Economic Times | September 7, 2019 | By Sunil K Goyal
Startups in general and B2B, in particular, require financial support at multiple levels – including from friends, family, government grants (for research), incubation, acceleration, angel funding, and venture capital while also requiring opportunities for co-creating the product with the industry.
Often, the universe does conspire to connect these players with the worthiest startups – and Uniphore’s is one such story where a series of so-called coincidences brought us in contact with them, almost as though a signal was being sent out.
Uniphore, which started as a Man-Machine Interface (MMI) opportunity that provided speech and data software solutions to enterprises – across industries – to improve customer engagement as well as enhance employee performance, was incubated at IIT Chennai in 2008, along with an early investor, under the guidance of Prof. Ashok Jhunjhunwal. The National Research Development Corporation (NRDC) – had made an equity investment of Rs 3 mn in June that year. The Villgro and ‘Technopreneur Promotion Promotion Program (TePP)’ of Government of India, supplemented it with grants of Rs 2.7 mn in 2010. This enabled Uniphore to experiment with several product ideas and business models that eventually would bring them to YourNest, IAN and a marquee investor like Chiratae (formally IDG Ventures) and mentor of the stature of John Chambers and Krish Gopalakrishnan. However, the first set of references that would connect Umesh with YourNest started in June 2013.
My meeting Umesh Sachdev, the CEO and Co-founder of Uniphore, that month, and the events that followed, have only reaffirmed my belief that there are no coincidences in life.
One of the tech startup founders – who was trusted acquaintance from my Airtel days – reached out on Linkedin and enquired if we were considering investments in tech startups. Within three minutes, I had responded to him: “Yes, we look for promising Indian tech-enabled startups by first-generation entrepreneurs.” That led to a call with the Uniphore team, a call that made it clear that Umesh, Ravi and the team were on the path to creating something very significant and future-focused.
When I first spoke with Umesh, the company was already four-five years old and had Proof of Concept for their product, albeit on a service-centric model. For us at YourNest, this looked a golden opportunity – a startup incubated atone of the premier academic institutions in the country, with a legendary mentor, paying customers and a reliable reference. We were almost sure.
The next morning I was in Mumbai as part of a 100-member jury at an Enactus event. While interacting with the other attendees before the event, and introducing YourNest as an early-stage VC fund interested in disruptive startups, a South African banker who happened to be in earshot, came over and took me aside. He told me that he had a global mandate to look for a disruptive solution for the bank’s customer service operations and, after a worldwide search, had landed at Uniphore in Chennai. He emphatically vouched for the company, its team and the solutions being developed. Within a week of my first hearing about Uniphore, there I was getting a customer validation from someone I had never met before. With three contacts in seven days, two of which were unsolicited, I sensed that the universe was sending us a signal.
I shared the opportunity with my partner, Girish Shivani and Sanjay Pande and asked them to assess the opportunity. Girish was our in-house expert on enterprise technology while Sanjay has a keen interest in studying founder motivation and team synergies. Both of them came back with strong positive feedback.
Yet there was another hurdle to cross. We were based out of Gurgaon, and Uniphore in Chennai. Those were early days for us, and we were unsure if we wanted to extend ourselves into a market we had no presence in. We hesitated. So the universe conspired again. During a TiE event around that time, I met up with Nagaraja Prakasam, an investor from the Indian Angel Network (IAN). He came up to me and suggested that we should look at a speech recognition company they were about to invest in. It was Uniphore! With a dependable and trusted co-investor available in Chennai, we had no misgivings and decided to go ahead with the investment.
Our journey started in March 2014 when we invested in the company. In September, we got an opportunity to acquire the stake of NRDC. The Uniphore board – in my opinion – took a masterstroke decision. Instead of being greedy to buy out the entire original stake of 30% from NRDC between the current investors, the Board welcomed Chiratae Ventures (formally IDG) for participating in this secondary thus allowing them to lead the Series A round at 4x of the seed-round. YourNest tripled the amount of investment in the Series A round with a second investment.
In 2015, the software market was pivoting from licence driven sales to Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) model. In SaaS businesses, a customer pays as per usage, and the product has to perform every day. The upfront revenues shifted to 3-year monthly/quarterly payout. The survival through this process was the biggest test of endurance while serving large enterprises in India. The magical moment came the day Uniphore won its first enterprise SaaS customer in Singapore. This global scale customer reference was all it took to bring one of the biggest propagators of Indian startup ecosystem and awardee of the prestigious civilian award of India – Padma Bhushan – John Chambers of Cisco (and now JC2 Ventures) as a lead investor in the Series B round. From then on, Umesh and Ravi have never looked back.
Uniphore’s journey has just begun as it completes 11 years since incubation and has just raised USD 51 million in a Series C round. The fact that a B2B company from India has expanded globally and successfully demonstrated how it can address a global market with IP creation, steady revenues and funding will continue to inspire entrepreneurs and the ecosystem.
The writer is Managing Director & Fund Manager, YourNest Venture Capital