Who’s 2023’s model startup founder?


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A few weeks ago, Tata group company Titan hogged the headlines when it bought 27% stake in CaratLane (Titan has been a strategic investor since 2016). A cash exit for an Indian consumer internet entrepreneur is rare, more so when it comes as the broader industry is struggling to get the fundamentals right, and funding from risk investors has fallen precipitously.

The development made me think: after 15 years of venture capital infusion into companies, who are the likely role models for young, fledgling entrepreneurs in India today?

When I started actively reporting on this sector around 2012, the first generation of local entrepreneurs, led by Flipkart founders Sachin and Binny Bansal, became the go-to reference point for young IITians (students from the premier engineering school, the Indian Institute of Technology).

But a decade and multiple economic cycles later, the Indian market is throwing up a diverse set of role models who have been building their businesses without much fanfare.

One can argue that these founders always existed, it’s just that investors were busy chasing a pattern and therefore these other types of company business builders didn’t get much funds and attention back then.

But things have changed, as a bunch of these founders have built meaningful businesses like CaratLane, which was valued at $2 billion by Titan. In 2016, the startup fetched a valuation of $69 million.

A good look at Mithun Sacheti of CaratLane, and some of the other successful entrepreneurs who have emerged over the past decade, will show that they are not your typical snot-nosed twentysomethings fresh out of IIT, building a scrappy startup in a garage having raised billions of dollars at high valuations.

Also read | Loss-making businesses in the eyes of strategics don’t get great value: CaratLane’s Mithun Sacheti

These founders are emblematic of what the business world has started to prize in recent years, especially after the 2021 go-go period. This new breed of entrepreneurs is distinctively different from those who emerged in the frothy days of financial folly.

So what’s the playbook of this entrepreneur?

  • Has a long-term view on building, because that’s how you find success. Think decades, not years.
  • Raise venture money only if it is really needed. India is a slow burn market, and US and China comparisons tossed around by fund managers don’t work here.
  • Do not raise capital just because it’s available, as it comes with high growth expectations, and this will hurt the business. As CaratLane’s Sacheti told me, “What a strategic (investor) brings is absolute focus on the health of a business, whereas a fund focusses on scaling your business…”
  • Build away from the noise.
  • Gain the trust of the market. It won’t come through tweets, podcasts, and Linkedin posts.
  • Your role models and mentors should ideally be people who have run profitable Indian businesses. Most of these will be boring companies, but they make money.
  • Strategics aren’t always a bad option, especially in India, where businesses take decades to build and make money.
  • The journey doesn’t end when you sell to a strategic or go public — it only just begins. Look at companies like Zomato.
  • Raising a billion dollar round or becoming a unicorn can’t be a success metric. It is good to celebrate the feat, but making that the cornerstone of your achievement is unhealthy.
  • Be humble as you scale. Like The Financial Times recently said, “boring is better”, while talking about technology CEOs like Apple’s Tim Cook and Alphabet’s Sundar Pichai in comparison to the mercurial Musk.

Do write to me on what you think makes this group of founders stand out. Who is your role model in India? Why?

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