOLige to those that were consuming it right there, but there was no such compulsion for the takeaway – after all the hOLige would cool down by the time the latter customers went home.

And so, as I handed over my token and waited (there was still a small wait), I saw people who had asked for hOLige on a plate getting it straight off the griddle. Mine was put into two aluminium foil bags somewhere in the back of the store – presumably stock they’d made earlier that morning.

Rather simple stuff overall, I know, but I’m impressed enough with the ops for it to merit mention on this blog!

Oh, and the hOLige was excellent today, as usual I must say! (my personal favourite there is 50-50 hOLige, if you want to know)

Banks starting to eat FinTech’s lunch?

I’ve long maintained that the “winner” in the “battle” for payments will be the conventional banking system, rather than one of the new “wallet” or “payment service providers”. This view is driven by the advances being made by the National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI) which is owned by a consortium of banks.

First there was the Immediate Payment System (IMPS) which allows you to make instant inter-bank transfers. While technology is great, evangelism and product management on the banks’ part has been lacking, thanks to which it has failed to take off. In the meantime NPCI has come up with an even superior protocol called Universal Payment Interface (UPI), which should launch commercially later this year.

There is hope that banks do a better job of managing this (there are positive signs of that), and if they do that, a lot of the payment systems providers might have to either partner with banks (the BookMyShow wallet is already powered by RBL (the artist formerly known as Ratnakar Bank Limited) ).

In the meantime, banks have started encroaching on FinTech territory elsewhere. One of the big promises of FinTech (and one I’ve participated in, consulting with two companies in the space) has been to ease the loans process, by cutting through the tedious procedures banks have to offer, and making it a much more hassle-free process for borrowers.

A risk in this business, of course, has been that if banks set their eye on this business, they can eat up the upstarts by doing the same thing cheaper – banks, after all, have access to far cheaper capital, and what is required is a procedural overhaul. The promise in the FinTech business is that banks are large slow-moving creatures, and it will take time for them to change their processes.

Two recent pieces of news, however, suggest that large banks may be coming at FinTech far sooner than we expected. And both these pieces of news have to do with India’s largest lender State Bank of India (SBI).

One popular method for FinTech to grow has been to finance sellers on e-commerce platforms, using non-traditional data such as rating on the platforms, sales through the platform, etc. And SBI entered this in January this year, forming a partnership with Snapdeal (one of India’s largest e-commerce stores).

Snapdeal, India’s largest online marketplace, today announced an exclusive partnership with State Bank of India to further strengthen its ecosystem for its sellers. With this association, Snapdeal sellers will be able to get approval on loans from financers solely on the basis of a unique credit scoring model. There will be no requirement of any financial statements and collaterals.

Sellers on the marketplace can apply for loans online and get immediate sanction, thereby enabling “loans at the click of a button”. This innovative product moves away from traditional lending based on financial statements like balance sheet and income tax returns. Instead, it uses proprietary platform data and surrogate information from public domain to assess the seller’s credit worthiness for sanctioning of loan.

Another popular method to expand FinTech has been to lend to customers of e-commerce stores. And in a newly announced partnership, SBI is there again, this time financing purchases on the Flipkart platform.

State Bank of India, the country’s largest bank, announced a series of digital initiatives on Friday, including a first of its kind partnership with e-commerce giant Flipkart, to offer bank customers a pre-approved EMI facility to purchase products on the retailer’s website.

The bank, which celebrates its 61st anniversary (State Bank Day) on July 1, said the objective was to provide finance to credit worthy individuals, and not just credit card holders. The EMI facility will be available in tenures of six, nine and 12 months.

Just last evening, I was telling someone that there’s no hurry to get into FinTech since it will take a decade for the industry to mature, so it’s not a problem if one enters late. However, looking at the above moves by SBI, it seems the banks are coming faster!

 

Encouraging bad behaviour

While flipping TV channels last evening (an activity I seldom undertake nowadays) I came across this new advertisement for Myntra.com:

I watched this advertisement 2-3 times, and to me the clincher seemed to be the fact that you can return goods to Myntra and get your cash back the same day.

The intention of the advertisement is clear – for someone who is uncomfortable with buying clothes online (like the woman in this advertisement), the fact that you can return the stuff and get your money back immediately can be a huge incentive to try.

The problem, however, is with the overall message it conveys. One of the biggest problems with online retail in India is the high rate of returns. Returns create friction in several ways – from the logistics cost to reversing payments to possible fraud to possible damage of goods. From this perspective, returns are undesirable behaviour as far as retailers are concerned.

In this context, it’s rather bizarre that Myntra is putting out an ad that promotes the use of returns. While it might be a decent incentive to attract new customers and expand the market, the problem is that it encourages your existing customers (who are likely to transact more than new customers) to misbehave!

In other words, Myntra’s latest ad actually encourages undesirable behaviour from customers! I find it quite puzzling.

PS: On the other hand, Myntra’s competitor Amazon is actually making returns less friendly. If you return an electronic product now, you can only get a replacement, and not your money back.

Marketing in single-person operations

The density of E’ixample, the district of Barcelona I currently live in, is so high that there are at least six barbershops within 100m of the front door to my apartment. So when I had to get a haircut (for the first time in my life outside India), there was plenty of choice.

Cursory observations and price enquiries (some had listed prices on the door, while at others I’d to enquire) led me to this one-man barbershop called “Urban Cuts Barbershop” (the name is the only English thing about this barbershop – the barber spoke only Spanish). I think the barber has done a pretty good job, but while I had placed my head in his hands, I was thinking about his marketing.

One of the ways in which shops and restaurants advertise quality is through herding and display of crowds. Ceteris paribus, a full restaurant is seen as being better than an empty one – why else would so many others have made the choice to go there? When in doubt, people seek comfort in company; making the same bad choice as everyone else is seen as being less worse than going out of the way and making a bad choice.

So when you are seeking a barber, you seek a barber who others seem to approve of, and the only way you can find this out is by seeing how crowded it is every time you walk past (six barbershops in close proximity to your residence means it’s possible to collect sufficient data points before you make a decision). And if you see it consistently has customers, you are more likely to go there than to a barbershop that hardly has customers.

The problem with a one-seat barbershop is that its fullness is binary – the shop is either operating at 0% capacity (no customers), or at 100% (one customer). If there is no one in the shop, prospective customers walking past might assume this shop is not good. If there is one customer in the shop, prospective customers might reason more favourably about the quality of service, but might be put off by the possible waiting time (range of services barbers offer means that the service time can have a large range).

With more seats, on the other hand, there can be an “optimal level” of fullness, where the shop appears full to a customer walking past, but has enough room to serve a random customer who happens to walk in.

In other words, “marketing ability” is something to take into account while deciding the optimal number of servers. And there’s some food for thought here for consulting businesses like mine (though my fullness is not as binary as the barber’s since I work on longer term projects which can be multiplexed).

More optionality in startup valuations

Mint reports that Indian e-commerce biggies Flipkart and Snapdeal are finding it hard to raise more money at the valuations at which they raised their last funding rounds. One line from the report:

Despite Morgan Stanley’s markdown in February, Flipkart is still approaching investors asking for a valuation of $15 billion, but it hasn’t had any takers yet, the first two people cited above said.

The problem with the valuations is that it includes significant option value. It is common in startup funding to include implicit options in favour of the new round of investors to protect them from the downside of any future decrease in valuation.

Typically designed in the form of “ratchets”, when the firm raises a fresh round at a lower valuation, the investors in the previous round will get additional shares so that their overall share in the investment remains the same (won’t go into the exact mechanics here). This downside protection allows investors to be more aggressive on their valuations of the company, and the company is able to report higher headline numbers.

Ratchets have two problems, both of which are illustrated in the difficulty of Flipkart and Snapdeal in raising more funds. Firstly, optionality in funding means an automatic markdown of funds held by investors in progressively earlier rounds. This is not explicit, but a ratchet is basically existing investors writing an option in favour of the new investors. While the cost of this option is not explicit, it is the earlier investors who bear the cost.

So Series C (and earlier) investors bear the cost of the optionality given to Series D investors. Series B and earlier investors bear the cost of Series C’s optionality. And so on. Notice that this telescopes, so the founders (original owners of equity) have written options to everyone who has invested (of course they also benefit from the higher overall valuation).

Now, if a “down round” (funding round at lower overall valuation than previous round) happens, this optionality gets immediately gets “paid out”. So if the Series D valuation is lower than Series C valuation, Series B and earlier investors (and founders) immediately “pay” the difference to the Series C investors (these options are American, and usually without an expiry date). So Series B and earlier investors (and especially founders) will not like this round. And they will hunt around for offers that will ensure that they don’t have to pay out on the options they’ve written. I suspect this is what is happening at Flipkart and Snapdeal now.

The second problem with ratchets is that stated valuations are inflated. A common share in Flipkart (don’t think one exists. All investors in that firm are effectively either long or short an option in the same stock) is not valued at $15 billion, so that valuation is essentially a misnomer. When Morgan Stanley says on its books that Flipkart is actually worth $11 billion, it is possible that that is the “true value” of the stock, without accounting for the optionality that latest round of investors receive. In other words, the latest round of investors invested at a price, which if extended to all stock, would value the company at $15 billion. But the rest of the company’s stock is not the same as the stock these investors hold! 

The problem, though, is that the latest “headline valuation” (inclusive of optionality) is anchored in the minds of founders and other earlier investors, and they see any lower price as unacceptable. And so the logjam continues. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

With IPO being way too far off an event for determining if a company has “arrived” I propose a new metric, with shorter horizon. A company can be declared as having arrived if it manages to raise a round of equity with no embedded options. Think about it!

The problem with premium ad-free television

I watched snippets of the just-concluded ICC WorldT20 final using an illegal streaming service, which streamed content drawn from SkySports2.  The horrible quality of the streaming aside (the server seemed to have terrible bandwidth issues), the interesting thing to note was that it was completely devoid of advertisements.

With the quality of cricket coverage in India currently being abysmal due to the frequent cutting for advertisements (I remember getting thoroughly pissed off with the cuts for advertisements before the replay of a wicket was shown during the India-Australia series earlier this year), it made me think about the economics of a separate premium service that is ad-free.

The infrastructure for delivery is in place, given that internet-based legal streaming services are fairly common now (the likes of HotStar). Internet-based delivery also makes it easy to charge pay per view, so payment is also not a problem. This raises the question of whether it is a good idea for channels to monetise the demand for ad-free cricket by providing the service through online streaming, leaving the mainstream broadcast to be monetised via advertisements.

While in theory this appears like a good idea, the problem is with the kind of people who will migrate to the new service – they will be people who have the ability and willingness to pay for a higher quality broadcast. Such people are likely to belong to two overlapping categories – loyal fans of the game and people who can afford to pay a premium.

It is unlikely that the union of these two sets will comprise of too high a proportion of the overall viewership of the game, but the point is that these are the two groups who are likely to be most lucrative to advertisers – the loyal fans watch regularly and the people who are able to pay have more disposable income.

Moving such customers to an ad-free online channel might reduce the supply of advertisements which can be used to reach them, and this might not make advertisers happy. And given that television channels have cosy relationships with advertisers (or at least media buyers), they are unlikely to piss them off by moving the most lucrative customers to a premium platform.

Of course if this segmentation (between ad-free and free broadcasts) is implemented, it will also impact the price of advertisements in the free broadcast. That will need to be taken as an input while setting prices for the ad-free service. In other words, pricing is going to be a challenge!

If some television channel wants to work on this, I’m available for hire as a consultant. I’ve done a fair amount of prior work on pricing and dynamic pricing, am pretty good at quantitative methods and am in the course of writing a popular economics book.