Surviving a war zone. Unrelenting fear. Decimated strategies. This is how startups in India describe the catastrophe that the Covid-19 pandemic and global lockdown brought to their companies.
Yet through the fog of that fear, what emerged within our India portfolio were stronger companies, more cohesive teams and surprising profitability. In short, no one could have predicted the resilience and heart that the founding teams demonstrated to help shift mindsets, spark innovation and accelerate growth – all the while continuing to help and support customers.
“The portfolio companies realized this is bigger than all of us,” said Tilman Ehrbeck, Managing Partner. “They wanted to make a contribution to their communities, to their countries.”
As boots-on-the ground investors, our goal last March was to protect and support our employees, our entrepreneurs and our ecosystem partners so that together we could continue to help provide necessary financial products to underserved communities, so that they, too could survive and ideally manage this unprecedented time.
“This was a crisis like none before. Most of our Indian portfolio CEOs are very experienced and have gone through a number of crises before. The Covid-19 crisis, though, was more about the scale of action to take and where to focus efforts,” said Anuradha Ramachandran, Director of Investments for India. “In that context, our portfolio entrepreneurs worked with us, their boards, and their peers to not only be thoughtful about the immediate safety of their employees and families but to also prioritize their customers and what they were going through. That’s where their thoughts went first – how do we serve our customers in a time of need. That was inspiring to us.”
In our April 2021 Flourish Conversations on Digital Acceleration: Opportunities in India, fintech entrepreneurs from our portfolio companies Indifi, Gramcover, MyShubhLife, Toffee Insurance, YAP, Yelo, Scripbox and Kaleidofin discussed how they had to make difficult decisions while managing competing stakeholders.
“The whole lockdown thing happened when we were about to launch our product,” said Nilesh Agarwal, co-founder of Yelo Bank. “It decimated our strategy.”
In this sink-or-swim scenario brought on by the pandemic, fintech entrepreneurs were forced to reassess strategies and adapt. For Sucharita Mukherjee of wealth tech platform, Kaleidofin, it meant launching three new products quickly. “We launched each of these within the first 60 days of the pandemic,” she said. “I think that was really a pivotal moment for us.”
For all the entrepreneurs, the questions were many and the ensuing strategies varied from increasing customer outreach and remote operations to diversifying product offerings and adding services like credit & insurance. The results were impactful and profitable. “Perversely, it’s been a great year for us. We’re 3X in terms of size,” said Atul Shinghal of Scripbox, a digital retail broker.
Without a doubt, Covid-19 accelerated the promising behavioral shift toward digital adoption by customers, merchants, and business partners. Business plans and products were created and deployed within weeks – when in ‘normal’ times, it would have taken years. “What COVID has really done is fast-forward our evolution from being just a lending company to this new bank of sorts,” said Monish Anand of MyShubhlife, a mobile-only lending platform.
The acceleration of digitization means more people are using more digital platforms, and getting needed relief quickly. To Harsh Gupta, our rising Indian investment associate, the pandemic created an unpredictable twist, after everything looked so bleak 12 months ago. “Honestly, we were taking it a day at a time. The situation kept evolving every day. To be where we are now, I’m not sure I could’ve seen that future,” he said.
This is just a quick snapshot of the engaging discussion that took place during Digital Acceleration: Opportunities in India. Watch the recording for more lessons and insights from the eight companies and eight entrepreneurs who helped us better understand what they saw and learnt from the shared experience of Covid-19…and discover what they’re planning for the year ahead.