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Entrepreneurship

In India, You Really Can Achieve Anything

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There are great inspiring stories of entrepreneurship, but this one will make you sit up and read it again. How often do you find a senior executive leave his job at a board position at a large institution and acquire a falling stock thinking he can turn it around? That’s exactly what Vaidyanathan Vembu (Vaidya, to friends) did to start his entrepreneurship journey. At 42, he was already the MD and CEO of ICICI Prudential Life Insurance, and earlier on the Board of ICICI bank. He built and ran a USD 30 billion consumer finance loan book, and managed 1400 branches with $20 bn in deposit.

His idea was build a retail lending institution, in a niche area where banks don’t lend, on the backbone of technology, but with ownership stakes this time around. The idea was to provide small loans of USD 1000 to USD 1,00,000, in a niche segment of micro enterprises and consumers – an area where banks traditionally don’t focus much. But the issue for any entrepreneurship, even if you had the right idea, is how do you get started- how do you raise your first round of equity? How do you raise debt? What about teams? Also, probabilities of success drop sharply when you don’t have a known brand to bank on. But there have been great case studies of such successes like Narayanamurthy, founder of the revered software giant Infosys -who quit his job at Patni Computers.

“I didn’t mind starting small all over again, but not too small. I believed we need a net-worth capital of at least Rs. 10.00 bn ($150 mn) to have a reasonable shot.” he says. “I was looking around for a Private equity to back me with such a sum, to start a company. While he was still looking around, he chanced upon a publicly listed company with a net worth of USD 100 mn, and whose shares had come down sharply from 1100 to Rs. 95 in 2 years because of the global crisis. The company was basically providing wholesale loans to real estate developers. Non-performing assets were high at 5.4%. “I thought this was ideal platform for entrepreneurship as we could start retail financial services. The company was already listed and had a lending licence, and I could raise USD 50 mn from the markets or PE.” Accordingly, he arrived at a deal with the promoters to own 10% of the equity of the company, who agreed to just be “investors”, and whom he describes as “graceful”.

Ideas are easy on spreadsheets and paper, but tougher in reality. Neither could he raise equity, nor debt, to grow the company he had bought into. In the months following, he had many meetings with many mutual funds to raise equity through a process called QIP, where a company can place shares to institutional investors. But for one reason or the other, nothing worked. Meanwhile, existing majority shareholders publicly expressed intention to sell out at the right price. Vaidya then pitched the idea to over a dozen large private Equity Firms, including the well-known ones Bain, Blackstone, Carlyle for their backing.

But the timing couldn’t have been worse. The India economy took a turn for the worse after 2010. Inflation remained elevated, India’s monetary authority Reserve Bank of India raised interest rates by 25 bps 16 times in 3 years in response to high inflation, and GDP growth rates dipped steadily from 9% to 4.5%. Most important, business magazine cover stories were painting scary pictures like “India-blackout nation, India– drifting into abyss”, corruption scandals, and so on, ceding doubts in the investor community.

The amount was big- he was looking for over $ 150 mn of equity to buy out other shareholders, and it was a big sum to seek backing. Matters got complicated because of high media visibility and speculations whenever a deal was being discussed with any potential investor, being a public company. He couldn’t sleep for more than 4-5 hours a night, out of stress, not knowing who will back him, and not knowing how to convince them to do it. There were too many moving parts about debt, business growth, profitability, attracting new employees, and retaining existing ones under these circumstances.

Meanwhile he had to produce a proof of concept to attract prospective investors as mere spreadsheet projections wouldn’t do. So despite limited capital on hand; he built a top-notch retail team of over 800 retail professionals. He offered handsome

stock options and went talent scouting from the best of names, from Standard Chartered, ICICI, HDFC, Barclays and Citi. The company diversified into consumer and MSME financing. Even under the tight liquidity conditions and uncertainties, the company built the credit lines brick by brick from USD 100 million in 2010, to over USD 900 million by 2012.

He was still negotiating with one Gurgaon-based PE when Vaidya had a chance meeting with a senior Warburg Pincus professional one evening on a flight from Delhi to Mumbai on March 7, 2012. Not letting go of the opportunity of having two captive hours with a large PE, he pitched the same story on the flight. In later negotiations, WP said they wanted to see a well-defined idea (he told them we’ll lend to micro- entrepreneurs), in an industry that has great potential (his case was Financial services), and in an economy they have confidence in (he says “what’s better than India?”). He assured them he could build a loan book of $4-5 billion in 5-7 years if he had their backing. To show personal commitment, he agreed to lock in his entire stake and signed many other caveats, locking himself in contractually.

After 3 months of negotiations, WP agreed to invest $150 mn, with which the existing shareholders were bought out, an open offer launched for the minority shareholders for 26% and fresh equity infused into the company. The deal was concluded and thus Capital First was founded with all things new- new shareholders, a new Board, new business lines, new name and a new Brand.

It was a big breakthrough. “I couldn’t sleep that night” he says, after 2 uncertain years, there was certainty. Since then, Capital First has built a loan book of USD 2 billion, acquired an astonishing 2 million micro-customers, hired 1300 employees. The share price of the company has moved to over Rs. 350 now, and market cap increased from $125 million to over $500 million between 2012 to 2016. “India is really incredible India, anything is possible here.” says Vaidyanathan.

Callum Connects

Jasmine Tan, Director of Stone Amperor

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Jasmine saves her clients time and effort when doing kitchen fit outs with her biz Stone Amperor.

What’s your story?
I started working in the industry in 2003. I was in a marble and granite supplier company for 5 years. Even though I left the company, I still had customers calling me for my services. I referred them back to my previous company but they refused to because they loved the fast response service that I offered. I realised that customers do look at prices, however most of them prefer quality over quantity. Thus I have decided to establish a sole proprietor company also known as 78 Degrees which later rebranded as Stone Amperor in 2014.

What excites you most about your industry?
The kitchen countertop industry is a very confusing market. There are many brands, materials and prices to choose from. What excites me the most is my ability to help clients choose the best materials and brands within their budgets, whilst saving them time and effort.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I have been in Asia all my life and I love Asia. No matter where you go there is no place like home.


Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
I love Singapore. This is because Singapore has always been a stable country and it is great for doing business. However as it is a small country, it can be really competitive. I believe that if just do your best and give your best to your customers, you can overcome this.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
“Take actions. Learn and improve continuously. An idea without action is just a dream.” This was really good advice that I received from my partner.

Who inspires you?
A very down to earth billionaire from Malaysia, Robert Kuok

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
Property is the foundation of every business.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
Own instead of renting property for my business.

How do you unwind?
I enjoy going shopping, watching movies and hanging out with friends. I am quite a simple being.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
I love going to Taiwan as I love the culture there. Everyone is so polite and the weather is great.

Everyone in business should read this book:
Sun Tzu, Art of war

Shameless plug for your business:
Perfect top, Perfect price, Perfect life from Stone Amperor

How can people connect with you?
Email me at [email protected]

Twitter handle?
@StoneAmperor

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started, built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
twitter.com/laingcallum
linkedin.com/in/callumlaing
Download free copies of his books here: www.callumlaing.com

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Entrepreneurship

Is There A Coworking Space Bubble?

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An annual growth rate of nearly 100%, almost five years in a row? More than 60 coworking spaces in a city like Berlin? Are these the characteristics of a bubble? Nope, these are characteristics of a lasting change in our world of work, which has been further catalyzed by the recent economic crises in many countries. But what makes this change different to a bubble? We’ve summarized some arguments of why the coworking movement is based on a sustainable change. However, that doesn’t mean it’s an easy job to open a good working coworking space.

Five reasons why the growth of coworking spaces is based on organic and sustainable growth: 

1. Coworking spaces invest their own money and create real wealth

Already, there is a convincing argument supporting why coworking spaces are not developing in a bubble: the fact that they create real wealth.

Whether referring to the dotcom bubble a decade ago or the real estate crisis in Spain or the United States, the crisis originated in a glut of cheap money, in an environment in which the sender and the recipient were unacquainted. From funds and banks, money flowed in steady streams to investments which offered little resistance and the most promising returns – which only a little while later turned into delusions and ruined investments.

Redistributed risks create illusions. Those people who distributed the money rarely wore the risk of investment decisions. The risk was mainly taken by small shareholders or people who bought parts of those investments. This was because either both parties’ (better) judgement was drowned out by the noise of the market, or because shareholders were unaware of the risk, and were at the mercy of banks and funds for reliable information.

Another fundamental condition for the creation of bubbles are the sheer amounts of money that flow from various locations globally and are concentrated, by comparison, in much fewer places.

Most coworking spaces, however, receive their funding from local or nearby sources and do not operate within this financial system. In fact, the founders mainly inject the bulk of the required investment, and turn to friends or relatives for additional support. They wear the full brunt of the risks that are involved in small-time investment.

They have access to much more information, because it is their own project, rather than a foreign one thousands of miles away. This also includes failures and mistakes that are encountered along the way, but the risk is less redistributed, thereby decreasing the probability of failures.

2. Labor market changes demand on certain office types lastingly

Most users of coworking spaces are self-employed. The proportion of employees is also on the rise, in many cases simply because they work for small companies that increasingly opt to conduct their business in coworking spaces rather than in traditional offices. The industry of almost all coworkers fall within the Internet-based creative industries.

With flexibilisation of work markets, new mobile technologies that are changing work patterns, and the increase of external services purchasing from large and medium-sized enterprises (outsourcing), the labor market has changed radically in many parts of the world.

The long-term financial and emotional security of becoming an employee no longer exists, especially for younger generations of workers. Bigger companies are quicker to fire than hire, and precarious short-term contracts are on the rise. Promising options on the labor market are more often recuded to freelancer careers and starting your own company.

And that’s possible with less money to invest. All you need is a laptop, a brain and a good network. For years, the number of independent workers and small businesses has been growing worldwide – particularly in internet-based creative industries. Anyone who has sufficient specialized skills and the willingness to take risks may adapt more quickly to market conditions if they own a small business or are self employed; more so than if they were to work in a dependent position in an equally volatile market.

Coworking spaces provide an environment in which to do this. Once they have joined a (suitable) coworking space, these factors become apparent to coworkers, who will remain in their space for years to come.

Furthermore, independent workers rarely fire themselves in crises, and even small companies are less likely to give their employees the boot – compared to their large counterparts. This combination enables more sustainable business models – and less business models à la Groupon.

3. Coworking spaces don’t live on crises

Global economic growth is waning while the number of coworking spaces is continually growing. Do coworking spaces thus benefit from this crisis?

The current crises accelerate the formation and growth of coworking spaces, because they offer solutions and space for the resulting problems. Coworking spaces are therefore not a result of a crisis, but the product of change that pre-dates their existence. A crisis is simply the most visible expression of change.

The first coworking spaces emerged in the late 1990s; the movement’s strong growth started six years ago – before the onset of economic downturns in many countries.

4. Coworking spaces depend on the needs of their members

Most coworking spaces are rarely full. Does this mean they are unsuccessful? On average, only half of all desks are occupied. But the average occupancy rate of 50% refers only to a specific date.

In fact, coworking spaces generally serve more members than they can seat at any given time, since members do not use the spaces simultaneously. Coworking spaces are places for independents who want to work on flexible terms. Smaller spaces rely more on permanent members. Larger spaces can respond more flexibilty to the working hours of its members, and, can rent desks several times over.

If a coworking space is always overcrowded or totally empty, the purpose of said space would be defeated. Firstly, it is rather impossible to work in an overcrowded room. Second, it’s impossible to cowork in an empty room. Given the nature of flexible memberships, a coworking space only can survive if they fit the needs of their members. Members would otherwise be quick to leave, and membership would be much more transient.

5. The coworking market is far from saturation

Less than 2% of all self-employed – and even fewer employees – currently work in coworking spaces. Reporting on coworking may increase, but inflated reporting on the coworking movement in the mainstream media is still far away.

Coverage of coworking space are most likely to be found in the career or local sections in larger publications – front cover coverage remains the dream of many space operators. This is because the whole coworking movement can’t be photographed in one picture. What appears to be a disadvantage, however, is actually a beneficial truth: niche coverage allows the industry to grow organically, and avoid over inflation.

Conclusion

Coworking spaces don’t operate in parallel universes – like the financial market. Demand and supply are almost exclusively organic and operate in the real world economy.

For the same reason, there is no guarantee that opening a coworking spaces will be automaticly successful. Anyone who fails to learn how to deal with potential customers in their market, or is unfamiliar with how coworking communities function, will have a difficult time of making one work. In the same way that business people in other industries will fail if they do not understand their market.

Those who simply tack on the word ‘coworking’ to their space’s facade will need to work harder. The structure of most coworking spaces is based on real work, calculated risk, and real-world supply and demand.

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About the Author

This article was produced by Deskmag. Deskmag is the magazine about the new type of work and their places, how they look, how they function, how they could be improved and how we work in them. They especially focus on coworking spaces which are home to the new breed of independent workers and small companies. see more.

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