MUMBAI, India — India isn’t an easy place to build an e-commerce company. The vast, multilingual nation suffers from creaky infrastructure, a sometimes myopic bureaucracy and an ingrained distrust of the merchant class. Yet homegrown Flipkart Ltd. has managed the impossible with a blend of Silicon Valley smarts — its founders worked for Amazon.com Inc.; key hires were lured from the Bay Area — and a canny understanding of local verities. Because few Indians use credit cards, Flipkart offered cash on delivery. In Mumbai, it deployed dabbawallas, the famed lunch delivery corps, to get packages to customers. Since its founding eight years ago, Flipkart has become the nation’s most valuable startup and introduced online shopping to the Indian masses.
Still, no one is celebrating at the company’s headquarters in suburban Bangalore. More like preparing for war. After years of scorching growth, Flipkart sales have plateaued. An attempt to go mobile-only backfired. Key executives have quit. Earlier this year a Morgan Stanley fund marked down Flipkart’s value from $15 billion to $11 billion. And those may be the least of Flipkart’s challenges. Amazon, already closing the gap with Flipkart in India, is now mobilising for an all-out assault one of the world's fastest-growing internet markets. Last month, Amazon chief executive officer Jeff Bezos pledged to invest another $3 billion in his company's Indian operations, bringing the total to $5 billion.
If any of this fazes Flipkart CEO Binny Bansal, 33, he isn’t letting on. During a rare interview, in the ‘Steve Jobs’ conference room, complete with a large colour photo of the late Apple founder, Bansal was uncharacteristically blunt. Flipkart, he said, has battled competition since its 2007 founding: “First it was local, now it is global. Competition catches up and then gets left behind. We have seen that in the past and we’ll see it again.” He pledged to double revenues and become profitable in the next 24 months. As for Bezos’s $3 billion. “Does saying make it a fact?” Bansal asked.
The fact that Bansal is CEO at all speaks volumes about the challenges ahead. He took the job about six months ago when co-founder Sachin Bansal (34, no relation) stepped aside to become chairman and focus on long-term strategy and investment opportunities. The younger Bansal is seen as an operations guy with the common touch, someone who can get the company running at maximum efficiency.
Since taking the helm, he has introduced 7 a.m. deliveries that he says reach customers in Mumbai and 43 other cities reliably, with plans to extend the service to other cities. To reduce the number of returned smartphones, Flipkart’s biggest category, he has dispatched technicians to fix minor glitches before customers have a chance to complain about them. An investment in new fulfilment robots will hopefully boost efficiency in a sometimes chaotic supply chain. And to get Indians to forswear cash — a hopelessly inefficient payment system for a modern e-commerce company — he acquired an Indian startup that makes it simple to pay via smartphone.
Bansal is the best man for the job, says Subrata Mitra, who sits on the board and leads the India office of Accel Partners, Flipkart’s third-largest investor. “The changes are starting to yield results,” he says. “Flipkart will be back in aggressive growth mode soon.”
Others are less sanguine. “The battle in Indian e-commerce has always been Flipkart’s to lose,” says Punit Soni, a former Google executive who quit in April as Flipkart’s chief product officer, just a year after signing on. “But now I suspect it might be a bit too late.”
When the two Bansals started shopping an Amazon-type concept to investors back in 2007, the response was incredulity. Come on, they were told, this is India. No one shops online. The 20-something entrepreneurs got plenty of advice. “If you get a six-sigma expert, we will invest.” Or: “You need a senior ops person on your team.” The duo had worked together at Amazon’s Bangalore offices, where they helped build a still-born rival to Paypal. They quit and started Flipkart with $10,000 of their savings.
Much as Bezos had done 13 years earlier, Binny and Sachin Bansal started out selling books. And like Bezos, they chose a name that wouldn’t hem them in once they expanded into other products (Flipkart refers to people flipping merchandise into a cart). In the beginning, they picked up books by motorcycle, packed them in their apartment and sent them out by courier. So new was the concept that engineers balked at joining the startup; in one case the partners had to persuade a recruit’s in-laws that Flipkart had potential.
The Bansals were right about one thing. India was ready for e-commerce. The country’s retail sector is famously fragmented — most stores are moms and pops — and service an afterthought. Flipkart’s pledge to take back unwanted merchandise for a full refund was a revelation. In television commercials beamed into living rooms around the country, the company relentlessly hammered home its customer-friendly ethos and the genuineness of its products.
Millions of Indians, many young and tech-savvy, responded. By 2011, sales had reached $100 million, and before long Flipkart was selling sports equipment, electronics, baby goods and more. The company added third-party sellers to its platform and set up its own logistics company, Ekart, with warehouses and an army of delivery personnel. In 2014 Flipkart acquired the online clothing retailer Myntra. Same-day shipping arrived the same year.
The company was growing so quickly the underlying infrastructure — warehouses, servers — couldn’t keep up. The first sign of major distress arrived on Oct. 6, 2014, during Flipkart’s first annual Big Billion Day sale, when the website couldn’t handle the overwhelming crush of shoppers. “It was chaos,” Bansal recalled. “Our servers crashed, our supply chain collapsed and even the servers of our payment banks broke.” The following year, Flipkart suffered another setback. Believing customers preferred to shop from their phones, the company shut down the Myntra website in favour of an app. Within months sales were slowing and it became clear that the move had been a failure. In June this year, Flipkart finally restored Myntra’s desktop website.
By then Amazon was ramping up and Flipkart and such local rivals as Snapdeal began to feel the heat. A price war ensued that moved lots of product but failed to buy customer loyalty. Flipkart’s losses mounted amid the heavy discounting. In fiscal 2015, according to Kotak Institutional Equities Research, 22 e-commerce businesses ran up over $1.2 billion in red ink — with Flipkart leading the way. In recent months, it has become harder for Indian startups to raise money. In February, Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. was reportedly mulling an investment in Flipkart that foundered because the Indian company refused to accept a lower valuation. CEO Bansal is looking to raise fresh capital but declined to discuss the Alibaba situation. “We are fortunate to be in that position where we can raise money when it is available on our terms,” he said.
A weakened Flipkart is less than ideally positioned to mount a counterattack against Amazon. In a sign of the battle to come, the Seattle giant cut the commissions it charges third-party merchants in India by as much as 7 percent in some categories; only days earlier Flipkart, keen to stanch losses, had done the opposite, boosting its own commissions by 5 to 6 percent. Meanwhile, Amazon has just added five fulfilment centres in India including its largest one outside Delhi, has added 100,000 sellers on its platform to Flipkart’s 90,000 and built a lead over its rival in website traffic. “Amazon’s consistent performance over the last year and our stellar first quarter indicates that the tide is turning,” Amazon’s India chief Amit Agarwal said in an e-mail.
The next conquest is the hinterland, where cracking the challenging last mile gets exponentially harder. Flipkart and its rivals will need to penetrate deeper into hundreds of smaller cities and over 650,000 villages, where running water is unavailable, let alone a web connection. To make products desirable to all Indians, Flipkart is pushing brands like Samsung and Motorola to offer lower-priced, online-only models of televisions and smartphones. The Ekart logistics arm is trying to predict what people want to buy and get the goods to warehouses closest to the demand.
Local knowledge could give Flipkart an advantage but Bezos has demonstrated a willingness over the years to keep pouring in money and accepting losses until the battle is won. No one is counting out Flipkart, least of all Binny Bansal, who employed a cricket metaphor to describe the state of play in his chosen industry. “It is still the first day of the first test match in a five-test series.”
By Saritha Rai; Editors: Robin Ajello & Robert Fenner.