Update: 24th July, 2020
Today, Mukund Mohan was arrested in the US for forging documents to fraudulently acquire more than $5.5 Mn from the coronavirus relief funds meant for startups to retain workers. Mohan had allegedly claimed these benefits by showing fraudulent tax filings and altered incorporation documents of six shell companies.
Mohan has been accused of creating fake and altered documents for six shell companies that did not employ anyone to get benefits from the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). He, then, transferred some of the acquired money to his Robinhood brokerage account for his personal benefits.
The six companies include — Zuput, GitGrow, Vangal, Expect Success. Mahenjo Inc and Zigantic LLC.
No, this is not a Tweet story. And I guess you’d have figured out where we are headed with this. At least those are aware of many such incidents, would have.
In today’s world, startups are the thread with which dreams are woven. The instantly-inspiring rags-to-riches stories have become commonplace and glamourised to such an extent that “entrepreneurship” is spreading like a deadly contagious virus in a zombie movie (simply comparing the pace here; not saying entrepreneurs are turning into zombies).
The Indian startup ecosystem is the fastest growing ecosystem in the world, and currently the world’s third largest, according to Nasscom. From a distance, this rapidly growing ecosystem looks healthy, vibrant and full of opportunities, but if you look closely, you can clearly see signs of decay that can potentially damage this fragile ecosystem. After all, no good can come of anything built on the foundation of lies and deceit.
No good can come of anything built on the foundation of lies and deceit.
Our goal, at Inc42, is to foster the spirit of entrepreneurship in the country and preserve the Indian startup ecosystem, that we are also a part of. As part of this endeavour, we realise that it’s imperative that we look at things more closely, rather than simply glorifying everything. There are a lot of half-baked truths and lies making round in this ecosystem; enticing and entrapping gullible entrepreneurs. This is our first of the many forthcoming attempts to weed out the lies, bring forth the truth and the right people in the ecosystem, to safeguard the interests of the existing entrepreneurs, as well as the aspiring ones who dream of being a part of this ecosystem.
Our endeavour is simply to put forth the facts and ensure that the right picture is being conveyed, without any intentions to malign anyone’s credibility. Transparency is essential for safeguarding the interests of gullible entrepreneurs and we attempt to ensure just that — identifying and amplifying the right wavelength, thereby weeding out the noise.
We decided to focus this article on Mukund Mohan, ex-Director of Microsoft Ventures, not because we had him on our radar or anything of that nature, but because we happened to stumble upon certain claims made by Mukund Mohan’s latest venture, NapkinStage, on its website. Napkin Stage is new fund that Mukund recently started for early-stage startups. Its website mentioned that it has invested in three startups of which, as per our knowledge, two were bootstrapped — Appointy and SignEasy. This was big news and therefore we decided to follow it up with the founders of all the startups. On reaching out to them, we found that the investment news was not true. This startling revelation instigated us to dig even deeper and verify some more facts.
This happened after we started digging into this and asking questions.
We spoke to all the three startup. Here’s what they had to say:
ChargeBee: Krish Subramanian, Co-founder of ChargeBee confirmed that Mukund is an Advisor and not an investor.
According to the Business Today article, Krish had once offered Mukund equity in return of his help but was turned down.
SignEasy: As per the startup’s founders, Mukund has not invested in SignEasy, but, is an advisor in the company.
SignEasy lists Mukund as Advisor on its website.
But, Mukund’s Linkedin profile stated that, he was a board member at SignEasy since June 2015. This was however changed to Advisory Board Member after our inquiry later on.
Sunil Patro, CEO and founder of SignEasy, had asked Mukund to take it down from Linkedin after us approaching him and Mukund finally removed it after a few days. Signeasy was part of Microsoft Accelerator’s Winter Batch of 2013.
Appointy: Appointy was part Microsoft Accelerator batch and graduated in May 2014.
So this pushed us to delve deeper.
Let us start with who is Mukund Mohan, according to the picture plastered all over the internet.
Mukund Mohan In His Own Words
We’ll let Mukund describe himself in his own words.
“I’ve started 7 companies, been bankrupted twice — I failed in 4 and I sold 3”
“I have 4 exits and 2 failed startups”
So how many companies did he actually start? How many has he sold? How many has he failed at? Does anyone know?
The Complex Web Of Companies
Let me make this a little more easy for you. We’ve made this small visualization containing all the companies Mukund has claimed to be associated with in the form of founding it, investing in or advising any.
The Startups He Claims to Have Founded
In his blog, Mukund claims that he founded and sold three startups, including BuzzGain and has failed in one. However, in an interview with ET, he mentioned that he has founded a total of 5 companies; 3 of which were sold and failed at two. This has been published and re-published by a lot of media houses, but we tried to examine these claims a bit more. According to a Business Today article, Mukund founded and exited three companies — Interfinity, Amura, BuzzGain, and failed at one called Asera.
We tried to find a bit more about these companies. Here’s what we found:
Interfinity: We found absolutely no trace of a company called Interfinity that was even remotely linked to Mukund, on the internet, except the ET article where he claims it to be his first company. The only mentions we found were two LinkedIn profiles — Dariusz Otreba, who claims to have cofounded Interfinity in 1996 and was associated with it till 1999; and the second profile belonged to Theo Zuijdwijk, who was the Managing Director of this company between 2010 and 2011. We are not sure if these two are the same companies.
Some questions that come up:
- What happened to Interfinity?
- An internet company that had an exit/was sold doesn’t have any traces online?
Amura: We found no company called Amura associated with Mukund, on the internet. We came across a few websites like http://amuratech.com/, http://www.amura.co.uk/, http://amuralab.com/. However, we did come across a company called Amura Consulting. LLC that was incorporated in 2007, and is currently inactive. The principals associated with that entity, however, are by the names of Pabby Saket and Narayanan Valli. Again we found no connection between them and Mukund Mohan.
- Which is the real Amura and what did it do?
- Again, how can a company vanish without a trace on the internet?
- Who bought it?
BuzzGain: It was co-founded by Mukund in 2008 and was sold to the Meltwater Group in January 2010 for $4 Mn. This is the only company we found proof of existence and an acquisition.
Canvas Group: Mukund has mentioned Canvas Group in his profiles and in a number of articles. However the only trace we found of this was Mukund owning the domain name canvasgroup.com between February 2005 and Jan 2008.
Yet again another company was born and then disappeared without a trace.
PS. In one particular instance, he mentions that he has sold two companies before Canvas Group.
- When was Mukund’s Canvas Group founded and what happened to it?
- Again how many companies did he sell so far and which ones?
Jivity: So this one did exist. We dug into the MCA filings and found out that it originally started out as a subsidiary company of eYantra Industries Pvt Ltd under the name of eYantra Online Ventures Pvt Ltd in January 2010.
Mukund mohan was appointed as its CEO and Director in April 2010. The company was then renamed to Jivity Merchandising Pvt Ltd in July 2010 and then to Magixo IRM Solution Pvt Ltd in October 2012.
Interestingly Mukund continued to be its CEO and Director till April 2014, when his CEO tenure expired. He still continues to be a director in that company.
According to his LinkedIn profile, he left the company around February 2012. The other directors include Phani Raj (Also another director of eYantra Industries Pvt Ltd), Rahul Ashok Mehta, Raju Mulinti and Koteswara Rao Meduri.
This is the first email we got from Mukund when we had started asking around about him, earlier this week:
So as Mukund said, all we did was ask in our reply to which we didn’t get a reply.
The next set of emails came four days later:
Mukund, after exchanging these emails with our team, and after receiving a few mails from some of the people we talked to regarding the story, graciously posted a blog post to clarify some of the stuff.
Again here he mentions that he joined and left the company in 2011 and 2012, respectively. However as per the MCA filings mentioned earlier, he joined in as the CEO in 2010 and his CEO role expired in 2014.
On Jivity’s website, through Archive.org, we found out that it had mentioned VenturEast, Argonaut Ventures and eYantra as its investors.
Mukund, in yesterday’s blog post, stated the following after we tried asking him about his many investments:
We reached out to Phani Raj, the founder of eYantra, on this and this is what he had to say about the Jivity claims:
Mukund was the cofounder of the subsidiary venture of eYantra, by the name of Jivity.
Jivity was never funded by VenturEast and/or Agronaut.
Jivity was never merged into eYantra. In fact the subsidiary (Jivity) was demerged from eYantra.
We’ve verified Phani’s points through Jivity’s MCA filings as well.
Also Sarath Naru, the Managing Partner of VenturEast, had this to say on the issue:
“Ventureast invested in eYantra, founded by Phani Raj. Jivity, was set up initially as a subsidiary of eYantra, and was spun off. This was co-founded by Mukund Mohan.”
So in a defensive post in which he claims that he’s trying to clear the air, Mukund Mohan has to make false claims yet again — Oh the irony!
And now that he’s mentioned it himself in the blog post, let’s talk about the Engrave incident:
The Engrave Story
Long story short, we had a chat with Engrave’s founder, investors and advisors, and have seen all the exchanged mails between them all as well as Mukund and Jivity.
So in October 2011, Engrave raised the invoice for an order of 350 pcs of crystal cubes that was to be delivered to Wells Fargo on behalf of Jivity. The order was delivered in September 2011.
He followed up for 8 months for the payments but got nowhere. Below is a summary of the issue highlighted by Nimish in a mail to Mukund.
Mukund, in his replies, said that Jivity had no money, was at the verge of shutting down and all his employees had been laid off.
In fact, Nimish and his wife were threatened by Mukund that he’d file a lawsuit against them. This was highlighted on Twitter again last year:
Below are some of the internal mails that were exchanged about the issue between Nimish and some of his investors and advisors.
Anand Lunia, an investor in Engrave and who also runs India Quotient, had this to say on the incident:
“At the time when we had invested in Engrave, Nimish had discussed with me regarding the backlogging of payment with Mukund Mohan. As far as I know, Jivity had received payment from the client, but had not further paid Engrave for the same giving reason that the products were faulty and they haven’t been paid by the client. He even said that he is just the company’s CEO and has raised funds, thus its the investor’s call on whether or not to make the payment. He continued bullying and had no regret. In response to my call, he called Nimish and started yelling at him.”
In his blog post, Mukund mentions the Engrave incident and had this to say in his defence:
Here’s what Nimish had to say about this:
He(Mukund) personally called me and requested to take up the order. He told me he was leaving for a holiday to some place outside India — otherwise he’d have personally overseen the issue.
While this startup was suffering, Mukund was giving interviews telling people about how well off he was and how he owned an Audi and BMW in the US.
We’d leave you to be the judge of this.
Vangal, GitGrow, and Hey Maya:
In this bio, Mukund claims that he had built and successfully sold 2 startups, one of which was Vangal.
This TOI article of 2011 profiles the work Vangal does and the clients it has:
This DeccanHerald article of 2012 quotes Mukund as the CEO of Vangal and claims that he is developing a mobile app by the name of Hey Maya.
According to the Gust profile of Vangal, it describes the founders of Vangal and reiterates the Hey Maya claim.
As per an archive search of Vangal’s website and domain, Mukund has owned the domain, vangal.com, since 2006 till present.
According to Archive.org, from September 2012 till October 1, 2015 vangal.com used to redirect to Gitgrow.com. However now it just takes us to the default GoDaddy page. There was a website that existed earlier, however, that made claims similar to the TOI article mentioned above.
We again checked out the MCA filings for the company, Vangal Software Services Private Limited, and found that Mukund and his wife, Vinita Ananth, are the only two directors of the company since incorporating on April 16, 2010.
The filings further revealed that there was no form of funding made into Vangal or had any form of exit. Further the only annual returns that were filed were of the financial year 2010–11 and showed no forms of revenues.
Interestingly her LinkedIn profile mentions her being the CEO of GitGrow and SocialHues. Social Hues has the exact same description as Vangal had in the TOI article above.
Who founded which company? Who funded which company? Which company did what? Did any of the companies actually do anything? I’m sure you’re as confused as we are.
Meanwhile according to this NextBigWhat article, Mukund has raised a total of $29 Mn in series A, B and C for his startups. So far we’ve been through most of his publicly claimed companies and haven’t found most of that money. Maybe there are some other companies that he hasn’t mentioned about yet or we don’t know about?
His Claimed Investments & Advisory Roles:
We were earlier planning to highlight some of the absolutely random claims investments and advisory roles that Mukund had listed in various online profiles. But since Mukund has graciously provided a reason for that in his blog post, we’d like to show you some more inconsistencies in his own words yet again.
Here’s a screenshot of his claims from yesterday’s blog posts:
Jivity: As was quoted above, it never received any funding from VenturEast and Argonaut Ventures, nor was it merged into eYantra.
Social Hues: Mukund mentioned that Social Hues was one of his key investments in the TOI article. However the company was founded by his wife, which did the exact same thing as Vangal, of which Mukund was also the CEO and had claimed of successfully selling it.
Pricearoo: Interestingly, in his blog post, Mukund mentions that he had invested in Pricearoo and that it was merged with another company.
However in a blog post, dated June 2012, by Mukund himself on the same blog, says otherwise:
Also he mentioned Pricearoo in another interview with MarketExpress:
We verified that Mukund owned the domain, pricearoo.com from 2011 to 2013. Meanwhile Priceonomics was founded in June 2011. So it’s unlikely that Pricearoo was ever started before Priceonomics, as claimed in both the above screenshots.
On one hand he says that it was a side project which “failed miserably” and “never took off” and on the other hand he says that it was a company he invested in and was then involved in a merger? I’m quite confused now!
FreshMonth: The only record we found of it is this site — freshmonth.strikingly.com which mentions that it does events and claims — ”We’re on a mission to connect leaders & investors from US to Bangalore. At FreshMonth, you get direct access to technologists, entrepreneurs, innovators and important new ideas from Silicon Valley every month!”
The last event it held was in January 2015 at Microsoft Ventures in Bangalore, which was part of the WorldStartupReport series of events. But maybe this isn’t the startup that Mukund was talking about in his blog post as he says it has shut down.
Azoi: We’ve confirmed from sources aware of the matter, Mukund Mohan did agree to invest but has never transferred the money to the startup. (We’re) Surprised he decided to mention it again in the blog post after his Angel List profile.
Maybe the startup founders had forgotten that they had asked Mukund for social proof by displaying them on his public profiles as an investment and not give them money. Or maybe Mukund just forgot about this due to the huge number of “investments” that he’s done!
500 Startups: Mukund Mohan has publicly claimed in his blog that he and his wife are LP’s in 500 Startups.
He claimed this again in an interview with Outlook Business:
And yet again he confirmed the same on Twitter:
However we’ve confirmed from people close to the matter confirmed that this never happened due to a conflict with Mukund Mohan’s position at Microsoft.
PlusTxt: Mukund had mentioned PlusTxt as an investment on Angel List last year and was brought to light on Twitter last year, after which it was removed.
We have confirmed with PlusTxt’s founder, Pratyush Prasanna, that Mukund had never invested in PlusTxt as well.
Kinetic Brains: Yet another company owned by Mukund Mohan’s relatives, i.e his parents since incorporation. Interestingly they both resigned on 14 September 2011 from being directors and Mukund became the director of the company on exactly the same date. And yet again the last annual returns were filed for the financial year 2010–11.
I think we should have been more clear about what we meant by “startups invested in or advised” in our mail. We meant startups not founded by you or your relatives!
The Mysterious Case Of Zodiac
So Mukund claims that he has invested in numerous (number varies from time to time, at will) startups in the US through an investment vehicle.
So in an interview with Sramana Mitra in March 2012, here’s what he had to say about that:
In this article on NextBigWhat in August 2012, here’s it again:
And then in yesterday’s blog post by Mukund, the name suddenly changed to Zodiac Investments LLC and is apparently based out of San Jose.
Again we researched on these entities and here’s what we found:
There exists a Zodiac Ventures, LLC in San Jose, formed in 1999 and is now Zodiac Spirits LLC, a spirits and vodka company.
There also exists a Zodiac Venture Partners, LLC in San Jose, formed in July 2000.
Then there is Zodiac Venture Fund I, LLC and Zodiac Venture Fund II, LLC formed in 1999 and 2000. The latter is still active.
And finally there is a Zodiac Investments LLC formed in 2009 and based out of Utah.
So which one is it? Looks like we’ll never know! Coz as usual the facts just never seem to match. Though we’ll give him the benefit of doubt in this case as he might have forgotten the exact name of the investment vehicle through which he invested in a significant number of startups in the US.
The Advised Companies
SignEasy: Mukund Mohan writes that he is an advisor at SignEasy. We’ve confirmed from sources close to the development that he indeed does hold 0.5% equity as advisory.
According to his LinkedIn profile, he’s been on the advisory board since June 2015. Even if Mukund might have technically taken the equity after him quitting the accelerator the next month, we’ve confirmed from reliable sources that the advisory equity part was decided upon within his tenure at Microsoft.
The question that comes up here is that isn’t this a conflict with Microsoft Accelerator/Venture’s clause that doesn’t allow it’s program directors/senior management to hold equity in a Microsoft Ventures accelerated company?
Even if technically he might not have violated the conflict directly, are there no moral obligations to be honoured?
We’ve emailed Microsoft Ventures the questions that arise from this incident and are awaiting their official response.
The Minjar & Adepto Incident: In June 2013, The Economic Times ran an article that Adepto Solutions has been acquired by cloud solutions company Minjar.
“We deny this news as we never had any acquisition related talks with Adepto team,” said Minjar’s founder in an e-mail to NextBigWhat.
It turns out that Mukund had announced the acquisition of Adepto by Minjar in a PR meetup.
We had handpicked them from 450+ applications. Basis our learnings from batch one, we made several improvements in our program, e. g. including more seed stage/angel investors as lead mentors, sharper focus on product definition and roadmap and stronger UX support. All these have helped this batch immensely as they prepared to take a significant leap into the global marketplace. In fact, one of them, Adepto, just got acquired!” [Mukund Mohan, CEO-in-residence, Microsoft Accelerator]
Was this another form of social proof his “advised startup” asked from him as a favour? To create a buzz about them by spreading false rumours of an acquisition? Or does Mukund announce stuff about his startups without even talking to them?
After going through all the startups that Mukund claims to have founded, invested in or advised, any entrepreneur would have the following questions ringing in his/her head:
- Apart from BuzzGain, as per our knowledge, none of his startups performed successfully or raised any funding. Some of them even vanished without a trace. But, that didn’t deter him from founding companies at rapid frequencies. What was his plan after all?
- Isn’t claiming these kind of inaccurate facts in public a form of deceit? Especially when so many young entrepreneurs and people from across the globe look up to him as a role model?
- Will no one ever verify any facts about what people claim? Will the media just quote anything they are told or have read elsewhere?
- Can we no longer hold anyone to their word anymore? Does someone’s word, especially of such a senior “ecosystem builder”, not hold any value or meaning? Whom can trust in such a small and fragile ecosystem?
- Is being a serial entrepreneur so important that one can neglect the performance of one’s company and simply focus on what’s next?
- Sharing details about his previous ventures, especially his exit strategies and failures could have really helped many entrepreneurs. So, why did Mukund refrain from doing so?
- Is this taking the motto “Fail Fast, Fail Often” too literally?
The main questions still remain a mystery — How many companies did Mukund start? How many did he fail at? How many has he actually sold and to whom? Which companies has he invested in and advised truly, that are not his own or his relatives? Why is everything so confusing about his claims? Lastly why the heck don’t any of the facts check out?
While Mukund claims this is a targeted hit piece, we’ve not put words or given any sort of opinion. In fact the irony in the whole story was amount of inconsistencies, that we’ve described above, that were there in the “defensive blog post” against our so called “hit piece”. All we’ve done is raise questions on the inconsistencies in his own words and claims made across the web and in the media. The rest is for you to decide!
PS. We also have a good number of off-the-record confirmations and statements from a number of highly respected entrepreneurs, investors and ecosystem builders who have acknowledged these issues and have told us about many more such incidents that we have decided not to publish as we didn’t want to be seen as giving our own opinion.
Also feel free to come forward if you or someone you know in this ecosystem has gone through similar incidents and wants it out in the open – Please fill out this form. Let us all pledge to make India a #SwatchBharat4Startups!