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Home > News> Big Story > Varun Sheth, Ketto and the art of easy giving

Varun Sheth, Ketto and the art of easy giving

Nearly a decade ago, when the CEO and co-founder of Ketto went to investors, no one bought his idea—little did they know how the tables would be turned

Varun Sheth is the CEO and co-founder of Ketto.
Varun Sheth is the CEO and co-founder of Ketto. (Illustration by Priya Kurian)

Varun Sheth tells the story matter-of-factly but it’s the stuff movies are made of. In 2012, soon after he founded his crowdfunding company Ketto, Sheth was making daily rounds of investors, knocking desperately on every door to raise capital to give a much needed boost to his (till then) bootstrapped business. For months, he went on pitching doggedly, running from pillar to post, but had no luck. Rejections began to pile up.

Like a self-fulfilling prophecy, venture capitalists with deep coffers were unwilling to put money on Sheth’s idea. “No one was ready to believe that Indians would be willing to donate, that too to causes on the internet, but we informally give all the time—be it to our house help, driver, neighbours, friends, temples,” says the 33-year-old CEO of Ketto on a video call from his headquarters in Mumbai. (To wit, the India Philanthropy Report 2021 says contributions made by family philanthropy grew three times to 12,000 crore in the fiscal year 2020.)

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Then, one day, Sheth was at Mumbai’s Taj Lands End hotel , making a presentation to Anurag Batra (the chairman and editor-in-chief of the Exchange4Media group), who was not impressed by what he heard. “At the table next to us was (the tennis player) Mahesh Bhupathi, speaking to someone who looked like an investor,” Sheth recalls. He decided to hang around after Batra left and accosted the man—who turned out to be an investor called Venkat Krishnan—in the elevator.

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Based on a hunch that his target might be supportive of sporting causes (Bhupathi’s presence had helped), Sheth told Krishnan about a project Ketto was involved with at the time. “We were raising funds for Indian athletes to compete in the Olympics,” Sheth recalls. “But after months, we had hit around 3-4 lakh of our goal of 10 lakh.” He asked Krishnan if he would make up the shortfall—and, to Sheth’s disbelief, he agreed.

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“Suddenly, in two weeks, we raised 10 lakh for one project—after managing 5-6 lakh for all our fund-raisers for months,” Sheth says. “It was an extreme confidence booster for me.” The breakthrough made headlines—“Ketto” and “crowdfunding” entered the lexicon of Indian internet users. Shiva Keshavan, the champion luger, went on to attend the Winter Olympics of 2014 thanks to that fund-raiser. For Ketto, too, this kindness of a stranger opened doors. True to its name, the company found its “key to tomorrow”.

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Although Ketto has been co-founded by Sheth with actor-philanthropist Kunal Kapoor and techie-entrepreneur Zaheer Adenwala, he is the brain behind the firm. Indeed, the business developed through multiple trials and errors, not during a Eureka moment, shaped by the ups and downs of Sheth’s life and circumstances.

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In the last nine years, Ketto has become India’s best-known crowdfunding platform, having raised over 1,100 crore. It has more than 5.5 million donors in its database and has hosted over 200,000 fund-raisers. And its impact isn’t limited to India. “We receive donations from 85 countries,” says Sheth. “At least 30% of all our contributions are from outside India.”

In 2021, depending on the gravity and emotional pull of your appeal, the platform can help you raise 10 lakh in days, if not hours. Ketto’s biggest achievement has been to empower millions to raise funds for medical expenses—it has become a lifesaver in a vastly under-insured country, where the poor live and die at the mercy of an oversubscribed and underfunded public healthcare system (recent reports point out India spends 1.26% of its GDP on public health, one of the lowest in the world). “Over the last 18 months, we are rethinking our mission,” says Sheth. “Our aim is to connect people to access healthcare and share happiness.”

Part of Ketto’s success rates lie in its no-fuss approach to fund-raising—the platform makes the process easy, transparent and quick from the word go. An appeal can be posted by following a few simple steps; donors can give as seamlessly. Ketto also provides marketing support to non-profits and individuals to amplify their campaigns. We have all seen these wrenching personalised stories on the internet, requesting donations—and the messaging, apparently, works. “People give far larger amounts to individual causes—be it medical treatment, education, sports or legacy,” Sheth says.

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All this may seem familiar enough now, especially since the onset of the pandemic, with companies, legacy businesses, startups and even e-commerce platforms like Amazon and Flipkart running campaigns to raise funds from time to time. “There’s a far wider awareness about the scope of online crowdfunding now,” says Sheth, “and it has increased our market opportunity significantly.”

Ketto’s biggest advantage remains its early entry into the now crowded field of Indian crowdfunding initiatives. Around 2010, the idea was catching on in the West, with Kickstarter and GoFundMe. “We were aware of the growing trend of people spending more time on social media and making online transactions,” says Sheth. “So, we decided to focus on these two avenues to grow our business.” In the next few years, Ketto built its user base through innovative strategies—from telling stories about its beneficiaries to seeking the support of celebrities like Shraddha Kapoor and Sonu Sood. “Our goal is to not only make it easy for donors to give but to also tell them how their money is being used,” Sheth says. “That’s why we go into the details about a beneficiary’s life, their illness, the doctor treating them—all this to drive home the point that the donation is helping change a life.” If the idea seems neat and noble, getting it going was a messy, volatile affair.

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In many ways, Sheth’s is the typical entrepreneurial rags-to-riches story self-help writers like to romanticise. Except, he tells his in a flat, self-deprecatory tone, with a disarming candidness. If there’s a moral to his career, it’s his resilience—the ability to pick himself up when he hit rock bottom.

Growing up in Juhu before it became an upmarket Mumbai neighbourhood, Sheth went to school and college within a 1km radius of his home. Surrounded by overachievers, he performed poorly, managed to get into a BCom programme via the sports quota since he played handball. “Thus started the three painful years of college”—most of it “spent at home, on the couch, playing FIFA and watching TV”.

Somehow, he graduated, and then, like his peers, decided to take the GMAT to apply to the US. Again, he got “pretty bad scores”, even after he put in the hours for a change. “I must be among the top percentile of candidates who had sat for GMAT eight-nine times,” he chuckles. When nothing worked out, Sheth found himself applying for jobs in finance.

In 2006, the markets were booming, but it took him a good six months to land a gig—that too of a cold caller selling financial products. “On Day 1, I thought, did I spend 25 years of my life to be abused by nine out of 10 people, day in and out?” Sheth says. One month later, he switched jobs—“I bounced overnight, which, now that I run a company, I know was a terrible thing to do”—and became a swap dealer. It was better-paid work, even interesting, but Sheth was laid off after eight months when his employer had to downsize. But the dividends of this job were subtle—for it was during it that Sheth began to think of an idea that would become Ketto.

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On the face of it, selling swaps on a private exchange platform seems to have little to do with organising fund-raisers for philanthropy. But Sheth had the visionary instinct to fly with the idea. “Why isn’t there a private exchange to raise money outside of the equity market?” he asked himself. He began to explore this route “on the side”, while holding his full-time day job as a swap dealer. He employed a digital agency to build a prototype of the platform he had envisioned, hoping to use it as a leverage to find an opportunity to work and settle abroad one day. But life had other plans.

After losing his job, Sheth took a break to travel, take stock of the mess he was in. “I decided to devote the next two years to my online project,” he says. “I hadn’t invested a huge amount in it, nor was it costing me much, so I opted for the high-risk, high-reward path rather than look for another job.” Before the year was up, he had met Kapoor, who was not only an alumnus of the same school and college as him but had also grown up in the same neighbourhood. Kapoor liked Sheth’s idea and decided to invest in it.

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The first iteration of Ketto proved to be a nightmare. “The product was riddled with bugs; it was bad,” Sheth says. “Kunal started losing confidence in the project as I tried to sell it to non-profits, convince them to sign up and use it.” But the platform did not get traction until the breakthrough came with Krishnan’s donation. “It set off a series of events for us,” Sheth says, “including getting Zaheer to come on board with his expertise in tech and product support.” A few investors began to show interest, though the rejection rate remained high. Months later, Sheth got another break—this time in the form of an angel network called Calcutta Angels, which invited him to present his case.

“The odds of raising any money were low, and I didn’t have any funds to waste on a trip to Kolkata,” Sheth remembers. In the end, he persuaded the organisers to pay for his tickets. “I promised to pay them back if I got the money,” he laughs. His 20-minute pitch had an instant effect. “Unlike those investors in Delhi and Mumbai, the audience in Kolkata liked my idea and pledged around 50 lakh. I thought I must get it before they met other startups and changed their minds!” he jokes. The rest, as they say, is history.

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From a three-member team, Ketto now employs 160 people. “We hope to grow to 250 by the end of this year,” Sheth says. The flow of capital in the 21st century can’t bypass the magic of crowdfunding.

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