As we take our first steps into 2019, the most common question in the venture capital business in India—one which induces awe, delight, and relief in equal measure—goes something like this: “What’s the status of the SoftBank Vision Fund II?”
It is a question that is equally illuminating and frustrating.
Illuminating because it shows how like in most parts of the world, SoftBank has emerged as the epicentre of funding conversations in India too. Depending on the position of your seat at the table, SoftBank is either the giant red star around which all other funding vehicles and players dutifully revolve while paying guarded obeisance or the giant black hole inexorably swallowing and subsuming all funding activity within itself.
It is a well-deserved reputation. If you glance at the list of heavily-funded startups in India, other than Swiggy and Byju’s, every name on the list is backed by SoftBank—the likes of Paytm*, Ola, OYO, Snapdeal. Equally important is the name that is no longer in SoftBank’s portfolio—Flipkart, which recently provided a big-bang exit to SoftBank and a host of other marquee investors.
But the question is frustrating as well because SoftBank promises a quasi-IPO type of accelerated exit that many startups and investors might find irresistible. While this might look like a good outcome on the surface, it can easily lead to perverse incentives where short-term tactical thinking replaces ambitious long-term plans. A fund manager who is out fundraising for his nascent fund says the LPs (Limited Partners—investors in a VC fund) bring this up often. “The LPs are clear that SoftBank cannot be an exit outcome,” he says. The fund manager requested not to be named so he could share his views candidly. “And after that, the discussion moves to the lack of Initial Public Offerings (IPOs) in India. That is the outcome that is best for everyone but one that has been sorely missing, and as a fund manager, you’ve promised that at some stage this will happen.”
The conversation obviously does not stop there. “The other conversation is with late stage investors,” adds the fund manager. “Their simple metric is dollars in, dollars out. Not some fancy valuation. If you look at late 2017 and 2018, there are a lot of highly valued private companies that have been created. In the same time, the public technology companies are down some 25%. So I am not expecting 2019 to be any different, but I am expecting that in the next twenty-four months, some of this crazy funding environment should subside. Then again, a lot is dependent on Masayoshi Son (founder and CEO of SoftBank) and SoftBank Vision Fund II.”
For a moment, you might think the fund manager is hedging.
He is. No doubt. But that’s because India, for most parts, has been unpredictable. For every Flipkart-Walmart, there is a Snapdeal and Shopclues.