The Zilingo downfall saga continues to unravel in public, endangering the company, its investors, employees, leaders, and the Asia Pacific (APAC) region. The Singapore-based technology platform, which provides innovative products and trade services to the global supply chain, is now suffering disruptions of its own creation.

Other startups funded by Sequoia Capital, such as social commerce platform Trell, have had their share of problems as well. With many more public battles and developments to come, 

it is vital to examine the Zilingo story and identify the lessons that startups, investors, and their leaders should take away.

What went wrong?

The company’s issues began when it attempted to raise funds and investors scrutinised its financial reports. Due diligence uncovered multiple accounting discrepancies, prompting CEO and co-founder Ankiti Bose’s suspension. She alleged, however, that she was only suspended because she reported sexual harassment at work.

Zilingo has hired the professional services firm Deloitte to investigate the harassment allegations made by its suspended CEO. Dhruv Kapoor, the other co-founder, rejected the allegations, claiming that the company’s culture has always been against sexual and workplace harassment, intimidation, and bullying. According to the board, Bose only made the harassment allegations after her suspension.

Naushaba Salahuddin, the head of Communications and Prevention of Sexual Harassment (POSH), also faced the axe after stating that the company was lying about the harassment allegations that surfaced following Bose’s suspension. Salahuddin further alleged that as a whistleblower, she was now being silenced and discredited by Zilingo.

Shailendra Singh, the managing director of Sequoia Capital India, left Zilingo’s board of directors last month, according to Bloomberg. Ankiti Bose is alleged to be looking at repurchasing Sequoia Capital’s 26% share in Zilingo. She owns 8.5% equity in Zilingo and may take the company to court to top her dismissal. There may also be a lawsuit against co-founder Kapoor, who has an 8.5% share in the company.

The board of Zilingo is now undecided regarding the company’s next steps. Nobody knows who will replace the suspended CEO. The board may consider the current CFO, Ramesh Bafna, who was appointed in March, for the top post. The senior executives are now sharing the day-to-day operations.

Key lessons to learn

Zilingo’s problems appear to originate from the top. The two founders, Bose and Kapoor, did not appear to have a good relationship. While passionate executives may disagree, it is crucial for a startup’s survival that the leadership gets along and shares the same vision for the company. Having a past relationship with someone, such as a sister or a friend, is no assurance that it will work out.

Aside from the leadership disputes, there have been concerns regarding Zilingo’s operations. While the company has raised a lot of money over the years, it takes some time to establish a good tech platform for the company. As a digital solutions provider, its platform should have been one of the first things that were built.

Zilingo squandered a lot of money marketing its B2C offerings abroad, even though it lacked the necessary structures, and its operations eventually collapsed. More money was lost when the company acquired nCinga, a Sri Lanka-based tech startup, for about double the initial agreed amount.

Startups are frequently asked about funding, and Zilingo’s accounting revealed several anomalies as well as a lack of transparency in expenditures. Because new clients’ information was not properly captured in the company’s sales funnel, dishonest employees were able to receive or offer kickbacks for deals. Too much money was syphoned without repercussions, causing Zilingo’s financial records to suffer.

Furthermore, investors and shareholders should have tighter control of companies. In Zilingo’s case, the investors did not appear to be checking the finances or performing any due diligence until Zilingo’s leaders attempted to acquire more money. The glaring irregularities in finances and operations should have been detected and remedied sooner.

Finally, venture capital companies should ensure that the startups they support have the ideal corporate governance structures in place. They should try to help the startup founders by guiding them and ensuring the operations, accounting, office environment, and employees are all well-managed. 

The Zilingo story should serve as a caution to investment firms and startups that do not have sufficient corporate governance guidelines. Everyone in leadership should work well together to benefit the company, shareholders, and backers. The company may be able to recover after all of the concerns have been resolved but at what cost to its already tarnished reputation?