On Sequoia India, Housing and Being Better

By now, unless you’re living under a rock, you’ve undoubtedly taken notice of the recently-deleted Quora exchange between Housing founder and CEO Rahul Yadav and Sequoia India Managing Director Shailendra Singh. Many seem to be taking a real morbid pleasure in the exchange, given the high profile nature of the two individuals involved, the colorful language and accusations within the exchange, all wrapped in what seems to be an incredibly frothy, white-hot bull run that the startup ecosystem is experiencing in India today.

After learning many lessons the hard way, I’ve gained the maturity to normally sit out the more theatrical occurrences in our Indian startup universe; to keep quiet and stay focused on being productive. The younger, more arrogant and brazenfaced me would have chomped at the bit to jump into this situation, to quickly ally myself with one side or the other and justify why that was the “right” side. But in all the years since my first dance at burrp!, if there’s anything I’ve learned about conflict, it is this: it is always more nuanced and complex than any outsider could imagine. Choosing sides is what the brain wants to do to make sense of the situation, but we would all be better served to understand the nuances of any conflict before drawing conclusions.

And while the lessons I’ve learned have served me well (head down, laser focus, carry on), I felt immediately compelled to share my opinions with a wider audience around this issue for two reasons: 1) I know Shailendra and Rahul and 2) this exchange could impact the perception of the Indian startup ecosystem, one I care deeply about.

I am not here to question, nor comment on the veracity of accusations between Rahul and Shailendra; but I’ve known both of these gentlemen in various capacities, a blend of both personal and professional in both cases, and thought my experiences with them would at least give the wider audience a moment to pause and respect the complexities of the conflict. Before getting into that, it is only fair that I be completely transparent about how I know these dudes.

Rahul

I can’t remember the exact time I first met Rahul, but it was pre-Housing, when he and his team were running a B2B recharge platform for retailers. I remember our first exchange was at the FreeCharge offices near SEEPZ in Andheri East, sometime in the second half of 2012; I remember the meeting was somewhat agenda-less, more of a show-and-tell between both of us, but walked away from the meeting being impressed by Rahul’s confidence and his ability to stay myopically focused on his assumptions and beliefs. I stayed in touch with Rahul, mostly via Google Talk, but as he began to devote more time into building a real-estate listings platform, I encouraged him to meet with Haresh Chawla, while simultaneously, the opportunity to invest came up (Haresh and I have invested in a handful of early stage deals through an investment vehicle we privately manage). After the investment, Rahul and I probably met another half a dozen times to catch up and talk shop (fundraising, growth, product, SEO, etc). When I had wrapped up my responsibilities with FreeCharge and was making the move back to the Bay Area, Rahul and I discussed the possibility of a role with Housing, which we didn’t really have time to crystallize. After moving back to the Bay Area, our conversations became less frequent, mainly through WhatsApp or Google Talk.

Shailendra

Not many know this, but Shailendra was the very first venture capitalist @anand and I ever pitched burrp! to. It was early-to-mid 2006, and I remember distinctly meeting Shailendra at the Grand Hyatt in Kalina; I was running about a 103 degree fever, but was excited to meet him. Halfway into the pitch, Shailendra starts to challenge some of our assumptions on market size, the opportunity size of a platform like burrp! The conversation takes a turn for the thorny, primarily because the younger, brasher me couldn’t fathom being challenged on my startup. I remember being so angry at one point in time (not visibly), that I almost blacked out (I’m sure my fever had a part to play with that as well). Fast forward to late 2011, and a conversation with Shailendra and Shailesh convinces me that I should move back to India to add value to certain Sequoia India portfolio companies. Serendipitously, I meet Kunal Shah around the same time, and I decide FreeCharge is where I can make the biggest impact. I spend nearly two years there as COO and work closely with Kunal on various aspects of growing the business. And it was during that stint with FreeCharge that I had the opportunity to work very closely with Shailendra.

So what’s going on here? Clearly, the frustration, the sense of deception or betrayal is real. And I want to restate, I not here to opine on the veracity of the accusations. Is it possible that there was a real degradation of the relationship between Housing and Sequoia when Housing was pitching Sequoia in the early days? It is possible, but I am not privy to that information. What I do know is from my own very personal experience with these two gentlemen.

Rahul is leading one of India’s most compelling and buzz-worthy technology startups. He has managed to build a second-to-none engineering team in arguably one of the hardest cities to do it in; has led the product design of a world-class interface across mediums; and has raised over $100MM in venture capital from some of the most marquee investors in the world. Say what you will, but that is a monumental feat in itself. He is an audacious, singularly focused individual, who is driven by growing Housing into a global internet powerhouse, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Without knowing any of the context for why frustrations reached a boiling point, I still believe that he could have exhibited more restraint and poise. It’s ok to not see eye to eye with people, it’s even ok to generally not like someone for a multitude of reasons, but letting things get under your skin has a tendency to bring out the worst in us. I’m not suggesting the answer is soft diplomacy or sugarcoating; I’m a huge fan of being transparent and honest in your feedback of someone, but do it constructively. Put another way, if someone’s behavior is unnerving, help them try to see why they should change it, and make suggestions to help them improve.

While I laugh about my first exchange with Shailendra when I look back at it now, I can say without any agenda that Shailendra was one of the most founder-friendly, supportive and genuinely helpful investors I’ve worked with. I never saw him as an investor, but rather an extension of our team; I would expect him to be as helpful and responsive to me as my VP of Engineering, or my Head of Design, and every time I made an ask of him, he delivered. Most surprising to me was how he maintained his conviction, even during tumultuous or less certain times. I never once got the impression that Shailendra did not have the company’s best interest in mind. Can Sequoia India be better at showing more humility to founders that they choose to not engage with? I am sure they can. Can they bring more ex-founders and startup operators into the Sequoia India team to build better connections with founders? I am sure they can. We all have flaws and challenge areas, but none of them need be fatal.

And, while everyone reading this has the complete freedom to think what they want, my only agenda is to ensure that the Indian startup ecosystem continue to be taken seriously. I am not taking sides, because there are no sides to take. None of us are infallible, nor should we behave like it. The most productive outcome in situations of conflict between investor and founder is for both sides to help the other understand each other, be radically transparent with each other, and ultimately help each other be better.

I know at times it can be tempting to be snarky, witty and reactive; I know, because that used to be me. But part of why I felt compelled to share this with you was in hopes to elevate the discourse above that, because we can all be better.

Onwards and upwards.