The Bengaluru-Mumbai divide got stronger for India’s tech ecosystem

Last year, I met a tech investor in Bengaluru over coffee. This was the time Reliance JioMart — then known as ‘new commerce’ — was expected to roll out by Diwali. ‘So, what’s Reliance Jio’s ecommerce venture all about?’ this venture capitalist (VC) asked me? Many others in the tech fraternity were talking about Jio and what it was possibly putting together on the kirana front, touted as being the foundation for its ecommerce ambitions in a market where Amazon and Flipkart have been dominant players.

By early 2019, the company had two products — the Jio PoS (point of sales) terminal and MyJio app — that had been distributed to shop-owners to build an ecosystem. My coffee-sipping VC made a remark, which stayed with me: ‘Bombay is getting ahead of Bangalore,’ adding that Bengaluru founders and companies were unaware of what was going on in Mumbai. ‘They live in a bubble and aren’t able to fathom what’s going to hit them,’ he had said. On a broader level, he also mentioned how the frothy valuations of Indian startups are mostly never understood in Mumbai’s financial circles.

A year down the line, a lot of what was going on in Mumbai has come to the fore, when in April, in the thick of the Covid-19 outbreak, Facebook announced its investment of $5.7 billion for 9.99% stake in Reliance Jio Platforms. That was just the start of the rush of capital coming into Jio Platforms, culminating with Google’s $4.5 billion infusion earlier this week.

Jio Platforms is a subsidiary of Reliance Industries, which owns the telecom operator Jio and other digital businesses of the Indian conglomerate. In a span of about three months, Jio Platforms mopped up $20.4 billion — almost the valuation of Flipkart when it was acquired by Walmart two years ago and the combined value of Zomato, Swiggy, BYJU’s and Freshworks. Not surprisingly then, most Bengaluru VCs, and even founders, are shocked at how Jio successfully raised this gargantuan financing without them getting a whiff of what technology the conglomerate has actually built.

For what it’s worth, Jio isn’t the typical consumer internet company, which gets valued on vanity metrics like gross merchandise value (GMV), daily active users (DAUs) and monthly active users (MAUs). But it is the biggest telco-tech company in suburban Mumbai with no connection to Koramangla.

What stands out is how, till a few months ago, Jio was hailed by the tech community as a great pipeline offering cheap data reaching the deepest parts of India. But the local entrepreneurial ecosystem wasn’t sure if Mukesh Ambani’s efforts around Jio would translate into building digital products with the same finesse.

Many startup and VC folks were heard applauding how Jio was sheer ‘execution-propelling internet connectivity to Bharat’. On many occasions, I would ask these same people what they thought would happen if Jio started using the same pipe to push its own services and products – something that all telcos have tried, but most have failed. No one gave me a clear reply. And I suspect that’s because none knew — or knew very little — about what the Mumbai company was up to.

Many have said how Facebook, Google and a dozen financial investors have lined up for Jio Platforms to possibly move to the right side of Indian regulations and policies. Globally, big tech has been at loggerheads with antitrust regulators, governments and various agencies. Amazon, Facebook, Google and Apple are all facing regulatory and government scrutiny of some kind. So why would they not want to be in a safer zone in India? This, to many watching the events unfold, is a small price to pay.

While this may be true, who stopped Bengaluru startups from not making their policy pitches better? Why were they siloed away from business realities, other than making some noise about capital-dumping by foreign competitors and protectionism a few years ago?

Also, on the question of execution, remember, the same Jio was praised repeatedly for laying the foundation for many tech startups to flourish beyond India’s metros. To dismiss Jio’s newly formed collective and say that Google and Facebook invested in Ambani to win a policy battle is far too simplistic.

Wall Street and Silicon Valley came together, bridging the gap between New York and San Francisco, because the bankers smelt a gold rush in technology upstarts and their impending initial public offerings (IPOs). If Indian tech startups had been able to build a bunch of super-scaled businesses that could go public, it may have averted the concentration of power in a legacy company that’s likely to bring in massive returns to 14 of its investors.

SoftBank’s Silicon Valley play resembles India tech market of 2014-15

Having returned from my annual trip to Silicon Valley, I’ve been assimilating all the talking points that emerged as I went about meeting investors and founders. As was expected, the conversation starter this time around at most of these meetings was SoftBank.

Softbank’s $93 Billion Vision Fund ( which may swell up to as much as $900 billion) started deploying slugs of capital this year in various Silicon Valley and US tech startups arresting everyone’s attention. Considering the average size of these cheques, which typically are upwards of $500 million, the investment vehicle is obviously the new hot thing to unravel for everyone there. Some call the whole SoftBank phenomenon “unreal”.

The tech media is evidently hopped up, trying to put out as many stories as they can about the Japanese telecoms and internet group which was so far largely known in the US for its acquisition of Sprint, the telecoms company in 2012. But SoftBank is a different beast today.

Steered by its maverick founder Masa, who is on a world altering mission through what he says are investments in future technologies, and famous for his maiden bet on the Chinese e-commerce behemoth Alibaba back in 2000.

What struck me amid all of this, as I read reams on SoftBank and Masa ( and continue to read some more) and met people in the Bay Area tech fraternity, is how similar all of this is to when the Indian tech press and the larger ecosystem was in the process of discovering the group back in 2014.

What added to the storyline at the time was the flamboyant ex-Google hotshot executive Nikesh Arora who was hired by Masa as his trusted lieutenant. The two swooped down on India, sprayed capital in startups like Snapdeal, Ola, Housing, Oyo and Grofers, all in a span of about a year. Even then, the same worries were being highlighted about SoftBank spending very little time in due diligence before closing deals and about the dizzying valuations at which money was being raised by startups with no real business models.

I’d met and interviewed Masa and Arora twice between 2014-16. Arora was this flamboyant deputy and the perfect foil to Masa. Who’d have known that by mid of 2016, Arora would abruptly leave the group because he wouldn’t become Masa’s successor as announced publicly. He told me in an extended interview just a few days after stepping down that waiting for the top job didn’t make sense for him.

I asked myself if there’s any difference in how SoftBank approached investing in 2014 in India and what’s happening now in Silicon Valley? For starters, three years ago SoftBank did not have a gargantuan sized Vision Fund, and was investing out of its balance sheet. Also the focus of investing was mostly on consumer internet and a bulk of its wagers were in the south east Asia and India region (Arora’s presence was partly the reason for that). With the Vision Fund, the canvas is far bigger and the mandate from Masa is to invest behind a wide range of future technologies like robotics, biotech and artificial intelligence.

Recently when I spoke to Rajeev Mishra, another Indian who is heading up the Vision Fund, it was apparent the fund was aware its mammoth size was a big advantage for it to win deals.

A VC told me the other day, “No other investor can match them (SoftBank) in the near future. They are also looking to add another $200 billion. It remains to be seen how this will play out,” he said.

This is again similar to what happened in India three years ago when SoftBank became the hottest investor in town, no one knew what was the long-term effect of this windfall of capital into companies.The questions around SoftBank are still the same— a massive pool of capital which can distort valuations, an investing team which is not known for scoring technology deals, and the large stakes they hold in companies along with favorable terms that come as a result of it.

But like in the period of 2014-15 when Indian founders took money from SoftBank as it was readily available, so are their counterparts in the US.
What’s the choice really, would you let them back your rivals, asks an entrepreneur while talking about the current Softbank driven tech investing market.
And with the cross over funds and mutual funds (folks like Fidelity and T. Rowe Price) more or less having disappeared from the investing landscape, Silicon Valley has only one giant backer of the size of SoftBank to go to for private money in the near future. I wrote a piece about how SoftBank emerging as the new IPO for many tech companies and providing secondary sale options to early VCs.

It remains to be seen how things pan out over the next few years and whether or not these billions of dollars being pumped into hot Silicon Valley startups by SoftBank would lead to unfortunate fallouts like the ones we saw in India between the fat cat investor and its portfolio companies like Snapdeal and Housing.

For now though SoftBank is stirring up Silicon Valley and no one is complaining.