Ensuring Debt Finance for All Professionally-run MSMEs.

For several years, a number of policy initiatives have been taken to address the financing gaps for MSMEs. Of course, we have improved over the years. However, a lot still needs to be done. Here is a set of views, that I have, on how to go about doing it. Some of it is about approach and some of it is about actual implementation. Of course, this is a complex problem and I am not denying that genuine efforts have been made in the past. My argument is that those efforts have fallen short and it may be a time for policy makers to do a few things differently (to the extent that some of the suggestions may seem impractical but I am taking the liberty to list them out here.)

Note: Unsecured, small ticket lending to MSMEs based on credit of the individual promoter is largely (on the How to aspect) a solved problem (in India) and has got/getting a lot of attention. (We are miles to go for universal access to finance for MSMEs even in the small ticket, individual credit led lending.) The focus of this write-up is on corporate SMEs with high growth aspirations, where the funding requirements is in crores (individual promoters credit is not a good alternative for company credit) and is generally not done by traditional lenders without mortgage collateral. For new age, asset light but professionally run businesses, it is a key gap, that remains unsolved at scale. Hence, the focus on that segment in this write-up.This write-up is addressed to those shaping policy and regulation. This write-up is specific to the Indian context.

Do NOT broad brush: The MSME segment includes not just the local tea shop, or the puffed rice making factory but also includes the SME corporate with turnover upto INR 250 Cr (as per the recommended Budget 2018 classification) with some of them having raised institutional venture capital. Hence, the funding requirement, credit evaluation process and lending model will not be the same. If we don’t separate out the sub-segments and find specific solutions for each segment based on loan size, security and nature of entity, we will not have a comprehensive solution.

It may make sense to break down MSMEs into categories based on legal structure i.e. individual, proprietorship, partnership and OPC or private limited and have priority sector or lending target setting done separately for them. Have caps on loan amounts for each type of legal structure. The reason why I say this is, I am not sure why a firm with several crores of rupees in turnover, borrowing from banks, etc in crores should have the legal structure of a partnership/proprietorship. It should be a private limited company. The regulators have to make it easier for people to set up companies and be compliant. This will enable access to additional sources of data which can be leverage to take lending decisions.

(A note for SMEs seeking larger loans: If you don’t have mortgage or collateral security AND you haven’t put in much of your money as equity because you don’t have much AND you don’t have reasonable size of operations AND you don’t want to be compliant with additional regulations or provide verifiable data on various aspects of your business AND you still expect funding in crores – time to get some coffee. The purpose of adding compliance and improving access to different sources of data from the SME is to deal with the lack of security. Please note that unlike equity investors, lenders do not get a share on your upside but they do get a share of your downside for sure and hence they need to ensure that downside is limited. )

Accept that only Banks will NOT be able to help us in ensuring complete access to finance for MSMEs: Banks hold public/retail deposits and it is natural that they will have less risk appetite than NBFCs or specialised funds who are typically funded by entities that have the ability to manage risk unlike the retail depositor of a bank. By design, NBFCs or specialised funds will take more risk through sectoral specialisations. Historically, banks have been treated as the favoured child by regulators. If there is genuine interest in enabling access to finance for all segments of MSMEs, it has to be recognised that banks, NBFCs, specialised funds will together be able to address the funding needs of MSMEs.

How about allowing specialised MSME lenders partial access to the payments and settlements system? This will allow them to set up basic escrow accounts and current accounts with zero or close to zero EOD balance and ability to receive funds ONLY from corporates. NO cheques, NO savings or other deposits. This will enable specialised MSME lenders/NBFCs to offer payments, set up escrows to do a cash flow traping arrangements to deduct repayments without having to depend upon banks who create severe roadblocks in letting specialised lenders access to these simple operations. Sounds, kind of, like payment banks but I am talking about larger value transactions. Say, those who offer loans in INR crores to corporate SMEs and need to transact in several lakhs and crores and not in thousands.

Use Govt backed DFIs as market developers: India needs to find a way to use Govt backed DFIs in a market development role and not in competitor role. Their role should be to find ways to encourage other commercial lenders/investors (Banks, NBFCs, specialised funds) to do the job of lending to MSMEs instead of competing with them by trying to reach the MSMEs directly. I understand that there was a time when DFIs had to “show the way” because the commercial lenders/investors were not interested. However, over the past 8-10 years, it has been shown that private entities have been trying to find different ways of reaching out to the lucrative MSME finance gap. Frankly, if all the banks and NBFCs together are not able to directly reach all MSMEs, it is good reason to introspect and accept that one or two DFIs with limited geographic presence can reach out to all MSMEs.

Policy makers should encourage the use DFI funds to act as market developers through guarantees/credit enhancements for institutional investors to invest into NBFCs/specialised funds that are trying to fund MSMEs in India. This opens up a much larger tap of borrowings for the NBFCs and specialised funds (beyond banks) and also enables them to raise funding at a cheaper cost (assuming credit enhancement by DFI will lead to better rating of the transaction.). Oddly enough, I have seen multiple instances where Indian DFIs offer funding to NBFCs/specialised funds at a cost that is signifcantly higher than what the commercial banks or offshore commercial and DFI lenders are ready to offer at.

Consider Bank, NBFCs and specialised funds as partners and not adversaries: Banks in India (DFIs included) do not like sharing of pari-passu or second charge with NBFCs or specialised funds, as a practice, when lending to SMEs. Even though nothing in the regulation or law disallows it. This is a version of caste system propagated within our financial services industry under the excuse of lack of sufficient assets. Interestingly, I have seen multiple cases of companies that are profitable for more than 3 years with INR 50 Cr+ revenues (and fixed and current assets worth atleast INR 15-20 Cr) having INR 2 Cr worth short term facilities from banks backed by 75% cash deposits and security over entire current and future assets of the company (and possibly even the kidney’s of the promoters) NOT willing to share pari-passu charge over receivables (not on cash, not on fixed assets, just receivables) for NBFCs willing to lend higher amount than the bank and under more flexible terms. Since, forced regulation and orders will not solve this “social” problem, a better way is to encourage banks i.e. say that for the MSME loan accounts that the bank has, if the banks are able to demonstrate another non-bank lender on-board, they will be awarded 1.5x the value of their loans as priority sector.

Over-leverage of SMEs has to be addressed differently: Initiatives like the central credit registry is necessary to give a clear idea about over-leverage.(This is already being done.) It should be made compulsory to have all types of financial lenders (not just banks) add the details of the loans on the platform.

Data, data, data: Enable electronic access to data for all types of statutory, regulatory and transaction compliance done by companies. Eg: Specialised lenders or even banks should have access to data on taxes, electricity payments, EPFO, ESI, salary, bank transactions, etc. Security and privacy concerns are paramount but given that they are solvable issues, we need to find ways in which access to all that data is made extremely convenient, if we were to expand access to finance for MSMEs.

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“World Domination”​ of the Agri Supply Chain

Historically misdirected/misutilised subsidies of the Govt made it very difficult for private players to operate in the agriculture supply chain. With the easing of regulations, we are seeing a large number of new private ventures (traditional and new age startups) entering agriculture. That is a good sign.

However, what worries me is that some of these companies (startups) and their VC investors are looking at the agri supply chain “domination” game with a similar approach like the Uber/Ola/Flipkart/Amazon model of “world domination” by burning huge volume of money to deliver market distorting “subsidies” to capture market share with the hope that the last startup standing will win it all. (Remember the days when drivers and riders were being paid to ferry you around? Or deep discounted sales prices for products?)

While Uber/Ola/Flipkart/Amazon is still to prove business viability, they are already shifting gears and causing significant distress to the affected. It may be argued that they have distorted local transportation markets for riders (costs have gone up significantly and availability is still a major problem) and have left several drivers with debt burdens they can’t service. We don’t know how this will end. (Anybody who knows, I am ready to buy you a coffee.)

If the startups and VCs replicate the same model of “world domination” in the agriculture supply chain (particularly when dealing directly with the farmer), they will most certainly leave the agri ecosystem with much more pain and damage than what the Govt did with misdirected subsidies.

VC Associates and Partners with no special expertise or knowledge of agri markets but with boatloads of cash will continue to wear Rolexes purchased with fund management fees whether or not their invested startup works. Startup entrepreneurs with “game changing” ideas but no capability to build a profitable business or achieve frugal growth, will buy mansions in Koramangala or Lutyens and select the next “Entrepreneur of the Year”, whether or not their startup works. But the farmer will be stuck between the devil (Govt) and the deep sea (startups) after enjoying a brief period of money induced trance and exuberance.

I know some will agree with all that I wrote. Good to know. Let’s get some coffee and discuss more. I also know that some will disagree with all that I have written and say that I can’t see the “big picture” and worse I am a “communist”. True, I can’t see the big picture but atleast, I am not blind or a communist. Let’s get some coffee and see if you can help me see the “big picture” and if I can get your eyesight back.

Enterprise and Quest towards reducing friction

Customer loyalty is a result of reduced friction.

All successful enterprises (for profit or non-profit) are in the business of reducing friction that a customer faces in the process of accessing  products or services required by the customer.

Friction, that arises during pre-product acquisition as well as post product acquisition phases, needs to be reduced to build customer loyalty. Successful enterprises strive to reduce friction during both phases.The expectation is that reduced friction in accessing a product or service will encourage the customer to be more willing to use only that specific enterprise as a source/channel, i.e. customer loyalty.

However, friction doesn’t get reduced in one go because it is not just the customer experience but also the customer mindset that is in play behind the decision of a customer to be loyal to an enterprise.

From a customer perspective, the willingness to use a particular channel/source follows a four step process as shown in the diagram below and in some ways, each specific sector/industry has evolved over the years following these steps. As an industry matured, successful enterprises within the industry had to take a step upwards to remain in the fray. Those that could not, fizzled out.

snowflake

Steps towards low friction.

The first step is continuity i.e. being available “forever”. A customer will not invest time and effort to understand how the channel enables him to access the product or service unless the customer is certain that the channel will continue to be available for a significant period in future. Eg: Continuity is a feature of public sector undertakings and is often a default choice for many people.

Predictability is the next level. Predictability is the certainty the enterprise will be able to provide you with the service/product at an expected point of time or as per an expected schedule. Predictability is also the certainty that the product or service will have a set of basic characteristics that the customer expects. Eg: If you require to pick up a coffee at a local store everyday on the way to office and you realise that it is not certain whether it will stay open, would you depend upon it or look for an alternative before that?

Continuity and Predictability together build a sense of Reliability in the customers’ mind.

The next step  is convenience i.e. being available at a point of time, in a form and at a place that meets the customers’ requirement to the best possible extent. An enterprise can meet all three requirements or aim to achieve at least one of the above to be considered a convenient channel. Eg: Bigbasket.com gets you groceries at your place, at an expected time slot and the products are generally fresh! Many who have started using it, often don’t give up.

Beyond convenience is the flexibility offered by an enterprise. Flexibility in terms of product/ service options that meet specific needs of each individual customer and/or the ability to modify the choice during the process. Eg: Flipkart lets you return without any questions asked!

Convenience and flexibility are bring about a sense of Ease of Access in the mind of the customer which builds stickiness or customer loyalty.

Reliability and Ease of Access need different approaches.

Interesting thing about the aspects of Reliability and the Aspect of Ease of Access is that the ability to rely varies widely with the mindset of the customer (within the same customer profile) but the ability to perceive ease of access is quite democratic within a similar customer profile.

All new enterprises need to identify a set of early adopters who have the mindset to rely upon the enterprise more easily than the majority population. If the early adopters are satisfied, the word of mouth will enable the late adopters to start believing in the enterprise ability and move over. While it is difficult for the late adopters to easily rely, once a late adopter joins, it is not very difficult for the late adopter to see the value of Ease of Access.

In fact, ease of access is something that is often the most visible aspect and often a part of the sales pitch of the enterprise. Reality is, the customer needs to cover the first two steps before they can get the benefit of ease of access and the first two steps is more about the customers’ mindset that what the product offers.

So, while it takes a lot of effort to build a perception of reliability, a perception around ease of access is built easily. Similarly, it is easier to change perception with regards to ease of access than with regards to reliability.

It must be noted that Reliability is fundamental to the success of the enterprise. An enterprise can fight it out if it is reliable but doesn’t offer ease of access. However, it is impossible for an enterprise to survive if it offers ease of access but doesn’t offer reliability.

How does an enterprise provide Reliable and Easy to Access products/services?

As an industry matures and more enterprises join the fray, management of the issues that help in building the first two steps get fairly commoditised i.e. earlier, services/products that met the basic first two steps used to have economic value and used to be distinguishable but with more competition, they end up losing differentiation and hence lose the ability to build customer loyalty. The result is that in addition to Reliability, Ease of access becomes critical to the ability of the enterprise to command margins and survive in a mature (competitive) market.

Co-ordination (between different supply chain actors) or innovation (technology or process)enables the enterprise to provide better ease of access. The ability of the enterprise to work on these two aspects while keeping the customer shielded from the brisk activity in the back-end by providing an interface that cancels out all the noise (of co-ordination/innovation) is what reduces friction and builds customer loyalty.

How much equity and when?

When you judge a promoter on his interest in the business in terms of equity contribution brought into the business, what would you consider more sensible?

A. bringing in equity capital in phases

All start-ups are prone to initial setbacks but some of them can recover if further capital is pumped in to the changed business model (pivot). If the promoter spends all his money in the first attempt/business model, he would never have money to implement the pivot.

B. Bringing in equity capital in one go right at the beginning

If the promoter has brought in all his money into the business right at the beginning, it shows his dedication and indicates that come what may, he will make his business work.

From an investor perspective:

  • How do you determine which level of capital brought in is enough to prove seriousness of the promoter in the business?
  • Would the amount of personal equity brought in, indicating dedication to the business, vary from industry to industry? (My sense is yes. Tell me if I am wrong)

How would the assessment vary between the first equity investor and the first debt “investor”?

Early stage investment in a start-up

A bunch of articles that talk about seed stage/pre-VC stage investments in startups. The debate is primarily between whether to do a convertible debt or to do a preferred equity. There are arguments both for and against each side.

The basic premise: convertible debt delays the conversation on valuation to the next round. It gives you the time to “set” the benchmark for your company’s valuation. Preferred equity is a simpler way of dealing with investments, if you are sure that your performances now gets you a fair valuation.

Brad Feld lays out the difference between convertible debt and preferred equity and points out that both routes have support. However, he does point out that if you do not intend to raise a big VC round next and hope to continue with small angel rounds, it is more sensible for you to do a preferred equity to be fair to your investors: http://www.feld.com/wp/archives/2006/02/whats-the-best-structure-for-a-pre-vc-investment.html

Josh Kopleman has a clear favourite in preferred equity because it aligns both the investor and entrepreneurs interest i.e. both with be interested in increasing the valuation of the company in the next round! However, he also says that a convertible note could be useful when you are already expecting a round of equity in a few weeks/months. He does give a few other reasons, read on… http://redeye.firstround.com/2006/04/bridge_loans_vs_1.html

Just in case you are suddenly confused about what Preferred stock is, here is a primer from the good old Investopedia to help you. Just go through the basics and come back for the remaining interesting stuff. http://www.investopedia.com/articles/stocks/06/preferredstock.asp#axzz1STNUO900

Seth Levine talks about the two options and clearly spells out the fact that though this seems to have a near term benefits for the startups he is not sure if it is sustainable in the long term. Great explanation of the context! http://www.sethlevine.com/wp/2010/08/has-convertible-debt-won-and-if-it-has-is-that-a-good-thing

Mark Suster clearly believes that convertible debt without cap is not here to stay for long. A nice write-up on how convertible debts came about and how the entrepreneurs should look at the option of convertible debt. http://www.bothsidesofthetable.com/2010/08/30/is-convertible-debt-preferable-to-equity/

Ok, the verdict is clear in the post title, Furqaan Nazeeri lists out reasons why he thinks convertible debt “sucks”. http://altgate.typepad.com/blog/2008/06/5-reasons-conve.html

Bill Payne explains the mechanics of convertible debt.  The graphs are missing but worth a read. http://www.matr.net/article-29148.html

A list of articles by Bill Payne on convertible debt and preferred stock. Great stuff in one place. http://billpayne.com/category/convertible-debt

Human Resource: Could be a complete drain on resources

One out of the three first employees that I recruited, turned out to be a rogue! He forged reimbursement bills, made issues about the work that he was supposed to do, tried to “poison” other team members. The fact that we are start-up, complicated things a bit more for us. I was ready to take his fussy attitude in my stride because these three people were amongst the first few in the entire history of their college to join a private sector job. Understandably, the change in attitude required would take some time. They were freshers.

Well, frankly speaking that reasoning is just a superficial reasoning. The real reason is that these youngsters have an academic qualification which is a basic legal requirement for our work and they were in short supply! The Govt seemed to offer jobs to all of them and let them have a job where pay was guaranteed but without any serious expectation of work!

It had taken us about 6 months to locate people, with the required academic qualification, who could be ready to join a non-Govt job! Once they did join, I was ready to treat them like kings. We had a great business model to operationalise and it was necessary that they  co-operate.

However, within no time I found out that this candidate was more than fussy. Much against the “rules” of a startup, I continued to “tolerate” this person for close to about a month. Incidentally, other than the difficulty of finding another replacement, the worry was that if he is chucked out, the academic institution will see my organisation as a  perfect example of the big bad private sector where people are chucked out at will and that would have killed the organisation because of the basic requirement of the academic qualification. Moreover, since our work was in the rural areas, students from one state could not be placed into another state due to language issues.

I started hoping that he leaves on his own. But when?

After a month of his being with us, he seemed to have been offered a job at another “private” organisation and at double the salary. It was a ridiculous amount. I somehow remebered those times when he was bothered about even the smallest of components in his salary. I had initially taken them as the widely held apprehensions in India about the “private” sector but later I realised that it is slightly more.

Anyhow, he decided to leave but not before claiming that a senior consultant, who was working with us, knew nothing. Moreover, he had rudely spoke to our HR person. Interestingly the consultant had had operational experience of 25 years including the top job at a semi-govt organisation and the HR person was possibly was one of the friendliest sort that I have ever seen.

The story does not end here because one of my worst fears became a reality 15 days later. More about that in the next post.

Learning: If your gut feel says that somebody is a bad guy, in all possibility he IS a bad guy.  Addendum to this learning in the next post.

The approach to the “marketplace” business model

Jason is back with another great post on market place business model. By marketplace, he refers to a platform which connects buyers and sellers who find it difficult to connect.

A few insights distilled from his post: (I must say that the full post is a MUST Read. This summary here, is not the best!)

  • The biggest problem for this kind of business is which side’s problem do you solve first? At the beginning, neither the seller or the buyer would come to you! Jason suggests, tackle the seller side first. Create the right proposition for the seller. It is easier to convince the seller to sell through you because it would anyways increase their sales. This would help you in creating an inventory, so that the buyer knows you have inventory and returns.
  • Do not automate right from the beginning. Wait for some time and find out the right things to automate. Or else, a lot of money might be wasted in automating something which may turn  out to be a wrong approach.
  • In order to get people to your site, SEO and google ads is passe, use a novel strategy like writing a useful guide or something that the chance visitor would bookmark/twitter/FB because it is genuinely useful. This would start getting eyeballs for your website!

Given the fact that my colleagues are fighting with a similar business model in different sectors. I am forced to wonder:

  • How would a platform that connects rural homestays to tourists start? What could be their “novel strategy” as mentioned by Jason? What could get more eyeballs to their website?
  • What would be novel strategy for the marketplace which connects buyers and rural artisans?
  • What would be the novel strategy for the marketplace solution which connects rural distributors of energy saving stoves with manufacturers of energy saving stoves?