- My sounding board Ravi Adusumalli of SAIF Partners. I couldn’t have done this without him
- My best friend Harinder Takhar. Has been with me through my highs and lows since college
- My favourite dialogue Bade Bade Deshon main aisi choti choti baatein hoti rehati hain, Senorita
- Favourite car Tesla. It’s coming in 2017. Till then BMW
- My best days Yet to come
- My prized possession Paytm
- My most memorable day The day I earned my first Rs 1,000 for a coding job. Celebrated by having pizza at Nirula’s
- My favourite app Spotify. I can’t live without my music
- Craziest thing I have done Skydiving
- My inspiration Jack Ma, Steve Jobs
- My favourite song ‘Where the streets have no name’ by U2
- Favourite team building exercise Discovering a new country, its local cuisine and places of interest driving around with the team
- A human trait I admire but find hard to replicate The ability to forgive
“Your lips move but I can’t hear what you are saying”
What would I have done without Pink Floyd then…Those days in college, eager to soak it all in, but felled by the language. Words flew thick and fast, with all lectures in English, and, I, seated in the first row, kept sinking lower. I couldn’t even answer questions. The number of times I got thrown out for not answering!
I was 15, the youngest in the class. Oh! The embarrassment that washes over you, the first time that happens. It’s funny how quickly I transitioned from the first bench to the last. Then, out of the class altogether. I knew I had to get my act together. The professors were saying the same in as much words. It didn’t matter what my age was, the past was forgotten. I kept thinking I was the class topper. How did I get so low? What happened to me? It was so alienating, not having anyone to talk to. I didn’t have many friends who could help me get out of the abyss. The Delhi snobs, who only spoke in English, were not an option. It was such a nightmare. I couldn’t go home, and staying on depressed me more.
That’s when I found Pink Floyd, Jim Morrison, U2 and Coldplay. Where the streets have no name…
Bono’s I want to run/I want to hide/I want to tear the walls that hold me inside…the words still resonate. In them, I found the unlikeliest of teachers. I started picking up English in an effort to understand the songs. I would learn the lyrics, playing them back in my head in a loop.
The colonial language was always my Achilles heel. I was 13 when I finished school. I had a full year before I could sit for the engineering entrance exams. But I was still so nervous. All the entrance exams were in English and I was from a Hindi-medium school. Could I crack it? I kept oscillating between hope and despair.
I always had books for company, growing up in Aligarh, UP. Many of my classmates didn’t even have slippers! It didn’t worry them too much. But it worried me. I didn’t want to be tied down, be a prisoner to my fate by refusing to change. I was going to break free…leave home, right after school. I never wanted to go back to the world I came from. I wasn’t a man on a mission; I was a son running away from his father. He was a sincere teacher, the sole earning member of our family. He refused to take tuitions because he believed education should be available to all, and not privy to a few. It wasn’t easy; there were six of us, living off a modest teacher’s salary. There were no savings. I remember the struggle to raise Rs 2 lakh for my sister’s wedding. The world doesn’t always reward sincerity the way it should… my dad never got his due.
Then, so naïve at 13, I had big plans. I was going to change the orbit for both me and family. The dream was to get a job that paid Rs 10,000. I thought that would be enough to lift us up. I wanted to get a television, pay off the loans…I did do all of that eventually, only not how I envisaged I would.
Things don’t always work out the way you want. That one gap year, I spent days and days fretting over the exams. There is a quote that goes, “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” There couldn’t be any limits when you are trying to switch orbits..So, I decided to make a Hindi-English dictionary on my own! The NCERT book in English and the UP Board one in Hindi… I read them simultaneously, looking for similar diagrams to understand what words like momentum, height and distance meant in English. It worked! Sometimes, I would figure out the question by looking at the answers. There is no correct way of doing a thing, is there?
Maybe there is…I didn’t get through IIT, Roorkee, REC, any of them! After all the work, I was no good at descriptive answers. I had failed. I kept thinking if I would ever escape. I had given up on entrance tests, what was the point? My heart wasn’t in it but Dad wanted me to try Delhi College of Engineering. We left Aligarh at 2.00 A.M. in the morning and reached Delhi for the entrance test at 9.30 A.M. I wasn’t holding my breath because only 15% of the seats were reserved for non-Delhiites. But the universe is a funny place…much to my dad’s relief and my surprise; I managed to clear the exams with a decent rank. At the counselling session, both of us had only question…which stream got the most campus recruitments? “Electronics and Communications,” they told us. There was no further discussion…
The pursuit to learn English opened my eyes to new things. I started reading newspapers and magazines, going to the Sunday market in Daryaganj to pick up second-hand business magazines. Fortune-500 companies, a place called Silicon Valley that was going through the internet revolution! Learnt about so many things…Way back in 1995-96, there wasn’t even Hotmail. So I was so stoked to learn that we had internet. Then on, programming started dictating my life, I was spending the whole day at the lab. It was fun, I was good at it and the best part – I could make money out of programming. I didn’t really need a job!
Maybe it was my English handicap that pushed me to start a company, in the third year. I was always writing programs than studying for exams…so I failed! This time, the failure didn’t rankle. I was getting good at programming. To make my business card sound legit, the address read: East 37 ECE K Gate, Delhi. A friend’s relative would take the calls and pass on the enquiries…
I just had to find customers. I came up with an interesting hack. I scanned the classifieds, zeroing in on programmer jobs. I went for interviews. When we reached the salary part, I told them “I can’t take the job.” The puzzled looks they had…the questions that followed… “Why did you come for the interview?” I told them it was my way of finding clients, I could write the code and mail it. One of them burst out laughing, told me it was a creative way to find clients, hiring me. Others didn’t have that sense of humour. They got pissed and shooed me off. I won some and lost some in that phase, but started getting a steady flow of business.
I wrote web programs for Jet Airways, writing their Delhi-Bombay schedule and built a website called Travel in India, the previous avatar of Incredible India! The Jet Airways program got me Rs 1,000! It was the first time I made so much money. We celebrated with pizza that night. It was memorable… it was so liberating! I didn’t need an education after all…
But my principal and HOD thought otherwise. They gave me a chance to reappear for the exams. I will forever be grateful for that. Two days after everyone, I passed too. Ironically, I landed the highest paying job on campus! They gave me a role based on my interest. My parent’s prayers were answered, they were over the moon...I wasn’t. I felt tied down…just for some money at the end of the month. When I went home, I had a proposition for my mother. I told her I will send her the money, come what may, each month. How did it matter whether it came from a job or a business? The negotiations that followed…it was tough wrangling out a deal. But I managed. Six months into my first job, I quit…I was free again.
I started XS Corps! with three friends. We build a content management system for media houses like Living Media, Indian Express, Afaqs and portals likes JobsAhead and Zipahead. At the end of 1999, we got an offer from an American company. They were offering a million dollars – Rs 1 crore in cash and the rest in stock. We were getting Rs 25 lakh each in 12 tranches, plus a salary. Not bad for a 20-year-old…
Going to the US was always a dream. I wanted to go to Stanford because I read the smartest people in Silicon Valley went there. That was why I started the company in the first place. When the offer came, I was all set to pack my bags and leave. For my parents, too, success meant getting a job with a multinational and going to the US. An interview held me back..during the visa interview, the officer looked at my salary certificate that said I got Rs 20 lakh. “A 20-year-old getting Rs 20 lakh?” He found it hard to digest. He asked for bank documents…I couldn’t because I hadn’t disclosed the company sale, the payments were reflected in that bank statement.
He rejected my visa, asking me to come back with proper bank documents. That rejection hit me hard. I had both money and success, something I always wanted, yet that was not enough…That’s when I decided I won’t let money define me… To prove that, I left the company after 11-and-a-half months, two weeks before the shares would be vested. Everyone, including my boss, thought I was crazy. I also decided that I will not go to the US. I will build something so big here that they will call me there.
That’s how One97 Communications came into being, in early 2001. The idea was to build a search engine wherein you typed the phone number, and it told you who the number belonged to. But telcos weren’t providing the data, they wanted us to do content management instead! They wanted astrology services! I didn’t know what to do, I was in two minds. We had started in January...it was already March. We had made absolutely no headway. Here, was a customer willing to pay…that decided it in the end. It is important to do what you want but also important to survive. The astrology business helped me survive. I had 40 astrologers working for me in three shifts. Even as we were finding our feet, 9/11 happened and my partners got cold feet. Both of them left the company after finding jobs. From being one-third owner of the company, I became a 100% owner.
My sister didn’t hold back her words. “I hear you are running an astrology business, I thought you studied to be an engineer?” I put down the phone, but the words affected me. I thought cricket scores and music would be more respectable, something my family would approve. So I went to Bharti Airtel: “Why don’t you give me cricket scores and music? I can do that too.” When Bharti got the Punjab Circle, they relented and I got what I wanted. But it meant significant investments in IVR platforms and servers. I was facing my first real business problems – cash flows or in this case the lack of it. Till then, I had managed the gaps with the money made in the previous business. My reserves had run out…The business on its own was making money but the customer wasn’t paying. Banks weren’t keen on lending. Everything was unravelling; I desperately needed to keep the business going. Luckily, a relative was willing to give me a loan for Rs 8 lakh at 24%. It wasn’t the greatest deal but I had no choice. Bharti owed me Rs 20 lakh! So, I thought I will pay off the loan, when they pay me. It’s just a stop-gap arrangement.
But the payments weren’t coming. Some senior managers wanted money to release my payments. I wasn’t going to do it? Why should I? It’s a lie that there is no corruption in the private sector, and big corporates can be worse. But I plodded ahead, expanding the business. Was it crazy? Maybe. Conventional wisdom would say no. But that’s what separates the real entrepreneurs from the pack. Maybe that’s why I like to jump out of airplanes for fun.
The landlord called thrice for the month’s rent. I had to sneak into the house late night and get out at dawn before he could catch me. I crashed out at friends, but that wasn’t a permanent solution. I took up odd jobs to make rent and survive…There was a whole bunch of things. One day, it was corporate training, other days; I would set up emails and train them on using the internet. On good days, I would make Rs 500. That meant a good dinner, an auto ride back home. It was about simple things. Those few hundred bucks in the pocket do mean a lot when, otherwise, dinner is two cups of chai. I would walk from Priya Cinema to East Delhi because I didn’t have the money to even take the bus! The up and down, the running around for a few bucks went on for a year. It was especially hard because I knew it was not a business problem but a cash flow problem…I had to hang on! But it wasn’t easy. Also, what other option did I have? I couldn’t go back home…
Little did I know a presentation to Sanjay Baweja, the then-CFO of Bharti Airtel (North) in 2004, was going to change things. I listed the ways we could maximise revenues for the Delhi circle. At the end, he simply asked what I needed. Rs 5 lakh – that’s what. But I was done taking loans. I told him Bharti owed me Rs 11 lakh! He immediately pulled out a cheque for Rs 5 lakh. I will never forget that...it brought me back to life.
A few months later, I met Peeyush Aggarwal through a friend. He had just taken over a company and wanted to get into domain registration. It was loss-making, I helped turn it around. We were discussing the fees when he all of sudden said, “Why don’t join the company as the CEO?” I told him I had my own company…
In a parallel universe, my father knew things weren’t going great. While I paid back the interest, I wasn’t able to return the capital to the relative I had taken the loan from. Here, they were, trying to get their son married, and there were no takers! One day, he called and said, “Enough is enough! You need to find someone else to run your business. You need to pay off the loan and take up a job.” I have lost count of the number of times I had this “find a job” discussion with my father. This time, he just wouldn’t relent. I had to listen – end of discussion.
It had been six years since I last wrote a code. I was rusty. The best job I could find was that of a call centre manager. Tears welled up, after all I had been through, was this all I was going to be? Something broke, but I was not willing to give up. I went back to Peeyush and negotiated a deal. I told him I would spend half a day in his company and half a day in mine. I was never good at the salary part, I never wanted to put a price tag on myself. I went with the number my father quoted – “Rs 30,000 toh hona chahiye,” he said. Managing two places is not easy, I couldn’t keep it up…
One day, Peeyush asked me my story. He then made an offer than would change my life.
He said he would back me, would give me the money. “Go, do what you want to” – those are the words you want to hear. He gave me Rs 8 lakh in cash and put in Rs 8 lakh in the office and technology. In return, he took 40% of the company. I repaid my loan. The business started to pick up. I have never looked back since…
I finally got married in 2005. I don’t think my wife realised she married an entrepreneur. Just when we got married, I came home late a couple of nights and she told me, “I think you should change your job. They are keeping you too late in the office.” I had to gently break it to her that I was running a business…she slowly came to terms with my crazy hours.
In 2006, we clocked revenues of Rs 5 crore. We were generating free cash flows. I was finally free from all my problems. Free from my father! At an alumni meet at Delhi College Engineering, one of my classmates told me I should raise money. Who would give me money? He was from PWC. I didn’t know PWC was this big consulting firm at the time. But I thought why not? He would tell investors to give me 15 minutes, literally 15 minutes, that’s all I got. I pitched to one investor as he walked from his room to go have breakfast in the restaurant! All was said in the elevator and the short walk to the restaurant.
The first question that Ravi Adusumalli, the managing director of SAIF Capital India, asked me when he walked into my office was about the poster of Bono. It had the lyrics from the song Elevation… “You make me feel that I can fly so high”. Ravi was a Bono fan too. We immediately hit it off. Both of us were passionate about music, and we liked the same kind. He has been a co-founder of sorts. He has believed in my vision, my team and me. You need investors, who buy into who you and your team. Ash Lilani is another investor who bet on us early.
SVB and SAIF capital invested $5 million in 2007. Our revenue was Rs 11 crore then, with EBITDA at Rs 5-6 crore. The second round of investment came in November 2008, at the height of the Lehman crisis. We raised around $10 million. In 2010, we decided to go for an IPO – we had revenues of Rs 200 crore and a profit of Rs 100 crore.
The struggle had paid off. We had become significant contributors to telcos’ P&L by selling pre-paid lifecycles products such SMS packs, data packs, roaming services apart from the content and value-added services we started with. But the market was in turmoil, there was an LIC housing scam and the listing of OnMobile didn’t meet with great success. I thought maybe it was not the best time for us to go public. It turned out to be the best thing that could have happened. A big change was coming…
10 June, 2010 – Steve Jobs introduced a phone to the world. A phone with apps. I knew then that consumers were going to shift on to mobile internet, no one would bother about the content telecom companies were providing. Our business was going to die… After having struggled so much to get it up and running, I was going to be knocked down by the very technology that had been my saviour. When such an industry shift happens, there is no room for dilemma. We were a feature phone-led business and feature phones were on their way out. We had to re-invent…there was no other way.
We knew people would buy games and apps – mobile commerce had to happen. There was no payment system in place. So that’s what we were going to do...we would enable people to pay through mobile. That’s how Paytm happened. But there was an issue. There was little interest in what we were offering. I knew we had to become a consumer-facing company before the tsunami of smartphones hit us. We tried our hands at so many things – from advertising, content services, games to contests.
The hit and miss brought an idea. Why don’t we try to reach phone users directly instead of waiting for a buy-in by the big guys? We didn’t want to get into commerce; we didn’t want the logistics nightmare. Cinema, bus and flight tickets were already taken….that’s when a colleague suggested recharges! We added post-paid bills, then bus tickets. We started selling digital goods so people created Paytm accounts and used our payment system. But there was a big problem. In cases, when the transaction didn’t get through, the refund to the bank or credit card would take 7-8 days! We got tons of emails, saying we were a horrible company, that money had not been refunded. That’s when we came up with closed-loop mobile wallets, wherein money can be credited instantly. That way, users were assured that their money is safe. Since we were selling bus tickets too, we had to apply for a semi-closed wallet license…that’s what we did… For the mobile wallets to take-off, we need to have an offline presence as well. So apart from the large retailers, we tied-up with kirana stores, paan shops, vegetable vendors even petrol pumps. We came with up a sticker with a personalised code which can be scanned by Paytm users through their phones and the amount is transferred to the merchant’s account. Now we have 85,000 offline merchants.
At the 2011 conference, organised by the Wall Street Journal, Jack Ma was one of the speakers. I only knew of Amazon till then…I was blown away by what Taobao, Alipay and Alibaba had done. The rate of growth and the scale he was talking about was amazing...increasing the GMV from $64 billion to $120 billion in a year! I came back and told my team, we had to build the Taobao of India. For that, payments needed to ride on a commerce platform. I made several more trips to China to understand how things worked. Unlike most entrepreneurs who go west to learn more about the internet business, I chose to go east.
The board was not convinced about our transition from a B2B to B2C company. They felt I was a good techie but had little idea of how to build a consumer brand. I took it to heart. I was going to build a consumer brand the world will remember me for. They kept telling me acquiring customers is an expensive affair and we don’t have the money. My board of directors were my sounding board, only this time I wasn’t listening… I came up with an offer. I put up 1% equity for Rs 5 crore on the table. The money from that stake sale would be used to fund the consumer business. Seeing how serious I was, the board gave me six months to get it right. They didn’t get why I wanted to rock a steady boat…we were doing well, making more money than last year…
I just knew that the future belonged to smartphones. To be part of that future, we needed to build a marketplace for our payments platform. We started one right after Flipkart raised a billion dollars in July 2014. They told us we were too late in the game coming after Flipkart, Snapdeal and Amazon. I couldn’t care less by now. I knew better than to let sceptics worry me. Not only was the payments business going to ride on the marketplace, Paytm was to be the platform for SMEs to use our payment and financial services. In less than two years, marketplace forms 40% of our GMV of Rs 20,000 crore and we have over 125,000 merchants on board. Paytm had not raised money till 2015. We were running the business with cash flows generated by other businesses. It was not until March 2015 that Paytm raised its first round of $200 million…
It is overwhelming meeting someone you admire...it was the same for me. Little did I know that a presentation at SAIF Partners meeting in Hong Kong would bring me face to face with the man I idolised. Ravi had taken us to meet this partner from SAIF China, who wanted to know about Paytm, after my pitch that it would be India’s first internet company with 100 million users. He wanted to know our plan…he took me to meet Jack Ma…
That meeting of the underdogs was like a light and sound show – it had the right amount of emotion and little persuasion was needed. I was going on about trying to learn from what they were doing, when Jack Ma started to talk about how Paytm would be a good fit for Alibaba. It felt so surreal, I went up to him up and asked, ‘Can I take a selfie so that I remember I met you?’ A selfie, can you imagine? This was in October 2014. The term sheet was signed on 11 November, 2014, which was Singles Day in China.In less than a year since we made the presentation in Hong Kong, we hit our target of 100 million users in August 2015. Jack Ma told me this is just the beginning. He is an incredible people manager…he told us that you should build a company that enables half a billion Indians connect to the mainstream economy. That’s the plan with the payments bank.
Entrepreneurship is only successful when you have no other alternatives. When things didn’t go my way, hope was the magic drug because there was little else to go on…As Jim Morrison says, “The most important kind of freedom is to be what you really are. There can’t be any large-scale revolution until there’s a personal revolution on an individual level. It’s got to happen inside first.” Once that happens, you will keep flying come rain or storm…Being an entrepreneur helped me break free…