Dispatch from Bangalore

A startup founder, who hasn’t had much sleep all week, woke up on a recent Sunday to a phone call from his co-founder. A senior engineer was feeling burnt out and was contemplating leaving. For the founder, who had several calls scheduled with many high-profile Silicon Valley investors later in the day, talking this developer out of leaving the job quickly became the top agenda item for the rest of the weekend.

There’s a joke among many startup founders in Bangalore that hiring two to three engineers is currently more time-consuming and cumbersome than securing a fresh round of funding. Heavily-backed startups are paying big premiums to attract and retain talent, making it very challenging for their younger siblings to scale. And relying on recruiters is costly and still takes over a month to close a hire.

A good engineer with two to three years of experience with any recognizable startup expects $70,000 annually as salary, up from about $40,000 a year ago. A puzzled startup founder recently quizzed another peer in the industry how much a good QA engineer costs, and then answered the question himself: about $35,000, up from about $20,000.

Most difficult to poach are those who work at unicorn fintechs CRED and RazorPay, many startup founders said. Engineers from either of the firms expect as much as $150,000 a year, if not more — often four to five times the amount founders at early stage startups draw themselves.

The intense competition for talent has been prompted by newly turned unicorns increasing the pool on their captables for employee stock options, a concept that was nearly elusive just three years ago. Scores of U.S. and European startups are also aggressively hiring in India as remote working begins to take off.

India has produced a record 16 unicorns this year as Tiger Global, Falcon Edge, and SoftBank cut large size checks to the nation’s promising startups at a pace never witnessed before in the South Asian nation.

Indian startups have raised a record $10.46 billion in the first half of 2021, up from $4 billion during the same period last year, and $5.4 billion in the first half of 2019, data insight platform Tracxn told me. (In all of 2020, Indian startups had raised $11.6 billion.)

The average size of a seed round in India was $1.1 million in the first half of 2021, up from $800,000 during the same period last year and $740,000 in 2019, per Tracxn. An average Series A check size this year has been $7.67 million, up from $4.30 million last year, and $5.92 million last year.

Even early-stage startups are at the centre of attraction as virtually everyone is attempting to get in on a deal. Some second-time founders now have the confidence and networking to bypass Sequoia Capital India’s Surge accelerator program and Y Combinator and still gain access to some of the perks they offer.

Some aren’t engaging with funds at all for their seed financing rounds. Scores of startup founders from the past decade have accrued enough capital and reputation to write dozens of checks a year to early promising startups.

The abundance of dry powder in the market and the increased competition from some of the most reputable names in the industry have also changed the power dynamics between founders and investors. It’s becoming common for founders to negotiate from a place of strength to hold on the rights and preferential treatments from investors.

On a call recently, two founders discussed what many would consider a first-world dilemma: Dozens of investors had agreed to invest in them, but they no longer had so much stake to offer. So they strategize what stake to give whom and how to politely get others to reduce the size of their committed check size.

But some investors are worried that the music may stop soon.

Investors at several high-profile firms told me that many startups are taking checks from Tiger Global / Falcon / SoftBank too early in their journeys.

They argue that many of these young startups have raised funds at such a high valuation that if they are not able to hit the metrics they have told their existing lead investors, very few in the industry would be in a position to engage with them at a later stage.

“And even the likes of Tiger will not back you then,” one investor said, pointing to examples such as Bangalore-based Upstox, which raised from Tiger Global in the past, but later Tiger invested in its chief rival Groww. “Tiger is backing the race, not the horse,” another investor said.

A down cycle is a scenario many investors are preparing for. But it appears the music, so to speak, has only gotten louder in recent weeks.

Bangalore-based edtech Brightchamps is in advanced stages of talks to raise at over $500 million valuation, while Ola Electric has held talks to raise at over $3 billion valuation, according to multiple people familiar with the matter. Fidelity and Goldman Sachs have held talks to invest in a pre-IPO round of Paytm, one person said.

ShareChat is about to raise $150 million to $200 million from Temasek and others at a pre-money valuation of $2.8 billion. Prosus Ventures is in advanced stages of talks to lead an investment round in Upstox.

Sequoia is in talks to invest in Gitcoin and back Dive again, while Infra.Market, which was valued at $200 million in December last year and $1 billion earlier this year, is in talks to raise at over $2 billion valuation. Many other startups that turned unicorns this year are also in the market to finalize new rounds. BharatPe, Open, and Yap are in advanced stages of talks to finalize new rounds, TechCrunch has reported in recent weeks.

There are at least seven more $50 million+ rounds, and more than a dozen $20 million+ rounds that are expected to close within weeks.

Elsewhere in Bangalore, there’s another sense of urgency.

Several founders in India are starting crypto startups for customers across the world, but high-profile investors in India have largely stayed away from this category, in part, because of India’s confusing stand about virtual currencies. Their absence has resulted in many of these startups secure funds from international funds and angels.

But this may change soon. Several venture funds including Sequoia Capital India, Lightspeed, Accel, WEH, and Kalaari are currently building their thesis for investments in crypto startups, people familiar with the matter told me.

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