feb 25, 2023

Prateek Sharma

Prateek Sharma is a dynamic and results-driven professional with a background in marketing and business development. Prateek has a strong track record of driving growth and revenue through strategic marketing initiatives and partnerships. He has experience working in the technology and financial services industries, where he has led cross-functional teams and developed innovative marketing campaigns. Prateek is skilled in digital marketing, market research, and brand management. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration and Management.

Episode Highlights

– Importance of a strong founding team in executing ideas effectively, focusing on financial and business operations, product technology, and decision-making.

РEmphasis on prioritizing people’s needs over purely financial goals.

– Recognition of the significance of individual curiosity and the role of outsiders in driving systemic change, particularly in supporting outsider founders.

– Highlighting the concept of impact through leverage within technology.

– Stressing the importance of investing in people and strategic moments to achieve success.

Show Transcript

Transcript - Full Episode

Nitin Bajaj

Welcome to the industry show. I’m your host, Nitin Bajaj, and joining me today is Prateek Sharma. Prateek, welcome on the show.

Prateek Sharma

Thanks for having me, Nitin.

Nitin Bajaj

Pleasure is all ours. Let’s start with the big question. Who is Prateek?

Prateek Sharma

It’s an existential question. I’ll try to answer it in 1 minute, to capture out of this. So, I’m a founder turned investor, which means that I used to be, like, on on the bright side of things, and I’ve now gone Nitin the dark side of of startup life, but loving each minute of it. I run a fund, called Ahead VC. Ahead VC is focused on helping cross border founders, in India built for US markets. That’s what we do. I’ve been an very, very active angel investor for the last 6 years. That’s where I had VC came out of, from my angel investing practice. And before all this investing life, I used to be a founder. I ran a company, in Bangalore for many, many years, founded in it in 2010, like, the super early days of the India startup ecosystem. I’ve done it for many years, raised venture capital from other investors at point that point of time, and eventually sold the company to make my trip. So really kind of took the whole founder journey. That’s that’s that’s what I’m I’m in I’m in junior by training, so very, very technical, but also, a huge lover of the arts. I’m a husband to a wonderful founder. So we’ve got 2 founders in our in our household and and also a dad to a 12 year old. That’s a big, big part of my life and joy and focus. Yeah. And like when I’m not doing my work stuff and startup conversations and then taking care of my 12 year old, you’ll kind of find me brewing coffee because a big, big coffee fanatic, Some people would call me a coffee snob, but I think that label.

Nitin Bajaj

I think those things go hand in hand, but, you know, you did an amazing job of sharing a very, I’ll say, well lived life, a very well rounded, life that, you have been living. And, you know, a lot’s going on. You have your hands full.

Prateek Sharma

That’s good news.

Nitin Bajaj

Yes. And, also, I would like to note this in our conversations. I’ve known you to be very, very humble, and I really appreciate that. And, it brings a lot of things into perspective. It also, I think, puts you in a very good position in the role that you’re playing today, both as a supporting husband, a parent, and also an investor and mentor to many Sharma, that you are helping. So kudos again on your successful exit on your move to the Bay Area and to launching and successfully leading ahead VC. Let’s talk a little more about what a head VC is. Sure. And also, you know, why you do this? I know you’re you’re now here in the US, but you’re still helping, companies that are based in India that are making products for the world to consume. So tell us a little more about that.

Prateek Sharma

Yeah. Yeah. No. That’s a great, great question. Nitin, I’m also a big part of of, like, my work focus, personal mission. There’s there’s a huge kind of alignment of multiple forces, which, has kind of come together in ahead. So this thing ahead is very specifically focused on cross border companies from India. So these are companies in India, founders in India, who are operationally building out of India, but are targeting the US market.

Nitin Bajaj

Mhmm.

Prateek Sharma

Today, that journey or that sector is very dominated by, software centric companies. So think of SaaS companies or developer tools companies or or companies that you’re kind of helping workers be more productive, etcetera. That’s really kind of the big, kind of the dominant categories within this cross border segment. So really the goal for AHEAD, in in the short term is to become a strong operational, investor partner, to these companies because it’s like, I I’ve been a founder myself and really my personal excitement, in care of doing investing comes from being a partner, and working with other founders. So that really is kind of our kind of Sharma goal, but the the mission, which is actually not just an ahead mission, but also like a personal mission for me is to really accelerate this cross border journey for founders. It takes, like, you’ve got really high quality founders in India coming out of, very, very kind of high quality companies building, innovative products, and yet they kind of face a lot of they can niggly challenges in kind of building building these companies. So really that is the mission to kind of help accelerate this whole cross border journey for founders, help founders do this faster, better scale companies, quicker. That really is the mission. In the long term though, I also see that what the head is focused on in the short term, which is cross border from India, the trends actually exist all over the world. So, like we have large companies being built out of Southeast Asia. At last year, one of the biggest SaaS companies is actually built out of Australia. And so India just seems to be a a a com a country which is, like, furthest along on this trend of building in India, but for the world, that will happen that is already happening in elsewhere in the world. And really the ultimate kind of vision for me, for building ahead is to, build, a lasting firm which helps cross border founders, cross border builders really anywhere in the world.

Nitin Bajaj

And I think the timing couldn’t be better. Right? We are at that inflection point. We are at that maturity, if you will. And, the government, the culture, all of those things, as they say, you know, the stars are aligning for that to happen, for that inflection point to really take off. And I can’t think of a better person than you to be in the mix of those things because you’ve had that journey yourself back in 2010. I’m sure there was, you know, no I can

Prateek Sharma

tell a lot of power stories about that time.

Nitin Bajaj

I can imagine. I mean, it it just wasn’t conducive for startups and for fundraising. And you did that at that point, and things have gotten better for the local markets. But as you said, you know, Sharma and founders can do this on their own. They could reach out and they do reach out to US markets, but would you rather focus on the products and the customers or on the the journey to get there? And so the work you’re doing is extremely important in helping accelerate the pace and the the quality at which the companies can get here. Now this whole make in India movement has been alive and thriving for the past few years. Give us a sense for the impact specifically in within the SaaS companies that are catering to markets outside of India?

Prateek Sharma

Yeah. Yeah. So the Make in India movement, the India startup ecosystem, both have had, like, a crazy decade. Mhmm. And just to kind of set things up in terms of context, when I started my when I launched my startup in 2010, India had like 0 unicorns.

Nitin Bajaj

Mhmm.

Prateek Sharma

It’s a very small startup ecosystem, no unicorns at all. And today, if you look at the ecosystem, we have a thriving system. We have about, I don’t know, 120 or so unicorns, in, like, in a span of a decade, maybe just over a decade. It’s crazy to kinda think of those numbers. When I was growing up, I wouldn’t have imagined that India would be on this True. Of, these, crazy Sharma innovation driven growth, which is very, very heartening. Now within the broader ecosystem, even the cross border, sector has grown significantly. So India of these 120 or so, unicorns, I think 20 odd, maybe a little over are actually cross border companies. So these are, companies operating at scale, which were born in India are actually even now built mostly in India, but sell all over the world. So at the in some ways kind of the, at the large scale, operation of the journey, there’s meaningful number of companies which are already created. That said, this is still very, very early days. I think the ecosystem is just about getting started and I’ve kind of been looking at the ecosystem very, very closely. It seems to me that every year, the journey of the cross border ecosystem keeps accelerating. Mhmm. I see this in the number of companies being created, the quality of founders, that are kind of creating these companies, how much investment capital is kind of going, in these companies. How quickly, are kind of companies, kind of hitting their kind of next milestones. Several markers of, like, really accelerating growth, that is, what what kind of really, excites me. And also kind of intersects very kind of closely with my personal, focus, which is like really to be an enabler of founders, kind of bring the empathy from my founder life and kind of use it here, in this moment. So, yeah, really, really kind of the coming together of a personal, mission and a personal meaning, with, this exciting moment and then get started with your system.

Nitin Bajaj

That’s amazing. That’s always a a good combination to have, right, where your purpose and your passion and the profit comes together. Yeah. Tell us about the biggest challenge these founders tend to face. They’re they’re based in India. They’re making really good world class quality products, but are catering to a market that’s not their home base.

Prateek Sharma Yeah. Yeah. So, again, a great question, a significant challenge. It’s also feared to kind of talk about these challenges because there’s so many success stories. So you feel like, we are succeeding. Like, why why is there a challenge? Maybe it’s all of this is solved. And so just kind of set the context of success. Right? India, as I said, like, 20 odd unicorns, which are cross border, I think, 20 20 numbers, revenue numbers that I was looking at, we have about $2,500,000,000 of revenue numbers, which means, like, market valuations. Right. Given the correction into the stock market, 10 x. Yeah. Yeah. Close to 10 x and poised for great growth over the next decade.

Just in terms of revenue numbers, we expect, we’re looking at a Bain report, and this could go as high as like 20 x in terms of revenue numbers. Sharma evaluation, whatever, that kind of vary by what, what the market is feeling on that particular day, but strong opportunity ahead. And in spite of that, the challenges that founders face, a, all of these are very, very strong operators, have deep credibility networks in India, but when they come to the US, they are severely under network. So if they have to raise capital, if they have to hire people here, if they just have to kind of run any kind of a go to market motion, All of those take time because you have a sparser, network to work with. So being under network, a big, big problem. 2nd is, the kind of credibility signals that you bring as an individual, as an operator. A lot of them are not understood, in the US. So oh, yeah. Yeah. You went to IT like, oh, is IT a great college? I don’t know. Like, I haven’t seen that, or like, you were a senior director of sales at Freshworks. Everyone in India would know Freshworks because, like, great success. It’s a publicly listed company. Like, no one knows Yeah. Freshworks here. Even the Indian diaspora, probably wouldn’t know of Freshworks because it just isn’t kind of part of, the American or the US, public. Yes. Yeah. So, all so under network, don’t have kind of the right credibility signals, which means that like opening every opportunity, like getting through that door just takes that, but that bit of extra work. And along with that, there’s also some knowledge challenges, like the context of how you operate a business in India is very, very different from the context how you do it in the US, how you initiate business relationships, what do you expect, how do you price your product, several nuances, which are very, very different. And, so these really are kind of the challenges, and none of them are kind of rocket science. It’s not that these are like, oh my god, can’t be solved. But it just takes a lot of grind for from the founder to solve it. It takes a lot of time, takes a lot of time. And like time really is the killer for startups. If you’re not able to solve these problems in 6 months, 12 months, you’re dead.

Nitin Bajaj

That’s existence crisis, right?

Prateek Sharma

Yeah. Yeah. So those really are the challenges. And and my hope is that, like, ahead and also kind of the broader ecosystem, which is now emerging in this cross border space. We’ll be able to help founders, yeah, like, overcome these challenges faster.

Nitin Bajaj

Mhmm. On the flip side, what’s the most exciting opportunity? I mean, obviously, despite these challenges, you know, the companies exist and are thriving.

Prateek Sharma

Yeah.

Nitin Bajaj

What’s the forward looking exciting thing over there? Yeah.

Prateek Sharma

So really my ultimate excitement and this comes from the quality of people who are building these companies. And so in the last, like, I’ve been in the US the last 6 years, every like, all the 6 years, like, literally every week, I would kind of meet a new founder who’s kind of from India. I was visiting the US. We’ll go get coffee. We’ll talk about all kinds of random stuff. And what’s really stood out to me in the last few years is just how deeply founders are kind of knowledgeable of the market that they’re building in as opposed to even, like, 5, 7, 8 years ago. So there’s a lot of domain knowledge. There’s a lot of functional knowledge now. So if they’re a salesperson, they’ve actually, maybe led kind of sales functions to, scale revenues to tens, even 100 of 1,000,000 of dollars. So they’ve actually lived that journey. Mhmm. But with the product person, they’ve actually launched the product, scaled it, gone through, like, multiple product cycles. So really, really strong functionality. So strong domain knowledge, strong functional knowledge, and hugely ambitious. So there is no kind of holding back, no kind of doubts about, like, oh, like, can I do it? Is it possible? Like, there’s no iffiness about, like, just going after this opportunity. That combination, like, really is like I feel like scarily good. Like, when you see founders, you said, like, wow. Like, I wasn’t like you when I was your age. You have, like, a lot more clarity, lot more ability. And to me, that really is like the biggest driver of my optimism, in this category. Of course, this optimism on the human side is supported by what’s happening in the Sharma. Like, with the world kind of going remote and, there’s huge openness on markets now to kind of engage with you on a Zoom call. You can take a Zoom call anywhere. You don’t have to be based in the US. You can kind of sign contracts without having personally met this person because, yeah, the businesses are open to that.

Nitin Bajaj

Mhmm.

Prateek Sharma

And those are all kind of supporting curtailments from the market, which really, is enabling these, 3 c talented, founders, coming out of India. And that’s that really is what’s kind of, yeah, keeping me, Yeah. Prateek excited about this.

Nitin Bajaj

That is awesome. Now as we look forward, let’s look, take a look in the rearview mirror and, talk about two things. 1, that became a success beyond your imagination, and the other one that, did Nitin. And failure became a lesson. Yeah. So we’d love to share one of each of those experiences.

Prateek Sharma

Yeah. No. Absolutely. So many lessons. Maybe, let’s talk about let’s talk about, founder, a portfolio company, because that’ll, that to me, it illuminates a lot about what Sharma journeys are like, how success is created. So I’ll tell you about this company called Grow. Grow is, based in India. I mean, early, early angel investor there. Grow is, building essentially, like the Robinhood, but for Indian markets. So, like a trading, investing app for Indian consumers. So, the group founder Lalit, I’ve known him for a while. We used to we overlapped in Bangalore while Lalit was doing his previous company, which was not doing very well. He had eventually shut it down and do something else and then eventually come to, building Groove. I invested very, very early because I knew the founder, extremely well. And then from so I invested in 2016, 16 2016 or 2017 around that time, and Google’s just about starting off. It was also an interesting time in the event, like the UPI infrastructure was just about setting up was getting set up and slowly getting scaled. So there was ease of transactions online. India was also kind of on this great bull run so slowly and not just India, but like really the world. So that is driving a lot of new, retail investors into the market and people who were looking for a product like Groove. It was also a time where, like, the mobile penetration in India was was scaling its continuous scale, but it was still, early days there. And Gro just happened to, like, perfectly time the market. They were an exceptional team, like, no doubts about it. There’s 3 founders, very, very strong at product, very, very strong at, like, understanding financial markets and those products, very strong at operations. So, like, really strong team. No like, not taking anything away. Mhmm. But that combination combined with market timing just create created this hockey stake, which was unbelievable. So, in a span of like 4 or 5 years, CRO has gone gone from like being born. They raised their last round last year in at a $3,000,000,000 valuation. Wow. It’s insane. Like, I haven’t seen anything where I’ve read about these stories, but I haven’t seen any company kind of personally kind of go through that journey. And, really, it was, yeah, this combination where an extremely solid team, but also arriving at a moment in the market where, they positioned themselves very well and, like, really executed extremely well, along with that growth. That was quite quite a journey to see. Yeah.

Nitin Bajaj

Well, congrats to you and for spotting the talent and and believing in the founding team and then also for the team for being there. Yeah. And, you know, sometimes you’re there at the right place at the right time, but you just don’t have what it takes to execute. So kudos to them.

Prateek Sharma

100%. Yeah. Yeah. I think the timing is you still have to execute on the opportunity. And then the second question you said was, why did work out well? Yes. Yeah. So this was, and I’m not going to name the name of the company Sure. Because, I’m gonna gonna, protect the founders. Mhmm. This was a company in, again, I’m an investor, early investor. I invested maybe 2019, 2019. So this company was trying to build, again based in India, building a social video service. So think of them like a TikTok.

Nitin Bajaj

Mhmm.

Prateek Sharma

Right? Now what was happening in the market then, was that India had banned TikTok. And there was this massive kind of demand from customers because that product was, that, that model was proven to be successful. And there was this mad rush to kind of fill that gap. And I thought that, yeah, this is a great opportunity. This is kind of proven out. It’s a matter of who captures this Sharma, and invested in this, in these set of founders who are building in the space. Senior founders, very, very operationally sound, very clear thinking about, like, why the opportunity exists, why should we execute. Also had us, like, a, like, a specific angle of attack. They said that we will not build, like, a total TikTok plan. A TikTok clone. We’ll actually build maybe, like, a competition so that people will be driven to kind of win awards and that will kind of drive participation. So they had that sound strategy. The company didn’t go anywhere. They kinda struggle. They struggle to build the product, try to put lawn. There was some struggles with kind of scaling it. Eventually, they had to shut down the company, like, despite huge effort by the founders. So like no, doubts about like how much effort the founders put in. And the learnings there for me were twofold. 1 was that the founder was kind of building this company on a secondhand insight Or like someone else has done it, I will just replicate it. They just didn’t have enough time to own the insight. And, like, as a founder, you have to kind of feel the insight in your bones. Without that, it’s very hard to kind of make those small decisions, which you have to take, like, 100 of them every day. And that was a big struggle. It it was just it was a short opportunity. They had to execute really quickly. Otherwise, lots of other people were had spotted and it was, very, very competitive. So there was that. And the second one was, this is actually a big learning for me is, I underestimated how hard it is to build a product. I’ve built, like, products all my life, technology product. That’s what my life has been. And, in spite of that, I kind of underestimated, and I would actually think that maybe despite of that, because it wasn’t such a big deal, for me, I assume that it’ll be easy for them as well. And in retrospect, that is something which I have kind of actually added to my diligence question is in that, like, yeah, I might find it very easy to grok it, but is it going to be easy for, for the founding team? Because like really the other ones who are executing it, I’m just, I’m a supporter. I’m a, I’m a partner, but, really, like even simple things, but actually building product is not some position to call it simple, but high quality execution, in whatever domain, whether, it’s like financial operations, whether it’s like business operations, product technology, high quality operation execution. It’s not it’s not a given. So you have to pay a lot of attention to 2 teams, at least as an investor. I pay a lot of now, attention to teams about all of these, aspects of like how soundly can they even execute.

Nitin Bajaj

Right. And as you said, you know, what are the decisions they have to make and what choices are they making? And you have to make a 100 a day. And those small variations can take you in a very different direction. Correct. True. Yeah. So, Pratik, with that lesson, I would love to launch into my favorite part of the show. We call it the one line life lessons, and we would love to hear a few of your life lessons.

Prateek Sharma

Yeah. Yeah. So I looked at some of the life lesson that you had shared. My life lessons are definitely not as punchy as those, but I do hold them close. And and and I’ll I’m happy to share why they can important to me.

Nitin Bajaj

Sure.

Prateek Sharma

So the first life lesson for me is actually very, very simple: is that people matter.

Nitin Bajaj

Mhmm.

Prateek Sharma

Often, like, I see this all around me is that, like, both in our individual journeys, in business journeys, we are often kind of thrown off by either ideas saying that, oh, I want to kind of make more money or, like random numbers saying that, oh, I want my business to scale x numbers. You’re gonna lose sight of, like, who you’re doing it for. Correct. And even and at multiple levels, I’ve kind of realized that, like, pulling myself back from pursuing this intellectual idea or this like weird number and say that, who is this for? Like, why am I doing this? Who are the people involved? Focus on them, make the right decision by them, and other Will follow. Outcomes will follow.

Nitin Bajaj

Right.

Prateek Sharma

So really kind of, yeah. Saying that people matter focus on that. Other things will follow that’s, that’s a big one for me. I would have more. Yes. Because you’ve given me the homework so I’ve kind of done done some work around it. The second one for me is, allow yourself to be led by your curiosity. Love that. Yeah. This is again, I think maybe it I had to kind of learn this, because I’ve grown up in India and it like, all my early childhood, it seems like that the parts for you were set that, oh, you either become an engineer or you become a doctor. They are like, yeah. Sure. What else? Maybe you take the civil service exam and you you kind of, yeah, go, join the administrative services. It took me a long time to, like, be able to hear my inner voice of, like, why what’s interesting to me? What’s exciting? Why is it kind of worth pursuing really be able to hear myself and also trust that it’s syncing that, yeah, this will kind of make sense. It might not be making sense right now, but eventually, this will. I think that’s true for, like, most people’s and pursuits in life. That’s really it’s your individual curiosity, which leads you to a path where you bring, something to the world which only you can. Otherwise, yeah, I think there’s tons of copies of lots of lives out there. You have to kind of find your curiosity and, yeah, build your own life. Okay. So that’s number 2. Number 3 is systems are changed only by outsiders.

Nitin Bajaj

Mhmm.

Prateek Sharma

Like, if a system think of it as a political system. Mhmm. It can only be changed, dramatically. If it has to be fixed, it change is changed dramatically by outsiders. If we think about the idea of America and, like, I keep thinking about it a lot because ever since I’ve kind of seen, the Hamilton musical, I’ve read the book, like, just that idea of these weirdos who were, like, random people and they said, like, fuck it. I don’t care about, like, this British system anymore. I will create something new. And I see that pattern repeated over and over again, whether it’s academia, where there’s a young professor or a young researcher, see that, like, yeah, this established way of thinking is is not right. We have to, like yeah. We have to kind of think of something completely different. So it’s really outsiders who bring, like systemic change. Mhmm. And that to me, personally, is kind of very, very, kind of exciting. It’s something which I’m trying to do, by kind of helping a slice of outsiders, which are these outsider founders Mhmm. And help them kind of break in too. But it’s also, kind of a, a check that I put on myself because like, I’m also part of the system in, in many, many ways. So I have to be cognizant of, like, oh, who me or, like, my system is kind of keeping on the outside and hence, just to be kind of aware of that. But really, yeah, the insight or kind of the the learning here is that, yeah, systemic changes, system changes in systems are always brought by outsiders. Insiders always try to maintain the system. We want to be conservative. Yeah. Yes. And, the last one, I just did 4. Right. But We are passing grade. Yeah. The last one is that, impact comes from leverage. Mhmm. And this is something which I kind of really internalize when I was kind of when I had kinda put on my product manager hat, like both at my startup and at other companies, I’ve led product I’ve been an individual product manager. I’ve kind of led product management functions. And you realize that you can do a 1,000,000 small things. And it’s really like the big jump comes from like that one highly leveraged, point of action. So really, and that’s kind of got me to be a lot more cognizant and aware of trying to understand points of leverage in a system. You know, like, oh, if you’re trying to change the economic system, what is the point of leverage? What is the pressure point where if you kind of apply to the pressure, it kind of has a huge impact. Technology in a very broad brush is a huge, like, high leverage tool. Like, you can we allow autonomous cars. Like, you write a line of code and how cars drive on the road. That changes. That’s huge impact. So technology has been, high leverage tool for a while, but, these kind of exist, in multiple places. So really being a student of how a system operates, where does leverage exist? How do you change it? If you’re, if you’re kind of pursuing impact, I think that’s, that’s a worthwhile pursuit.

Nitin Bajaj

I see a a theme there obviously not surprising, in what your life lessons are and how you act in your daily life. You do invest in people as you shared in multiple of those examples, not really the business, not really the the Sharma up because that can and does change. And then you also have these strategic moments where you’re looking for those levers, looking for these mavericks that are gonna come in and make a seismic change in what they’re doing. And in the in doing so, we’ll make them and make you successful. So thank you for sharing those, lessons and for sharing your journey and story. But we’re really excited for you and what ahead VC is going to do here in the near future, And, glad to have you as a part of the network here on the industry show. Thank you once again.

Prateek Sharma

Thanks, Thanks for having me. It’s always wonderful to chat with you, and thanks for putting yeah. Yeah. Asking me these questions because very, very thought provoking. It kind of made me crystallize a lot of these ideas and thoughts which are kind of in a in a fuzzy diffuse state of my head. So, yeah, thanks for thanks for the promise.

Nitin Bajaj

Well, too kind of you to say that, and, we’d love to get you back on here and talk about more of your success stories.

Prateek Sharma

Sure. Sure.

Nitin Bajaj

Thank you.

Prateek Sharma

Thanks

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