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E-commerce provides net opportunity for Indian entrepreneurs

India Dispatch: The burgeoning IT industry is helping to spawn a new generation of Indian entrepreneurs.

Consumers in India are increasingly moving from shopping at brick-and-mortar retail outlets to doing shopping online. Last year, more than $500 million was invested in e-commerce ventures.
Consumers in India are increasingly moving from shopping at brick-and-mortar retail outlets to doing shopping online. Last year, more than $500 million was invested in e-commerce ventures.

India has millions of budding entrepreneurs. They are everywhere - on street corners, in villages, in homes, toiling away, each dreaming of becoming the next Mukesh Ambani.

A television programme called Super Angels has tapped into India's love of starting businesses. The show, aired on the Indian national channel ET, has been looking to fund a budding businessman or woman.

Every week, start-up pitches were made to a group of venture capitalists and then put to viewers' vote.

Fetise.com, an online retailer, managed to secure US$5 million (Dh18.3m) of seed funding from a group of angels through the TV show. The person behind Fetise.com was naturally thrilled about the show and saw it as a stepping stone.

"It is a superb platform for start-ups to make pitches to angel investors or venture capital investors. You get a chance to showcase your business plan, influence the investors along with national audience," says Abhishek Shah, the founder and chief executive of Fetise.com.

In truth, you don't need a popular television show to realise e-commerce start-ups are back in vogue among the corporate finance crowd in India.

Last year, more than $500m was invested in new e-commerce ventures, according to estimates by VCCEdge, which tracks investment activity.

Venture capital investment in India reached $822m with 144 deals done last year compared with $641m and 128 deals the year before, according to VCCEdge data.

"This is the best time to be an entrepreneur in India. Between incubators, angels and seed investors, there is significant funding and support available for start-ups today. Also, the online infrastructure continues to mature, which is making it feasible to scale up good businesses," says Nishant Verman, an associate at Canaan Partners, a venture capital company based in Gurgaon.

This momentum is expected to increase this year, but the venture capital community is wary of over-hyping the targets.

"I think a buyers' market will emerge as and when the recently funded companies come back for their next round of financing later this year," says Mohanjit Jolly, the managing director at Draper Fisher Jurvetson India, an early-stage venture capital specialist.

"The hot companies are still garnering competition and unreasonable valuations, but I am also seeing entrepreneurs coming down to reality in terms of both the amount that they are raising and the respective valuations," he says.

Venture capital can be divided into three categories in India, he says.

"There are those who are heavily into e-commerce," Mr Jolly says. "Then there are those who are just dabbling in it, and maybe have a smaller interest in it. And, finally, there are those staying on the sidelines waiting to see what happens once the frothiness has died down a bit."

But experts warn that some venture capitalists are too eager at the start, which can create risks.

"For venture capital transactions, a key risk is investing in a venture too early," says Mahadevan Narayanamoni, a partner of corporate finance at Grant Thornton India.

"Often, [venture capital investors] take a view on how a market will develop and evolve from the point of view of timing, structure, et cetera, and how the team they are backing will deal with it," he says.

A major challenge for investors in India has been choosing the right team, which can lead a company from being a budding start-up to a fully fledged business, able to respond to competition.

"Challenge for [investors] is picking the right team that can execute," says Mr Jolly. In the world of e-commerce, it's less about technology or [intellectual property] and all about execution.

"For start-ups, similarly, it's about differentiation from the increasing competition, given low barriers to entry for these businesses. And competition is coming from incumbent offline players going online, catalogue and deal sites, horizontal and vertical players and even international entities looking to enter the Indian market," says Mr Jolly.

The Indian online e-retailing industry is evolving with the help of new funds, and it is expected to become more sophisticated.

"We'll also see a gradual transition from the current catalogue-in-the-cloud companies - focused on putting more products online and shipping them quickly and cheaply to customer - to a more customer-insights-driven model," says Mr Verman.

While Fetise.com's success may be feeding the popular imagination, industry insiders say it is a signal of how things will shape up. Many see online retailing as a hot favourite for this year as Indian middle-class consumers turn to the internet for their shopping choices.

"Indian shoppers today are enabled with smartphones and tablets that help them in seeing local deals on various websites while they are on the run," says Nalin Khanna, the president for the consultancy Vertebrand.

"There is also a growing trend of having digital stores where websites are designed to give the look and feel of the actual retail store. So, as the usage of smartphones grows and consumers become more aware of online payment methods and the deals available at their convenience, this industry will grow tremendously," Mr Khanna says.

Discount fashion retailers and specialised online stores currently dominate the online e-commerce space in India, says Mr Shah, the Fetise.com founder.

"The sites have been rated based on broad parameters like product offerings, user experience and delivery and services. The business model for the new start-ups is far more robust than the companies set up in the first phase of e-com in India 10 years ago," he says.

E-commerce aside, investors believe this will be the year of the mobile.

In Mr Jolly's view, "Mobile applications on smartphones and tablets will continue to be in vogue, although valuations will come under control, and the winners will start separating themselves from the crowd.

"Education and health care will continue to garner attention with a strong technology [especially mobile] angle. Clean tech will also continue to see growth in investments."

And many of the factors that were emerging last year will accelerate this year as technology and companies mature.

"Internet penetration - urban and increasingly rural - 3G growth and better, and cheaper devices are creating a stronger mobile ecosystem that will drive e-commerce," says Mr Verman. "Some of those companies will start going public this year."

business@thenational.ae

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