YES Bank crisis: PhonePe comes to a halt, but staff keeps it up and running

Industry executives said this was an example on how to deal with adversity
On Thursday evening, PhonePe employees were looking forward to the weekend, but then they were caught by surprise when the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) placed YES Bank under moratorium.

PhonePe and its users were hit the hardest as YES Bank is the Walmart-owned payments platform’s exclusive UPI (unified payments interface) partner and the PhonePe app had to be shut down.

After a gruelling 24 hours, the PhonePe team, led by chief technology officer Rahul Chari and CEO Sameer Nigam, has fully restored UPI on the payment platform. The app is up and running again with all payment instruments enabled.

This is an engineering feat as it was a multi-location effort and the teams worked on it round the clock, according to people familiar with the matter. “He (Rahul Chari) has not slept in 24 hours and the teams were working around the clock. But to get this size of operations up and running is really amazing,” said a PhonePe team member.

Industry executives said this was an example on how to deal with adversity. PhonePe has ICICI Bank as its new partner. This was already in the works for a few months, according to sources. The firm is also in talks with other banks such as HDFC, Axis Bank, State Bank of India (SBI) and RBL Bank to become a multi-bank platform as recently mandated by the National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI), according to a person from the financial services sector.

 

 
Customers and merchant partners don’t need to change the UPI address and can continue using the existing handle, said sources.

The Bengaluru-based firm had already anticipated such a situation and put in place contingency plans to protect the company and its customers. “Otherwise, it wouldn’t have been possible to be up and running at this scale in just 24 hours,” said a team member, who did not wish to be named. “We were not running like headless chicken. The groundwork was already done and we just executed the backup plan,” said the person.

Indeed, the firm’s scale is massive, as PhonePe — which competes with rivals such as Alibaba-backed Paytm, Google Pay and Amazon Pay — is accepted as a payment option at 10 million outlets across 350 cities in India. It has 200 million registered users and does 570 million monthly transactions.

The company witnessed annualised total payments value (TPV) of $180 billion and has 10 million merchants. Last year, the app, which went live in August 2016, crossed the 5 billion transactions mark.

During the weekend, the PhonePe’s offices in Delhi, Mumbai, Pune and Bengaluru were buzzing with engineers and employees, executing the backup plan, which included coding continuously, migrating users and looking at all the touchpoints.

A majority of the firm’s 1,200 employees are engineers, and 25 per cent of them are women. Around half of the employees have been holed up at PhonePe offices since Friday, according to sources. “A lot of coffee, availability of good food and bunk beds arranged by the company kept them going,” said a person familiar with the matter. “The mood among the employees was euphoric once the job was done.”

Interestingly, on Friday, Noida-based Paytm took a dig at its rival PhonePe by inviting it to the Paytm Bank UPI platform. “It already has huge adoption and can seamlessly scale manifold to handle your business. Let’s get you back up, fast!” Paytm Payments Bank tweeted.

“Paytm even started to poach PhonePe’s customers by sending messages to its merchant partners that read ‘QR code not working? Switch to Paytm All-in-One QR code now and accept unlimited payments’,” said a person familiar with the development.

What is remarkable is that a lot of payments start-ups rallied behind PhonePe and offered help. Bipin Preet Singh, co-founder and CEO of MobiKwik, tweeted that at such a time of systemic failure in the UPI ecosystem, “We at MobiKwik extend our full support to our friends Sameer Nigam and Ashneer Grover (BharatPe co-founder) and others who are impacted by YES Bank mess. We are here to help and hope there is a quick resolution”.


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