I was gingerly amused to receive a WhatsApp forward from a bright millennial I had slugged a beer with on a Goa beach earlier this year. The forwarded document was a ‘redlight presentation’ from perhaps the most visible venture capitalist (VC) on earth. This VC is also feted as the janini (ie, the mother, in the government’s preferred lingo) of all ‘unicorns’, that fashionable, catchall adjective that otherwise dull bureaucrats bandy around all the time to assert India’s ‘sexy’ economic story.
Notes From a 'Redlight Presentation'
It's a ‘redlight presentation’ because it reads like an elegy of remorse at creating these monstrous, profitless unicorns, now burning through scarce capital and hurtling towards demise. The elegy begins with honest remorse … and continues honestly:
Sorry, we massively misread what the pandemic would do to the world economy; how panicky governments would create humongous amounts of new money to pump prime asset values
Sorry, when supply shocks created by Covid shutdowns intersected with this tidal wave of new cash, not just asset but commodity and product prices also spiralled out of control
Sorry, we just lost sight of how inflation corrodes value
Sorry, we never thought Putin would bite the Ukraine bullet, which became the KO punch in an already gruelling Covid battle
Sorry, we lost control of valuations because “capital was free”; we forgot how financial discipline can be excessively damaged by free capital
Sorry, we called you ‘unicorns’, gave you unreal billion-dollar valuations even though your cash flow was a trickle!
An Ominous 'Warning': Recovery Is Far
Then the tone of the presentation changed, from regret/remorse to an ominous warning or advice:
Because capital is not free anymore; the US treasury, the least risky interest rate in the world, has moved from a few basis points to nearly 300 in a matter of weeks; house mortgages are up by a crushing 70% in six months, stalling the construction boom
Because Nasdaq is down 28% in seven months, the third-largest drawdown in 20 years
Because six out of ten software, internet, and fintech companies are trading below their pre-pandemic values, despite doubling revenues and profits … so their real value could have diminished by much more than half
Because, alarmingly, a third of these ‘hot stocks’ are even below their Covid lows, ie, less than the price they had crumbled to in March 2020
Because recovery, if possible, will take a long, long, very long time!
Finally, the redlight presentation ends with a bunch of homilies:
The strongest and the fittest don’t survive, but those who respond to change do
It’s now going to be the survival of the quickest … the one who is the quickest to adapt
The pain of discipline is less than the pain of regret
They don’t say it in so many words, but the regret, remorse, or the lesson, is clear – it’s the CASH FLOW, silly!
Zomato, Paytm & Nykaa: The 'Hot' Words
As I close the WhatsApp forward, my thoughts sailed back to that enchanting, breezy evening on the Goa beach. I was surrounded by a bunch of millennials, a couple of whom had read Network18: The Audacious Story of a Start-up that Became a Media Empire (Penguin Random House, 2016). So, they knew about my entrepreneurial hits and misses – perhaps more misses than hits, I reckon.
Anyway, they were a savagely curious and opinionated bunch of millennial investors, so our exchanges got animated.
RB: “Because both were crazily valued and nowhere near making money. But I will look at Zomato once the stock falls to Rs 50, and PayTM if it touches Rs 500.”
Their loud sniggers came crashing into my earlobes. “Keep on waiting, old man … Zomato falling to Rs 50, he he, and Paytm to Rs 500, he he he. Are you nuts, old man?”
Wryly, I picked up my phone and WhatsApp-ed my millennial friend. “You know the price Zomato hit last week? Nearly Rs 50, right. And PayTM? Nearly Rs 500, right … so now, are you nuts, young man?”.
Feeling vengefully satisfied, I shut the phone, and allowed my beach memory to take over again…
Millennial 2: “But you must have invested in Nykaa? That’s making real money, right?”
RB: “Yes, I did. But I flipped it on listing day.”
Their shocked, collective sighs hit me bodily: “SIGHHH. How could you sell on the first day?”
RB: “Why not? I paid about a thousand bucks, and in less than a week, I had made a post-interest/tax return of Rs 600 – in less than one week! That’s an annualised return of 3000-4000% … I’d be nuts not to flip it…”
Again, It's the Cash Flow, Silly!
Millennial 3: “You are clearly out of it, sir. Now, you will tell us that you’ve never invested in bitcoins?”
All Millennials: “WHAAAT! Not even in bitcoins?”
RB: “No, how can I invest in something that does not have an underlying cash flow? I am just terribly wary of any so-called ‘asset’ that is valued solely on perceived scarcity, without any cash flow attached to it – which is why I’ve never invested in a painting…or tulip [I borrowed this venomous dart from the RBI Governor]. But once NFTs evolve to represent the ownership of, say, this beach resort behind us, then I will invest in a crypto asset.”
Millennial 4 (a tad confused): “An NFT that represents the ownership of this beach resort?”
RB: “Yes, imagine if the hard assets and revenues/costs of this 1000-room resort can be subsumed in a non-fungible token which can be bought/sold on a blockchain of real estate assets. Imagine that all the title/ownership rights are legally vested in that NFT. Now, imagine if I could buy 1/1000 of this NFT, which is freely tradeable/transferable on the blockchain. That would amount to buying the value of one room in the resort, something I can’t do in the physical world with its rigidities of stamp duties, the indivisibility of land parcels, registration deeds, etc. But in the digital world of NFTs, once their legal status is beyond doubt, once they are seamlessly traded on blockchains, I can buy and sell the value of one room as many times as I want on any given day! So, once NFTs evolve to this point, where the title/ownership of real assets with real cash flows are legally bundled into that token, that’s the day NFTs will take off and become unstoppable.”
There was a stumped silence on the Goa beach. Almost every millennial was scratching their head to figure out what I had just said. It’s the CASH FLOW, silly!