He saw the potential in e-commerce long before Flipkart was born. He ushered in a new era of shopping. And in between all of this, he also finds the time to sing Kishore Kumar songs and follow cricket. Tushar Kaushik discovers the many sides of Hari Menon, co-founder of Bigbasket
Much before Flipkart, another start-up attempted to revolutionise the retail industry. It functioned almost exactly the way Flipkart does now, however, it didn’t work as it was ahead of its time. Undeterred, its co-founder Hari Menon did eventually manage to shake up the status quo by starting Bigbasket, the first online platform that sold groceries, including perishable ones.
Menon might not be India’s richest entrepreneur, but he is probably one of the most successful, certainly a trailblazing one and surely the coolest one. He co-founded a start-up in a sector that nobody had entered before, oversaw its rise to dizzying heights and still finds the time to pursue his interests in music and cricket. Menon, who was at Great Lakes Institute of Management to inspire young MBA students, now wants to pass on all of his valuable experience to aspiring entrepreneurs and, a few years down the line, wants to be left alone with his music.
Menon studied (yes, you guessed it right) engineering at one of the country’s top institutes — BITS Pilani. At the time, by his own admission, he had no thoughts of starting anything on his own. “The ecosystem for start-ups wasn’t there at the time. For someone with a family, it was really scary to think of a start-up,” says Menon. From 1983 to 1998, Menon worked in the corporate sector and gained valuable experience for what was to come later.
Fortune favours the brave...eventually
In 1999, Menon with his four partners began Fabmart, an online platform which, as he puts it, essentially performed the same functions that Flipkart does today. However, the conditions at the time in India were unfavourable for any online venture. Menon says, “During the first year of Fabmart, there was only noise but no transactions as it couldn’t generate enough interest. After one year, we had to switch to Fabmall, the physical model of Fabmart. Back then, not only was internet penetration very low, but people were actually advised to not use their credit cards for online payments as there wasn’t any secure digital payment gateway.”
With Fabmart’s failure, Menon and his partners decided to focus on Fabmall. It worked very well and gave Menon the time to strategise about the next start-up over the next few years. It also helped that internet penetration in the country saw a big boom, allowing for online businesses to flourish. And thus, in October 2011, Bigbasket was co-founded by Hari Menon, Abhinay Choudhari, V S Sudhakar, Vipul Parekh and V S Ramesh.
The basket gets bigger
Bigbasket has been one of India’s biggest success stories. Incredibly, during their first three years of operation, Menon reveals, the firm relied only on word-of-mouth for advertising. Steady rises in transactions led to bigger investments when finally, about a year and a half ago, they hit the pedal and underwent large-scale expansions. Bigbasket currently has operations in 25 cities with plans to reach more cities in the future. Their revenues for successive years gives an idea of their stunning growth. A reported revenue of `178 crore in the 2014 fiscal year increased to `600 crore in 2015, with the firm now targeting the figure of `2,000 crore for the next year. Their brand ambassador is Shah Rukh Khan, who Menon says has given them a lot of visibility.
Passing on the gyaan
Menon’s clarity of thought and his knowledge of the thinking process of aspiring entrepreneurs was very much on display while he was addressing a session on ‘Gearing up for gen-next corporate citizens’ for students of Great Lakes Institute of Management near Chennai on September 15. Never shy of injecting humour into his talk, be began the session by asking for a show of hands for the query – “How many of you want to become entrepreneurs? Enough for me to go on?”
He then went on to outline the DOs and DON’Ts for aspiring entrepreneurs, interjecting his talk with frequent doses of humour. He also spoke, with disarming frankness, on the flaws in the current crop of entrepreneurs. He says, “What I don’t like about many MBA graduates is them saying that they want to work in ‘strategy’, ‘consulting’ or ‘marketing’. Another bad question they ask is about the number of hours I work in a week. A lot of youngsters say they first want to raise capital when they begin a start-up so that they can own more of the firm, but that doesn’t work, especially now that it’s harder to raise capital.” These flaws, he says, had almost disillusioned him from giving any speeches.
Menon reckons having a high emotional quotient (EQ) is the most important requirement to begin a start-up as skills can be picked up. He expresses amusement at the depths to which people go to find problems when they’re staring them directly in the face.
The musical side
Menon’s personal life is as interesting as his professional one. And yet, strangely, the confident businessman utters an emphatic ‘Oh God!’ when asked about his passion for music. Since childhood, music has always been his passion with a special liking towards Kishore Kumar. He was a vocalist in a band ‘The Thunk’ back in college, can also play the guitar, sings at every Bigbasket board meeting, and plugs in his karaoke set and sings Kishore Kumar songs every weekend for a few hours without fail.
Menon confirms that he would probably have been a singer if not an entrepreneur, but also dwelt on the difficulty he would have faced to convince his parents. “For a start-up itself I had to fight so much with my parents, if they had heard that the start-up guy was going to sing too I don’t know what they would have done,” he laughs. He also jams with his three sons whenever possible. “Two of them are guitarists while one’s a drummer. Two of them are in the US so I don’t get too much time to do this, but whenever we get together we play classic rock,” he says, counting Eagles, Simon & Garfunkel and Pink Floyd among his favourite bands. One would think shepherding Bigbasket to its stunning rise and indulging in his musical pursuits wouldn’t allow Menon time for anything else, but he surprises us by revealing another serious pursuit — cricket. “I’m a member of the KSCA (Karnataka State Cricket Association) and every Sunday I watch a match at the (Chinnaswamy) stadium, even if it’s a league match,” says Menon.
With every succeeding revelation, Menon becomes substantially cooler. There’s no doubt that if Menon had spoken for more time, others things about him would have emerged which would have added to his already substantial swag, but that’s a story for another time.