Indian Social Network. Chinese backing. No laughing matter this

Jayadevan PK August 2, 2018 8 min

Normally, you’d get laughed out of the door if you said you wanted to build a social network for India. Even recently, when Anand Mahindra, the chairman of Mahindra Group, said he’d like to see an Indian social network, notwithstanding his stature, we laughed some more.

The scepticism is not misplaced. The road to building a social network, let alone an Indian social network, is paved with corpses of failed experiments – Ello, Mastodon, Google+. The list is long. But this going to change.

A bullish Chinese venture capitalist, operating quietly in India, insists that we are likely to see ‘Indian social networks’ back in fashion again. Meet Tuck Lye Koh, the founding partner at Shunwei Capital, who has been backing ‘Indian social networks.’ Not one, not two, but maybe more.

Koh, who made a rare appearance at an event in Bengaluru last fortnight, plans to back multiple Indian social networks and lives in the hope that at least one, maybe even two will become unicorns. Just we are sure, Shunwei is no lightweight; it is the fund behind close to 200 startups including PinDuoDuo, which recently went public, healthcare company Ding Xiang Yuan and 51Talk which teaches English online. In the two years, the fund has been in India, it has backed nearly 15 early stage startups.

Here are some takeaways from the event that shines a light on how Tuck sees India.

“When I look at India, what’s my unique advantage? How can I find my competitive edge? I came to the conclusion that I’ve seen how mobile internet has developed in the past  10 years in China. So I believe that I can sort of crystal ball gaze, having seen what’s happened and what’s likely to happen in India.

“We’re super bullish on vernacular language social network. Because we have an extremely high conviction that India will have at least one social network with at least 100 million daily active users. Today in China, there are few of them. Many of them are valued at tens of billions of dollars. There are 1.4 billion people in India, it’s a vast geography with different dialects and habits. Facebook and Twitter are mostly English dominated. And we believe that there’s demand for a Hindi social network, a Tamil social network. With this conviction, we have invested in a few social network products. Based on what we have seen in the past one to two years, at least one of them, hopefully, two of them, more would be greedy, will become at least 100 million daily active users. When that happens, they’ll be extremely valuable.

Tuck with Xiaomi India head Manu Jain. Xiaomi, a late entrant into the Indian market, is now the biggest smartphone seller in the country. Pic: @tucklye

“Another edge we believe we have is that we have access to Chinese financial and strategic investors. So without giving details, that we have delivered to at least four of our portfolio companies. We’ve invited most of our portfolio companies to China. We’ve connected them to relevant investors in China.”

The two companies Shunwei has backed that play in the local language space are Vokal (by Taxiforsure co-founder Aprameya Radhakrishna) and ShareChat, another local language app that’s grown fast among Indian language internet users. ShareChat, by one estimate, has nearly 5 million monthly active users who spend over 20 minutes daily on the app.

Shunwei was founded in 2011 as a tech-focused fund in China by Xiaomi’s founder Lei Jun and Tuck. Now, the firm manages nearly $3 billion spread across four funds. It started investing outside China two years ago. Shunwei’s main market outside of China is India and it also invests in Indonesia. Two years ago, when Shunwei entered India, Koh was in the press where he talked in general about investing in India based on its lessons from China. On July 24, at the Bengaluru event hosted by early-stage fund India Quotient, Koh seemed like a man who had a sharper thesis.

“My first trip to India was about two years back. When I was younger, in my 20s, I wanted to come to India but never made the trip. So finally, after 40, I made my first trip. I think the past two years have been very interesting to myself. I remember on one of my trips an Indian GP (General Partner) asked me a question: What does India stand for? He said it stands for ‘I’ll never do it again.’ My response to him was ‘I’m too naive. It’s your job to prove that India doesn’t stand for I will never do it again.’

“First of all, why are we bullish on India? Unicorns are created when there’s a major market or technology disruption. And this is happening in India today. It’s very similar to China back in 2010. So if you look at China, most of the unicorns and super unicorns created in China that you see today, they were founded around 2010-2011. We have a very strong conviction that this is a very good time to invest in India because you’re in transition from feature phone to smartphones. That’s a major shift. And with every major shift, you have great opportunities.

“As I spend more time in India, I see another promising sign. When I did my college graduate studies at Stanford about 20 years back (that was a peak of the dotcom cycle in 1998-99), I remember, most of my Indian friends that I met in the US, would have stayed back in the US, worked in the US and some of them or most of them became US citizens. I’ve seen over the past few years that many promising young and smart Indians don’t leave for the US. They have chosen to stay back in India. And some of those who have worked in the US are coming back. These two are very important trends.

“And again, India is a huge market, with about 1.4 billion population. If you look at the world map today, outside of China, the next huge growth opportunity should be India. Our investment strategy in India will be to invest in proven business models that we believe could be replicated in India.”

Anand Lunia, the co-founder of India Quotient, had an interesting question: Chinese investors have mostly been hands-off, leaving the founders to decide what to do. Very few board meetings. How do you want to do it in India? He’s asking, because in India, board meetings can be frequent, sometimes even every month.

“We invest in founders. In China, our approach has been, we keep in touch as and when needed but not in the form of a formal meeting. Board meetings are for major decisions. Do we have major decisions to be made every month? Based on my experience, I find it more effective to have one to one meetings, especially in the early stage. There’s more connection between investors and founders. We can be more forthright in what we want to say. In China, board meetings are once every quarter or in 6 months.”

Since 2014, Chinese investors have invested close to $9 billion in India. Besides Shunwei, companies such as Tencent, Alibaba, Fosun, and Xiaomi have been placing bets in the country. This is also because Chinese investors are being shut out of markets like UK and US because of growing friction between these countries. There are also a bunch of Chinese entrepreneurs in India now. So when I met the founder of a fast-growing company recently, I asked him how he plans to compete with them. His answer: “I see my life as two parts now. One before I went to China and one after.” The founder’s response underscores how ambitious Chinese companies are and the scale at which they operate. A question from the audience: Does he see any difference between Chinese and Indian entrepreneurs, teased a similar response from Tuck.

“I’m a Singaporean. So I grew up with Chinese and Indians. I’ve lived in different countries. To me, it’s pretty obvious. Indians are as smart as the Chinese. In the US, many of the Fortune 500 CEOs are Indian. So in terms of capabilities, intelligence, everyone is the same. A pleasant surprise for me in India is that I’ve seen a lot of good product managers and technical people. What am I seeing as lacking in India? It’s probably because of the macro environment… if you go to China today, you’ll see huge ambition. And that’s because Chinese entrepreneurs have seen Tencent, Alibaba and even some of the smaller startups growing to billions of dollars. Even for myself, in 2011, a startup valued at a billion dollar or more, was a huge number. Today, people won’t blink an eye if a Chinese startup has a billion dollars. We need to have more Flipkart, Paytm. If we have more such exits, I’m sure the ambition will grow.”

Venture investors have had many false starts in India. Many, including the likes of Canaan Partners, Draper Fisher Jurvetson India, and even the storied Kleiner Perkins, have exited the country without much to show for returns. Until Flipkart’s recent acquisition by Walmart, there was much doom and gloom going around in venture investing circles. But Tuck’s optimism is characteristic of venture capitalists. The good ones, and often the ones who catch the big winners early, live by the maxim: nothing ventured, nothing gained. They take risks and Tuck isn’t shying from it.


Image credit: @tucklye
Updated at 02:15 pm on August 6, 2018  to add an illustration of Tuk Lye Koh in place of a group picture.

Disclosure: FactorDaily is owned by SourceCode Media, which counts Accel Partners, Blume Ventures, Vijay Shekhar Sharma, Jay Vijayan and Girish Mathrubootham among its investors. Accel Partners and Blume Ventures are venture capital firms with investments in several companies. Vijay Shekhar Sharma is the founder of Paytm. Jay Vijayan and Girish Mathrubootham are entrepreneurs and angel investors. None of FactorDaily’s investors has any influence on its reporting about India’s technology and startup ecosystem.