I am waiting in a meeting room in a corporate office that is at odds with its occupant’s ambition. “Go big or go home”, says a poster at the entrance. But the workspace is crammed—employees wrestle for elbowroom at their workstations and meeting rooms are scarce. In my hour-long wait, nearly a dozen people knock on the door to check if the room is available. The office decor is frugal, comprising motivational posters, some featuring technology pioneers such as Steve Jobs. The only attempt at decor in the meeting room is a cabinet with a line of trophies, a few curated objects and some books.
This is the office of Noida-based One97 Communications, better known as the company behind Paytm, the mobile digital payments platform. Headed by the effervescent 38-year-old Vijay Shekhar Sharma, Paytm is a direct beneficiary of the Union government’s 8 November decision to replace old high-denomination rupee notes with new ones. (Clarification: This interview was conducted a few weeks before the news of demonetisation broke out.)
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Sharma arrives and apologizes, explaining that he was caught up in a presentation on the design of the new branches of the upcoming Paytm Payments Bank (a new banking model with restricted banking operations to promote greater financial inclusion). “The only thing that we always underestimate is space requirement, because we’ve grown into business verticals in different businesses so fast that space has lagged,” says the chief executive officer (CEO).
Sharma started One97 in 2000, as an information service provider to telecom companies. Paytm came in 2010, despite scepticism from his board, which was then unconvinced of the viability of a digital mobile payments platform. Starting with mobile recharging, Paytm expanded its offerings to bus and movie tickets, utilities and e-commerce. The platform now has over 150 million “wallets”, according to Sharma. Paytm was most recently valued by its investors at over $5 billion (Rs34,000 crore) and in 2015 received a licence to start a payments bank.
For now, Sharma works off a regular workstation. It is bare except for a laptop, a picture of a sun with sunglasses, a clock and a cartoon character. Most of his meetings take place in this meeting room. It is a makeshift arrangement, he says. He will soon move into a renovated office, which he hopes will offer a more interesting work environment. Nonetheless, his temporary workplace offers insight into how Sharma does what he does, i.e. the work styles that explain his business growth.
An entrepreneur’s toolkit
First, the motivational posters. “Speed is our bet on the market”, says one poster, suggesting that being able to move faster than others is Paytm’s primary competitive advantage. “I wrote that. To fight with a big gorilla, the only thing you can do different is speed, because otherwise every big company has enough resources and understanding, so speed is No.1,” Sharma says, adding, “It really is an urgency because in payments bank business we are facing people who have spent, or are spending really large money.”
“Go big or go home. We will bring half a billion Indians to the mainstream economy.” Another catchphrase by Sharma, the poster reflects his stated mission to be “the fabric of financial services for India”, by introducing cashless, financial services to previously unbanked consumers, “and offering one million touchpoints”—a significant multiplier on existing banking industry offerings, he says. This nation-sized ambition extends to his company’s valuation expectations. “I am of a firm belief that we have an opportunity, unlike any other company before us, to build a $100 billion company out of this country, finally. The best will be if I take it to a level where we can be top 10 companies of Asia (which would entail being worth more than $150 billion),” Sharma says.
Next, the objects at his workstation and in the cabinet of the meeting room. There are two unusual sets of glasses—an iron sculpture of a pair of glasses, given to Sharma by his college roommate, “to help him think for long”, a metaphor on maintaining one’s vision and foresight; and an image of a smiling sun, wearing a pair of sunglasses.
Pinned on Sharma’s desk, this image is a reflection of Sharma’s exuberant personality (he laughs more often than any CEO I’ve met in this series). His joviality highlights a key entrepreneurial trait—resilience.
Road to the top
Sharma encountered classic start-up challenges—for example, he was personally strapped for cash for a long time. “For 10 years, from 2000-10, the total amount of money that I would have earned as a salary was Rs20 lakh,” he says. He was also advised to quit and sell his business on several occasions by his family and board members. “Just before I got funded from Alibaba, there was a discussion for us to sell Paytm even before Series A funding happened,” he adds.
None of which dented his long-term confidence, he says. “This confidence comes from understanding that there is nothing that I can get better than taking this shot, and there is nothing that I can lose when I lose everything at this shot. I kept learning that people are identified by the shot they take so I always thought why not take a bigger shot?”
Near the glasses is a trio of cartoon figures, from the Taobao company, the Chinese website for online shopping owned by Sharma’s investor, Alibaba. Sharma’s meeting with Alibaba founder Jack Ma in 2014 was pivotal to the company’s rapid growth. “It was not a meeting of an investor and a company but of two minds, an attitude, culture and a way you have to build,” Sharma says.
Finally, there is the missing poster—of Bono from the music band U2, which Sharma had in his earlier office on another floor in the same building. Known to be a music fanatic, he says, “I can go from Metallica, heavy metal, rock to blues and jazz. I was in Salt Lake City recently only to see Coldplay in person.”
As we leave, another dozen people line up—some to grab Sharma’s attention, others to dive into the now-vacant meeting room. Paytm’s work atmosphere is stretched and basic, but it captures the restless energy of a start-up that wants to become the default national option for mobile payments.
• On the new payments bank
We will not be a banker for half a billion Indians, we will be a wealth manager of half a billion Indians. I don’t think we, as a savings account, will fight for a interest rate, we will fight for better returns for your money which can come from the wealth management.
• On competition
If competition can keep you awake, then you are in the wrong business and your plans are down. Competition should not define who you are. In fact, we internally have an obligation not to talk about competition. I tell my people: Please remove the competition slides, I am not interested, you are wasting time.
• When someone disappoints him
I think I’ll say that I expect you to be smarter. Definitely expect you to be much better than this. And I am not saying that because you will be, I am saying it because I feel you better be. If you don’t be, then there will not be a place for us tomorrow.
Aparna Piramal Raje meets heads of organizations every month to investigate the connections between their workspace design and working styles. She is the author of Working Out Of The Box: 40 Stories Of Leading CEOs, a compilation of Head Office columns, published as part of the Mint Business Series.