Entrepreneur Asia: Power Players

India's star cricketer turns angel investor

Gauri Bhatia, Special to CNBC.com
Indian Cricketer and cancer survivor Yuvraj Singh at a YouWeCan event.
Virendra Singh Gosain | Hindustan Times | Getty Images

Inspiring sportsman, cancer survivor and now venture capitalist, Yuvraj Singh aims to fund India's next internet success story.

Yuvraj Singh, one of India's most in-the-news sportspersons has done something that no Indian celebrity has ever done. He has turned angel investor, floating a $10 million fund early April with the ambition of fostering the next generation of internet entrepreneurs.

The 33-year-old cricketer, who fought cancer to make a successful comeback to the game a couple of years ago and was the highest paid player at $2.5 million in this season's Indian Premier League, told CNBC in a telephone interview, "I have always been somebody who has not been afraid to take risks. To make India a better place you have to take a chance."

Betting your money on unknown enterprises that have nothing to do with cricket is a big risk given the fact that his YouWeCan Ventures will be competing with other venture capitalists with years of domain experience that are already flooding India. But Singh has spotted an opportunity that could well be the next big thing for him after cricket.

Calculated risk

The country's start-up industry – especially in the internet space – has seen stupendous growth in the past five years, making India the fourth-largest start-up hub in the world with 3,100 new businesses according to the government's 2014-2015 annual Economic Survey. And with 40 percent of India's over a billion population expected to have access to the internet in the next seven years, the potential of this space seems limitless.

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Singh, unlike some of his cricketing peers who have invested in businesses like gyms and restaurants, dreams of helping to create the next big internet brands in India. Greatly inspired by India's e-commerce story which has seen the likes of Flipkart and Snapdeal change the way Indians shop in a span of just five to seven years, Singh hopes to fund internet start-ups that can improve standards and boost earnings in areas like wellness, healthcare, professional education and even the rural economy.

"I see young people in India with amazing ideas, I see great potential and want to help these youngsters. If you have the tools to make a building why not," said Singh, a global brand ambassador for companies like Puma and Oakley and the hero of India's cricket World Cup win in 2011.

Digital assets

While "gut feel" had a role to play in it, YouWeCan was a result of two to three years of discussions with friends, family and experts over dinner and coffee, on how to leverage brand Yuvraj Singh.

A flamboyant and aggressive all-rounder in Indian cricket who has several records to his name, Singh has become a global comeback story after his successful fight with cancer. His fan base is reflected in his considerable digital assets, which equals about 12 million followers on Twitter and Facebook and growing by about one million a month.

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"We had online brands approaching Yuvi [as he is popularly called] to do a single tweet for them or a Facebook campaign. They wanted his virtual presence and not on TV or on the ground. We realized there was value in his digital assets," Nishant Singhal, co-founder of YouWeCan and a friend of Singh told CNBC. "We integrated all this and said the young generation – the internet generation – is looking up to him."

And on the first day the venture was launched, they got 300 emails from budding start-ups, says Singh, who is also "chief motivator" at the firm.

The Yuvi effect

The founder of Vyomo, a mobile aggregator for salons and spas and the first investment by YouWeCan, is still starry-eyed about his meeting with his cricketing hero.

"He was so chilled, so casual…we met over breakfast and he said 'you do your part and tell me what we can do,'" Abhinav Khare recalled.

"He is such a fighter he inspired the whole team, they are so motivated now that they are doing things before deadline," Khare told CNBC.

Indian cricketer Yuvraj Singh.
Raveendran | AFP | Getty Images

Investments between $40,000 and $65,000 that YouWeCan plans to put in as initial funds comes with other benefits. Aside from having a celebrity VC with whom you can be on first name basis, "Hiring became super easy," says Khare, "People from Harvard Business School and the Indian Institute of Technologies are now willing to join us at huge salary cuts…earlier [before the Yuvi connection] I had a hard time convincing people."

Vyomo is also building its marketing strategy around Singh. Events like "Coffee with Yuvraj" whereby partner salons and spas have a chance to interact with the star cricketer is also proving to be a big pull factor, says Khare.

Brand ambassador for free

"One of the biggest hurdles faced by start-ups is getting customers. They cannot spend $2 million on an ad campaign like international brands. This is where Yuvi can help," said Singhal who also heads the investment advisory team at YouWeCan.

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Singh, who charges around $700,000 per year for a brand endorsement, will act as the ambassador for the companies he backs at no additional charge. No wonder entrepreneurs are getting in line – some 800-plus proposals have landed at YouWeCan in the month and a half following its launch.

The firm takes just 2-48 hours to respond to the proposals.

"Yuvi has always been an aggressive performer on the field of cricket; and in business, too, we are going to display the same aggression. We are not a fund that is going to make one investment in a year," Singhal told CNBC. Vyomo was the first proposal they received and the deal was done in two days.

YouWeCan Ventures, which plans to grow into a $40 million fund in the next five years, is now looking to hire experienced fund managers and advisors to expand its team.

"You are only as good as your team, the bigger the team the better tomorrow will be," the stylish left- handed batsmen Singh, said.