In a fireside chat at an annual event organised by venture capital firm Chiratae Ventures, Tata Sons Chairman Emeritus Ratan Tata talked about the importance of start-ups in India, their positive rub on bigger companies, and the levers that he looks for when investing in start-ups.
Referring to the growth of the ecosystem of smaller companies, Tata — in a conversation led by Sudhir Sethi, founder of Chiratae Ventures – said: “We are looking at the India of tomorrow and the day after, and the start-up industry is entering the global field in a manner where competition is open.” Himself an investor in a clutch of mostly early online ventures that include Ola, Paytm, Lenskart, and Urban Ladder, Tata began actively investing after he stepped down from Tata Group in December 2012.
So, what made him pursue that route and what did he specifically look for in the companies and the entrepreneurs that he bet on? “It was partly by accident and partly by happenstance but always in my years at Tata Group, I had looked at the sector with excitement. But there was also conflict with the group (businesses) and so when I was free, I made token investments with my own money in what I considered exciting,” Tata said, adding that “contrary to popular belief my pockets aren’t that deep”.
He went on to add that the exercise became a learning process for a few years because of the highly dynamic nature of the sector. “I found in my case that company selection was more by intuition rather than numbers, and by judging on the intent of founders and their seriousness more than any other factor to make (my) decisions, good or bad as the case may have been.”
Does Tata have a formula for what makes the best entrepreneurs? “I would say what drives entrepreneurs is a fire in the belly to do business better than has ever been done before, and an opportunity to make a difference to benefit society, with the tenacity and courage to see it through,” Tata said.
When asked if start-ups that were burning cash over extended periods were sustainable, Tata declined to comment but said the right time to go global for any start-up was ultimately not defined by anything but by the founder. “... a highly successful entrepreneur will find opportunities are greater in markets outside of India, so that is a judgment call the entrepreneur makes,” he said.
Equally, most entrepreneurs end up failing. So does Tata, who was privy to an arena of new contestants, have a checklist of indicators of failure for new companies? “It’s an insight on the founders and I don’t think there is a single answer, but the issue is of the clarity of the founder, the seriousness committed to building an enterprise with someone else’s money and the reality that not every enterprise will have glory all the way through.”
So is there any particular sector that has his attention? “Health care, medical treatment opportunities, online, and manufacturing,” Tata said. “There is always a better way to do something and the opportunities are great for start-ups because the legacy costs that big companies have when they transition are not there.” He emphasised it required a lot of tenacity as well as imagination to break through in those areas, but the opportunities did exist. “Start-ups are great for India, as we are entrepreneurs at heart and all that we need is the opportunity to flourish,” he added.