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The dawn of a founder-led startup ecosystem in India

Written by Abhijit Gupta Published on     5 mins read

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Early and successful Indian serial entrepreneurs are giving back to the community through investments and supports.

Over the years, a wide array of factors have accounted for the growth of India’s startup ecosystem. Some of them include the mobile ubiquitousness that comes with affordable mobile access, positive macroeconomic metrics, the creation of digital infrastructure (such as UPI, e-KYC), the viability of exits through IPOs, a global trend of falling interest rates leading to more investments in the VC asset class, and finally, some sectoral trends (such as the red-hot D2C companies).

However, a less-addressed factor that will catapult India’s ecosystem further ahead over the next decade is its promising talent pool that has been trained and elevated by startups. For instance, the first wave of Indian startups brought in a can-do culture with flat hierarchies, which empowered their employees to think out of the box and execute in a resource-constrained environment.

After a decade of growth, the first wave of Indian startups has come of age. Today, India has an around 550,000-strong base of founders, managers, and employees with ample experience working in startups, and this is estimated to reach 3.25 million by 2025. Crossing this critical mass of homegrown talent with real startup work experience has led to some talent-led tailwinds that will define India’s future startup success.

Photo courtesy of Abhijit Gupta

Old teams, new businesses

For the uninitiated, a “mafia” refers to the network of founders and employees of a company that go on to start new businesses. This was widely used to describe the core team of PayPal who then ventured out to start some of today’s most successful technology companies—Elon Musk (Tesla, SpaceX, and many more), Peter Thiel (Palantir, Valar Ventures, Thiel Foundation), David Sacks (Yammer), Steve Chen (YouTube), Reid Hoffman (LinkedIn), and several others on the startup and VC sides of the ecosystem (check out an interactive version here).

An earlier “mafia” was the Traitorous Eight, who emerged from Shockley Semiconductor in the 1960s and gave birth to Silicon Valley. They helped set up companies like Fairchild Semiconductor, Intel, AMD, and venture capital firms like Kleiner Perkins. Over the last 20 years, FAANG and Big Tech have created mafias of their own, with hundreds of startups tracing their origins from there.

We’re seeing early signs of large mafias emerging from a plethora of Indian startups as well. Over the last decade or so, dozens of new startups have emerged from larger Indian unicorns and tech pioneers, and this trend is visible across sectors. The earlier unicorns have created more established “mafias,” with Flipkart leading the pack on the consumer side and Zoho/Freshworks leading the SaaS group.

Interestingly, the founding teams of several spinoffs also worked on similar problems while employed at the parent companies. For example, the Paytm mafia has founded a number of wealth-tech startups. Many members of the Flipkart mafia are solving problems around new consumer products, B2B services, payments, and logistics—all of which address the needs of Flipkart itself but can be large standalone businesses on their own.

Amidst these, we’re also seeing close strategic tie-ups as well as subsidiary spinoffs from earlier unicorns.

Flipkart has invested in GOAT Brand Labs, a digital brand consolidation play, and had acquired PhonePe earlier. FirstCry (a Vertex Ventures SEA and India portfolio company) has spun off two companies—Xpressbees, which solves fulfillment and logistics for brands, and GlobalBees, another Thrasio-like play that could help FirstCry with product and channel diversity.

Many of our Indian portfolio companies are beginning to create mafias (such as Licious or FirstCry mentioned above) and have emerged from large mafias, including Recko (ex-Flipkart, Grofers), Ayu Health (ex-Flipkart), and KukuFM (ex-Toppr). Mafias are also emerging in geographic clusters close to their parents—the Flipkart mafia has established Bangalore as a base for several consumer startups, and the Zoho/Freshworks mafia has made Chennai a hotspot for SaaS.

Significant credit also goes to legacy companies for creating a learning ecosystem that led to several successful spinoffs. MBB alumni and those who have worked at top-notch global management consulting firms including McKinsey, Boston Consulting Group, and Bain, in India, like their global counterparts, have founded companies across sectors including Zomato (ex-Bain), Rebel Foods (ex-McKinsey), Kissht (ex-McKinsey, and part of our portfolio), and Urban Company (ex-BCG).

Lastly, FAANG and Big Tech alumni, again like their global counterparts, have set up stellar businesses here in India, with a few being Flipkart (ex-Amazon), Ola (ex-Microsoft), Apna (ex-Apple), etc. We’re also seeing mafias emerge from other business powerhouses, such as Unilever (Mamaearth, The Whole Truth), ITC (shown below), P&G (Karkhana, part of our portfolio), Goldman Sachs (Simpl, Refyne, etc.), and several others.

Angels, syndicates, and founder-led venture capitals

Almost every fundraising announcement in the recent past has the names of prominent angel investors who participated in the round. Due to the enormous wealth generated from startups, various founders and leaders are reinvesting this capital into new startups, many of which are part of the mafias shown above. Reinvestments from founders with a pay-it-forward mindset have also helped create a vibrant ecosystem for budding entrepreneurs.

The rise of angels, super-angels, syndicates, and founder-led funds has catalyzed the pre-seed/seed stage investing landscape. Founders who are just getting started now have access to a ‘capital++’ model, with angels mentoring them, opening doors to clients, VCs, etc., as well as their companies becoming early clients.

While angel investing has been around for a while, we’re seeing much broader participation, with startup-generated wealth reinvested into the early-stage ecosystem in a few subsequent models. The first is super angels, with successful serial entrepreneurs like Kunah Shah and Girish Mathrubootham aggressively, through their own funds, investing into early-stage as well as late-stage startups. The other is strategic investing, mostly coming from corporate venture capital. These CVCs include Info Edge as well Flipkart Ventures. They have a preference for startups related to their core business for potential synergy play.

What’s Next?

The Indian startup scene is now relatively mature and has thousands of homegrown founders and employees across sectors, experience levels, and academic backgrounds. Going forward, we should see a lot more action in the Indian startup world, defined by the talent cultivated from within and their experiences and wealth. This could include more mafias from emerging unicorns, more community-led initiatives by founders for founders, and more serial entrepreneurs starting up again, and an increased capital flow for angel investing. However, as seen in the visualization above, while there are large mafias in e-commerce, fintech, and SaaS, we should soon see prominent mafias from newer unicorns in emerging sectors, too, such as B2B services, healthcare, edtech, among others, very soon.

Moreover, we could soon see overseas mafias of Indian startups, particularly in the SaaS world, since most Indian SaaS startups focus on the US market. We’ll also see more VC funds initiating scouting programs to identify talent within companies early on, with some of them already formalizing such initiatives.

About the author: Abhijit Gupta is an investment associate at Vertex Ventures Southeast Asia and India. Prior to joining Vertex, he worked in various operating roles at the foods division of ITC Limited, an Indian conglomerate. He was also the co-founder and CEO of Dynamove, an AI startup building affordable driving assistance and telematics systems.

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