Archive for October, 2008
Internet penetration in India is still relatively low, only around 30 mn of the Indian 1.1 bn population are online, growing at a fast pace of 27 % p.a. Yet, as everything in India, one has to put things into a context before making a conclusion, one has to put a frame around what one ist going to say. The context that I'd like to narrow down is the increasingly affluent group of people who like going out for a good night's party in Bangalore. Indians usually in their 20s, and a bit elderly expats in their rather 30s (like me ;-). Although the "good night's party" in Bangalore is strangulated by a curfew at 11.30 pm including a no-dancing policy whose zeal of enforcement reminds me rather of the Islamic police in Iran that in the allegedly "biggest democracy in the world", one thing has changed for the better in the last 1.5 years or so.
Previously, due to the reason mentioned above, the entire nightlife was entirely fragmented across the various locations in Bangalore. No doubt, that there is nothing more boring that going to a bar or a club and having the impression to be almost the only guest. So today 23-year old Entrepreneur Viren Khanna seized the opportunity of aggregating the dispersed crowd. He made a deal with existing clubs and started to send out text messages to people of his address book on the mobile phone which he systematically grew with every event; a typical example of "building momentum". Since then, the so called "Viren-Parties" have become a synonym for "something is happening" at least two times a week in Bangalore.
In a not surprising quest to grow his business, he went on to organize fashion shows. What is more, the platforms of communication got enhanced as well, getting into the Web 2.0, an environment that the mentioned target group is very familiar with. For one, a group called "Viren's Nightlife Group – Blitzkrieg" on Facebook with 789 members at the time of my writing. For second, in order to provide a higher level of proprietary branding, a social network of its own, "The Ives Club".
Positioned as a club for interns, trainees and expats in Bangalore, I was astonished in the first place about the technological sophistication of it and wondered what huge effort it would have taken it to engineer this monster. When I digged deeper into the souce code, it dawned on me that the platform entirely uses Ning, which allows you to "create a social network for anything". Co-Founded by Marc Andreessen, the founder of Netscape in the 90s, Ning is an amazing example of the Über-Plattform, as Marc elaborately explains in his blog-post on "The three kinds of platforms you meet on the internet". When I asked Viren how long it took to build The Ives Club based on Ning , he replied "It did not take me much long to stitch this thing together, but it did take me an extremely long time and a lot of fidgeting with CRM softwares, phpBB and 3 versions of it to find out about Ning and use it."
As the fundamentals of Web 2.0 go, these services become better the more people use them. So besides just having a distibution channel to annouce further events, the members among each other begin to interact before and after the events. So the shy ones for instance get the opportunity to address a girl onlline which they have failed to do while seeing her "in da club". Subject to some positive response he will be able catch up during the next party and prove that is is not that shy, though …
Catching up from our first encounter at NASSCOM's "IT Product Conclave" in August, I felt very proud and privileged to receive an invitation from Anal K. Jain today to Bangalore's pristine Golf Course at the Karnataka Golf Association. Anal has an amazing career behind him with setting up IBM India as employee #1 and after that likewise starting-up the Indian operations for Sun Microsystems. He is strongly involved in mentoring young IT-companies together with NASSCOM, India'a industry association for companies in the space of software development and business process outsourcing (BPO).
His major focus, however, is his current involvement into Microventures, a for-profit fund in the space of microfinance. The sector has recently gained strong public awareness after Mohammed Yunus' got awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his Grameen Bank, a micro-finance institution from Bangladesh. Indeed, the beautiful thing about micro-finance is three-fold: One, it is ideally suited to raise people out of (absolute) poverty in a sustainable way. Second, giving these people a sense of dignity as the improvement of their lives is the immediate result of the empowerment towards entrepreneurship. And third, yet another confirmation that profit is good – both for the new entrepreneurs, the bank as the mediator in between and ultimately the investor on the financial supply side. Microfinance proves to be a perfect example for the "Bottom of the Pyramid"-principle, where "the poor" are not just considered from a philanthropic perspective, but as equal participants in a vivid economy: As entrepreneurs and customers.
Anal's role for Microventures is an advisor for directing the incoming funds from the European headquarter of Microventures into prospective channels in India. The exiting thing is to understand how the company tackles this challenge in probably the most unsystematic, fragmented, long-tail market that lacks any supportive eco-system so far. Clearly, the opportunity in the aggregate is huge with 70 % of India's 1.1 bn population living in the rural areas being potential customer for micro-finance. My key insights:
- As it is entirely impossible to reach out to each and every of the few hundred million potential customer directly, one has to rely on existing structures of microfinance-institutions which – again – are structurally fragmented and widespread all over the country. Microventures acts as a "fund in fund", i.e. like a meta-layer on top of these existing institutions by taking an equity share in exchange for a cash-injection.
- This cash will be supplemented by bank-loans and then dispersed down to the village level by local employees of the same institution. There the employee will invest into a group of women. Why women? It has proved – reality bites – that men against all promises tend to spend any incoming money at the bar around the corner while women prove to use it for the purpose of their small enterprise. Why groups? Addressing a little community seems to provide a joint sense of ownership, better performance and a lower default rate.
- On average, one loan will amount to Rs. 5,000/- (app. EUR 80.-) which is repayable within one year in 50 instalments where the credit-employee will show up for weekly collection. In the absence of formalized agreements, not to mention their legal enforcement, the personal rapport between the bank's local representative and the recipients is essential. Ultimately, you don't want to either fool or disappoint someone whom you consider a friend by defaulting on your debt.
- Interest rate is usually a reflection of two factors: risk and cost of capital deployment. By nature the risk of such a loan without any collateral is high. Astonishingly, the default rate is relatively low due to the measures explained above. On the other hand, as one can easily fathom, the cost of deployment along these various cascades of intermediaries as well a logistic issues of transporting money back and forth is painstakingly high. Therefore, the annual interest comes at a price around 20 percent.
- Mircoventures' role, besides the allocation the funds in the investments phase, consists in the governance of the investee companies. The model to earn its money back could be either a trade sale of the stake to some strategic investor or possibly an IPO which would create a liquid event for the limited investors. The fund itself makes its money in the typical two-fold model of a fee as the share of funds under management plus some carry in case of disproportionate returns.
Anal being a seasoned businessman was very candid that "if you are looking for pure economic profit, then there are easier industries to go into than microfinance in India". That's why the limited partners of Mircoventures are predominantly wealthy individuals who want to invest and do some good at the same time. Who are seeking for both a return on capital gains and a return on social benefit. In the microfinance industry the term coined for that aspiration is called "double bottom line".
I really like that expression. Maybe we should all look for whatever we do, a bit more for that "double bottom line".
These are the little things in life to be happy about. Just got into my kitchen and saw something brown and fluffy sitting in front of my window. I couldn't make out what it was till I came close to 20 cm, silently, and realized: an owl.
In the middle of the city, having a rest. Then I sneaked like a paparazzo around the corner onto my balcony to get a shot from the front. Gotcha. And the owl, like a good photo model, knew how to make a good facial expression into the camera.
Then I sneaked silently away and the let the owl continue her rest. Come back soon, always welcome.