Two books offer a close account of Flipkart and BigBasket's journey

Flipkart, BigBasket. Illustration: Ajay Mohanty
These are two books on start-ups, or rather what were once start-ups, with many commonalities. And yet, they are strikingly different from each other. While Saying No to Jugaad by T N Hari and M S Subramanian is, to use the writers’ own words, a “balanced biography” of BigBasket. If Dalal, who chased the Flipkart story at an utterly fascinating time in the company’s history, offers plenty of interpretations and angles, Hari and Subramanian — both insiders at BigBasket as heads of HR and analytics, respectively — narrate things as they happened.

Flipkart, founded by 20-something IITians Sachin Bansal and Binny Bansal (not related to each other), showed the way to thousands of entrepreneurs when it launched as an online bookstore in 2007 and then grew the way it did. BigBasket, founded by much older entrepreneurs, Hari Menon, V S Sudhakar, Vipul Parekh, Abhinay Choudhari and V S Ramesh, scripted a similar success story some four years later, operating out of the same city — Bangalore (now Bengaluru).

The Bansals were starting out for the first time after the third member of the team, Binny’s friend Varun Sharma, backed out under parental pressure, Dalal tells the readers. The BigBasket founders, meanwhile, had already bitten the bullet earlier and had also faced the dotcom bust.

Saying No to Jugaad: The Making of Bigbasket; Authors: T N Hari & M S Subramanian; Publisher: Bloomsbury; Price: Rs 599; Pages: 194
Even as the Bansals and Menon & Co remain the protagonists, both books refer to Amazon generously as a model for e-commerce. Lee Fixel, then a partner at American venture capital firm Tiger Global, is another common point. Fixel was for long the primary mover at Flipkart, and decided to invest in rival Grofers after a meeting with BigBasket failed to enthuse him about its asset-heavy model.

Saying No to Jugaad is by comparison informative and educative for anybody wanting to take the plunge in an e-commerce venture specialising in grocery, like BigBasket.

What makes Big Billion... interesting is Dalal’s storytelling, which begins when the Bansals were in school and later in IIT to when the biggest unicorn of the country was on the negotiating table looking for a buyer. From the founders’ fame to their loneliness through the journey, it captures all.

Big Billion Startup: The Untold Flipkart Story; Author: Mihir Dalal; Publisher: Bloomsbury; Price: Rs 699; Pages: 320
Sachin studied at DAV School in Panchkula, while Binny went to St Anne’s Convent School in adjoining Chandigarh. Sachin was a quiet and well-mannered boy with few friends and a good academic record throughout. A teacher remembers him as “rather bright but equally shy and introverted”. Anyone who knows Sachin would say that he’s still that. But he was also blunt, as an IIT batchmate recalls: “If he didn’t like something about you... he would tell you that without caring much for the consequences.” A gaming addict at one point, Sachin, described as unusually passionate and eccentric, had wanted to quit IIT to take up gaming fully, but later changed his mind.

Binny, unlike Sachin, was into sports. He was the captain of the school basketball team and played football as well. What gave Binny an advantage was his familiarity with computers from a very young age. He said in one of his interviews, “One major point of inflection in school was that I was introduced to computers in class four. It was love at first sight... I was probably the only one at school who could program.” There was nothing eccentric about Binny, who was a regular campus guy.

Dalal carefully brings out the differences in their character early on in the book. These differences came to fruition when Walmart bought a majority stake in Flipkart several years later, throwing the founders apart like nobody had imagined. On the whole, the Bansals were not remarkable in any way while at IIT Delhi. A professor notes that it is largely the mediocre and anonymous students, such as the Bansals, who excel at entrepreneurship.

In the entrepreneurship story of BigBasket, the reader hardly gets any real insights into the central characters. Rather, the book meticulously tells you about the pros and cons of the online grocery business, with anecdotes sprinkled in between to make it an interesting read. The writers point out that their effort would be worth their while if readers found some “ah” and “wow” moments in the book. And there are some moments like those — for instance, the math done on customer buying behaviour. According to Saying No to Jugaad, BigBasket knew quite early that in India 70 to 75 per cent of grocery purchase is planned at the beginning of the month, and around 20 per cent is top-up purchase made mid-month or mid-week. And 5 per cent of the purchases are from local speciality stores. While BigBasket has been servicing the planned monthly purchase, it was contemplating catering to the top-up requirements through an express service. That’s how the company ended up acquiring Delyver, the authors explain.

They go on to observe, like well-entrenched insiders, that the biggest turning point in BigBasket’s journey was the founders’ decision to stick to what they knew worked well, despite two of the biggest investors — Tiger Global and SoftBank — backing a rival model, the asset-light Grofers.

Marquee investors opting for Grofers was a loss to BigBasket, but it paled before what the Bansals, especially Sachin, went through when Kalyan Krishnamurthy, then Fixel’s man on the ground, made a comeback at Flipkart. Dalal writes that until the end of 2015, Fixel had tremendous faith in Sachin and Binny. “But the failure of Sachin’s attempted transformation of Flipkart had shaken him up. He mainly held Sachin responsible for the disaster.” The author goes on to say that during his second stint, Krishnamurthy was in no mood for niceties. When a colleague asked him about his role, he replied: “I’ll run the show now… I will decide how things are to be done here.”

Sachin, who had relinquished the CEO position and had become the executive chairman, was worried about the growing influence of his former subordinate, the author reveals. His fears would soon come true. Flipkart’s Big Billion Day sales in 2016, under Krishnamurthy, managed to sell 15.5 million units compared to Amazon’s 15 million — the gap in value was bigger, Dalal writes. “Flipkart’s mojo was back.” It was time for the inevitable in the summer of 2018 when Walmart bought 77 per cent in Flipkart in a $16-billion deal after a 20-month negotiation. Sachin was now back at Sathya’s, the cheerful bar a few kilometres from his workplace that he used to frequent in Flipkart’s early years. In a telling sentence, the book captures the loneliness of its protagonist: Sachin sat quietly with his one true friend, Tapas Rudrapatna, the second employee at the startup he had founded.

The closing of the BigBasket story isn’t remotely as poignant. The book lists out the takeaways from where the firm did well and where it goofed up. Stay grounded, don’t lose the ability to be hands-on, culture is important, always start with a why, delegate but keep track, process is important, and so on.

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