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Rohit Bansal: Investing in the long term

The co-founder of Snapdeal and Titan Capital talks about his journey from entrepreneur to investor, what he looks for in early-stage companies, and his obsession with Virat Kohli’s shaving routine

Rohit Bansal, co-founder of e-commerce platform Snapdeal and early-stage venture investment firm Titan Capital
Rohit Bansal, co-founder of e-commerce platform Snapdeal and early-stage venture investment firm Titan Capital (Illustration by Priya Kuriyan)

Rohit Bansal, the co-founder of e-commerce platform Snapdeal and early-stage venture investment firm Titan Capital, has an anecdote about Beardo, the male grooming company Titan invested in. During the early days of the company (founded in 2015), an in-house joke—sometimes concern—used to be about cricketer Virat Kohli’s facial fuzz. “Beards now have become a lot more mainstream,” Bansal says, himself experimenting with a 10-day stubble. “It used to be sporadic; it sounded like a fad. I remember half the days we used to wake up—including the Beardo team—praying that Kohli should not shave his beard,” he adds laughing. “Every other week, we would meet and say ‘he still has it’.”

Kohli’s beard has survived—well into 2024—as did Beardo, while Titan Capital continues to grow its portfolio of over 250 companies, including half-a-dozen unicorns (companies with a billion-dollar plus evaluation). Titan Capital’s inventory today includes Ola Cabs, Urban Company, Shadowfax, Razorpay, Khatabook, Zinier, Mamaearth, Bira, GoMechanic and Yellow Messenger, among others.

Bansal and Kunal Bahl, who co-founded Snapdeal, formed Titan Capital in 2011 as a means to support budding entrepreneurs, a journey they themselves have traversed. “When we were starting (in the late 2000s), the number of venture investors were few. More importantly, there were almost no operator investors—people who had made something and could give feedback, especially at the early stages (of a business),” says Bansal. “We started meeting entrepreneurs with an open mind, not even with the intention of writing cheques or investing. It was more of just mentorship and support. That’s how we started our investing journey.”

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At Taj Bangalore’s Café 77 East near the airport, having just flown in from Delhi, Bansal, dressed in a black shirt, jeans and sneakers, brims with enthusiasm as he nurses a cup of coffee.

Titan Capital’s portfolio, spread across direct-to-consumer brands, SaaS (software-as-a-service) and fintech, has raised over $10 billion (around 83,000 crore now) from institutional investors over a decade. Their team of about six, headquartered in Gurugram, meets about a thousand aspiring companies, investing in an average of 10-15 companies a year. Bansal and Bahl themselves meet around 15 companies a month after their team has filtered the list.

The 40-year-old elaborates on their formula for picking potential investees. Bansal says he and Bahl understand businesses that they perceive as having a commercial angle from Day One—companies that will immediately have the means to make money, and not in two to five years, such as e-commerce or marketplace consumer brands. They would not have a feel for, say, a content business, which is not getting monetised today, but perhaps will in a few years.

Second, the founding team of the new venture is important as well—they look for people who have been really good at, at least one thing their entire life. “It shows that little bit of extra perseverance needed to get really good at something, be it education, sports, news... Many people can be average, above average. But to be exceptional, it takes a little bit of extra grit, which is absolutely essential for entrepreneurs,” says Bansal, careful not to single out any business venture that they support.

Third, the product has to be exceptional, however small the market may be. “It is better to build something which is 10 times better, even if it’s for a small TAM (total addressable market), and then expand that TAM.” He takes the example of beauty and personal care company Mamaearth that began in 2016 with just six baby care products, targeting a niche market, brand loyalty and customer satisfaction. Initial success provided a foundation, after which Mamaearth, co-founded by Ghazal and Varun Alagh, expanded its product range to reach a wider audience.

Finally, Bahl and Bansal have a checklist so that they minimise reliance on instinct or a tendency to bias.

Bansal’s search for excellence comes from his own upbringing. He was brought up in Malot near Bhatinda in Punjab, where his father ran a fertiliser shop. Ambition was not a currency in the small town and most children stayed on in family businesses. The few who excelled in education, like he did with his parents’ encouragement, progressed organically to Delhi Public School (DPS) in RK Puram, Delhi, for classes XI and XII.

Among roughly 900 students in the first week of class, he found himself sitting next to Bahl. They formed a friendship and an entrepreneurial partnership that has lasted more than half their lifetimes. “I was this village boy who hardly knew how to speak English, from a vegetarian family and I used to go to his home every two-three weeks to get decent food. He converted me into a non-vegetarian,” says Bansal, grinning.

It was at DPS that he became aware of the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) for the first time, later getting into IIT-Delhi while Bahl jetted off to the University of Pennsylvania in the US. Bansal completed a five-year MTech course in computer science and joined financial services firm Capital OneBengaluru, which was to lead to a US posting.

On a trip back to India, Bahl discussed starting something on their own since their risk appetite was high. While nothing concrete came of the conversation, “the biggest irony in life happened”: Bahl’s work visa in the US did not get renewed while Bansal’s US visa came through. Bahl came back and Bansal dumped his US plans.

In September 2007, they finally teamed up to work together. They spent about a year building their first product, a coupons company called MoneySaver that offered discounts, convinced they had a winner and that the day they launched, it would “be an absolute blockbuster”. “To make sure that we didn’t run out of booklets, we printed 50,000 copies. I know you can see the irony now,” says Bansal, laughing. “In the first two months of launch, we sold, like, under 10. So that’s when we realised that the one thing we forgot to do is talk to the real customer.”

Initially launched as MoneySaver, before pivoting to e-commerce in 2010, Snapdeal went through several ups and downs, from being valued at $6.5 billion within six years of its launch to nearly going bust in 2017 after a failed merger with Flipkart.

Over the next few years, the company reduced losses, grew revenue and traffic and over the course of the pandemic, added several million users and thousands of sellers. In 2022, it shelved its $152 initial public offering because of the prevailing market conditions, saving it for the future. Today, the Softbank-backed platform competes with Amazon and Walmart’s Flipkart.

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“I’m a believer in hard work and effort, but there’s an equal element of luck, right? There are probably many exceptional teams who work equally hard, do everything right,” he says. “They were maybe not lucky, they will take time, maybe the next one (business) will be luckier...”

He believes Bahl is the more futuristic of the two, has clarity of vision and is the big-picture person in fields of branding and marketing. Bansal himself is more introverted, the “nuts and bolts type of person”, with a numerical bent of mind.

“I read somewhere recently,” he says, “that there is relationship conflict and there is transactional conflict. We have had transactional conflicts; it never impacts our relationship. The funny thing between the two of us is that outside of our houses and spouses, we do everything together.”

One of the reasons for Bansal’s inclination for starting Titan Capital together came from being completely pro-entrepreneurship. Even if someone comes to him with an idea he does not approve of, Bansal says he doesn’t have it in him to discourage them from starting a business.

In the initial years, their interest in investing was sporadic, borne out of a passion and as a hobby. When they realised that this was going well—the first handful of companies they invested in were Ola, Urban Clap (later Company) and Bira—they got the feeling that some combination of “judgement and/or luck” seemed to be working. “We don’t know which one in how many parts, but (it was) going well. So maybe we should take it a little more seriously,” reminisces Bansal.

“We are extremely long-term (in our investments). I mean, it’s such a cliche, but we are in no hurry to sell. We invest with the mindset of owning a small piece of that business. We are usually the first money in and the last, reluctant money out,” he says.

Bansal rejects the idea that at the time they were starting their business, entrepreneurs had it tougher than the current generation. While access to capital has become easier now, with a larger market and a lot more internet users, and entrepreneurship as a concept has become a lot more palatable, Bansal says that as a result, “there’s also a lot more competition. It is harder to find white spaces. The need to differentiate is more acute”. Finding that differentiation has become harder.

“It still requires a tremendous amount of effort, perseverance and many other things to eventually become a success.”

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

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