MobiKwik’s Upasana Taku: Taking the inclusive path

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“I have realised from Day 1,” says Upasana Taku, co-founder of the fintech company MobiKwik, “that most people will try to pull entrepreneurs down. Now it is less so, because the startup culture has become better acknowledged.

“It was different at a time when there weren’t so many investors. You had to put up your own money. It was harder, it wasn’t cool and almost a fool’s errand. So this journey of 14 years that we completed recently has been despite detractors saying yeh nahin hoga, mat karo (this isn’t going to happen, don’t do it).”

One MobiKwik Systems Pvt. Ltd, the company started by her husband Bipin Preet Singh in 2009 (Taku joined later as a co-founder), showed revenue of 561 crore for the financial year 2023. It has over 140 million users, four million merchants and retailers on the platform. Their four offices, including the head office in Gurugram, Haryana, employ about a thousand people.

MobiKwik is today one of the largest players in the space of mobile wallets and buy now pay later (BPNL) in India. With about 70% of their users from tier 2, 3, 4 cities, a majority of them in the age group of 25-38, the company’s focus is on financial inclusion and underserved markets, rural areas and lower-income sections.

“If you are convinced you want to climb Mount Everest, or any peak for that matter, and a hundred people coming down that hill are telling you that you won’t be able to get to the peak, my advice is that if you have patience and conviction, you should not listen to others. They can’t stop you from working hard. If you just keep at it, you will ultimately reach the peak you desire,” she says.

Taku has an informal, almost unpractised way of speaking, without using too many management-school phrases. She is curious, fairly unfiltered, and apologetic about being late for our appointment. She pauses for a moment before answering most questions, partly also because we are in the middle of a late dinner at the Trident Bandra-Kurla Complex’s Italian restaurant, Botticino, in Mumbai.

The 43-year-old, whose father was a professor and mother a music teacher, was not always driven by the fuel of entrepreneurship. But stints as a business analyst with HSBC and a product manager at the financial technology company PayPal in the US made her realise that the opportunity to make a difference lay in emerging markets. It was only when she met Singh, who started One MobiKwik with the help of friends, that the plan began to take shape, however.

Their first goal, Taku says, was to reach at least 10% of the total 20 million internet users at the time in India. By the time MobiKwik was four years old, the couple—married in 2011—had bootstrapped the company to profitability. They had 40 employees, two million users and 10-12 crore of the users’ money packed in their wallets. The first major funding of $2.5 million (around 20.81 crore now) came from Sequoia Capital in 2013.

“Our first two offices were also home offices. So even after we got married, our office was in Dwarka (in Delhi) and we worked from home. Like, 8.30-9am onwards, the doorbell would start ringing. Our society guards must have thought we were into smuggling, because we would never step out of the house before 10.30pm, while several people would come and go into our house during the day.”

There were challenging periods when they thought the company would not survive. By the one-year mark, they were thinking of shutting down because Singh’s limited savings were running out. An opportune deal she doesn’t want to detail materialised, ensuring they had enough monthly revenue. In 2015—the year their son Cazmir was born—they had a term sheet from a marquee investor when payment bank licences were announced. Paytm got it.

“That changed something for that investor, who backed out,” Taku remembers. “Now, this was a disastrous situation, because the company is already one co-founder down because I am on maternity—my son was two weeks old. We were running out of money. I went with my parents to Chandigarh, to be a little less stressed out and pay attention to this baby. Meanwhile, Bipin was on planes all over the world, trying to find investors.”

For the first time, she says, the company raised debt, two-and-a-half months after their son was born, that allowed them breathing space for six-eight months. Subsequently, $25 million came in multiple series B tranches, led by Tree Line Asia and Sequoia. The following year, a $50 million series C round was led by Japan’s payment gateway, GMO, and MediaTek, a Taiwan-based semiconductor company.

Today, MobiKwik has to contend, in the digital payments market, with heavy hitters like the Alibaba Group-backed Paytm, India’s largest mobile wallet provider, among others. “See, I don’t know why, but investors are always more worried about competition than founders,” says Taku. “India has, like, a gazillion banks and even if you think about big private banks and big PSU (public sector) banks, each of them have a market cap upwards of $30-40 billion. India’s fintech opportunity is so large that it’s going to create not one, not two, but maybe 10-20, even 30, large platforms that will emerge over the next five to 10 years.”

“Why just Paytm, along the way UPI came and then big tech, like Google Pay. Investors will ask me how do you compete with them? You don’t. They are a trillion- dollar company. People will say how will you compete with Jio? Because Jio is said to be coming into open tech and distribution. I said, you don’t. You build your own niche business and you let them do whatever they like.”

“If you are still seeing millions of people download your app and use your app, toh kuchh toh usme baat hogi (there must be something in it). Why would you give it up?”

The backstory

Born in Gandhidham, Gujarat, and raised in Surat, she moved to the National Institute of Technology (then Regional Engineering College) in Jalandhar, Punjab, to study industrial engineering after considering medicine and journalism.

Jalandhar was a radically different experience from the rather safe environs of Surat, where Taku, fluent in Gujarati and of Kashmiri origin, felt no gender biases. Her engineering college hostel, with strict curfew rules, was located inconveniently close to a highway and frequented by lecherous boys on bikes. “I coped but … I wanted to study further.”

While she got admission to some US universities with scholarships, she wanted to go to Stanford, which didn’t offer aid. She decided to go to the Bay area, stay with her sister’s friends and try to hustle a scholarship, which included door-to-door department visits for a research assistant’s position.

“I finally cracked an interview (for research assistant)…. I think of it as a life-defining moment, that I could become a self-made person,” she says, about getting a tuition waiver for management science and engineering at Stanford, a stipend that covered costs and allowed for some savings as well.

The stints with HSBC and PayPal convinced Taku to return to India in late 2008. “It all seemed incremental in nature in the US. Everyone had a card, and what PayPal was building was to bring more convenience, either to the user or to the business owner.” She had realised the irony of trying to solve payment success rates by a few milliseconds at PayPal against trying to book train tickets on IRCTC (Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation), where payments would repeatedly fail to go through.

“I thought if I were to work in emerging markets, like India, there is no solution like that yet. So that’s what brought me back to India, much to the annoyance of my parents (then in Ethiopia),” she says, grinning.

“I had my green card, I was earning well, I was single, I had a car, motorcycle…. But I had this innate need to do something… more meaningful. It’s a cliché, I know, but literally mere dimag mein Swades type koi bulb chamka (I had a moment of realisation, as in the movie Swades).”

As the Lehman Brothers’ crash in 2008 sent the financial world into a tailspin, Taku started working with a non-profit, Drishtee, in Noida, Uttar Pradesh. Fieldwork in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh helped her decide her path. Two things became clear: Long-term, impactful work has to be for profit, which allows for accountability and attracts the right talent. Digital was the future, because India is too big to create impact one town at a time.

This was the time she met Singh, who had worked at Intel and had this theory about smartphones flooding the market, data prices falling and how they could ride that wave. He started One MobiKwik, with friends who didn’t join full-time, with Taku doing what she could to help.

Singh worked on business development, talking to mobile services and banks, making customer service calls, handling operations, money management and late-night coding sessions—18-20 hours a day. “Of course, it’s not humanly possible to work like that for a long period of time. But his conviction in his idea was not reduced by the fact that other people gave up,” she says. She joined MobiKwik in March 2010; the couple initially invested just over 1 crore of their personal wealth.

Today, though their revenue comes largely from payments and distribution of credit products, the company’s vision, she says, is to scale up merchant credit, add more lending products, wealth tech and insurance distribution—to bring the entire banking services on an app. “No large NBFC wants to serve them because their ticket size is not one lakh rupees. That’s the impact and the inclusion-led work we want to do, profitably and sustainably.”

Arun Janardhan is a Mumbai-based journalist who covers sports, business leaders and lifestyle. He tweets @iArunJ.

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