Forbes has removed Harsh Dalal, the 19-year-old co-founder and CEO of tech company Team Labs, from its 30 Under 30 Asia list for 2021, following reports of inconsistencies in his previous claims about the company.
Mr Dalal, a Singapore permanent resident who recently graduated from Singapore Polytechnic with a diploma in business administration, was named on Forbes’ list of 300 entrepreneurs on 20 April.
The publication released an update on Wednesday (12 May) that it has decided to remove him “after a careful consideration of the findings of a comprehensive review of the information that was used to qualify him for the list, as well as new information that has come to light in recent days”.
It stressed that “Forbes holds itself to the highest standards of journalism”, including “the integrity of the 30 Under 30 Asia list”.
“The information that we now know about Dalal supports our decision that he should no longer be included on the 30 Under 30 Asia list, and we have taken significant steps to further tighten our evaluation processes,” Forbes added.
The 19-year-old founder of Team Labs first became popular when he was interviewed by CNA in January, during which CNA Insider also released two videos of interviews with Harsh and his mother Manju Dalal – a journalist from The Wall Street Journal – on Youtube which garnered over 900k views.
In the report, CNA included details of how the company was started, and how Mr Dalal had raised funds from venture capital (VC) firms through virtual calls.
It reported that Team Labs had raised S$9.8 million from investors since 2017, in Series A funding raised from VC firm Grand Canyon Capital, Startup Capital Ventures (SCV), and Korea Investment Corporation (KIC).
CNA’s report also highlighted that the company was valued at US$25 million as of January last year, and among its clients were Hilton, Google, Airbnb and Spotify.
Mr Dalal also told the publication that Team Labs has employed about 120 employees globally and is headquartered in San Francisco for “strategic reasons”.
Many took the report’s word for it and expressed envy towards Mr Dalal who was able to be so successful at such a young age.
Tech In Asia found “inconsistencies” in Harsh Dalal’s story
Tech In Asia reported on Wednesday (12 May) that it found several “inconsistencies” in Team Labs’ narrative, adding that Mr Dalal was unable to verify his previous claims about the company.
The report – penned by Terence Lee, with additional reporting by Budi Sutrisno and Jofie Yordan – revealed that it could not reach any of the Team Labs’ customers, employees, nor the company’s main investor Grand Canyon Capital, to get verifications, except for the CEO.
Mr Dalal argued that all Team Labs’ numbers were “conveyed by” Grand Canyon Capital and cannot be attributed to him, adding that he only takes care of product branding, marketing and strategy.
He added that Grand Canyon Capital “incorporated the company” and has managed it on “a day-to-day basis”, claiming that he holds no executive powers despite his position as the company’s CEO.
However, Tech In Asia claimed that it did not find any news coverage on the venture capital firm’s activities and background information on its management.
Media reports had earlier cited KIC and SCV as the investors of Team Labs, but this was later denied by Mr Dalal, despite the company’s press release and tweet in 2019 alluded to it receiving investments from Grand Canyon Capital and KIC.
Tech In Asia claimed that it was unable to find any verified information or media coverage related to the three partners in Grand Canyon Capital listed by Mr Dalal in his email to the publication.
While the CNA’s report highlighted that Team Labs had employed 120 employees, the company’s LinkedIn page was in fact listing only 11 employees.
When Tech In Asia questioned this, Mr Dalal explained that he added “at least 25” employees to his own LinkedIn profile, and that the 120 headcount figures also comprise contractors and independent agencies which he did not specify.
There was also no evidence indicating that Team Labs’ employees – who are on LinkedIn – have attended the universities they stated on their profiles.
According to Tech In Asia, one of Team Labs’ employees named Amit Boralkar was found to have been using a fake profile photo on Linkedln.
Mr Dalal, however, insisted that Team Labs employees are “real” and expressed concerns that the publication’s “digging” may lead to having their personal information being compromised.
Tech In Asia’s report also highlighted that Team Labs’ products are currently in a closed beta program, but the access code to join the program was not even appeared on the receiver’s email.
Mr Dalal told the publication that a new version of Team Labs’ product may be launched by the end of this week, but he failed to provide a demo or access to any of its products when requested.
“He later told us that he’s working with Lee, Team Labs’ CTO, to prepare a product demo, but there’s been no update on that,” it stated.
For Team Labs’ enterprise clients – which including Google, Airbnb, Hilton Hotels, Deliveroo, and Spotify – Mr Dalal said the trials happened “a long while back”. He refused to provide any contact for verification on the grounds that he was not permitted to do so.
Reddit thread prompted the investigation
Shortly after the investigative report was published on Wednesday, Forbes removed Mr Dalal from its annual list, while CNA removed mentions of some companies and took down one of its videos relating to Mr Dalal’s interview. Singapore Polytechnic where Mr Dalal graduated from, has also removed mentions of him on its website.
Mr Lee wrote: “It’s true that Tech in Asia may have broken the story about Team Labs (and obviously the role of the media in verifying the story is important), but it’s the Singapore Reddit community that first raised questions about the startup.”
The report was authored by three journalists from CNA – namely Desmond Ng, Sim Yee Lim and Jayson Santos.
Four months after it was published, CNA notably inserted an editor’s note at the end of the article to note:
Media reports have emerged which investigate and provide new details on Team Labs. CNA has begun its own investigations into this story. We will also seek Harsh Dalal’s replies to these media reports. We will take all appropriate steps once our editorial review is complete.
The changes were made after Tech In Asia’s investigative report came out. Interestingly, CNA links the ‘media reports’ to a website which reposted the report by Tech in Asia which is no longer accessible.
Going back to the CNA’s profile story about Mr Dalal, it is noteworthy that his mother, Mrs Manju Dalal, was also interviewed by CNA.
During the interview, she described that her son is “twice as busy as I am” and that she never quite understood what he was doing because it seemed like “one company after another”.
Now, the fact that Mrs Dalal is a well-experienced financial journalist from the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) looms the question: Why didn’t she debunk the gaps in Team Labs’ narrative in the first place when the report first came out?
The first mention of Mr Dalal seems to have been Money FM89.3 in 2019 where he was introduced as an entrepreneur who started off at the tender age of 11 years old. The radio station is a programme under MediaCorp which also runs CNA.
Following CNA’s report, many local media rehashed what it reported of Mr Dalal without question, further promoting the inaccurate narrative as we know together.
Tech in Asia’s investigative report in a way may very well highlighted how prudent Singapore’s local journalism is, indicating the extent of efforts that journalism in Singapore would take to double-check the sources of news.