My father worked for Bhel, so we grew up in Bhopal, and I did my schooling at the township there. Oh, those were the days! Friends, sports, fun… the township had big playgrounds. We used to play cricket, football and hockey, my favourite. I picked up my first hockey stick when I was about eight years old. Soon, I was part of my school team.
Hockey was my passion, but kho-kho was an accident of sorts. I was in the eighth grade when our physical education teacher was scouting for the school team, to play for the state level. Out of the blue, he nominated me. I had never played the game till then, and was selected and became determined to give it my best. I represented Bhopal division at the state level in 1985.
I still smile at the memory of travelling for the game. It was the first time I went to another city, Jabalpur, on my own, and on a train! Like icing on the cake, I received Rs.10 per day to do as I pleased. My first earning in a way!
Sports shaped me as a person with limitless grit and confidence. Till date, I have never had to look outward for motivation. If you keep trying, relentlessly, you will succeed. That I learnt from the games, from when I missed the shots in my early days to those exhilarating times my shot found the back of the net.
I was in the ninth standard when my elder sister, Anita, rented a shop to sell ready-made garments. I used to visit the shop, and spend time observing customers and interacting with them. I started getting a sense of what they look for, how to drive sales and so on. Eventually, I started travelling to Delhi, Mumbai and Ahmedabad with my brother, Anil,to purchase garments. I never knew that this learning, of over 10 years, would come handy one day.
By 1989, I was in Jabalpur Engineering College, pursuing agricultural engineering. In college, I embarked on a crazy adventure — due to the ongoing Gulf War in 1991 petrol bunks were closed, but I wanted to go home. So I decided to cycle 300 km from Jabalpur to Bhopal. I pedaled for nearly nine hours non-stop, till my knees hurt. Unfazed, I stopped for a hearty meal and a long nap. At around 9 p.m., I boarded a bus home!
College days were fun. As a hostelite, I went from a carefree teenager to a self-dependent responsible adult. I learnt volleyball and table tennis in the hostel and represented my university in hockey, football and table tennis. I traveled to Gwalior and Indore for the matches. I played hockey on AstroTurf for the first time at the Gwalior hockey stadium. Staying away from family definitely made the heart grow fonder. Suddenly, I felt a sense of responsibility to do well in my career and financially support my family which led to a focused and disciplined effort to prepare for the Common Admission Test (CAT).
I took a shot at CAT and made it to Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad (IIM-A) in 1995. Fifteen of us lived in a dormitory like one big family! We are still in touch, although my wife isn’t amused by my never-ending phone conversations with them.
The first year at IIM-A was terrible with all the academic load and rigour and not much socialising. Plus, it didn’t help that I was the only guy from a small-town. The second year got better with less academics. With all the bonding in the dorm and hanging out with friends, it was a lot more fun. In fact the friends I made there have became friends for life. The place instilled a lot of self confidence to excel in the professional world and the various subjects helped me in deciding on supply chain management as my preferred career choice.
My first job at Mitsubishi Corporation was interesting. It was in Chennai, on their project with Unilever, to set up India’s first cold chain — handling transportation of frozen products from factory to warehouse, stocking and moving it from warehouse to dealers/distributors at -25°C. All that came in handy when I designed my multi-temperature delivery van when I started my own online grocery venture years later.
It was 1999 and I was drawn to the possibilities of online commerce, and had started researching on it. Maybe online apparel could work in India because no one else was doing it then. A friend from Chennai had moved to Bangalore to set up an IT services start-up, and I discussed my idea with him and his partner, who eventually became my IT partners. The same year, I launched my first start-up, Style Country. I tried to replicate the customer experience of my sister’s shop — there was a feature to ‘feel’ the fabric by running the mouse pointer over uploaded swatches, triggering a pop-up that would detail textures; and an online trial room to match clothes. I had nearly 35 top brands in the country on board.
I tied up with Gati to do distribution across thousand cities in the country. Citibank was my payment gateway. Everything ran smoothly, and we had a great launch in Goa. And then, boom! Things went topsy-turvy. The whole dotcom market came crashing down. Funding dried up. Big failure stories were shared from US, UK and Europe, and I had to take a call. I knew I had to give up the reins, so I reached out to another dotcom company Fabmart, in 2000.
Fabmart was dealing with its own set of challenges and refused to absorb Style Country. But I stayed in touch with the four co-founders of Fabmart — VS Sudhakar, VS Ramesh, Vipul Parekh and Hari Menon.
I returned to a corporate job and thankfully it was with Netkraft, which was helping retailers go online. I had freedom and could drive initiatives here. I was at their Singapore office which they unfortunately decided to shutdown due to slack business. Next I moved to IGATE. I was lucky that even when I moved to larger organisations such as IGATE and Infosys, I got similar decision-making roles. But, having experienced entrepreneurship, your mind transforms into a restless puppy wanting to do it again and again until you succeed.
With IGATE, I worked for about four-and-a-half years in retail. I was still looking for start-up ideas and, around me, so much had happened in the organised retail space. India’s first ‘Food World’ had come up in Bangalore in 1997 and Shoppers Stop, too, made its entry in the city around the same time. In 2003, Metro opened its first cash-and-carry store in Bangalore. I couldn’t wait to visit it and I did, with a friend, to get an idea of how the store is, what range of products they keep and their margins. But my start-up remained elusive.
Meanwhile, I was travelling constantly to the US, UK and other European countries. I would be away for 34 weeks straight at times. So, I decided to move to the UK in 2005, where I stayed for four years before moving to the US on a long-term project with a company that ran casinos in Las Vegas. In the US, our first daughter was born and my wife, a Nift graduate, decided to take a break from work. As part of IGATE consulting I was doing several projects outside of my core interest, the retail industry. So I decided to join Infosys where there was a bigger team and client base in the retail industry. I was at the Infosys’ Toronto office initially and then moved to their London office, helping the multinational grocery retailer Tesco with their online grocery selling platform.
That was when I tried out grocery-buying online, and how convenient it was! I knew India needed something like this. Our small family found grocery shopping tiresome. Wasting precious weekends over it! All of it was troublesome — driving, parking, lack of products, long queues at the billing counter and the heavy bags. Doorstep delivery was a saviour and I would imagine a halo around the delivery guy!
I had my moment of truth — I knew that online retailing of grocery was what I would do. I had already tried online business and superimposed a Tesco-like set-up on that. The outcome, I imagined, would be kaleidoscopic!
Obviously, I had to find capital and figure out a lean business model. I met a senior executive at Metro Cash and Carry, also my senior at IIM-A. He put me on to another person at Metro who, after listening to my idea, felt it was doable. In January 2009, he gave me the go ahead and I bid adieu to Infosys the same year. I was back in the Garden City.
This is part 1 of a two-part series. You can read part 2 here.