There was a time not so long ago when there were hardly any an­gel in­vestors in In­dia. To­day, they num­ber in the thou­sands. One among them is Ut­sav So­mani, who has achieved un­usual promi­nence in a mat­ter of years and is cur­rently en­gaged in bring­ing the wo

Marwar - - Contents - Text Joseph Rozario and De­barati Chakraborty Pho­to­graphs Cour­tesy Ut­sav So­mani

There was a time not so long ago when there were hardly any an­gel in­vestors in In­dia. To­day, they num­ber in the thou­sands. One among them is Ut­sav So­mani, who has achieved un­usual promi­nence in a mat­ter of years and is cur­rently en­gaged in bring­ing the world’s largest start-up plat­form An­gelList’s syn­di­cate plat­form to In­dia.

AN­GEL IN­VESTORS, ALSO CALLED AN­GEL FUN­DERS, are a rel­a­tively new breed in the In­dian busi­ness fir­ma­ment, whose numbers have steadily gone up post the lib­er­al­i­sa­tion of econ­omy in the nineties. An­gel in­vestors fill a gap in the in­vest­ment ma­chin­ery by pro­vid­ing seed cap­i­tal or fund­ing to typ­i­cally smaller com­pa­nies, to whom ven­ture cap­i­tal or bank loans are not avail­able. How­ever, as op­posed to ven­ture cap­i­tal­ists, an­gel in­vestors are in­di­vid­u­als, who par­tic­i­pate at the in­cep­tion stage of start-ups, in ex­change for usu­ally an eq­uity own­er­ship. They may also form small groups by pool­ing re­sources and shar­ing in­for­ma­tion to pro­vide man­age­ment ad­vice and in­vest­ment cap­i­tal to a port­fo­lio of com­pa­nies.

While the rea­sons for choos­ing to be an an­gel fun­der may vary from per­son to per­son—it could be for mon­e­tary re­turns, or want­ing to share knowl­edge and ex­per­tise with newer gen­er­a­tions of en­trepreneurs or keep­ing abreast of de­vel­op­ments in a par­tic­u­lar busi­ness area of in­ter­est— for Ut­sav So­mani, it was “ac­ci­den­tal”. “Un­for­tu­nately or for­tu­nately, I did not choose to be an an­gel fun­der,” says So­mani. “It all started over a cof­fee con­ver­sa­tion with a friend when we were dis­cussing how the word ‘startup’ is now main­stream in In­dia and how to be a part of it. One thing led to an­other, and I found my­self to be part of var­i­ous an­gel net­works and sit­ting for pitch ses­sions.”

Back then, he was still in­volved in the fam­ily busi­ness and so the only at­trac­tion that the world of start-ups held for him was to look at it as an op­por­tu­nity to in­vest into an as­set class..

How it all started

So­mani’s foray into the world of in­vest­ments was pre­ceded by brief stints with sev­eral or­gan­i­sa­tions, in­clud­ing in­tern­ships with ABN Amro and HCL Tech­nolo­gies and then a few months with Bank of Amer­ica, as a part of the bank’s Global Wealth & In­vest­ment Man­age­ment team.

In terms of aca­demics, as his ini­tial area of in­ter­est was pro­gram­ming, it led to an un­der­grad­u­ate de­gree in In­for­ma­tion Sys­tems Man­age­ment and Fi­nance from Sin­ga­pore Man­age­ment Univer­sity. Later, given his broad­en­ing hori­zon of in­ter­ests, he pro­ceeded to ESADE Busi­ness School in Barcelona, where he ac­quired a mas­ter’s de­gree in In­no­va­tion and En­trepreneur­ship in 2012.

Be­ing from a busi­ness fam­ily with in­ter­ests in health care (they own a hos­pi­tal in Luc­know), agro-pro­cess­ing (they have projects in Africa), gar­ment man­u­fac­tur­ing and com­mer­cial real-es­tate leas­ing, his im­me­di­ate en­gage­ment post his mas­ter’s was with the fam­ily hold­ing com­pany, Ut­sav Exim Ltd, where he func­tioned as ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor. But fate had other plans for him.

A cou­ple of years on, he drifted into the world of an­gel fund­ing. “I chose this path due to two main rea­sons,” says So­mani. “Firstly, I wanted to be a part of the revo­lu­tion that is go­ing to be brought about through in­ter­net and tech­nol­ogy; and, se­condly, I thought this could be a great av­enue to get an en­tre­pre­neur­ial drive ac­ti­vated in me and see how I could piggy back on more tal­ented brains to come up with some­thing more mean­ing­ful to do later, which could cre­ate a big­ger im­pact di­rectly pro­por­tional to my in­ter­ests.” In a way, it was also an op­por­tu­nity for him to ex­plore in­ter­est­ing av­enues of in­vest­ment, so as to ex­pand the fam­ily’s port­fo­lio of in­vest­ments.

Up the rungs of suc­cess

As a first step to un­der­stand­ing his cho­sen field bet­ter, So­mani be­came part of an­gel net­work com­pa­nies such as In­dian An­gel Net­work (it

brought to­gether suc­cess­ful en­trepreneurs and CEOs with a com­mon in­ter­est in in­vest­ing in start-ups) and Mum­bai An­gels (it brought as­pir­ing en­trepreneurs face to face with po­ten­tial in­vestors, in­clud­ing busi­ness­men, pro­fes­sion­als and ex­ec­u­tives). But be­ing an an­gel in­vestor proved to be more dif­fi­cult than he had an­tic­i­pated. “I found my­self sit­ting for pitch ses­sions with a crowd that was sub­stan­tially older and more ex­pe­ri­enced in their fields. This is where I felt the pres­sure to make a mark by show­ing how I could add value rather than just be seen as a kid with noth­ing to bring to the ta­ble,” says So­mani. “It took many painstak­ing hours of net­work­ing, chasing some of the best an­gels, speak­ing to founders to see how I could add value and spending count­less hours at events hop­ing to get a minute of some­one im­por­tant. Even­tu­ally, things turned out favourably and I did man­age to make some sort of dent,” he adds.

So­mani’s lucky break ac­tu­ally came by way of an op­por­tu­nity from Let­sVen­ture—a firm backed by well-known in­dus­tri­al­ists that con­nects start-ups with ac­cred­ited in­vestors. It al­lowed him to drive out­reach to in­vestors and start-ups by be­ing the sin­gle point of con­tact for ev­ery­thing re­lated to early stage fund-rais­ing and in­vestor re­la­tions.

Moving on

But Let­sVen­ture too is a thing of the past for So­mani. A suc­cess­ful an­gel fun­der to­day, he has made 14 in­vest­ments in In­dia and an­other 7 in the US—all on a per­sonal level and in a brief span of three years. His port­fo­lio of in­vest­ments is im­pres­sive and in­cludes names such as Test­book, a one-stop on­line test prepa­ra­tion fa­cil­ity, of which he is also the ‘In­vestor Di­rec­tor’ and board mem­ber; Ad­pushUp, an ad­ver­tise­ment rev­enue op­ti­mi­sa­tion ser­vice for web pub­lish­ers; and FabBag, a sub­scrip­tion-based re­tail plat­form for beauty prod­ucts, to men­tion a few.

That apart, in what per­haps is the bright­est hour yet for the as­pir­ing an­gel, he now heads the San Fran­cisco- based start-up plat­form An­gelList in In­dia and is cur­rently work­ing to­wards set­ting up a base for its ar­rival in In­dia. An­gelList is a web-based com­mu­nity of start-ups, in­vestors and job seek­ers that is re­puted to be the world’s largest start-up plat­form, hav­ing raised over $500 mil­lion for 1,200-plus start-ups, apart from pow­er­ing the world’s largest ded­i­cated seed fund of $400 mil­lion. It was founded by the com­pany CEO Naval Ravikant, who re­cently won the ‘An­gel In­vestor of the Year’ award in Sil­i­con Val­ley, USA. A guid­ing light and in­spi­ra­tional fig­ure for So­mani, Ravikant has per­son­ally in­vested in hugely suc­cess­ful com­pa­nies such as Uber, Twit­ter and other sim­i­lar uni­corns, which boast re­turns in mul­ti­ples of 1,000.

The go­ing has been good for So­mani so far. But what about the fu­ture? Go­ing by his pos­i­tive out­look, it would seem that things have just about started to warm up for him. The In­dian ecosys­tem, ac­cord­ing to him, has seen the boom and bust cy­cle at an ac­cel­er­ated pace and so the teams and ven­tures that have sur­vived the phase will be ready for the next phase of fundrais­ing and growth. “2017 will see a lot more ac­tion, as we have seen some big funds be­ing raised in the mar­ket and wait­ing to be de­ployed,” he says op­ti­misti­cally. Judg­ing by his ris­ing for­tunes and im­prov­ing ex­per­tise and vi­sion, the best may have just be­gun for the Young Turk.

Clock­wise from top: Ut­sav So­mani; Ut­sav So­mani (extreme left) at the Let­sIg­nite tech­nol­ogy con­fer­ence with work col­leagues (l-r) Ar­jun Seth, Karan Kumar, Bharat Mehra; Ut­sav So­mani as part of the panel at World Startup Expo 2016

From top: Ut­sav So­mani chill­ing with cousins; at the Global Ci­ti­zen Fes­ti­val In­dia

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