Secret Diary of Vijay Shekhar Sharma, founder, One97 & Paytm | Biography Part- 2 | Outlook Business | Outlook Business
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Photograph by Vishal Koul

Secret Diary Of An Entrepreneur

"Defying conventional wisdom is what sets an entrepreneur apart"
Secret Diary of Vijay Shekhar Sharma Part-2

Kripa Mahalingam

Vijay Shekhar Sharma, founder, One97 & Paytm

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 20 lakh. “A 20-year-old getting 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. 

XS CorpsHe 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 8 lakh at 24%. It wasn’t the greatest deal but I had no choice. Bharti owed me 20 lakh! So, I thought I will pay off the loan, when they pay me. It’s just a stop-gap arrangement. 

cash sketchBut 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 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…

Vijay Shekhar Sharma Sky diwing photo

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. 5 lakh — that’s what. But I was done taking loans. I told him Bharti owed me 11 lakh! He immediately pulled out a cheque for 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…

a hard days night

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 – “30,000 toh hona chahiye,” he said. Managing two places is not easy, I couldn’t keep it up…

Vijay Shekhar Sharma with mirdula and vivaan 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 8 lakh in cash and put in 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.

This is the second part of a three-part series. You can read the first part here and the third part here.

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