Nikesh Arora’s personal investment in Snapdeal: A conflict of interest or not?

Jayadevan PK April 21, 2016 3 min

On Thursday, Bloomberg News reported that investment decisions by Nikesh Arora, the India-born president and COO of SoftBank Corp, are being questioned by a group of investors. In a critical 11-page missive, the group questioned Arora’s track record over what they called Arora’s “poor investment performance and a series of questionable transactions”.

What both the investors and the report seem to have missed is a personal investment by Arora made in October 2014 when SoftBank led an investment round of $627 million in Indian ecommerce platform Snapdeal. The Economic Times had then reported that Arora had picked up 5% in Snapdeal in his personal capacity.

The newspaper did not name its sources while reporting this but going by the $2 billion valuation of Snapdeal in that round, Arora would have put down $100 million of his personal money in Snapdeal — a decision that certainly does not break any rules but is unusual in investment rounds of this scale.Thursday’s Bloomberg report pointed to Arora’s role as an adviser to an investment firm as the basis of its charges of conflict in his role at SoftBank.

“The critique of Arora, which hasn’t been made public, questions whether the executive has conflicts of interest due to his existing role as a senior adviser to the private equity firm Silver Lake,” it said.

“I take my fiduciary responsibilities seriously and have acted appropriately and in the best interest of shareholders throughout my tenure at SoftBank and Sprint, just as I have conducted myself throughout my professional life. I am completely confident the allegations in the letter are baseless,” Arora said in a statement through a spokesperson.

Arora is a prominent name in Indian startup circles since joining SoftBank in 2014. He invested nearly $1 billion of Softbank’s money in startups including Housing, Snapdeal, Grofers, Ola and Oyo Rooms.His investments in India haven’t all proven themselves yet with Housing proving to be quite the disaster with run-ins between the company’s CEO Rahul Yadav and its board of directors. To be sure, early bets on startups are often a wager, where majority of them fail. The loss is adjusted against rewards (many multiples of the original investment) from a few startups that eventually make it big.

Arora, in many ways, shook up the investing and startup ecosystems when Softbank entered India in 2014. At that point, US VC firm Tiger Global’s Lee Fixel and a handful of established VCs such as Sequoia Capital, who were dominating India’s fledgling Internet economy investments, were faced with a real disrupter with deep pockets and an aggressive plan. Softbank’s strategy of writing big cheques early meant that Snapdeal, Ola Cabs, Housing and Oyo Rooms, were all won by Arora, seen as the heir apparent to SoftBank founder Masayoshi Son. Of these, the Housing fiasco brought unwarranted attention and scrutiny on the nature of Softbank’s early bets in India. Oyo Rooms too continues to face scepticism. Arora, often self-effacing, in a 5 January 2015 tweet acknowledged that it was early to bill him a hotshot VC investor.

“He wanted to conquer — the monies they offered were huge, really big cheques for inexperienced founding teams of startups such as Housing,” said an executive who has sat through at least two such negotiations with Softbank.