Private and public valuations

HSBC seems to have set a cat among the private market pigeons by recommending that Zomato’s “real valuation” is half of the stated headline valuation (my apologies for not “covering” Zomato in my piece on startup valuations two weeks back).

This was part of HSBC’s analyst report on InfoEdge (Naukri), which is Zomato’s largest investor. All possible parties concerned have hit back at HSBC for this valuation. Most of them (Sanjiv Bikhchandani (founder of InfoEdge), Zomato founder Deepinder Goyal, investor Sequoia, etc.) have been simply talking their book.

But you see several completely unrelated people in the Indian startup world commenting about HSBC’s valuation, including allegations that HSBC doesn’t understand how private companies are to be valued.

The interesting thing about this discussion is that you seldom see such debates about public companies. Nobody questions analyst reports of public companies on methodology. At worst, company PRs might issue statements challenging some of the assumptions that have gone into the analyst reports.

What differentiates public and private market analyst reports is the ability to trade – if you have a view on the valuation of a public company, it is rather easy for you to turn this view into a profit (with the risk of a loss) by trading on it. If you think a company is undervalued, you buy shares, and profit when its valuation corrects.

With private companies such as Zomato, on the other hand, there is no way for someone who is not already an investor to profit from their views on the company’s valuation. Shorting is out of the question. Even going long happens in different “series”, and is not a continuous process.

If Zomato were a public company, investors acting on HSBC’s report might have tried to push down the price of the stock, and the extent of money on the “other side” would have quickly shown whether HSBC’s view was correct. With the company being private, such objective means of agreeing on valuations don’t exist. And so concerned parties bicker.

To me, the most telling line in the Mint report on the spat between HSBC and InfoEdge is where they quote Bikhchandani.

“We value our investments at cost and Info Edge has not marked down Zomato at all,”said Bikhchandani.

Speaking of ostriches with their heads buried in the sand…

Why restaurant food delivery is more sustainable than grocery delivery

I’ve ranted a fair bit about both grocery and restaurant delivery on this blog. I’ve criticised the former on grounds that it incurs both inventory and retail transportation costs, and the latter because availability of inventory information is a challenge.

In terms of performance, grocery delivery companies seem to be doing just fine while the restaurant delivery business is getting decimated. Delyver was acquired by BigBasket (a grocery delivery company). was eaten by Foodpanda. Foodpanda, as this Mint story shows, is in deep trouble. TinyOwl had to shut some offices leading to scary scenes. Swiggy is in a way last man standing.

Yet, from a fundamentals perspective, I’m more bullish on the restaurant delivery business than the grocery delivery business, and that has to do with cost structure.

There are two fundamental constraints that drive restaurant capacity – the capacity of the kitchen and the capacity of the seating space. The amount of sales a restaurant can do is the lower of these two capacities. If kitchen capacity is the constraints, there is not much the restaurant can do, apart from perhaps expanding the kitchen or getting rid of some seating space. If seating capacity is the constraint, however, there is easy recourse – delivery.

By delivering food to a customer’s location, the restaurant is swapping cost of providing real estate for the customer to consume the food to the cost of delivery. Apart from the high cost of real estate, seating capacity also results in massive overheads for restaurants, in terms of furniture maintenance, wait staff, cleaning, reservations, etc. Cutting seating space (or even eliminating it altogether, like in places like Veena Stores) can thus save significant overheads for the restaurant.

Thus, a restaurant whose seating capacity determines its overall capacity (and hence sales) will not mind offering a discount on takeaways and deliveries – such sales only affect the company kitchen capacity (currently not a constraint) resulting in lower costs compared to in-house sales. Some of these savings in costs can be used for delivery, while still possibly offering the customer a discount. And restaurant delivery companies such as Swiggy can be used by restaurants to avoid fixed costs on delivery.

Grocery retailers again have a similar pair of constraints – inventory capacity of their shops and counter/checkout capacity for serving customers. If the checkout capacity exceeds inventory capacity, there is not much the shop can do. If the inventory capacity exceeds checkout capacity, attempts should be made to sell without involving the checkout counter.

The problem with services such as Grofers or PepperTap, however, is that their “executives” who pick up the order from the stores need to go through the same checkout process as “normal” customers. In other words, in the current process, the capacity of the retailer is not getting enhanced by means of offering third-party delivery. In other words, there is no direct cost saving for the retailer that can be used to cover for delivery costs. Grocery retail being a lower margin business than restaurants doesn’t help.

One way to get around this is by processing delivery orders in lean times when checkout counters are free, but that prevents “on demand” delivery. Another way is for tighter integration between grocer and shipper (which sidesteps use of scarce checkout counters), but that leads to limited partnerships and shrinks the market.


It is interesting that the restaurant delivery market is imploding before the grocery delivery one. Based on economic logic, it should be the other way round!