Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Thanks Megha

for introducing me to Flipkart yesterday. Highly co-incidental that these guys are in the news today!

BANGALORE: Popular belief has it that parents of young Indians with coveted degrees from the Indian Institutes of Management or Technology, quail at the thought of their children giving up a job in a multinational corporation to start a business. However, when Sachin Bansal, a Computer Science Graduate from IIT-Delhi, landed his first posting at global retail major, Amazon, his family was happy but wanted to know when he would launch his own business, so they could look for a bride for him.

“In our community a person with a salaried job is less valued than someone who runs their own business,” says Bansal who quit Amazon after a year to kick start his own e-commerce venture with fellow IITian Binny Bansal. “As it happened I was married within a few months of starting out on my own,” he says.

That was more than two years ago. Today, is the country's largest online bookstore, selling more than five lakh books since its inception in end 2007. “We sell a book a minute,” says Bansal who started selling movies, music and games on the portal this fortnight.

It was no cakewalk though. Flipkart could count only family and friends as customers in the initial months. “The first real order came nearly four months after the launch when we were able to source a customer request for the book ‘Leaving Microsoft to Change the World',” says Binny Bansal, who also worked at Amazon for eight months before launching Flipkart.

For one, the two Bansals had to bet on word-of-mouth marketing amongst peers, college mates, friends, blogs and social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter to find new customers as they had to keep their budget tight. “We had spent just about Rs 4 lakh to set up the business in the initial days,” says Sachin.

The partners, who moved to Bangalore with their jobs, would park themselves at the entrance to some of the city’s largest book fairs, distributing flyers to announce the launch of Flipkart. “The bookstore owners were very tolerant, they rarely objected to our presence,” he says.

Thanks to their control on budget, the company broke even in just six months, in March 2008 and the first thing they did was to rent an office and hire a helper. At the end of their first year of operations the business had grown enough for the Bansals to hire a team of six. “We had to sell at lower rates and also make sure that every customer had the order delivered at his doorstep,” says Sachin. They relied on free shipping, discounts and personalised service to build the business.

The sales picked up once Flipkart extended cash-on-delivery system to customers across 25 cities. And soon it was in the radar of venture capital firms. “The online retail business (excluding travel, classifieds, content) is worth at least $150 million and is growing very rapidly,” says Subrata Mitra, partner at private equity firm Accel India, which invested Rs 4 crore in in mid 2009.

This helped the e-commerce outfit focus more on expanding its reach and increase its offerings built largely around strong regional content. Flipkart, with six million titles and the promise of free shipping across the country, claim to be the largest online bookstore in India. The site also has nearly 20,000 movie titles including English, Hindi, Bengali, Malayalam, Kannada, Tamil, Telugu, Punjabi and Bhojpuri movies and 12,000 music titles in Hindi, English, vernacular and instrumental music. The games catalogue includes games for devices like PS, PS2, PS3, Ii, Xbox and PCs.

But there are others such as, Rediff Books and the web version of offline store Landmark, fighting in the non-travel e-commerce market that industry experts estimate at $100 million in India.

“Multi-category retail is the way to make profits in this business, I do not think an online store that sells a single category of products can build traffic, grow sales and be profitable,” says K Vaitheeswaran, co-founder of, an online shopping mall that was set up by a team that built the country's first e-commerce company FabMart over a decade ago.

As consumer demand for new products and services creates more opportunity for young Indians to build businesses of their own, the Bansals’ decision to strike out on their own while still barely a year and a half out of college is paying them rich dividends. “By the end of March 2011 we hope to be a Rs 100 crore company,” says Sachin Bansal for whom enterprise is clearly the calling card of choice.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

What's happening?... the World Cup, I mean? Just up from a watching a highly disappointing Brazil - Portugal match which ended in a tame 0-0 draw. The league matches are almost up, and soon we will be talking business - no draws from the next stage, and the men will be separated from the boys.

This World Cup has been unique - both finalists from last year have been kicked out unceremoniously in the first round itself. France after making a mockery of themselves (poor coach Domenech!) and Italy after playing some really un-spectacular football. All my favourite teams have played at least one bad match each - Argentina against Nigeria (though Messi has been spectacular after that match), Brazil against Portugal, Germany had a terrible match against Serbia, England against Slovenia. The only big ticket team which has been playing well consistently so far is the Netherlands.

I have not seen any of Spain's games yet (I hope to correct that at midnight tonight), but so far, I don't think there is any one favourite for lifting the cup. If Messi continues his golden run, then it could be Argentina all the way! Though I'm now rooting for Germany (Brazil are off the top of the charts for now). Fickle me!!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Another book

For a change, I splurged almost a thousand bucks to buy Roger Lowenstein's "The End of Wall Street" when I was in the US (it was not yet available in India, so I had to buy the hardback version from there). Having read and really liked "When Genius Failed", I had high expectations from ol' Rog. However, I was a tad disappointed at the end (which also explains why it took me more than a month to finish this baby - or roughly 15x the usual time).

The book reads like a bland retelling of the furiously moving events in September 2008, when Lehman went bust and the world got into a tailspin. While it goes way back, to 2005-06, to explain the genesis of the problem, it does not offer any new insights into why whatever happened, happened. Most people who read the news (or visited Bloomberg's website) would know all this stuff.

Comparisons are odious, but if I compare this to Michael Lewis's "The Big Short", I would short Mr. Lowenstein and go long Mr. Lewis. As opposed to The Big Short's human interest and genuine freshness of content, The End of Wall Street does not offer either. Nor does the title seem very apt!

Friday, June 18, 2010

Deeply disturbing

I have been following off and on the latest story in international media - the Gulf Coast oil spill, which is releasing approx. 60,000 barrels per day of oil into the ocean. By any metric, this is the largest ever man-made environmental disaster in the history of time. The ocean is a big thing, but I dont think even it can suffer endless degradation.

People say that BP is squarely to blame. To quote a Bloomberg article: "Evidence of BP’s corner-cutting, to the point of intentional negligence and reckless endangerment, is everywhere. According to lawmakers, BP used six instead of the usual 21 centralizers before cementing the well, didn’t test the cement bond, chose a cheaper method to prevent gas from rising unchecked to the surface, and stinted on a backup blowout preventer -- all to “save time/money,” to borrow a phrase from one internal BP e-mail."

My point is not that BP is evil or that no one should make mistakes. Instead it is this - how does one equate environmental disaster on this scale (and boy, is it truly gigantic!) with money? BP says it will keep $20 billion in escrow to pay for damages. How many fish is that worth? How many people who die eating contaminated fish will that compensate for? How many loved ones would you trade for $20 billion? 100? 10? 1?

I think this is a symptom of our times - everything equals money. We are cavalier and depraved when it comes to preserving our ecology. However, I don't think this state of affairs can last very long. Something is going to give. Soon. I just hope it does not happen in my kid's lifetime. Meanwhile I do what little I can to protect the environment near me.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Waca Waca

My closest friends are usually very surprised whenever I mention that I used to play football (and not too badly, I might immodestly add) in my student days. I was a key goal-scorer for my teams, both in IIT as well as IIM. My rather rotund frame does not suggest this in the least (but hey! look at Maradona in his new avatar as coach - the guy is positively fat! Who can think that he was a terror on the field?). However, all this is a preamble to say that for the next few days, I am an obsessed guy - with the FIFA Football World Cup in South Africa.

So far, the highlight of the tournament for me has been Maicon's near impossible goal against North Korea. But I'm sure this will be surpassed easily. Predictions? I don't think Argentina are going to make it to the semi-finals. I have not seen popular favourites Spain play as yet (they open their tournament against Switzerland today), but so far my money is on perennial favourites Germany and Brazil.

And for those who have not heard it yet, here is Shakira shaking her booty in the World Cup theme song: