Hari Menon and Abhinay Chaudhari could pass off as professor-student duo, given their 10-year age difference. While Chaudhari is the friendly go-to guy for everything, Menon has a more serious ‘Don’t-mess-with-me’ demeanour. Despite stark differences in their traits, they are bound by glaring faith, which has kept them going together for five long years. Their journey began in a coffee shop five years ago, when they were meeting each other for the first time, to discuss about setting up an online grocery store. In December 2011, bigbasket launched its operations with one crore seed capital from its promoters. Today, with operations in 25 cities, and 3 million repeat customers, bigbasket has become India’s largest online grocery store and expects to clock in a revenue of Rs.1,800 crore, which is almost the double of what they earned in FY16. Although grocery is a tough business to execute, the persistence and ability of Menon to encourage his team to bring out their maximum potential, and Chaudhari’s constant focus to make the customer have a delightful experience on their store, has made bigbasket one of the biggest success stories in the start-up world.
How did the two of you meet?
Menon: We met way back in 2011, when we had decided to start bigbasket. Abhinay had just started an online grocery. He chose to join us as one of the founders. We first met at the Cafe Coffee Day outlet in HSR Layout near my office.
Chaudhari: I had launched an online grocery store called ‘Shop As You Like’ in April 2010 and had signed on Sudhakar and Vipul as advisors, whom I knew since their Fabmart days in 2000. [Sudhakar, Vipul, Hari and Ramesh were co-founders of Fabmart, which was launched in 1999.] In July 2011, Ganesh [Ganesh Krishnan, serial entrepreneur and angel investor] approached Sudhakar to start an online grocery. Sudhakar told him that he was already engaged with my online venture in an advisor’s capacity. Sudhakar and Vipul then asked Hari if he would come on board, and after some initial discussions, all of us agreed to join hands along with Ganesh and Meena as promoters. I met Hari, who was then working as CEO of Manipal City and Guilds, for the first time near his office in Bangalore.
What was your first impression of each other?
Menon: Honestly, people had briefed me about him that he was very easy to get along with. And he came across as easy-going, witty and as someone who eases a situation quickly. Everything will be alright if you bring him in a tense situation.
Chaudhari: My first impression was that he was a no-nonsense guy. We quickly got into the fundamentals of the business.
How would you describe each other?
Menon: When there is an argument or misunderstanding, Abhinay is the person who bounces back the fastest from it. He is the person who does not hold any grudges in his mind. He gets out of it quickly. It’s a great quality for people to have and it is very essential if two people are trying to build a business together. He also has a great sense of humour and keeps cracking jokes, which just eases up the whole situation. He sometimes does it even in our morning meetings. (laughs)
Chaudhari: Hari is a good people’s manager. He engages with people at every level. It is very crucial to our business, because when employees feel comfortable talking to you, it brings out the best in them.
What are the projects that you’ve worked on together?
Menon: Although we had individual functions to take care in the beginning, we were doing everything together. We would review each other’s work and were contributing to each others’ functions. Abhinay initially took charge of customer satisfaction, which is a critical factor in our business. We met every week and spent quality time together and ensure that we stayed on top of our targets and goals. Later Abhinay took on the B2B business. He also took over the Express business [which promises delivery within an hour] and drove the integration of Delyver, the company that we acquired to set up our express business. He also currently drives a program called Key Initiatives, which takes up critical problem areas and solves them through cross-functional teams. We still meet every week to review our function.
Chaudhari: One area where we collaborated a lot was on training. We jointly defined the structure for the operations and delivery teams and training program for this function. We also worked on the performance evaluation and management structure.
What is your idea of a great business partner?
Menon: The most important thing is trust. You have to be able to trust the other person. You shouldn’t worry whether the other person is going to do something that will damage you.
Chaudhari: Trust and honesty. We need to be very honest about whatever it is. You should not hide anything while working in a team.
What’s it like to work with each other?
Menon: Abhinay doesn’t have mood swings like I do. A lot of people tell me that they check my mood from outside my room before approaching me. He’s not moody at all. It makes things easy for me and probably difficult for him. The flip side of being moody is that you get time for yourself because people let you be. I am not recommending being moody. But I am saying that it has its plus points (smiles). Abhinay has no time for himself since everyone is approaching him with their problems all the time.
Chaudhari: It’s fun working with him. We do not hold any prejudices against each other. It’s purely customer and data. It’s very easy to work together from that perspective.
How often do you spend time together?
Menon: It has reduced quite a bit now because we have a lot on our plate. That’s true with all the founding team members. Initially, we used to spend at least three to four hours every day while we were building the business. As the business has grown bigger, we are unable to spend much time with each other.
Chaudhari: There are days when we do not know who is working in which city.
Do you play any particular sport together?
Menon: We have a common love for cricket. All five of us love that sport. I’m crazy about it. I’m part of the cricket club here. I don’t miss a single match including the league.
What is your favourite hangout place?
Menon: We used to hang out at Adigas very often. Then, we got busy and started getting lunch from there.
Chaudhari: Initially we were going to Maiyas for coffee, and Adigas for lunch.
Where do you concur with each other and where are you poles apart?
Menon: We concur on decision-making and also our thoughts on investments are similar. Many times we think alike in terms of what we should do, and where we should raise money from.
Chaudhari: I specifically remember two incidents where we had major disagreements. In our early days, customers could leave instructions in the ordering section, — for example, it could be a message saying ‘Don’t ring the bell.' I was getting positive responses regarding this, but Hari felt that we cannot execute this when we scale up. Later, we removed it as it was difficult to manage with growing volumes.
What was the worst conflict that you remember?
Menon: There was an article that came in one of the publications during our initial days. They missed Abhinay’s name as a founder. He got very angry and hassled. I was also angry. But it’s easy for him to leave behind such stuff and everything was alright the next day.
Chaudhari: We actually talked about it at length and sorted it out.
What are the things that you disagree in business?
Menon: Abhinay looks at a larger perspective in terms of scaling up. That may mean hiring people who would be ready in the next one year. I think you should do it step by step. I wouldn’t call this a disagreement. It was an approach issue.
Chaudhari: This is from the customer management perspective. When you have millions, you cannot deliver 100%. I get uncomfortable even if one customer gets affected.
How has he influenced you?
Menon: The one thing that I get influenced by Abhinay is his nature of making things simple and easy. This is the one thing that I always wanted to imbibe.
Chaudhari: His people management skills. It is very important for you to involve with people and motivate them to do their best. This is what people really look up to. That is one great quality, which is very hard to come by.
Menon: We are actually able to settle differences very fast. I think Abhinay is instrumental in doing that. I cannot get baggage out as quickly as he does. He influences that in all of us. We will always have differing views in business, but it’s important to agree to disagree and move on. Moreover, Abhinay does not have any hard feelings.
How do you balance your personal life with professional?
Chaudhari: I think it is a case-to-case basis. It is difficult for a start-up guy to draw a line and say, “Boss, now my professional life ends and you cannot enter my personal life.” (chuckles)
What’s the one thing you admire most about him?
Menon: I think he is a true entrepreneur. I can’t see him working in a job. He is a person who thrives extremely well in an entrepreneurial environment. He has his own style and taste.
Chaudhari: His ability and the way he interacts with the press. He is very good at that. Also, his people management skills.
What’s the role he plays in your life?
Menon: I look at Abhinay as a great support. I use him as a sounding board. He gives me time and space. If I think of something, I know I can bounce off my ideas with him.
Chaudhari: If I need to know more about something that I am not sure about, I can always talk to him. I am 10 years younger than him, but age never really matters. He always treats me like his equal.
What’s the most memorable milestone that you have achieved together?
Menon: We are five years old now, and that’s a phenomenal milestone. At the end of five years, to be able to say that we have built something that has the potential of becoming very big is creditable.
Abhinay: We have built this whole customer-focused organisation. If you talk to our customers, the things that they say most of the time make us feel really great. The fact that we have jointly built this customer experience is the greatest milestone.
What’s the secret to your relationship?
Menon: Trust is really the secret behind our relationship.
Chaudhari: I think trust, transparency and (being) non-political.