A Conversation with Nikhil Kalghatgi
On October 15, the third-largest Japanese mobile carrier, SoftBank Corp, announced their intentions to spend ultimately $20B to gain control of Sprint, our own third-largest mobile provider. I visited Nikhil Kalghatgi in SoftBank Capital’s brand new, still-smells-like-paint Chelsea offices a few days later after seeing him speak on behalf of his company at a panel at the Media Technology Summit in New York City a week before. When I asked him why, after in 2011 SoftBank publicly announced they would focus on seed and early stage investing, did SoftBank… he stopped me before I could finish and laughed, “We share the name, but we, SoftBank Capital are a venture fund and they, SoftBank Corp are a tech, media and telecommunications conglomerate. We are independent but affiliated, but even I read about it in the newspaper.” However, he does concede that sharing the name has been wonderful “from a branding perspective.”
I first met Nikhil after he spoke at a session called “Rewriting the Rules: Investing and Operating in Game Changers.” As a Principal at SoftBank Capital, he’s been involved in some of these rule-writings himself. SoftBank Capital has invested in companies from Associated Content to Zynga. Nikhil’s been at SoftBank for a couple of years now and prefers helping mobile, e-commerce, and social platform companies in their early stages.
What originally interested me about Nikhil was when he spoke about e-commerce startups that were overly reliant on their technology at first at the expense of ignoring their brand. As a counter to this, he cites Warby Parker. Warby Parker is an eyeglasses manufacturer and retail store that doesn’t do anything astonishing on the technology side, but has such clear branding and effective marketing that they’ve become the first name many would mention when shopping for glasses online.
But as much as Nikhil likes Warby Parker’s comparatively low-tech approach, he also sees room for technological advantage for companies once they’ve established their brand identity, and it’s through customization. Nike and Oakley both allow customization of their shoes and sunglasses respectively through their websites and clear revenues of almost $400mm combined. He admires how INDi Custom Denim (now defunct) used a combination of technology and low overhead to produce bespoke clothing in ways other clothing companies couldn’t match, but also with customer service that was difficult to beat.
Though actually, Nikhil prefers the term “customer experience.” He explains: “Customer service is one piece, though very important, it’s contrived to be support for when something goes wrong. But [customer experience] is more than that: from landing on the website, the experience of the product when it arrives, the speed with which it arrives, and consistently arriving on time.” He says that especially for e-commerce sites that suffer the challenges of repeat drop-offs and difficulty retaining customers, so they must “create a delightful experience from the outset, and if anything goes wrong, absolutely 5-star service.”
Nikhil points to two companies in his portfolio that he feels demonstrate this level of service: Gilt Groupe and MobileDay. Gilt Groupe has always modeled itself as a company that puts a premium on customer experience, but MobileDay attacked a problem and were relentless about asking as much information about their product to their users so they could could do better. This, coupled with the fact that MobileDay truly is useful, made it one of the first companies Nikhil was eager to tell me about.
And how to get into his portfoilio in the coming year? Early stage investing trends for the first half of the year include a fair amount of e-commerce, SAAS models, and B2B/e-commerce, but Nikhil was reluctant to predict more than that. “A year is too far out,” he said. Which means that anything is still possible.
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