25356149 - needle about to pop a green balloon

In August, we wrote about how the venture capital market in India is becoming bubbly and precarious. It seems that this market is now starting to show some signs of a bust. Ola, India’s largest car-hailing service, is currently raising money at 40 per cent discount to its last valuation of US$5 billion.

If true, this will be the first down round (i.e., raising money at a lower valuation) for a unicorn in India, and it’s likely not going to be the last. Why? Because the VC market in India has been very bubbly, and a deal like this could spread fear, destroy investors’ confidence and pop the valuation bubble.
Let’s discuss a few key issues one by one.

After bubbling up, VC funding is drying up in India

Venture capital firms have been growing in both number and size. Some of this is because of the huge successes achieved by a number of startups like Facebook, Uber and AirBnb. But some of it is also because many hedge funds have been venturing out of the stock markets into the start-up funding world in search of higher returns.

Capital markets poured billions of dollars into startups, and VC funding peaked in Q3 2015 when global VC financing reached a record of US$40 billion during the three months between July and September 2015.

This changed in 2016. Pretty much across all major markets, VC funding has been drying up. India was hit especially hard, with VC funding declining by 70 per cent in Q3 2016 compared to its peak in Q3 2015, compared to a 30 per cent decline in the US and 40 per cent decline globally. This contraction in funding left in its wake more than 800 dead or dying startups in India.

Global VC Funding ($ bn) US China India SE Asia Global
Q2 ’14            19.5              2.6              0.8           0.12            23.7
Q3 ’14            16.0              2.3              1.5           0.18            22.0
Q4 ’14            19.1              5.3              2.1           0.79            28.9
Q1 ’15            20.1              3.2              1.2           0.09            28.2
Q2 ’15            20.0              6.2              2.3           0.23            35.0
Q3 ’15            21.0           10.9              3.4           0.57            39.6
Q4 ’15            17.7              7.3              1.5           0.39            28.3
Q1 ’16            17.5              4.5              1.4           0.40            26.9
Q2 ’16            22.3              5.7              0.6           0.26            28.1
Q3 ’16            15.0              3.9              1.0           1.50            24.1

In India, drought is spreading even to unicorns

When a market panics, it usually begins by taking ‘flight to safety’. Investors tend to take money out of risky assets to buy other things that they believe are safer, regardless of the price they are paying for them. A similar pattern seems to have taken place in India. At the start of this year, most of the startups in India that were reporting failures or hardships were small companies. However, big startups known as unicorns continued to get more funding at higher valuations.

However, at least one of them is now in trouble, with possibly more to come. After raising US$500 million at US$5 billion valuation in September 2016, it is now trying to get more cash from investors at just US$3 billion, representing a 40 per cent decline in value.

If completed, it will be the first down round in the country. In India, there are a total of nine unicorns: Flipkart, Snapdeal, Mu Sigma, InMobi, Paytm, Zomato, Shopclues, Ola and Quikr. All of these companies were awarded with high valuations because there were regarded as leaders in their respective fields in India. Seeing their fellow unicorn in this situation must be a sobering moment for the other eight.

Clearly, investors were too optimistic and paid too much for Ola at US$5 billion. Why might have this happened? Perhaps, investors previously believed these firms’ statuses as local category leaders were secure. However, unlike China, India does not have protectionist policies that prevent foreign tech giants like Amazon or Uber from competing head to head with local players. In face of tough competition with deep pockets, some of these companies have lower chances of success or even survival.

Or maybe investors were content investing in these companies as long as most other investors were also happy to do so. Or perhaps they were just too deep in the water to get out. With so much capital invested in these unicorns, they couldn’t afford to let any of them fail; but they couldn’t continue on this path forever.

Whatever the reason, what’s becoming more clear is that VC market in India was very bubbly and is now contracting. This started with small firms in India, but the contagion is spreading to big firms, and possibly outwards to more places.

Possible further contagion

What does this mean for investors? In our opinion, this phenomenon is likely to spread to other parts of the financial world. First, US and China have also been showing some signs of contraction that have been largely limited to smaller firms. As such, average deal sizes have been increasing in these markets despite the fact that overall funding has been declining.

Now that we’re seeing a declining trend in India for even big unicorns, we might start to see similar signs in China or India. After all, most of these big companies share the same venture capital investor base. When these investors lose money and tighten their pockets, funding will dry for everyone.

$ Per Deal ($ mn) US China India SE Asia Global
Q2 ’14              7.5           36.0           13.3             3.7            11.1
Q3 ’14              6.0           21.8           21.2             4.4            10.0
Q4 ’14              7.5           54.3           29.8           21.8            13.3
Q1 ’15              7.6           39.9           14.0             2.1            12.5
Q2 ’15              7.4           71.4           19.1             5.7            15.1
Q3 ’15              8.3           77.2           21.9           10.7            16.8
Q4 ’15              7.7           87.0           12.0             4.7            13.7
Q1 ’16              8.5           48.3           11.3             5.4            12.9
Q2 ’16            11.7           72.3              5.5             5.0            14.2
Q3 ’16              8.3           46.7              9.7           27.2            12.2

Secondly, this trend in India does not bode well for the Southeast Asian VC market. SEA has been seeing a booming VC market of late, with both funding and deal sizes increasing over 100 per cent. However, as investors begin to suffer big losses in India and elsewhere, their pockets could tighten and lead to a less vibrant funding environment in this part of Asia. In fact, SEA’s average deal size of US$27 million is already one of the highest in the world.

This could be the next bubble in the making.


The article Venture Capital Market Bust in India? originally appeared on ValuePenguin.

The views expressed here are of the author’s, and e27 may not necessarily subscribe to them. e27 invites members from Asia’s tech industry and startup community to share their honest opinions and expert knowledge with our readers. If you are interested in sharing your point of view, submit your post here.

Featured Image Copyright: flynt / 123RF Stock Photo