Many More Sharks And A Much Bigger Tank, Please

by Tushar Gupta - Feb 12, 2022 12:28 PM +05:30 IST
Many More Sharks And A Much Bigger Tank, PleaseShark Tank India
  • For an era where colleges have been restricted to homes and online calls, Shark Tank India is a good lesson to take.

    The author’s ask is of many more sharks and a much bigger tank for unquantifiable equity in India’s story of wealth creation.

Ponder of these two extremes witnessed in the Indian version of the globally acclaimed show ‘Shark Tank’. From Malegaon, Maharashtra, a young man who calls himself ‘Jugadu Kamlesh’ or an improvisation master, a farmer by profession, makes it to the show to present a pesticide sprinkler that resembles a tricycle for an adult but with necessary customisations, built entirely from a box of scraps.

The pitch was heavier on sentiment than business or valuation rationale as all agriculture-related decisions in India are, and yet the 27-year-old farmer from a remote corner of India did not shy away from asking for Rs 3 million while offering 10 per cent equity.

Put simply, Kamlesh was valuing his tricycle sprinkler company at Rs 30 million (Rs 3 crore), and this is when he had only built a single prototype that took seven years, had not sold a single unit, had not patented his product, and was without any operational infrastructure, but with enough ideas and innovations up his sleeve to transform that tricycle into fully-operational mitochondria equivalent for the farms, given the shrinking landholding sizes in India for over 80 per cent of the farmers.

He was unwilling to sell it to any company, unaware how to reach out for any grants or collateral-free loans under the government’s Mudra programme, for reasons best known to him.

What he had was a vision; to ensure every farmer had access to affordable operational equipment for their farms, and to produce an array of mechanised utilities for the farmers, built from scraps. With an unreal yet applaudable audacity like that, he might well have called himself the ‘Tony Stark of Malegaon’.

Yet, even with all the faults, he walked away with a loan of Rs 2 million, without any interest or rigid payment schedule, and another million rupees for 40 per cent of the equity. The offer was not a validation for the idea or the business, but the spirit.

On the other end of the spectrum was a woman, a 25-year-old entrepreneur from the national capital who created a digital ‘piggy bank’, one that could be accessed through a mobile app by both the parents and their wards.

Focussing on incentivising good behaviour for the children, the app would have allowed parents to digitally reward their wards. Given the nature of transactions and the interface of the app, the product would have enabled children to behave well, adopt the right habits, and as they went along, learn the importance of managing finances.

On paper, the idea does seem questionable, but for a generation of urban parents that evaluate their parenting through the money they spend on electronic devices and software programmes and applications, the digital ‘piggy bank’ did have a market to tap into.

However, the problem was not the ask of Rs 4.5 million for 5 per cent equity, or that two of the sharks present on the show had already invested in a competitor, or that the app interface was not up to the mark, or that they were without a technology expert within the team, but the sugarcoated jargon she chose to throw on the judges when asked some tough questions.

When she was asked if the company was in the edu-tech space or the fin-tech space, she told the judges about being an ambassador for ‘Women in Tech’ in India. When asked about the turnover (the company was a zero revenue one, much like Kamlesh’s), she elaborated on how her product would enable financial literacy which happens to be one of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. When told to focus on the local market, she began talking about a posh nursery in the Delhi suburbs, only embarrassing herself further.

When she was told about looking at the potential in the research aspect of the product, she answered with another set of jargon, consequently irritating the sharks and one can safely assume, the viewers.

Eventually, she walked away with nothing but a piece of advice from one of the sharks who asked her to remove the words ‘fintech and edtech’ from her vocabulary. It was not a comment on her business or the revenue model, but her spirit.

Between these two extremes, there were scores of teams, scattered across 35 episodes, selling everything under the sun.

The products, ideas, applications, and visions were diverse, as were the equities, loans, and conditions that followed, but what inspired all the sharks to put their faith and money in any company was the spirit. In fact, some good companies were turned away simply because the sharks detected a lack of energy within the founders. However, that is merely one ‘S’ of the four when it comes to wealth creation.

From across India, people came with solutions. These were solutions to problems that may appear trivial to many. For instance, ice pops, can cocktails, sneakers that can be resold, a market limited to a few nerds but a huge market nevertheless by value, sugar-free ice cream brands, snacks that were aggregated from the local markets across the country, and so on. Turns out, solutions came for all the problems, ones that people face, have pondered over, or did not know existed.

However, the spirit and solutions need the power of scale, and that is where the presence of sharks came into play. Most businesses that made it to the show had the problem of scale, for some lacked the marketing budget or the relevant expertise or simply the market knowledge, and therefore, in each shark, they found not only a potential investor but also a bridge between a successful solution and scalability.

And lastly, it was the question of sustainability. The first season of Shark Tank India has been criticised for its sharks investing in businesses that were already established and were therefore looking for a quick buck after the scalability had been achieved, or were simply looking for companies that could complement their existing investments.

While there can be some truth to this criticism, the partnership with venture capitalists at this level does ensure that even the weakest of the businesses can be put on the path of sustainability and more importantly, profitability.

Beyond the spirit, solutions, scaling, and sustainability, there is also the ‘S’ of staged and scripted.

In a viral thread by one of the participants, it was revealed that the show had its share of choreography, as any reality show is guilty of having, but then, this is not Bigg Boss we are talking about.

For instance, unlike the business pitches in the real world, the time allotted here was a few minutes, there was focus on making the entire pitch suited to TV by sprinkling sentiment in the form of family members or some back story suited to the melodramatic nuances of television.

The presenters were constrained by languages, and for some businesses, perhaps a pitch to a venture capitalist outside a television studio made more sense, and for some, the sharks were simply downright arrogant.

In all fairness, the criticism is not misplaced, for people on both sides of the coin, perceptions of the products and ideas are subjective.

However, even in its faults, and very average editing, Shark Tank India is a fresh take on wealth creation in a country where the rural youth is still obsessed with a government job, the urban youth is still fixated on a STEM degree and the ideal American dream, and entrepreneurship is looked down upon.

The likes of Kamlesh could be without the resources, and many like him on the show may walk back without the money they were looking for, but at the end of the day, it is the spirit that is spreading like wildfire, and the success of the show is a testament to that.

What makes it even better is that there is no place for niceness on the show. It’s purely business, and therefore, the woman entrepreneur mentioned above, and some other similar cases, will be shown the door with utmost prejudice.

In an era when our politics is driven by religion and caste arithmetic, government jobs and admissions to graduate and postgraduate courses are plagued with reservations, there are calls for private sector reservations, and political correctness or wokeness dominates our public conversations, a show like Shark Tank India, solely focussed on enabling entrepreneurs, generating employment, and creating wealth is a much needed change. No sugarcoated nonsense imported from the West, just straightforward business and moneymaking.

The show is good education as well, especially for students looking to make a career in engineering, management, or within the huge service industry. For an era where colleges have been restricted to homes and online calls, Shark Tank India is a good lesson to take.

At the risk of overreaching, it would not be unfair to declare that Shark Tank India is the best thing that has happened to Indian Television in decades, a circuit that had been plagued with regressive TV soaps that were borderline obnoxious, and therefore, it is only fair to ask for more.

Perhaps, Sony should look to expand the show beyond a single season, across a few weeks, to multiple months with scores of episodes, and pitches that are not restricted to a few minutes but as much as half-an-hour, better editing, and with more sharks from across sectors, not just a few.

The author’s ask is of many more sharks and a much bigger tank for unquantifiable equity in India’s story of wealth creation.

Tushar is a senior-sub-editor at Swarajya. He tweets at @Tushar15_
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