Extremely unassuming, down-to-earth, knowledgeable, inspiring yet humble - these are some of the many traits that single out Vijay Shekhar Sharma, Founder & CEO, Paytm, and IMPACT Person of the Year 2016 (IPOY2016), from the rest. In a short span of time, he has managed to disrupt not one but three industries – media, telecom and financial technology. A man of few words but, surprisingly, one who writes good poetry and even his own company’s ads, Sharma is a disruptor and innovator like none other. On the sidelines of IPOY2016, we caught up with Sharma to know more about his successful journey, how demonetisation changed the game for his pet project Paytm and more...
You say that the rules you go by are ‘not being greedy, not being entitled and having no fear’. Now that you have attained great success and your company is so well known, what keeps you awake at night?
When you are successful, there are many people around that are ready to pull you down. But those are things that you can’t control. Hence, I don’t fear the known... I actually fear the unknown, i.e, some things that might happen in future about which I have no inkling. I was recently in Hong Kong where I met Mark Schwartz, Chairman of Goldman Sachs Asia Pacific. Schwartz is a board member at Paytm and he asked me, “You are the disruptor today, but who will be the disruptor for you?” I repeat what I said to him: “People we know will never be able to disrupt us. The disruptors will be those whom everybody underestimates and they will kill us royally and fabulously.”
What are you doing to nurture disruptors within your organization?
Every company that is in business should know that they will be outpaced at some time or the other. Earlier, this would happen after, say, 10 years, and then it was five years... now it happens in as little as three years’ time. So, the first thing is that we do not take our success, or whatsoever you may label it as, seriously, because there is only one way to go from the top which is down. We are a paranoid set. We are at an early stage of disruption and we are being overstated for what we have done and understated for what is in store for us.
What according to you are the most important qualities of a leader?
I believe that leadership is an outcome of experiences. Real life experiences make you a real leader. Classroom experiences make you ready for real life experiences. Ultimately, leadership is an outcome of real life experiences.
You started your first company when you were still in college, sold it for one million dollars and then started your next company. You didn’t know English but learnt the language through music and now you write poetry too. What was intrinsic to your journey?
I ended up getting a British accent because I was always listening to John Lennon to learn English! Looking back, I was going through a time when the money we needed to spend in our business was not available and we had exhausted every potential source of money. I had pledged all my shares and I got Rs 60 crore from HDFC Bank. In a business like ours, that does not even last for a month. (Incidentally, a media report stated that we spent Rs 2,496 crore in 365 days last year.) During one of our board meetings, the acting CFO of our company said, ‘Vijay, I understand you are spending money, but you should know this if you keep spending, you will go home soon’. For the next board meeting, I had a poster in my office which said ‘Go big or go home’ and I told the CFO, ‘Just so you don’t repeat it, I just want to let you know either we will go big or go home.’
I have lived in poverty, on a budget of Rs 50 a month. When I was in Class X, I wrote these lines: ‘Main gareebi hoon. Main tumhe pyaar karti hoon. Mein tumhe chhod nahi sakti kyunki tum mujhe ussey zyaada pyaar karte ho’
What has Paytm done that other players haven’t? They had the same opportunity in the wake of demonetization. Even in the last 35 days, what have you done differently than other players?
I think the understanding among people is that typically a payment in the mobile world is meant for online customers, online people, and online merchants. But here the payment instrument, Paytm, itself is an online company. Last November, we took a different bet to see whether the payment company could go offline. Offline, there is a POS cost. So we thought of an innovation – the Paytm QR code. Technically, it will be the biggest discovery and hasn’t happened anywhere else in the world. Typically, investment on technology is by the shopkeeper - he has a computer, POS machine and everything, and consumers carry currency or a card which are not technology devices. Now the shopkeeper carries a QR code sticker and the consumer carries a computer within his mobile. That flip has changed the business model. Now, a tea vendor or a vegetable seller can start accepting payments. Everybody was going North, we started saying, let’s go South. And then we experimented. These are of course risky bets.
What is Vijay Shekhar Sharma doing to give back?
The amount of money that I ever make will be the amount of money this country will get back, whether as a part of the business that I will set up in the country or the work that I will do. I am lucky that I was not born in a rich family, so I do not know how to spend much money, and that is why I am so low on the extravagance footprint and ready to share my money and resources. Do you know this that I invest in companies because they are friends and not because they have a business plan that appeals to me? So, I have made investments in 37 companies. I don’t even know what they do. I fundamentally believe that you invest in a person, not in a business plan. So for example, it is Vishal Gondal who gets money, not GOQii.
So what are some areas that you want to invest in, going forward?
Sustainability is the biggest one. I am building a network of start-ups and I have committed Rs10 crore to that. I believe that I will collect a lot more capital for the cities that we live in, they have got to become far better. Sustainability is the biggest issue looming before us.
Paytm is a disruptor, it’s an innovator. It has localized solutions. But do you agree that we are a culture that only celebrates success, not failure... and perhaps it is time to change that culture?
Every failure will be celebrated once there is a success outcome of it. Only then will people understand that success was the outcome of some failure. Success in this country is to get a job in TCS, Oracle or IBM. Success is not in building a flawless company, to be a part of this amazing start-up culture. Once we start celebrating the success of young companies and people who are trying to do new things, we will come to know that they have not been successful at one go... they might have actually failed 10 times and then emerged successful.
Talking of the extraordinary developments of November 8, how did you manage to put out front-page advertisements across major publications in a matter of hours after demonetization was announced? You had a very short window of time as the move was announced late evening on November 8, and in a few hours, newspapers had to go to Press...
First of all, I want to acknowledge the contribution of our creative agency, McCann WorldGroup. The creative team is absolutely fabulous because they came up with the ‘Paytm Karo’ tagline earlier. Print has a strict turnaround time and creatives have to be in, say by 5pm or 7pm, if you want it to appear in the next day’s newspaper. Looking back on the evening of November 8, the demonetization announcement happened at 8pm and by 9pm, my team was working on the ad and we were talking to newspapers that we wanted to take the front page of the November 9 edition. We wanted to be on the front page of every newspaper in the country because while this country was thinking that finding black money was the primary intent, we saw it as the biggest push a digital economy would ever get in this country. We wanted to applaud Prime Minister Narendra Modi, saying that it was a historic decision, because it would effectively be the day when you don’t need to go to an ATM, but go to Paytm. We immediately created the campaign line ‘ATM nahi, Paytm karo!’ A few major newspapers – The Hindustan Times, The Telegraph, The Hindu and Mint – actually waited for our ad to be created and went to Press much after their usual release time, post 12.30am. Thanks to our media agency Maxus, which spoke to the papers, we finally got it done, and had the ad on the front pages of many dailies the following day. We wrote the best copyline in this rush. I wrote the Hindi headline ‘Tum badlogey, ek badlega. Hum badlengey, desh badlega’, and my team then wrote the corresponding English one -‘When one changes, it is progress. When all of us change, it is a revolution.’
What is your goal in the long and short term? What next?
My personal goal is that this country hasn’t produced any 100 billion dollar company... can we take a shot at that? Can we take that shot so that when we land in international cities like Tokyo, London & Hong Kong, we see that there is an Indian brand present there. And I am able to say that it is our company.