Meet Amit Sinha, the Dhanbad boy who will challenge Jeff Bezos’s India dreams

Sunny Sen July 12, 2017

Story Highlights

  • COO Amit Sinha is putting the nuts and bolts in place at Paytm Mall, which is opening a three-way battle in Indian ecommerce against Amazon and Flipkart
  • Sinha feels the only way to take the ecommerce model ahead is to get offline sellers to sell online by helping them set up online stores
  • But Paytm Mall will have tough competition in ShopClues, Amazon and Flipkart

A little more than two moons ago, Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, said “it’s still Day 1 for ecommerce in India” and added that US ecommerce would continue to invest in technology and infrastructure in the country.

Bezos has already committed $5 billion to Amazon’s India operations, which is the fastest growing ecommerce platform in the country, breathing down Flipkart’s neck.

But Amazon has another challenger: Paytm Mall (backed by China’s Alibaba), and Vijay Shekhar Sharma, Paytm’s founder and CEO, which will take Bezos head on. While Sharma remains the showman at Paytm, the nuts and bolts of Paytm Mall are being fixed by Amit Sinha, who first joined One97 (Paytm’s parent company) in 2007, from Airtel.

Paytm is opening a three-way battle in Indian ecommerce against Amazon and Flipkart. Up for grabs is a $30 billion online retail market, expected to grow to $120 billion by 2020.

“At Paytm Mall, we are addressing a unique opportunity of giving small businesses and retailers access to mobile internet technology to address India’s large mobile consumer base” — Vijay Shekhar Sharma, founder, Paytm  

To put things in context, Paytm Ecommerce Pvt Ltd, which runs Paytm Mall, is the demerged entity of One97. This will run the product marketplace business that will compete with Amazon and Flipkart. (Paytm’s other businesses are Paytm Payments Bank, which also handles wallet services and Paytm. Paytm gives loans, sells gold and offers other digital services including movie tickets, recharges, and bill payments, among others.) Paytm Ecommerce has raised $200 million from Alibaba Group Holding and SAIF Partners to build the marketplace business.

Also read: Walmart brings third dimension to India’s e-grocery war

Back to Sinha. It was a tough decision for him to quit Airtel, India’s No. 1 phone company. One97 was a tiny startup back then, and Airtel was already the country’s largest telecom operator. “But, the first meeting with Vijay convinced me to join the company,” said Sinha.

In 2010, he walked away from Paytm to build an agricultural startup Akshamaala, which used technology to improve farmers’ productivity.

In 2013, when One97, originally a value-added services company, pivoted into Paytm mobile wallet, Sharma called him back. Since then, he has worked in various departments: operations, hiring, category management and logistics, defining, developing and implementing critical business and financial planning. Sinha also played a critical role in the last $1.4 billion fund raise from Japan’s SoftBank.

That is also why Sharma wants Sinha to head the ecommerce business. “At Paytm Mall, we are addressing a unique opportunity of giving small businesses and retailers access to mobile internet technology to address India’s large mobile consumer base. Amit’s experience in building various businesses since their inception makes him our best choice to lead our commerce business,” Sharma said in a statement on Sinha’s appointment as the chief operating officer (COO) of Paytm Mall.

Dhanbad to Delhi

Sinha was born in a small town called Panchet in the coal district of Dhanbad in Jharkhand (then Bihar) in a middle-class family. His father was an engineer with the Damodar Valley Corporation (DVC).

As a child he travelled five hours every day to go and come back from school — De Nobili Convent School in Mythan. The DVC quarters were away from the city, so Sinha spent most of his time at the community library. His family led a frugal life. Luxury meant a bottle of Campa Cola, remembers Sinha.

paytm-amit
It was a tough decision for Amit Sinha to quit Airtel, but a meeting with Paytm founder Vijay Shekhar Sharma convinced him to join the company. Image: Paytm Blog

In the mid-90s, after India’s economy got liberalised, the IT industry was on the  rise. Most bright students wanted to pursue software engineering, but Sinha studied mining at IIT-ISM, Dhanbad. In 2000, after passing out, he joined Infosys. Later on, he pursued management from IIM-Calcutta, with specialisation in systems and marketing.

After IIM, Sinha joined PwC, where he worked in Kolkata, Delhi, and Texas and Dallas in the US. Then he moved to Keane Consulting, and finally landed a job with Airtel’s enterprise strategy team in 2006.

Sinha felt settled. But soon, his friend Abhishek Ranjan — who runs Paytm’s travel business — referred him at One97, where he started heading the media content business. And left in 2010 to start Akshamaala.

Go big: Back to Paytm

In 2013, Sharma casually met Sinha, and talked about Paytm’s vision of bringing half a billion people to the mainstream economy, which is going digital. Paytm Mall would play a vital role in bringing those people online.

Sinha, now back at Paytm, wants to change the rules of the ecommerce game by bringing in small retailers, structured and unstructured brands. “While the other players are larger (than us), there is an opportunity to bring both the organised and the unorganised market online… We want to bring the neighbourhood store online, too,” said Sinha.

Also read: Patanjali to drive hard into ecommerce, in talks with Amazon, Flipkart, BigBasket

Without taking names, Sinha said, “others are quasi marketplaces,” referring to Amazon and Flipkart. Both have incubated large sellers — Amazon has Cloudtail and Flipkart has WS Retail — to control supply chain, on-time delivery and availability of products. “We want to bring the offline world into (the) online,” Sinha said.

“While the other players are larger (than us), there is an opportunity to bring both the organised and the unorganised market online… We want to bring the neighbourhood store online, too” — Amit Sinha, COO, Paytm Mall

“In the last two years, ecommerce has become a full stack game comprising a large catalogue of products, delivery and payments, and a distributed market. In the last two-three years, few companies have built that. Paytm Mall is an attempt to build a full stack game,” said Sandeep Aggarwal, founder and CEO of Droom, who spent a decade as a Wall Street analyst. He added that Paytm Mall wanting to do both organised and unorganised is more of an Alibaba game, on the lines of the latter’s Taobao and TMall.

Sinha says the only way to take the ecommerce model ahead is to get offline sellers to sell online by helping them set up online stores

Sinha pointed out that discounting can’t be a long-term strategy, so the only way to take the ecommerce model ahead is to get offline sellers to sell online by helping them set up online stores, where people can buy anytime of the day. Sinha explains that people should be able to buy from the same neighbourhood or famous store in the city online as well as offline.

Also, if a person wants to buy online, and return or exchange the product offline, Paytm Mall will allow that. To enable this, Sinha has built a technology that automatically throws up search results from the same town, or from neighbouring towns. If the product the buyer is looking for is not available nearby, the search shows products from other locations in India. “The platform will be intelligent enough to segment categories, products, users and geographies,” Sinha added.

Sandeep Aggarwal, founder and CEO of Droom, said that Paytm Mall wanting to play both organised and unorganised markets is more of an Alibaba game, on the lines of the latter’s Taobao and TMall

“We will start with electronics and eventually get into FMCG and grocery products,” said Sinha. “When grocery starts, delivery will happen in a couple of hours.”

But Paytm Mall will have tough competition. ShopClues is already a strong player in the unorganised market, especially in tier-II and tier-III cities. Amazon has decided to put in $500 million to build its food business. Flipkart has also got into groceries, and is merging Snapdeal to become a much larger organisation.

Sinha, however, is not worried. Paytm has the backing of Alibaba. “We are the strategic player for Alibaba in India,” he said.


Disclosure: FactorDaily is owned by SourceCode Media, which counts Accel Partners, Blume Ventures and Vijay Shekhar Sharma among its investors. Accel Partners is an early investor in Flipkart. Vijay Shekhar Sharma is the founder of Paytm. None of FactorDaily’s investors have any influence on its reporting about India’s technology and startup ecosystem.