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Anant Goel, CEO, Milkbasket, describes his Gurugram office as his sanctuary, a place where he can concentrate. Only a dozen of the 200-odd staff are back in the building, the rest work remotely.  (Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint)
Anant Goel, CEO, Milkbasket, describes his Gurugram office as his sanctuary, a place where he can concentrate. Only a dozen of the 200-odd staff are back in the building, the rest work remotely. (Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint)

A grocery basket full of optimism

  • A positive attitude is helping CEO Anant Goel steer Milkbasket through the pandemic and work on his IPO plans
  • ‘It used to take us 13 minutes to prepare an order. We now take 30 seconds. We are working on something to bring it down to 24-25 seconds.’

I am even more curious than normal as I embark on another virtual Head Office visit. Gurugram-based Anant Goel, 41, the chief executive and co-founder of grocery delivery app Milkbasket, has been in the news over the past few weeks over rumours of an acquisition, which did not ultimately go through. Will the workspace provide me with some clues as to what makes the five-year-old business a target?

Anant and I meet over Zoom for a conversation. He is seated in a 15-seater conference room. Full-height writable walls, with intense scribblings make up his background. “They get filled up with writing and then cleaned and recycled the next day. I need a bigger canvas than an A4 sheet to brainstorm," explains Goel.

The workplace seems to reflect the startup culture, emphasizing functionality and transparency over expensive flourishes. An open-plan layout is complemented with slightly contrived messages such as “awesomeness happens here" and “Smile! Your milkbasket is here". A bamboo-lined ceiling and wooden flooring inject vitality into the space. “You feel energized coming to it," says Goel.

He normally works at a regular desk, although most of his time is spent in meeting rooms or travel. “I never felt the need for a cabin," he says. For the past few months, however, Goel has occupied the conference room.

“I came back to the office starting the first of May, when the government started easing lockdown restrictions. Mine was the only car in the parking lot. I used to do my Zoom call meetings from the office. But I can also have a meeting with three or four people here, with social distancing. So I took the liberty of making it my personal cabin."

The office is a private sanctuary. “I have three kids at home, aged seven, five and three. This is much better for concentration," he laughs. Occupancy is, however, limited. There are only a dozen-odd employees at work, out of a workforce of over 200, distributed across the company’s five floors. Attendance is optional, he says, adding that he doesn’t expect full occupancy until the middle of next year, depending on when a vaccine becomes accessible to all.

Covid-19 has affected the company’s workculture in predictable ways. Some teams, such as procurement, where work is more transactional, are more productive. Less so for others that rely on brainstorming and creativity, although the company has started digital initiatives to promote casual conversations, as lubricants for ideation. The company also initiated Town Halls for better communication.

Remote hiring has begun, with new recruits working from their homes in locations such as Guwahati, Bengaluru and Indore.

Looking at the bright side

More than design itself, the space seems to be animated by Goel’s supremely optimistic outlook. He is equanimous about the failed acquisition. “Some transactions go through, some don’t. It’s like that with fundraising too."

He is happy to remain independent, and is keen to work towards an IPO, “towards the end of next year or after that." Equally, he’s ready to sell “if there’s a buyer in the market." He dismisses critics who foresee the company’s downfall, citing examples of Amazon and Starbucks, as companies that have weathered business cycles and sceptics. Fundraising is not a problem, it is “optional. We are EBIDTA positive, and have sustainable cashflows, there is no cash burn," he claims. Scale is also not an issue. “There is 1,000 times scope for us to grow. People are solid. Customers are solid. Investors are happy," Goel insists. These are a confident set of assumptions that are not always the easiest to verify.

He is even positive about the pandemic’s aftermath. “I think it would be very different, cleaner, greener, more productive, more creative, more personalized, more caring for your families to a large extent. We’ll see how it evolves," he predicts.

Is this optimism justified? Well, it is underpinned by a combination of factors.

First, sales. Basket size has gone up since the lockdown began as consumers migrated to Milkbasket’s online contactless delivery. Demand peaked right after the nationwide lockdown started, and has come down a bit since then but still remains high, says Goel, adding that while some consumers have gone back to offline markets, many continue to appreciate the convenience of online purchase. “We have over 1.5 lakh active users, and we process around half a million unique items on a daily basis currently."

Second, supply chain, a retailer’s most precious nuts and bolts. Goel has said in the past that although Milkbasket competes with everybody from a kirana store and upwards, “there are very few who understand supply chain and logistics the way we do. We manage an inventory cycle of around seven days. That’s the lowest in the industry."

Milkbasket’s supply chain exemplifies his belief in disruptive innovation. “It used to take us 13 minutes to pack and prepare an order. We now take 30 seconds, on average… And now we are working on something where you can actually bring it down to 24-25 seconds."

His optimism is also based on intangible factors as much as tangibles.

First, learning from his previous work experience as a former consultant, especially when it comes to people.

“I think the most complex thing that we deal with is people.Your peers, your co-founders, people who are reporting to you or people that you are reporting to in terms of boards, investors. Everything is people at the end of the day," he says.

Next, learning from failures. “We would not have been successful with Milkbasket as a company unless we failed in the previous startup I was doing (a real estate venture). There are so many learnings from the previous failures, such as feature creep, where you create a feature for the sake of creating a feature, and second, the normal trap that I see is creating for 100% of use cases. It’s not needed," he says.

Third, ability to think out of the box. In 2016, when fund raising was hard, Goel managed to pull together a consortium of 40 customers who collectively invested about 2 crore. “Forty families said that we really believe that this is a business we trust. That really solved the problem for us," he says.

It is hard to tell whether the gains that Milkbasket has made over the past few months will sustain as a long-term sustainable competitive advantage, in a market as hypercompetitive as groceries. It is difficult to assess whether his claims are as robust as he makes them out to be. But what is clear is that a little bit of optimism is what we need right now during covid-19. Like the scribbles on the walls in the conference room, washed off to a fresh start the next day.

Aparna Piramal Raje meets heads of organizations every month to investigate the connections between their workspace design and working styles.

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