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Zepto becomes India's first 2023 unicorn with $200 million fresh funding

Image Credits: Zepto

Instant grocery delivery startup Zepto has raised $200 million in a new funding round at a valuation of $1.4 billion, it said Friday, at a time when most other firms in the category have either died or are struggling. The funding makes Zepto the first Indian startup to attain the unicorn status this year.

StepStone Group, an influential LP in many venture funds including Nexus Venture Partners, led Zepto's Series E funding in what is the U.S. firm's first direct investment in India. Goodwater Capital and existing backers, including Nexus, Glade Brook Capital and Lachy Groom, also participated in the round.

Zepto was last valued at $900 million in a funding round it unveiled in May last year. The startup, which has raised about $560 million to date, witnessed no secondary transaction in the new round, Zepto co-founder and chief executive Aadit Palicha said in an interview.

The funding comes at a time when the vast majority of instant delivery startups globally -- Gopuff, Jokr, Getir, Gorillas, Instacart and others that collectively raised more than $10 billion -- have significantly curtailed their operations, have seen their private valuations plummet or have shut down entirely.

Closer to home, Zepto-rival Blinkit got sold for less money than it had raised after nearly a decade of operation. Reliance Retail-backed Dunzo has deferred payments to employees and cut workforce after aggressively spending over $150 million to expand its dark stores, a gamble that appears to have not worked at all.

So what has worked for Zepto?

"Most people don't realize this, but businesses that are driven by supply chain and are operationally intense are fundamentally about execution," Palicha told TechCrunch. "The high-level elements that people keep throwing -- existence of deep-pocketed competitors, who all is on the cap table etc. -- don't matter. What matters is the basis point by basis point execution and discipline with which you are governing every inch of your supply chain."

Palicha and Kaivalya Vohra co-founded Zepto when they were 19.The duo -- who had previously worked on a number of projects, including a ride-hailing commute app for school kids, and dropped out of Stanford two years ago -- took Zepto out of stealth mode in late November 2021.

The startup, which sells and delivers everything from grocery items to electronic gadgets, processes more than 300,000 orders a day in seven Indian cities. Zepto, like many other firms operating in the category, relies on hundreds of so-called dark stores that dot popular neighborhoods across cities. The vast majority of these stores are fully EBIDTA positive, Palicha said.

In fact, Zepto has reduced its "burn" significantly and is aiming to be IPO-ready with a company-wide EBIDTA-positive metric in 12 to 15 months, he said. The startup -- whose annualized revenue sales today exceeds $700 million, according to Palicha -- has grown its sales by 300% year-on-year and is targeting $1 billion in annualized sales within the next few quarters, he said.

"Even with this capital, we want to maintain our discipline, avoid complacency, and push hard to hit EBITDA positivity," said Kaivalya Vohra, Zepto co-founder and CTO, said in a statement. "In that journey, the biggest drivers of P&L improvement for us are based on technology and product. We are building one of the best supply chain product stacks in the country today and we are investing heavily in customer-facing product as well. This technical excellence is in our DNA, and I’m excited about the next phase of building."

Zepto plans to go public by 2025 as "a profitable, growing technology company that customers love," the company said.

The funding makes Zepto the first unicorn from India this year amid a protracted slowdown in the economy that has significantly hurt the appetite of investors. Indian startups raised a mere $5.46 billion in the first half of 2023, a substantial 68% decline from the $17.1 billion during the same time frame in 2022 and a drop from $13.4 billion in H1 2021, according to market intelligence firm Tracxn. Sixty-five Indian startups became unicorns -- reached/exceeded $1 billion valuation -- in 2021 and 2022.

"It feels like I’ve been making fewer investments this year because Zepto keeps the comparative bar so high," Will Robbins, GP at Contrary, an early-backer of Zepto, told TechCrunch.