New Delhi: “The day I pitched my idea to Ratan Tata was just the most incredible day of my life.”
I’ve lost count of the number of entrepreneurs or want-to-be founders who have told me this over the last few years. And it’s not just Mr Tata’s money they are seeking. An endorsement from him is seen as a huge thumbs up, coupled with publicity: his investments invariably are the stuff of headlines.
Richa Kar, Zivame, which sells undergarments online, said Mr Tata, 79, is a mentor, even if one with very limited availability. “Small moments with visionaries can make your journey more fruitful,” she said.
Swati Bhargava got funding for her cash back and discount website Cash Karo from Mr Tata in January this year-along with a prized photo. “I met him over lunch and could barely make eye contact. He was very modest and I was very impressed that without any prior briefing, he picked up what we were trying to do and asked lots of questions. I was excited and nervous but at the end I told him I had to have a picture with him for my 94-year-old grandfather and Mr Tata laughed.”
In the years between retiring as the chairman of India’s largest conglomerate and his return to the same office after the bitter and shock ouster of Cyrus Mistry, Mr Tata invested in over 25 startups. Last year alone, he had invested in 19 newbies with a total estimated investment of $112,000. Companies that landed him include Urban Ladder, Paytm, CarDekho, UrbanClap and Yourstory.
Founder of online furniture store Urban Ladder Ashish Goel recalled, “The conversation was about design. He was very interested in what we were doing and our ideas. We are a very small company so that wasn’t any motivation for him, but I think the fact we were pushing the boundaries of design is why he invested in us.”
Mr Tata’s war with Mr Mistry, who he had hand-picked as his successor, is unprecedented in India Inc. Several of the entrepreneurs he helped are publicly siding with him. Like Kunla Bahl, of Snapdeal.com, who tweeted, “Tata is an incredible person. From my experience with him, what you see is what you get. I felt it was important for someone to say this.”
Bhavish Agarwal, the founder of taxi app Ola, who got an investment from Mr Tata in early 2015, recently blogged, “What seems to be a case of a large shareholder losing trust and confidence has become ‘heels dug in’ public fight with a lot of mud being thrown around. I felt it was important for me, in this context, to share my experiences with Mr Tata.”
It’s not just entrepreneurs. Venture Capitalist Vani Kola of Kalaari Capital, in a piece tellingly titled “The Ratan Tata I Know: And Barbarians at the Gate” writes “He is an institution by himself. He has been an inspiration to the community I am closely involved with – the startup community. It’s important that he continues to play that role – inspire us, and help us achieve our potential.”