On February 28, 2016, when Flipkart founders Sachin Bansal and Binny Bansal set foot together at IIT Delhi, they were reliving a tryst with destiny in more ways than one. Their visit to the Indian Institute of Technology-Delhi (IIT-D), ten years after they graduated, packed more significance than a nostalgic amble down Memory Lane.
“Back then, entrepreneurship wasn’t cool,” Sachin said, addressing a rapt audience of students, faculty and budding entrepreneurs at India’s premier technology university. “Back then” refers to 2005, when destiny brought Sachin in touch with Binny Bansal, his junior by a year and his soon-to-be partner in entrepreneurship.
Don’t go by the urban legends, though.
Sachin, then 24, and Binny, 23, had never crossed paths until that summer. Both hailed from the same city – Chandigarh – but had never met. Sachin came from a family of agricultural traders while Binny’s father was a manager with Punjab National Bank in Chandigarh. Despite the common surname, they were unrelated. They did not attend the same elementary or secondary schools (as Wikipedia avers).
“There must have been two or three degrees of separation between us but we had never met,” says Sachin.
Entrepreneurship, however, was far from their thoughts. And so it remained when they graduated from IIT Delhi in 2005.
Click through this slideshow to see more photos from the Flipkart founders’ visit to IIT Delhi
The IIT Delhi years
[inlinetweet prefix=”” tweeter=”” suffix=”via @flipkartstories”]Getting into IIT isn’t a cakewalk for anybody, but it was particularly trying for Sachin[/inlinetweet]. In 1999 he attempted IIT-JEE – the entrance examination for the IITs – but ended up with a rank that was insufficient to secure a seat. Dejected, he enrolled in an entry-level Physics course at Punjab Engineering College in Chandigarh. Within a semester, he grew disillusioned with the lackadaisical environment. When a lecturer declared in class that Einstein’s Theory of Relativity was bogus, an irate Sachin got into an argument with him. The incident cemented his decision to join the IITs. He dropped out, hit his books harder, and gave IIT-JEE another go. An all-India rank of 49 earned him a seat at IIT Delhi.
Binny has a different story to tell. “As a student I was more into Math and Physics, so it was kind of a natural progression to get into engineering,” he said, adding that he was lucky to get into IIT Delhi on his first try.
“They were both very smart, perhaps under-performing slightly,” recalls Prof S N Maheshwari, Emeritus Faculty, Professor of Computer Sciences and former Dean, Indian Institute of Technology – Delhi. “That might also be the reason for their current success. They were willing to observe, have a slightly different perspective, and not totally go by the dynamics around them. Asking questions was probably the most important quality they had.”
The silver-haired professor, who had himself graduated from IIT Delhi in the late 1960s, taught courses in computer science that both Sachin and Binny, who were in separate classes, attended. Sachin remembers his teacher, a world-renowned thought leader in computer science, as being an exceptionally clear thinker who set his own rules. And quirky – albeit in a scientific way.
“On the first day of class he came to the blackboard, took two pieces of chalk – one in his right hand and the other in his left hand – and started writing,” remembers Sachin. “It was more than just ambidexterity. With his left hand Prof Maheshwari wrote forwards, and with his right hand he wrote backwards. When he’d finished, his name was on the board!”
The DNA of entrepreneurship
“Everyone who gets into IIT is bright,” says Prof Maheshwari, clarifying that though Sachin and Binny were not academically inclined they possessed every ingredient for entrepreneurial success. “A questioning attitude, family background in business, and confidence in yourself – these qualities both of them had. In that sense they were under-performers only if you look at performance in terms of grade point average. They could have done much better at academics but they didn’t.”
[inlinetweet prefix=”” tweeter=”” suffix=”via @flipkartstories”]Ironically, if it weren’t for their sub-par grades, Sachin and Binny might have never met[/inlinetweet]. Their individual final year B Tech projects had been awarded an X Grade – which meant below-satisfactory performance but not poor enough to be graded F – and they were instructed to work through the summer to fulfill the course requirements.
“We were forced into a situation,” says Sachin, who spent an extra year at IIT Delhi to complete his project. “In my last year, I had no friends. All of them had graduated. That’s when I met Binny.”
He and Binny spent their summer vacation in the FPGA hardware lab at IIT Delhi to complete their final year B Tech projects in similar domains. They were minions on a secret project for the Indian Navy that had a workforce of senior engineering faculty and PhD students.
“We met a lot during that time,” Sachin said. “That’s when we got to know each other.”
But for their common interest in computer science, the Bansals were men of different persuasions. Binny got his kicks outdoors. He was Sports Secretary of Shivalik Hostel and captained the hostel basketball team. He was actively involved in organizing inter-hostel literary and cultural events.
Sachin, who doesn’t remember ever having played a competitive field sport, made up by being an ardent gamer, holed up in his room at Jwalamukhi Hostel playing Quake 3 or Age of Empires. “We used to play matches all night,” he recalls. “Sometimes, there was an audience to cheer us along, and live projection on a screen. We would then go out to have a meal at four or five in the morning.”
Aloo paranthas and omelettes at Sassi ka Dhaba, a cheap hole-in-the-wall eatery outside the campus gate that has sustained generations of IITians, kept Sachin going. Binny was a regular at KLS Restaurant (now replaced by Rakesh Cafeteria) and frequented a juice bar on campus that no longer exists.
Rarely did the two Bansals catch a bite together during their summer of reckoning. Recollecting the reason for that, Sachin breaks into an impish smile.
“Understandably, Binny didn’t have much time,” he says, nipping in the bud every suggestion of bromance. “A few days after we began working on our projects at the FPGA lab, an intern started working there. A girl. Many years later, she became Binny’s wife.”
For Binny, the tryst at the FPGA lab turned out to be a win-win situation. “[inlinetweet prefix=”” tweeter=”” suffix=”via @flipkartstories”]One became my business partner, the other became my life partner[/inlinetweet],” he says with a grin.
Entrepreneurship – no longer uncool
After IIT-D, Sachin and Binny moved to Bangalore, where they shared an apartment with six other IITians. Sachin had found a job with TechSpan, an IT Services firm, but the monotony of the work got to him. He applied to Amazon and found a job as a software engineer in the Payments group of Amazon Web Services. Binny, rejected twice by Google, landed a job with Sarnoff. Sachin referred him to Amazon where they became colleagues in the same unit.
Sachin had spent nearly two years and Binny nine months at Amazon when the entrepreneurial bug began to bite. Binny, with little work on his table, was bored. He worked off the tedium and frustration of what he described derisively as a “12 to 5 job” with long lunch breaks and longer table tennis matches. Sachin’s dissatisfaction lay in his inability to fathom the purpose of what he was doing. He had put in a lot of effort, he recalls, but the payoff seemed disproportionate. “It was hard to see how my work fit into the overall picture,” he says.
[inlinetweet prefix=”” tweeter=”” suffix=”via @flipkartstories”]The Bansals’ first business idea was for a price-comparison website[/inlinetweet]. However, studying the market, they found that nobody in India shopped online despite the fact that there were at least four or five players in the e-commerce space in India. The time was ripe for an e-commerce startup that delivered on its promise.
— Sachin Bansal (@_sachinbansal) February 28, 2016
[inlinetweet prefix=”” tweeter=”” suffix=”via @flipkartstories”]In October 2008, Flipkart sold its first book to VVK Chandra[/inlinetweet], a customer in Mahabubnagar. Established with a capital of Rs 4 lakh from the founders’ savings, Flipkart grew quickly and attracted the attention of investors.
Entrepreneurship had started to emerge from the shadows. Since 2000, IIT Delhi has maintained its own entrepreneurship cell – the Technology Business Incubation Unit. “There are plenty of opportunities within the curriculum for entrepreneurship,” says Professor Anshul Kumar, senior faculty at the department of Computer Science and a 1974 IIT Delhi alumnus and President of India Gold Medalist, who leads the unit. “Students can now take a semester break to do their internship and get additional credits. This was non-existent a few years ago.”
“[inlinetweet prefix=”” tweeter=”” suffix=”via @flipkartstories”]The climate favors entrepreneurship today but the change was shaped by role models[/inlinetweet],” says Prof Maheshwari, referring to Sachin and Binny. The professor wrote to Sachin a few years after he started Flipkart, telling him how proud he was of what his former students were doing. “That was very satisfying,” recalls Sachin. “Prof Maheshwari’s acknowledgement of my work was really important to me.”
With entrepreneurship no longer an ‘uncool’ word, there’s every chance that the next Flipkart might take birth within an IIT campus.
Sachin, for his part, is vindicated. “I used to regret that I didn’t get good grades while at IIT, but I don’t regret that anymore!”
Photos and additional reportage by Madhu Karuthedath
Lead graphic by Arjun Paul
TIME has named Sachin Bansal and Binny Bansal to the 2016 TIME 100, its annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world