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In 2015, when Bipin Preet Singh and Upasana Taku got married, they carried their laptops with them to the ceremony. Their digital payments website MobiKwik was still in its early years and would often need rebooting. “Everyone who worked with us at that time was at the wedding. I was responsible for tech, so I had to carry my laptop everywhere,” recalls Singh.
That’s just the beginning of how life can be when your co-founder is also your life partner.
The duo has now spent 10 years building one of India’s largest digital financial services company backed by the likes of Sequoia Capital, Cisco, and Bajaj Finserv, among others. For the financial year ended March 31, 2019, MobiKwik posted revenue of Rs184.6 crore ($25.72 million), its third straight year of a 100% year-on-year growth.
Now, the Gurugram-based company, which has around 400 employees, is working to turn profitable and get listed in the next two years.
In a conversation with Quartz, Singh and Taku spoke about MobiKwik’s early days, the crazy boom post demonetisation, and what it means to be partners in life and in business. Edited excerpts:
How did you both meet?
Singh: We met in October 2008. I had gone for a play and one of my friends asked me to help someone over the phone with directions. That’s when I spoke with her for the first time. She was running late, so I waited outside with her tickets. At that time, I did not know that she is always late.
After the play, we went for drinks with some of our friends and started talking. Both of us are the same age so we were in the same frame of mind. We had worked for about five years and had an itch about what we would do next. She had just returned from the US and wanted to contribute to society. I was in the semiconductor industry and had a sense of underachievement in what I was doing.
Who’s idea was MobiKwik and what was the inspiration?
Singh: I had thought and conceived the idea of MobiKwik even before I met her. I had started doing some work and built a very small team. I hadn’t quit my job, though. I was still not sure if I should jump into this full time. When we became friends and started interacting, Upasana told me that this is the time when you either do it, or you don’t.
So in June 2009, I quit my job. Six months later, she also joined MobiKwik.
The idea came to me when I studied some reports and wondered why people have to go to a store for all their mobile recharges. Why were we wasting so much time? So, I thought there should be a website where this can be done. I had a friend who helped with the design and another who built the backend.
What were the first few months of running MobiKwik like?
Singh: On Aug. 9, 2009, MobiKwik went live.
To many people, what we were doing was more like stupidity. To be honest, some days were exciting and some days were dreadful.
The start up ecosystem was very small. We learned everything by making mistakes. For instance, we believed that if you make a website, people will come on their own. That doesn’t happen. So over time, we learned that you need to bring traffic through advertising or search engine optimisation (SEO), etc.
On the first or the second day, somebody tried to do a transaction of Rs50,000. In one way, I was happy that somebody was trying to do that big a transaction, but then we realised that something was wrong because we weren’t selling anything worth that much. It was likely a stolen card or somebody trying to abuse something.
We were always tracking the number of users and the number of transactions to make sure our systems were holding up. The initial systems were not designed for scale, so they would often go down. I remember going to a movie with my laptop because there was nobody else who could restart the server if the website went down.
How was it to work on a startup with a person you were first dating and then got married to?
Singh: That’s a part of our story. We started dating each other and we got married in 2011, which is less than two years after we started MobiKwik. For both of us, it was the start of a new chapter of our lives, personally as well as professionally. Our lives became completely intertwined. We had this huge amount of mutual respect as well as this crazy belief that we could change the world. It’s very hard to find a person who believes in you. Of course, we have gone through lots of ups and downs as well and there are lots of disadvantages of working with your life partner. Not to be recommended at all.
What would you recall as the first milestone for MobiKwik?
Taku: In 2011, we decided to stop working at home and get a proper office. So we took up a five-bedroom apartment on the ground floor of a residential society in Dwarka, Delhi. In the beginning, we were five teammates with one room for each of us. But within a year, we had fully filled the apartment. We were still self-funded because we did not have that much spending. We had started making around Rs2,00,000 a month at the time, and we were paying very low salaries in the range of Rs20,000-30,000.
Singh: Then, I met a friend who told me about this agency that I could hire who could do SEO for me. We started working with them and by early 2012, we were growing like crazy. We work with that agency even today.
A lot of competition came up in the digital payments space after you started. Were there some decisions you took just to catch up with peers?
Singh: We had started seeing that in stores, cards had picked up. So that’s how we thought we should go offline and offer MobiKwik at coffee shops or stores. There were already other companies that were doing that. That also got us thinking. But there was original thinking in terms that if we wanted to cover the lifestyle of our customers, this has to become ubiquitous. We realised that the cost of acquiring a customer is high, but once the customer is on board, then the…