A winning chapter

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By Entrepreneurs Sachin Bansal and Binny Bansal have a bestseller on their hands with their online book store, says Aarti Dua The Flipkart stall at the recent Delhi Book Fair drew large crowds
  • Published 28.02.10

It’s been described as one of the country’s hottest start-ups, and even called India’s Amazon. Indeed, if you’ve searched for any India-related book online, chances are that you’ve already been given cyber- directions to Flipkart.com. For, in just over two years since it launched online, Flipkart has emerged as one of India’s leading online booksellers.

Undoubtedly, IIT-Delhi classmates and Flipkart’s co-founders Sachin Bansal and Binny Bansal — they aren’t related — couldn’t have written a better preface. And they’re confident they’ve got a bestseller on their hands. Flipkart has already grabbed market share from e-commerce veterans like rediff.com in the books category, and even edged out early Amazon wannabes like firstandsecond.com.

This is only the opening chapter. The founders recently raised funding from Accel India, the Indian arm of Accel Ventures, which has funded start-ups like Facebook. Now they’re busy scaling up. They plan to expand their booklist, open more distribution centres and, yes, go beyond books to become a full e-commerce play too.

Says Sachin, who’s the CEO and looks after marketing and technology, “We’ve grown pretty well and pretty fast.” Adds Binny, who as COO looks after sales and operations, “Flipkart has become much bigger than what we expected when we started working from a two-bedroom house.”

So how did it all begin? It’s the familiar start-up story although when the two Chandigarh lads first met at IIT-Delhi, they had no dreams about becoming entrepreneurs. In fact, the computer science geeks went their own ways initially.

Flipkart’s co-founders Sachin Bansal (above) and Binny Bansal are setting a racy pace with their large expansion plans

After graduating in 2005, Sachin joined software consultancy Techspan while Binny joined Sarnoff India, which works on US defence projects. Within five months, Sachin realised that his heart lay in developing software products. So in January 2006, he moved to Amazon, where he helped develop a global payment solution. By end-2007, Binny had joined him there. Soon the two “started thinking of building something of our own”.

Not surprisingly, they didn’t look far for a role model, although Sachin says they considered other options. But as they researched Indian websites, they realised that there was “a huge gap in the e-commerce market”.

Says Binny: “We found that e-commerce hadn’t taken off in India because no one had done it properly. Everything was wrong from the websites’ usability to product delivery.”

Thus, Flipkart was born in September 2007. Books was an obvious choice because it’s a leading e-commerce category. “But it’s also challenging because books are so varied and people’s tastes so wide,” says Sachin.

Like any start-up, they did everything themselves initially from creating the website and writing code to buying books and dispatching them.

Binny recalls how their first order was for a little-known business book. “We drove to all the bookstores in Bangalore till we finally got it from Sapna Book House and delivered it on time. The customer had been looking for it for three years,” he recalls.

It’s this customer focus that’s responsible for Flipkart’s success, feel the founders. For Flipkart has grown almost entirely through word of mouth. There’s also its clean user interface, simple ordering and payment mechanism, prompt delivery and competitive discounts.

“Our focus is on providing a delightful customer experience,” says Sachin.

More crucially, the duo knows that e-commerce is essentially a technology play. “Technology is our core,” he adds .

Actually, in the Indian context, Flipkart may have benefited from being a late starter. For broadband penetration has only accelerated in recent years as has e-commerce, with e-ticketing especially making Indians more comfortable about paying online today.

Says Kapish Mehra, who heads leading publisher, Rupa & Co: “Book sales online have grown and its share in the total book sales pie has also increased. But in absolute numbers, it’s still small.”

Nevertheless, Flipkart is setting a racy pace. It expects sales to cross Rs 20 crore this financial year from just Rs 4 crore in 2008-09. Its catalogue has expanded from 50,000 books in 2007 to around four million titles today. The website gets six million visitors a month today compared to just one million visitors a month, a year ago. And it has 120 employees today, which should rise to 500 by next year.

“We’re in investment mode,” asserts Binny. The plans are big. The company is strengthening its technology back-end. Then, it will open distribution centres in Calcutta and Chennai shortly — it has three centres currently in Bangalore, Delhi and Mumbai. It will also tap the regional book market, and is exploring mobile- or m-commerce and payment-on-delivery options.

Most importantly, Flipkart will soon move beyond books to add new product categories. Most likely, these will be music and movies initially.

Flipkart’s co-founders know that there are challenges ahead. “Scaling up and maintaining service quality will be the biggest challenge,” says Sachin. But they believe they’re upto the task. And yes, becoming India’s Amazon remains their long-term goal. Says Sachin: “We do want to get there but we’re not in a hurry. We’ll take it one step at a time.”