Thursday, July 18, 2024

VS Sudhakar: Driving quick commerce

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With an eye for a path-breaking venture and a zest for achieving excellence, VS Sudhakar, along with equally courageous fellow entrepreneurs, founded Bigbasket in 2011, which has since become a grocery e-commerce giant. Ranked today among the top three grocery retailers in India across all formats, the TATA group company is valued at around $3.2 billion. Big Basket takes pride in its unique supply chain model with 85 % of the products fruits & vegetables sold by it sourced from farmers across the country.

In 2022, Big basket took a plunge into the offline retail market. By March 2023, the company is planning to have 25 offline stores in tier-one cities of Bengaluru (16), Kolkata (5), and Hyderabad (4).Currently, BB is aiming at a growth rate of 30 per cent for FY 22-23 with mechanisms such as self-billing powered by Artificial Intelligence and ‘BB now’ in place. On December 28, 2022, the ambitious founder launched Hyderabad’s first ‘Big Basket Supermart’, an offline store.

In a conversation with The Pioneer’s Amartya Smaran, the Executive Director and Co-Founder of Big Basket, VS Sudhakar, a visionary businessman who has disrupted the market, shares the values he cherishes, the personalities who had influenced him, and ways in which one can bring joy into work while always striving for excellence.

Business acumen:

After I had passed out of IIM Ahmedabad in 1985, I joined the TVS Group. Interestingly, I joined the well established automotive south Indian group when they were looking at new areas that they wanted to go into, outside of automobiles. I started working with Mr. Gopal Srinivasan, who had just come back from the US and was tasked by the group to do this.

The interesting thing was that right from that then onwards, I have always been working with a startup. For instance, the one that I had worked on in the TVS Group became TVS Electronics. Have always been associated with organisations where there are new ideas, a new way of looking at things. That has always excited me. Even in Big Basket, I think what really keeps us engaged and excited is the fact that even today, even at this size, we still think of ourselves as a startup.

All of us who founded and head BigBasket, be it Hari, Vipul, Ramesh, Abhinay or me, we are very approachable from an employee at any level. There is no concept of saying that we have now arrived, now we are done, we don’t need to do anything new. Especially in this fast changing business if you think you have done all that is needed to be done, you will get killed. You have to constantly keep yourself open to new ideas and keep doing and looking at new things.

Family support:

We did our first startup in 1999. When Hari, Vipul, Ramesh, me and two others started out, we each told our respective families that it was going to be tough. We said, ‘Whatever savings we have till now is for the family, but at the end of this startup journey, we may get nothing’. Fortunately, all the families said ‘please go ahead and have fun’. I presume there is an element of trust and an element of joy that everybody needs. We keep telling people we work with that whether it is your own startup or working for a company, always find joy in what you do because if you do not find joy, you won’t find energy. And without energy and joy, you cannot build great things.Inquisitive childhood:

I have always been very curious from childhood. I used to question everything. In fact, my parents used to get very tired of my questions. I would not accept something just because it is said so; I needed to also understand the why. Such a ‘questioning’ attitude has continued all through my life till date. I would say this trait of mine along with the analytical skills got even sharper when I went to IIM Ahmedabad, where you are taught to question everything. You cannot accept anything as a given. That is really what drives me a lot when it comes to the way I look at things.Biggest influence in life:

For me, I think the influence has been more from people who ask you questions that you really feel like: “My God! I need to find an answer to that”. For instance, one of the early people that I worked with was Mr. A.K. Bhattacharya. He headed the team that designed and put together the TVS 50 moped indigenously. He was there in TVS Electronics as an executive director when I was at TVS Electronics as a young person. He created a very deep impression on me because of his eye for perfection. Everything needed to be perfect.

He would say: ‘it’s not okay to be just okay’. We have this thing of ‘Chalta hai. It’s okay boss!’ His point was it is not okay. You have to strive for perfection when you do something. You have to feel that you have done something which is really the best that anybody can do. You may not always achieve it but strive for it. There are people like that who have shaped how I think, or how I look at things.Inquisitive childhood:

I have always been very curious from childhood. I used to question everything. In fact, my parents used to get very tired of my questions. I would not accept something just because it is said so; I needed to also understand the why. Such a ‘questioning’ attitude has continued all through my life till date. I would say this trait of mine along with the analytical skills got even sharper when I went to IIM Ahmedabad, where you are taught to question everything. You cannot accept anything as a given. That is really what drives me a lot when it comes to the way I look at things.
Appetite for excellence

The feeling of ‘I should have done something better’ is always going to be there. There is nothing that you have done that is perfect and impossible to get better because in such a case, how do you even account for the fact that you improve? Let us take an example, we assumed that this quick commerce thing would be a smaller top-up kind of business, but over the past year for the younger generation, it has become the go to online grocery option. We realized that we need to launch a quick commerce service.  

And we built the entire technology — all within about six months and launched it. Could we have done it even earlier? Possibly! Similarly, in ‘99 we started an online supermarket that included books and music. We were way ahead of the curve. Could we have started later? Maybe we could have, but it is okay to swim against the tide. I mean, the point really is if you have enjoyed the journey, it is still okay. Therefore, in my view, I won’t look back and say I have regrets.Could I have done things better? 100 per cent, there is no question about it. One can always do everything in a better way because many times you will come up with a new process and you think, ‘How did we not think about it two years back?’

Quickies & more:

Favorite Films: Invictus (2009) and Gandhi. Both are about inspirational leaders (Nelson Mandela and Gandhiji) with brilliant direction and acting.

Favorite dish: Masala dosa

Favorite book: Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. A lot of people feel John Steinbeck is a difficult author to read because he is one of those Nobel Prize winners, but when you read Of Mice and Men, you realize the power of a writer.

It is an amazing book and if you are normally not comfortable reading Nobel Prize winners, you should read John Steinbeck. He is one Nobel Prize winner you will never regret reading.

Most desirable qualities that you look for in a person:
I would say commitment and integrity.These two things are very important to me. Even when any person at Bigbasket is not performing, the first question we always ask is: Is there high integrity and commitment? Then, I am willing to put energy into supporting the person because that means the fundamentals are correct.

Commitment, energy, and integrity are very critical because if you do not have them, then I do not think it is worth investing in that person. Even when we interview people, we first look at whether that person has the commitment and integrity to do great things.

What would you want to be remembered for?

I think more than anything else, I want people to feel that here was a good human being who was committed to excellence. A person who really strove to be excellent in whatever he did with integrity.

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