Rajesh Sawhney is the founder of GSF Accelerator, India’s first multi-city Tech Accelerator, backed by 20 iconic digital founders and 5 leading venture funds from across the world. Rajesh is also the founder of GSF Superangels network and curator of the Global Superangels Forum. He is the co-host and curator of Founders Forum India. Rajesh has made over 15 investments as an active and engaged angel investor.
Bangalore is vibrant and has a technology edge, NCR region around Delhi is driving so many e-commerce and education startups, Mumbai is slowly emerging as the digital media and Fin-tech eco-system.
His journey has been a continuum of re-invention waves. In the first wave, he brought private radio (Times FM) to India in early nineties, and redefined Indian youth culture. In his second wave, he was at the cusp of early Internet culture in India and built Indiatimes.com, the most valuable Internet business in India in 2005 (funded by Sequoia). In the third wave, Rajesh was at the centre of a massive transformation of the Indian film industry, where he oversaw (as President, Reliance Entertainment) the corporatization of mom and pop Bollywood businesses into multi-billion dollar enterprise. At Reliance, Rajesh found himself at the centre of cross-border investment and alignment between Hollywood and Indian Film Industry and one of the biggest investment deals (DreamWorks) in Hollywood.
Currently in his fourth wave, Rajesh is building the vital building blocks of a nascent early stage startup ecosystem in India, and sees this as the biggest and most exciting challenge that he has faced in his life. Pickle chats with Rajesh Sawhney, founder of Global Superangels Forum.
Why do you say your current re-invention wave (Startup ecosystem) is the biggest and the most exciting challenge in your career?
Technology is setting a relentless pace of change. Startups are driving this change across the world. They are the new frontiers of innovation. India has a chance to play a big role, but faces enormous challenges: Risk aversion to failure, lack of capital and not thinking big. I am excited to accept this challenge. I am building a startup platform, GSF, that gives opportunities to startups that their counter-parts in the developed world enjoy.
The key objective of Global Superangels Forum (GSF) is to spur innovation and entrepreneurship through angel and seed investing. How has this worked and do you see change reflecting in reality? You have made a major effort in bringing mentors in single window?
GSF has funded 25 startups in the last one year. In addition to that, 30 super-smart EIRs (Entrepreneurs in Residence) have also worked with GSF. 250 mentors from across the world are associated with us, out of which 200 are co-founders of VC backed startups.
I am extremely happy with the rapid progress GSF has made as a startup platform. GSF Accelerator Programme is not only the biggest, but also the widest with presence in NCR, Mumbai, Bangalore and Chennai. I am humbled by the response of the startup community and support of my peers through this exciting first year.
What is the blue sky difference between Indian start up culture and what we see in Silicon Valley? Do you see this bridge getting closer?
GSF has a global presence to work with startups.
The biggest difference is the attitude to failure. Most startups fail across the world. Failure is celebrated in the Silicon Valley. In India, our cultural norms don’t accept failure easily. However, this attitude is changing gradually. I’ve met many young and bright people of late who have left their cushy jobs for a life in startups. This suggests that some of these new young founders are ready to take a plunge without worrying too much about failing.
We have three global tie-ups so far; one with MIT, the second with 500 startups in Silicon Valley and the third with Seedcamp from Europe. These unique tie-ups make us distinct as we are in a position to provide global springboards to our startups.
You have said that there is no reason why Indian entrepreneurs cannot create the next Instagram, or the next Twitter. What makes you so optimistic? For sure it has happened as idea of Twitter stemmed out of a conference.
Absolutely. Internet democratizes the opportunity. We have both the entrepreneurial and technology talent, though we lack behind the world in Design. Secondly, we don’t take enough chances and big risks. This world belongs to people who take a different path. There is no future for normal people and normal companies. A spectacular failure is a better option than an ordinary life.
Many also say innovation doesn’t require big technology. Is it correct? What according to you are basic ingredients of today’s startup in India?
Technology is a key driver of innovation, though not the only one. In India, we see more of business model innovation, which many people refer to as frugal innovation. But the combination of frugal innovation and technology innovation is potentially lethal. In fact that is the big Indian opportunity.
When I look at a startup for investment, I am looking for founders who are passionate and dreamers with a vision to change the world. I also respect and backfounders who build great products and have an eye for details. And yes, it helps if they are chasing a big market opportunity.
MIT Technology Review has listed Bangalore as among the top innovation clusters. What is your view? You operate in multi-cities of India and also the world.
In India, we have three primary startup eco-systems, each has a different characteristic; Bangalore is vibrant and has a technology edge, NCR region around Delhi is driving so many e-commerce and education startups, Mumbai is slowly emerging as the digital media and Fin-tech eco-system.
There hasn’t been too much disruptions from Indian startups — in the digital space? Do you see it coming?
Mobile is the biggest disruptor in the making. It has already changed the way Indians communicate, consume content and do shopping. I am super excited about the rise of smart phones and evolution of 3G and 4G networks. Together, they will bring 500 million new Internet users online in India. That’s huge.
You have pioneered the Time FM, Internet culture, films space and now building start up ecosystem in India. How do you see this decade different from the past decade?
I believe in disruptions. I like them. I thrive on them. Change is the only constant for me. Future is exciting and I see many many disruptions in the making. Some of them are extremely transformative and will provide huge opportunity for innovation.
Last decade was equally exciting: it saw the evolution of media industries from small mom and pop businesses to well run corporate entities; it saw the evolution of mobile as a transformative change in communication landscape, and finally Indian youth and middle class has changed and evolved as a powerful force. But we ain’t seen nothing yet!
What is more … availability of money for startups or too many ideas from startups?
Contrary to the popular belief, we don’t have too many startups in India. China has ten times more startups than India. Even Israel has more startups than India. We need to pick up pace in startup formation.
We also have shortage of Angel and seed money in India. In the US, Angel and seed financing equals venture financing…each is about USD 23B a year. In India, the quantum of seed financing is 1/20 of venture financing. We need more capital to spur innovation at an early stage.
GSF operates without the help of Government and has not sought any support. Is there anything that the government can do to propel growth in startups?
Government has a big role to play in building capacity and infrastructure where startups can thrive. Governments across the world, be it UK, Finland, France, Germany, Israel, China or Singapore have understood the need to build startup cultures. They need startups to rejuvenate their economies, spur innovation and create jobs. In India, Government has lagged behind in its understanding and efforts. I will be happy to work with Governmental agencies.