The Mumbai-based early-stage investment firm, Orios Venture Partners, has a penchant for edgy ideas. We specialise in backing off-the-wall campaigns, claimed Rehan Yar Khan, partner at Orios. Orios is an early stage investor in ride-hailing unicorn Ola, lingerie brand Pretty Secrets, online bus aggregator ZipGo and food brand Yum Lane, among others.
In an exclusive interview with The Passage, Khan said the Indian ecosystem is now flush with funds and entrepreneurs. “With China, US and Indian VCs raising funds, India is going to see a three-dimensional effect,” he said.
TP: How did Indian tech-startup eco-system change in the past decade?
RYK: Indian internet eco-system has become robust over the decade. There are two to three key factors behind this exponential growth. Firstly, more and more people have taken to the idea of entrepreneurship. In Japan, not a lot of people want to be entrepreneurs. Although the market is vast and finance options are in plenty, Japanese are not willing to take risks- a fundamental perquisite for enterprises. Hence, Japanese VCs look overseas to invest.
India was the same a decade ago. People regarded entrepreneurship as a foolhardy move. But of course, that has changed, and we have a galaxy of high caliber entrepreneurs now.
Secondly, our market has been expanding. Our GDP is growing, and the technology is getting entrenched with broader access. Internet penetration has reached tier 3 and tier 4 cities and even rural areas.
Moreover, the Indian companies have tasted success overseas on the back of their English fluency and cultural integration with West and East. Oyo, Ola, Paytm and a spat of major SaaS companies have gone global.
The third factor is finance. Ten years ago, India had only two significant VC funds. Now we have many. In the case of Europe, there aren’t enough venture funds. Sequoia doesn't even have an office in Europe.
TP: As you said, the late stage companies are venturing into the overseas market. Why so? Is it because the primary market in India revolves around tier 1 and tier 2 cities?
RYK: Not necessarily. Amazon, Uber and Airbnb have ventured out of the US, not because the US market is small but because they can: They have the funding and could get good human resource in new markets.
Ola targeted international markets as most countries have only one major player in Uber. Australia and New Zealand have just one ride-hailing startup, and the situation in the UK is more or less the same. If you don't jump right in, somebody else will, and you will lose the market forever.
TP: At least four Chinese VCs have raised funds in the last four months. What does it mean for India?
RYK: Well, now the three big markets are America, China and India on account of their population. It’s good news that Chinese VCs have raised funds. But with Indian funds raising money as well, we will start seeing a three-dimensional effect. Earlier, we had only American VCs, but now we have Chinese funds operating in India. It’s a win-win for everyone.
TP: Chinese VCs have now started investing in early stages. How do you see this change?
RYK: As I said earlier, there are more and more players at all funding stages. More previously, in Series A rounds, there were only American funds like Sequoia and Accel Partners, but now the Chinese funds are also sitting in Series A and early-stage rounds. Chinese VCs have realised India is a vast market brimming with entrepreneurs and are now focusing on early stages like they do in China.
TP: You call yourselves the ‘champion of misfits’. Could you take us through your journey so far?
RYK: Our strategy hasn't changed much. We are an early stage fund, and we typically invest in what we like to call, ‘pre-product market fit’. It’s the kind of idea to which you say, “yaar, yeh kya idea hai”? (Dude, this idea sounds weird)
You are at a stage when everyone is sceptical of your idea due to its forward-looking nature. We call such companies misfits. The misfits are now entering more sectors. Apart from that, nothing much has changed. For example, ride-hailing business is now spent. But we backed a company in the transport space, ZipGo. Currently, we are exploring the vernacular media.
We invest at an early stage, which has been our consistent strategy for the last 10 years or so. For example, when we invested in Ola, it was still at a conceptual stage.
TP: You have invested in an e-pharma startup. But there seem to be a lot of friction from offline pharmacy stores against online pharmacies. Your thoughts?
RYK: Innovation by its nature is always ahead of regulation. Push backs are expected as some segments disrupt the market.
As a consequence, the affected parties use the regulation card to create hurdles. But, by and large, the government has also changed the tack. In the early days, Ola had run-ins with the government. However, the government has wised up and understood the importance of encouraging innovation. In the pharmacy space, we already have a policy in place.
TP: What are the new sectors you think have the potential to go big?
RYK: Innovation pushes the boundaries of sectors that have already reached the maturity stage. We keep seeing new ideas popping up in sectors monopolised by big players.
Social commerce company Meesho is a good case in point. Similarly, in the public transport space, even though we have Ola and Uber, Zipgo is making waves.
Take the example of social media. Even after Facebook’s domination in this space, so many other social media companies like Instagram and Snapchat kept coming.