The five-star Shah
Shah tells Arundhuti Dasgupta he always wanted a life that is larger than what one can imagine
Finally time, distance and the famed Mumbai traffic that governs the ebb and flow of life in the city did us in. Instead of lunch that usually encourages a more rambling conversation we settled for breakfast, always a business-like affair in the metropolis that is rushing to get things going before the day, and everyone else, gets the better of them. And true to the spirit of the city that he now calls home, Ashish Shah, who grew up in Delhi, is ready and buzzing at 8.30 a.m. and does not waste a moment getting into the flow of things.
This city has an energy that is impossible to ignore, Shah says as he sips a glass of fresh watermelon juice at The Acres, a club in one of Mumbai’s eastern suburbs, Chembur, barely a few feet from his house. A frugal eater, he would rather talk first and eat later and the rest of the table (we are joined by three others who assist Shah in his media interactions) quietly acquiesces. For a while after he moved here he says he always believed he would go back. After all, his parents, school friends were all in Delhi. But now the city has struck its roots in him, says Shah, who set up the online furniture marketplace PepperFry with friend and colleague Ambareesh Murty six years ago.
Mumbai gave wings to his entrepreneurial zest. He always knew he wanted to be on his own, right from the time he started his first job straight out of a chemical engineering college. “Even then I was working for myself,” Shah says, his enthusiasm brimming over. “We were from a lower middle class family and I wanted to get to work very quickly. I worked for a chemical trading company doing what is called high-sea sales. I was 22, we were dealing in crores of rupees and these trades are a five-paisa game.”
The pressure could have turned ruinous for many a young career but for Shah, it taught him how to think on his feet. He knew that he had to impress the guys sitting across the table and he did everything to earn their respect. “I would not use calculators for example, it made you look stupid.” He would run large numbers through his head in the flash of a second, impressing everyone with his alacrity.
His first job also took him deep into the interiors of the country, especially north India where he travelled in buses and often walked miles in the sun to strike a deal. While he says he is glad to have done that it was a very different life from that he wanted to lead, one that he had been briefly exposed to, thanks to his father. Employed by a five-star hospitality chain, the senior Shah often took his family along on business trips. And the grandeur and the extravagance of these hotels left a lasting impression on young Ashish. He wanted life king-size and knew he had to earn his way there, from the very beginning.
In his first job, even as he did the daily 9-to5 for his employer, Shah began working for a few extra bucks for himself over the weekend. “I would go to Pilkhuwa in Delhi, the largest tarpaulin market in Asia where I would collect orders. Come back place the orders and despatch them and then go back the next weekend. Got me a few thousand rupees extra.”
However, entrepreneurship is more than pulling long hours and spending every waking hour counting the cash. This he realised soon enough after he joined bazee.com and then eBay. Here Shah was exposed to a completely new world, one that taught him that scale and grandeur lie in the detail.
At PepperFry, for instance, Shah keeps a check on everything. Whether his delivery team is well groomed to what are the big searches on his site. He says that he is also clear that he is not going to let any ‘airyfairy’ decision making get into his business. There are no gods in PepperFry and no one can just sign off on a cheque without talking it through with the core team. “We are a data-driven company. Opinions do not matter.”
His confidence to go ahead and run a business his way came from bazee, where his role was to help his clients save an extra rupee in some of their routine administrative or sourcing expenses. Spend management consulting, that is what it was known as. “I learnt many things. For example, I worked with a leading towel manufacturer to source their labels. I learnt that labels are priced by the number of times a needle is inserted into the cloth!” And then at eBay, he headed the sales and operations with the motors business (2005-06), he was selling repossessed vehicles. Right through his tenure he was involved with every detail, he learnt to put together a business and he learnt scale. And he figured out how important it was to build relationships and inculcate discipline. “It was a great MBA for six years.”
Shah found his co-founder and friend at eBay too. We are both very intense people he says and they knew it was a risk giving it all up but they also knew that they could do it. His father pushed back, warning him about the perils of being on his own. But his mother, having been part of a business family, understood. Besides Shah says risks feed off each other, when you take the first plunge, you actually set yourself on the road for the next. And the vision grows larger with every risk you take.
Of course, there are mistakes and PepperFry has made them. “We have learnt from our mistakes too.” Shah says they started out with a large team at PepperFry, but he soon realised that this would weigh the startup down. Then he worked to become lean. He says he also learnt within the first few months at PepperFry, when he began getting back 1517 per cent of the orders because of ‘breakage’ that the furniture business in India could not be done without getting into logistics. So they did that too.
“We fixed it. We bought 10 trucks in 2013 and today we have 400.” PepperFry does not use any third-party, the damage rates are less than 2 per cent and the entire experience is controlled. These were hard lessons and they needed to be fought over but the hardest lesson of all has been acknowledging that at the end of the day, you are accountable for the decisions you have taken. There is no one to pin the blame on.
Shah believes that failures can get you down only if you don’t have an eye on the big picture. It all starts with how large you can really make it. If the company had really let itself be burdened by the fact that it would need to buy trucks, it would never have got here. Also Shah says that he still keeps a complete check on every part of the process. He has worked with his team to design the entire process, from the grooming requirements of his truck drivers to the interior of the trucks to building an Uberlike app for carpenters; he is in complete control of every piece of the business.
Some of this obsession with detail and data, he has also passed on to his employees. He tracks the mileage of all his delivery vehicles for instance and his drivers do too. If you don’t measure it, you don’t fix it and by coaching his team on the data and measurement metrics, he says he makes sure there are no ambiguities.
Ambiguity is something Shah abhors. He sets his goals, measures them and makes sure that he is aware of the targets and whether they are being met at least three levels down. Does the pace never get too frenzied? Shah takes a long detour to get to the answer which is that he does not really have one. He does take a lot of breaks, he is just back from a month-long holiday to Australia and besides he and Murty are avid trekkers and they keep taking off on short trips that are great stress busters. But dialling down the speed, now that is something that he has no answer for, he says, finally tucking into a rather spare breakfast of idli-vada.