Even Bhavish Aggarwal’s father wants to know when Ola will turn profitable

Keep calm and carry on.
Keep calm and carry on.
Image: Reuters/Abhishek N. Chinnappa
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At just 33, Bhavish Aggarwal is counted among the most successful Indian tech entrepreneurs of recent times.

Within only eight years since Aggarwal and his friend from the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay (IIT-Bombay), Ankit Bhati, launched Ola, the cab-hailing venture has emerged as the country’s second-most-valuable unicorn, worth over $5 billion. The company has grown to become the biggest player in its sector despite competition from the world’s largest ride-sharing firm, Uber. Lately, it has been rapidly driving into newer countries, becoming one of the few Indian consumer tech startups that have gone beyond their home turf.

Ola’s meteoric rise also made the founding duo the youngest entrepreneurs in India’s super-rich list in 2015. But while a lot has been written about Ola’s journey, little is known about its elusive founders.

On Jan. 18, in a rare gesture, Aggarwal surfaced for a spiritual chat with the Hindu monk Om Swami at a public event in Bengaluru organised by the latter’s meditation app, Black Lotus. Here, he pulled the wraps off the lesser-known aspects of his life.

Edited excerpts:

Was the idea to launch a business clear to you from the beginning or it just happened?

In 2008, I passed out of IIT Bombay, following which I worked for Microsoft in Bengaluru for two years. But then I started feeling this restlessness and I wanted to do something on my own. So, I quit my job, went home to Ludhiana (in Punjab) where my parents were practicing doctors. I have had a very middle-class upbringing, so when I told my father that I want to launch a ride-sharing venture, his immediate reaction was, “kya beta IIT karke travel agency kholna hai!” (You finished IIT just to start a travel agency?)

In his innocence, he didn’t understand the technology or what I was really meaning to do. But I was adamant, and told him, “tension mat lo, main kar lunga kuch.” (You don’t worry, I will do something.)

I went back to Mumbai to set up the venture with my IIT batchmates as co-founders. We didn’t have any money, we didn’t have capital, but we powered on. I think a grounded beginning helps you build things for the long-term. Our humble beginnings helped us keep our head down and focus on the essentials: consumers and a good financial system.

Today, my father has come around to understand what I do, but he still asks, “baaki sab to theek hai, profitable kab ho rahe ho!” (Everything else is fine, but when is Ola turning profitable?). Middle-class parents are very demanding!

Being at the top is lonely and your job impacts so many lives. I have heard that you work till 1am every day.

Some of these things are myths. For example, it’s not humanly possible for anyone to stretch till 1am after working since morning. Our journey has gone through multiple phases. I will break down the last eight years into three:

The starting-out phase: For the first three to four years we were a very small company with around 20 people trying to figure out next month’s cheque. We didn’t have any capital and very few customers. The challenges were very existential and we were focused on survival for the next week or month. But it was also a very hopeful phase where we dreamt about how it would be once, and if, the venture was established.

2014-2017: It was a phase of aggressive expansion. That wasn’t our plan, but opportunities kept opening up and we lapped them up. Around 2013-14, a couple of things happened in the country, particularly to do with the mobile data revolution. People started buying smartphones and 4G came in, which made it possible to do a lot of things on mobile phones. Also, at the time, entrepreneurship was starting to get recognised. That was the time when we could take Ola from a few-people company to a larger company. We went from a few hundred vehicles to a million drivers. We felt like we were riding a tiger. We were just trying to keep pace with how Ola was expanding without our conscious design.

The last couple of years: We have reached a certain scale now. We touch over 10-15 million customers every month. So now we are looking at how we can institutionalise certain things, and make them more sustainable. The last few years have been to mellow down. Our aspiration and ambition are not to sell out to anybody. We want to outperform and outlive everybody.

How do you keep calm?

I think clarity of thought on what you want to achieve helps. If there is no clarity and focus, there’s chaos within too.

In our organisation, too, we have tried to bring that clarity of thought. We have tried to institutionalise the from-customer-backward approach: Think like a customer, be like a customer. For instance, my wife and I, till today, don’t own a car. We take an Ola (cab). It makes us feel the ease or challenges our customers would face. That brings a lot of clarity of thought.

Also, a support system at home helps. My wife and I have known each other for 13 years. We dated for eight years and we have been married for five. She knows me, knows my passion, and is very supportive. So that professional and personal support system helps you achieve your dreams.

How do you balance business with community service?

That is a very important question we have asked ourselves periodically. When we think of business, we don’t think of serving our shareholders. Material things are just an ultimate and eventual outcome of what we do. Money is just another measure of how much impact you have made with the business. But in the end, the core focus always has to be the consumer, and by extension community and society. Our basic philosophy in building any product has been to see how we can influence the community in a positive way.

How do you build an ethical organisation where people are not driven by greed and fear?

One of the things we try to do is lead by example. There are certain values that we believe have brought us where we are today. These include entrepreneurship, which is at our core. There is a lot of risk-taking, being true to opportunity available, and a lot of judgement calls. Teamwork is another core value.

We are a very experimental company, we let our employees take risks. If we fail, so what? We will succeed at something.