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There are no signs of a pandemic in the home office I’m visiting through my computer’s camera. This is no hastily assembled workspace with mismatched furniture and unattractive backgrounds. I see a purpose-built study, complete with desk, chairs, table lamp, pinboards, printer and plenty of natural light. There is even enough space for a sofa and a coffee table. More interestingly, there is an extensive collection of business books in a custom-made book-case behind the desk. A balcony connects the office with the outdoors. This is where Suchi Mukherjee, chief executive and founder of shopping app Limeroad, currently works.

Her home office in Gurugram is the ideal retreat during a prolonged lockdown. “My husband always used this study. He moved upstairs to another room during covid and he gave this to me. He has a nicer view, but I have better infrastructure and this room is cooler during summer months than the one upstairs," says Mukherjee, who is in her 40s.

She enjoys having her favourite business books at hand, including The Snowball: Warren Buffett And The Business of Life by Alice Schroeder, Jack: Straight From The Gut by Jack Welch and The Founder’s Mentality: How To Overcome The Predictable Crises Of Growth by Chris Zook and James Allen.

The negotiation and occupation of the perfect spot in the house to work tells us about Mukherjee’s approach to covid-19: make the most of a crisis. Just as she was able to find a work environment that would support her through the physical confinement of the lockdown, she has worked towards adapting, perhaps even transforming, company processes to a new business reality. She mainly works from home, going “selectively to office for team workshops."

“Covid-19 is something which says I can reset everything I believed about the way of living, the way of doing business, the way of working together, me, my family, my workplace, all those relationships. My friends, which ones are important, which ones are not? It’s a real opportunity to realize all of that. It takes a long time for one to get an opportunity as sizable as this. It would be a complete waste of a black swan event if we learn nothing," she says. It is an interesting approach to change by a company that is still relatively small, and operates in a competitive market. Limeroad has 60 million visits a month, Mukherjee says. Traffic is 30% higher than pre-covid-19 days, although the conversion rate is lower.

Change is here

Collaboration and productivity have increased during the lockdown, she says. For example, pre-reads are circulated before meetings so that attendees can make meaningful contributions. Meetings are conducted with fewer people, as team members are more “mindful of who needs to be in a meeting and who doesn’t."

Asynchronous tools, like chat, are being used “which forces people to transcribe, and often that is significantly better than verbal conversations," she says.

Finally, as companies across India are realizing, locating talent has become easier, she believes. “We are now able to access talent from across the country. In the last four months, there have been 66 new joinees and of them nearly 25% don’t even live in Gurgaon." Team members work out of cities such as Ranchi, Jodhpur and Varanasi.

There are, of course, challenges. In a recent internal survey of the company’s 450 employees on working from home, Mukherjee says “about 40ish percent people said they miss not having that casual banter with their colleagues."

She has also been sensitive to mental health concerns among her team members. “People have come to me, maybe half a dozen times in the last four months, saying ‘I want to have a rant’. I think enabling rants is critical. I don’t want to be the sounding board of everybody’s rant. I can’t … right? But everybody needs to find their own comfort," she says.

Covid-19 tailwinds have led to a demanding, and rewarding, marketplace. Mukherjee shows me her phone with the app’s ranking on Google Playstore. “We are ranked No.3 in shopping after Amazon and Flipkart; No.26 all India across all categories, 50% higher than what we were pre-covid," she says.

On iOS, Limeroad was No.20 in shopping apps at the time of writing the article. Despite the fact that about 20% of sellers have had to close stores due to covid-19, Mukherjee says the company is seeing growth in a variety of essential categories, including emerging categories such as beauty products, men’s briefs and women’s lingerie as well as conventional essential categories like women’s apparel.

The fighter gene

So what is it about Mukherjee’s leadership traits that enable her to thrive in a pandemic? A combination of nature and nurture it seems.

First, her nature. “I have fundamentally a fighter gene. They have a distorted view of reality, and they fight hard to go build it. I think anybody who wants to build a business needs to figure if they have the will to fight, to survive, and to grow. I don’t think it’s easy building business anywhere in the world, least of all in India."

She adopts an interesting metaphor for what this means when it comes to her team. “I am ultimately the pit crew for my people. In race teams you have the racer. And then you have a pit crew that sits at the back and the pit crew has a coach, and it has an engine oil, air, you know all of that. So I’m part of the pit crew for every one of my team members. Every one of my team members is in a racing car, they are the performers. My job is to make sure it they perform to their fullest," she says.

This brings me to me last point, nurture, or training. Mukherjee worked extensively with a range of companies, mainly in the UK, from banking to technology, before starting her own business. Her training and experience helped her hugely, she says.

“Once you get past a particular product market fit, you start to think about scaling. It’s about people and processes, it’s beyond hiring. How do you create that environment of trust where failure is okay? Where people are pushing themselves to do better every day, where conflicts are tabled, where the probability of high-quality decision making is getting larger every day, while still maintaining high degree of ownership and freedom at an individual level. It helps to have the feeling that I’ve seen this before."

Like several other startups featured in this series, Limeroad is far from the biggest in its sector. But its founder’s willingness to look at the pandemic as an opportunity explains why she has earned the right to occupy the best seat in the house.

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

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