‘Dil toh roaming hai!’, the company’s tagline, flashes right in front of your eyes, across the wall in MakeMyTrip’s Gurgaon office. Just four words, penned by the great poet Gulzar, captures the essence behind the one of India’s largest and most successful online travel company. For the founders Deep Karla and Rajesh Magow, the past 16 years has been a journey filled with ups and downs, filmy coincidences and great achievements.
After founding the company in the year 2000, Kalra interviewed Magow as a potential CFO and liked him instantly. But, a lot of drama followed. The dotcom bust followed by the 9/11 attacks meant that funding took a backseat. “It was a very tricky situation. We were promised one million but it never came,” reminisces Kalra. Magow joined the company in 2001 only to leave to take care of a BOT project they were working on. He came back after a couple of years in 2004. Both think that they were meant to be together.
Returning to MakeMyTrip turned out to be a wise decision on Magow’s part since the company then went on to become the market leader within a decade, followed by its listing in the US in 2010. This year the company further consolidated its position by merging with competing online travel aggregator — Ibibo. While Kalra and Magow continue the journey of building the best travel internet company in the country, they cherish the indispensible friendship that it brought along.
How did the two of you meet? What was your first impression of each other?
Kalra: That’s an interesting story. Within six months of starting the business in 2000, we were staring at a downturn thanks to the dotcom bust. The VCs wanted to pull out their money, volumes were shrinking and the money in the company’s bank account was just enough for a month or two. Senior folks were told they would have to take a salary cut. It was then that our head of finance panicked. He quit the company when he a got job offer from Enron, at double the salary. So the headhunters who were helping me find a new CFO, introduced me to Rajesh. I liked him enough to make an offer immediately. But there was a twist in the tale. Two months before Rajesh was to join us, Avnish, our former CFO called me. Enron’s accounts had been frozen. He asked me if he could come back. I had already offered the job to Rajesh. So, I called him to check whether he had already put in his papers. The call got Rajesh worried. He will tell you the rest of the story. The rest, as they say, is history.
During the downturn, we executed a BOT project for the wholly-owned subsidiary of a UK-based online travel company. I agreed to continue here while he agreed to head that project with a clear understanding that he will return when we can afford him. We could do that in 2006.
Magow: It was the end of 2000. People told me not to join a dotcom. I met Deep and decided to join him. It was a long meeting and I really felt comfortable. I was already working with an entrepreneur in a start-up, so you tend to compare. I found Deep very professional, open and candid. I was also certain that I wanted to get into a new age start-up and MakeMyTrip fit the bill.
When Deep called me regarding the new development, two things stood out for me. One, he was being considerate to the person who was working with him earlier by trying to offer his job back. Two, he was open enough to tell me there wasn’t enough money in the bank. I told him, as far as I am concerned, we will either sink or swim together.
So the day I joined, we had just enough money to pay one month-due salaries. Deep was in the US trying to raise money, practically knocking on every possible door. There was a conference held towards the end of my first day. Deep told us, “Listen guys this is definitely a hard time for us, but why don’t we fund the company by picking a stake in the company with whatever little money we have.” Whether it was Sachin, Keyur or me, [Sachin Bhatia and Keyur Joshi were the other two co-founders of MakeMyTrip and have now donned the role of strategic advisors] — he hired all of us and then gave us the option to invest in the company. He was trying to do two things. One was to see if we are truly in it. Two, he was just giving us ownership in the company. That, I think, was a big deal and, therefore, the bonding became even stronger.
How do you resolve professional conflicts generally?
Kalra: Around four to five years ago, we had an issue with two leading airlines and they decided to take us off their list. It was obviously a tough time but we stayed calm throughout the crisis. That actually helped us cement our relationship. We realised some of our mistakes and what we should be doing. Now, our relationship with the same airlines is rock solid. We made mistakes, but we were humble enough to acknowledge that. Internally, we decide on our limits and we do not go beyond those. When Rajesh introduced the idea of merging with Ibibo, we put in a lot of thought and agreed that it was the right thing.
How would you describe him as a person? How is he to work with?
Kalra: He is the calmest person I have worked with. Rajesh loses his cool once a year, whereas I lose it once a month.
How has he influenced you?
Kalra: I have empathy for people, but he has this ability to get into the other person’s shoes. A classic example that comes up every year is during promotions. About 10% will be happy with their promotions, but the balance 90% will be disappointed. When some of those people come and talk to Rajesh, he manages to convince every single person as to why he/she didn’t get promoted this year, and what they need to do in order to get promoted next year. This is definitely an art. Though he is the CFO, he has a strong connect with people and HR skills come to him very naturally.
How would you describe Deep, and what role does he play in your life?
Magow: If there is anybody in office or outside whom I look up to for something — be it work, family or something personal — it’s Deep. When I speak to Deep, he will give me the best objective advice, which I admire the most.
What’s the most memorable milestone that you achieved together?
Magow: The nasdaq listing was a big deal. It involved a lot of hard and strenuous work. We had two weeks of non-stop road shows and close to ten meetings every day. We started with South East Asia first, and then moved on to Hong Kong and then the US. We were surviving on just three or four hours of sleep and passing on the same set of information to every investor. We successfully completed all that and by next morning, we were to ring the bell in New York. Suddenly, we get a call from our lawyers telling us that there is a query for which SEC needed our response; it was right at the last minute. We dug out the required data. The opening bell was at 8.30 am and till 7.30 am, we were still dealing with the issue over phone calls. Eventually we closed that loop. It was a tough situation, but you have to deal with it. The SEC accepted our explanation and allowed us to go ahead. The good times began soon after, but it was down to the wire.
Do you have any common interests?
Kalra: Both of us love sports. But he is better at it than I am. He is very good at cricket. Both of us have played together at the Lord’s and had great fun.
Magow: We also enjoy drinking beer, after a long, hectic day at work. We are regulars at the Oktoberfest.
How often do you spend time together?
Kalra: Everyday, if we are not travelling; our cabins are together. We also travel together quite often. I like to explore new places and we have done that even as we are working on some deals. It is a great way to de-stress. For instance, when we were negotiating with Ctrip in Shanghai, it went on for more than two days. So, whenever there was a two-hour gap, we would just get out and walk around the riverfront. We did the same thing during the Nasper deal in Amsterdam — but we almost got lost there. But getting lost in a new place also has its own charm.
Magow: We went to see the US Open together during a weekend, we also saw the Wimbledon together. That was an amazing experience.
Is there anything that he has introduced you which has now been a constant in your life?
Kalra: We exchange notes every time we come from a holiday. We know what the other will enjoy as a family. Even simple things like a movie — we wait to get an ‘okay’ review from each other because our wives love to watch Hindi movies on the first day.
Magow: But one thing that he recommends, which no one can ignore, is his experience of the place he has visited. It has to be something really good, because he is a perfectionist to the core.
Kalra: Travel, by itself, is a joy and the next best thing is to send people you care about to places you love. I want them to experience it, too.
Who has a better intuition? Would you bet on it?
Magow: Deep. We bet on each other’s intuition, especially for big hires. We pick up different things and compare our notes after the meeting.
What’s the one thing he hasn’t stopped pulling your leg about?
Kalra: I have spent most of my life in Delhi and Gurgaon. So, I am very social. Wherever I go, whether it is a hotel or an airport, I tend to meet someone…
Magow: …You choose any remote place, and there will be someone who would walk up to him and say, “Hi Deep. How are you?” Recently, we met one such acquaintance at the Dehradun airport.
Kalra: I don’t pull his leg on this as such, but Rajesh cannot handle jet lag.
How do you know when the other person is upset?
Kalra: Because we spend a lot of time together, we reach out to each other quickly. If something is on our mind, we don’t hold back; we resolve it. Even if it takes a late evening call, we know that holding back issues can cause a lot of stress.
Magow: If there occurs such a situation, Deep would have observed that I am upset. He has this ability to observe and pre-empt.
If there were one thing that you would want to change about him, what would it be?
Kalra: I think he should develop a passion for something, so that he can switch off from work and pursue that, at least for some time.
Magow: There is nothing I would like to change about him; I aspire to be like him.
Have there been instances or topics where your views were poles apart?
Kalra: Our favourite actresses are very different. (smiles) Nowadays, my favourite actresses are Deepika and Priyanka.
Magow: In terms of acting, I think Vidya and Kangana steal the show.
Are there any personal beliefs that you differ on?
Kalra: Our political leanings were different, but we were aligned on Trump. The good part of Trump becoming the President is that we can now make fun of all our American investors.