Unfazed by COVID, these top Indian startup executives take the entrepreneurial plunge

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Scores of top executives who helped to scale up India’s renowned startups have quit their cushy jobs in recent months to pursue their own entrepreneurial dreams.

As they took the plunge, learnings from the corner office and generous remunerations from their past jobs have stood in good stead amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Atul Monga and Pranav Khattar, former executives of the insurance aggregator PolicyBazaar. along with Kalyan Josyula, recently launched BASIC Home Loan, which has raised $500,000 in seed funding from the German VC Picus Capital. The Gurugram-based company is working on developing a platform for automating home loans for middle- and low-income households in India.

According to Monga, who quit PolicyBazaar in June this year, COVID-19 did not hinder his business plans and he, in fact, managed to build a strong management team amid the mass layoffs in the industry.

Another top executive at PolicyBazaar, Manish Kothari, quit last year to start his own venture ZFunds, which focuses on selling mutual funds online in rural India. He teamed up with Vidhi Tuteja, Gaurav Seth, and Ruchi Kuhar for the venture.

A few former executives from the edtech unicorn Byju’s, too, have launched their own startups. Shankar Ram A, Avinash Anand, and Aanand Srinivas, together founded edtech company StayQrious this year, which focuses on skilling students in computer applications such as coding. In September, StayQrious raised $2 million from Learnstart, Draper Associates, Y Combinator, Nitin Sharma (First Principles VC), Lavni Ventures, and Dream Incubator (Japan).

Another former Byju’s executive Sahil Sheth quit the company in December 2017 and launched the edtech startup Lido Learning last year.

“There was no one trigger or ‘aha!’ moment that made me start Lido. It is the culmination of a decade of being obsessed with the idea of revolutionising education in India. My passion for education is what made me start Infinite Student [Sheth’s first startup that was acquired by Byju’s in 2015]. It helped me understand the value that self-paced videos could add to a child’s learning experience. As my involvement with education grew, I realised that live tuition classes have a special place in a child’s learning. That understanding was the genesis of Lido Learning,” Sheth said.

In less than two years, Lido has been able to solve the problem of infrastructure, revamp content to make it more engaging, and make rigorous training of quality teachers from all parts of the country possible, according to Sheth.

Edtech startups have had a bumper 2020, as schools and universities switched to online learning due to lockdowns. Millions of dollars have been invested into edtech startups since the beginning of this year. The education and online training industry accounted for the lion’s share of total PE and VC investments in July-September at $1.14 billion across 33 transactions, according to DealStreetAsia – Research and Analytics’s latest report.

Another venture focusing on children is Junio, started by former Paytm executive Shankar Nath who donned the entrepreneurial hat after a two-year sabbatical. Nath co-founded Junio with another Paytm alumnus Ankit Gera to build a community of financially-smart kids. Junio is a kids-focused smart card for digital and physical purchases.

Nath and Gera are part of a lengthy list of entrepreneurs who learned the ropes of building a business at Paytm.

Others include Amit Bagaria and Saurabh Vashishtha, Amit Lakhotia, Deepak Abbot, Nitin Misra, and Amit Sinha who have turned entrepreneurs. Bagaria and Vashishtha own social commerce platform SimSim while Lakhotia launched parking app Park+. Meanwhile, Abbot and Misra own fintech app indiagold and Sinha owns agritech startup Unnati.

Expand Table

Top Indian startup executives who became founders

FoundersFounding Company (Year)Previous Startup Employer
Atul Monga, Pranav Khattar BASIC Home Loan (2020)PolicyBazaar
Shankar Nath, Ankit GeraJunio (2020)Paytm
Deepak Abbot, Nitin Misraindiagold (2020)Paytm
Avinash Anand, Shankar Ram A, Aanand SrinivasStayQrious (2020)Byju's
Manish Kothari Zfunds (2019)PolicyBazaar
Amit Bagaria, Saurabh Vashishtha SimSim (2019)Paytm
Amit LakhotiaPark+ (2019)Paytm
Sahil ShethLido Learning (2019)Byju's
Saikiran Krishnamurthy, Binny Bansal xto10x Technologies (2019)Flipkart
Ashneer Grover BharatPe (2018)Grofers
Ashutosh Lawania, Prasad Kompalli, Arjun Choudhary, Ajit NarayanaMfine (2017)Myntra
Punit Soni Suki (2017)Flipkart
Amit SinhaUnnati (2017)Paytm
Mukesh Bansal, Ankit NagoriCureFit (2016)Flipkart
Varun KhuranaCrofarm (2016)Grofers
Akshay MehrotraEarlySalary (2015)PolicyBazaar
Satkam DivyaKlinicApp.com (2015)PolicyBazaar
Siddharth RavindranRupeelend.com (2014)PolicyBazaar

Learnings from the past

Many executives say their experience at Paytm proved to be handy while starting up.

“All such employees have been with Paytm from 2014-2015 when it wasn’t a known brand. They have seen how to build/scale business and now they feel is the right time to give back to the community. We have financial stability and would like to generate employment, and solve problems through technology,” Gera of Junio said.

Elaborating on his experience at Paytm, Gera said, “Exposure at Paytm is diverse. It’s so dynamic that one day you are managing a business and another day you are leading a customer care team. You understand the nuances of scaling a business…what can go wrong, what works and what doesn’t. I got the opportunity to head user growth at Paytm.  Customer lifecycle management is the most important piece for any business.”

In the same vein, Monga of BASIC Home Loan said that processes at PolicyBazaar helped him understand sales beyond numbers and his colleagues in the company helped him become a more disciplined person. “I’ve worked with a super genius lot at PolicyBazaar, who were very ambitious about achieving their goals. Moreover, the understanding of processes and use of technology in sales helped in building my own business.”

“I also learned about the overall Indian lending ecosystem and realised that while people are talking about affordable housing, not much is being done. Also, the scope of a fintech company is limited to tier-1 cities as the business is built on a fixed-cost model. That is the time I got this idea of building a business on a variable-cost model, using a network of agents across tier-2 and tier-3 cities,” added Monga, an IIT Delhi graduate, who has also worked as an investment banker with Credit Suisse in Hong Kong and Singapore.

Other executives who’ve quit PolicyBazaar to start up include Akshay Mehrotra, Satkam Divya, and Siddharth Ravindran. While Mehrotra, who had a stint as chief marketing officer, founded the consumer lending platform EarlySalary along with Ashish Goyal in 2016, Divya resigned from PolicyBazaar as director-product Engineering & Mobile in 2015 to launch e-diagnostic startup KlinicApp.com.

Ravindran is currently the founder and CEO at Rupeelend.com.

Meanwhile, former Paytm executive Amit Sinha unveiled his agritech venture Unnati in October last year. Sinha joined One97 communications, the parent company of Paytm, in 2007 and quit in 2010 to start his own venture, which was also an agritech startup called Akshamaala. Sinha along with Ashok Prasad had been working on Unnati for the past couple of years.

“Passion to work in the agriculture sector and bringing technology into it was there right from that time. But after launching Akshmala in 2010, we realised that we were way ahead of time. Farmers were not tech-savvy and unaware of online transactions. In 2014, I decided to get back to Paytm. Paytm is now getting into regulatory-driven large businesses, which require longer execution time. That’s when I decided to move on and pursue my passion once again,” Sinha said.

At Paytm, Sinha, an IIM Calcutta alumnus, led multiple areas like HR, finance, commerce, insurance, and digital marketing. He has served as the COO of Paytm Mall and business head at Paytm Insurance.

Sharing his learnings from Paytm, Sinha said, “I began my journey with the company when there were not even 100 people in the organisation, compared to about 20,000 when I eventually quit. The 4-5 years that I spent at Paytm is equivalent to 25-30 years of experience considering the scope it offered. I got to know a lot from people and processes point of view. I also learnt that if one doesn’t take decisions at the drop of a hat or move very fast, there are chances of being left behind.”

Sinha’s venture Unnati raised $1.7 million in a pre-Series A funding earlier this month from NABVENTURES Fund. Angel investor Sumeet Seraf also participated in the round. Paytm founder Vijay Shekhar Sharma is also an investor in the Noida-based agritech startup.

Fortunes from the past

Besides the experience, these executives were also helped by the significant fortunes they made at Paytm through employee stock ownership plan (ESOPs).

“Paytm has always generously rewarded its employees with ESOPS. They are granted across the organisation and not just to the senior employees. Almost every year, the company organises a liquidity event where employees sell their vested ESOPS.  Whoever is with Paytm has made wealth in proportion to their contribution,” Gera said.

A similar trend of high-paid employees quitting to start up was witnessed at Fipkart. The company’s logistics unit Ekart’s head Saikiran Krishnamurthy quit the company in 2017, worked with Ola for a year, and launched his venture xto10x Technologies in 2018 along with Binny Bansal.

Punit Soni, one of Flipkart’s most prized Silicon Valley hires, quit as chief product officer in April 2016, to start his healthtech venture Suki. Similarly, Mukesh Bansal quit as the commerce platform head in 2016 to start health and fitness start up CureFit with Flipkart’s former chief business officer Ankit Nagori.

Singapore Reporter/s

In Singapore, we are looking to double our reporting team by this year-end to comprehensively cover the fast-moving world of funded startups and VC, PE & M&A deals. We want reporters who can tell our readers what is really happening in these sectors and why it matters to markets, companies and consumers. The ability to write precisely and urgently is crucial for these roles. Ideal candidates must have to ability to work in a collaborative, dynamic, and fast-changing environment. We want our new hires to be digitally savvy and ready to experiment with new forms of storytelling. Most importantly, we are looking for hard-hitting reporters who work well in a team. Collaboration and collegiality are a must.

Following vacancies can be applied for (only in Singapore).

Following vacancies can be applied for (only in Singapore).   

  • A reporter to track companies/startups that have raised private capital, and have the potential to become unicorns. SEA currently has over 40 companies with a valuation of over $100 million and under $1 billion.
  • A reporter who can get behind the scenes and reveal how funding rounds are put together, or why they’ve failed to materialise. She/he in this role will largely focus on long-format stories. 
  • A journalist to track special situations funds, distressed debt and private credit (from the PE angle) across Asia.

Singapore Reporter/s

In Singapore, we are looking to double our reporting team by this year-end to comprehensively cover the fast-moving world of funded startups and VC, PE & M&A deals. We want reporters who can tell our readers what is really happening in these sectors and why it matters to markets, companies and consumers. The ability to write precisely and urgently is crucial for these roles. Ideal candidates must have to ability to work in a collaborative, dynamic, and fast-changing environment. We want our new hires to be digitally savvy and ready to experiment with new forms of storytelling. Most importantly, we are looking for hard-hitting reporters who work well in a team. Collaboration and collegiality are a must.

Following vacancies can be applied for (only in Singapore).

Following vacancies can be applied for (only in Singapore).   

  • A reporter to track companies/startups that have raised private capital, and have the potential to become unicorns. SEA currently has over 40 companies with a valuation of over $100 million and under $1 billion.
  • A reporter who can get behind the scenes and reveal how funding rounds are put together, or why they’ve failed to materialise. She/he in this role will largely focus on long-format stories. 
  • A journalist to track special situations funds, distressed debt and private credit (from the PE angle) across Asia.