August is a special month for Bipin and me. We have many occasions to rejoice – Bipin’s birthday on 5th August, followed by the birthdays of both our creations (or should I say home productions); MobiKwik born on 9th August 2009 and Cazmir born on 15th August. So my husband/cofounder, startup and kid are all Leos ?.
Tomorrow MobiKwik turns 10 years old.
To commemorate this crazy milestone (never imagined we would get here), I took some time to reminisce nuggets from our Indiana Jones like journey. My aim is to pay tribute to our families (for accepting our startup lives full of uncertainties), employees (current and ex), partners (current and former), shareholders, advisors, well-wishers, and members of the Indian startup ecosystem and to amuse and enlighten general readers interested in “build in India, for Indians, by Indians”.
I could really keep writing and make this is a novel (it’s my childhood ambition to be a published author) but since we are a generation suffering with attention deficit, I decided to structure our 10 year startup story around 10 things that you don’t know about MobiKwik (but probably should). I will start with the Thing #1 today and keep writing every few days in August 2019.
#1 Who are we? How we met? What did we have when we started?
Who are we?
Bipin is the oldest among 3 siblings brought up in a middle-class Punjabi Sikh family. His father and uncle ran a bookstore in Rourkela, Orissa which was burnt in the 1984 riots (true story). His Dad had lost his father (Bipin’s grandfather) early in life and had built a booming books and wool business from scratch in Rourkela. His years of blood and sweat wiped away overnight, he never fully recovered from the 1984 setback; although he did find a job and moved the family to Delhi. From a sprawling 4-bedroom house in Rourkela, the family was now in a 1 room rented apartment in Delhi. All 3 kids who previously went to prestigious private schools, were now in government schools. The family lived under financial distress for 18 more years until Bipin graduated from IIT Delhi and took up a job with Intel, Bangalore.
Why all this detail? Fast forward to 2009 >>
Bipin wanted to quit his high paying architect job at Freescale Semiconductor to do a startup. Given what the family had gone through, his parents were dead against him being part of any risky business venture. Who wouldn’t after what they had experienced? Bipin was also the main bread-winner for his family (his father had retired after a stroke that partially paralyzed him, his siblings were just starting their careers); so starting up was truly a tougher decision for him than me. But this responsibility handicap never stopped him from taking risks; I believe it gave him more strength to march forward. He always maintained that so long as he had visibility in to Rs 20,000 per month for his family for the next 6 months, he was good.
I am the youngest of 2 girls raised in a middle-class Kashmiri Pandit (KP) family in Gujarat. KPs are known to go to any lengths for academic or employment opportunity. My Dad moved to Vallabh Vidyanagar, Gujarat and my Mom moved to Calcutta, both from Srinagar to pursue their college education. So when it was my turn to leave home at the age of 17 to pursue Engineering at REC Jalandhar, it was no biggie. Going to US for Masters was also not an issue; but paying for it was a big one (a quarter’s fee was $10,000 equivalent to my parents’ savings)!! I made a pact with my parents – I’ll go 1 month early to Stanford and get a full scholarship by hustling; if I do get it I’ll stay, if I don’t then I’ll transfer to UPenn or Wisconsin, where I had full scholarships. This is my first “self-made” memory – I made an independent decision (my sister ardently supported me), worked hard for it, almost gave up, but finally made it happen. It tremendously boosted my confidence.
Why all this detail? Fast forward to Oct 2008 >>
I had made up my mind that I wanted to work on a fundamental financial product which was majorly needed in a developing country in Asia or Africa instead of working on the next convenience driving product in the Valley. I had tried my luck with Kiva, Microplace and Grameen foundation to get a job in these organizations so I could work in Africa or India. Nothing worked out. I decided to just quit my job at PayPal in Silicon Valley, give up my green card, sell my car, motorcycle, stuff, etc. and move back to India to do a financial services startup. This time my family was dead against my decision to travel the long distance back for career growth. Made no sense to them. Why give up all that you have achieved so far? My parents are both well educated and have lived in Africa and India so its not that they completely did not understand; it was just hard to digest because in the 2000s – what I already had, was the Indian dream. Every middle class Indian family wanted to send their kid abroad (to study or to work). The traffic was flowing India to US and I was going in the reverse direction. Recently, I have seen some of our young employees struggling with career planning decisions because their families are not supportive of their choices.
A key insight I had from this decision in life – sometimes, you, only you know what’s best for you.
How we met?
It had been 4-6 weeks since I had relocated from Mountain View, California to Delhi, India. A PayPal India friend of mine (Monica thank you), had invited a bunch of her friends to watch an English comedy play at IHC, Delhi called “What Women Want” (seriously ? that was the name). I was driving my new i10 car from Noida and needed directions to IHC, Lodhi Road (believe me Google Maps did not work then). Monica had given her mobile to a friend, who worked in Noida and was best positioned to give me directions. I scrambled through traffic having memorized the T-points to take left/right on and reached the theatre just a few minutes late. The same friend was designated to come out with my ticket when I gave Monica a missed call. This is how I met Bipin Singh.
Few more weeks and parties later, we become good friends (and some more ?) and start talking about our plans for life. He wants to startup. I want to startup. He wants to start with mobile recharge payments via a wallet, which he thinks is a primary use case that must be digitized. I nudge him to find a team and start and promise to always help. Don’t commit to his idea immediately because I had just done Payments for 3 years at PayPal. He makes a Core team by Feb 2009 (all have day jobs), design/mockups/work begins; I’m always in the loop. June 2009 Bipin quits his job and goes full-time, others don’t. I loan him my Dell laptop to work. I am still not committing, think its too complex to work with and date the same person; must do my own thing. I still help with the payment gateway integration and fraud checks and MobiKwik.com goes live come August 2009. Amazing! Come Oct, the core team members are still not willing to do full-time – they think scale-up is too slow. He continues to meet and motivate them – “internet users are still a small number in India, things will take time, we have to be patient and keep working”. By Nov, I start spending more time on MobiKwik as I see Bipin struggling. He is running a solo-ship – he does BizDev, Coding, Customer Support, and Financial Recon with help from some part-timers. Feb 2010 kicks in – I finally embrace MobiKwik as my baby and hit the ground running.
What did we have when we started?
We had 2 laptops on my dining table as our office, whatever we both had saved from 6-7 years of work experience (20-40 lacs each) as capital, and zero blessings from our families. It was not much to start on.
But we had our ambitions, our confidence, our grit and most importantly our years that we were ready to invest. That’s really all you need to start.
If you are someone who wants to startup, has done a fair amount of thinking and research on your idea, has found a few people you can count on, and can afford to gamble with 1 year of your life – just do it! At best you will scale and keep going and at worst, you will lose 1 year of your earning potential but learn a lot more than you ever dreamed of (think 3-4 years of learning crunched into 1). Most importantly once you have been a founder – you will be a master at dealing with intense uncertainty, you will have an evolved sense of self-belief and you will know that you and only you are the master of ceremony of your life!
Thanks for reading… A big thank you to all those who have helped Bipin & me to bring MobiKwik to where we are today….
Happy Birthday MobiKwik!
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