Actor-turned-investor Suniel Shetty believes teamwork and passion help find success
The Indian startup ecosystem is the third largest in the world with more than 20 unicorns. While venture capitalists, angel investors, businessmen, and high networth individuals (HNIs) have been funding these growing startups, Bollywood celebrities have emerged as a new breed of investors looking to grab a slice of the pie.
Among the prominent celebrities from the world of Bollywood making smart investments is actor and film producer Suniel Shetty. Suniel is also an entrepreneur with his own hotel and real estate business. He started up with Mischief Dining Bar and Club H20 in Mumbai. He owns another restaurant in Mumbai, and also runs the production studio - Popcorn Motion Pictures. However, in 2016, he turned an active startup investor by investing in men’s grooming brand.
“Investing for me is like my own little ‘Shark Tank’ that I have created with my team, says Suniel Shetty in a conversation with.
He adds, "While investing, there needs to be a balance between the value you bring in as an investor and the money you put in. The young founders all have grand and great ideas, but what matters is what I bring to the table as well - the mentorship and ways in which I help grow the business,”
True to his investment thesis of bringing in value, Suniel had become the face and brand ambassador for the grooming brand until it was acquired by Marico in 2017.
However, over the years, his investment in startups have steadily increased. In the past few months, Suniel has invested in startups like Kochi-based Squats, which is now part of the Y-Combinator., a health startup, , a fitness app now backed by Sequoia Capital India’s Surge, and Pune-based fitness startup
From starting up to investing
“Four years ago I had taken a sabbatical, which was not forced, but a natural progression. I simply stopped enjoying what I was doing.
"It was time for me to take a pause and see what was happening around, and I realised there is so much more to the world than what I was doing,” he says.
Suniel’s foray into the world of technology with FTC Talent app got him looking more closely at startups. Suniel says, he is focussed on sectors where he knows he has a strong knowledge and acumen - fitness, wellness and grooming, and entertainment.
“Investing is about looking at passion and people who have the drive to work differently. That is what I did. I don’t invest big money, but I am smart about my investments," says Suniel.
He adds, "I look for startups from the lens of what I can bring to the table. The young founders are talented and are experts in tech, but I have expertise in branding, marketing, connections, and business acumen.”
Suniel says, what makes his investment story and journey more successful is when venture capitalists like Sequoia Capital India and Y Combinator back the startups he has invested in. And when that happens, things automatically start falling into place, he adds.
As an investor, he says he never goes in with the assumption that he knows technology or the product.
“I tell the founder one thing - I am from a different generation, and I don’t know technology. So please explain it to me like you would to a lay person or your parents or grandparents. You know your mom and dad who repeatedly ask you how the Smart TV works. I am one of those.”
He says, this helps him understand the product and tech and see the synergies.
“These founders have taught me so much, and with that learning attitude everything just falls into place. If I believed I knew tech, I think I would have lost completely.”
Bringing in value
Talking about investing in fitness startup Fittr, Suniel says:
“I understood the space. They came with a plan and I gave them what I believed makes impact to the end user in the Indian (fitness) market."
Today, everybody wants to be fit, and Fittr understands that. Apart from that they are an online model giving job opportunities to coaches. As founders, you are the experts. I bring in my expertise when needed, and leave the experts to do their job.”
The 59-year-old actor explains the enthusiasm of the founders, and it is their plan that gets him going. For him it is about involving in startups that are in the zone and pace that he understands and where he can add value.
“With FTC, I also have a lot of platforms I work with that can help in terms of marketing and content. Marketing for startups isn’t just about the product, but everything around it that can interest people and what people can consume,” says Suniel.
He says the founders he backs are passionate, know their subject well, and are professional. Beyond money, Suniel helps them with marketing, reach, and to bring in credibility.
While he actively looks to invest in startups in the health, wellness, entertainment, grooming, and fitness space, Suniel believes his team is what helps him drive these investments.
“Once my face gets associated with a brand, there is a faith that comes in from the people, investors, and users. So, I owe it to everyone to ensure that I do my due diligence." He adds,
"I have a strong team which looks diligently at every startup pitch and goes through multiple rounds with the founders and the startup teams. When they believe there is potential, only then do I enter the picture."
Speaking about the importance of the team, Suniel says,
“I’ve noticed one thing in my life - everything I have tried to do on my own, I have failed. And that has happened multiple times. Simply because you don’t have the bandwidth to do everything and be good at everything. So, the team becomes very important.”
Being old school, for me the size of the unit is extremely important, he says.
“Nobody knew that a pandemic would hit. The largest of companies, corporations, and startups started laying off people. I don’t think it is an easy situation to be in. I look closely at the team, and lean teams are everything.”
“What are the costs of the administration, what are the backend operations, how healthy is all of that? How do you plan to absorb costs? The minute you grow and can absorb the costs, you can then spend money. I don’t even understand half of the hires and terms like CIO and CXO. I am old school that way,” he says.
According to the Bollywood actor, if there is one similarity between films, entrepreneurship, and investment, it is the team work.
Suniel explains it is only the team that can put up a great product or film. Whether it is product, tech, or marketing, the value the members of the team bring in and how they work within the team and across teams is extremely important. Suniel says,
“A team is one that works together to give those best shots to the director. Similarly, in a startup, the founder’s grand vision can only come true with the team working like a well-oiled machine.”
Time and frugality
Despite the pandemic, Suniel believes today investors are more than willing to invest in new ideas and products. While businesses are facing losses, many people who have the money are looking to invest in smart and passionate founders, he says.
Suniel also advices startups to have a sharper focus on their product and business.
“We have all learnt that the hard way. Today, a Zoomcall is 100x more focus than an in-person board meeting. You have to come on time and the focus needs to be on the screen. There are no tea and coffee breaks or small talk. Everything needs to be said and discussed in 40 minutes,” says Suniel.
The product and the market
While tech with a human touch is Suniel’s core investment philosophy, he also sees if the product the founder is building has been built with stability in mind.
He believes there are a few core questions he asks founders - Have they used time tested development tools and platforms? Nothing can and should be rushed for me. Everything has to be tested - What is your product about? What problem is it solving? Who is the consumer you are targeting? How much are you charging the consumer?
"With everyone being frugal, you need to price your product right. People have little money to spend, so will they spend it for your product? It should add some value to the individuals life for them to shell out money,” says Suniel.
He also advices founders to be willing to give their best shot. Are you thinking of your product and business 24/7? Have you understood the market and introduced diligent mechanisms to capture it? These, Suniel says, are important questions any founder should ask themselves.
Personally, Suniel says, he has been taught to live a simple life as he believes it is all about giving back to the society and people.
Playing the mind game
According to Suniel, entrepreneurship and winning has a lot to do with the mind. He says, "Everyone is thinking out of the box. What was once a great idea is no longer so. People are thinking deeper and are being sharper. Understand and listen to your gut, and you cannot go wrong.”
“Most of the young entrepreneurs haven’t seen failure. And today, the whole system has been disrupted. As founders, it is a great time to gather courage to write your own rules. The pandemic has pushed people to think differently," Suniel signs off.