Mumbai: Ashish Hemrajani is a veteran of the dot-com boom, having co-founded Bigtree Entertainment Pvt. Ltd, which operates BookMyShow, in 1999 after quitting his job at advertising agency J. Walter Thompson. A pioneer in the online ticketing space, BookMyShow is now India’s largest entertainment ticketing platform, with a valuation of $850 million, and sales of more than 200 million tickets a year. In 2014, Hemrajani launched BookASmile, a charity initiative run by the company that works with non-governmental organizations to provide free access to sports and entertainment for the underprivileged.
As Bigtree Entertainment marks 20 years in business, the BW Applause Person of The Year spoke at his Juhu office about running the long race, and the importance of building a humane, empathetic culture in a company.
You survived the 2001 dot-com bust and the 2008 financial crash to build BookMyShow into the market leader of the online ticketing space. What lessons have you learnt along the way?
The first major lesson I learnt is that life is a marathon, not a sprint. Patience and perseverance are so important. I don’t think we’ve changed as a company. It’s just that the environment around us has changed. Because we ran the long race, we were at the right place and the right time when things changed around us.
The other lesson is karma. When we got hit by the dot-com bust in 2001 and went from 150 people to six, we made sure that we negotiated a severance package for everyone we had to let go. We helped as many people as we could to get jobs in other organizations. Now a lot of them work for other entertainment organizations and they give business back to us. We didn’t intend it that way, but that’s what karma is, right?
The third thing I learned is that anything given free in life is not valued. All this discounting madness is not going to get anybody anywhere. You’re hurting either the organization or the ecosystem in the long run. You don’t earn loyalty by throwing around cash. Investors and entrepreneurs may argue, they can show you stats and scale numbers, but BookMyShow has never believed in that sort of a business model.
You’ve said that you’d rather be called a cockroach than a unicorn. Are you sceptical about the hype and valuations in the current startup space?
Now, I call myself a mongrel, because you can have more fun as a dog. I think there are a lot of analogies you can draw between being an entrepreneur and being a stray. It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there. You’ve got to run the marathon and you’ve got to have fun. But also, the key point is that you don’t ascribe too much importance to yourself. You know, a unicorn is this beautiful animal which is mythical. But a dog is real, it’s around you everyday. You see it, you touch it, you can have a relationship with it. I haven’t seen anyone have a relationship with a unicorn.
I’m not sceptical about the market broad spectrum. I just feel that a large number of people in the ecosystem behave in a certain way. We all know it, we all laugh in cocktail circles about it, but nobody questions it. I mean, what is the light at the end of the tunnel? You have organizations that are growing at a certain percentage, have got a walled garden and a moat around their businesses, and are valued at one tenth of a company that has no moat, no long-term strategy, just short-term customers. Do you think those valuations are justifiable?
Over the past two years, we’ve seen BookMyShow transition into full stack management model with live events. What prompted this move to focus on building the non-ticketing side of the business?
We’ve been doing ticketing for sports, concerts and other live events since we began, but there wasn’t enough content. So, two years ago, along with our partners, we took a call that the problem and the constraint in the market is the supply. How do you change that? So, we decided to work with our partners to increase the supply. We will do stuff where our partners may not see the value or take the risk, to remove the supply side constraints. That is why we got into the live events space, to help grow that vertical. It’s also always good to diversify, because the customer base already exists and you can do a lot more with that customer base. That’s a collateral benefit. But the original idea was that you’ve got customers, and you’ve got a vertical that isn’t growing wide enough fast enough. Can we play the role of a catalyst there?
What sort of potential do you see in the live events space?
I don’t want to put numbers down, but I can tell you that live events are going to be key in India. I think movie-going is still going to be a large part of the Indian consumer experience, but mobile is also going to be extremely powerful. As great content moves to that space, more and more people are going to watch it at their convenience. A lot more businesses are going to ride this wave, and live events is one of them. The other trend is that more and more people will want to step out, starting from urban markets and higher demographics, and going down to semi-urban markets and lower demographics. We’re playing our role in ensuring that we’re in the broad spectrum entertainment sector, where we help, encourage and advise people to step out. We’re not in the business of staying in, we’re in the business of stepping out.
What inspired you to start BookASmile in 2014?
It really ignited with my mentor and Vedanta teacher Adi Kalianiwala. He constantly spoke about lowering ego and desire, and about impacting lives and giving back. He asked me, what is your goal and purpose on earth? I thought about this deeply. You’re living in the most expensive real estate in India, you’re living the life of a king in India, but you also have slums right opposite you. You have the richest people in the world, and some that have not been able to get out of the poverty cycle for generations. So I said why? And what is the goal? I had also read one of the founders of Hewlett-Packard, who had said that the goal of a company is to draw from society, create value for itself, and give back. So these were a couple of things that triggered the thought process.
Charity begins at home, so I said let’s do stuff internally. BookMyShow runs a mediclaim programme for 1,500 employees in the company, which covers you, your spouse, two children, and your parents with no co-pay. The other thing we did is that we started a food programme in the company, where all the guys whose salary is a certain amount and below pay only ₹20 for our daily buffet lunch. We also have a voluntary fund in the organization, which goes into educating our office boys and their children.
On top of that, we said that we’re doing so much internally, but how can we expand this externally? How can we take this to our users? That’s when the idea of BookASmile came up. We said, is there a possibility of making it so affordable, non-intrusive and frictionless that we can take one rupee a ticket and create a corpus?
Over the years, what sort of impact have you seen from the activities you fund through BookASmile?
I think we’ve done some phenomenal things with BookASmile. We support organizations that are in the arts, culture and entertainment space, not “roti, kapda, makaan". And we “stretch the dollar" to see how much bang we can get for the money. So we’ve sent a double amputee child to the Parapan American Games and he won the silver medal in swimming. We support 300 girls in Jharkhand for their soccer programme. Six of them went to (Spanish club) Real Sociedad for Uefa-level coaching, which we paid for. We also run art camps and art programmes, and music festivals. We take children to movie premieres and try and get stars to come and interact with them.
Right now, we’re working with 200 organizations, and, in one way or another, we’ve been able to impact 200,000 people. Beyond that, so much of the impact is intangible. What impact did that trip to the Parapan American Games have on that child and his life? I don’t know, you can’t put that down as a number. I’m just glad that we were able to contribute in some measure to his effort.