Pranay Chulet | Quicker than the competition
The founder and CEO of Quikr on replicating the Craigslist model, and selling cars, cattle and astrology
The founder-CEO of Quikr, an online classifieds site that is modelled on Craigslist, has a large blueprint on the wall of his office. It’s of a zinc mine in Dariba Mines, near Udaipur, where he grew up. Forty-year-old Pranay Chulet points to a section of the blueprint: “There’s where the lift went down. I remember standing in it as a young boy, descending 2km underground in the dark, seeing only the light on top.”
At the Kendriya Vidyalaya in Dariba Mines there was no physics teacher for classes XI and XII. But the teenaged Chulet, whose father was a senior executive with Hindustan Zinc and managed the mine, had heard from a young engineer at the mines that the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) were great institutions. So he took a few correspondence courses and wrote the Indian Institute of Technology-Joint Entrance Examination, making it to chemical engineering at IIT-Delhi in 1992.
Chulet has travelled a great deal since then, from Dariba to Delhi to Manhattan, US, and now to Mumbai. He has also switched sectors, moving from chemical engineering at IIT-Delhi and business management at the Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta (IIM-C), to management consulting in New York, even movie-making, before he moved to digital media.
We meet for lunch at The Tasting Room, the arty, chic, high-ceilinged restaurant in central Mumbai. It has the added advantage of being next door to the Quikr office, where 150 Quikr employees sit and the Quikr call centre is based. The waiters know Chulet, he eats here quite often he says. So he knows the menu, asking for his regular penne pasta with lots of vegetables. I choose the John Dory, and we settle on a salad Chulet recommends—watermelon with feta cheese. Chulet talks about his journey from chemical engineering to Quikr.
“I dropped the ‘a’ because when I moved to the US in the late 1990s everyone would call me Pranayaa,” he explains. At his first job at Procter & Gamble Co. (P&G), he was assigned an internship with the brand Whisper—the “a” in Pranaya was misleading. “I became the first male to work on feminine hygiene products, but it was a fun learning experience,” he says.
Soon after, Chulet left brand management at P&G for a management consultant job at Mitchell Madison Group. The young engineer MBA would go on to spend 10 years in New York. He was with Mitchell Madison from 1997-2000, and the American research and development lab, Walker Digital, from 2000-01. He moved back to consulting with PricewaterhouseCoopers (2002-05) and Booz Allen Hamilton Inc. (2005-07). In 2007-08, he moved on to set up Excellere in the US, to develop Web-based educational products. By this time Chulet had realized the power of the online classifieds space, so when the opportunity to move to Quikr India arose in 2008, he was ready for it.
Our watermelon and feta salad arrives, soon followed by the entrée. As we dig in, we discuss what makes the online classifieds market in India different. “We are still a society that loves to touch and feel the product before buying it,” says Chulet, explaining the power of a platform like Quikr that puts the buyer and seller in touch, and lets them continue their transaction offline. This makes it different from e-commerce sites like Amazon or Flipkart where the transaction is routed through the site, which then claims a portion of the revenue as commission.
There is space for both these models, says Chulet. He doesn’t rule out the possibility of Quikr developing an online transaction-based model as well. At present the online digital classifieds space has plenty of potential for growth. Quikr has 30 million users every month, and 12-14 million listings at any point in time, says Chulet. “We are significantly above $10 million (around Rs.62 crore) in revenue. This would be mainly from premium listings and business lead sales as most transactions are offline and don’t go through us,” he says.
“In this business you can make money; there’s money to be made in premium listings and in generating leads for small and medium businesses,” Chulet adds. Investors obviously agree. Since its inception in 2008, Quikr has raised over $50 million in funding from private equity firms like Warburg Pincus, Omidyar Network, Matrix Partners India and shareholders like eBay.
The eBay connection goes back to 2008 when Quikr began on an eBay-owned platform called Kijiji. “Kijiji means ‘community’ in Swahili, but it was difficult to pronounce and didn’t mean much for us, so we decided to go with the name Quikr,” explains Chulet. Quikr, or “Quikrrr” as the ad campaign goes, spends millions of dollars in advertising, through print, television and the Internet. “The majority of our spend is marketing, if we were doing zero marketing, we could be profitable today, but we don’t think that’s the right thing to do,” says Chulet, explaining that the Quikr strategy is to be bigger, better and quicker.
Bigger it certainly is, with listings that span products, jobs, relationships and services. This makes Quikr different from vertical sites like Naukri.com (for jobs) or Shaadi.com (for marriages and relationships). “Our belief is that in a market like India there is need for a horizontal platform that cuts across categories,” says Chulet, who is full of stories of the quirky products and services that get transacted on Quikr. “One of our biggest categories is astrologers. We have a lot of astrologers who buy premium listings, lots of coaching classes, real estate brokers and car dealers. We even have people who want to sell their cattle online,” he adds.
Every city has a different Quikr, says Chulet. Chulet’s hometown Udaipur, for instance, will have open Jeeps for sale, towns in Punjab may have ploughs mounted on Royal Enfield Bullet bikes, while a city like Kolkata might have women entrepreneurs advertising home-made puchka (or panipuri). Chulet, who lives in Bandra, confesses to spending weekends at work because “office is fun”.