What's Behind This Tycoon's Growing Appetite for Tech Startups in Asia?
As 2018 draws to a close, Satveer Singh Thakral is busy writing a new chapter for SGAN, an early stage venture fund he started with his father in April 2014. After being anchored by the multi-billion dollar Thakral Group since inception, SGAN is now transitioning from a family fund to raising external money. Although the 30-year-old CEO of SGAN refuses to divulge the fundraise details, his well-defined plans reflect the current state of mind. “The idea now is to focus on deployment. That for us entails picking winners from our portfolio that we plan to double down on, in addition to scouting for new opportunities... carving out a few successful exits is also something that we’re actively looking to do,” he shares. SGAN has invested in over 100 companies spread across Singapore, India and the US.
Back in time
Almost a year after earning a bachelor’s degree from Virginia University's McIntire School of Commerce, Satveer set up SGAN, pushing his 113-year-old family business into technology. Started in Thailand with a single store in 1905, the Group today operates in 36 countries, employs over 20,000 people and covers a wide range of activities, from distribution and retail of consumer electronics, computers and peripherals, IT services to export and retail of branded garments and accessories. He wanted to diversify their asset base and “take a financial exposure to the startup world and learn more about and become an active part of the eco-system.” He says, “Our family has always had a desire to promote the culture of entrepreneurship, inherent in our DNA and to support the growing startup ecosystem in different countries.”
Over the years, he has harnessed an ability to stay ahead of the curve and predict future trends. “We are able to help some of the sharpest minds, people who are capable of shaping the future and changing the way we think and live, reach their goals,” Satveer says, who receives around 400 pitches in a year, (he invests in about 20).
Why only technology then? Why not, prompt comes the reply. “Like change, technology is the only constant in today’s day and age. It is the future. Anyone who doesn’t adapt to this change will definitely be left behind,” he says. “It has, and continues to disrupt a number of traditional businesses and has successfully paved the way for new businesses to emerge by creating a novel approach to doing things.”
Small wonder then SGAN has invested in companies like Karza, a banking and business intelligence solution provider; Silent Eight, which leverages artificial intelligence against money laundering and terrorist financing for financial institutions, and Anchanto, a global software company focusing on creating SaaS platforms for ecommerce and logistics. He admits that investing in technology can provide strong financial returns, but there’s more to it. “It also helps in learning how technology is disrupting current businesses and the world around us.” According to him, blockchain is going to be more popular in the coming years. “We are at a very nascent stage in blockchain's lifecycle. However, I see it growing to become an alternate underlying infrastructure in the years to come. The quote that best describes its potential is, ‘Bitcoin is to blockchain what email was to the Internet’.”
Presently, Satveer wants to devote himself to India and Singapore. “We have learnt to maintain a strong deal flow and define our value add, a strong geographical focus is very important. Additionally, opportunities in these geographies combined are big enough to keep us occupied for the coming years,” he maintains. In recent times, research has shown that India and Singapore are among the best first markets for startups. Satveer, however, doesn’t believe so. He argues that founders should create a plan of execution custom tailored to the market they aim to target and understand.
“It is essential for a founder to think about the problem statement, the product-market fit coupled with timing and the market size,” he suggests. This advice is something he follows as well. “Macro factors are out of our control and need careful consideration before making an investment decision, a fact that is often overlooked and ignored.”