When the average consumer thinks about finance and technology, what often comes to mind is an image of streaming cash flows. Isn’t that every venture capitalist’s and entrepreneur’s dream?
What people often don’t see between the crevasses of venture investing, is a long game of patience and impeccable intuition that’s only built from years of experience and observation.
While it’s tempting to associate buzzwords like fintech with some glamorous and exclusive endeavor, we shouldn’t readily confuse trendy language with steady revolutions.
For one investor, the two most crucial components of investing are observations and patterns. As a young child, Dhiren Chatlani bore witness to several different cultures and environments; encountered dreamers like himself, and those that were just lucky to pay their rents on time. Though profitability is essential to any venture, the motivation behind the profit can drastically differ from one investor to another.
With Dhiren, we discussed the positive impact investing can have on societies, as well as dove into his rather unique definition of success.
Interviewer: What inspired you as a child?
Dhiren: I grew up having a blend of Indian and Spanish culture from my parents. One of the beautiful things is that each location is very particular, and sometimes you get to have your own language or dialect. Most of my time, I spent with my family in the United States.
My enjoyment came from spending time observing different people’s cultural behaviors and trying to find opportunities within that. For me, the United States was always the “holy grail” of opportunities. Since I was 10 years old, I had an interest in entrepreneurship; anything from how technology applied to sports, to general distribution and online commerce. I think the most discerning thing was drawing inspiration from observing people and trying to recognize patterns and always looking for opportunities in that.
Interviewer: Can you tell us the process of getting into venture investing?
Dhiren: I joined Actyus, the venture fund I’m at now, after working for my startup of four years in the sharing economy space. I ended up spending some time in the U.S, Mexico as well as in Spain and India. After encountering people from different sides of the world, I think it’s fair to say that a significant percentage of people in the world have to work in order to survive. Personally, my family struggled with finances at certain times, and that’s how I understood the necessity of building capital through entrepreneurship, or other means.
Interviewer: Can you elaborate on your understanding of insurance, and how your first company prompted these ideas?
I drew inspiration from the Airbnb model when it came out, thinking it made a lot of sense and I thought, “Why can’t we apply this to other sectors, for example, product rentals?”
Some people can’t afford to rent their room because there’s not enough space in their house. The product rental model would mean you could make money by renting expensive gear, like an expensive camera or an expensive bicycle for a day or a week, so people could try it and have access to different products.
I’m intrigued by the concept of guaranteed income. Unfortunately, most governments don’t have the liquidity to offer such services. This was my way of trying to accelerate guaranteed income, by allowing people to make $1,000 to $2,000 a month from what they had at home, thereby, reducing the need to work as much, or at least afford to be pickier about where they worked. This could incentivize people to have more time to find their passions and even become more productive and engaged in their careers.
That’s more or less what I did. Then I worked at a VC firm called Plug and Play which had invested in my startup, and we went through the accelerator program in Spain. I spent nearly two years there working on InsurTech, FinTech, and a little bit in HealthTech, learning mainly about the Latin American market. There I started to open my mind to insurance and its value.
Through my startup, we had to deal with insurance companies and build a product from scratch. Because no one wanted to insure a random person without any form of collateral we proposed a different type of solution. The key is you aggregate and store data from different and non-standardized sources—which is now it’s called KYC (Know Your Customer).
After spending a couple of years working with more basic SaaS companies, I wanted to pivot and go into something more related to deep tech, where I saw a huge opportunity.
The main issue here is that investors don’t tend to be that patient. For deep tech to really manifest itself, takes around 15-20 years. The way venture capital firms are structured, their investments usually fall in a ten-year span. For around a year, I worked at GoHub, a deep tech fund focused on the water sector. Then I got this opportunity to join Actyus, which was verticalized in FinTech in Europe, Latin America, and the United States.
I realized one of my weaknesses pertained to not having a strong, specific financial background; I had always been a generalist. I knew about FinTech and InsurTech, but going into the nitty gritty angles is something that I wanted to strengthen. I think this was my opportunity to do so, as well as to work with top-notch entrepreneurs and executives.
Interviewer: One of your pillars is financial inclusion, which is quite contrary to traditional venture investing. How do you plan to bridge the gap between people that don’t have access to that much capital and innovation?
Dhiren: I always thought FinTech was a dark world. I think as many economists, and even several US presidents have said, credit is the lifeblood of any society. Economically speaking, 70% to 80% of the world is still in development. These people need access to capital in order to get a mortgage, buy a car to work, and so on.
The issue is that since they’re not bank regulars, there’s not enough data on them. Banks don’t tend to lend to these types of end users. That’s where fintech can become very helpful. I’ll give you an example, we invested in a company called Boom Pay, which is trying to help people report their rental payments, as a form of building credit. They’re helping people who might not have a credit history to start building one. This is the first step and after, adding layers of embedded finance to cover certain needs.
My philosophy as it pertains to financially inclusive investments is investing in products and services that banks might not be interested in funding and helping those people develop them and profit from them.
Another way we learned more about the sector, is we invested in a company called Creditas, which was launched by Sergio Furió, a Spanish entrepreneur who built a huge company from scratch in the securitization of debt.
If you look at interest rates in Latin America, having an annual percentage rate (APR) of 200% is not uncommon. It’s fairly common in markets like Mexico, Peru, and Brazil.
Imagine offering low-income individuals who don’t have a great financial education such high-interest rates from a bank.
As I was mentioning, a company like Creditas comes in and sees an opportunity where there are high-interest rates in a market, and where most people own their assets. If you use your home as collateral, it will give you a much lower interest rate. Imagine, instead of paying 150% APR, you’re paying less than a quarter by reducing the perceived risk. I think it’s amazing to be able to do something like that.
Interviewer: I’ve recently read an article about Smile, a freemium insurance model app—that combines insurance with fintech and social media. I was wondering how do you think companies like this become profitable? Do you think this is the future?
Dhiren: Unfortunately, there is a chance that the insurance company will sell user data to pharmaceutical companies in exchange for free services.
I think one of the biggest issues, for example in healthcare, is not diagnosing a person soon enough. Investing in preventative care is key, but that’s the job of a government/insurer, doctor, and patient.
Adherence to that medication as per the doctor’s recommendations is the individual’s responsibility. If you have lung issues, then smoking is a big no. A doctor cannot change your mind, and this is a psychological issue. The question is, how can we improve user adherence to medical advice? I think with a freemium service, we can do that because the pricing can be more dynamic and cost is a huge motivator. Companies like Health IQ in the US, lower their premiums for people who do more exercise or who follow a vegetarian diet.
Then we can get into more data like genetics. The issue is there’s a really beautiful phrase, which is, No tree can grow to heaven without its roots reaching down to hell. If you give too much information to one company, there will inevitably be discrimination. No insurer is going to want to insure a person who has certain genetic disorders. With the freemium model, we have to be very careful and make sure it’s regulated. The issue with tech companies is that they’re always three steps ahead of regulation. For example, when the sharing economy model emerged in 2009, there were no government regulations surrounding it.
Interviewer: How do you plan to mitigate the risks of lending to people with low credit scores? Do you think blockchain will eventually play a role in insurance, fintech, and lending?
Dhiren: Generally, tracking everything makes things easier. I think decentralization is the key to the future of certain sectors. For example, if you could decentralize home rentals through Airbnb, you would be able to reduce the company’s fees and make it a little more accessible. Have the community, for example, vote in the case of damage caused by a tenant or ranking algorithms for the supply side and what properties are given priority based on the homeowner’s profile. Whether they’re low-income, investment funds, real estate agencies…etc.
Interviewer: How important is intuition when it comes to investing?
Dhiren: I think intuition is really important when it comes to choosing investors, hiring, and firing. All humans have a bias through the way they’re educated and where they come from; their sphere of influence also has a huge impact. I think we just have to keep a balance between intuition and facts.
Interviewer: What does success personally mean to you?
Dhiren: I think it has changed over time. When I was younger, success was about building a profitable company and being able to help people. My childhood dream was to be a philanthropist, and have a major impact on people. Then I realized that maybe through business, I could have a better impact than say, in engineering or medicine. For me, success was more attuned to building something or being able to influence, build a legacy..etc.
Now, being remembered is not something I care for much. We have a very narcissistic society at the moment. I think what’s important to me now, is my desire to serve and leave the ego aside, which is not an easy task. I think that serving starts first around in your surroundings, like at home.
For many years, I overworked and got really sick, When you sit in hospitals for a long time, you begin to think more about what the meaning of life is.
For me, success from an existential point of view is being able to observe and through observation, reach certain conclusions about the purpose of life. Time shouldn’t be a commodity.
I think this definition can change in the next five years. But for now, humility is important.
Venture investing is a way to complement entrepreneurs in building innovations that can gradually change the landscape, especially ones that have slim chances of getting capital. All in all, it takes time for any sector to fully come to fruition, and investors and entrepreneurs alike must persist with patience. Although signing a deal is a cause for celebration, it’s only just the beginning. The beginning of the long game.