Guest Post: Three times when Nium almost died

Prajit Nanu, co-founder and CEO, Nium

Nium today is considered a success, but it hasn’t been like this all the time. We have had our fair share of challenges. As some of the early-stage start-ups in Singapore go through the cycle I thought I would list down three times we almost died (but, ultimately bounced back).

Here goes:

2014: We needed $150,000 to showcase to a regulator that we had the required capital for a licence. A VC was supposed to invest $500,000 at $2,000,000 post money.

At the last minute, they changed the deal and offered $250,000 for 40% of the business. They knew my desperation and wanted to take advantage of the situation. I came from a non-tech background and all of this was new to me. I actually decided to shut shop and wrote an email to Taavet from Transferwise to buy our license and buy the company for $30,000.

In the midst of this, I went for a long run to clear my head. $150,000 wasn’t a lot of money and I was just being super negative. The run helped me clear my head and we ended up raising $200,000 from Angels, including an ex colleague, my ex manager, and a family business from the south of India. That money helped us get off the ground

2015: We had raised $200,000 from Angels and $500,000 from Global founders capital and were out executing the plan. We were super cash strapped (PS: I made lots and lots of mistakes, but that’s another story), but growing 100% month on month.

“Every VC in India had rejected us… no one believed or understood what cross-border payments stood for.”

Every VC in India had rejected us. Those days no one believed or understood what Cross-border payments really stood for. Plus no one wanted to invest in a business which was not focused not on India. SEA-based VCs passed as they didn’t see the business scaling.

In July 2015, we had 9 months of run way. Not knowing what to do, I thought maybe I should move to Singapore and try to push investor interest from there instead of visiting Singapore every 2 months. I applied for a Singapore Employment Pass (EP) in July and voilà, I got an approval within 2 days. I can’t thank the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) in Singapore enough for approving my first EP so fast.

My partner wasn’t aware and was pretty shocked when I said we needed to move to Singapore in like a month’s time. Finally we made the move in September 2015. Within 2 months of moving, Vertex and another fund gave us a Term sheet to lead our Series A and we received the funds in March 2016. For the Feb 2016 payroll we had to use a loan, which I gave to the company as we were running on fumes.

2017: We were a super-confused startup. We really didn’t know what to do, or who we were. This also meant we didn’t have a clear path to raising money. Most of the investors didn’t know the space or saw through our confusion clearly. Those days we had a Consumer product and an SME product.

“We were a super-confused startup… most investors saw through our confusion clearly.”

We were building a neobank for low income people in Singapore, and we had an Enterprise payment product in its infancy (this is the core of Nium today). We wanted to raise $15mn to scale to business. In Jan 2017 we had a global Fintech fund who spent a lot of time with us. One of my mistakes when I think back on it was that our main contact at the fund was an associate.

As a rule of thumb, if you deal with an associate you will never get funds. It’s a rule I have diligently followed since then. We spent a lot of time with the VC and they went to their investment committee (IC) and passed! When the associate called me to say why the IC passed I was left fuming as I realised that he didn’t have any partner support to do this deal and he was trying to push himself. We now had 5 months of run way.

Vertex as usual stepped up and offered to put a small check via an internal round. We were going through this path when on a chance encounter I met Jefferson from GSR Ventures. From our first meeting, to DD, to a visit to GSR’s office in China, to a presentation to their IC and finally a term sheet – the process was only 2 weeks! I can’t thank Richard and Jefferson from GSR enough for one, doing this so quickly, and two, supporting us when we really didn’t know what we wanted to be. We received the funds 1 week before the payroll and we survived

If you are a founder and encountering something similar here is what was happening in my mind when I was going through all this:

  • Inside I was a wreck, but externally I was as normal as it gets. At no point of time did any of my colleagues realise we were running out of money. I didn’t want them to be stressed with it and impact performance. Pratik Gandhi, one of my co-founders, and I used to go to a Vietnamese restaurant in our office building every-time a VC passed on us. I can confirm we ate a lot of Pho;
  • I had zero ego and hustled very hard. I would speak to anyone to see how we could raise money. One thing I could have done better is to speak to more founders, but I didn’t have the network then.
  • Eye on the Prize – I had a never give up attitude. A bit of it comes naturally to me, being an avid sportsman. But I just didn’t want to throw in the towel at any cost.

I hope this helps other founders.

The author is co-founder and CEO of Nium. This post, originally published on LinkedIn, has been reposted with permission.

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