Quikr founder & CEO Pranay Chulet tells Raghu Krishnan and Bibhu Ranjan Mishra why money has never been an issue for Quikr and that someday he will make a romantic comedy.
An eight-year-old firm with a 2,000-strong team is a big company, but Pranay Chulet, founder of Quikr, insists he is running a start-up.
"We are a few more people, yes. But the words you can associate with us as a start-up are experimentation, fast decision-making, not one big team, intellectual honesty to take decisions," Chulet rattles off when I ask him whether his online classifieds company is already a large enterprise.
We are meeting at The Raj Pavilion, a restaurant inspired by the famous glass house of Lalbagh, at ITC Windsor -- the one featured in Kamal Haasan's 1987 blockbuster Pushpak.
Our meeting was slated to be held at the office canteen of Quikr, once a run-down textile factory in a four-acre space that has been converted into a sprawling new workplace. He chose the location after rejecting many glass-panelled offices that dot India's technology hub.
Being just outside the city means he can beat the bumper-to-bumper traffic in the city. The afternoon buzz in the canteen, however, seems too loud, says his office and we decide upon The Raj Pavilion, Chulet's regular haunt which is also closer to his home.
Chulet, who grew up in Dariba, a mining town 80 km from Udaipur, loves large structures. The copper mines in Dariba are four to five storeys deep; there are no floors and nets divide one section from another.
Before shifting the corporate headquarters to Bengaluru -- to have better access to the technology talent in the city -- Quikr's office was in Lower Parel, the textile hub of Mumbai at one point, now a real estate hub.
"If you want to scale fast, there is no better place than Bengaluru. Bombay is a lot more expensive. With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear, this was the best place to move," says Chulet, who successfully prodded around 100 of his top executives to shift with him to Bengaluru.
He also had to convince his US-born wife Tina, who had been to Mumbai and just three months into the marriage, to shift cities. Now that she is settled, Tina is looking after her own start-up.
Chulet opts for the vegetarian buffet -- he was a meat eater in childhood -- at the restaurant, which seems to get a lot of natural light, thanks to its glass canopy. The day is sunny, but since it is monsoon time in Bengaluru, things can change any time.
Chulet is a light eater -- he takes a roti, some spicy pappu, an Andhra-style dal, and a helping of gatte ki subji, a Rajasthani dish. I choose a roti, some pappu and vegetable pulao.
Since shifting to Bengaluru, Quikr has become more vertical-focused, deepening its listings in cars, jobs, real estate and household services, acquiring rivals such as CommonFloor to strengthen its business.
Yet competition is increasing: There is OLX, backed by South African Internet company Naspers, and Jeff Bezos-owned Amazon, which waited patiently and is now pushing its used goods platform, Junglee, aggressively.
"They are trying many experiments with it. Yes, they can pump in money and money is necessary, but it not a sufficient condition to win a battle," says Chulet.
Till now, money has not been a problem for Quikr, which is backed by 11 investors, including venture capitalist Tiger Global, a hedge fund that disrupted India's start-up ecosystem with huge infusion funding last year.
Quikr has raised $346 million so far and with a $1.5 billion valuation is among the handful of Unicorns that operate in the Indian start-up space.
Quikr earns money from commissions and listings, which Chulet says, could lead the company to profitability in the next two years. But he is not thinking about all that now.
"We have enough to reach profitability. There is always a choice -- whether you want to turn profitable versus whether you want to keep on investing. That's entirely your call," says Chulet. "In some ways, the sentiment in our company is the direct opposite of what is happening in the industry. In our kind of company, you need to invest long to generate revenues and wait for profits to kick in."
After two years of hyper funding by investors, Indian start-ups are seeing a funding drought. Investors are looking at value, return on investment and how sustainable a business is, instead of the earlier focus on pumping in money to get users and eyeballs.
A small-town child who hated big cities, Chulet has lived most of his adult life in big them.
Soon after graduating from IIM-Calcutta with a gold medal, the film buff who can rattle off Sholay dialogues without batting an eyelid moved to the New York Film Academy to learn filmmaking. The Big Apple lured him to stay on -- he was a consultant, advising media and advertising firms.
And then, the movie bug hit him. He took six months off, wrote a script and began working on a multi-location US-India sci-fi movie called Latent Lava.
Chulet assembled a cast of more than 35 people, including an assistant director from Craigslist, the original online listing platform that took away the classifieds business from US newspapers.
Back in India, he tried to use his contacts to assemble a team, struggled and eventually completed the movie -- its storyline revolves around a group of outlawed vigilantes, who takes on terrorists planning to attack New York. It is an interactive movie, he says, where the audience guides the vigilantes much like they do in video games.
He spent around $1 million and began selling the movie through the now bankrupt VCD rental service, Blockbuster. He still has the rights of the film and wants to customise it for tablets and smartphones because of its interactivity.
For now, his focus is running the business -- an opportunity that comes once in a lifetime as more Indians get on the Internet using their smartphone.
Chulet says the experience of making a movie also urged him to come back to the country. He packed his bags in 2008 and shifted to Mumbai to start Quikr, inspired by Craigslist.
We take a second helping and our conversation veers to food. He says he prefers to eat small quantities but several times a day. "I grew up eating non-veg. But the hostel mess was so bad that, by the time I went to the US, I had turned vegetarian." Chulet talks of his experiences at IIT-Delhi and then at IIM-Calcutta.
Quikr is associated with fast transactions -- driven home by the Quikrrr advertisement for television that became a household chant. The ad has helped Quickr reach users even in smaller towns.
The vertical focus, he says, has helped the company deepen its relationship with customers, users, advertisers and those who list their services. But the journey has also been tough.
Chulet, who can be seen at movie theatres every Sunday morning when the crowd is less, likes to look at life through the prism of philosophy and... well... Sholay dialogues.
"I still remember the days when we completed a second round of funding. It was a bad market and we were not finding any believers. The day we completed the funding, I sent a message to my colleagues: 'Pistol jeb mein aa chuka hai (the pistol has come into the pocket), taking off from a famous Sholay dialogue.
His obsession with movies is not limited to Sholay; he has a romantic comedy script ready with him. "I don't have time now, but some day, I will make the movie," promises Chulet. For now, his priority is "to get more Indians to list online."
As we finish lunch and step out, I ask Chulet if anyone has ever told him that he resembles a Hindi movie star, John Abraham to be precise.
Chulet grins: "You are the second person to tell me that. I have to tell my wife," he quips. It is drizzling outside, true to Bengaluru weather.
Photograph: Kind courtesy IIM-Calcutta/Twitter