ATM ka baap Paytm: Transcript of full interview Part 1
Vijay shares his rags to riches story in this candid interview
Small town guy; Hindi medium educated; shy and introvert; one of those “keetabi keeda”(bookworm) types who gets offended even when a senior called him 'oye'; and fate comes to play! The once not-so-much-of-an-eligible-bachelor is now one of the Coolest CEOs of India.
Yes! We are talking about India’s shining star of entrepreneurship -Vijay Shekhar Sharma.
In an aboveboard interview with Simarpreet Singh from MindBatteries, Vijay elaborates his life story, a 'roller-coaster ride' as he calls it. He introduces himself in Vijay Deenanath Chauhan style.
Here is a transcript of Part I of this candid interview which was conducted at Paytm’s Headquarters in Noida, India.
Simar: Vijay, people think you are one of the Coolest CEOs in India. What do you have to say about that?
VSS (shying away): Well, that's a trick question. I don't know how it is. What I understand from “Cool” is being able to have a light and unhesitant conversation with your team.
Simar (immensely awed): Where is your cabin.Where we can have your interview?
VSS(sitting in open office): This is my office and this is my cabin.
Simar: You sit amongst your employees. Interesting.
VSS: Yes, we are a team. I don't like being segmented out in a secluded office, where I'm not easily accessible. Calendar invites and appointments are a waste of time.
We aim at building an open structure out here. Anyone can approach anyone. We just wave a hand at whoever we want to have a meeting with.
Simar: I'd like to know about your days in Aligarh. Were you naughty as a child?
VSS (guffawing): My father, being a true disciplinarian, didn't leave naughtiness as an option. What he said was a line drawn on a rock. Also I was an extremely shy, introvert sort of a guy.
So when I left Aligarh to commence my graduation at Delhi College of Engineering, I felt liberated! I felt I have finally been able to escape the prison, never to look back. Felt like Deja Vu from DDLJ (Bollywood movie)- Ja Simran jee le apni zindagi :)
Back then, I must have been the only kid from my school to have ever been able to make it to an Engineering College in Delhi. I was a fast learner; completed my 10th at 12 years of age. My teacher convinced my father to let me skip a class or two, as they considered my intellect to be ahead of my age. So I was able to get into college at 14, although I had to wait a year more to fulfill the “15 years” age requirement.
I invested this leisure year in learning English from Bhargava dictionary, as I had my entire previous education in Hindi medium. That was one reason why I could not appear for IIT and such other entrances; as they had subjective type questions. DCE's was the only examination comprising of multiple choice questions. So, I got through it.
Simar: Tell me about your College life. Was it as dreamy as you thought?
VSS: College life was a wake-up call for someone who had topped throughout his school education. My previous academic record couldn't compensate for the fact that I was a small town boy who didn't understand a word of what was taught in the class. Being younger than my other batch-mates added more to my misery.
Ragging is an understatement. I was literally tortured in college and hostel, crying myself out to sleep. Initially a bookworm, I soon became a back-bencher. My classmates had a very different background, I couldn’t even understand the language those people used to speak. This obviously reflected in my grades, I even scored a supplementary in my first year.
Simar: So how did you cope with this situation?
VSS: Well, such things either make you or break you. Since I bunked most of my lectures, I decided to invest my time in Computers. Yes. I am a blend of Electronics and Computers. :)
I soon learnt taught myself coding. Then one day, while strolling through a street market nearby in Sunday Market, I came across this second hand magazine on Silicon Valley. I got SO fascinated by the Silicon Valley culture that I started dreaming of Silicon Valley happening in this country.
Simar: Tell me about your placements. How did your professional journey begin?
VSS: As I told, that Fortune magazine on Silicon Valley culture changed my life. In the initial years of College, I was afraid I wouldn't get any placements (thanks to my backlogs).
Then when I got so much into Computers, I realized that a Nine-to-Five job is really not my thing. Why not build something of my own!
So I started to bunk my classes and got into Computer Programming. I was so intrigued by the Internet; the fact that I can build a global business platform sitting in my room; it was an amazing feeling!
Simar: You created a Company of your own in College. Didn't you consider pursuing higher studies?
VSS: At that time,I only wanted to go to Stanford.
Simar: But why Stanford?
VSS: All the big-shots at that time were Stanford pass-out. So I had that thing for this University. Obviously I couldn't afford it. So I just dropped the plan and worked on building a Company of my own. I teamed with 3 other friends and built a Search Engine. The name of my Company was XS (as in Access).
Internet took over, and in 1999, I sold my Company to a US guy. I was 21 at that time. Got 1 crore rupees in return, which the four of us split amongst ourselves.
Simar: How did One97 happen?
VSS: There was this Internet Euphoria happening in the country. I was in a steady business when makemytrip, egurukul and all these were launching themselves. I came across a term 'Golden Handcuff'. That was like a moment of enlightenment. I realized that my clients are tying me in these golden handcuffs, refraining me to achieve the bigger goal.
With next year commencing, obviously I would get a bonus, and again I would be stuck in the shackles of a 'steady income'. So, I quit.....and decided to build a business.
Simar: So after you sold your Company and decided to move up the ladder, I guess that's when One97 happened. So what was your vision regarding One97?
VSS: I think it was the fact that Internet didn't have Revenue models back then. Advertising was a broke stream. Commerce obviously didn't exist in 2001.
So my understanding was that I have to make money using these Internet products. I found out that a Telecom Operator is an interesting person, who has a micro-charging capability with respect to the consumer. So I decided to build something based on Internet-Content-on SMS.
Finally, it so turned out that we became a free-of-cost platform for Telecom operators. And then we brought content services on top of it, which will be paid for by the consumer.
Simar: So, did you get funding for One97?
VSS: I had the money that I earned after selling XS. Besides that, I governed One97 without any external funding for about 7 years.
Simar: Was it easy to get a funding after all these years?
VSS (giggling): It was so NOT easy to get a funding that I forgot to try for it eventually.
I never knew much about what you call VC money (Venture Capital) or Risk Capital. I thought the 'risk' is mine and 'capital' is customer's.
Actually I had to crack a tough business model where the platform was coming for free. So I decided to take loans from people, and then build my platform; so that when the money starts coming to me, I could pay them back.
But then I faced financial crisis and couldn't manage the cashflow. It is around that time, a loan of 8 lakh piled up on me. Being from a middle class family, that was a pretty huge sum. So, my father got really worried for me.
The situation was such that it got difficult for my family to find a suitable match. People didn't turn up because I was broke. Although this never bothered me much, but my family couldn't suppress their worry.
I had to make my parents understand that there is no exit gate. I have got to do this at any cost.
Simar: Tell me more about your struggles. The highs and lows of your life.
VSS: To start with, I started this Company with two other people/colleagues/friends. So I had one-third equity in it. But eventually, it got really difficult to survive and they left. I stayed on without any revenues flowing in. I used to pile on friends, ask for loans so I could buy myself some food.
There was a time when I had none to take money from; having two cups of tea was a perk. I drove a friend's car around and didn't have more than 150-200 bucks to buy gas. Really harsh days. I mean there were times when I couldn't afford a bus ticket, so I walked 14 kms to get back home.
When you know that this is what it is; there is no other option, no other alternative, just keep swimming!
Simar: So how did you get the loan off your back?
VSS: I would give a one-day lecture for a few thousand bucks; set up email address for someone; or may be set up a local network; did all kinds of odd jobs to earn whatever I could.
But this was still not enough for the larger capital that I needed. And that's when I got that kick. I came across this big biz gentleman who offered me a large project. He liked my work and offered me to be the CEO of his Company. I told him I have a Company of my own. That's when he helped me with 8 lakh rupees and a place to set up my office. We shared a good work relationship where I offered him 40% of my equity.
Simar: Wow! That's some story. So are you still working with him?
VSS: No he made his exit after a couple of 100 crores after I had to buy back his equity of 40% he earned by investing 8 lakhs into my business.
Simar: Looking at your infrastructure, you have inspirational quotes written on walls. One of the quotes by Mark Zuckerberg moved me that says, “Move fast and break things”. What's your say on that?
VSS: Yeah, I always wanted to build something, I had this strong urge to fly.
See every Company has a strategy. What makes the difference is how well and quickly you try to pursue it. People often don't move fast on that. They become complacent. And I think, the winner is the one who is paranoid about moving fast.
*Simar challenges Vijay to dance on Punjabi song which he had been playing since arrival of our team*
Simar: You have a knack for music. Tell me more about it.
VSS: I love music! I love to listen to all kinds of music. I am the Resident DJ here. In fact sometimes I feel that had I not been in IT, I would have probably been a singer or something.
You can watch second part of his interview in this video. You can read the rest of interview here.