For many startups, soon after the initial launch euphoria, comes the first trough. A series of daunting, crazy challenges, when the founders end up wondering: Is this what I really signed up for?
Akansh Khurana, the thoughtful, articulate CEO of THB (India’s largest clinical data intelligence platform), reached that juncture fairly early – within just 8 months. But Akansh and his team persevered, pivoted and within 2 years had gotten investor validation of their achievement: a $2.1M fund raise in February 2018. How did they do it? I decided to find out.
Over a long phone conversation with Akansh, I discerned five key storytelling lessons from their fund-raising experience. I categorise two of those under the ‘Find your story’ heading, and three under ‘Tell your story’.
Akansh, along with two friends – Rajesh Pachar (a tech geek) and Rohit Kumar (a data nerd) – founded THB in September 2015 driven by a personal need: to give patients the benefit of their own clinical data. You see, Akansh is a Type-1 Diabetic, and has been giving blood samples since he was young. Trouble is, he hasn’t gotten something that should naturally belong to him: access to his own clinical data. Applying the right analytics to such data, he can derive insights to improve his health. So can we all.
Think about it – you have detailed access to your financial data. But something far more personal (and far more critical) – your clinical data – remains in the black box of the healthcare system, out of your access.
Akansh wants to change that. At first (as a consultant with Bain and Co.) he thought he would advise healthcare providers on how to leverage clinical data for their patients’ benefit; but then he realised that it would be more impactful to do it himself. And that’s how THB was born.
Initially THB started off as a platform through which consumers could book their lab tests. So they tied up with a few lab providers in NCR and started on that most arduous task for a new business: customer acquisition.
To start with they acted only as a conduit between the patient and the lab, but soon they started having their own staff and equipment to collect samples. While the initial outcomes were promising, the THB team confronted many challenges: issues relating to operations, manpower, customer complaints etc. Things were not easy.
And that’s when Akansh came up with a critical insight. Over a conversation with a mentor, he realised that he personally, and THB by extension, did not have the DNA of a B2C company.
To give some context, a startup broadly has two choices (although midway variants exist): to be a B2C or a B2B business. A B2C company has greater long-term valuation potential, but it takes much longer to build and is also challenging from a day-to-day operations point of view.
The key insight for Akansh: their purpose was to enable patients to benefit from their health data. To achieve that they needn’t become a healthcare provider themselves; they could work with other healthcare providers and enable them to offer this benefit to their patients. And so THB pivoted, wound up its direct-to-consumer operations and started focusing on building partnerships with leading healthcare providers. After a ton of path-breaking work on their tech platform, they found admirable success with this approach, which strengthened their investment case.
So that’s the first lesson for upcoming startups:
Self-awareness, as described above, is critical – whether you are an entrepreneur or an employee. However for an entrepreneur, market-awareness becomes equally important. In THB’s case they did three things which were impactful:
The last line in the previous point was important – the right investor would understand. With his work experience in Bain and his alumni network, Akansh had access to a lot of investors; so getting a meeting was not a problem. But the meetings still had to be fixed up. So he persevered. Just for the recent fund raising round, THB met as many as 50 investors. Of these only 3-4 said an outright ‘no’. Most of the others wouldn’t commit either way, keeping the founders hanging.
Well that’s the nature of the game – no use complaining. Just because Investor #48 refused, does not mean you give up on your venture. Keep meeting more folks. (Caveat: If most of them point blank refuse, then you may want to reconsider!)
When I asked Akansh tips on what kind of slides he presented during an investor meeting, his answer was surprising: I don’t use any slides during the meeting. Do note: This is an ex-Bain consultant, trained to think in PowerPoint slides!
He elaborated, “Storytelling best happens face to face. Slides can become boring. Of course I did send a teaser deck before-hand if needed and a detailed presentation after the meeting.” But during the meeting it would strictly be a no-slides conversation.
Of course in some cases, you may have evocative visuals that form a key part of your pitch (e.g. a customer connect program you ran which saw 500 attendees in a small auditorium; or a video demonstration of how your product works in the customer setting). You could have simple slides with just these visuals. But all your talking points should be from you and not written on the slide.
Finally if we are doing face-to-face storytelling, what kind of stories work well? Akansh had a superbly insightful answer on this one. (As an aside, for most questions, his structured mind would typically start the response with “There are 2 reasons” or “There are 3 ways to look at it… no wait make that 4”).
No wonder, he mentions four types of stories that every startup must articulate:
Quick note: While it is important to tell these stories, you need to craft them well so that they are brief and impactful. No investor would tolerate a droning founder!
Ultimately all good storytelling can be broken into two steps: find the story and tell the story. Akansh is a great example of someone who’s successfully demonstrated both skills.
Here are the key lessons from THB’s fund raise:
I. Find your story
1. Know your purpose and DNA
2. Know your (global) market
II. Tell your Story
3. Persevere: keep meeting investors till you meet the right one
4. During investor meetings avoid slides (or keep them light and visual)
5. Practise and tell the four types of stories that define your startup: The Origin story, The First-win story, the Conflict story and the Future story
Hope you found this post useful. If you have any stories or tips to share of your own, please share in the comments section.
Featured image credit: THB