I am more customer-obsessed now as an entrepreneur than I was as a VC: Shalini Prakash of Epic.one

In this episode of the 100X Entrepreneur podcast, Shalini Prakash, Co-founder of Epic.one and former Venture Partner of 500 Startups, talks about her journey as an investor and an entrepreneur, her habits, and much more.

In what may be still considered a not-so-common move, Shalini Prakash went from being a venture capitalist to an entrepreneur. Shalini’s love for startups saw her join 500 Startups as a venture partner in 2015. Post her stint as a VC, she started her rewards and loyalty-based startup, Epic.one, in early 2019.

Siddhartha Ahluwalia, Co-founder of SHEROES, caught up with Shalini in this episode of 100x Entrepreneur podcast, a series that features venture capitalists and angel investors.

Shalini Prakash, co-founder of Epic.one

Tune in to listen to Shalini Prakash in conversation with Siddhartha:

Siddhartha kicks off things by asking the all-important question: what motivated you to become an entrepreneur after a stint as a VC, an unusual move to say the least?

“I have been in the startup ecosystem for the last five to six years. Whether be it as Entrepreneur-In-Residence at GSF Global Accelerator, or doing a few consulting assignments with companies like InMobi and others. It’s always been exciting to work with founders and entrepreneurs who are really building their dreams. And then 500 Startups happened in 2015 and I sat on the other end of the table. But still supporting and working with founders didn’t change much. I found it very exciting as a journey,” Shalini says.

Then followed a strong drive to start up on her own. “Some time at the end of last year, I got an itch to start living my own entrepreneurial dream, and from there on I was looking for exciting people and ideas to work with,” Shalini adds, of the motivation behind setting up Epic.one.

Early days

An engineer by education, Shalini started her career with Fidelity Investments. She has a master’s from the London School of Economics and an MBA from Liverpool University.

Shalini notes she has always been drawn to adventure and to paths unknown. “I worked for Altran Technologies and from there on I was on a very adventurous journey. I tried to do different things and I don’t have a traditional background or path to whatever I have done. I have always taken up things that excited me and had absolutely no connection to things that I did in the past. I worked for INKtalks for three to four years, after which I started working for startups trying to do different things within the ecosystem,” she explains.

Then came along the 500 Startups opportunity. “Somebody I knew recommended me to 500 Startups because they were looking to build their team in India. They were looking to focus on India and I guess I was at the right time and right place,” Shalini recalls.

The journey of an investor

There began Shalini’s tryst with startups doing exciting things.

“Some of the startups in which 500 Startups made investments are Vokal, Pandorum, Stellapps, Cube, AUS, and others,” Shalini says.

Vokal, particularly, excites her. “Vokal has grown its users to 1.5 million to two million today. It is changing the way people ask questions. For us, it was Google and there was no knowledge gap. But in the vernacular space, there is a big knowledge gap and that’s what Vokal is trying to solve and provide more access to information,” Shalini quips.

Some of the other big portfolio firms for 500 Startups include Junglee Games, Hello English, Instamojo, among others. Some like Headout have ventured outside India and done well abroad.

And through all the ebb and flow of startup activity, what Shalini values the most is the people she has met from around the world. “I really believe in cross-pollination of ideas. There is a famous quote that says 80 percent of what you become in your life is being determined by 20 percent of the people you surround yourself with. I think that 80-20 percent is very relevant for every individual,” she adds.

This ability to interact with inspiring people and back great ideas helped Shalini enjoy her job as a VC.

“Of course, there are monetary purposes when you are a VC. But above it all is the excitement of working with founders and entrepreneurs who are building for customers and making sure that customers see value for their products and services. And I don’t think that ethos has changed for me as an entrepreneur. Perhaps I am more customer-obsessed now than when I was a VC. It’s always the customer first, building for the customers, and solving their problems,” she says.

Turning entrepreneur with Epic.one

In March 2019, Shalini gave wings to her entrepreneurial dreams with Epic.one, a “reward super app”. “What we are solving is for the fragmented loyalty and reward points programme that several enterprises run. But both the enterprises and customers are not seeing any value in them. We are trying to figure out how to build a platform where such loyalty programmes come and sit on the platform and the customer has the flexibility to track and value it and redeem it anytime and anywhere, making it as ubiquitous as possible,” she explains.

According to her, an average Indian customer unwittingly loses out on Rs 30,000 to Rs 40,000 worth of points every year. “This is because there is no way to track it and no way to value it. If you know the value, then you will track it. But there has to be a convenient way to track it. Points are like money, and one should be able to use it for anything like medical needs or the child’s education, etc. The goal for us is to give more power to users by super charging these points,” she adds.

On teaming up with Amit Chawla to start Epic.one, Shalini says, “We have known each other quite well, having moved in the same social circles for the last two to three years. Earlier this year, I was also evaluating Epic as an investment opportunity for 500 Startups. And finally, when I decided to quit 500 Startups I was having a chat with Amit, and he offered to build it with me. I jumped at the offer.”

From engineering in college to various jobs and then a VC stint and the current startup experience, Shalini credits three habits to her success: “I have started writing. I was never a writer. For the past three to four years, ever since I became a VC, I have been writing and posting on LinkedIn. As writing requires research, it pushes me to learn more new things. The other habit is having a learning mindset; learning never stops, whether you are 20 years old or 50. Learning can also come through conversation. And, finally, the crazy me never says ‘no’ to something. I believe that anything is possible. Sometimes you may think that it is not relevant to do it today, but you should not say ‘no’ to any interesting opportunity just because it doesn’t fit into your career or life plan. You never know where it will take you. This trait has always worked in my favour.”

(Edited by Evelyn Ratnakumar)