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Updated: May 25, 2014 21:55 IST

A bold risk-taker

Deepa Kurup
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The Hindu

A year into the entry of global heavyweight Amazon, the Indian e-commerce space is bristling with competition.

The man of the moment, Sachin Bansal, is beaming, having just announced his biggest acquisition yet — fashion e-tailer — for $330 million. A journalist asks him, irony alert, whether this acquisition takes him closer to his self-professed aspiration to be the “Amazon of India”.

“Actually, no”, says a confident Bansal, dressed-down in the Flipkart vest that we’ve come to associate with the company’s delivery boys. “We look up to the Alibaba Group of China, that’s where we want to be.”

Now, that’s a big change from his statement of four years ago when he professed his desire to be the Amazon of India. But that was when Amazon was no threat to the company.

Bansal now underplays the “threat”; instead, he believes, the real battle lines are drawn between the domestic players, not the international ones “who may initially throw around a lot of money”.

It is insights such as these, and an appetite for risk , that set Bansal apart from the rest, says Mukund Mohan, Director, Microsoft Ventures India.

Having known Bansal since the days he, and Binny Bansal, his co-founder and college junior at IIT-Delhi, were delivering books out of their two-bedroom apartment in Koramangala, Mohan says that the one word to describe him would be “bold”.

The Bansals, unrelated, bonded in college over their common ideas, and later, after Sachin Bansal quit his job after a one-year stint at Amazon, teamed up and pooled their savings worth Rs.2 lakh to start Flipkart.

The journey of Chandigarh-born Bansal is indeed punctuated with bold decisions — from recognising that it’s early days for an e-commerce aggregator or price comparator to succeed and shifting gears to start an e-commerce venture, to shipping books, then expanding into multiple categories and new payment modes.

Mohan says: “What’s striking about him is he’ll take big decisions with little information at hand — most entrepreneurs in India are focussed, not obsessed, with eliminating risks. If you do so, then you’re just another small company.”

Indeed, even as the media cheers on this big-ticket deal, fact is that a decision to acquire and run a company that’s one-fourth its own size in valuation and of a relatively alien genre (Flipkart entered fashion two years ago) is no doubt a “bold” move now. “It’s a huge risk; most Indian entrepreneurs would be averse,” adds Mohan.

Role model

Those close to Bansal say his approach to problem solving is intense. To understand the nuts and bolts of e-commerce he’s travelled in recent months to Philippines and China, where he’s met with entrepreneurs and technologists.

He told The Hindu: “While the U.S. might lead in search and communication, in emerging fields the work is cutting-edge”. He declares that Jack Ma, 49-year-old Chinese entrepreneur and founder of the Alibaba Group, is his current role model. It is another matter that Alibaba’s pureplay marketplace model is closer to that of Flipkart’s big domestic rival Snapdeal.

But unlike Jack Ma, the high school English teacher who confesses he only uses the computer to browse and check e-mail, Bansal is a hard-core techie.

Amod Malviya, engineering head at Flipkart, says “fundamentally, he’s a technologist at heart”. “Until last year, a chunk of our customer-facing code was what he’d written back in 2007. He’s hands-on,” says Malviya, who finds working with him as demanding as it is inspiring.

So has intensifying competition perturbed Sachin Bansal? Malviya laughs.

Rather than be tactical about competition, he’s focussed on the fundamentals of the business, says Malviya.

“The idea, he’s constantly telling us, is to build a business centred around the customer.” Reminds one of the tag-line of another e-commerce biggie — Amazon, who else — whose visionary founder Jeff Bezos is out to build the “most customer-centric company on earth”. Irony alert, again.

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