BUSINESS FEATURES INDIA

Unicorns are getting devalued, and that might actually be a good thing

We are in an era of market correction

By Mahesh Nair

market correction underway as startup unicorns are losing valuation

India’s booming startup ecosystem, which had been the toast of the town for the last couple of years, is back in the news. While until sometime back, startups were being celebrated amidst great fanfare due to high valuations and big buck investments unlike ever before, the mood is now sombre after Flipkart’s recent devaluation — the fourth time in a row.

Flipkart, which enjoys 45 per cent of the market share in the e-commerce segment, was marked down by Morgan Stanley in its recent valuation by almost 27 per cent. This led to Flipkart’s net worth dropping from US$15.2 billion to US$11 billion.

Also Read: Kalyan Krishnamurthy is now officially calling the shots as Flipkart CEO, but can he turn the company around?

With the looming spectre of Amazon cutting swathes through Flipkart’s market, this devaluation couldn’t have come at a worse time. Just when Flipkart needed more funds to counter the competition from Amazon, the devaluation will mean slowing down its growth plans.

What is worse is that Flipkart is not the only unicorn whose fortunes have taken a hit. HSBC Securities and Capital Markets, too, have cut back on the valuation of  Zomato by a whopping 50 per cent. With the unicorns losing their shine, a pal of gloom has descended over Indian startups. What is important, however, is that startups now need to introspect what and where things have gone wrong, and implement corrective measures to get onto the right track.

Here’s why things went wrong in the first place

A couple of years ago, investors were flush with excess money and looked towards new and growing markets like India, which now has the third largest concentration of startups, to widen their portfolio of investments. Since the startup fad was still relatively new then, there was little data to back their investments. So they went ahead with their gut feel. Thereafter, it was purely a matter of luck in terms of which investments paid off and which ones didn’t. The final blow was the constant pressure on these startups to scale up, when they were not even close to being sustainable.

Unfortunately the method to escalate size and reach was all wrong. All of these e-tailers resorted to the deep discounting model to grab market share and kill the smaller competitors in the horizon. Rapid horizontal growth across tier 2 and tier 3 cities took place without putting in place adequate backend logistics and infrastructure. The bottom line was all red, with a majority of the startups clocking losses with a zero profit generation revenue model.

Q3 of 2015 saw a drop of 50 per cent in series B funding by investors and 80 per cent fall in the series C rounds as compared to Q3, 2015, as per a Tracxn survey. So it’s time for startups move away from high cash-burn mode of operations and start focusing on creating some real value for themselves, customers, and other stakeholders.

A new way of doing things

This could mean going frugal and looking at long term sustainability as well as tweaking the current business model, finding new growth metrics and avenues.  It would also mean analysing how operations can be optimised by trimming down spending on areas that are not yielding the desired results or figuring out how to turn things around in those areas.

This is also the time when copycat ventures with little innovation and novelty in their offerings will be weeded out. Moreover, given the current situation, there is likely to be a sort of market correction, with quite a few consolidations happening in the startup space.

Also Read: Patriotism is the last refuge of the failing copycats: Experts flay Flipkart’s demand for protectionist policies

With tightened purse strings, job cuts are on the anvil, too. Startups will be left with little choice than to slash their workforce in the face of such slowdowns and shutdowns. Demonetisation will only compound their woes further in this regard. All in all, this cycle will be a major learning curve for future startup operations in India.

However, all is not lost for the Indian startup industry. Flipkart might lose out to Amazon with deeper pockets at the moment. But, the spirit of Indian entrepreneurship will stay alive. The country is poised for a startup revolution, fuelled by the aspirations of   increasingly globalised Indians.

New expectations, new focus

Once limitations in internet bandwidth, smartphone penetration, regional preferences, and now, the move towards a cashless economy are sorted out, the glorious days of startups will be back. Not to forget: startups that figure out the right moves during these seemingly tough times and build sustainable models will emerge a cut above the rest, and will not fail to get noticed by investors even now.

The Flipkart devaluation only goes to show that investor preferences have changed over time. It is not as if investment has come to a standstill. So, rather than fretting about the situation, all that is required is that startups begin aligning themselves with the evolved set of expectations and the renewed focus on building a business with a clear differentiation and self-sustainable model.

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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: mantinov / 123RF Stock Photo

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Joey Alarilla
Joey Alarilla • Head of Community and Social Media at e27
It's about time. It's like the unrealistic valuations and expectations for dotcoms all over again.
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Daryl Chung
Daryl Chung • Project Director at e27
Themes going in to 2017: Consolidation (also read: market correction), Unit Economics, Cockroaches...
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J. Angelo Racoma
J. Angelo Racoma • Storyteller for startups and enterprises.
I do agree that the underlying theme would be that startups need to build actual real-world value, and not just perceived utility. I'd go for something that has a big impact on people's lives in the mid- to long-term, and not just something that gets traction because of hype. The key here is how founders, investors and even users will be able to discern what is good and what is useless in the long run.
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Kevin McSpadden
Kevin McSpadden • Southeast Asia Correspondent at e27 (Optimatic)
Even after it's explained to me like I'm a five year old child, I still find valuations to be an overrated metric. Plus, startups/investors guard that data so closely it's not overly relevant. It's not like anyone besides a few top people actually know a company's valuation.
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