Phanindra Sama on how entrepreneurship is a self purification process

What’s the biggest lesson you learned as a founder?

“Entrepreneurship is a self purification process.”

Why sell now?

“I wanted to demonstrate wealth to my parents who were getting old.”

In September 2013, I interviewed RedBus co-founder Phanindra Sama for Mint newspaper, right after he sold the startup to Ibibo (now part of Makemytrip). To be honest, his answers didn’t make any sense to me back then. If anything, I was sceptical and thought Phani, as he is called in startup circles, was feeding me some academic answers.

Back then, we kept chasing him to share the story about his next entrepreneurial venture or a new startup fund after RedBus was sold. After all, it’s only natural to build your next startup after a successful exit. Much like everyone is talking about Sachin Bansal today.

In fact, a recent social media post from Kanwal Rekhi, one of the early backers of RedBus and a critic of the sellout, created raging debates.

In another column for Mint newspaper titled “In RedBus exit founders lost the opportunity to create a PayPal mafia”, I even questioned the decision to sell RedBus.

But over past few years, and especially as a rookie entrepreneur myself, a lot of what Phani said and did have started making sense. After the exit, he took his mother to London, her maiden foreign trip. Phani tells me now in this podcast that she’s not in a shape now to travel overseas.

And his thoughts about how entrepreneurship is a self purification journey cannot be more relevant at a time when debates about a crisis of culture and integrity are at centre of India’s startup ecosystem.

Do listen in. (The transcript of this conversation will be up Friday.)

Tarun Mehta on the importance of keeping to your core vision

Entrepreneurship is hard. No matter what you’re building. It becomes even harder when you’re building something that’s not understood by many, and even worse if the product is clearly ahead of its time.

But founders are crazy. They see opportunities when no one sees them. They also get blinded sometimes by it and fail.

When Tarun Mehta started building Ather Energy, India’s first electric two-wheelers, his startup was being written off even before the pre-orders started.

After getting his pitch rejected by 80 investors ( is that a magic number? Even Kabeer of Dunzo had a similar number of rejections before getting funded), Tarun finally met Sachin Bansal.

“What should I change in this pitch deck?”

“Don’t change anything. This is how you’ll build this.”

Perhaps only a fellow entrepreneur can empathize with another founder’s dogged optimism. So here’s to the entrepreneurial mafia being led by Sachin Bansal and several others.

Hat-tip to Kanika Berry who helped transcribe the conversation, which is produced lightly edited below:

Pankaj: So, welcome to Outliers. This is a podcast with Outliers and some Outliers take long to have a sit-down, some don’t take so long. But you know, I am really excited today to sit down with Tarun Mehta, who is the co-founder of Ather Energy. Tarun, welcome to the podcast.

Tarun: Hi Pankaj. Thanks for inviting me.

Pankaj: So why do I think you are Outlier? I think that would be a fair question for me to answer before I ask you questions.

Tarun: Yes, please do answer that.

Pankaj: I think the first time, around that time we were launching FactorDaily… I think it was…

Tarun: I think it was early 2016.

Pankaj: Yes, very early. And of course your name came up in some conversations and I said you are going to be building two-wheelers and that itself was an Outlier act because we are so used to, especially when it comes to entrepreneurship in India, listening to the next e-commerce startup and you know, this really stood out. So I will be honest, that’s when the mindshare happened and since then, of course, I have been tracking, thanks to my colleague Anand (Murali), who keeps a tab on what you do and how.

Tarun: He has been a follower, a supporter.

Pankaj: He has been a supporter and he keeps it tight. I think why we enter into these conversations with entrepreneurs like you because our belief is that the journeys that you go through have tremendous lessons to offer to others who are either in the journey or about to start a journey. And, if we catch you in the middle of such a journey, there is an opportunity to you know, unlock some great lessons. That’s the idea.

So, let us start from the start, Tarun. Tell me where do you come from? Who you are and then we can get into why you are doing whatever you are doing.

Tarun: Right. So I am originally from Rajasthan, born and brought up in Ahmedabad, did my schooling there, and then went to (college) in Chennai: IIT Madras. And dad has a small software business, distribution mostly, mom is a homemaker and also an LIC agent. So I am a Marwari originally but it’s not one of those classic Marwari family where everybody’s in business. So we have a mix, some folks are in business, some are in service but mostly in Gujarat and Rajasthan, most folks. It’s only, I think in the last few years that people have started moving out. So that’s the basic background.

I met my co-founder Swapnil Jain in college, we were in the same department, same year, same hostel and we spent five years together and sometime around our second year, he was very excited about energy as a sector. I don’t know how to even describe it, such an underlying, basic thing to the economy. He had an idea to build an engine called Sterling Engine. It was a very fascinating concept as young engineers. He was building a prototype and he was calling himself Ather Energy back then. Actually, my memory is not very clear. I am not sure if he was already calling himself Ather Energy or by the time I joined him and then later he came up with Ather Energy but either way he came up with a name.

So, he had a lot of clarity about that. Around the second year, the end is when I got fascinated and I joined him in the side project that he was running called Sterling Engines. We spent the next few years trying to commercially build these engines while still at college. Ours was a five-year course.

Sterling Engines… they can technically run it at Carnot efficiencies. I am talking about 60%, 70%, 80%… efficiencies and something that can (run) around any fuel source. So our idea was that we will build an engine that people in rural markets can buy at low enough costs and they can burn farm waste below the engine and that will start the engine and will generate electricity on which they can run their houses. Instead of burning of the farms as they do it in Haryana which does not yield much, they would actually just burn it below the engine which will at least give them electricity. So, now there is a commercial application for it, in their house itself.

We built a lot of them, we built I think, four or five of those prototypes over three years, spent a lot of time, spent some money, we kept raising small amounts of money via college not as a company but as a project… (but) couldn’t commercially make it viable. I think we did a fairly bad job of engineering, probably a good job as a young engineer but not a good job as far as commercialisation goes.

We also did a whole bunch of other stuff while we were still at college, we had built a lot of stuff outside of coursework and this was just one of them. There were like 2-3 other projects. By the time we were graduating out, what had happened was, we were pretty clear that we want to do something together, we want to build stuff, we want to create value by building products, and we want to build something in the energy sector. We didn’t have an idea that at that time of graduation, so like you know what, let’s just take up jobs, let’s just stay in engineering and we will have an idea someday. Whenever that idea is right, we will come back to this. So, we gave ourselves a few years time, just to sort of mull over stuff, give ourselves some time because five years is a long time, we had tried enough stuff. We took up different jobs and after that is when Ather… the current story starts from there. So do you want me to talk about that?

Pankaj: Yes, why don’t we jump to it? But before that, a lot of people I have been talking to, I think over a decade and all, when it comes to engineering in India, they say that somewhere engineers got into this coding thing and they forgot that engineering is actually to build things, right? So when you are talking about this stuff that you were building, I am just trying to understand because you were in one of those campuses itself, what happens, I mean, what is missing? Why don’t we have enough people who are trying to build stuff like really build stuff? I mean, where do things get lost?

Tarun: First, I would not look down upon coding. I think you can build a lot of phenomenal stuff in software, actually, that’s where the bulk of the creation today is happening. It is just that in our environment very few people actually end up building products, most people end building services of some sort, so hence we don’t feel what a good software can do.

But that aside, because anyways, we didn’t go down in that direction. I think, primarily, both of us, (a) the department we were in, we were in engineering design and engineering design is a mash-up between multiple departments but a lot of it is in mechanical engineering. My specialisation was largely in robotics, so mostly I spent my time doing mathematics, linear algebra and Swapnil’s specialisation was in thermal dynamics, more or less. So, you get the angle, right? We were in that discipline there.

The second thing that happened was, I think you are just in the right place because our department was very, very new. We were the third batch of that department, so it was the youngest department that IIT Madras had and the faculty was super pumped up and excited which is… to be honest, no offence but a rare thing to find in most departments because faculty has been burned down over several decades of nobody actually doing anything exciting. …our faculty was absolutely pumped up that, yes, we are a new department, we are going to build stuff.

There was that sort of a feeling. I remember how the labs were built up, we actually helped transport some stuff from one department here to another because the department building is coming up in front of us, so there was a lot of this community feeling that you know, we are in this together and the professors, one of the guiding principles was, ‘you got to build stuff’. So the concept of engineering design was to build a product end-to-end. We actually had courses right in our first year on product thinking, on management, on what is the business plan, what does the customer want, how do you think of those things.

We also had our courses in mechanical design, we had a lot of courses on just prototyping. I remember there was this course for six months long and the entire point of that course was no classes, you will just pick up a concept and you will build it over six months, you will just prototype it over six months and the department will actually give you some money – Rs 20,000, Rs 50,000, Rs 60,000… just form small teams and build it and then prepare reports, justify why this is financially viable, justify the bill of materials, build up a business case, go do some customer research. So, we would actually go and do customer research, we would from these quality functional deployments – QFDs, justify that this feature in this spec makes sense. Honestly, very little of that is taught to a regular engineer in almost any college.

Pankaj: Yes, I am really surprised. I actually didn’t know any of this.

Tarun: (Smiles) So, that’s also my part-time job which is praising our department and sort of getting in more students in the future. But honestly, I think the timing was right. We had two courses like four, five months long where you would just strip down stuff. We don’t get taught like that in other departments these days. I think that played a huge role.

In IIT Madras, around that time period, there were two centres which were trying to come up. One was the Centre for Innovation which was one of the first of its sort of efforts, at least at IIT Madras, where alumni came together and I think funded a large space… like, 20,000-30,000 square feet of space. And they just funded that space and they gave a whole bunch of equipment. It’s called the Centre for Innovation (CFI). The idea was just go tinker, just sort of build anything, aise hee (just like that). There is no coursework, nothing, just make a good proposal, like ‘I want to build drones’. ‘Great! Build up a good proposal and come, we will give you money, here are all the tools and facilities that you need, outside of your department, go crazy building’.

I wasn’t super involved but Swapnil was super involved in it. He was the one involved and when that place itself was coming up which is how the first Formula SAE car projects also started really taking shape and he got involved there. So that was an exciting moment because the whole bunch of people especially from our department, from aerospace, got involved in just pure building… like it is very rare to find that which is uncorrupted because give it few years, politics kicks in, people want to take up more space, more money… initial years everybody is like you know got this sense of ‘we got to build it’.

And there was a second thing happening which was sea tides, basically, the entrepreneurship cell and I got involved there in my first year and some of the people behind the E-Cell back then were real purists. They didn’t actually care about having a massive community and organising large events, though eventually, it all went there. But the initial people were really, really focused on what is entrepreneurship, there is a spirit of entrepreneurship, of actually building something. So I think that is the message that a lot of us picked up at the Entrepreneurship Cell, just this sheer love for creating value. Pair that with this love of just purely building stuff with love for creating value, for building value, you get very, very, very fertile land there. And I think we were at the right time because we were there at that point and both of us co-founders were in two different parts.

Pankaj: Very complimentary.

Tarun: Very complimentary coming together in our second year to sort of you know, build a product. So that product that we are trying to build, we start bringing these things together. You know what, we have access to CFIs so we can build the product there, we have this entire understanding from the entrepreneurship cell, we are sort of watching all these videos. I got a chance to go to Stanford as part of my E-Cell in my second year, it was mind-blowing, it was absolutely mind-blowing. I know it sounds too cliché but holy shit, going to Stanford in my second year which is the first time I had gone outside the country from IIT Madras, it was like wow! Everybody that you meet there, every student, is talking about starting up. They would take you to Palo Alto and every single café is just full of what Bangalore now looks like, it was already like that in 2009, maybe better. And I just came back blown away. I don’t think I’d still comprehended building a company but actually build stuff yourself, you don’t actually need like a large company to sort of taking on the job of building something. Individuals can build something. I think that was a big turning point, at least for me personally. So, that’s how we got started.

Pankaj: I think that’s what I meant to ask, I mean, not coding versus this. This thing about building something and I think you answered it very well. And now I understand the whole intersection that happened and how Ather came about, it’s very clear.

Let’s now jump to Ather. From outside and it applies to every company, it looks like, every year you are having a near death experience or someone either writes you in or someone writes you off and I think we media are equally to be blamed for, you know, trying to derive conclusions on a monthly or annual basis but take me through the journey through your lens, take us through the important milestones or tipping points that you feel gave you the best learnings.

Tarun: We came together to form Ather. In fact, I remember calling up Swapnil because that time Swapnil was still not part of it and I was still on a job and I was just thinking that this concept of building batteries for the electric scooters could be very exciting. So I wanted to start a company on it and I called him up to one day to ask, ‘Would you mind if I use the word Ather Energy for something I have been thinking of starting up?’ and I explained to him of what I was thinking of starting up and he said, ‘Yes, sure, go ahead’, like, ‘Sure, good, be my guest’. I started calling myself Ather Energy, he was in Bangalore and I was in Chennai and I was making trips every month. I would go, stay with him for the weekend and try to convince him that you should totally come join this. It wasn’t a team, it was just me. He came over. The idea quickly pivoted. Initially we wanted to just build batteries and I think the one good thing with it was actually going out and meet a whole bunch of customers very early, something that many people may not realise but many people might think that given how you have launched a product that we have waited a long time to discover product-market fit.

Pankaj: That’s how it looks like.

Tarun: In fact, that’s actually a common worry that I have heard from investors in the past. Now that we have launched, it’s a different situation but in the past, a big worry. ‘Well, you know guys, you are making this classic mistake of investing everything and building this huge edifice before you have discovered the product market fit’ and I don’t think I have done a phenomenal job in convincing people but to us it has never been a big worry because before we ever built anything, one of the first things we did was spend a solid six months. We didn’t even start Ather.

Like the first thing that we did, we just left our jobs and we went back to IIT and we managed to convince one of our professors to give us a complete room and just sort of, some money every month as a project money, inside the department and we started spending time going and meeting the customers – people who had bought electric vehicles. I think we had met about 50+ people, 50 customers in Chennai, maybe a few in Bangalore also; Swapnil went to customers in Bangalore. So, we actually met a whole bunch of people and different cohorts. People who had bought electric scooters, people who had bought electric cars, people who had bought multiple electric scooters, people who were running dealerships for electric scooters, people who were employees in electric scooter companies once upon a time, people who led those companies, we really met a whole bunch of people and that told us a lot about what the market is thinking like.

So I think six months went here and then when you figure out that you know what, so this actually gave us one learning. We originally wanted to build a battery pack for a scooter and we spoke with so many customers, all of them said, ‘yes, a battery would solve the problem’ but it was a trick question because the real question to ask them was, would you buy it? And turns out, nobody wants to buy it. We were like, why wouldn’t you buy it, you say it’s a problem, we are saying we will build it, we will build it at the right cost point, why won’t you buy it? And they wouldn’t give a clear answer, it was very evident that they wouldn’t buy it and turns out that they hated the vehicle itself, they hated their current electric vehicle and this would solve the problem but there are so many other problems with this vehicle, I don’t like the looks, I don’t like the comfort, I don’t like the economics, I don’t like the performance, I don’t like the ride quality, I am little embarrassed to tell people that I ride this.

Your battery solves problems but how will you solve all those problems. So that’s when we woke up, you know; it wasn’t a pivot as much as it was a realisation… big learning. If we are building a B2C company and we wanted to build a B2C company, you got to build first a very, very exciting story. OnePlus did it, Apple has been a master of it, obviously, Royal Enfield has done that. You never sell a spec, you never sell a feature, what you ultimately sell, if you are building a strong brand which will actually command those 30% – 40% gross margin, you are not building a commodity, you are first and foremost building a story and you are getting enough people to believe in that story and you are getting a whole bunch of people who aspire to be those storytellers or listeners. That’s the only thing that you are doing at the start and if you get that right, everything else can follow but if you don’t get that right, you will very quickly, basically become a manufacturing company, you will basically become a commodity builder and there is not enough value in building commodities, right!

So, that was the biggest learning and we could see it so clearly, it was so visible in their eyes. You tell them batteries, ‘yeah, well, others can also build batteries but I don’t really want to buy batteries’ and now you are looking at a very hard sell. So we changed the pitch. Actually, the first thing we did after we convinced ourselves about this, we went and engaged a designer and we told them, ‘this is a sort of scooter we want, it should go like this, this should be the performance’. His name is Shantanu, he is still with us. He came up with a sketch about what the scooter looks like. He gave us three different sketches, different, different perspectives. We are like, ‘yes, this looks beautiful and you know what, I think we are competent enough engineers, we will figure out how to fit the entire vehicle inside this concept’.

We took that and we rode on a whole bunch of specs and then we went to the customers, asking them, ‘you know what, you really hate the fact that your vehicle does 25 kilometres/hour, right, and that it takes eight hours to charge up? What if I built you a vehicle that does 75 kilometres/hour that charges up in like one hour that has a battery that will last you for not six months but like five years? What does it sound like?’ And man, you could see it in their eyes, ‘Yes, obviously, like that’s what I would have always bought. Yes, please build it’. I have never heard that sort of response, five years we have done this engineering, we have gone out for so many products, it was always, you know, us trying to convince people. This is the first time, I have just thrown a spec at these guys and they are completely going bonkers, like zero people I met who were cold to it. Everybody was hot, everybody was like, ‘Beautiful, please build it, I will buy it. Will you be more than an electric scooter?’ Obviously, I will pay more than an electric scooter, like money was never really the reason I bought this electric scooter.’

Very beautiful. So first thing, sell them a very, very compelling story and how you sell that story also mattered and I could feel it, as I kept meeting more and more people, my pitch kept improving and I could see that their excitement about what we are talking kept increasing. Initially, I would just talk about 75 kilometres top speed, one-hour charging, that’s nice, that’s great but you keep ratcheting up the pitch. You actually walk them through a situation of you know, how they would ride this vehicle, it will have a beautiful dashboard, you would go, park it next to an Activa in front of a Starbucks and you know, the screen would flash white lights and it will close and it will give you a ring and they are imagining and they are like going crazy, ‘yes, yes, yes’. So that was the biggest learning at the start.

Pankaj: Is there something that didn’t work?

Tarun: I think with the 450 (Ather 450 Electric Scooter), we definitely have an over-engineered work. And I think it is an over-engineered product because we couldn’t optimise to a point where this is enough for the customer to pay.

Pankaj: I wanted to ask you this when you were describing the way you went to customers and you know and your pitch kept improving. This was in my mind actually, over-engineering.

Tarun: I can see it we over-engineered it. I think we couldn’t do all steps of this journey perfectly, we got some steps right but some steps, we just weren’t sure and we over-indexed on having it versus while not having it, a simple index, right! Abraham just keeps talking about it really well. He talks about how he crafted this really awesome journey for his customers but then given his product, he could actually spend a lot of time in fine-tuning exactly the sort of things that you need. Now again, in their experience, they can actually do it and they can do it multiple numbers of times before they figure it out. We didn’t have that luxury, you got to build a complete product before you realise, ‘This feature that we put so much effort to build looks like people are ok without it like they don’t despise it but would you pay Rs 10,000 extra for it? Yeah, no! They will spend Rs 500 on it’.

The problem with our product is and it is so visible, even the prototype that we showed in 2016 was nowhere close to what we have launched, so getting this sort of finish and the quality was actually a key qualifier before the consumer can truly respond to your product. So, I think, we had the richness of the input was limited in that sense, which is why I would say, half of the things that we built were not essential. In the 80-20 rule, we clearly did 100 and the last 20 things, I think took like half of our time and energy. So, we could have cut them off but we did not know which is the half we could cut-off.

Pankaj: But now that you have the benefit of hindsight.

Tarun: But now you have the media advantage, right!

Pankaj: So how would you actually avoid something like this or is it possible or is it just part of the business?

Tarun: I want to say you can avoid it but deep down I know, I think it’s very hard. And it’s not as objective as I described because there is also a huge people’s angle and let me explain what I mean. You are an entrepreneur, you are selling and you are selling that dream to not just yourself and your investors but your incoming team also. In our case what is the dream that we are selling, we are selling a version of, one or the other version of, ‘you will get to build really cool stuff’, ‘you will get to build a product that you would love to use’. Now, for different people, it might mean different things and not everybody has a 100% exact clarity on what exact thing will work.

So sometimes to get that sort of really creative and crazy bunch together, to build something, you have to actually let them be crazy for a while. If you put in too many restrictions on day 1, ‘no, no, no, I already know this one wouldn’t work’. That’s not the reality, you don’t, so you are also guessing and to be honest being a founder is not like a superpower. Yes, you don’t know much better than what those guys know. So you are sort of, you could optimise but I think you will miss out on a lot of that spark if people in your over optimise the people on Day 1 and more importantly, you will miss out on some learnings.

See, you should also remember, as a startup, you got this really beautiful time in the starting phase where you can take one year more, you can take 18 months more, you can raise a little bit more money and you would only need to raise another 10 million dollars. Again, in our business, I think, that’s a fine amount of money to spend because the amount you can learn for that, what you can learn by building the 450 today, you are learning at the cost of let’s say, 10,000, 15,000, 20,000 vehicles. That learning is impossibly expensive when you are trying to learn that at a scale of let’s say, 100,000 vehicles or one million vehicles because the cost of that additional sensor over a million vehicles is probably 10 million dollars. You will have a massive, complicated business case to justify it. Today, it’s like, you know what, 100,000 thousand dollars, yes, let’s try that experiment now rather than later.

Pankaj: So, the other question which is an Outlier question again is that the kind of product that you built or you are building, you know, is not a classic product and what I mean is this startup ecosystem is not used to this kind of product, right? And it’s not just the domain expertise, it is also their familiarity with other digital products. So how did you cope with criticism?

Tarun: So, the first fundraise was probably the biggest learning because I think I had probably already pitched to somewhere in the range of 70-80 people, without a single yes and that was a painful time because initially we had one investor and we had 25 lakhs plus 15 lakhs of debt, back then, so 40 lakhs total and we had run the company with about 10 people, one year and three prototypes which is 40 lakhs. So we’d already exhausted ourselves and I was just going through the list, I don’t remember the exact number but I think it was 70 or 80 people that we had pitched since then for literally investments for 25 lakhs more and near continuous rejections until I realised one day that ultimately I just need one person to say yes. … it really hit me that I need just one person to say yes. I think it was Paul Graham’s one of those essays or maybe Peter Thiel that if everybody agrees with what you are saying, likely what you are building is going to be very low differentiation and very low defensibility.

Pankaj: Is it ‘How to do startup’ or ‘Do things that don’t scale’? One of them?

Tarun: I am not sure, I am not even sure it’s Paul Graham or Peter Thiel but one of those, sure. And I took solace in the fact, you know, the fact that nobody agrees to this means that nobody else will do it. This is brilliant, the minute I convince one person, beautiful, we will be the only ones building this, nobody else will agree to it anyways, it’s good. So I think we got over that disappointment that way. And yes, we have obviously had a lot of people tell us and with honestly very good reasons, not arrogant reasons, very good reasons that hardware is hard, that scaling up is hard, manufacturing is hard, Indian ecosystem is hard, for all of this and fundraising this is going to be crazy hard. I remember one person telling me that, you know what you should stop building the vehicle and take the software that you will put in the dashboard and spin yourselves into an IoT company and reasonably certain that would have been a good outcome for many other people and I considered for like five seconds until I realised that you know what, that’s not the real thing.

We are going to build B2C, we want to build something in the energy sector, vehicles for us is our starting point, we want to build a lot more after this. So clearly I can’t become an IoT company, that takes us nowhere. So, a little bit of a stubbornness that we have got a vision, we won’t change our vision for anything and the vision for us was there was a larger energy vision and for vehicles the vision was very clear: everything is going to be electric and if everything becomes electric, every single technology inside our vehicles is changing. Only startups can build groundbreaking new technologies. It’s a no-brainer. Only a startup is going to win this battle. So, if it is not us, it is going to be another startup, it is only going to be a startup and if we can see it with our limited experience and background, surely there will be another bunch of investors who will also see this. So you just got to keep on at it, not change your pitch for anybody.

In fact, I remember, Sachin (Bansal) was one of those people who sort of, probably saved us and not just with this money, his and Binny (Bansal)’s money but also with his statement. We had reached out to Sachin back in 2014 when we were in the midst of these 70-80 rejections and at that point, Sachin wasn’t a known angel investor, not that I know that the entrepreneur could invest. I literally reached out to him because after the whole bunch of rejections on the pitch deck, I reached out to him, ‘I need some feedback on this pitch deck because something doesn’t seem to be working’ and he gave me a meeting and that was my only question in the meeting. ‘Let me just take you through the pitch deck, let me tell you what exactly I believe in, what I have been telling people. You tell me what should I change.’. He heard all of it and his only thing was ‘Don’t change anything in this, this is the only way you can build this business’. I was like, ‘you just raised a billion dollars. I am sure you know what you are saying. Sorted. I will not change anything’. So I think that was a big support. We refused to pivot after we had clarity about our end vision. We refused to pivot into a different business altogether. And I think, luckily we were lucky, to sort of find investors at the right time.

Pankaj: Couple of final questions. One of the things is, there is this entrepreneurial optimism, you said, stubbornness or someone would say doggedness, you know, I will not pivot, not change. I am just trying to understand in your mind, what is your decision-making framework? Like, what is your source of faith, I mean, maybe it is a philosophical question. What I am trying to understand is, why do you keep at it?

Tarun: I have thought a lot about it because you have to check yourselves, if it is foolishness or if it is based on something real. We actually thought enough about it that we made in one of our five value systems at Ather. In fact the first value system, it is called, ‘Know your true North.’

Pankaj: Come Again.

Tarun: Know your true North. What it means, what we want to capture by that is, there are certain fundamental truths in any business. Now you can build a business on the back of a lot of stuff. You can build a business because it’s in fashion right now. Something’s fashion and if you build a business on top of that fashion right now, you know you can create a lot of value in two years. It may not remain a fashion four years later but you have already created value and that’s fine, nothing wrong with it. Or you can build a business because there is a short-term opportunity and not just a fashion, it’s literally an opportunity. Like some law is changing and in the interim, there is a lot of confusion and you are creating a BPO firm that will capture Y2K business. So you can do that but these things are not fundamental truths in a business.

Fundamental truths are the sort of what at least Jeff Bezos claims, at least Amazon was built on which is that, I know that forever and ever, I will never have a situation where a customer will come to me and say, ‘You know what, Jeff, it would be so much better if only you delivered this little slower or only if you sold this a little bit more expensive’. So a lot of stuff can change, we can go into communism tomorrow, you know we could have a world war breakout tomorrow but this fundamental truth that people want to build stuff, buy stuff that is cheaper and buy it faster, that is such a fundamental, obvious truism that I can build a business on this belief and I am true.

Now, the problem with these fundamental truths is usually that they are very, very, very, very broad but that’s what you need to keep in mind. Your vision and that true rock, true North is broad and you are building a business on that which means a lot of your approach might change but that thing you will never pivot it down. You will never pivot down to suddenly saying, ‘You know what, this selling thing is very hard, so let me get into the business of maybe making some stuff’, right? Or, ‘I will start making clothes because I think selling clothes is very hard. Somebody else will sell, I will make them, right?’. No, no, no, just stick to it. Just stick to this core mission of selling stuff better, faster, cheaper, right! You will create a massively valuable business and if you make that your core value prop, you will create massive defenstivity. That’s how we have thought about it.

Our true North here has been, vehicles are going electric, actually not even electric. Eventually, all vehicles will be run on sustainable energy. It’s a guaranteed thing, how else, we will run out of fuels, right? It’s obvious, it is a truism. Ultimately vehicles will have to run on a fuel source which is infinite, effectively. If that’s the world we are headed to, then that’s the business we will build because that’s true. So we will build a business to build these new vehicles which are not fossil fuel dependent. Literally, that’s end. Everything after that is debatable, that point is not debatable.

So if you come and tell me, spin your company into an IoT company, you know what, that does not make sense to us. But if you come and tell me, ‘You know what, Tarun, I think you should look at hydrogen fuels and vehicles’, I will think about it. I am not married to electric, we are not married to Lithium-Ion. If you come and tell me, ‘look at this new crazy battery technology that will come up’, yes, we should look at it. ‘Do you know electric is a dying technology, don’t look at motors, look at this air run vehicle’, I don’t care, I will talk about it as long as it is based on this fundamental truth that vehicles are going to run on an infinite source of energy.

Now today, to us it looks like that electric is the only medium that will work, nothing else, for the next 10 years but even that is debatable to us. The only thing that is not debatable, is those vehicles will be built and only a new company will be able to build them. If I am questioning that, that does not make sense. If you are questioning anything else, yes, I will let you convince me. If you are trying to convince me ‘You know what, Tarun, I don’t think you should build vehicles, I think you should just design vehicles’, ‘hmmm…, no!’ We will build the full vehicle and we will be B2C company because you know, that’ll make sense, right! If you come and tell me, ‘Tarun, you should maybe just sell software’, no, that’s not the real opportunity, the opportunity is there and I am going to stick to it and I am going to stay at it for the next 50 years until that becomes such a massive mode because we have stayed on to one single source of truth, we don’t change that. So, almost a value system now, not almost, it is now a value system at Ather.

Pankaj: I think that explains your journey as well. We know why you are doing this. Have you encountered fatigue or what founders also go through, I don’t know, see I am a rookie founder of 2-2.5 years.

Tarun: That’s long enough.

Pankaj: Yeah!

Tarun: That’s long enough now.

Pankaj: But when it comes to fatigue or being at this battle, doggedly, for long, these journeys are long and painful, right, clearly. So what would be your reasons to not do it, if at all, ever?

Tarun: Very simple answer. If the source of truth that you have built everything on if that changes. If that changes or you realise that you built it on a wrong source of truth, that’s not actually a source of truth, some reason, petrol is not going to be available infinite forever, then this is wrong and you should change and if not, then there is no reason for you to give it up because very few businesses, by the way, are based on such fundamental truths and I have noticed that. Most businesses are actually built on some opportunity. In fact, I have often pitched Ather as something that is built because we had an opportunity and not because it was based on this. But that’s the reality. Very few businesses are based on such true things and if they are, they will yield such a massive outcome that it is definitely worth your entire life’s effort. You are not building something that is a low value that is low impact. Any segment you can pick up if it is a fundamental source, (a) the segment won’t be small, the opportunity won’t be small and the output, should you succeed, is going to be massive. And I very strongly believe that the only reason you will not succeed is if you give up. Like there is always a way. There is always some way you can make it work. So, yes.

Pankaj: Final question. The kind of journey that you are talking about – long and massive opportunity clearly, absolutely no doubt about it, the teams that build such companies, the whole Founder’s Mentality kind of thing and all that, it’s almost like, after every life stage you have to take a new birth as a leader because everything changes. How do you learn, like, it is a simple question but what I mean to understand from you is, how do you keep leading what you are building? Would you be open to someday of getting someone else to do it?

Tarun: Sure. So the second question first, would you be open? I think one should be open because I think the role of a founder in a company is not to be a CEO, CTO, CPO, COO or any of those. The role of a founder in a company always is to push the company on to the next stage, next stage of growth, next stage of value creation. The minute the company gets there, the rest of the stage can be run by really seasoned executives. Now it might also happen that you might have to play that role for a variety of reasons but the primary role of a founder in any company is to keep pushing it to completely unchartered territories. That is very hard for a manager to do because they just don’t have the mandate, only founders have that mandate and that’s just there.

To your first question – personally, how I learn, my medium which by no means is something that works for everybody – is having a few advisors around me. There are sometimes formal advisors and we literally bring them on board and give them equity and all that. Sometimes, there is a bunch of informal advisors that you sort of do dipsticks with every six months and they teach you a lot. So advisors to sort of to get a third person perspective. I have at least 2-3 people that I spend about 6-8 hours, every month, usually on weekends. They just sort of, you know, walk them through what’s happening and they are almost, always, without fail, even point this out to me, that ‘You know what Tarun, your key problem right now is, you just don’t have a good head of HR, that is why you don’t have an org structure, that’s why you don’t have a process, that’s why your people are going crazy, that’s why you don’t have a performance management system. I can throw all these words at you but you don’t even understand it because you don’t have any work experience. Why don’t you focus on first bringing a phenomenal head of HR and that person will just push your company to the next level’. That’s a phenomenal insight to have but it’s very contextual insight. I can read about it, HR is important but it doesn’t help. But somebody who is in my journey and I am updating on a monthly basis, he looks at my system, meets my people, looks at their problems, spends some time with me, is able to point out. Or it could be a founder. A founder who has gone through his journey. People like Sachin, people like Raghu (Raghunandan G) of Taxi4sure, Binny… all these guys. They are often able to give you these nuggets of insights. So I think, for me personally, having great advisors or mentors, is something that works brilliantly. I always try to keep them close.

Pankaj: Sure. Thanks, Tarun. Please stay this way. Really good talking to you. Have fun.

Tarun: Great, Pankaj. Thank you.

(Kanika Berry has a Masters in Business Administration and has been a communications specialist for over eight years.)

Angel investor Ashish Gupta on being a bystander and a doer in the startup ecosystem

Ashish Gupta is an outlier for many reasons. A gold medalist in computer science from IIT Kanpur, Gupta built a startup (Junglee) and sold it to Amazon, has been through several near-death experiences at his second startup (Tavant), and is now in the process of sunsetting his third entrepreneurial venture, Helion.

None of the above makes him an outlier though.

Over years, Ashish has found a way into some of India’s biggest and most valued startups as an angel investor. From MakeMyTrip to Flipkart and MuSigma, Gupta has been an early seed stage backer. It’s almost like getting a front row seat in a blockbuster movie, and also being able to help produce it.

There are very few investors who are as humble, intellectually honest and loved by the entrepreneurs.

How and why does he stay that way?

Please tune in to listen and read the full transcript below to find out more.

Hat-tip to Kanika Berry who helped transcribe the conversation, which is produced lightly edited below:

Pankaj: Welcome to Outliers and this is a Podcast with Outliers. I am actually excited with the hunts I have to make to sit down with Outliers and someday I will definitely share data on the average time taken to sit down with the Outliers I pursue. This Outlier in particular, you know, would join the club of, over a year chase. I am sitting down with Ashish Gupta. Ashish has many things that you know, we would remember him from building Junglee, being part of that team and selling it to Amazon and later building Helion. But, more importantly, when I go around the Indian entrepreneurial ecosystem, talk to entrepreneurs inside and outside, there is tremendous respect and love that I always hear about you, Ashish. So you know the reasons why I have been trying to sit down with you. Welcome to the podcast.

Ashish: Thank you so much and sorry that such a long time has been spent in this dance, so look forward to this chat.

Pankaj: So, let us start from the start. Where do you come from? I mean one of the things I always remembered meeting you for the first time is our conversation in shudh Hindi (pure Hindi). I was like, really enjoyed it. But tell me little bit about yourself, Ashish. Where do you come from?

Ashish: So, my father is from the armed forces and my mom while having a whole bunch of education, decided to sacrifice a career in favour of taking care of her kids. She did a lot of the heavy lifting. And I have a sister who is in Gurgaon, who is older to me. I spent some time bouncing around different parts of the country. Grew up in Hyderabad, Shillong, Mount Abu, Dehradun and then went to IIT Kanpur for an undergraduate degree. So, have just wonderful memories of growing up.

Pankaj: What was becoming an entrepreneur all about for you? How and why did it happen?

Ashish: I am an accidental entrepreneur. Actually, most of the things that I have done are more accidental than deliberate and I became an entrepreneur because I was dissatisfied with the day jobs that I was doing, so it was an exercise of running away from what was otherwise considered the normal thing to do as opposed to having the clarity that I wanted to be an entrepreneur.

I used to work for IBM research, had an absolutely wonderful boss, didn’t appreciate how good things were for me; so, left, joined Oracle, had another wonderful boss, still didn’t appreciate how good things were and then left and started Junglee. But it was mostly a quest driven, not by knowing what I want to do but knowing that I did not want to do something which was that I did not want to sit and work in these companies and then luckily and accidentally found that entrepreneurship was indeed what I enjoyed doing and since then to now, have been involved in starting three different companies, Junglee, Tavant and then Helion.

Pankaj: Before we move on, what is with the name ‘Junglee’?

Ashish: Oh, the name generally was… we had a Japanese investor and when we had originally five people had gotten together to start the company, the original idea was that of a gentleman called Dallan Quass. He seldom gets mentioned because the other four people were around when the company exited, Dallan had left the company, somewhere during the journey. So the five of us, when we started the company, the investor was a Japanese gentleman who was the Chairman of Sanyo Semiconductor. And we were playing this Shammi Kapoor song in the office, jo purana Junglee ka jo gana hai (the song from the old movie ‘Junglee’) and Yahoo was flying very high, this was 1996. Yahoo was all the rage, Netscape had just gone public and the biggest gorilla in the internet space was Yahoo and in that song ‘Yahooooo and Junglee’, both show up together as some of you might already know.

Pankaj: Of course.

Ashish: And that was the genesis and he said, ‘Well, you should name the company Junglee’, and we named the company Junglee. So a Japanese person who doesn’t understand the meaning of the word is responsible for the name.

Pankaj: Yeah, I can guess as much. Before we get to a mode wherein I, you know, take insights from you about the learnings you have had by watching entrepreneurs let us spend a little time on your entrepreneurial ventures and key learnings there. Take me through life and death of entrepreneurial dreams as you know, three old lens, across different things that you have built, capture some key lessons for us, Ashish.

Ashish: So clearly, we all take away very, very different lessons from this. People have different success formulas that work for them, so a lot also has to do with, who the person is? For example, if you look at founders across the board, there are people who like, Bill Gates who have a very different reputation than Steve Jobs but they are all enormously successful by conventional measures. So, take this with a large grain of salt. For me personally, what has worked well is, I have been blessed that I have got to work with some extraordinarily good people and I think in a team having multiple good people and my belief is that the founding team should be about three people, even though five started Helion. Actually, Helion, Tavant and Junglee were all started by five people. So, clearly, I am not standing by my own recommendation. Somewhere between three people, four people, I think is a good sweet spot because that allows some room for one person to fall off the bandwagon. Yet there are still more than one person left behind, of whom one will scale and one will potentially not scale, so you are still left with one or may be two people who can scale. That keeps the spirit of starting the journey with you.

And what do I mean by good? The traits that I have been blessed to find in several of my partners, there are two or three that really stand out. One is intellectual honesty and that allows one to see the facts for what they are as opposed to what one would like them to be. So for example, when we started Junglee, we thought we are starting a database company and we very quickly realised that the world doesn’t want another database, what they want is an application on top of the database, so we started building comparison shopping. Actually, we started first building a way to find jobs – it was a job hunting application and then we realised that actually Yahoo wanted a comparison shopping engine, so we built a comparison shopping engine after that. And this evolution happened to a response to accepting what the market wanted as opposed to necessarily being caught up in what we thought needs to be built. So, that intellectual honesty, and that also by the way is a fine line, you just can’t be jerked around by the market every morning. There is a fine line between being nimble and being fickle. So, that is one, intellectual honesty.

The other one that I have found very useful in pretty much in all my partners is the willingness to put the organisation ahead of themselves and that allows decisions to become, therefore, much easier and one is not caught up in whether the person is saying something because of the wrong intentions… therefore, one can move forward, much faster, so it is important to be aligned from a value system perspective, in my mind for that. There is the importance of just hard work because there are plenty of smart people out there. So, things don’t happen just because one is supposed to be smart or whatever, you got to work hard and even then you got to get lucky. One can’t take one’s luck too seriously and conflate it with one’s right. So, hard work, intellectual honesty and alignment of the value system are some of the things that I found to be interesting ingredients for at least what has worked for me.

Pankaj: I am a rookie entrepreneur, still learning from these conversations. But one of the questions I find from almost every entrepreneur I have met or even successful business people is that this question about should I continue doing it or not? Or, should I move on? Or, should I keep hanging in? And then we start defining people, ‘ok this person is not letting it go, this is a zombie startup’ or, on the other hand, someone stays in and it becomes a big thing. Help me understand: how do you approach such questions? And how have you approached this in your career as an entrepreneur?

Ashish: So, in my career as an entrepreneur, so Junglee, we got lucky. In that, we were at the right place at the right time, we were solving a problem that was interesting, somebody came along and said, ‘let’s buy you out’ and we sold. Now one can ask a question, ‘why did you not keep building?’ which is a proxy of what you were saying because walking away from something whether one walks away because the money was good or whether one walks away because one decided that the business is not going away, is not going forward, it is still walking away. So, at one level, it is the same kind of decision and then at Tavant, we had started a SaaS company which we then converted into a services company. This was circa 2000 and we realized that the SaaS business, it was very early for the SaaS business and also our idea was not at the right place at the right time. So, in that one, we actually walked away from the business and converted it into a regular old services company and the company is doing very well, thanks to the leadership of the CEO Sarvesh (Mahesh). So they were both examples of walking away and ironically Helion falls in that same category also. We are not raising any more money.

How do I look at this? I think there is no right answer, that is first and foremost because it is a judgment call and there is no way to build a parallel universe to figure out, what would it have been otherwise? So, I think the biggest thing is that one has to make sure that the people who are taking the call are bought into that decision and whether or not that decision is right or wrong, we will never know, so one has to be at peace with it. So, I know, several people have told me that, ‘Hey, you should have continued to build Junglee because it could have become a very large enterprise’. Maybe the answer is yes, maybe we could have gone to nothing, so I don’t know.

So, I am sorry, I don’t have a very good answer to your question other than the fact that believe your own answer, keeping in mind the trade-offs that you are willing to make because it is a very, very personal question. It is as personal as whether you should do a startup. Not everybody should do a startup, there are 99% of the world is happy not being an entrepreneur. It’s not because they are wrong and that 1% is right, it is different strokes for different folks and lot of things go into it. Can my family afford the continued price that a startup exacts? Whether it is time, whether it is money, whether it is attention away from kids, parents, whatever else it is. Very important factor, would I rather have some money in my bank, if we are talking of selling a company or would I rather play for larger stakes?

One of the people I worked with once told me that, I think small, I meaning me, I think small. Because I was telling him, ‘Hey, you’ll make a 100 million dollars’ and he said, ‘well, that’s not the reason I am in this game’. Whereas for me, it was a very logical thing to do which was to take that exit. So I think it is an intensely personal question. What I would say, however is that, one should listen to the people around you to ask, what would they do but more importantly, why would they do what they did because what would they do is very easy to say. The reasons behind why they would they do will give one material to then think about whether I have considered all the factors? So, if somebody tells me, ‘hey, I would exit this company’, that is not so interesting.

What is interesting is to find out, why would you exit this company, Pankaj? And if you tell me, because I think that you are going to get eaten up by Amazon and so on and so forth, now I have more material to factor into my judgment. I would talk to a bunch of people around me, not take their opinions on what they would do but rather factor in the reasons for why they would do what they would do (and) then take my own call.

Pankaj: I think I completely understand what you are saying and I think I agree with it because of the point you mentioned about the understanding ‘why’. Decision-making frameworks are different for different people. There is context.

Before I transition into your role as a bystander, why did you become an entrepreneur again? Is there something else that we discuss a lot, so-called ‘serial entrepreneurship’? I was like serial killer or something.

Ashish: Reasons are very similar.

Pankaj: So why did you become an entrepreneur again?

Ashish: So, clearly the decision to leave Amazon from a financial perspective was a stupid decision. And like I’d said right in the beginning, most of the things that I have done are not very deliberate. I ended up becoming an entrepreneur again because five of us were talking about this idea and we all liked it and we thought, ‘ok, so might as well go do it’. So, a combination of excitement, some measure of naivety, clearly it was not such a good idea, we figured out in months that it was a bad idea. So that excitement, naivety, also there is a different level of adrenaline that comes in the early journeys of a startup and I like that. And it is very important to acknowledge that it is being done for the fun of that portion because from a financial perspective, it might result in nothing. So I find that at least for me, if that problem is not exciting and Helion started for the same reason. I moved from the US to here and it took a bunch of time to raise money and there were four of us that were pounding the pavement to raise the money, so it was not easy. But then nothing is ever easy. But it was again for the same reason. The excitement of doing that thing was the primary reason.

Pankaj: That explains it.

Ashish: And there is some hope that excitement will be correlated to value but I would be incorrect if I told you that it was the potential value of the, what was being created, that was the fun. It was the excitement of trying to do that, which was the primary driver.

Pankaj: Let’s shift gears. Your role as an angel investor or a partner with entrepreneurs is equally fascinating if anyone were to look at the entrepreneurs or the entrepreneurial teams that you have been a part of. What I want to understand from you, Ashish, are a few things. What works and what doesn’t work, very broadly but in particular, so when you decide to work with an entrepreneur, what is that decision-making all about?

Ashish: So, some of it is looking at the people who are involved, coming to a conclusion whether these are people that I think and again time will tell us that are going to be able to pull off what they want to do. I am also particularly biased in favour of going after spaces that are somewhat early because there is room to make mistakes. There are people who are experts in spaces and they are comfortable going into spaces that are late because they understand spaces very deeply. I don’t understand too many spaces very deeply. So as a result, I am reluctant to go after ideas that are very narrowly focused because there is less room to make errors and there is more depth of knowledge required. I prefer ideas where the space is early, for example, Daksh was one of the first companies in the BPO space. There people who are strong on first principles, intellectual honesty, hard work, listening to the customers, can adapt to a market which is in itself very nascent. And, therefore, they are at par with anybody else. And, therefore, a good athlete has a good chance of winning that race. Whereas if you are looking for specialists, that is not something that is my sweet spot. So, I am biased, therefore, in that way.

And market size, of course. Now market size is a confusing thing especially in India because very few markets look like they will fundamentally be large. And that comes down to how much money you put in versus what is the size of exit you want to get and that is the problem with a lot of the size of investments in India. If you end up putting in 50 million dollars, getting a 100 million dollar exit doesn’t work. You fundamentally need much larger exits. If you had put in five, then getting a 100 million dollar exit is fantastic for everybody. So when I say size of the market, I mean the size of the market commensurate with investments that will come in. That is another thing that is interesting. In India therefore, I end up choosing not so much necessarily identifying the size of market but rather the amount of value creation vis-à-vis how hard will it be for somebody else to replicate and does it solve a real problem?

And then I am betting on the fact that the market will grow because the problem is interesting and it is hard for somebody else to just come in. So there the framework is slightly different as compared to a US company where you can indeed look at an existing market size which is large enough but that I personally find a harder exercise to do in India, so I go back one building block lower, that is it defensible and does it solve a real problem for somebody?

Pankaj: We also keep hearing, you know, idea maybe good or bad but entrepreneur matters; idea may fail, entrepreneur will always win. Also help us understand things through the India lens Ashish, right. So who is this quintessential Indian entrepreneur?

Ashish: The quintessential Indian entrepreneur, I don’t know because the whole space is evolving so quickly that the nature of the people in the business is changing very quickly also. So, I don’t think there is a quintessential Indian entrepreneur. I don’t know what else to say there. I can tell you what are some of the things that I think, make gear somebody up for success over others. Some of them are as I was talking about before, intellectual honesty, the ability to work hard, the ability to put the company ahead of themselves. Some other things that I would throw into the mix, one is outbound skills because somebody in the team needs to be able to sell the company to investors, sell the company to recruits, sell the company to customers, so there has to be somebody who has outbound skills. It is very essential whether it is an engineering product or whatever because sales is part of everything, recruiting, generation, revenue, bla, bla, bla. So one is outbound skills and that I think is very important.

Finding people who have grit in that, have they struggled through some adverse circumstances somewhere in the past because adverse circumstances are going to arrive, that is for sure. Matter is when, not if. And in India, particularly, I also end up looking for, do they have appreciation of cash. Now, that is a very dangerous one to call out because there are several companies in India that are highly valued precisely because they have no appreciation for cash. And I don’t, therefore, quite know, how to reconcile this last conundrum. And I think, there one way that I do reconcile it but I am not totally bought into my reconciliation is that, if someone has extraordinarily high fundraising skills, the market is, especially in ‘winner takes all’ kinds of categories. One can compensate for the inability to deal with cash, with the ability to raise large amounts of cash. Fundamentally, if you ask me, I am not at peace with that trade-off, so, therefore, I struggle with that last one and I still believe that somebody who has respect for cash and ability to make sure that they understand how much cash is getting spent is, somebody I am more naturally biased to. But like I said, I can argue against myself in (the) Indian context there.

Pankaj: One of the other things is, does one has to be really nasty to be successful?

Ashish: I think that is not at all the case.

Pankaj: And I am asking that question and this is the culture question. And I used to track the Infosyses, Wipros of the world, Murthys, Premjis and all that. And now, of course, it is the next generation. I keep picking these things. So the way you talk, internally and outside, so this thing of being cool and this thing of being nasty, there was this beautiful article someone wrote on about Virat Kohli and how he epitomises and he reflects this generational shift wherein great examples are about people who are nasty in that sense, right, and they are obscenely successful. How do you explain something like this to someone who is wanting to be a new entrepreneur and is looking around for examples? This is a little philosophical question but I have seen this percolate to the culture of organisations, is why I am asking this question.

Ashish: So, fortunately, if we just look around us in the Indian ecosystem, there are innumerable examples of individuals that I believe are very fine people and not just in my squishy thing but non-nasty. They are polite, they are respectful, they are not putting on a veneer. At the risk of naming names, you meet Deep Kalra, you meet Sanjeev Bikhchandani or Hitesh. They are as successful by any measure, as entrepreneurs can get and they are pleasures to be with. And I am not just saying this because we are friends but I hear this from, repeatedly, from the ecosystem also. And there are many, many, many, many more. So clearly one doesn’t need to be nasty to be successful. At least we have evidence that allows us to be non-philosophical about that assertion.

Why does this belief system get about, I really don’t know. I think sometimes being firm and direct gets conflated with being nasty and that is also sometimes, I think people who are firm and direct sometimes get branded as being nasty because we do have a challenge in our Indian cultural ethos where we have a lot of trouble saying ‘no’ and somebody who says no can sometimes be perceived as being nasty. So, I don’t know how much of this comes from mislabeling a behaviour which otherwise is not acceptable. I do believe that people have to be direct, they have to be firm and if that means they get labelled ‘nasty’, so be it.

But, truly being nasty for the heck of it, I don’t see why that would be a reason why people would succeed. I actually think that there are strong evidences, if you read Good to Great, for example, to the extent you can believe that research, they have a consistent theme that the people who come out ahead are people who are not nasty and by the way that is true of the guys who run Google, the guy who runs Amazon and the list goes on and on, so it is not about the domestic stuff. So I would actually urge folks to totally not take my word for it but do their homework. I would be surprised if they come to the conclusion. Are there examples who have succeeded by being nasty? There are examples of everything out there!

Why does this lack of nastiness, I think, work in the long run? People matter, when most people like to be treated well, I doubt anybody likes to be treated badly. So if one is actually respectful of people, I think you will build a longer set of folks who will speak well of you, who will do well by you, who will want to work with you and most companies at the end of the day are people. So I don’t see why it is a more complicated argument than just that. In individual sports, I can imagine, even there I struggle by the way. If I am let’s say, a tennis player or a golf player where the only person I have to deal with is a set of five people, maybe I can afford to be nastier. I don’t see how one can be an unreasonable person in the context of a cricket team, so one probably has to be exceptional to get over that handicap, is the way I would see it.

Pankaj: I give it to you. Final two questions Ashish, quick ones. One is, I mean, if we don’t talk Flipkart with you, it will not be complete – biggest exit. But I don’t want to focus on details and anything else. I just want to understand one thing from you, especially since you have been part of that journey or at least entered that journey much before, very early on. If you were to pick one or two signals that kind of explain this success that followed later, what would those things be?

Ashish: Got it. So, if I understand your question when I tagged along? I was brought into the deal by Subrata (Mitra) and Abhishek (Goyal) at Accel and I came along because both of those guys, I have a lot of respect for and when I met Sachin and Binny, they to me were very appealing because they fit a lot to the characteristics that I was talking about. If your question was, did I have a sense that it would become so big? The answer is absolutely not, I had no clue how big this is going to become. I seem to remember the discussions were, maybe this can become worth 100 million dollars. So, I don’t know if I have a good answer to your question. I had no clue.

Pankaj: Ok, not necessarily, whether it will become that big but in terms of what you saw and remember the most from this entrepreneurial team.

Ashish: Sure. So I think one of it was the team. I would also actually give a lot of credit to Lee (Fixel) of Tiger and this is my perspective by the way. Blind man and the elephant, each blind person sees only one part of the elephant and I was only peripherally involved, so I could have missed many parts of the elephant. The part of the elephant that I saw and I also would like to call out is, I think, credit to Sachin and Binny for buying into a very large vision and also a lot of credit to Lee for helping everybody around the table see a much larger dream than one started out and then backing it with a lot of money because large dreams often take a lot of resources. That was one of the lessons at least from that whole journey that came to me where he is one of the interesting examples in my mind, Lee, of when an investor can meaningfully change the size of dream and then credit to the rest of the people to say, ‘Ok, we will go for a big dream’, because it comes with more risk, it comes with more pain and so and so forth. So, that is one thing that stands out to me.

Pankaj: Yes, that is absolutely clear and I agree with you. Final thing, Ashish. This is philosophical. What does wealth mean to you?

Ashish: Oh my god. Ok, this is a very, very hard one. It is both an asset and liability. One of the things that it means is the ability to do what I would like to do. The hard part is figuring out what I like to do because I was doing it even when I didn’t have ‘wealth’. I left my job when our family income, together, my wife and I, was $60,000 per annum which doesn’t go that far. So that has not gotten in the way of doing stuff but that is indeed one of the things that I think wealth means to me, which is the ability to do what one wants as opposed to what one doesn’t. I think another part of it does mean and I don’t mean this in any altruistic sense because I don’t believe in altruism. I think, just the model of selfishness helps explain why one should do all kinds of things, including helping other people because one gets joy out of it and one doesn’t even know whether it will have good consequences for the other people like, mosquito nets in Africa, it ended up in people killing fish because they started fishing with those mosquito nets. So, altruism is a very dangerous thing which is why I would rather come from a selfish frame of reference.

Doing things that other people want to do, so not only what you want to do but enabling other people to do things what they want to do. So if somebody wants to start a company or if somebody wants to go do something, I think the fun of having some wealth is to be able to not only have your own journey but vicariously join other peoples’ journeys because the kind of energy that comes out of being party to doing things that people want to do, innately, that joy is just amazing. So, it is just the variant of the first one. Those are two things that come to me.

Pankaj: Final question. It’s infectious, every time I meet you and I don’t mean to question and you know and get the secret out  What does one of the things with wealth and everybody is seeking, happiness, right? So what is your definition and even the legacy question? What are these things? What do you think of these things?

Ashish: Legacy I don’t understand because I don’t think that big or that far, maybe. Wealth and joy, I think are totally un-correlated because if wealth was a reason for being happy, the data would be very different than what it is outside. People who commit suicide are more often people who are wealthy. There is plenty of evidence that they are uncorrelated. What to me it means is bringing down expectations and this is going to sound very whacky but I think the whole duality issue that one comes up within Hinduism is very powerful. They are all the same things by the way. I don’t think there are too many concepts, the number of concepts is very small. So being on this dual edge, so as an entrepreneur, you need to believe in yourself yet you have to be willing to replace yourself, you need to conserve cash yet you should spend cash on the right things, you should be very aggressive yet you should plan for the downside. These are all very contradictory but the fact is that is the job of an entrepreneur and I think it is no different than all of our jobs on a day-to-day life which is what I mean by the principles are all the same.

So, should we be trying and creating wealth? In my mind, the answer is no, we should try and create value because value then creates wealth. So, if I solve a problem that is in the logistics space and if it is important to somebody, money will come out of it whereas if I try and get money, the shortest path is to go and rob a bank. So, I think one needs to pursue value in cognisance of the fact that wealth will follow. So, if I am making sense at all…

Pankaj: Yes you are.

Ashish: And joy is also, I think, very similar where I don’t want to pursue joy because that is a destructive process in its own right, so something else needs to be pursued of which joy is a side effect. And one of them, like I said before is, what is a value creation exercise that I truly feel passionate about? If I pursue that, joy will come out as a side effect. So I think the quest is to figure out what can one do consciously and then all the rest is side effect. And if one can figure out what one can do consciously, so, for example, humility, I think one should not pursue humility because if you try and pursue humility, you destroy humility. A person who tries to pursue humility becomes artificially humble. Am I making sense?

Pankaj: Yes, you are.

Ashish: But instead if one tries to pursue intellectual honesty and one tries to pursue empathy, humility comes out as a side effect and those are two that you can actually pursue. I can make a conscious effort to listen to the other person, that is empathy. I can consciously try to make sure I accept all the facts and if I am listening to the world and I am accepting of reality, I will very quickly figure out that I have nothing to be proud about, it does not take too much and humility will come out as a logical consequence because what other choice does one have, if one accepts the rest of the fact? I am sorry I wandered off on a tangent but joy is another one of those things, I don’t think that can be pursued, consciously. Either what one can do is make a choice to look at the constructive part of what is going on and I am not able to do this all the time, lest I communicate the wrong, this is intellectual comprehension, execution is much poorer.

Pankaj: But, so beautifully put, Ashish, and one of the things I always believe in, conversations is what I also chase and focus on, stories are by-products as a journalist. So, I think the term what you used is not by-product but the consequence of it.

Ashish: But ‘by-product’ is a wonderful word also.

Pankaj: So great talking to you, Ashish, and godspeed with everything. Thank you.

Ashish: Same to you. Thank you.

(Kanika Berry has a Masters in Business Administration and has been a communications specialist for over eight years.)

Ananth Narayanan, CEO, Myntra on protecting “the founder’s mentality”

India’s booming startup ecosystem has been mostly about the founders and the investors writing cheques to fund their ideas. But building a startup takes a lot more than just founders and investors. It takes exceptionally talented individuals who take the leap of faith to become part of these startup journeys as employers.

And while these professionals may not be the founders, they are highly entrepreneurial.

In this week’s Outliers Podcast I sat down with former McKinsey consultant Ananth Narayanan who’s been the CEO of Myntra since October 2015. What sets him apart as an outlier is his deep passion and sense of ownership for Myntra. So much that it’s difficult to tell that he’s not a founder.

Thanks to Kanika Berry for help with transcription of the conversation, which is produced lightly edited below:

Pankaj: Welcome to Outliers. This is a podcast with Outliers. We have had very interesting conversations, people from all walks of life, a lot of them business corporate leaders as well. I am really excited to sit down today with Ananth Narayanan who is the CEO of Myntra. Welcome to the podcast, Ananth.

Ananth: Thank you. Excited to be here.

Pankaj: Good. So, why are you an Outlier? I think the first time I was with The Economic Times and I was as usual tracking new companies and around that time I think you were appointed. One of the first things that hit me is, a lot of people talk about consultants and whether there can be good execution leaders… that was something that stayed with me. We haven’t had a chance to talk about that. This will be one the things we should refresh.

Ananth: Sure.

Pankaj: Let’s start from the start, Ananth. Tell me a bit about where did you grow up and what’s the foundation core?

Ananth: Sure. So I grew up in Chennai… in Madras as we used to call it at that point… sort of a very normal upbringing, I guess. I went to Vidya Mandir for my schooling, then went to engineering at the University of Madras. Then, like most people, went abroad, went to the University of Michigan. I always wanted to be an engineer and I always wanted to be in auto. My dad used to work in Hindustan Motors, so I had a fascination for cars and auto motors, always.

After Michigan, my choices were to join Cummins, which is an engine manufacturer, which I was very excited about or an unknown company for me at that time — McKinsey, which I had never heard of. I had to actually Google McKinsey at that point… I did a summer with them because they had come to interview. So, I actually joined as a manufacturing business analyst at McKinsey in the year 2000 and that was the first manufacturing business analyst that they ever hired. That’s when they started the manufacturing practice.

A mentor of mine called Felix Brooke started the practice at that point; he’s long since retired. So, I joined him, I joined the Cleveland office in McKinsey and the reason is, I could have joined Detroit but if you are half German, half Indian and in Detroit from the University of Michigan, you are a perfect fit. I was two of those three, I figured I shouldn’t join Detroit, so I joined Cleveland. It was the head of the operations practice at that time. I always wanted to stay for two years only. I wanted to do consulting for a couple of years and get into a real job. And you know that two turned out to be 15. It turned out to be a long time.

But the reason that worked for me is even in McKinsey, I was a bit, I know entrepreneurial is used very loosely but I felt like I was quite entrepreneurial, in the sense, I started there, three years and I went to China without ever having been to China. I’d never stepped foot in China, I’d never traveled to China yet my wife and I decided and we upped our… you know we gave up our apartment, packed our bags, moved and went and spent three years in China. And at that time, I didn’t know the language, I didn’t know any people there, I just went and joined the McKinsey office, helped with the Global Sourcing Center, starting the Global Sourcing Center for McKinsey at that point.

You saw, this was 2002-2005 and you saw a lot of entrepreneurial energy… multiple friends of mine incidentally left at that time and joined Tencent. They have done considerably well for themselves… you know, it was a great time to be in China because you saw all the entrepreneurial energy around you and I learnt a lot. Being in a different culture, working in a different culture, adapting to something that you that don’t know, was one thing that I learnt.

Pankaj: That’s entrepreneurial.

Ananth: Yes. So it was correct. I then came back to Chicago and the reason I came back to Chicago was my wife wanted to do business school. So we came back to Chicago and I spent five years there and I got elected partner there which is a milestone in the McKinsey context.

And then again I got bored. I wanted to do something else and I wanted to move. And even though there were a lot of people who advised me not to do it, as a two year partner, you know when I was doing well in Chicago, I moved to Chennai. And I moved to Chennai because I wanted to start the office there in Chennai, a couple of other colleagues, Ramesh and Rajeev had actually moved from Mumbai and it seemed like a great group of people to go start this with. Again from a risk-taking stand point, as a two-year principal in McKinsey or a two-year partner in McKinsey, it is the worst time to move because you know, you have momentum, you have clients.

But I felt like, you know, if I didn’t make the move and I didn’t change something, I would sort of regret it five years from now or 10 years from now, if I went back and looked back, it would be a regret. So I said, why not move and then I moved, I knew nobody. We started the Chennai office. In fact, I still remember, the first few days, we didn’t have an office, we had to work out of various peoples’ homes, then we finally found office space. And the office is doing terrific now.

 

I was there for five years, we built the office up. I did auto work and Chennai was a good place for auto work. So it was great fun, very entrepreneurial, we hired the first set of people, first set of clients. Lot of folks, well, they may have known McKinsey but never worked with McKinsey before, so it was fantastic to sort of do that.

I got elected senior partner there which was again a milestone in McKinsey and then lo and behold: two years into senior partner, I left. And this was three and a half years ago when I actually joined Myntra, which again at that time a lot of my mentors would have said was a bad move because one you make senior partner at McKinsey, you stay on.

But it’s actually turned out to be a great move. Again the reason for doing it, the ‘why’ behind it was: I wanted to try something new. I told you, every two years I wanted to leave. This seemed like a great opportunity. I had missed IT, I had missed telecom, I felt e-commerce was an industry that was going to be built and I wanted to be part of it, right! And when I did it, I didn’t know anything about fashion, anything about technology and certainly I’d never run a large business. I had done entrepreneurial things inside McKinsey in terms of starting new practices, starting new offices, etc. but I’d never run anything in scale.

Pankaj: How do you learn new things every time you make transitions?

Ananth: I think one is by talking to a lot of people in that particular space and listening well. I think listening well is an important skill, it’s underrated by many people but if you actually listen and you spend your first month talking to a lots of people and listening, you very quickly come up to speed with what’s working and also what the real problems are. And if you actually listen well, people will open up and talk to you about it. I think that’s one.

The key is not to have an ego, you ask the dumb questions because you want to know and you want to understand. You know, most people recognise genuineness, so if you are genuinely curious about something, want to understand it and you are not afraid to ask, it’s a great way to learn. Unfortunately, the more senior you become, the harder sometimes it feels to do it but I actually have never felt that, so I feel like even today I learn a lot and there’s almost no meeting where I actually don’t learn something. So, you ask the questions, I think that’s one big thing – ask questions and listen really carefully, that’s helped me.

The second is surround yourself with great people who know more than you. Again you know, very easy to say, hard to do. But in the Myntra system, when I came in, there was a set of folks who’d all been here for seven years, six years, five years. Mukesh Bansal who was actually the founder had just moved to Flipkart but was quite active, Sachin (Bansal) and Binny (Bansal) were also very active and just listening to all of them and hearing them out and understanding from their experiences really helped me learn about how e-commerce as an industry is run and I think the first few months of just doing that was invaluable for me in getting my own perspectives and saying, ‘how do you run this differently?’

Pankaj: One of things, Ananth, I always actually wanted to ask you is, you have not been an entrepreneur but you have had the first row seat when it comes to entrepreneurship and not just that, you have been able to work across transitions and with entrepreneurs and the names that you talked about are some of the great entrepreneurs, some of the best. What are the lessons because this thing about, everybody has to become an entrepreneur, everybody has to get to a startup but this is equally important what you are doing. So what are the key lessons?

Ananth: I would say that separated into two things. I think there is a question that do you act like an entrepreneur or are you an entrepreneur? And I think they are two different things. I would say I have always acted like an entrepreneur. The fact that I don’t have risk capital is one small element of it. But in all of the businesses like the ones in Myntra or Jabong, if you run it, you have to treat it like your own business, you have to treat like you own the business and that you are risking your business every time.

If you don’t have that ownership, that’s very hard. That’s one of the big lessons I learnt from all of the three people that I mentioned. All of them had enormous ownership, independent of what holding they had. They felt like they owned the business end to end. They took accountability for it. I think that’s one huge element of entrepreneurship which is independent of whether you are the actual entrepreneur in terms of risk capital, act like one and that makes you successful which means taking complete ownership and accountability from Day 1. Not worrying about somebody else’s problem.

I entered Myntra at a time when we had ups and downs. There was no point in saying, ‘ was not my problem’. You have to sort of immediately get into it and say, ‘you own the problem’, independent of whether you got it, inherited it, happened because of external circumstances, it doesn’t matter, what matters is how you deal with it. So if you have an ‘owner’ mindset and I actually by the way think it’s an important lesson, Pankaj, not just for people who are entrepreneurs or CEOs or whatever else, I think it’s important for every person in every organisation to feel like you own it which is something that I think, we try very hard and it’s not just the ESOPs, it’s the way you treat and listen to people, it’s the way you inculcate them saying, ‘they can make a big difference to the organisation’. If you feel that and if you have hundreds of entrepreneurs, that’s what creates great culture. That’s what makes a company entrepreneurial not just a person entrepreneurial. I don’t know if that makes sense. Lots of ownership and accountability and making sure that you feel like an entrepreneur independent of risk capital, I think that’s an important thing. And I think that you know, seeing Sachin, Binny, Mukesh, at least all in action, you certainly see that.

Pankaj: I am sure you would have read, BCG, some few years back came up with this thing called ‘The Founder’s Mentality’. Was that BCG’s?

Ananth: It was Bain’s.

Pankaj: It was Bain & Company. And, it created a lot of debates as usual and I remember talking to Subroto Bagchi of Mindtree, many years ago and the whole thing was from what you are saying, I am just picking a thread. How do you keep that Founder’s Mentality alive in a company and especially with the approach that you are talking about?

Ananth: So, I would say, may be four things for a Founder’s Mentality. I think the first is, you have to role model it, so it has to start with you. If you don’t think of yourself as founder like, an entrepreneur like and behave that way, I think people pick up cues; most folks are very intelligent. So, that’s one. First is start from the top, role model the behavior.

Second, I think is, you have to reward risk taking by definition, entrepreneurial journeys are risky. If you actually penalise every risk, then the organisation quickly picks up on it. So how do you celebrate failures? How do you ensure that you learn from every failure so you don’t repeat it? I think that balance is a hard one to achieve. So that’s number 2.

Number 3 is you hire people for learnability and risk taking. So when you look for the people, you look for things that they have learnt. Have they done a startup and failed? Have they had failures in life? Have they actually picked up and won with it? So you look for the right mindset in the people that you actually hire. Because no one person is going to build a Founder’s Mentality in an organisation, I think a team will.

 

Myntra has, may be, 2,000 odd people. If your top 100-150 folks don’t have the Founder’s Mentality or at least, a majority of them don’t, then it’s actually fairly difficult for the rest of the organisation. So that’s number 3.

I think number 4 in many ways is actually reward and I mean that in the best possible way. So startups work because a large part of your value creation is because of the stock that you actually have. You need to be compensated well but we don’t try and compensate the best. You would not pay as high as your top 10% in terms of quartile. But you do actually have to be in the top 10% in terms of stock and value creation because that then aligns incentives because you actually spread the value creation around.

Incidentally, Flipkart as a Group, Myntra for sure, have always had that philosophy. So really ensuring that everybody who comes into Myntra is not just a name but actually in terms of stock and stock options. Feel that way is the fourth big thing to actually create that.

In my mind, all of those four, working in tandem and reinforcing one another create the Founders Mentality.

Pankaj: And the other day when we were talking and we were discussing, in this space itself about the online fashion, there are a lot of new things happening, there are a lot of old things that are not working and things like that. So how do you live through these cycles of disruption? And if you can illustrate that with an example, that will help people understand.

Ananth: So I think there’s benefits to not being from the industry because you tend to think of it differently. I will start with a classic example. Fashion typically is in two seasons – you have spring summer season and you have an autumn winter season. We live in India, we live in the tropics, actually there is no season, I mean it’s hot, hotter, and hottest. There is some variations but it’s mostly summer with a little bit of spring and very little autumn, I don’t know, winter. Yet every buy, how we think of about it, all of the industry operates in these two seasons. So one of the things in Myntra, we asked ourselves is, ‘why do we need to do it that way?’ Right. ‘Why can’t we have 20 seasons?’, ‘why can’t you actually have monthly a different thing that actually comes up?’ So that was one question.

 

The second is, historically, fashion supply chains and lead times have been very long. You know, it takes two years to produce a garment because you know, it comes of the run way, you book the fabric, you’d finalise the design, blah, blah, blah. We again asked ourselves, ‘why do you need two years, when you actually can re-think the supply chain?’ These are some fundamental questions and we created a brand called Moda Rapido and another one called Here&Now, which is completely an AI-based brand.

What were the principles behind it? We said, machine vision is getting better, compute power is getting better, we have these fundamental questions on fashion, so why not look and make sure that we accurately identify trends. Why don’t we have machines design the garment? Why don’t we re-think the supply chain especially since we have the advantage of being in India, where a lot of textile manufacturing happens, to think of a 45-day supply chain instead of a two-year supply chain and why don’t we create intelligent fast fashion? And that is starting to disrupt a lot of how fashion actually operates.

Now in my view, 10 years from now, we will all be looking back and saying, 80%of the fashion operates the way we are actually describing how Moda Rapido does, even though it seems like an outlier. I think it will no longer be an outlier, it will be mainstream. In 10 years from now, maybe we will think of something very different. But the key is actually in fashion and perhaps in every industry to go in and ask: why is it being done a certain way? What are the original assumptions that hold true? (That’s) Number 1.

Number 2 is to ask what about technology can actually disrupt it. And there are two fundamental elements. One is, there is lot more data available than there used to be. Second is compute power is much better and third is algorithms are getting easier for people to use. So if you ask fundamental questions and then say technology is what it is and actually it’s accelerating everything, then you come up with some fascinating answers, so fashion and disrupting fashion is one big core of what we at Myntra and Jabong want to do, right, but we are doing it based on asking these fundamental questions.

Pankaj: The other thing which I was very interested to know more about is: are there mythbusters especially when it comes to this quintessential buyer? So what are such things?

Ananth: I think there are many, I mean we could have an entire conversation around the Indian fashion consumer but I will give you a couple of things. The first myth is that people in Tier II and Tier III towns shop very differently from people in Tier I towns. Actually the internet is the great leveller. In my view, the people with consumer internet access across towns shop very similarly. Our basket size and our brand mix is no different in a Tier II town, Tier III town than it is in the top 20 cities. That at least I found quite surprising.

The second thing that I am seeing now is the first 100 million customers that came on were mostly urban, were mostly male customers, were mostly in the sort of 18-35 type range. What I am finding now is the next 100 million customers that are coming online and are looking for fashion are more women, they are more from Tier II, Tier III towns, they are older, incidentally and therefore have more spending power than the sort of the college student who had internet access. So as we think about assortment and selection in fashion, we are starting to think very differently about what we do for the next set of customers.

So for example, vernacular is a big bet we are going to make, voice is a big bet we are going to make because the next hundred million are non-native English speakers. Or as you think about older folks who are actually buying fashion, how do you design the assortment for different sensibilities? So I think that’s the other thing which is changing dramatically which may not be most intuitive.

The third is actually trends and fashion, in general. It used to be defined by two-three big fashion influencers. That is changing. Fashion is becoming much more social, brands are being defined by what your friends think of it as opposed to what the brand director thinks of it. So as we think of brand building in the future, we are starting to think through how do we use social media to build brands very differently, how do we use influencers very differently, and how do we use the peer group very differently, in terms of how you actually shop and create a brand. So brand building is actually becoming more democratized which also fits in with our own mission of using technology re-democratized fashion. I think I see those three as things that are just new and different that are happening.

Pankaj: I never thought… especially the next 100 million that way. What I am trying to understand is a typical Netflix consumer or a buyer, a Flipkart or a Myntra buyer – are they same people?

Ananth: Yes and no. So, if you look at digital products, so the typical life cycle of a customer, digital customer used to be about 4-4.5 years. So, what I mean by that is, they get a smart phone, they start using WhatsApp, then they typically buy products that are digital products, so you buy a ticket for railways, you buy a Bookmyshow ticket, you start to book hotel rooms. Then over a period of time, you buy standardised products, so you buy something reasonably standard like a mobile phone, you know the plan, you know the price, you basically are looking either for a discount or for a distribution reach, whatever is convenience. Then you typically move into more involved categories like fashion where actually it’s personal, size and fit matters, how it looks on you matters etc. Incidentally, content consumption is actually the beginning of the journey, so Netflix, Hotstar, all of these are the middle of the journey.

Then, slightly before buying products is your apps like Uber, Ola, all of that. So that’s the digital journey that a typical consumer goes through. In India, the journey used to be 3.5-4 years, it’s now shrinking to 12-18 months. So the adoption of technology in the consumer journey is actually going up. That time frame is now shrinking to 12-18 months, so I think, therefore, there’s lots of opportunity, there’s lots of threats because you know, it’s a different customer, they think differently. I think it’s an exciting time to be a consumer, it’s actually an even more exciting time to be a consumer internet business serving these guys.

Pankaj: It’s almost like, you have to create a new Myntra every couple of years.

Ananth: Yes, you do. Unless you re-invent it, somebody will re-invent it for you. You know, you talked about Founder’s Mentality, you talked about risks, I think being able to at every point of time, independent of your market share, independent of your market position. Think of yourself as an underdog, is really important for companies to survive long-term. You have to learn to punch above your weight, you have to learn to sort of, be the underdog, even if you are not the underdog so that the mindset is one of hunger, innovation and risk taking.

Pankaj: And feeling like an underdog doesn’t necessarily mean in terms of confidence?

Ananth: Not at all. It means in terms of being paranoid about opportunities and going after them in an aggressive way. It means that you don’t sit pretty on your laurels, it means that every quarter, every half a year, every year, you ask yourself, ‘what else should I be doing to disrupt my own business?’, it means never being happy with mediocrity. I think it’s all of those things, it’s not about being more or less confident at all. It’s much more about how do you actually create this environment where you are paranoid in a positive manner.

Pankaj: On a more final note, Ananth, there are instances where things didn’t work for you, as a professional across the assignments that you’ve had. What did you learn and what were some of the toughest one in that sense?

Ananth: So, I think, many things. First philosophically, I think both failure and success are the same. At some level, they are two sides of the same coin, you either feel a high or a low, both are not particularly good for you. So I think, my view is, I think you have to sort of, learn to detach yourself from both extremes. Hard to do, meditation helps, I think having a family and friends helps… But I think it’s really important because I think, all of our lives is a cycle. I think there will be positive cycle, negative cycles.

You think, if I go back and say, what are specific lessons that I have learnt, there was a time in McKinsey where I felt that everything was going wrong. I mean I’d moved offices, I wasn’t getting any clients, you know, whoever I had, I didn’t particularly liked working with, so it was a tough time. And I think, the thing that I learned in that is a lot of it was mindset because I had got into a negative cycle, personally. It kept deteriorating. Therefore, I think, just recognizing that we go through cycles, recognising that you are in a down cycle and thus sort of correcting it, is really important for me, in terms of failure because you know, sometimes outcomes will be what they are.

You can’t control outcomes but you can certainly control how you feel about the outcomes. So I think that’s the big thing for me in terms of what would you do differently. So every time I have had a failure, my lesson learnt is, can I come out of it faster than anyone else? And that’s been really helpful for me because it’s a mind thing and I think the more you get at it, the better off you are. The same by the way is true for success. If you keep on thinking about successes and that becomes an obsession, which is also not a good thing. So I think both sides are bad for you.

Pankaj: Final one. What is science fiction view of things that you do today if we were to think of what you do now or anything? How far can you go?

Ananth: You know, very far in my view. So you could get through something where you have a complete virtual reality store, where you are able to actually try on clothes in the virtual environment, it fits you perfectly, you know exactly what the look is and then you actually are able to click on it and it actually gets 3D manufactured and delivered to you in a 2-3 hour time frame. Could it happen? Sure. Are there need states for that now? Absolutely not. But that’s not how science fiction or movies work, right. So I think there’s lots you can do.

Parts of imagining this possibility is while not all parts of it may happen simultaneously, I think some parts will get accelerated. So we often by the way, since you asked this question, we often go through one exercise where we say, ‘If you were to do a film 30 years from now, what would that film on Myntra look like?’ So we had this one offsite with the top 30-40 people and we asked ourselves that and people came up with some incredible stuff because they actually start imagining and movies are usually a good way to think of a reality, right and what will happen 10 years from now.

Pankaj: Yes, today’s science fiction is tomorrow’s reality.

Ananth: Yes, absolutely.

Pankaj: Thank you and more power to you Ananth and godspeed.

Ananth: Thank you.

(Kanika Berry has a Masters in Business Administration and has been a communications specialist for over eight years.)