India is being recognised globally for its innovation: Bhaskar Majumdar on startup opportunities
Bhaskar Majumdar is the Founder and Managing Partner of Unicorn India Ventures. He is the author of Everything Started as Nothing: How to Win the Startup Battle.
The book has been shortlisted in the Top 10 books by the Bangalore Business Literature Festival (BBLF) for the 2022 BBLF CK Prahalad Prize. As the litfest media partner, see our earlier articles on BBLF from the 2015 edition onwards here, and our compilation of 85 Quotes on World Book Day.
Unicorn India Ventures has invested across 30 startups in India and the UK with a cumulative valuation of over $3 billion. Bhaskar is an alumnus of IIT Kharagpur, and lives between London, the Cotswolds, and Mumbai.
See also YourStory’s Book Review section with takeaways from over 340 titles on creativity, entrepreneurship, innovation, social enterprise, and digital transformation.
Bhaskar joins us in this interview on his investor bets, pandemic resilience, founder mentoring, and startup tips.
Edited excerpts below:
YourStory: As an investor, what would you say have been your best bets so far, and why?
Bhaskar Majumdar: We understand the early-stage segment quite well. My journey from being a serial entrepreneur with multiple exits to now a fund manager has helped the fund, Unicorn India Ventures, identify newer business areas that have potential to scale and grow faster.
We like to back businesses that are disruptive or ushering in a more robust way of doing an existing business by leveraging tech. Some of our best bets have been in neobanking (OpenBank), robotics as a SaaS (Genrobotics), and cybersecurity (Sequretek).
YS: If you were to find comparable startups in India and some other part of the world, which would you pick to invest in? What criteria come in here?
BM: India is being recognised globally for its innovation in tech as more startups emerge from here and fast establishing a dominating global presence.
However, if we were to compare purely from an investment lens, it will depend on the nature of startup. If it is a product startup then possibly international markets. If it is more operations led, then India.
YS: How was your book received? What were some of the responses you got?
BM: The book was conceived during the first pandemic wave in 2020. It saw an official release in March last year. Within days of launch, the positive momentum around the book started building. It has been received very well.
Within the startup founder community, the book has been referred to a "must read handbook", as "a repertoire of facts and what not to do" and also a " bible" by various entrepreneurs. Over a year and half since its launch, the book continues to be displayed at key shelf space in almost all the well-known bookshop chains across India.
YS: What are some books on your reading list these days?
BM: I am reading a whole lot of books on the changing face of India. Some of books occupying my reading shelf are the trilogy of India that is Bharat and India Reimagined.
YS: How did startups fare during the pandemic? What are some outstanding innovations or pivots you came across?
BM: Startup founders are many characters rolled into one. They are warriors, soldiers, and when need arises are resilient survivors.
It is true that the pandemic was of an unprecedented scale but we saw within our portfolio the fighting spirit. Some of our portfolio companies pivoted to survive. We have a fintech company that enables loans. They morphed themselves into an insurtech business, as insurance is a defensive industry.
YS: Many students are interested in entrepreneurship these days. How can they sharpen their problem-spotting and solving skills at this stage?
BM: The very essence of entrepreneurship is thinking outside the box and risk taking. Students who are looking to be entrepreneurs should have this attitude and necessary skill sets to achieve their ambition. A good place to start would be to look at real life problems and see how technology can be used to solve those problems.
YS: What are the best ways to engage with founders for mentoring and coaching? At what stage are they most open for advice?
BM: Founders are always open to advice. They need different types of advice, depending on the life stage of their business.
They need advice and inputs on the initial product design when they are just starting out, then they need mentoring on running large-scale operations and teams as the business sees fast growth. The advice also differs from type of entrepreneurs, Senior entrepreneurs need different advice as compared to younger and first-time entrepreneurs .
YS: Value or valuation, growth or profitability - these are questions that often challenge founders. What's the best way to address these trade-offs?
BM: Depends on time and the stage at which the companies are. But we at Unicorn India Ventures personally believe in profitability and/or a clear path to profitability. We rarely invest in businesses that are merely growth-focused, sacrificing the profitability path.
YS: What can be done to make India's startup ecosystem even more favourable for innovation and scale?
BM: VCs must back innovation. Innovation isn't always about scale. Innovation takes longer time and often can be value driven than scale. Indian VCs are more scale focussed.
Alongside the VCs, the founders too must look at innovations and for this there has to be stronger collaboration with the universities and the academic institutions. Innovation should become second nature at our top institutions which are shaping the most brilliant minds.
YS: How should founders learn from failure, regroup, and reposition?
BM: As I always say, entrepreneurs don't fail - businesses fail. Founders have to go to the drawing board, understand the market better, the causes of failure, and reposition the product.
YS: How big a role does academics play in entrepreneurship? Can entrepreneurship really be formally taught?
BM: Folks have to have an entrepreneurial instinct. Academics can help to hone and mature these instincts and convert them to skills. But entrepreneurship can't be taught by rote.
YS: What are some ways in which B2B startups can effectively negotiate good deals with large companies as customers, when they may not have such prior experience?
BM: By showing value to the customer and by building up small use cases. Don’t overplay your hand on being a cost-effective solution to a high-priced legacy competition.
For large companies, costing or budgeting comes only after they see the value you bring to the table. So show value first and then you may actually be able to charge a premium.
YS: Starting up is not enough, how should founders avoid being a ‘one-trick pony’ and keep reinventing themselves?
BM: That is the essence of growth. They constantly need to evaluate the market, especially with a fast-changing technology landscape.
They should infuse newer talent who think differently and take the company to the next level. As they say, in entrepreneurship the only constant is change.
YS: What do you see as key tech trends that aspiring founders should keep an eye on for opportunities?
BM: Tech trends are manifold. Now Web3 will make significant changes in the way we as consumers will engage with each other and the web. This opens a multitude of opportunities.
But building business is different from merely doing experiments after experiments. We need to align opportunities that technology throws with real business propositions.
YS: How can social entrepreneurs and non-profit organisations make use of your frameworks?
BM: Social and cultural entrepreneurship can use similar frameworks for scaling up. Even political entrepreneurs. At the end of the day, any entrepreneur has to react to the market and keep themselves nimble and make changes - and always evolve with time.
YS: What are some ways in which people can awaken their inner creativity? Is there a perfect/right age for entrepreneurship?
BM: Entrepreneurship isn't dependent on age. We have backed businesses when folks were in colleges and founders in their mid-fifties after great corporate careers.
It is a question of timing, when you as an entrepreneur feel the timing is right from a mindset perspective and the market opportunity is a large one that you are going after.
YS: Beyond the startup world, what are your views on how an entrepreneurial mindset can help tackle India’s cultural and political challenges?
BM: Great question. Entrepreneurship is a state of mind and questioning the status quo, not accepting No for an answer and always looking to roll with the punches. These are more personality traits and they can be used in startups, in political and cultural environments and others.
YS: What is your next book going to be about?
BM: I am contemplating a book on the changing face of the youth of India as they become job creators from job seekers and as India moves from an "aspirational nation" to an "inspirational nation."
Indian youth personify the "Dare to Dream" mindset and it is truly inspirational whenever I talk to them in the course of my day job and otherwise.
YS: What are your words of advice or tips for the aspiring founders in our audience?
BM: Entrepreneurship is a hard game.
Don't enter entrepreneurship for the perceived glamour associated with it. Enter it with your eyes open to all the travails and tribulations of being an entrepreneur.