Mihir Dalal on his new book about Flipkart's unlikely rise, and the bittersweet story behind its sale to Walmart
The story of Flipkart is the story of modern entrepreneurship in India. Journalist Mihir Dalal’s extensively researched new book, Big Billion Startup - The Untold Flipkart Story, tells one of the biggest corporate stories of modern India.
The story of Flipkart is the story of modern entrepreneurship in India. Journalist Mihir Dalal’s extensively researched new book, Big Billion Startup - The Untold Flipkart Story, tells one of the biggest corporate stories of modern India. The author spoke to Firstpost about reporting on the company, the Bansals’ unlikely rise and why the company’s sale to Walmart was bittersweet despite being mammoth.
Q. For a book about quite easily India’s biggest corporate story in recent times, what challenges did you face while researching for it? Of all the material you put together how did you choose what would stay and what wouldn’t?
One of the biggest challenges was to get accurate information about the initial part of the book – the period from 2000-2010. It was a long time ago and there are few reliable records of this period with regards to the Bansals. Also, given the general lack of solid books on Indian companies, I had to rely on a collection of news reports and commentary to locate Flipkart in the broader context of corporate India.
There were other challenges related to the characters in the book. There were so many individual agendas at play… it took extra effort to understand what was driving people like Sachin, Binny, Kalyan and Lee Fixel at various points in the book and to decipher their interpersonal equations.
About choosing the material – a certain vision developed in my mind after the initial reporting and I chose to include and exclude material based on that. For instance, while the book covers a lot of internal politics in the second half, there was quite a bit more of that which I chose to exclude. It didn’t add to one’s understanding of Flipkart; it would have only served up gossip and masala. There were certain themes that I focused on: the mindset of a pioneer and how it changes with success; the specific ambitions, anxieties and fears of India’s greatest internet entrepreneurs; the conviction that India’s time has come, that it is destined to achieve ‘greatness’ like China; what is different about the mindset of an Indian internet entrepreneur versus say, a Chinese or American founder. There were others, too.
Q. Your book is fairly detailed, but what would you say, was the one moment (be it a product, or a boardroom idea) that made Flipkart the force it eventually became and why?
I’d say you have to pick two moments. One, on the capital front. The $9-10 million investment by Tiger Global in early 2010 changed the game for Flipkart. With Lee Fixel’s entry, out went any approach of steady, gradual expansion. Chasing hyper-growth became the company’s motto. Sachin, in particular, came into his own after Fixel’s investment. The second moment would have to be the Kids advertising campaign in 2011. This was a landmark event for Flipkart and for e-commerce because it introduced a large audience (in the urban areas) to online retail. There were bigger moments later on but they wouldn’t have been possible without these two.
Q. In fiction we usually see two protagonists as contrasting personalities. In reality, were the Bansals the same? Was their eventual fallout a function of their personalities, or simply other factors at play?
Rather than contrasting, I would say they had a lot of similarities. They were both very introverted, very geekish; neither was a natural leader. But they had complimentary skills, and they were almost always in sync about where they wanted to take Flipkart. The fallout between the Bansals was caused by many factors; one of them was that by 2018, when the sale to Walmart was being finalised, they saw the impending sale in completely different ways. I think Sachin saw it as a fresh start for him. He had been kept out of the company’s daily operations since early 2016. He had hoped that with a new investor on board he would come back to the driver’s seat and resume his pursuit of turning Flipkart into a $100 billion company. Binny, on the other hand, saw the Walmart sale as a gratifying end to their labours of almost 11 years. There were other factors, of course. But it’s striking that this was one of them.
Q. You mention in the book that reporting on Flipkart wasn’t straightforward. Do you remember a peculiar incident or more than one, that has stayed with you?
There are many but one that comes immediately to mind was the final part of the book. It was tough to obtain exact details of the Flipkart auction and Sachin’s exit. Again, there were so many individual agendas driving the transaction from both sides… Things changed so much that it was difficult to believe that a $21 billion transaction could be put together in such a theatrical manner!
Q. Is it a rather naïve thought that billion-dollar start-ups are built by geniuses? What did the Bansals have going for them and what shortcomings did they find ways to overcome?
I don’t think it’s always naïve to say so. What the Bansals accomplished in the early years – it’s hard not to think of that as the work of geniuses. Sachin’s perspicacity and audacity were especially remarkable.
About their shortcomings – their primary weakness was that they were both very introverted. To build an e-commerce firm at that time one had to deal with suppliers, logistics companies, regulators, all sorts of people. The Bansals weren’t equipped at all to do any of this. But they were smart enough to hire very driven and capable people and letting them loose.
Q. It’s hard to sell the idea that a billion-dollar takeover is somewhat bittersweet. But how should a layman analyse Flipkart’s buyout by Walmart? What are the rather more obvious takeaways, and what does one find below the surface?
It is hard, absolutely. And it’s one of the reasons for adding ‘untold’ in the subtitle. Before I started working on the book in August 2018 I had already covered Flipkart for more than four years. After I was done with the book, the grandness of both their achievements and blunders was a revelation.
So, one way to analyse would be to look at Flipkart through the lens of the company’s founders and investors. Flipkart started as an underdog, then became the establishment. In 2014, Sachin had declared that Flipkart would become a $100 billion company (in sales) in five to ten years. He was completely serious; it wasn’t a casual remark. At the time everyone at Flipkart believed that even if it didn’t become a $100 billion firm it would at least get to $50 billion. And it seemed a reasonable belief. The Bansals were absolutely convinced that Flipkart was India’s answer to Amazon and Alibaba. So, after considering all this, and the fact that Sachin and Binny had to make way for an investor representative as CEO – someone they didn’t particularly like – it becomes clear that the Flipkart saga has a bittersweet aspect despite the record-breaking $21 billion exit.
Q. What has Flipkart done for the country’s start-up ecosystem, good and bad? Would there even be a start-up ecosystem without Flipkart? What learnings can be gleaned from the Bansals’ story?
There would have been a start-up ecosystem without Flipkart, but it’s safe to say that it would have been unrecognisably smaller. There’s no doubt that Flipkart played a singular, pioneering role in the development of the start-up ecosystem. The Bansals made entrepreneurship seem sexy and very respectable occupation. In terms of the bad, there seem to be several worrying trends, but it’s too early to tell because the start-up ecosystem is still very young.
There are many lessons both for entrepreneurs and investors from the Flipkart story. Some of them are: the need for an entrepreneur to avoid the trap of believing they are invincible even after achieving great success, the need for a strong, well-balanced board of directors, etc. I’d rather not say more because I want readers to decide what the lessons are for themselves.
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