Antler VC Cast Episode 9 — Filling the gap in the Indian tech ecosystem with Rajiv Srivatsa

In this episode, we speak to Rajiv Srivatsa, co-founder of Urban Ladder, an online furniture company that raised over 100 million dollars in venture capital from Indian and international investors such as Ratan Tata and Sequoia Capital. Prior to starting Urban Ladder in 2012, Rajiv spent over a decade working with a number of multinational corporations, including Infosys, Cognizant, and Yahoo. Currently, Rajiv is the country head and a Partner in India for Antler.

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Highlights From Transcript

[11:58] Rajiv explains the type of entrepreneurs that emerge from a corporate vs a startup.

[17:27] Rajiv shares his candid views on the Indian entrepreneurs' mindset towards risk and failure.

[32:59] Rajiv shares about the verticals in India that are forward-looking in this post-COVID and recession world.

On the evolution that has taken place in the Indian tech ecosystem

Puja Bharwani: What major changes have taken place in the Indian tech ecosystem and the role of VCs over the last decade?

Rajiv Srivatsa: First, there's a lot more access to capital. Second, there is far more mentorship- there have been people who have been founders in the last decade who have become second-time founders who are coming into early-stage VC, who are becoming mentors, who are becoming angels. There's a lot more mentorship from people who have been there, done it, not to say that it's going to be very different, probably this decade and the second or the third time. Third, I think there's just a general acceptance at a far bigger level today, compared to a decade back. There are thousands of people working in startups. That was not the case when we started in 2011, 2012. I remember some of the earliest conversations to try and convince people to join a startup. We used to spend so much time convincing people today. As for the entrepreneurs themselves, I think they're just far more mature. I think there's just far more intelligence and maturity compared to when we were entrepreneurs at a similar stage eight years back. These are younger people who are far more mentors. At 33, I don't think I knew this. They are 26 and 27. I think they're building things in a far stronger way, but of course, capital does not get to everyone.

On the type of entrepreneurs that emerge from a corporate vs a startup background in the Indian context

Jussi Salovaara: I feel like these days there starts to be almost a trend that corporate is like a curse word in the startup world. Someone was just telling me last week that we had a bunch of corporate dinosaurs in our program. There's a weird viewpoint that typically people start somewhere. Any advice to people who are in corporate thinking of embarking on the journey?

Rajiv Srivatsa: In the last four or five years, I've interacted with so many people from startups as well as corporates.

My hypothesis is that there's a lot of talent, passion and ambition from people in corporate as well as startups.

Of course, the more time you spend in corporates, maybe more time is wasted in processes, bureaucracy and stuff. That happens to everyone. So, there are certain skill sets that are going to be important. Personally, I wouldn't be biased just because you work in a startup than you have a higher chance or vice versa. I have seen enough ambition, aspiration and drive from people who are young enough and in bigger companies also as much as people who have worked in startups. I think it's the de facto network and access that you get when you're part of startups. You get a lot of people with high energy, you get a lot of people who are challenging the status quo, smart entrepreneurial people and smart technologists.

Puja Bharwani: So speaking of entrepreneurs and from corporate to startup, would you say entrepreneurs can be made and nurtured depending on the environment they're in, their founding team, and the mentorship that they get in the ecosystem?

Rajiv Srivatsa: I believe this is so very strongly, not just because personally I've gone through the journey but also because at the end of the day, an entrepreneurship journey is about a lot of people coming together, either as co-founders, as early employees, and wanting to create and solve a big problem. So what I don't think can be created is your inherent commitment to solve a particular problem or your inherent creativity and drive, which are things that you would need as a skill set at your core.

On the delicate relationship entrepreneurs have with risk

Rajiv Srivatsa: So I think that whole ability to create, the ability to solve problems at scale for a lot of people, these are inherent attributes, added to working with people and maybe some functional skill set such as marketing, product or manufacturing. If you marry the ability to create and solve problems, everything else about entrepreneurship, you anyway have to learn.

Jussi Salovaara: Would risk-taking, or a bias towards risk be something they can learn? For most people, it would somehow be inherent. One could go around it by generating buffers, but some people are simply, I would say, less tolerant to uncertainty in a way.

Rajiv Srivatsa: In a country like India, it is still a developing country and people are so used to paychecks because you are in education, literally trained to get a paycheck out of college. Your success is based on which job you crack on day one, not which company you start. That's why the number of entrepreneurs that come out of even the top premier institutes, like IIMs and IITs, where I'm also from, is very, very low, just right out of the cuff. Over the last decade, there's maybe 20%-30% that gets into entrepreneurship after going through corporate life, like my own background. I had to make sure that maybe I have two years of bank balance.

But there are a lot of people in a country like India, for whom risk has not been something that we are trained to be okay with. Failure is not something that we are trained to be okay with.

You're always taught that it's all about success. Now, thanks to social media, now thanks to so much information out there, thanks to platforms like Antler and more, I think it's okay to fail, it's okay to grow out of your comfort zone. But that's not how we have been trained. So it's going to take decades of this, at an increasing scale to really get rid of all those risk conversion problems and a lot of people have it today.

The gap in the Indian tech ecosystem

Jussi Salovaara: Why does India need Antler and why is now the time to have Antler?

Rajiv Srivatsa: I've been thinking about something early-stage for a while. The more I talk to VCs, the more I talk to founders, two, three things became clear. One, I think it is pretty clear that there's a lot of activity that has happened in seed rounds and beyond in India, but really pre-seed, there is not anyone institutionally solving problems for founders.

Two, I think there is also a founder's empathy that the VC industry will benefit from. Founder empathy refers to founders who have built companies in the last decade because a lot of VCs also have people, entrepreneurs, ex-entrepreneurs from the previous decades, and people who have been operators. But really very few founders have jumped into the VC world. I would say, if you look at overall India, there is a particular set of people who are becoming entrepreneurs by default. These people are working in some of the unicorns and some of the well-funded companies in the last decade.

However, there is no one institutionally working on people who have that aspiration and believe me, the last four or five years, I have addressed so many forums, talked to people in big corporates and startups and in general sessions where people want to become entrepreneurs come.

Literally, the two questions that people ask is, “How do I find my co-founder? Specifically, my tech co-founder?”

This is through data and not my guess thought hypothesis, This data is based on the questions that I have been asked over the last four, five years.” The second question is, “What is it that I need to do to be able to take my product from zero to one?” So, in all honesty, the more I talked and saw what Antler has built globally in just the last one and a half years, across Sydney, across Singapore, across Nairobi, so many geographies, I personally obviously felt a very strong and deep connection with what Antler has built. Two, I also talked to a lot of the companies that Antler has built.

Capital, of course, was a big ask. Even though there's a lot of capital at this stage, between that very angel check and the series A check, there is not anyone who's filling in the capital, which again, Antler is very strong. Last, but not the least, providing a platform, which is not just for India, but providing a Global platform, because, if I'm an enterprise startup or I'm a consumer tech startup, then Antler can take me Global.

On verticals Indian founders should focus on for the near future

Puja Bharwani: There was so much you said about the whole evolution in the ecosystem and what has actually happened. There's so much money that is being poured into India from big international tech companies as well. What verticals do you think would be forward-looking now in this post-COVID and recession world and what should founders think about when creating companies from scratch to benefit the current state of things in India?

Rajiv Srivatsa: One, I think is enterprise tech — productivity and work are changing. What happens is people who are solving problems at work, could be horizontal problems about, “how do we engage with other coworkers” or “how do I manage my time better at work”? It could be tools around doing particular work better, or it could be very vertical oriented. For example, I am a healthcare worker or I am in manufacturing, or I am in financial services or insurance. These are all global workforces. So the way global workforces are going to mature over the next 10 years and accelerate, because of COVID and also just the way things are happening just in the last three, four months has become very different. So people who either take a very horizontal view and then go deep into it, which is productivity, time management, and things like that. Or people who take a vertical view saying healthcare workers, manufacturing workers, these are the ways that we can solve their problems.

I think there's a big space here in India, if you look at India's evolution in the last 20 years, we have been very service-oriented. We have built big services companies like Infosys, Cognizant, TCS, Accenture, and stuff. We've not built as many product companies. The number of unicorns globally, especially in the US, it's been tons of them. So can India turn the tide there to build a bunch of product companies on the enterprise world solving really deep enterprise problems? We have a lot of talent who probably have a bunch of services, hypothesis there. Can we pair them up with very smart product talent, people who understand the problem deep and really build a lot of companies. So that's one hypothesis I have in terms of being very relevant for Antler, as well as relevant for the post-COVID world, Globally.

On planning quarters, weeks and hours to live life productively and fully

Puja Bharwani: I did want to ask you about your recent Tedx Sarjapur talk on ‘A hundred-hour timeline of your life'. What is the essence of Rajiv's formula to time management?

Rajiv Srivatsa: I love this Puja because, just three minutes before my next meeting, you're talking about time management. So this is fantastic because see, my simple philosophy, you have one life. So you divide life into multiple chapters. You can't plan too far ahead, because if anyone told me last year that they planned for COVID, that's a whole lot of nonsense again. So now COVID has told every one of us that we can't plan too far ahead. You can't change the past.

So now, if that is the given context, then you have, at any point in time, the current chapter of life could be three to five years, let's say, and at max, maybe you stretch it to a decade. You have a broad outline and a plan for it. Now, what you have to do is, once you have those very high-level goals and the direction you want to go, and that's a broad direction, you divide that into four smaller chunks of time. Now, what are those four smaller chunks of time? First, is a quarter, because everyone in this world operates on a quarter. So that's 90 days, that's almost 13 weeks. Then the next chunk is weeks, which is one week. If you look at one week, you obviously have seven days, which is, let's say five and a half working days and every day has maybe 16, 17 active hours. So my Ted Talk was just breaking downtime into these 100-hour blocks and saying, "Hey, you have 100 hours in your week, which you have to spend between work, your family, friends, and maybe some social interests, or let's say your hobbies and stuff." So I would say just, if you can live that hour to hour through the 100 hours, assess your week, plan the next 100 hours, you will live a great life.

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