Inside Mumbai’s Sahara Star, a hotel constantly in the making, I wait for the man who has actually made it in life. It’s the end of my roughly three-month chase for Deep Kalra, who has promised to make my trip to near the domestic airport worth it.
Kalra, the poster boy of India’s online travel industry, chief executive and founder of online travel firm MakeMyTrip.com, is late. We were to meet at 8pm and it’s now 8.20.
Waiting to fly: Kalra says the ‘video-game instrument’ is an ‘electric pacifier’ during flight delays when the children are with him on holidays.. Jayachandran/Mint
In July, the parent firm of MakeMyTrip (India) Pvt. Ltd and MakeMyTrip.com Inc. filed a registration statement with the US Securities and Exchange Commission for an initial public offer. Kalra successfully listed his firm on Nasdaq in August, and its stock soared to two times its initial public offering (IPO) price of $14 (around Rs 630) each—it stood at $30.76 as of 5 January.
Two text messages later, at 8.35pm, Kalra sweeps through the door in a formal grey jacket; tall and, at 41, strikingly elegant. We head to the restaurant and the man who says he “loves south Indian food, idli, sambhar and chutney” orders a diet coke and chicken tikka.
Even as the odd light-and-fire show begins at the hotel, Kalra starts with a personal holiday story; after all, he has facilitated holidays for millions through his website (the company clocked sales of Rs 2,200 crore in the last financial year).
“We always travel together,” he says of wife Amrita, who was a travel show anchor for a private TV channel. “We take our children if our holidays include the beach, nature or wildlife. They get bored otherwise. For instance, we had an awesome trip to Istanbul, just the two of us. But we invariably end up missing our children. It is cheaper to take them along, considering the heavy telephone bills we have to pay once we return,” he says, smiling, adding that his favourite holiday destination “shamelessly” remains Goa.
He urges me to have the chicken tikka before it gets cold and pushes the plate and a napkin towards me. I ask about the popular myth that Kalra jotted down his business plan for www.makemytrip.com on a paper napkin with his venture capitalist friend. “It’s not true,” he insists. “In fact, my business plan for MakeMyTrip was well-written and in Excel and Word file, spreading into several pages, which was proofread by my wife. What my friend Neeraj Bhargava of eVentures and I agreed (to) on a napkin was financial terms of investments. This was at the Crossroads Mall in Mumbai. That was a gentleman’s promise,” he reminisces.
“At 30-31, you take risks. At 40, it changes. I will not take such risks now. Children start growing up and you have to keep certain standards in life. My formula is to take the risk early. Everything works if the idea stays with you,” he says.
He has the demeanour of a sincere academic though he is a thorough professional with a string of successful stints at ABN Amro Bank and GE Money from 1991 to 1999 at the senior levels, including as vice-president. He says it is difficult to escape the golden handcuffs that jobs in ABN Amro and GE offer though he learnt a lot from good bosses who had contrasting styles.
He gave it all up to become an entrepreneur because “if you are sure about your idea, then take the leap of faith. But passion cannot be borrowed.”
He believes India’s healthy 8% growth makes risk-taking easier. “If you have a degree, it’s an insurance. You can always come back if you fail. Don’t live with a regret that you did not try,” says the economics graduate from St Stephen’s College in Delhi.
Online travel was not Kalra’s only business plan—he had ideas for online stockbroking and online second-hand car sales. Online trading came naturally to the banker but travelling was closer to his heart. His conviction grew stronger when Amrita made an online hotel booking in Phuket, Thailand, that saved him $30 a day. He also made Rs 15,000 by selling his old car online.
The stage was set to eliminate the middleman.
As the chicken tikka gets cold, Kalra warms up. “I always wanted to do something on my own. I wasn’t productive enough in my role as an investment banker. Meetings for the sake of meetings…” he trails.
The real trigger came when he was put in charge of new avenues for distribution of GE Money products in 1999—not surprisingly, the Internet. “I found myself thrown into the wide Web. I started thinking clinically about retail as nobody has the time to meet travel agents personally. The online travel model was working in the US. I could see no reason why it would not work in India.”
Kalra did not wait long. He took the leap of faith in 2000, leaving GE Money and launching MakeMyTrip.com for non-resident Indians (NRIs) with a $2 million budget. He says he had started a site for India too at the same time but Indians were still not buying online. Kalra had to shelve his India project.
“I always trust data. I found that the number of non-resident Indians browsing the Internet was increasing, but in India, they were browsing but not buying. So I made targeted advertisements for NRIs. It paid off. We broke even in 2003 after three years.”
At this point, we decide to abandon the chicken tikka for the story of new India. He says the country started changing soon after 2003. “When Indian Railways’ IRCTC (Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation) started online booking in 2002, they also instilled faith among Indians. Then in 2004, low-fare carriers such as Air Deccan came in. Low-fare carriers were skipping the traditional booking system to save the cost of commission. We seized the opportunity.”
“People took a leap of faith and used their credit cards,” he smiles, and sits back with a look of contentment before recollecting the dreadful obstacles over the years—when India faced a financial slowdown, the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak practically killed travel and dot-coms went bust. “Venture capital firms pulled out. For 18 months, we couldn’t pay our employees. Forty per cent of our team left us. I guess we were resilient. There is a fine line between stubbornness and resilience. The team stood by us. If we had been alone, it would have been hard.”
He talks about the changing times: “In the past, holidays would mean visiting relatives’ places. Indian travellers are changing and are now open to multiple, albeit short, breaks. The latest trend is that they are opting for adventurous holidays. Indians have started thinking what they will do rather than where they will go.”
While we settle the bill, I think about the tikka and ask, “Any regrets?”
He mulls for a bit and says: “The biggest mistake, not once but twice, was to outsource the technology of MakeMyTrip. If only I had studied computer science, instead of an MBA (from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad)...”
The only person disappointed with the Nasdaq listing was his nine-year-old son Armaan (Kalra also has an 11-year-old daughter Manya). “He complained that even though he supported me throughout my life, I did not mention his name during interviews to foreign TV channels,” Kalra says, laughing.