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Mihir Dalal’s candid Flipkart story ‘Big Billion Startup’ wins Gaja Capital Business Book Prize

The prize, established by Gaja Capital in 2019, carries an award of Rs 15 lakh for the winner.

Mihir Dalal, a business journalist with Mint newspaper has won the Rs 15-lakh Gaja Capital Business Book Prize for his first book Big Billion Startup: The Untold Flipkart Story. The book offers a rare behind the scenes look at not only the success, dip, and rise of the first major online retailer in India, but also captures, importantly, the often tense relationships between the investors and the management, which at many points overshadowed the company’s commercial success and culminated in the spectacular departure of the founders.

Published by Pan Macmillan India, the book was selected from shortlist of six books, the other five being Bottle of Lies: Ranbaxy and the Dark Side of Indian Pharma, by Katherine Eban; The Making of Hero: Four Brothers, Two Wheels, and a Revolution that Shaped Indiaby Sunil Munjal; HDFC Bank 2.0: From Dawn to Digital, by Tamal Bandyopadhyay, Saying No to Jugaad: The Making of BigBasket, by TN Hari and MS Subramanian; and The Moonshot Game: Adventures of an Indian Venture Capitalist, by Rahul Chandra.

The jury comprised Chair Manish Sabharwal, Chairman Teamlease; Imran Jafar, Managing Partner & co-founder, Gaja Capital; UK Sinha, former Chairman of SEBI, Michael Queen, former Chief Executive of 3i PE fund, Neelkanth Mishra, Managing Director and Head of Equity Strategy, Asia Pacific for Credit Suisse; Narayan Ramachandran, Former country head, Morgan Stanley India; and Prithvi Haldea, Founder Chairman of Praxis Consulting (Prime Database).

An excerpt from the prizewinning book:

Sachin’s criticism about the “lack of innovation” in the company’s product function had become more forceful in 2014, and in the latter part of the year, he grew strident. He had been particularly unhappy with the development of the mobile website and app. He strongly believed that the mobile would soon replace the desktop as the primary medium of shopping.

He vented to some of his colleagues, “Our technology and product teams have become slaves to the sales team.” If things continued in this way, Flipkart would be destroyed, he complained. He also pulled up Flipkart’s engineers for continuing to spend their energies on tinkering with the website for soon-to-be-irrelevant desktop computers. “Desktop is the past; the present and future is on the mobile – that’s where the company needs to channel its resources,” he insisted.ADVERTISEMENT

Much of this criticism was aimed, either directly or by implication, at Kalyan Krishnamurthy, who had by now become the most powerful figure at Flipkart. Under him, business was booming. Yet, Sachin believed that Kalyan’s empowering of the sales and finance functions over technology would harm Flipkart over time. Both Sachin and Binny thought that the discount-heavy approach favoured by Kalyan wasn’t sustainable either.

For Sachin, Flipkart wasn’t simply a buy-and-sell trading business. He had always seen Flipkart as a “technology company, not a retailer”. His relationship with Kalyan, never great to begin with, was deteriorating.

A few months after Kalyan was promoted to Senior Vice President, Sachin and Binny had offered him a permanent role at Flipkart. Kalyan’s influence and popularity with the management team was plainly visible. It seemed like an obvious move, a just reward for his stellar performance. Besides, formalising Kalyan’s position would sever his links with Tiger Global and give the Bansals direct, unquestionable supervision over him.

They offered him a prestigious position, one that would elevate Kalyan as the seniormost leader at Flipkart after the Bansals. They also offered Kalyan a large amount of stock options in the company.

To their shock, Kalyan declined. He informed the Bansals he wasn’t ready to move to Flipkart permanently, that he wanted to return to Tiger Global at some point. Later, Kalyan told colleagues that he had refused the offer mainly because he believed that he and Sachin couldn’t work together.ADVERTISEMENT

Their colleagues already knew that the two would always be at odds. Sachin considered himself a “product” champion, a technologist who cut through the complexities of intractable problems with software and delivered outstanding service to his customers. Kalyan was a man of finance, driven by numbers, margins and the idea of saleability. Their visions for Flipkart couldn’t have been more different.

For much of 2014, Sachin and Kalyan coexisted awkwardly. In fact, Sachin clashed often with many senior executives that year. He had even fallen out with Sujeet Kumar. They had now known each other for nearly fifteen years. After Sujeet was sidelined at the end of 2012, the two had only exchanged words at team meetings. The cause of their rift was unclear to their colleagues, but it was evident that they were no longer close, not even cordial.

The environment at the upper management level grew increasingly toxic through the year. Powerful senior executives like Sujeet and Kalyan, who had little regard for Sachin, made their opinions clear to colleagues. They believed that he had little understanding of the day-to-day workings of e-commerce, and they had grown weary of his fault-finding, which they found to be unreasonable. They openly bad-mouthed Sachin and made fun of him within their inner circle.

On the other side of the tensions, Sachin was growing more zealous. Like many strong-headed entrepreneurs, he had always been unusually passionate about his ideas – it was a passion bordering on vehemence. Now in 2014, as he saw that he wasn’t being taken seriously by the likes of Kalyan and Sujeet, his manner during meetings became more imperious with each passing month, with each milestone Flipkart achieved.

When asked for supporting data or evidence during arguments, Sachin would often counter by saying that his opinions were informed by his “gut feeling”. But when his colleagues proffered instinctive views and ideas, Sachin would dismiss them with ridicule. Once, in a heated discussion, Sujeet fired back, “Sachin, the same rules should apply to everyone. Your gut is gut, but with others, it’s gutter?” Sachin had looked offended. But Sujeet wouldn’t back down.

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