In February of 2015, Citrus Payment Solutions hit the road to raise fresh capital. The company had been burning money to scale and fend off competition. Most of them serious moneybags. Those who had raised thick wads of green and didn’t think twice before undercutting, acquiring customers, and luring competition to follow suit.

Burning is a dangerous strategy to pursue for smaller startups, with few zeros in their account balances that can become fewer in pursuit.

Notwithstanding this fact, in September of 2016, PayU, the online payments company owned by South Africa’s Naspers acquired Citrus for $130 million in cash.

But back in 2015, Citrus had no choice. The co-founders knew that long-term survival of the business hinged on access to capital. Of course, this is not to suggest that the company didn’t have money. Since it started out in 2011, Citrus had raised money from several venture capital (VC) firms. Amongst them, high profile VC firm, Sequoia, which invested fairly early, even before Citrus got around to executing its business idea. All put together, in the first three years, Citrus had raised around $8-10 million.

But by 2015, with the crazy days of PayU, Paytm*, MobiKwik and all sorts of payments startups getting funded, Citrus’ zeros were dwindling.

So the company appointed an investment banker to drum up interest. Soon after the bank came on board, the co-founders started travelling. Criss-crossing the globe making presentations. Talking up India. Talking up digital payments. And how Citrus was the perfect company with legs, both in business to business (B2B) and consumer. The best bet to play the India payments opportunity. Amongst them, the co-founders travelled to Hong Kong, Singapore, New York, San Francisco (multiple times) and Japan to meet and pitch to prospective investors.

Seven months in, nobody wanted to invest in Citrus. At first, the company said, it would need upwards of $30 million. But with the passage of time and sobering of expectations, it brought its need down to $20 million. Still, no one. Soon, the mood turned morose. Everyone was on edge. Co-founders. Employees. Existing investors. The conversations quickly slipped from scale to survival to what the fuck is happening? Why isn’t anyone putting in money?

Only a handful knew why, but they weren’t willing to come out and say it. Nobody had asked them this question. No, not yet.

***

Satyen V. Kothari is on time. He has already chosen our table. Quiet, at the distant end of an already deserted coffee shop. It is 7:40 AM. I am late by 10 minutes.

Kothari has already ordered; there’s a Danish puff on his plate. Seated opposite him, I can’t quite tell if the puff is sweet. He has a broad forehead and an angular, good-looking face. Dressed in a white shirt, and grey casual trousers, Kothari is well turned out.

AUTHOR

Ashish K. Mishra

Ashish edits and writes stories at The Ken. Across subjects. In his last assignment, he was a Deputy Editor at Mint, a financial daily published by HT Media. At the paper, he wrote long, deeply reported feature stories. His earlier assignments: Forbes India magazine and The Economic Times. Born in Kolkata. Studied in New Delhi – B.Com from Shri Ram College of Commerce, Delhi University. Works out of anywhere, where there is a good story to be told.

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