2018 was a good year for Indian entrepreneurs. The world’s third-largest start-up ecosystem saw its base expand by 12-15% and investor funding grow by 108% year-on-year, as well as a rise in late-stage funding – sufficient to give a leg-up to unicorn status for eight companies, according to a 2018 report by NASSCOM and Zinnov Management Consulting, Indian Tech Start-Up Ecosystem: Approaching Escape Velocity.
But just a few years ago, things weren’t quite so rosy. Despite the dizzying success of e-commerce wunderkind Flipkart (sold last year to Walmart for USD$16bn) and its ilk, investment plummeted from $1427m to $583m between Q1 and Q2 2016 (according to CB Insights, October 2016) and businesses started to go under.
‘Investors were investing like anything. The majority of the time it was e-commerce and consumer services, and everyone was putting in money. The field became saturated, start-ups were giving big discounts to gain customers. And that model doesn’t work, because you are not creating customer loyalty,’ says Saugat Dutta, project manager at EY heading the Startup Himachal PMU.
‘The success parameter of a start-up was judged by how much investment it had secured, so it was a case of: “That start-up is very successful.” “Why?” “Because they secured millions of dollars in “investment”. Now, when I read a start-up story, the story is “Who’s that start-up which generated this much revenue within these many months?” – not the amount of the investment they raised.’
‘With any kind of herd mentality, you often will see a lot of people putting in money speculatively,’ adds Dibyojyoti Mainak, consultant GC of Mobile Premier League, a mobile gaming app start-up.
‘You started seeing cases where investments were made that were often valuing companies at far more than what they should have been valued at, even investing in companies without really seeing a business behind it. It became less about the product and more about a certain template of success within the market. So, if one content company has raised money, then you would expect every other content company to also raise money,’ he explains.
But rather than complete collapse, what followed was a process of maturation – building on established tech talent within the country, but with a renewed focus for strategy, sustainability and a global business plan to support those eye-catching ideas.
Laying the groundwork
Significantly, the government’s endorsement of the sector has mushroomed, evidenced by the creation of Startup India in January 2016. The flagship initiative was established to encourage start-ups that meet its criteria (and register) with benefits such as financial help with patent filing and fast-tracked examination, self-certification under certain labour and employment laws, and an income tax exemption for three years. In addition, Startup India has formed a 10,000 crore fund of funds to make downstream investments in venture capital and investment vehicles that target start-ups, promoted the creation of incubation centres and labs to foster both innovation and R&D in education and industry, as well as relaxed public procurement norms which previously excluded start-ups.
‘India has been an agrarian economy for decades. The new government [formed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014] wanted to bring about a shift to a knowledge-based economy. We have been exporting engineers and doctors abroad, so instead the goal was to see if we could use the skills and knowledge base here in India to achieve economic prosperity,’ explains Dutta, who works with state governments on initiatives to support and develop start-up ecosystems.
In order to drive a culture of nurturing the innovation ecosystem to the grassroots level, central government devised a framework to rank states on their efforts to support innovation along several verticals, intended to create competition and encourage each state to take ownership of its start-up environment.
The central government’s push for ‘Digital India’ (which promotes the use of innovative technology in government) and ‘Make in India’ has led to some cross-pollination with state government initiatives. For example, the government of Andhra Pradesh, has started to put all land records on a secure, blockchain-based platform, and is also using drone-based solutions for state security and checking municipal infrastructural compliance. In addition, it utilises Internet of Things solutions for inspecting the cleanliness of government-supported school toilets. Such initiatives have begun to create opportunities for start-ups to cater to technology requirements, facilitated by relaxed public procurement rules allowing state governments to order directly from technology-focused start-ups. The companies gain user validation and also secure a state government contract, boosting their credibility with private sector customers.
And access to innovation is expanding beyond the usual hubs. The city of Bangalore is synonymous with tech-based innovation – it is home to 25% of India’s tech start-ups, with Delhi and the National Capital Region (NCR), and Mumbai housing 21% and 14% respectively, according to the NASSCOM/Zinnov report. But the same report notes that an increasing presence of tech incubators, tech parks and affordable work spaces is allowing tech start-up hubs to flourish in cities such as Hyderabad, Chennai, Pune and Kolkata, with additional growth in tier two cities such as Jaipur and Chandigarh.
But, success has not been unqualified, according to some.
‘For you to be a start-up, you needed to get a certification of sorts from, inter alia, one of the recognised tech institutes in the country, or have a registered patent in your name already,’ says Mainak.
‘That essentially cuts out 90% of everybody in India, because we are not a very patent-savvy nation, not to mention [the fact that] the patent regime in India is quite restrictive. You can’t expect a 23-year-old or a 25-year-old who is still in college, mostly on parental money, to have the financial wherewithal, or even the knowledge, to do something like register – it’s a very complicated process. That was a specific problem with the start-up definition – but that’s something the government’s already worked on solving. New notifications brought in in February 2019 relaxed many of these rules, and now require, among others, just a write-up justifying how you are innovative/will create jobs etc,’ he says.
‘Secondly, the Indian bureaucracy is a behemoth which answers to multiple interests/powers. It is not centralised enough for the central government to simply push policy and expect that all departments will follow. I’ll give you one classic example: the government has said that labour and employment compliances are cumbersome, which they are. So they said, “Ok, everybody until about three or five years in, you can self-certify.” Very good. Except then, they brought in a new tax law. Tax is covered by one department and employment is covered by a different department, and what that means is that taxation doesn’t follow that logic, so overall, the number of compliances you have to do has not reduced sizeably. If one goes down, another comes up – it’s a little bit like fighting like a hydra.’
Clearing the way
To exist in this space means grappling with a very particular set of challenges.
At the intersection between India as a jurisdiction and start-ups as an ecosystem is the issue of safeguarding ideas: in India, the process for obtaining patents has been historically sluggish, while time is of the essence for a burgeoning start-up economy working to reach its full potential. Recognising this, Startup India has introduced expedited patent review and rebates on filing fees.
‘India’s IP system has to catch up, people are not getting patents granted for five years in some instances. They file and wait. And, in the mean time, the technology loses its edge. So still, we are shaky, we cannot hope to compete in the international market that way,’ says Dutta.
‘The very restrictive licensing and the restrictive patent and IP regime that we have in India makes it tougher for you to protect your brand. And that’s the first challenge I see: brand protection. Because most start-ups don’t take that very seriously and this is why everybody has a copycat problem. Essentially, there’s somebody else who’s trying to do the exact same thing and often even copying your name,’ adds Mainak.
‘The gaming sector, where I am now involved, is very litigation prone. And it’s not just litigation, it’s prone to action from various different government departments who don’t necessarily understand the business. There’s a lot of confusion regarding whether this is entertainment or whether this is sports, and how we want to see it. Those kind of regulatory challenges are there for many sectors.’
Despite much regulatory relaxation for start-ups, penalties for non-compliance in some areas can be prodigious. Nevertheless, labour and employment, Goods and Service Tax, Shops and Establishments Act and Registrar of Companies compliance, as well regulatory requirements to combat sexual harassment, can be areas that those at the most nascent stages might be tempted to neglect.
‘Contrary to how the situation was about 15 or 20 years ago in India, when it was easy for somebody to miss out on certain compliances and still the law doesn’t catch up with you, today it has become extremely stringent. The law will catch up – if not tomorrow, definitely three years down the line. The fallout of not doing compliance is way higher than the money that you spend getting compliance done,’ says Janhvi Pradhan-Deshmukh, lead legal counsel at Startup Box, a firm that provides legal, consultancy and secretarial support to start-ups.
‘For bootstrapped start-ups, it’s a little difficult to convince them of certain things. With certain innovative business models, the law is not exactly made for them and, as such, they think that it’s ok to not do certain compliances because they don’t fall exactly under the ambit of the law. But in a start-up, time is more important than money because the start-up world is so dynamic – it changes so frequently, so fast – that to catch the trend, to catch the market is very important. You can’t be wasting time on answering legal notices and replying to queries.’
Running the farm
In recent years, India has experienced a cultural shift – doing away with past attitudes towards entrepreneurialism, and rethinking the concept of failure.
‘When someone wanted to start his or her own business you were looked down upon. If you had not secured good marks and were not academically qualified, or had not got a good job, that’s when you were starting something of your own,’ says Dutta.
‘But now, having a start-up – even having a failed start-up – has started to become a badge of honour.’
This has attracted not just young and ambitious minds, but also experienced executives into the field – and start-up adviser Pradhan-Deshmukh has found that her role is to handle not only legal issues, but to understand the psyche of all types of co-founders.
‘The young generation, they are fresh out of university and have an amazing bunch of ideas. Unfortunately they are a little blindsided by the Flipkarts of the world and they cling to that: “Oh, I’m going to become a billionaire in a short period of time when I sell off the shares in my company, and I will then become a serial entrepreneur and I’ll use that money to invest somewhere else.” It doesn’t work like that. When you come to me with that kind of idea, you have already made up your mind to sell your own baby before it’s actually born,’ she says.
‘But there’s another set of co-founders who have worked in huge corporates at high levels and then they decide, “Ok, I don’t want to work for someone else anymore.” These are the people who are mature. They understand the importance of compliance and legal, they understand the importance of having the right professionals on board – having chartered accountants, a company secretary, a lawyer. Unfortunately, they are extremely fixated on certain things – they sat in senior positions in their companies and they think that they can treat the new business in the same way, or they can tell professionals what to do and what not to do. But again, it doesn’t work like that because the start-up world is extremely different to a company which has been in the market for a hundred years.’
Despite the burgeoning popularity of entrepreneurialism at both ends of the career spectrum, Dutta believes there is more work to be done to fully embed a culture of innovation, particularly among schools and the academic community, where the teachers themselves must be trained to develop a more innovation-friendly mindset.
‘The government of India has started funding to create small tinkering spaces called Atal Tinkering Labs (ATLs) in schools. So the infrastructure is getting there, but who will actually give the soft learning part, the teaching part? That’s missing. The hardware is sitting under lock and key because no one is actually there. In the colleges, also, the curriculum needs to be revised and the professors need to lead from the front in being innovative and entrepreneurial in the endeavours. We will soon have bullet trains, but our curriculum is still stuck at steam engines!’
Incubators, accelerators and innovation spaces are popping up across the country, but although the tech scene is flourishing with an abundance of talent, some believe that a world-leading innovation marketplace is a little way off.
‘Many Indian start-ups are essentially copycats of foreign start-ups. These are not home-grown basic ideas, they are essentially very good copies of what is already listed in the market,’ says Mainak.
‘We are aiming to be on par with Silicon Valley or, now, China. China is now a very serious contender to become a global start-up giant. Everyone is now heading to China because of a lot of unique innovations – they used to replicate, now they are innovating. India is still stuck at the replication stage,’ Dutta adds.
‘Things are coming, but I wish the growth trajectory would be steeper, because I am amazed by how China is doing – they are first pushing money into R&D and now it has started bearing fruits. India needs to do that; India is not pushing money into R&D. Mostly, we are trying to replicate and customise ideas to our socio-economic contexts. I don’t think it’s a bad thing because, of course, it’s generating money and employment, and is innovative at a basic level. But to have an edge over other countries, you need to pursue radical innovations and aspire to be inventive.’
A lawyer in the mix
For most embryonic companies, absorbed by passion for a new idea and the pitfalls of establishing a company, hiring in-house legal support has not been the first priority. But Mainak advocates greater diversity on core teams – including lawyers.
‘In India, the legal system is extremely pyramidical. We have a phenomenon called “grand lawyering”, where essentially there are a very, very small group of senior advocates who corner most of the influence. You will often not have access to these guys when you are a very young company and you can’t afford their rates, which then means that established clients will always have an advantage going into any kind of litigation. This is why it is important for most start-ups in India to ensure that they never get into litigation.’
However, he adds: ‘Most still wait till their first run-in with the legal system or bad/unfair contracts – in other words, whenever the first “crisis” hits.’
In a fast-growing company, investment in company culture and good policymaking often falls by the wayside, and a toxic environment can emerge, incubating issues that further iterations of the organisation will have to face. And neglecting the detail now can cause future headaches, or even financial hits.
‘When you try to raise your third round of funding, or later on when you are listing and you are trying to raise a huge amount of funding and they are trying to do a due diligence assessment, a lot of these issues come to the fore. At this point, it’s a huge pain trying to solve all of these problems – maybe four years down the line the company realises that it hasn’t signed a non-disclosure agreement, or a pensions agreement, or even employment agreements, in some cases. That is when they would bring in somebody legal,’ says Mainak.
‘It’s not the best strategy, particularly with a system that is so regulation-heavy (India remains one of the most regulated economies in the world), so you would do well to have a legal mind right at your board stage, right when you are trying to strategise. Lawyers tend to bring logic and structure, and are able to play devil’s advocate.’
For start-ups rushing to market, or scaling fast on a shoestring budget, it can be tempting to assume that a lawyer will do nothing more than hamstring a fledgling business. But, when the realities of compliance, process, litigation, contract negotiation and management, brand protection and strategy development converge, there is a fertile world of opportunity for advisers to bring a critical eye to proceedings, and weed out potential problems early on.