Paytm valued $4.8 bn: Vijay Shekhar Sharma’s journey from Aligarh to Alibaba

For Vijay Shekhar Sharma, founder and CEO of One97 Communications, parent company of Paytm, 2016-17 is fast turning out to be a major turning point. First came demonetisation, which saw the popularity of his company, a payment gateway founded in 2010, soar, and now with its planned entry into e-marketplace, the valuation of his entity is on a rise, that too at a time when the entire e-commerce space is seeing sharp markdowns in values.

On Tuesday, Anil Ambani’s Reliance Capital sold part of the stake it holds in Paytm for Rs 275 crore, which is a 27-fold return on its original investment made in 2010. According to media reports, the deal values Paytm at $4.8 billion, next only to Flipkart which has seen its value freely falling from $15 billion in May 2015 to just $5 billion recently.

Reliance Capital sold its stake to China’s Alibaba Group, which is already an investor in the company and is gearing up for a grand entry into Indian e-commerce space through Paytm Mall, the ecommerce venture.

For a man who dreamt of building “a company and a product that would be useful to people and stand out in the market”, this is quite a feat. And he is seeing his empire in the ecommerce space expanding.

The beginnings

Sharma’s rise to the top with Paytm was crafted on one desire: To impact people’s lives.

He is a man of humble beginnings. In an earlier interview with Firstpost, he had recalled fondly his ‘lower middle class’ family roots and the little surprises he gave his family that made them and him happy.

He did his schooling with Hindi as the medium of instruction. Sharma wanted to ‘impact peoples lives’ with whatever he embarked upon later in life and to that end he was willing toabsorb the challenges that came his way. He struggled in Delhi’s School of Engineering wrestling with the English language.

“I  had to leave Aligarh, where I grew up, for a big city like Delhi and was alone there. I did my schooling with Hindi as the language of instruction. So, when I came to Delhi, I found it difficult to cope with English,” he said. This was unnerving for a student who was a class topper all through his school days and needed to take the vice chancellor’s permission to take admission to engineering as he was just 15 years old. He soon eased himself from a lifelong habit of being a front bencher in school and in the initial days in college to become a back bencher as he was unable to respond to his teachers’ queries in English. But that brought about a different issue. His classmates bullied him.

Sharma depended on himself to get forward to what his goals were then. He taught himself to read English by reading newspapers and magazines daily and spent time in the computer centre in the college. That was where the change in his dreams were fuelled. “I dreamt of becoming a Sabeer Bhatia. I realised that instead of taking up a job, it would be better to create something in India.”

It was his new-found hobby of reading that led him to his first startup. Sharma chanced upon the wonders of Silicon Valley in a magazine. That was a moment of epiphany. “To hell with these classes. I can build a company with the help of the Internet,” he recalled.

In the third year of college, Sharma along with a batch mate set up a web portal, Xs! Corporation. “The firm offered web-guided services, including web directories, and was also a search engine. We got seed money worth Rs 20,000 from Individual Angel Investor, a New Mexico-based venture capital fund. We roped in two more of my batch mates into the venture. I finished college in 1998. Between February-May 1999, our turnover was Rs 50 lakhs! I sold the company in 1999 to Living Media India, which is now the India Today Group for half a million dollars and split the money between the four of us.” This was gratifying for the collegian as all he wanted was to take up a Rs 10,000 salary job when he stepped in to engineering college. “That was a big dream for a boy from Aligarh,” he said. And the ‘boy from Aligarh’ splurged his earnings on buying a color TV for his family which did not have one. He surprised his mother by buying her saris and his dad by paying off the loans taken to marry off his elder sister.

Paytm is born

Sharma had to tailor his dream to the situation he found himself when 9/11 busted his startup plans. He was ‘forced’ to take up a job as a consultant for a livelihood but his keen eye for business spotted an opportunity with the popularity of smartphones. Thus Paytm was launched in 2010 as Sharma wanted to do away with plastic money. It has surpassed most of the goalposts that Sharma had envisaged over the years. The firm, a Unicorn now with $4.1 billion valuation, has been in the news for scaling several milestones. Incidentally, it is the only company to have its payments and e-commerce businesses valued at billion dollar as separate entities. And for that, he has to thank Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s demonetisation profusely.

On the sidelines of the Nasscom Leadership Summit in Mumbai recently, Sharma – the cynosure of eyes at most events he comes to and chased for his bytes —  said: “Post November [2016], our offline transactions have exceeded even our expectations. In January more than 65 percent of our transactions were offline. We have over 4.5 million merchants presently and are targeting to grow this to 10 million by the end of the year.”

The company is aggressively planning to grow its merchant network. Currently, it is present in over 450 districts and plans to cover 650 districts in 2017.

In January 2017, Sharma said the online payments platform had clocked Rs 5,000 crore worth of transactions. This, according to him, was 11 percent up from the transactions made in December.

“That’s 200 million transactions in volume terms. The customer base we have achieved in such a short period of time, is incredible and India and Bharat have come together so easily,” he said.

In February, Paytm’s user base for wallets crossed 200 million. The payment platform is currently available in 10 regional languages – Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Hindi, Gujarati, Bengali, Oriya and Punjabi.

The company’s e-marketplace is in the process of raising $200 million from Alibaba Singapore E-commerce, along with investment firm SAIF Partners. Tuesday’s stake sale is part of Alibaba’s plan to raise its stake in the company.

Paytm is also one of the 11 firms that has got the RBI’s licence to start payments bank. However, its licence expires this month. Regarding the delay, Sharma said, “there is a long process of getting all approvals and certification in place,” to Mint. 

In December, Sharma sold 1 percent of his holding in One97 Communications to raise about Rs 325 crore. This money was to be pumped into the group’s payments bank operations.

Controversies, too

Though demonetisation has given Sharma a lot of reasons to be happy, it has also come with controversies.

A full page ad on 9 November congratulating PM Modi, a day after the announcement of demonetisation of Rs 1,000 and Rs 500 notes, raised many eyebrows.

Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal raised a suspicion in his tweet that went viral: Paytm biggest beneficiary of PM’s announcement. Next day PM appears in its ads. Whats the deal, Mr PM?

Sharma replied curtly to Kejriwal. “Dear Sir, the biggest beneficiary is our country. We are just a tech startup, trying to solve financial inclusion & make India proud.”

Paytm and other mobile wallets were the few who benefitted hugely with the note ban move. According to a statement released by the company, post demonetisation announcement on 8 November (Tuesday),  it saw “a record five million transactions a day (on Friday and Saturday, each) and was on the way to process over Rs 24,000 crore (by March 2017), more than any other payment network in the country.”

Later Sharma was also seen in a leaked video clipping – to be fair it was a company event – shouting out Paytm’s achievements and also using abusive language to share his joy. “Today, I can’t tell you ki dil kitna khush hai (I can’t tell you how happy I am today),” said Sharma in a video that went viral and got blasted on social media for his alleged arrogance. Ye hai Paytm. Jo hamare saath nahi hai woh royenge. Ek saal mein woh kiya jo unhone 10 saal mein nahi kiya! 2017 will be ours. Kaise nahi hoga?

This was post-demonetisation which saw mobile wallets make a killing with cashless payments.

With Paytm, all that Sharma dreamt of was the day his mobile wallet would be able to reach out to half a billion Indians, he had told Firstpost. He is still a long way off the mark but has made the company a familiar word for over the half billion he dreamt of. “I always wanted to impact people’s lives,” he had said. “I believe, If you are at it, you should get it. I am of the opinion that life got better with mobile payments.” It certainly did for Sharma and One97 Communications.


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