In the long term, there is no doubt that plenty of money will be made online in India. It’s a massive country with a growing, aspirational middle class, a country that prizes information and education above much else, and there is no shortage of successful Indian entrepreneurs determined to give time and mentorship back to entrepreneurs in their homeland.
The “if” we’re all sure about. But the “when” has been bedeviling. Billions in capital — invested by some of the smartest global investors and some of the people who know India best — has been lost on gambles that India’s Internet sector was about to take off.
China is home to three of the largest Internet companies on the planet in Tencent, Baidu, and Alibaba. Even Russia has two bonafide Web giants in Mail.ru and Yandex. So far India has a few companies that have tipped into the $1 billion market cap territory — but most only barely, bid up by heady enthusiasm and a relative lack of Indian Internet inventory. Several who once boasted a $1 billion valuation have since fallen back to earth. The reality is that, for all the promise, the big pillars of the Indian Web are still mostly US companies.
The Catch-22 of a country that (generally) shares Western values and language is that it doesn’t necessarily need its own Google or Facebook the way China does. But that excuse only goes so far. Chinese companies didn’t win in China merely because of the Great Fire Wall and language differences. They won because they were culturally attuned to a massive population. For years I’ve posed the question: If India can produce the largest film industry on the planet, why can’t it produce a bona-fide consumer Internet giant?
Well, there’s a new contender I’m watching closely: Yebhi.com. The company is owned by a company called Big Shoe Bazaar, and it has just announced a $20 million series C from Fidelity, Qualcomm, Nexus Venture Partners, and Infosys founder Narayana Murthy’s investment firm Catamaran. This is the third round Yebhi has raised, bringing the total to $30 million. It’s an audaciously expensive play at becoming the dominant ecommerce company in the country — a hotly contested title, but one that no one has won yet.
Actually, CEO Manmohan Agarwal has far bigger ambitions: He wants to be the biggest retailer in the country period. Alibaba’s Jack Ma has always said the different between ecommerce in the US and China is that in the US there is so much brick and mortar retail that ecommerce is like “dessert.” China’s private sector is so nascent, ecommerce is “the main course.”
And India has an even less developed physical network of stores, and far bigger challenges with supply chain and logistics, Agarwal says. “Organized retail” as he calls it is new in the country, and it’s very hard for Western brands to penetrate beyond the top 30 or so cities. Retail is $140 billion industry in India, and a whopping 96% of it takes place in small neighborhood mom and pop stores. The opportunity for chains is huge, but building out mega-malls is incredibly capital intensive and getting goods to second and third tier cities is a logistical nightmare. “India may be the first country where etail is larger than offline retail,” Agarwal says.
But while Agarwal may be using the Web to sidestep some of the challenges and costs of building a Wal-Mart or Target of India, he’s taking on plenty of other ones. Like Chinese and Russian etailers, he’s had to build his own last-mile courier network in lieu of depending on existing shipping infrastructure. That’s not cheap or easy.
And he decided that anyone who was buying something online was doing it for speed and convenience. That means waiting five to seven days is unacceptable. He wants to deliver goods in an ambitious 24 hours. So he copied US giants like Amazon and Zappos and decided to carry the inventory from third party brands in his own warehouses. Pile more zeros onto the burn rate.
But what Agarwal did next was truly counterintuitive: Rather than leveraging the country’s plentiful supply of low cost labor to be his delivery boys, he decided he’d only hire business school grads for those entry-level jobs.
Wait, you need a degree in business to deliver packages? You don’t even need a business degree to start a company in the US.
“I am inserting my brand into their home,” he says. “The experience for the customer has to be world class.” Think of these couriers as less delivery boys and more the classic door-to-door salesman of a bygone era. “Indians aren’t used to buying things online,” he says. “They want to see a face of the brand. They want to have a human interface. This is a relationship officer, not just a dumb delivery boy who can go and drop off a parcel and come back. This is someone who goes and recommends products in your living room over an iPad.” The relationship officer also lets Indians try before they buy.
Plenty of ecommerce companies in the developing world have copied Ctrip’s innovation of the local messengers who can solve the credit card problem by accepting cash on delivery. But this is the first company I’ve heard of that has significantly one-upped it by making it a white-glove service.
Agarwal doesn’t expect these business school grads to stay couriers forever. The job is designed for a year to eighteen month tour-of-duty, with the better ones getting promoted to the company’s business ranks.
It’s a very clever system. It gives potential executives a deep understanding of the company’s customers and the challenges in reaching them. Agarwal argues it’s a more interesting job than sitting in a cube answering customer support calls.
But it does something even more specific to India’s culture than that. Many Indian companies have griped about those who graduate even from the prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology as leaving school without the skills they need to immediately enter the workforce. Infosys operates a whole university which graduates must go through before they start work. Agarwal is simply training them in the field, watching them, and plucking the best ones for jobs at headquarters instead. He’s happy for the rest to fall victim to India’s infamous white collar churn rate.
It’s either crazy or genius, and the company’s execution will make the determination which. That’s something India’s entrepreneur scene — historically addicted to safe, recurring service revenues — hasn’t had enough of.
Agarwal may be the Web entrepreneur India has been waiting for, just as the market is getting mature enough to justify a huge Web giant. Thanks to mobile there are some 100 million Indian people online finally.
Nexus Ventures invested in the seed round back in 2010. Yebhi had a hard time finding a VC to back them early on, nevermind Agrawal’s retail experience and the fact that his co-founder had just sold his previous company. That says more about the lack of VCs willing to do truly early stage deals in India than anything about Yebhi.
Nexus had one meeting and leapt at the chance to invest. “We made them sign the term sheet before they even left the office,” says Nexus partner Jishnu Bhattacharjee. He believes the paucity of commerce in India has less to do with all the excuses people give, like the lack of broadband or the lack of credit cards, and more to do with the lack of a Zappos-like company in the market. “Companies drive progress and innovation,” he says. “When you give people a reason, they will pay extra to able to use it.” He wishes he’d had something like Yebhi when he was growing up in a smaller, more remote Indian city. “I’d never even seen a Reebok shoe!” he says.
Given how expensive all of this is, it’s a good thing Yebhi’s sales are growing rapidly. It has been doubling revenues every quarter since inception, Agarwal says. He expects this $20 million round to last a little more than a year, at which point the company should be nearing a $100 million a year revenue run rate.
It’ll be an incredibly long road, with many more funding rounds to come if Agrawal is going to pull this vision off. Just ask Russia’s Ozon. But of all the types of Internet pillars that could be tailored to a company, a dominant Indian ecommerce giant seems more likely (even inevitable) than a mail giant, a search giant, or a social network.
Personally, I’m more excited to watch Yebhi than the older, more hyped Amazon clone FlipKart, which got a $1 billion valuation at its last round. Yebhi is doing something far more tailored to India’s infrastructure challenges and India’s white-glove aspirations.