Investor focus: Puneet Kumar of Nexus Venture Partners shares his insights on the Indian startup ecosystem, what keeps him excited about the space, and the ‘next big thing’ for startups and investors alike.
Puneet Kumar is your quintessential investor in technology-focused startups. For one, he knows what it’s like to be a new-age tech entrepreneur (and fail). Two, he is passionate about helping entrepreneurs and working with them to carve out success stories. And three, he has an innate understanding of the Indian market and a long-held passion for technology – both of which are essentials for any investor.
As Vice President at Indian venture capital firm Nexus Venture Partners – which specialises in seed, early-, and growth-stage investments – Puneet Kumar finds his purpose in “helping entrepreneurs in whatever way possible” and “simplifying how consumers and businesses interact with one another through technology.”
And Puneet believes that ease of access to technology for a majority of India’s population is set to drive the next big opportunity for startups and investors. Enabled by easy access to affordable data packs and low-cost smartphones, more than 500 million Indians, primarily from rural India, are poised to go digital in the next couple of years.
“While this segment of the Indian population has grappled with broken access to basic goods and services, things are changing, and changing fast. This population has also not received the attention it is due, both by investors and entrepreneurs, and that’s also set to change."
Puneet believes a ‘Digital India’ presents an interesting opportunity as the ‘new connected India’ from remote corners of the country start to explore and engage with new means of accessing goods and services, ranging from entertainment to communication to financial services, among others. “As smart and passionate founders seek to leverage these enablers, one should also expect investing activity in such startups to increase,” adds Puneet.
Hailing from Sri Karanpur, a village of farmers and small-scale entrepreneurs in Rajasthan, Puneet’s investment hypothesis is further strengthened during his visits home. He adds,
“On trips back to my village, I now see people, irrespective of age, being quite comfortable with the use of technology. Consumption of entertainment content and online gaming have caught on beyond imagination. Development of user-friendly interfaces and voice-based commands by technology platforms have proven to be a real help for users in that regard."
At Nexus Venture Partners, Puneet’s technology-driven investments range from mobility, gaming, SaaS platforms, agri-tech and fintech startups. An alumnus of IIT-Madras and Stanford Graduate School of Business (GSB), Puneet had always harboured ambitions of venturing into investing and having a stake in the technology sector.
Today, his investments rightly range from technology startups such as deep-learning company Observe.ai to logistics software maker for large enterprises Pando to learning platform Quizizz. His other work at Nexus Venture Partners include LiveHealth, a SAAS platform that digitises healthcare records for diagnostic labs, MoveInSync, an end-to-end employee transportation solution and Zolostays, the largest co-living platform in India.
Watch this video for Puneet’s take on the market opportunities he sees for enterprise SAAS startups, his formula for creating a winning team, and building a great work culture at startups.
A seasoned investor, Puneet believes startups today are daring to go after tougher problems across industries, be it in high-impact sectors like agriculture or in highly sensitive sectors like oil and gas.
“Indian entrepreneurs are now looking to build solutions from ‘first principles’ and there will be a surge in next-generation companies where business models will be redefined to cater to India-specific needs,” Puneet says, citing the mobility problem in the country as an example.
Reminiscing about how he spent the first 17 years of his life in the farming community in his village, Puneet highlights that little has really changed in the agriculture sector in India.
“The agriculture sector has been lacklustre by way of innovation and use of technology. I am hopeful that interesting business models will emerge and change the face of agri ecosystem in the coming decade,” Puneet says.
When asked about funding for agritech startups, he replies,
“As an investor, I have to put my fiduciary duty ahead of my passions. In the end, a VC’s core responsibility is to generate returns for his or her investors. We have not seen a lot of models that can be scaled up in agritech but we are excited about the space and watching it carefully as innovative models emerge.”
He recalls that when he returned to India in 2017, the number of agritech entrepreneurs was limited to just a handful but has seen a steep increase in the last 18 months. Puneet sees this as a key trend in India in terms of talent in the ecosystem, with entrepreneurs displaying a strong desire to go beyond building me-too versions of startups in other geographies.
While this development is positive, Puneet believes it's crucial for entrepreneurs to be passionate about what they do and possess the ability to substantiate their stories with numbers. He adds that for entrepreneurs to enjoy true success, it is imperative that they understand product-market fit and enable a culture of respect and transparency.
Puneet, who has himself tried his hand at entrepreneurship back in the day and failed, says the driving force behind the work being done by the team at Nexus Ventures is really to help the entrepreneur in whatever way possible, be it funding or mentoring.
“We want to help create stories. Some stories have our financial returns also tied to it but for a lot of the stories, we just want to be a part of it… and I would feel good if someone I helped is successful… I think it’s self-gratification. So, the biggest part of our job is helping entrepreneurs, young entrepreneurs.”
While the world outside often believes that a VC’s life is to ‘chill’, the life of a VC is, in fact, running on hustle. “Contrary to what a lot of my friends think, a VC’s job in the end is more similar to a sales job where you go out, meet people, find the right fit, and make a deal happen. The job is always on and there is never a dull moment,” says Puneet.
“To be a VC, you also need large amounts of patience, given that gratification is quite subtle and too far out in the future. But the chance to be part of, and to help with the scripting of, game-changing stories by passionate entrepreneurs, serves as great enough motivation,” concludes Puneet.
Watch this video for an unfiltered take on the joys of being an Indian VC and the approach he takes when interacting with entrepreneurs and evaluating their pitch.
Prior to joining Nexus, Puneet Kumar acted as a consultant, advising entrepreneurs in the fields of education, entertainment, SaaS and consumer tech. He also had stints at Passport Capital, a global macro-hedge fund, and with startups in Silicon Valley