Ratan Tata tells Snapdeal’s Kunal Bahl why he is investing in startups

Eyes on the next investment.
Eyes on the next investment.
Image: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Sometime in early 2014, Kunal Bahl, co-founder of Snapdeal, found out that Ratan Tata was interested in investing in his firm. A nervous Bahl wasn’t entirely sure about how to prepare for his meeting with the chairman emeritus of Tata Sons. So, he went on YouTube and watched every video of Tata that he could find.

In August 2014, Tata invested in Snapdeal, a deal that Bahl described as ”more than a good luck charm” when the two met yesterday (Jan. 6) at TieCON Mumbai, a two-day event for entrepreneurs in India’s commercial capital. Tata’s backing of Snapdeal was propitious: The company raised more than 95% of its capital after that investment.

But Tata, who led the Indian salt-to-steel conglomerate for over two decades, has more than just Snapdeal in his portfolio. The one-man venture fund has invested in at least 21 startups including Paytm, Zivame and Urban Ladder, since hanging up his boots as the chairman of Tata Sons in 2012.

Here are some edited excerpts of the conversation between Tata and Bahl at TieCON:

Kunal Bahl: One day, about a year and a half ago, I was going back home from office and I got a call from someone I know who said someone really wants to talk to you—a potential investor in your company. And I asked who it was. The person said I can’t tell the name, tell me if you are interested or not. I said yes, which entrepreneur says no for funding! A few conversations later, I got a hint that he was Mr Tata. I took the next flight to Mumbai.

Before my first meeting with Mr Tata, I was so nervous. I just didn’t know what to expect. I remember walking to his office, and I saw him standing there. I had seen him on TV and in newspapers, but I never thought would meet him in real life. I was really nervous. When I went to his office, Mr Tata just pulled a chair and sat next to me, and said your growth story is amazing. How do you do logistics… that was the first question he asked.

So, what got you even thinking about investing in young startups like ours or others?

Ratan Tata: After I retired, it seemed to me that there was a whole new world out there, which was a digital world driven by a marketplace. Basically, which had a huge potential driven by handheld devices, which would one day become the virtual retail store of India. It was, and still is, a learning experience for me… to learn about this world, which is like a virtual world of a business that I have been in for 20 years. 

Bahl: I remember I could answer all the business-oriented questions that day but the toughest question was, “Can I take a selfie with you?” And he (Tata) said yes, and that is the most memorable photograph I have. I showed it to my mom and that’s when she said, ‘Yes, you are doing the right thing.’

Sir, what are some of the things you are looking for in entrepreneurs today?

Tata: I say this sincerely, I was always intrigued and enthusiastic about meeting younger people because they are the future of the country. New startups embody the creativity, the innovation of young people, and for me it was and is a very worthwhile experience to interact with them. I have learnt a lot, probably more than you believe.

I am intrigued by a startup (if it) has an interesting concept that excites me. If it doesn’t excite me, then I really don’t need to make an investment. Second is what I feel about the founders… first impressions. A founder who is in for the short-run or has no passion for the sector he is in, doesn’t give me a great deal of comfort. And lastly in my small way, I see if I can be of help in supporting or helping a founder who doesn’t get funding from others because his business is not a sexy business. If a founder has passion and innovation, he needs to be supported. I am more intuitive than a numbers person, and I recognise that not all investments are going to be positive. Some may fail and some may have problems for other reasons. That is life.