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Kanwaljit Singh of Fireside Ventures believes in going with his gut

The founder and managing partner of Fireside Ventures talks about becoming a one-man investor, trusting his instinct, and looking to become a facilitator

Kanwaljit Singh, founder and managing partner of Fireside Ventures
Kanwaljit Singh, founder and managing partner of Fireside Ventures (Illustration by Priya Kuriyan)

Kanwaljit Singh doesn’t ignore his gut feeling when it comes to making an investment. But he does expect the person asking him to put in money to convince him too. The founder and managing partner of Fireside Ventures, an early stage venture capital firm with a leaning towards consumer brands, looks for passion in a startup, not just data or numbers.

He gives the instance of Licious, the online meat delivery platform. “It was so audacious,” Singh says. “First of all, you would ask: Where is the need? Meat is available in enough places. Secondly, this is so complex because you are dealing with a live product with a one-day shelf life. It’s an everyday kind of story, sourcing is a pain, consistency, hygiene.... Then there are two guys who have no background in this, zero. So my first reaction was, what are you talking about?”

What swung the decision in favour of Licious founders Vivek Gupta and Abhay Hanjura was their belief. “Success or failure comes much later. But how much are you willing to give it?” reasons Singh. Besides, Gupta had worked with Singh in the venture capital firm Helion. “So he (Gupta) said, ‘boss, aapka 25 lakh likh liya hai (I have already written down 25 lakh from you). So it wasn’t even an investment decision. It was like, you know, we have done it,” Singh says, smiling.

The soon-to-be 60-year-old first took on the role of investor over two decades ago—initially with The Carlyle Group, for four years from 2001, and then with Helion, which he co-founded in 2005, for a decade. Some of the brands he worked with included iD Fresh Food, yogurt maker Epigamia, tea brand Vahdam India and hair and skin care brand The Ayurveda Experience, besides unicorns like beverage company Paper Boat Foods and cosmetics label Mamaearth. Entrepreneurs like Hanjura and Mamaearth’s Ghazal Alagh have spoken of how Singh chose to back them at a time when few or none were willing to.

Six-year-old Fireside has raised three funds of about 3,000 crore—the latest was 1,830 crore late last year—and manages 33 brands. Their current average is seven-eight deals a year, says Singh. “Some companies will exit, some companies will not make it, some become so large that we don’t need to work with them…. So on an average we would be engaging with 30-35 companies.”

The tall, gentle-mannered Singh is measured in the way he speaks. Occasionally, he pauses for just a few seconds to dig into the miso soup, salmon roll and California roll maki we ordered at the Japanese-Korean restaurant, Origami, in Mumbai’s Bandra-Kurla Complex. He remains unaffected by the child screeching at the next table, the constant clanging of plates and the sudden burst of restaurant music. The Bengaluru-based entrepreneur, who travels often to Mumbai, had used this occasion to get out of his hotel and walk to the restaurant.

He was born in Jalandhar, Punjab, but grew up in Delhi, the son of Partition survivors. His father, eager to establish himself in newly independent India, was a prolific student, gathering multiple degrees while working at the local municipal corporation. The eldest of three siblings, Singh went to the Punjab Engineering College in Chandigarh for a degree in electrical engineering, following it up with an MBA from the Faculty of Management Studies in Delhi. When he finished in 1987, he got a job as a management trainee with the consumer goods firm Hindustan Lever (now Hindustan Unilever). “So that’s how I got into the consumer space,” Singh recalls.

With Lever, he worked in divisions such as animal feeds and in places like Hubballi in Karnataka and Rajpura in Punjab, besides Delhi and Mumbai. “That (Rajpura) was almost like my (first) tryst with entrepreneurship because it was such a small thing, you were almost left on your own as long as you didn’t do anything dramatically crazy. I learnt about profit and loss, about sales, managing labour, and learnt some Punjabi in the bargain,” he says, grinning.

In 1990, he shifted to the tea business with Lipton and Brooke Bond Taaza, to Mumbai, then in 1992 to Bengaluru, a city in which he stayed on. After a decade in Lever, Singh made an unusual switch—from tea to chips, as Intel, with a “100% market share of a 0% market”, believed that the future of computing would be more consumer-focused.

“So I thought this (Intel) would be fun,” he says, “because it’s a category-building job, it’s a sunrise industry, and I will get to play with the toys.”

At the time, Intel Capital was investing in startups, so Singh got exposure to an ecosystem that seemed more exciting than corporate life. Venture capital was a buzzword. When The Carlyle Group came calling, it seemed serendipitous. Four years later, in 2005-06, Ashish Gupta, founder of the price comparison platform Junglee, Sanjeev Aggarwal, founder of the business process outsourcing (BPO) firm Daksh, and Singh started Helion with a $140 million (around 1,150 crore now) corpus.

“What I realised,” says Singh, “was two key things. You have to understand not only the rhythm of startups, you also have to understand the nuances of how business is built. I was always fascinated by the consumer space. So, initially I was trying to do deals which were more around consumer-tech kind of convergence.”

A decade into Helion, things began changing. There was a proliferation of consumer brands in the market. When Helion said no to investing in a Wharton graduate’s idea of a health drink product because the market just didn’t exist at the time, Singh put in his own money. Neeraj Kakkar, a former summer intern at Helion, went on to form Paper Boat. When Helion subsequently began investing in P.C. Musthafa’s iD Fresh Food, Singh was convinced the consumer space needed a more structured approach.

“I was about 50 years old, thinking about what I want to do for the next decade of my life. So I decided to lead my own little country office. The idea of raising another fund was never on the cards,” he says.

Singh left Helion to become a one-man investor, in the belief that he would take seats on boards and walk founders through their companies. The strength of large corporations was distribution, while new brands did not have that kind of financial muscle or the execution capability to compete. But the internet became a medium where they could engage the consumer through social media and e-commerce channels opened up.

Singh realised there was a lack of trust between his industry and the startup world but felt he needed to give his venture a name at least even as an angel investor. “A fireside chat connotes warmth. The spirit of what we are doing at Fireside is built into that ethos on which I started, that we can genuinely be mentors and partners.”

“I am very gut,” Singh says about his decision-making process. “Sometimes, my team tells me that we need to put some process (to supplement the instinct). I can’t say I am right every time but I have a good sense of people when I meet them.”

He gives two examples, one of Varun Alagh of Mamaearth, of how he decided to invest personal money in the company after one phone call even before meeting the Alaghs. The second one is about Paper Boat. “He (Kakkar) started with an energy drink that doesn’t exist today. So therefore, to bet on an energy drink, as an idea, would have been foolish. It was betting on Neeraj that paid off.

“This whole concept of saying that in three years I want to build a billion-dollar company and exit…. I find that mindset wrong. Senior professionals who are still working will say, first write a cheque, then I will leave my job. Are you really passionate about what you are saying? Or is it one more experiment for you? It’s a marker about what kind of founders you want to work with.”

His belief in the entrepreneurial ecosystem strengthened when his daughter Sachi, with no experience in brand, marketing or understanding of product supply chains, decided to become an entrepreneur three years ago. Having worked in climate change policy and advocacy in the US, she started Rootless, which sells seaweed-based food, in San Francisco in 2020. “She said that she didn’t want to keep doing advocacy, policy.... She wanted to make an impact that she could see. She did that by starting a company,” says Singh, who has just returned from the US, where son Arjun works in analytics, also in the Bay area.

The self-confessed “boring guy” plays a round of golf once a week but says what every avid golfer would—that he would love to play more. He has a handicap of 17, which he says with a laugh is “not going to improve unfortunately”. Social events are usually small gatherings of friends with wife Suzanne, who is a trustee at Pratham Books.

He deals with an average of two-three pitches a day at work, from young entrepreneurs trying to make their mark in the thriving world of startups. But he hopes now to take a step back from an active role at Fireside to being the sutradhar (facilitator)—one who directs the future course of the company, which has at present a staff of 25.

“So right now, there’s a lot of effort going on within our system of working with partners and helping each of our companies do more recycling, thinking around waste management. We are also working with some companies which are replacing plastic as a packaging material. If we can build Fireside as an institution that allows for internal innovation, it could become a space for everyone to experiment.

“The next decade I want to build a platform, almost as a legacy—it’s not about me any more. It’s about building institutions, to give back.”

Arun Janardhan is a Mumbai-based journalist who covers sports, business leaders and lifestyle. He tweets @iArunJ.

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