Interview with Binny Bansal: The founder of the unicorn that re-defined India's startup ecosystem

Binny Bansal needs no introduction. He has found a place of his own in the startup ecosystem, and, at present is busy mentoring young startups besides exploring new investment opportunities. As per IIFL Wealth Hurun India Rich List 2019, Binny is amongst the top 5 entrepreneurs when it comes to India's self-made entrepreneurs, aged under 40. Still a techie at heart, the internet entrepreneur co-founded Flipkart in 2007. Flipkart went on to become synonymous with e-commerce in India. In his quest to help budding entrepreneurs transform their initial business momentum into at-scale impact and world-class organizations, Binny, along with his former colleague, Saikiran, launched xto10x Technologies.

Besides, he’s also involved in the IITD endowment fund in IIT Delhi and is lending a helping hand to set up an entrepreneurship ecosystem there. There is more to the Indian billionaire than what meets the eye… Here are the excerpts from the interaction between Binny Bansal and Anas Rahman Junaid, MD, and Chief Researcher, Hurun India.

What are your main activities now?

From last year, I have started spending quality time with my family along with investing in startups and mentoring entrepreneurs. Most of the mentoring initiatives are through my networks as well as through the xto10x platform. In this competitive environment, there are numerous challenges that may result in setbacks for startups. What I look forward to is guiding and helping these founders get their start-ups off the ground.

Are there any sectors that you focus on while investing?

We see a lot of interesting stuff happening here in India and Southeast Asia, across sectors. My focus is on entrepreneurs who are doing things differently, in a completely new way, which will bring about a major change over 10-15 years from now. Flipkart was doing retail in a different manner when it started. Today, almost half the phones are sold online in the country on the Flipkart platform. This was unimaginable back in those days and that is what gets me excited.

This is exactly what’s happening now in areas like health tech, education, logistics, enterprise software, commerce, and fintech. Some of these are happening because of AI. A large part is happening because data is being used in a different way: mobile payments and people’s access to mobile internet, all of which are driving different ecosystems. I am looking for more insights into business, which is new and gives a fresh perspective to an existing problem.

Have you come across scenarios where the startups that you have mentored through your platforms and angels have taken substantial equity?

Not really, but I have heard a lot of stories, where it happens. The founders who come to me are those who have raised institutional money and are not from that early stage. So I haven’t come across such experiences. Also, I feel Bangalore is a little more evolved in this matter.

What do you think of co-working spaces?

It is a great concept and a good business to build. But the question to ask is if it is like an exponential startup? I feel it is more of a good real estate business rather than a tech business.

What about VR and blockchain?

I am not an expert in VR. We have not explored blockchain and are waiting for use cases to come.

Binny Bansal debuted in the Hurun India Rich List before any other list. The news was a front page article in most of the newspapers. Attaching a clip from Business standard above. Such was the impact of Binny's legacy, that kickstarted transparent wealth creation in Indian startups.

How about FinTech opportunities in India?

If you look at the structure of the Indian economy, the penetration of financial products is limited. For instance, take any category like credit, insurance, Wealth Management, even banking payments, the penetration was extremely low until four years ago when UPI came in. Look at what UPI has done; it has empowered more than 100 million people with digital transactions and that's making so many other businesses considered impossible, possibly today.

When small businesses or individuals start getting credit in a much more sustainable manner, it will have a positive impact on the economy. Similarly, if insurance penetration increases, the sheer impact which can get delivered is immense. With the new digital push, a lot can start happening because the cost of distribution, cost of assessing risk, etc. gets optimized by using technology, data, and the right set of tools.

In the case of mutual funds, other than the top 25 cities, the distribution is almost zero in the rest of the country. The only way to distribute mutual funds outside the top few cities in India is going to be digital. Hopefully, some of these will create new mutual funds or new products around mutual funds, wealth, insurance, and credit, where digital distribution will be adopted. It's going to be really interesting to witness this change.

Top traditional firms and young companies according to you

I think HDFC is a great brand and very strong in what they do; Unilever is hard to compete with. Among young companies, I would say Swiggy and Curefit.

What are your thoughts on Philanthropy?

There was no time and money to think about philanthropy until I was in Flipkart. The way I looked at philanthropy then was I am investing more than 50% of my liquidity into the startup ecosystem.

The last year-and-a-half, I have been more active and this is a kind of learning journey for me. I am involved in a few initiatives both from time and economic perspectives. One of them is Udhyam Learning Foundation, which is around education but linked to entrepreneurship. Started by ex-Flipkart leader Mekin Maheshwari, it is about inculcating entrepreneurial mindset in school-going children. We have developed a curriculum, which is now live in all public schools in Delhi and guides more than eight lakh students.

At Udhyam, we talk about success stories of Indian entrepreneurship and other basic principles through case studies. While we share a lot of inspiring stories, we also believe that an entrepreneurial mindset is something that can be taught only by practice. So, we give a group of students anything between Rs 1000 and Rs 10,000 to do a business activity using certain concepts and applications and that’s where we see some entrepreneurial mindset applied by the students.

How adversely do you think the pandemic will affect the Indian economy?

The Indian economy is in a tough spot, I believe it will be in an uphill battle for the next 12-18 months. But, I remain optimistic that the economy will rebound.

What is your advice to entrepreneurs in the times of COVID 19?

COVID-19 is not a short-term phenomenon. In such challenging times, agility and adaptability to the quick-changing business environment will play a key role for entrepreneurs in their journey ahead.

I have two pieces of advice to share:

First, be cognizant of expenditure and keep strict control over costs and cash outflow.

Second, the need of the hour is to be able to quickly tweak and transform your strategy be it sales, product, operations, or even the business model itself to align with current customer needs and unprecedented market conditions.

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