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In early July, things looked rosy at Airlift Technologies Pvt as it prepared to raise more cash for expansion. Six days later, the startup – one of Pakistan’s most prominent – was bust.
The ecommerce company collapsed less than a week after failing to complete a funding round, underscoring how severely the global rout in tech valuations is affecting fragile startups in emerging markets. Airlift had raised US$85mil (RM382.75mil) a year earlier – a record for the country – and had curbed spending in a bid to appeal to investors as it worked toward a fresh round. But then the lead backer pulled its commitment, leaving Airlift with no capital to continue and forcing it to abruptly shut down.
“The entire team, including myself, was taken by surprise when the round fell apart at the final moment,” co-founder Usman Gul said in an interview. “Airlift was not prepared for the shift in sentiment in capital markets.”
Healthy growth and progress toward profitability wasn’t enough to convince investors spooked by a global economic slowdown and slumping tech stocks. Airlift joins a slew of startups in Pakistan and neighbouring India that have hit a wall as venture capitalists curb investing in the region in favour of countries and industries they consider less risky.,
Gul, 33, said one of Airlift’s mistakes was not to raise more funds last year, when the markets were more favourable. This year, investors’ attention has turned from growth toward earnings potential, bringing startups’ business models under more intense scrutiny. As Airlift prepared for it latest fundraising effort, it let go a third of its employees, reduced the target size of the round and lowered its valuation.
The company appeared to have the commitments it needed as it sent the final documents to investors on July 5. But just two days later, things took a turn for the worse. The lead backer delayed sending the money, wanting more investors to wire funds together with it, Gul said, without revealing the main investor’s name. The other investors asked for two to three months, citing fears of a global recession and downturn in capital markets. Less than a week into the negotiations, Airlift’s coffers had dried up and the company had no option but to wind down its business.
“The biggest miss on our end is not prioritising a multi-stage institutional investor,” Gul said, referring to larger anchor backers who support startups through several funding rounds. “You need that multi-stage institutional investor, someone like Accel or Sequoia, who believes in the project and can write larger checks.”
Gul praised the support it received from its early backers, but said their relatively small size didn’t allow them to invest as much as Airlift required to keep fueling its growth. The company had commitments from previous investors First Round Capital, Indus Valley Capital, Buckley Ventures, 20VC and others for the latest round before it fell apart.