I walk into a Gurugram office that is quite unlike anything I’ve seen. Its walls are lined meticulously with a series of photographs and a collection of plastic hotel room keys. Each item is displayed and curated with military precision, maintaining rank and file order. Stacked against the display wall is a desk that is clearly positioned to offer a good view of the photographs, rather than the city outside. The rest of the office is filled with trademark CEO paraphernalia, including a rarely-used putting strip, various awards, and a few books. But the hotel key cards and the photographs capture individual personality and establish a unique sense of place.

This is the office of Deep Kalra, the group CEO of MakeMyTrip, the online travel agency. Unlike many workplaces where partitions are coming down, Kalra requested “a lot of wall space and a lot of walk space" to move around while on calls, and to house his personal museum of memories. “I am such a collector, it’s terrible. I can’t let go of things. My most special photos are my oldest trips. We used to do a lot of whitewater rafting as a company and sadly those trips have come down because we’ve become so big. We’re now 17 years old," he says.

The room keys are as evocative as the photographs. “Why give them back? Some of them are very interesting. They will go out of fashion very soon because we are going to go electronic," he reasons. In one instance, retaining the card key turned into a logistical lifesaver. Kalra arrived at the airport only to realize he had left his passport in the hotel room locker. With the room key in his hands, he was able to nip back to his hotel and retrieve his passport, just in time for a long-haul flight. Luckily, housekeeping had not cleaned his room before he got there. “Always take your key card with you," he says.

Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

Kalra’s nostalgia is charming, obsessive and quite revealing, as it documents the company’s resilience. MakeMyTrip was one of the very few online portals to survive the dotcom bust in the early 2000s. “From 2001-03, we shrunk from an office in Okhla to a mezzanine which was literally 8ft high. If I raised my hand, I could touch the ceiling. If I swung both ways, I could touch the side walls. It was on top of a godown. At Rs10 per sq. ft, it was the cheapest real estate, at least in Delhi," Kalra says, adding that week-on-week growth in conversion rates boosted morale during the slowdown.

Bootstrapping propels prioritization. “The real essentials bubble up. Everything else just falls to the bottom, it sinks, and you start chopping and cutting. When you are pushed to the corner, you come up with creative solutions. For us, it was as simple as stopping marketing in India in 2001 (because they didn’t see themselves gaining critical mass at the time)," says Kalra.

Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

The collection also captures a self-confessed obsessive streak. Kalra is particular about choosing which meetings to attend, and replying to customer issues. “For us, everything is about product design. It’s up to us how much we want to do. So I also come very well prepared into these meetings, and these are the ones I enjoy the most," he says.

Out of 200,000 transactions a day, one-two customer issues reach Kalra, either through social media or directly through email, he says. Customer-centricity can often be nothing more than a buzzword, but Kalra insists that “a lot of customer issues get bubbled up to me. I read each one of them, I keep my thread alive as unread till I don’t get the root-cause analysis. Making it good to the customer is just one part, understanding the root cause is important," he says.

Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

Finally, the memories represent relationships. “I definitely, I genuinely, love people and meeting new people…. I have been accused in the past of being too democratic and I take that but I still would rather do that than swing the other way and become too autocratic. I am also a big believer that I don’t have all the answers. Someone else brings a different dimension and says this is a wonderful way of doing this. I don’t want us to ever become so big that we stop thinking like a start-up or we become too hierarchical that it starts mattering who the ideas came from," he says.

Kalra’s preference for camaraderie extends to the entire office. After the merger with rival GoIbibo in 2017, teams were integrated into the current office, to encourage cross-pollination. “We are looking at swapping people (between brands) and we are sitting as functions, not as brands. Teams are now sharing notes, going for lunch together, going down for a smoke," he says. Despite being packed densely, the office is cheerful, with a memorable set of graphics. As always, real estate is the longest-lasting snapshot of an entrepreneur’s personal and professional journey.

Aparna Piramal Raje meets heads of organizations 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.

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