Entrepreneurial failure fueled Ankit Nagori’s quest for glory. Six years later, the poster-boy of meritocracy at India’s largest e-commerce marketplace is poised to scale new heights on his own steam
In February 2010, a fresh-faced engineering graduate cold-called India’s hottest e-commerce startup at the New Delhi World Book Fair. Ankit Nagori had heard of Flipkart, a Bengaluru-based startup that had broken new ground by selling books online ever since it acquired its first customer in October 2007. Compared to the heavyweight brick-and-mortar booksellers and publishing houses that participated in the fair, which is held every year at Pragati Maidan in the national capital, Flipkart was among the smaller exhibitors.
“Flipkart was a small company but it was one of the largest startups in the country,” recalls Ankit, then a Delhi lad of 24 who had completed his engineering from IIT-Guwahati in 2007. “Any entrepreneur would have loved to become something like Flipkart, even at that small scale.”
There is admiration but also a trace of remorse tinged with envy in that statement, for Ankit regarded himself as a failed entrepreneur. After graduating, he too had bet on a startup dream but Youthpad, the social network that he launched with his own capital, did not meet with success.
“It wasn’t a great idea, and I didn’t have a great team,” reasons Ankit, who was then based in Gurgaon and was seeking new outlets for his entrepreneurial energy. “I learned that Flipkart was opening a new office in Delhi, primarily a warehouse.”
Anuj Chowdhary, who was then handling business development for Flipkart’s first and sole business category – Books – noted that Ankit had been following Flipkart for a few months. “One day he landed up at the office in Daryaganj,” recalls Anuj, who was the first Flipkart employee with whom Ankit interacted. “He was bubbly and excited and we liked his approach.”
He introduced the young man to his colleague Sujeet Kumar, who was overseeing supply chain, warehousing and logistics functions at Flipkart. “He was passionate and enthusiastic,” recalls Sujeet. “He had hunger in him.”
New kid in town
“He had been hanging around at the book fair where we had a stall,” jokes Binny Bansal, Flipkart’s co-founder who took over as CEO from current Chairman Sachin Bansal in January 2016. When Binny, who visited the Daryaganj office frequently, met Ankit he found that the 24-year-old job applicant’s personality traits checked all the right boxes. “There was a huge culture match. He had a lot of energy. He was open, transparent and straightforward. He was very smart. And he was an ex-entrepreneur,” remembers Binny.
Flipkart, which then dominated the e-tail market in Books, was poised to enter a new business category. While interviewing Ankit, Sujeet and Anuj asked him, “What category would you launch?”
Ankit replied, “Pen drives.”
It wasn’t the answer they were expecting but it helped seal the deal. Ankit joined Flipkart in March 2010 and was entrusted with setting up the Media (music, movies and games CDs and DVDs) category.
“He came across as a bright young person with a similar background as ours,” remembers Sachin Bansal, Flipkart’s co-founder and former CEO who became Chairman in January 2016. “He was young but he spoke with maturity. He was focused and impact-oriented.”
It was exceptional to find these traits in young people, observes Sachin, who was himself one of the youngest business leaders in the country along with Binny. He saw that Ankit was very quick on the uptake. “With him the conversations were clear and to the point; you didn’t have to explain things multiple times.”
“He had made money and burned money on a startup dream,” Anuj comments. “And yet, here he was still keen on joining a startup rather than take up a regular job. He had that junoon, that spark, that burning desire to create something.”
A poster-boy for meritocracy
Tall and lean with thoughtful, earnest eyes and frequently seen sporting a stubble, Ankit Nagori became the poster-boy for meritocracy at Flipkart. His six-year stint might read like a fast-paced thriller. From joining as a Manager in 2010 he rose rapidly to become the Chief Business Officer of the Commerce Platform in 2015.
Ankit recounts the highs and lows of each year as if they happened yesterday: “Let’s see… 2010 was the year of launching new categories. In 2011, the business started doing very well – we launched CoD (Cash on Delivery) and 30-day replacement. Big things were happening. It was also the year when we launched Electronics in a big way. Ekart was launched. I became a VP in the company. It was a big step up for me. In 2012 I launched Fashion as a category and grew it to a sizeable business, and 2014 is when I scaled the marketplace business and got more than 50,000 sellers on board. Now, 2015 is when we started moving towards a much larger marketplace, much more product-centric culture. It was also when I was made the Chief Business Officer of the Commerce Platform…”
Every year that Flipkart touched new milestones, Ankit Nagori grew from strength to strength. And that was only natural, for he was a key actor in each success story. Naysayers who had doubted his acumen and circulated whispers about nepotism only had to look at his achievements against Flipkart’s growth chart to feel chastened.
“His greatest contribution was to get Flipkart into newer businesses,” avers Sachin. “In our moves from Books to Electronics, to Mobile, or Fashion, or scaling Marketplace, Ankit was the guy leading the charge.”
“The one thing that stood out about Ankit was his speed of learning,” observes Binny. “From the earliest days he was able to understand the business. He was the fastest to grasp new things and get to the next level. He understood the category deeply, the business levers, what customers need, how distributors work, how the industry works – and he was able to put them all together to create the right customer experience. Consequently, the business started growing fairly fast and he was also good at building and managing the team. This came naturally to him. He was well set to lead.”
“He was able to communicate and express things openly, in his own charming way,” observes Anuj. “People did not feel threatened by his confidence.”
Ankit, despite being the youngest in a leadership team of young turks, was unafraid of making his point, even if that meant arguing with the top executives. “Once we were having a pitched argument inside the office about some warehousing space that I was not able to provide,” Anuj recalls. “Passions flared. People around us thought we were fighting. But we were fine. It was just business as usual. He had a point. I had a point. And when we were done arguing, things were back to normal. One could do that with him.”
If Binny did find anything annoying about his younger colleague, it was his restlessness. “He is so full of energy that he gets bored easily,” he says.
“He’s definitely not calm and collected!” agrees Anuj, laughing at the thought. “But he’s not a maverick. That’s an interesting combination of characteristics, isn’t it? That is Ankit’s uniqueness.”
“He used to be fun-loving and bubbly,” remembers Sujeet. “I have seen him change as he grew, as he took on more responsibility. He has become more serious and focused as he grew involved in the business.”
A dream deferred
What Ankit lacked in his own startup dreams, he found at Flipkart. With one difference – he invested his time, not his money. “When I started my company in 2007-08, it was not meant to work. I didn’t have a co-founder. It was not a great tech idea. It had all the ingredients for failure, but it was a great learning experience. When I joined Flipkart, I had exposure to different domains. When you’re a startup guy, you have to do everything yourself – right from media to marketing and operations to admin stuff.”
After Flipkart launched the Media category, orders for DVDs started to pour in. “There were a couple of DVDs that we didn’t have and had to procure,” recalls Ankit, who roamed all over Delhi with a colleague and finally sourced them at a retail shop. “We bought them and sold them. The sourcing was last-minute.” For example, stocks that came in at 7:30 pm were rushed to the warehouse by 8 pm and packed as that was the cut-off time for couriers to receive them. “We wanted the product to be collected so that the customer would get it as soon as possible,” he says.
There was always learning on the job. And each incident was burned into his memory. “Anyone who plays on the XBox knows that games come in NTSC and PAL,” says Ankit. “In June 2010, one of our vendors listed a product wrongly. Instead of PAL (the video standard followed in India) they listed their product as NTSC. Within the third day of the launch of the category, we got a few orders, possibly from customers who had bought their gaming consoles in the US.”
It was a tricky situation. They couldn’t roll back the promise an errant vendor had made to customers, who were now expecting their wishes to be fulfilled. A solution had to be found.
“We found one vendor who imported NTSC games from the US,” says Ankit, who wrote to the expectant customers requesting them to wait for about 20 days while they procured the game title. “Customer-centricity was ingrained in everything we did. Every cancellation was frowned upon – Sachin and Binny would ask tough questions and Tapas (Rudrapatna, who now heads WS Retail) would send a stinker for every cancellation, filled with all possible profanities. Any vendor manager whose vendor screwed up would be really worried. That brought about the culture of solving for the customer.”
Such episodes had a three-way impact: they developed Ankit Nagori personally, they honed Flipkart’s customer responsiveness, and they also infused the much-needed customer-centricity that was hitherto absent in India’s nascent e-commerce ecosystem. “That’s what Flipkart has shaped in the last few years,” observes Ankit.
Setting up and running the Daryaganj office, Ankit says, gave him the confidence that “we can win categories in a very big way.”
“We became so dominant in the Books category and this success made us realize that you can own an industry completely,” he adds.
Launching Fashion in 2013 was another proud achievement, he remarks. “It was a turnaround year for my own confidence levels. When we launched Fashion there was a lot of self doubt. I was a completely non-Fashion domain expert and I managed to do a decent job there. It was a huge learning,” he says.
Ankit is being modest. Clearly, he more than “managed to do a decent job.” Binny declares that his success with the Fashion category is a testament to his love for solving business problems.
“When we gave him the Fashion category – he had never done Fashion before – he was able to grow Flipkart into the leader in fashion. That’s when we acquired Myntra (in 2014).”
Scaling the marketplace was another key milestone. “He was able to take on a new challenge, build a team, and scale up,” says Binny. “Today it’s the core of our business.”
The stories untold
There are untold stories behind how Flipkart delivered pre-orders running into volumes of 30,000 and more for coveted books like the Steve Jobs – The Exclusive Biography in 2011 and nearly 300,000 orders for Chetan Bhagat’s Half Girlfriend in 2014. Incidentally, both books were released on public holidays when the company’s operations as well as third-party courier operations were closed. Ankit and his colleagues scrambled to find means to deliver the books to customers.
“Imagine 30,000 customers getting a book on the day of release in 2011,” he says, visibly excited at reliving the memory. “As Sachin always says: Every day you work at a startup you learn something.”
Ankit’s extraordinary success was catalyzed by his close interactions with the key people who drive Flipkart. Sachin, he says, stands for audacity. “Working with him, I have realized that there are no limits to ambition and dreams. If you keep raising your game and working hard, you’ll keep getting there.”
With Mukesh Bansal, Head of Commerce Platform – Flipkart, he says, the emphasis has been on quality and depth. “From him I learned that doing something with good quality is so much more important than merely doing it.”
“Binny’s is a strong analytical mind,” says Ankit Nagori. “You cannot get anything past him that you cannot substantiate. Attention to detail is something he does not compromise upon.”
It was not all smooth sailing. With the ecstatic highs of achievement came crushing lows, days of despair and self doubt. The biggest test for him, Ankit admits, were the two editions of the Big Billion Days that multiple Flipkart teams orchestrated in 2014 and 2015.
“When we conceived Big Billion Day 2014, it was a testament to the audacity this company had,” says Ankit. “We said we would make 100 million dollars in a single day and it had never happened anywhere in India before. Barring a few big internet economies, it wouldn’t have happened anywhere else, too. When conceived, it seemed like an un-doable thing.”
When Big Billion Day finally came on October 6, 2014, the Flipkart steering team realized that there was more momentum in the market and far more demand than they had anticipated.
“The gap in 2014 was that we did not realize the kind of demand we would generate,” says Ankit, adding that it was only an indicator of market potential.
“Between then and The Big Billion Days 2015, we understood demand better and served it in a really clean manner. We extended it over five days so that we could serve a lot more demand, we made it easier for customers to figure out which categories were going on sale when, and overall the execution was really good. In fact, Big Billion Days 2015 is one of the highest points of my career at Flipkart. The kind of camaraderie we saw, the kind of teamwork we saw across teams… it was brilliant.”
“Ankit Nagori had understood all the issues and learned from all the mistakes of the previous year,” says Binny, “He took steps to mitigate all the risks in a very systematic way, demonstrating his business understanding, attention to detail and learnability.”
Despite his seemingly inexhaustible reservoir of energy and drive, there were times when this prodigious young man felt, well, like a regular 30-year-old human.
“I won’t lie. On certain days, when things got really tough, I felt it was too much for me,” he admits. “Flipkart is one of the fastest growing companies in the country and the expectations are growing every day. But that’s what we stand for. The next day, the team comes together and delivers something that has no precedent. Flipkart just keeps surprising itself.”
It’s not just Flipkart. Ankit Nagori proved that he can spring a surprise, too. This March, it would be exactly six years since his extraordinary journey began.
“Whatever I am today was shaped by how Flipkart transpired,” he says, a touch wistful. “I keep saying to myself that I don’t have a memory prior to 2010! So much has happened in the last six years that I don’t remember anything before that.”
He’s probably wrong about that. If there is one thing that even the erasure of memory cannot eclipse, it is the restive heat of entrepreneurial fire. The startup spark that glowed in Ankit Nagori back in 2007 never really burned out. It is alive and well. For instance, he never let go of his Twitter handle @Youthpad, and has continued penning the occasional post on his blog. Today, older, wiser and toughened by experience from repeated trials by fire at Flipkart, he has the renewed confidence and suave to take on new challenges.
Here comes the twist in the tale. Ankit Nagori’s journey will continue – but not with Flipkart. He has decided, after deep consideration, to take the plunge again into entrepreneurship. This time, however, his startup will focus on an ecosystem that he has long been passionate about – sports.
“His moving out is a huge loss to Flipkart,” says Binny. “If there is one person who is a role model for Flipkart, our values and culture, who is a role model for other young leaders, it’s Ankit. He’s leaving behind a huge legacy of having started a lot of things and taken them from zero to one.”
The road ahead for Ankit Nagori
Binny and Sachin will back Ankit’s new venture. “Developing sports in India is definitely a noble cause to go after, and certainly one in which I am personally vested, and we are there to support him fully,” Binny adds.
“Ankit is a shining example of the fact that age doesn’t matter if you have the attitude and the drive to succeed. He’s given Binny and me the confidence to place our trust in young people,” says Sachin. “I’m happy to help and support him. After all, at heart he’s an entrepreneur.”
“Sachin and Binny have shown full support,” says Ankit Nagori. “It’s heartening to see that, and it shows the confidence of the company that I have worked with for so long. I’m passionate about sports and I want to do something in that domain.”
As he departs, Ankit Nagori is confident that he is leaving Flipkart in good hands. “The kind of team that we have been able to build in the last 12 months is incredible,” he says. “At the leadership level, we are doing well. And my team is doing great, too. There’s no end to this journey. I have an unfinished entrepreneurial agenda. The fact that it did not work out last time makes it even more important that I attend to it now.”
Employee number 1033 might no longer swipe in at a Flipkart access card reader in the months ahead, but Ankit Nagori has left his imprint on Flipkart’s DNA. And that will stay for a long time to come.