Venture Debt and the Mobile Future

Today we headed to the financial district of Mumbai. It was quite different to the Mumbai that we’d seen so far, full of new crisp glass and concrete buildings, high-rises and green spaces. It looked like… every other western cities financial district. It did have a few uniquely Indian qualities – the circling and soaring birds of prey being one that I’ve been trying to get used to on this trip. No mater where we have been in India the quantity of bird life has been truly amazing.

We headed to Innoven, a venture debt company based out of Mumbai and serving India and the broader Asia Pacific region. Our group of 33 startups was split into two and the group I was in headed out to the large balcony. It had a fantastic view over the district and it was nice to get a bit of time outside. While Mumbai’s smog seems omnipresent, it doesn’t seem as bad on some days. We started off with the Innoven team discussing venture debt, something I had honestly never heard of. Venture debt is essentially a loan with a fixed interest rate, but they target startups who banks won’t usually touch. There are a few caveats about needing co-funding and other investment, but this form of capital raising is actually more founder friendly as you don’t need to further dilute equity in company.

After we were introduced to the Innoven team our group introduced ourselves and our startups. We haven’t had much of a chance to pitch or discuss our own ventures here, so it was a good opportunity to practice. I’ve been picking up a few phrases in my bus, plane and airport discussions with the other participants so I thought it was a good opportunity to test them out. I really liked the phrase “Farm to Fork” because essentially what Chickon is trying to do is provide data to feed into the supply chain and better manage that journey. It was also a good chance to hear the other ventures again and some of the follow up questions they received.

It was a great meeting and I think we could have spent much more time there given the opportunity, but we had another engagement that afternoon, so it was back on the bus to head to the Jio campus.

If you live outside of India you’ll probably have never heard of Jio, but if you’re in India you won’t be able to get away from them! We’d been hearing about this mythical and legendary company since we landed in India, why? Because they single handedly revolutionised telecommunications in India. The Jio story starts with bring a reliable 4G network to India, not just the technology to do that, more importantly, the price. On Jio you can get 1.5gig/day for less than $3 a month. What Jio has done is connect India, and in a way that has bypassed a lot of legacy infrastructure and hardware. Their mobile first approach means not only are people connected, but they’re connected on devices that are powerful and that they can afford. With that great connection comes a raft of other benefits – families connect, mobile payments are possible, mass distribution of content is possible, opportunities are open regardless of location or status. People around India can consume (and are with a with a voracious appetite) video and rich media, they aren’t limited to a second rate experience.

We arrived at the Jio campus and led through the impressive visitors centre and given a tour of some of their main products and developments. It was great to see some of the devices and features of the Jio network in one place. One of their key products is the Jio Phone. A smart-phone wrapped in a feature-phone body it’s a $30 powerhouse. Yes it is just $30AUD! I love mobile devices, especially the quirky ones, and this definitely falls into that box. It might look outdated it’s actually a balanced bit of tech, walking the fine line between features and price that many companies have forgotten about (yes you Apple). It’s got everything a savvy mobile user would need but at a price point that works for everyone, especially those on a low income. For India this devices is a real breakthrough – it marries an affordable handset with an affordable data plan to make computing and connectivity viable and affordable for the masses here in India.

And it’s led to adoption and growth numbers that are hardly believable:

Yes 100 MILLION customers in just 170 days!

The team at Jio stayed back a long time to present to us – which was really appreciated. If it was in Australia there may have been a riot if staff were asked to stay back on a Friday afternoon, but our hosts really pulled out all the stops. We were introduced to a number of the programs Jio supports and runs in addition to their telecommunications arm, and they really are creating an entire ecosystem for their users. Google, Apple, Amazon are really going to struggle in this environment. From an outsiders perspective there were a few questions raised about data governance and privacy, and it doesn’t seem that India’s legal system has caught up with this technological change. After the lessons from Facebook and the other aggregators of data, there are already a few warning signs about what may come in the future. But what Jio has achieved in such a short time is impressive and shouldn’t be down played.

After a bus ride back to our hotel a few of us headed to a local restaurant, Koyla. Set in a massive rooftop garden that seems to span the whole block, it was a great escape from the hustle and bustle of the city below. The food was amazing and so was the conversation – it was a great way to finish the day.

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