Accidental VC Sajith Pai of Blume Ventures reveals how to build a personal brand
Sajith Pai, Director at Blume Ventures, has been vocal about his thoughts and thesis around the startup ecosystem on social media. He attributes this to his background in the media industry, and his love for reading and taking notes.
An alumnus of IIM-Ahmedabad, Sajith spent most of his career at Bennett Coleman and Co. Ltd. After spending almost two decades working across divisions there, he joined VC firm Blume Ventures in 2018, when he was in his 40s.
Sajith Pai, Director, Blume Ventures
At Blume, Sajith works with passionate founders, building and scaling startups and helping them accelerate growth. He primarily focuses across HRTech, edtech, agritech, and marketplaces verticals.
Blume Ventures boasts of a diversified portfolio, including startups like Dunzo, LBB, MilkBasket, Locus, Agara Labs, Unacademy, Instamojo, HealthifyMe, BeatO, GreytHR, Qyuki, Vokal, Yulu, and RailYatri, among others.
In this week’s 100x Entrepreneur Podcast, a series featuring founders, venture capitalists, and angel investors, Sajith spoke to Siddharth Ahluwalia about how to build personal brands, be open-minded, and on unlearning to succeed.
An accidental VC
Sajith calls himself an “accidental VC”. He joined Blume two years ago, after previously working with Blume Ventures Founder Karthik Reddy and Partner Ashish Fafadia. At Brand Capital, a division of the Times, Karthik was Sajith’s boss, while Ashish was his colleague.
Sajith says if it not for that and the fact that the team was comfortable with him, he wouldn’t have joined Blume.
Two years back, when Blume was raising its third fund, it wanted to get deeper and deploy larger cheques. The VC firm wanted to bring on board people who could bring in that perspective, and that’s where Sajith came in. He already had a deep understanding of the education and media industries. Additionally, it helped that Sajith was willing to come in as a non-partner.
“It is very hard to get into a VC firm without knowing some folks or without having created a brand for yourself, especially if you are in your late 30s or 40s. For someone like me, who has been in the corporate world and did not have a startup background, I think it's much harder,” Sajith says.
He adds, “I had some queries (about the VC world), but once they were answered, I felt that this would be a good experiment for the next 10 to 15 years of my life.”
Building personal brands
Sajith says when someone in their 20s approaches a VC firm, they need not have startup exposure. At that age, one’s pedigree works as the brand, to some extent, and they can join as an analyst or even an associate.
“In your 20s, the firm is buying you for your brainpower. As you get into your 30s, the firm is also buying you for many other things such as driving leverage, or driving access to certain networks,” Sajith says.
Thus, if someone is a former startup founder, whose venture has been sold, then they bring in some experience of counselling other founders within the portfolio. Or if someone has enough relationships within the ecosystem, the firm will take a chance on them. They can join the VC firm as a Principal or a Partner.
Sajith has been writing systematically since 2012 and that he feels that has a lot to do with how attractive he was to a VC firm like Blume. “Karthik told me that they used to share my articles internally in Blume as I used to write on edtech opportunities,” he says.
This is why he feels that it makes sense to double down on certain aspects if you come from an unconventional background for a venture firm. In such cases, launching a podcast, writing, and evaluating become great entry points as these portray that one is interested and cares about the startup world.
“They show how serious you are about it, and how much investment you put into it. It is a great signal,” Sajith says.
Be it building his brand like a process from 2012, or taking notes during conversations, Sajith says he is constantly working on building processes. Even at Blume, he has been working on building processes.
According to Sajith, a great way to approach investing is by building a great network and waiting for inbounds. “I think almost every single great investment decision typically is inbound,” he says, adding that while it is good to have a forward-looking point of view, it is dangerous to get tied down by it.
“The map is not the territory,” Sajith says. While founders usually launch companies out of a deep desire to correct some friction, not many of them read the investor's thesis and then decide. And that is what differentiates a successful founder like Gaurav Munjal of Unacademy from its competitors.
“All of what I do - my writing, my thesis - is really to make it easy for founders to reach me...All investment opportunities come out of these serendipitous circumstances, and what you’re really doing is creating the conditions for that to happen,” Sajith says.
He advises that having a prepared mind and not getting stuck by what one might have thought is important. Having strong views that are weakly held is a great advantage to have in the investment business, especially in the early stages.
Sajith says COVID-19 is like a time machine. It has taken certain industries forward by up to five years, and others backwards. Sajith gives the example of PVR, stating the company has gone backwards by so many years.
However, in the edtech space, with the pandemic creating a huge opportunity for players to leverage technology in education, Sajith says we need to think and understand if this vacuum is permanent or temporary.
Sajith feels that the jump in the number of online classes and apps is induced by temporary vacuums. “But a lot of parents see these classes as quasi-day care,” he says. This bump-up, especially in the larger cities, may be temporary.
On the other hand, the rise of use of online edtech classes in the smaller towns and cities might be a permanent solution, or vacuum. And this permanent vacuum is mostly created because startups are solving the problem of access for non-consumers (till now).
Unlearning to succeed
Speaking of his two years in the VC ecosystem, Sajith says he is surprised by how companies can change, and how ideas can change from week to week. He says that in early-stage startups, three factors matter the most -- markets, products, and teams. However, markets can be created.
“I have learned to not be reading too much into what the product is, very early, because products evolve and great products can create larger markets,” Sajith says.
Thus, the biggest lesson is to not look so much at the initial business model or product, but to worry about the problem. To worry if the problem is big enough and if the consumer friction is massive.
Startup founders should focus on building the right team. “The problem can change, the problem you attack can change, the attack vector can change. The teams will evolve, you don’t have a guarantee of that,” Sajith says.
Of the three, Sajith believes that the product evolves the fastest, then the team, and finally consumer behaviour or consumer friction.
“The biggest thing that I’ve unlearnt is don’t worry about the attract vector, worry about the size of the problem...The product will evolve and change. As long as you are convinced about the team, the problem they are after and the friction they are after, if it is large enough, how the market is defined, that matters,” Sajith says.
(Edited by Teja Lele Desai)