Ankit Nagori: The early riser
Even by the baffling standards of India’s start-up world, Ankit Nagori, who was employee No.33 at Flipkart, is an overachiever.
In March 2010, 24-year-old Nagori joined Flipkart as a manager after folding up his social media start-up YouthPad. At the time, Flipkart was a largely unknown company, selling books on its minimalist design site to geeks who swore by its service.
By the time Nagori quit the company exactly six years later to start his new venture, he had become the most powerful man at Flipkart after the three Bansals (Flipkart co-founders Sachin Bansal and Binny Bansal, and Mukesh Bansal, who moved to the company after it bought his online fashion retail business, Myntra).
Nagori rose along with Flipkart, one improbable step after the other. By early 2015, Flipkart had become a behemoth, the torch bearer of India’s rising New Age technology businesses, employing more than 30,000 people and fetching a valuation of $15 billion (around Rs1 trillion). Nagori, who was elevated to the post of chief business officer in early 2015, had in turn become the poster boy within Flipkart: a brash, intelligent 29-year-old man of action who seemed unstoppable.
His stint ended abruptly in less-than-ideal circumstances. Flipkart was forced to change its chief executive officer in January 2016 after a disastrous year during which it allowed its role model turned arch rival Amazon to close in. As one of the company’s top leaders, Nagori accepted his share of the blame without any prompting. “We all got carried away by the success of 2014, particularly the first BBD (Big Billion Day, Flipkart’s annual sale event in October). In hindsight, I should have stopped at 10,000 sellers rather than go to 100,000 sellers (it hurt service quality),” he says, referring to Flipkart’s shift from selling goods directly to becoming a marketplace.
I’m meeting him at The Leela Palace in Bengaluru over dinner on a weeknight. We split a bottle of red wine; like me, he is vegetarian, so ordering food is convenient. Wearing a dark shirt and jeans, he is relaxed and talks freely. He has the demeanour of an impatient man, someone who’s in a hurry to get things done, often anticipating questions and statements before I finish them. Still, we end up talking for nearly 3 hours.
In February 2016, Nagori resigned from Flipkart; so did Mukesh Bansal. Both wanted to become entrepreneurs again. Passionate about sports—he captained the cricket team at the Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati—Nagori wanted to launch a start-up in the area of sports and fitness. Bansal, equally passionate about health, also wanted to launch a business that had a massive market rather than a niche space. They hadn’t been friends at Flipkart but they established a rapport when they worked closely in 2015 as the two seniormost members of the company’s management team. Discussing their next steps, they realized there was significant overlap in what they wanted to do. Both had made lots of money at Flipkart; they were among the highest recipients of Flipkart shares, while Bansal had also profited handsomely when Flipkart paid more than $330 million to buy Myntra in May 2014. After some discussion, they decided to launch a venture together. In March 2016, Nagori and Bansal put up a total of $5 million to launch a then unnamed venture in healthcare and fitness.
“We had a broad idea of what we wanted to do but we did a lot of research before finalizing it. I visited China, Hong Kong, Singapore. (Bansal) visited the US. We wanted to understand what was happening in healthcare and fitness in these countries. By June, we had a clear idea of what we wanted to do,” says Nagori.
The start-up was named CureFit. In July, CureFit announced it had raised as much as $15 million from venture capital firms Accel Partners, Kalaari Capital and IDG Ventures. Apart from being one of the largest early rounds of funding ever by an Indian start-up, it was also one of the easiest: All three investors had reaped rich returns from backing Bansal’s Myntra.
“We decided to raise that much because we wanted speed-to-market. We didn’t want to slowly build a product and be constrained on hiring. The funding also helps us with our acquihires (acquisitions made primarily for bringing on board employees of the acquired company),” says Nagori.
Nagori was born in Bokaro, a small town in (then) Bihar, where his father ran a steel trading business. At age 5, he moved to the Capital, enrolling at the Delhi Public School. He did his engineering from IIT, Guwahati. Around the time his Flipkart career was picking up, he married Kanika. They had been friends from school. Their son, Kiaan, will turn 2 this year.
An early riser, Nagori runs regularly along the few lakes left in Bengaluru. He is big on fitness, the influence of co-founder Mukesh Bansal. Sometimes, he walks to or from his office in the HSR Layout, the city’s start-up hub, and his home, 9km away. He plays as a pace bowler in his club cricket team. And over the past three years, he has become a serious reader—he finished some 80 books last year. His favourites include graphic novels, Ramachandra Guha’s India After Gandhi and novels by Ken Follett. He has read Mahatma Gandhi’s The Story Of My Experiments With Truth and the Mahabharat several times.
“Lately, I have been reading a lot about India. I travel often to smaller cities and towns to understand consumer behaviour. I think tier II cities will be the engines of growth around 2030,” Nagori says, as we walk towards the buffet table. “I usually just walk around the city and interact with people. Say, if I’m travelling to Bihar, I’ll go to a dhaba (roadside eatery) and talk to people around. It’s really interesting because it helps you understand the country. When you go around India, you realize how little you know of the country,” he adds.
While India seems like a big market on paper, most consumer Internet companies will have to make do for now with the top 10 or 12 largest cities. This is where much of India’s spending power is concentrated and can potentially be tapped profitably. CureFit, too, is looking at launching initially in these markets.
The start-up plans to introduce its app in April in Bengaluru, says Nagori. CureFit will provide the “prevention” or the “fitness” part of healthcare first, a reverse of the sequence in its name. The app will offer services in physical fitness (subscriptions to its fitness centres) and do-it-yourself training content on yoga and meditation. The company, which is investing in building large kitchens, will also offer health food subscriptions on the app. Later in the year, it will add health check-up services. The “cure” part of healthcare, which start-ups such as the doctor discovery platform Practo cater to, will come later, says Nagori.
Last month, the company bought a majority stake in The Tribe, a fitness centre chain. In August, it purchased the fitness centre brand Cult for $3 million. These fitness centres, which will be expanded from the current eight to more than 20 by the end of the year, will be the core of CureFit’s offering. It has also invested in mental wellness services provider Seraniti Mental Health and signed a strategic partnership with delivery start-up Opinio.
That’s a lot of merger and acquisition activity for a start-up which hasn’t even launched its product.
“We’re trying to cultivate an entrepreneurial culture among employees and these acquihires help a lot. I grew at Flipkart because Sachin, Binny and Sujeet (Sujeet Kumar, a former senior leader at Flipkart) gave me a lot of independence and a lot of responsibility, especially in the first two years. That’s one of the things I learnt: Give smart people a lot of independence. Besides, the speed-to-market becomes quicker with assets like Cult and The Tribe,” Nagori says.
It’s 10.30pm, which is late for Nagori, who is usually asleep by this time. Time to leave. As the co-head of a fitness and health start-up, Nagori needs to live up to its creed.