Tanul Mishra is the founder and CEO of Afthonia. She leads Afthonia’s vision to handhold early-stage fintech startups as they traverse the Indian financial industry, helping them to incubate their ideas and accelerate their innovations. She also co-founded Eatelish, a food service that bridges artisan food makers across India with consumers.
Tanul is also an active member of the startup community in India, and had spoken in events for Google Business Group, Robinhood, and education institutions.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Kr: Give us a bit of insight into your background and how you came up with the idea of Afthonia Lab.
Tanul Mishra (TM): In 2012, I started a food-based startup, Eatopia, with my co-founder Shipra, and exited it in 2019. And at that point in time, I realized that India lacked a structured environment for entrepreneurs to grow their business, reach out to the right network, and scale faster. This is because many of them are first time entrepreneurs, and the average age is also going down.
Hence, Afthonia Lab was created with the vision of acting as an incubator for these startups, not only focusing on bringing them capital, but also mentorship to help them scale globally. There are a lot of founders that have come straight out of college, but also, some of them have a few years of corporate or startup work experience, so we have a healthy mix.
Kr: What’s the situation of the fintech sector in India?
TM: India has just started entering the space of fintech, and the scope is not just in urban areas, but also rural spaces in tier one and two cities. We’re poised for growth right now, and we’re just getting started. I believe that when you create a solution in India, this solution can be implemented globally. This is because our huge population size has accounted for all the different behaviors that could be exhibited by consumers, as well as businesses.
Kr: Who is responsible for this growth in the wider startup ecosystem in India?
TM: India has the third-largest number of startups, and this is spread across sectors. There’s buying power, youths, and there’s also the middle-aged population. When you look at the 60 plus year-old population in India, they are very digitally savvy, and this demographic, which is not often talked about, is hugely responsible for the startup boom in India.
Kr: Globally, a lot of startups struggled due to COVID-19. How did India’s ecosystem manage this challenge?
TM: Due to the pandemic, everybody suffered initially as nobody was prepared for a pandemic to hit. But there are some sectors in India that were able to scale, such as home delivery services, while other medium and small enterprises have been hit harder. I would say there’s been a mix in the impact of the startup industries.
Kr: In terms of India’s ecosystem, what are some unique challenges they have in comparison to markets such as the US or Singapore?
TM: India is not a homogeneous market and it is very diverse. Hence, buying behaviors, languages, patterns, tastes, everything, will keep changing. I think one of the largest challenges is to understand what you want and how you want to scale. As capital is always an issue in the startup world, and thus your reach, deciding your marketing, messaging, and the public are some of the challenges that Indian founders face, because there is no “one size fits all” product.
Kr: When working with startups, do you also how founders develop themselves as well?
TM: Absolutely. I think there is a growing up phase for every founder. We’ve seen a lot of founders who’ve matured over a period of time and developed skill sets, like being more perceptive.
Kr: Do you think is important for a founder to take part in a program like Afthonia?
TM: I think it’s essential. As a founder, you’re forming a culture that will run across to your customers, teammates, and business partners. You need access to capital, knowledge, expertise, markets, people, and there is only a part you will be able to do on your own. Hence, with platforms like Afthonia, we already have that system ready for you.
Kr: You made a statement about how many startups don’t have a ‘global mindset’. What advice do you have for founders to start to think globally?
TM: When you build a product, you need to think about the usability and functionality of the product design, and not so much about the fonts and colors. So if you can keep that intuitive, then you’re thinking globally. Sometimes, it’s also easier for founders to launch a product globally, and then bring it back to the home market.
Kr: Many are afraid of taking risks when it comes to creating a startup. What would you say to these people?
TM: Launching a startup is definitely a commitment and a rollercoaster ride. You have to be willing to commit a few years of your life, blood, sweat, and tears. If you think that everything is going to be a smooth journey, and you’ll have a paycheck at the end of the month to take home, that’s not going to happen. It’s going to be difficult, so you need to be very sure of this commitment.
Kr: You mentioned that you worked at a startup previously. If given a choice, would you prefer continuing with your startup business, or are you happy with what you’re doing at Afthonia Lab now?
TM: At this stage, I’m really happy running Afthonia because I see the difference is making for entrepreneurs. One reason I don’t feel the need to form another startup is that, while the incubator is a more established program and not like a conventional startup, it is still a growing business. There are very few models in India that have been established and are successful. Hence, my focus is to create an incubator program that others would look at and set as a benchmark for the industry. In that sense, I still see Afthonia as a startup, which is looking to break that mold.
Kr: What do you think are some of the biggest lessons to take away from 2020 and carry forward into 2021?
TM: One aspect would be planning for contingencies, remote working, and delivery. We need to have capital efficiency, like forming a team structure, which focuses on generalizations rather than specializations. So, creating that kind of business that looks into all these aspects is going to be what we’d like to focus on. And of course, equipping our homes to be able to work from home, because that’s the one thing that’s essential going forward.
Kr: On a more personal note, what were your biggest takeaways from 2020?
TM: I realized that I can’t control everything, 2020 had its own plan. Another thing was that all of us in the startup world always talk about flexibility and adaptability, but is something that we also need to bring into a personal space, where we can adapt to sudden changes and focus less on controlling every outcome.