“I am like the Forrest Gump guy,” says Ashish Hemrajani referring to the 1994 movie. “The whole world has gone around and I haven’t moved out of a 1km radius.”
Hemrajani, the founder and chief executive officer of Bigtree Entertainment Pvt. Ltd that owns the website Bookmyshow.com, which offers ticketing for cinemas, plays, concerts and live events, gives further evidence to the claim. He lives in the house he was born in Juhu, Mumbai, he went to school (Maneckji Cooper Education Trust) and college (Mithibai) in the same area. “Then,” the 38-year-old says, “I travelled 30km for two years to Sydenham (College of Commerce and Economics) for my MBA. That’s as far as I went.”
Professionally, though, Hemrajani has gone farther than many.
In mid-July, Bookmyshow.com signed a five-year deal worth Rs.1,000 crore with PVR Ltd to sell the latter’s tickets online (BookMyShow was previously managing PVR’s ticketing system but was not selling its tickets on the BookMyShow site). Hemrajani says the biggest gain from this deal is for the end consumer. “All I own is your user experience. The user owns us. I am giving that extra experience in one place,” he says. The deal adds 89 PVR cinemas (including Cinemax India Ltd, which the company acquired in January) with over 380 screens to BookMyShow’s existing tie-up with over 1,500 screens.
About 85% of their sales comes from movie tickets, says Hemrajani, but 45% of the revenue comes from other properties like the Indian Premier League (IPL), Formula One Indian Grand Prix, music events like NH7 in Pune, at blueFROG, among others. He believes there will be some equitable distribution of revenue in the future—“it will settle down at 50-50%”. His focus now will be on spreading into smaller towns since most of the current business comes from the top 4 metros. “The growth from class 2-3 towns is phenomenal, not because of the Internet on computers, but because of the mobile phone. BookMyShow does 26% of its transactions on mobile—the highest in the country. It’s (the app) a bit clunky but it works,” he says.
We meet at the Olive Bar & Kitchen at the Mahalaxmi Racecourse in Mumbai. Dressed in a black shirt tucked into jeans, Hemrajani has just finished a late lunch and gets a coffee as the restaurant begins to slowly wind down. He sinks into the cushions by the large windows, unperturbed by the unusually bright sunlight streaming in, after weeks of cloudy or rainy weather. He fires his answers swiftly, like an accurate automatic weapon, with figures and dates flowing in smoothly.
His parents, children of the Partition, moved to Mumbai to fulfil certain aspirations they had for their children. “Somewhere, genetically, that risk-taking ability seeped in,” Hemrajani says. He learnt piano while his elder sister learnt the guitar—“it should have been the other way round,” he says, laughing—while also doing speech lessons. There was a comforting routine then to life—trips to Jehangir Art Gallery on weekends, meals at Samovar and Sea Lounge, which his father could barely afford, buying LPs at Rhythm House, visits to the beach in Juhu…a routine which he still keeps up with. “Three generations of watchmen know me, the postman has seen me grow—these relationships have not changed in 38 years. Only that I lived in two different cities: I was born in Bombay and am today in Mumbai.”
He has told his story of enlightenment often enough—it came under a big tree while backpacking in 1999 in South Africa, when he happened to listen to a radio programme promoting tickets for rugby. The idea marinated in his head the whole trip, culminating into a decision while lying on a bunk bed towards the end of the trip, after a night of binging at Stellenbosch. The name of the company comes from the location of this realization.
Shortly after, Hemrajani quit his two-year-old first job in advertising agency Hindustan Thompson Associates, where he was working then, persuaded friends Parikshit Dar and Rajesh Balpande to leave their jobs as well, to start selling movie tickets through telephone and Internet in 1999, at the height of the dotcom boom. Private equity firm Chase Capital Partners invested Rs.2.5 crore, selling their stake in Bigtree to News Corp. two years later before the dotcom bust. His number of employees went from 150 to 6, he had to shift offices and reassess all priorities.
“Today, kids know valuations and have accelerator programmes,” Hemrajani says. “They have learnt from people’s failures. Then, the ecosystem did not exist. I got calls from headhunters about jobs but I wanted to continue. That was one of my toughest decisions. I knew we had to ride the ecosystem.”
The company now employs over 300 people in offices in Mumbai, Delhi, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Chennai—where Bigtree bought Ticketgreen.com in December for an undisclosed sum—New Zealand and Australia. Network 18 had invested in the company in 2007, at the same time when an intern came up with the name Bookmyshow.com for the portal. US venture capitalist Accel Partners put in $18 million (about Rs.100 crore) in August last year.
“We have retained most of it,” says Hemrajani of this investment. “We have some plans besides the acquisition of Ticketgreen; we have some capital expenditure on infrastructure and some work around access control at events. We have a radio campaign. We built that war chest to run a series of experiments but also if the market changes and becomes irrational. In India, people are short of ideas, heavy on money. There is too much money chasing too few ideas, which leads to irrationality.”
He explains the monopoly his company has in the online ticketing space as some sort of “last man standing” phenomenon. “I have seen two dotcom booms and busts. When the tide pulls back, as Warren Buffett says, you know who’s been skinny dipping. Every time the tide pulled back, like in 2002 and 2008, people fell. In 1999-2000, I had 21 (competitors), in 2007, I had 27. I had to let go of my employees. I have learnt a few lessons in the process, because of which we have now the lowest churn—it’s more expensive to rehire, retrain and it’s bad karma—and highest retention.
"IN PARENTHESIS: Ashish Hemrajani watches movies only during daytime, Monday to Thursday. It’s not just because tickets are cheaper, he says, but also because there are fewer people and it’s easier to find parking. Most importantly, though, weekends are reserved for sailing. A member of the Royal Bombay Yacht Club, Bombay Sailing Association and Colaba Sailing Club, between October and April, he has been sailing every Saturday and Sunday for the last decade or so. “There are no boundaries here unlike other sports,” he says. “The ocean is your boundary. If you want to race to Dubai you can; you will not win though. The rules are used to disadvantage opponents not advantage yourself. The elements of nature are not in your control; one mistake is catastrophe as the boat can capsize. On water, you are screaming. The moment you come to land, everybody’s friends. Sailors know how to dissolve their egos as soon as they step out of the water.”"
“If you don’t earn money, it’s not dhanda (business). Anything that’s free has no value. Don’t be excitable when the going’s good, or feel bad when the times are low. And do not fear junk competition.”
As we move to the outdoor section, to help the Olive staff clear up and prepare for their next cycle, a gentle breeze carries odours from the nearby stables. Hemrajani races into some heavy statistics in explaining how much more is left to be done: 3.6 billion movie tickets sold every year, 1.4 billion Indians, 140 million with Internet access, 20 million transacting customers, 20 million “kids” on Facebook who will get their first pay cheque in a few years, 700 million handsets, 78 million smartphones and 18 million data connections.
“How do you reach out to everyone? It would be foolhardy to say we will do travel, etc. I would rather do something well than be a generalist and screw it up,” Hemrajani says. “Indians are impatient—they want to be millionaires tomorrow. You have to find the balance between doing more and doing the right thing.”
Hemrajani says he is an extrovert in a social situation, able to strike a conversation with anyone, but takes time to make friends. He also has a sharp sense of observation, he adds, and an eye for the future.
“People have the same aspirations, they may want the same Old Navy bag,” he says, pointing to the 11-year-old sack with no label by my side. “The Web is the only way. The possibilities are immense.”