• Childhood fantasy To be an entrepreneur
  • Business personality I admire Steve Jobs
  • Book I can re-read anytime JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye
  • My getaway Goa. I love its vibe and beaches
  • Smartest decision as an entrepreneur Was to be conservative
  • My learning  ground Lintas.  Your first job defines your work ethic  and professional conduct. My first  job. I picked up people skills, how to communicate and strategic thinking
  • Best thing I did Was to drop out of the rat race early
  • Toughest thing I did Learning to delegate. It wasn’t easy after doing almost everything for the first 10 years. When you hire smart people, you have to step aside


It was all so futile. Standing in the sweltering heat in Madurai, holding two Horlicks labels in hand – the old red and blue one, and the new with the golden line in between. Which was better? Which sold more? That’s what I was asking shopkeepers…they, in turn, were amused that someone had come all the way from Delhi to ask this! The answer: the lower the price, the more it sells. I deserved that! An economics major from St. Stephens and an IIM graduate, I, with the sales guy, was asking these questions…it’s what the company wanted…

I was handling Horlicks for HMM…or GlaxoSmithKline Consumer Healthcare as it is known now. It was their biggest brand bringing in 90% of the revenue. Tamil Nadu was the largest market. Someone had suggested putting the golden line in the middle. And the senior management had gone with it! What were they thinking? Madurai was where they were test-marketing their brilliant idea. This was 6-8 months before I joined…but I was the one sent out to find the results. By lunchtime, 25-30 shops later, I had enough…I went to the Meenakshi temple.it was breath-taking, I did the parikrama and took the prasad for mom. I didn’t study so much to do this! I went back, wrote ‘test marketing successful and should be extended nationally’…

I could see the natural progression. In a few years, I would be sitting in a cushy cabin, and a few years from then, I would be a marketing head at some fancy multinational. But I didn’t want to be a prisoner of EMIs and visiting cards. I wasn’t going to be judged by the size of my house or my car. I wanted to build something that leaves a legacy behind…I was willing to make sacrifices…six months later, I quit the job.

Jobs were not always kind to me, personally. Before, in Lintas, it was even worse. Working in client servicing is not good for the ego. When you are a trainee, at the bottom of the chain, you get kicked around because you have zero authority. At 21, I was thrown into a deep pit, I had to plead to get work done…

I was so far off from my earlier dreams. They kept changing, of course…At 10, I wanted to be Sunil Gavaskar, at 11, Rajesh Khanna. A year later, an entrepreneur – it was a fuzzy kind of a goal, but I kept returning to it. Maybe, because I thought it was easier to become an entrepreneur than India’s best batsman or actor…it wasn’t!

Despite the big words, I couldn’t envision life without a salary; I didn’t have the courage to quit. That strength came only after marriage. Surabhi was doing well at Nestle…that was some consolation; at least one salary would be coming in regularly…

Good businesses are built on deep customer insights. If you are able to offer a solution to unsolved problems, nothing can stop the idea from taking off. I had one…a salary survey! Listing what companies were paying fresh graduates – there was bound to be curiosity about that…

Kapil joined in as a partner. We put in Rs 1,000 each and got the letterhead and visiting cards printed. We reached out to juniors at IIM, the B-school connect helped. We were working out of a single room – the servant’s quarters in Dad’s house. Those were hard days – Rs 800 evaporated every month as rent. I was plodding around in a scooter when my classmates were eyeing their next car.A computer was out of reach…it cost three times more than the average salary of an IIM graduate.  Thank God for Jeyadev. His office had a computer. Even there, you had to stand in line and book your slot but it was free during the night. Jeyadev gave us the duplicate key to his office. We would sneak in at 10 PM and sneak out at 4 AM. After three weeks of doing this, we completed our survey. We went to the JNU library, got our hands on all the back issues of The Times of India, The Economic Times, Business Standard and Business India, and took down the addresses in the appointment ads. We wrote to them about the survey…23 companies responded and wanted to buy a copy! It felt magical…we had asked them to send the money in advance…we couldn’t imagine the money that would pour in – Rs 80,500! We would continue the annual survey till 1998…

Both Kapil and I had decided that we would not take a salary home till we broke even…the first three years, I worked without a salary. We did so many things to keep the fire burning. Kapil was interning with his lawyer uncle when he came up with an idea. It would take years for the government to approve or reject a trademark application. There was a registry to see the pending applications but you had to search manually…We hired some college students to note down all the information filed under pharmaceuticals and built a program. We started calling pharma companies, telling them we could give them a printed search report for Rs 350 – they could figure out their chances!

In 1993, an advertisement caught my attention. The Department of Telecom wanted to launch a service called Videotex. They would put servers in telephone exchanges. People could access information through public access terminals by paying a fee. They wanted people to provide and manage content and the usage charge would be split 50:50.

In my HMM days, I noticed that whenever Business India came to office, there was a fight to read the appointments section. It would have about 30-40 pages of listing…Irrespective of whether people were looking for a job or not, they would read and discuss the listings. That was the second inkling – people were always curious about jobs!

The first was at IIM. That year, companies weren’t going for lateral hiring. Three years of eating the humble pie at Lintas…I wasn’t going to let that go to waste. I dropped out of placements and started looking for jobs. I became the marketing manager at HMM. I was happy. The Dean was relieved but had other plans. I was escorting companies to interview halls, ensuring there were no glitches. I felt I was back at Lintas.

Citibank came with eight interviewers so they were running four panels. HLL came with four, they were running two. HLL was so anxious that Citibank was going to snare all candidates that they started making offers, asking students to sign the letters then and there. That was against the norm. Students were allowed two job offers and they could take 48 hours. When Citibank came to know this, there was a huge argument. Day 1 came to an abrupt halt. That’s when I realised companies would go to any length to get the right talent…

I told Kapil we should build a database of all the job listings in the market. We made the proposal, got selected by DoT, were asked to come up with an implementation plan. All that work and the project got cancelled! From thinking we were on to something, so close to the goal,we slipped…it was so disappointing.

There was enough to keep us busy, but we weren’t making serious headway. Three years after we started, Kapil wanted out…he would keep the trademark business, it was his idea. I kept the survey; it was a fair split. I was back on my own. I moved back to the one-room office at my father’s house. That helped keep costs low and made me some money…

I went to the IT Asia exhibition in Delhi every year just to keep updated about the latest technologies. There were 100-odd stalls. One of the stalls had “www” written on it. It was 1996. That was an interesting sequence…I wondered what it could mean. I went up to the stall and asked: what’s this www? “World Wide Web”, I was told. I learnt about emails. The guy at the stall wanted to give me a demo. What did I need the demo for? I didn’t know anyone who had email…it would be like having the only telephone in the world! “Whom would I talk to?” I said, walking away. What he said next was more up my alley…he said one can access information via the internet, sitting at home. I didn’t care about access but I wanted to be one of the sites that people used to access information. I would need a server…all the servers were in the US!

I called up my brother in the US. “Have you heard of the internet?” I asked. He laughed! Of course, he had. He had gone to all the right places – IIT Kanpur, IIM Ahmedabad, Stanford for PhD. Back then, I thought I would follow his path. I qualified for IIT, but I wouldn’t have gotten the best department with my rank…so I chose economics…

I told him I needed a server! It cost $25 per month…I had no money to pay him, but he played his part. We rehashed the appointment ads from 29 different newspapers and got two data entry operators to key them into our structured databases.

Arun was a brilliant programmer, freelancing from home. He would build the website…cash was never my friend. I never had any. So, I offered him 7% of the company. He agreed. While this was happening, Surabhi had quit Nestle…this time the onus was on me to keep the monthly cheques coming…

Chandan Mitra had offered me the job of consulting editor at The Pioneer. It was for their careers supplement. I took it up because I could come in the afternoon – mornings and nights were for the enterprise. It was so tiring to keep two things going…I don’t know how I managed 18-hour workdays. I guess being in your thirties helps. I would wake up at 5 AM, drop my daughter off at the bus stop at 6, work for two hours and reach the office at 10:30 AM. I would leave for The Pioneer at 2 PM, come back at 7 PM and work on till midnight. It was strenuous…I needed someone to take care of operations whilst I was at my other job. So, I asked Saroja, my junior. Again, I offered her a stake – 9%. It wasn’t worth much at the time, but she didn’t seem to mind.

We launched Naukri on 2 April, 1997. The number of times I have been asked why Naukri? Isn’t it too downmarket? Naukri = Job. Simple!  I am glad I stuck to my guns. It makes us stand out from the crowd.

The internet user base at that time was a mere 14,000. That’s all! We didn’t charge for the first six months. An auto components firm from Pune was the first to pay us listing money. “I know you put the ads we published in the newspaper on your site. I have five other job openings that we haven’t published in the newspaper. Would you be willing to put them up?” I was bursting with joy, hearing those words. When he asked for the cost, I said Rs 350 per listing. That was the first number that popped up in my head! That’s what we had charged for the trademark report. For an annual subscription with unlimited listings, Rs 6,000 seemed like a fair price.

Internet was the buzzword those days…we got a lot of coverage, we were focused on a space everyone could relate to…Being in the press got us the traffic we wanted without spending any money…the base might have been 14,000 but a lot of people were coming back for information. At the end of the first year, we earned Rs 235,000. We finished the second year with Rs 1,800,000, a 7x jump. That jump made me exit all other businesses and focus on Naukri. In the third year, we made Rs 3,600,000!

We started getting calls from investors...this was in 1999. I was completely baffled! No one had wanted to invest in us till then. Starting out we had to struggle to get an OD of Rs 30,000. Now, investors were competing with each other. An American VC offered me $2 million for a 25% stake! What would we do with all that money? He had grand plans…we were to invest in the brand, then raise $4 million at 4x the valuation and list on Nasdaq a year later…Here, I was working on a dial-up modem, updating listings at 2 AM because that’s when the speed was the fastest, and he was talking about revamping the board. There was just me and Surabhi. A Nasdaq listing? I told him I couldn’t list in Paharganj if I wanted to.

We wanted to be a small company…only competition wasn’t going to let us…JobsAhead had just raised money from ChrysCapital. Just the budget for their launch was 2x our annual revenue. They announced their launch at the India-Pakistan cricket tournament in Sharjah, they couldn’t have got a more high profile launch. Overnight, the game had changed. We now needed to raise capital!

We were blindsided. We approached a couple of investors, got two term sheets – one from ICICI Ventures and the other from an American VC. We went with ICICI even though they offered a lower valuation, simply because I thought they would have a better understanding of how things work in India. I didn’t really need the added pressure of listing at the Nasdaq in one or two years.

We got lucky. We were the second last dotcom company to get funded. We signed the agreement on April 8, 2000 and got the first cheque. The internet bust was waiting to happen. There were signs as early as March, but it wasn’t until September or October that people would acknowledge the meltdown was real.

Being bootstrapped for 10 years teaches you the value of money. Surviving on your customer’s money is much better than depending on an investor. If a customer is willing to pay, it means the product is working. If the investor is willing to pay, it means your PowerPoint is working. Did we deserve to get the valuation? Honestly, no. It was like being hit by a wall of money…it was still an aberration.

When I put the money in a fixed deposit, ICICI thought I was crazy…I told them I knew the meltdown is going to be deep. We had to make the funding last as long as we could. ICICI, to their credit, never ever asked us for a revised valuation and did not hold back subsequent tranches. The only thing they asked us was to change our projection. We had said we would do Rs 12 crore in the next five years. They thought it was conservative. I stuck to my guns…I knew my business better than anyone else. I couldn’t have been more wrong! We ended up making Rs 84 crore in the next five years.

Money in the bank can give you so much freedom. We didn’t have to worry about how we were going to pay salaries…so, we decided to fix other things. We put in money in building new products, invested in sales and engineering. We had underinvested in these areas, you can’t do everything when bootstrapping…

Hitesh had joined us by then. He had come to me for advice. He was with Unilever and wanted to join a start-up…I convinced him to join Naukri. He wanted to spearhead marketing. We were going the direct mails route then. Hitesh felt sales guys would be far more effective than mailers. He was right…the sales guys were breaking even in three months – they had turned into profit centres.

Looking back, I’m glad we invested in sales. It helped the company overcome its most challenging time. Post 9/11, the slowdown was severe; it had really started hitting us. We were losing Rs 2,500,000 every month. We only had enough cash left for 16 more months…We just had to reduce the losses, grow revenues. The sales team did it; it was a heroic effort…we managed to break even by 2002 with Rs 2 crore in the bank.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006 was the day InfoEdge listed. I remember the high – Rs 623 and the closing price – Rs 593. Our issue price was Rs 320. We were the first internet company to list in India, we were not sure we got the pricing right. Nevertheless, the struggle had paid off; we were vindicated! It was right after we clocked Rs 84 crore in FY06.

I have always been partial to entrepreneurs. I know it’s not easy being one. But there is no better way to create wealth for shareholders than by investing in good entrepreneurs. Hitesh and I were using Zomato for six months to figure out where to eat. I was telling Hitesh how much I like that website. He asked me why don’t we invest in it? I couldn’t fathom why I didn’t think of that…

We were already investing in companies over the past few years. I sent an email to Deepinder, asking him if he was looking for investors. He was…we met the next day.  Within 72 hours, we offered him a term sheet. We are the single shareholder in Zomato. I believe raising money is not a true measure of being successful. If the customer comes, investor money will follow. It’s not necessary that customers will follow investors.

Do I have any regrets? No. There were so many times I was hard up for cash, but I knew that would be the case. You only fail when you give up. Sometimes, not having money can be a blessing. Having too much of it can force you to make stupid decisions that you wouldn’t otherwise make. There’s nothing that I would really change. Quitting my job was the best decision I ever made…