Capital Float: Banker For Small Businesses – Livemint

Rajath Kumar

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Written by Shrutika Verma

Sandeep Bindra, the New Delhi-based e-commerce merchant who runs Pathways Marketing and Consulting Pvt. Ltd is the official distributor of consumer electronics brands such as Havells, Godrej, Usha and Symphony coolers for large e-commerce marketplaces such as Flipkart.com, Snapdeal.com and Amazon.in. Two months ago, Bindra ran out of money raised from family and friends and his pleas for debt for his two-year-old company were not entertained by any bank. “They (banks) ignored us as they do not consider companies that are less than three years old,” said Bindra. With the festival season round the corner, he needed immediate cash to sustain the fast-growing sales online. That is when Bengaluru-based start-up Capital Float came to his rescue.

Founded by Sashank Rishyasringa and Gaurav Hinduja, alumni of Stanford Graduate School of Business, Capital Float is a new-age lending solution that operates online and offers unsecured loans to start-ups, manufacturers and e-commerce merchants such as Bindra. Set up in 2013, the company has already lent to more than 70 borrowers and has disbursed over Rs.20 crore. Run by Zen Lefin Pvt. Ltd, Capital Float is modelled after Atlanta-based Kabbage, which recently raised $50 million from Japan’s SoftBank.

Hinduja, born and brought up in Bengaluru, initially joined his family’s garments business under Gokaldas Exports that was sold to private equity firm Blackstone in 2008-09. He later studied business management at Stanford where he met Rishyasringa. Rishyasringa, 30 looks after finance, business and product development while Hinduja, 32, handles sales and operations. Since inception, the company has grown rapidly and has attracted a total funding of close to Rs.24 crore from SAIF Partners and George Soros’s Aspada Investment. The start-up is drawing the attention of investors and small businesses as it offers fast, affordable and flexible working capital loans, an alternative to traditional lending institutions such as banks, chit funds and local money lenders.

Currently, it lends money to companies that are more than a year old. The amount of fund offered is between Rs.3 lakh and Rs.1 crore. Interest charged on the loan varies and is in line with banks and non-banking financial companies (NBFCs). Bindra, for instance, borrowed a sum of Rs.20 lakh at an interest rate of 18.5%.

Unlike traditional banks, Capital Float lends money to small businesses that might not have collateral, significant revenues or years of experience. But the company does not disburse loans blindly. It employs unorthodox techniques, including psychometric tests to run checks on its clients, gauages their social media reputation, and grills them on business decisions and entrepreneurial skills before lending.

According to Bindra, companies such as Capital Float take away the human element from the process of money lending and make it more data-driven with an algorithmic approach to evaluating whether the business can stand on its feet or not. “In India, a lot of access to finance is based on who you know and how good is your relationship with the branch manager of a bank,” says Bindra.

Agrees Mridul Arora, vice-president at SAIF Partners, “Lending is currently dominated by banks. However, the SME (small and medium enterprises) space is underpenetrated and given the demand perspective, a company like Capital Float has a huge potential.” Arora says online lending business makes economic sense too and counts Capital Float’s access to proprietary data from e-commerce companies as one of its strength.

Rishyasringa says the company started focusing on e-commerce as the sector was buzzing and banks failed to see the opportunity. Today, there are several thousand manufacturers who either sell directly to e-commerce portals or they sell on marketplaces. Capital Float tied up with Flipkart, Snapdeal and Myntra to meet their vendors and understand their requirements. Soon, the company realized that these small businesses were unable to grow because of working capital challenges. Today, Capital Float works with most e-commerce marketplaces and is also a part of Snapdeal’s Capital Assist, a service to provide capital assistance to small sellers.

“When we started digging into entrepreneur finance in India, the scale of the problem was staggering. Today, there is about $140 billion of formal debt provided to SMEs by banks and NBFCs but the unmet need is another $200 billion,” says Rishyasringa, who worked with consulting firms in India and in New York in the financial services and technology space before founding Capital Float

Rishyasringa calls it the “missing middle problem” that he and his partner are trying to solve in the country. “If you are a large or a mid-size corporate, banks will line up outside your door. If you are a rural farmer or artisan, the MFIs will queue up to lend you, but if you are in this missing middleRs.50 lakh to Rs.20 crore turnover range, then there are not many options available,” he explains.

Today, India has more than 30 million registered SMEs and about 35% of these are ineligible to receive any financing from banks or NBFCs. “They look at your financial statement and bank statement but there is lot more which can make these companies underwritable,” says Hinduja.

The idea to start Capital Float struck the duo during their second year at Stanford after brainstorming sessions with their professor and mentor Baba Shiv. “Nearly 10 ideas were shot down before Capital Float was conceptualized,” said Shiv, a director at the Strategic Marketing Management Executive Program at Stanford and an adviser on the board of several companies, including Capital Float. Shiv recalls how the two friends were close to developing something in the taxi services space when they discovered firms operating similar businesses.

The company today takes seven to ten days to approve a loan, which it hopes to bring down to three to five days soon. Companies such as Kabbage take only seven minutes to approve a loan in the US. However, Hinduja does not believe that a company in India can get there because of the risk involved and the lack of data available around a start-up or an entrepreneur.

To be sure, Capital Float is not the only firm in this business. It faces competition, albeit from smaller companies, such as Capital First, NeoGrowth Credit Pvt. Ltd and SMEcorner.in. A lean operation, Capital Float employees 30 people.

The company’s progress is hardly a surprise given the teamwork and similar passions of its founders. For a start, both swear by Jeff Bezos’s biography The Everything Storeas a life changing book. “We can relate to the book at professional and personal levels,” they say. Both want to get into politics at some point. “We want to solve the policy issues and see ourselves in some policymaking roles. We left the (Silicon) Valley and came to India to solve some of the problems people here face,” says Rishyasringa.

Between table tennis matches at their Bellary Road office in Bengaluru, the founders plan to make Capital Float similar to OnDeck Capital (scheduled to go public this month) or the San Francisco-based Lending Club which is all set to raise about $900 million in its initial public offering. The company is scheduled to begin trading on the New York Stock Exchange this week.

These companies not just provide short-term financing but also offer a lending platform to introduce investors and institutions to the ones raising money. “Right now, we are trying to prove to the market that we know how to lend money and we know where our mouth is but we are very quickly starting to convert ourselves into a platform and the pilots have already begun,” said Hinduja.

The question is, how long can the online money lending companies avoid competition from banks? “We are now competing with some of the banks that have realized that e-commerce is becoming an area where they need to get expertise,” says Hinduja.

Among established banks that recognize the trend are Yes Bank Ltd and HDFC Bank Ltd. Both lenders did not comment for the story.

“Companies like Capital Float will not be able to compete with banks at the pricing level whenever they jump into the game. But if these companies execute better and faster they can create a platform to work with banks,” says SAIF’s Arora.

News piece sourced from Livemint. Read the full piece here.