By Anirban Sen & Pankaj Mishra April 1, 2019
A few weeks ago, late in February, Ola held an all-hands, employee town hall meeting. Most employees were curious and looking forward to CEO Bhavish Aggarwal’s address and answers from his top lieutenants on how the business was faring and what the future held for Ola.
According to three employees present, and who spoke on condition of anonymity, the message from Aggarwal was simple and direct: push yourselves to go beyond your call of duty, else find another job.
“We are at a pivotal moment of our journey. We have come a long way since we started, but it’s now make-or-break time. And every employee has a big part to play in the way forward,” said Aggarwal, according to those cited above.
Aggarwal then proceeded to take questions from his audience of employees and executives. The mood was largely positive until some employees expressed concern whether the company’s core cab business was scaling rapidly enough.
The CEO’s tone turned standoffish as he brushed aside the concerns. For those who know Aggarwal, that was not unusual. He had gone into a shell at Ola’s previous town hall, too, where concerns were raised about the company’s culture problem.
In his quest to build Ola into the dominant ride-hailing platform in this part of the globe, Aggarwal has thrown out the traditional playbook for entrepreneurs and instead adopted a hard-charging persona who runs a company valued at at least $5 billion largely as a one-man show — one that has won him some admirers while alienating many leaders, employees and stakeholders.
He has kept the wheels moving even if that has come at a cost to the company.
But, worryingly for Ola, Aggarwal now finds himself with multiple battlefronts open. He has struggled to retain key leaders at his company amid concerns over a brutal culture in a workplace that lacks diversity; hampered relations with two of Ola’s largest investors, SoftBank and Tiger Global; failed to improve the technology powering Ola’s core cab business and user experience; has an opaque dependence on a mentor-like figure who is also a polarizing figure within the company; and plunged headlong into two costly new businesses with little promise of success (international expansion to Australia and the UK and Foodpanda). Oh, and not to forget, Ola’s expensive electric vehicle bet, which is still yet to take off in a meaningful way.
And a couple of weeks ago, Ola found itself in a regulatory tangle, after the Karnataka government temporarily revoked its operating licence. It was restored quickly, though.
All this, while Aggarwal is aggressively attempting to take the company public within the next two years, amid an intensely attritional battle against a deeper-pocketed international business rival, Uber Technologies Inc.
Aggarwal has time and again declined to meet FactorDaily for an interview or answer unanswered. Look at our stories on or involving Ola here. We would draw your attention to two stories that company insiders tell us had the CEO upset: Ola’s culture problem and Fraud allegations shake Ola; company HR and admin head being investigated.
For this profile of Aggarwal, FactorDaily reporters have spoken to at least 100 people over the course of two years that include a wide array of current and former executives at Ola, current and former employees, board members, investors, drivers on the platform, executives at rival Uber, family friends, and others entrepreneurs and VCs who know him well. Most of these people requested anonymity in order to speak more freely and frankly with the authors of this story. All the information accumulated through this reportage during the past two years has been re-validated and re-confirmed over the past three weeks. Aggarwal turned down another request for a meeting with FactorDaily last week through a company spokesman. The spokesman declined responses to questions sent, too. We will update this story should Aggarwal or Ola respond.
Through these interviews, Aggarwal has emerged as a complex, polarizing figure — on the one hand, his steely resolve, ambition and hunger to succeed is beyond doubt.
Aggarwal, at the moment, is arguably India’s most important Internet entrepreneur — given that Sachin Bansal and Binny Bansal, co-founders of Flipkart, have exited the scene and are out of the picture at the multi-billion ecommerce company they founded. Billions of dollars are riding on the success or failure of Ola.
On the other hand, Aggarwal hard-charging, paranoid, obsessive, control-freak leadership style has left much to be desired and begs the question as to whether he has pushed Ola to the brink.
But, more on that later. In order to understand more about the persona of Aggarwal, a step back in time is required. (An early disclosure: Accel Partners and Blume Ventures, among the investors in Sourcecode Media Pvt Ltd, which owns FactorDaily, are also investors in ANI Technologies Pvt Ltd that controls the Ola group of companies.)
Aggarwal with IIT-Bombay batchmate Prakhar Goyal in a tour picture from Istanbul in an undated picture. | Photo: Public photo by Prakhar Goyal on Facebook
Aggarwal, 33, was born and brought up in Ludhiana in a typical upper middle-class Punjabi household. His parents, Naresh Kumar Aggarwal and Usha Aggarwal, are doctors – his father is an orthopedic surgeon, his mother a pathologist. Aggarwal has a brother, Ankush, who also runs his own start-up, Avail Finance, an online lending platform that counts Bhavish as an investor.
After his schooling in Ludhiana, Aggarwal trained his sights on becoming an engineer.
However, he encountered an early speedbump, back then in the early 0s.
He failed to clear the joint entrance exam that would have granted him admission to India’s most prestigious network of technology colleges, the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs).
That speed bump would eventually turn out to be nothing more than the most miniscule of footnotes in Aggarwal’s life.
He came back prepared better. The very next year, he aced the entrance test, securing an all-India rank of 23.
A person familiar with the Ola board’s thinking traces Aggarwal’s tenacity to his background. “He comes from Tier 2, Tier 3 India — the hunger comes from that background… perseverance follows hunger,” he said. Aggarwal’s father, according to this Ola director, thinks he is the more determined among his two sons.
Aggarwal would go on to pursue a degree in computer science from IIT Bombay — an experience that went a long way in making him who he is, as he hung out with the brightest of technology minds in the country.
After graduating in 8, Aggarwal went to work at the Microsoft Research Centre in Bangalore. According to two people familiar with his stint there, he was keen on doing something on his own “and was itching to get started as of yesterday”.
However, his time at Microsoft was hardly a waste. That stint achieved the twin objective of helping him expand his network manifold, while giving him invaluable experience of working at a cutting-edge technology development centre. At Microsoft Research, he would also unearth one of the company’s earliest investors and develop a bond with a reclusive and little-known researcher Ramachandran Ramjee.
The idea for Ola, however, was far from clear at the time.
Back in 2010, nearly 8,700 miles away, Uber was setting the world on fire. It was capturing the imagination of investors and consumers alike. It was well on its way to becoming a transportation behemoth, the likes of which the world will probably never see again.
Interestingly, Aggarwal hadn’t even heard of Uber back in 2010-11 around the time he finalised the idea of a cab-hailing business, according to three people aware of his thinking. So, one could argue that Ola wasn’t an Uber copycat in the way Flipkart copied the Amazon playbook.
But once he did hear about Uber, more so about its plans to enter India in 2013, Aggarwal began to obsessively track and study the Silicon Valley company’s every tactical and strategic move.
Aggarwal with an Ola driver from an undated picture on the Ola website
In 2010, Aggarwal had a very different idea in mind for Ola. He wanted to start a business that would organise trips for customers wanting to travel and get out of town. The company at the time was called OlaTrip.com. He incorporated the company as ANI Technologies Pvt Ltd on December 3, 2010, at a small office in Kitchlu Nagar, Ludhiana, with his father, Naresh, acting as a full-time director.
According to interviews with family friends and documents sourced from the Ministry of Corporate Affairs, Aggarwal’s father provided more than just monetary support for the fledgling business.
Setting aside family concerns over whether his son’s venture would take off, the senior Aggarwal played an active role setting the direction of Ola with his son during the early days, even before he got co-founder Ankit Bhati in place. His father was practically a co-founder at that point, having 5,000 shares under his name – the same number that Bhavish held. The bootstrapped venture had about Rs 2 lakh in the bank at the point. But Bhavish was quietly lining up future backers that would include Ramjee of Microsoft, Rehan Yar Khan of Orios Venture Partners who invested together with his wife, Toppr.com founder and one of Aggarwal’s closest friends, Zishaan Hayath (a senior of Aggarwal from IIT Bombay), and Anupam Mittal, founder of Shaadi.com. Bhati, a batchmate from IIT Bombay, would join Aggarwal in early 2011. The senior Aggarwal would soon take a step back and leave Bhavish to run the company with Bhati.
As Aggarwal started lining up key investors, most of whom were based out of Mumbai, he decided to register the company in the city, making the move in 2012. By then, Aggarwal had ditched the idea of Olatrips and decided to go after the nascent and unorganised cab-hailing business in India, at a time when the smartphone adoption was slowly edging up.
The company’s name was duly changed to Olacabs.com.
A year later, as he looked to get better access to the best technology minds in the country and the complete ecosystem of investors, lawyers and talent, Aggarwal decided that Bangalore would prove to be a more ideal base for the company.
In a conversation this January at St. Joseph’s College, Bengaluru, with spiritual guru and the self-styled “Monk who sold his Porsche” Om Swami, Aggarwal jokingly revealed that his parents had the wrong idea about the business that he was venturing into. FactorDaily was present during the conversation.
“When I told my dad, ‘Papa mujhe yeh business karna hein,’ (Dad, I want to be in this business), his reaction was, ‘Beta, tum travel agency khol rahe ho! Tum IIT gaye… uske baad, why are you opening a travel agency?’ (Son, why are you opening a travel agency after getting a degree from IIT?). At that time he didn’t understand technology, neither did the large parts of India. That internet revolution was just starting.”
Aggarwal reassured his dad: “Aap tension mat lo (Don’t worry). I’ll figure some path out.”
The Ola CEO went on to joke that now his parents now understand the nature of the business he is in and now grill him about how he plans to make Ola profitable. “Middle-class parents can be very demanding,” he said to widespread laughter.
But, the “middle-class” days are well behind him. His net worth (on paper) is estimated at close to $400-500 million, going by Ola’s latest valuation.
His battles have grown in scale, too, with several billions of dollars at stake and with the likes of SoftBank majordomo Masayoshi Son across the table.
An undated picture of Ola drivers from the company
Aggarwal has come a long way since the early days of Ola, when he was a green-behind-the-ears, rookie founder. In many ways, his earliest meetings with potential investors helped shape him into a tough-as-nails, no-nonsense, thick-skinned founder, say people aware of his thinking.
Many valuable lessons were gleaned from those meetings. A particular one from 2012 stands out – one where Aggarwal found himself on the backfoot stumped by an innocuous question.
Ola then was moving to Mumbai and Aggarwal had decided it was time to bring some new names to the company’s cap table. He needed to expand the 20-member team and get a bigger office. After all, he often had to man calls to Ola’s service desk from customers, according to an early employee.
Aggarwal, along with Bhati started approaching a number of potential new backers, including the likes of Matrix Partners.
In one such meeting Aggarwal found himself in an awkward position, unable to answer a seemingly straightforward question from a potential investor.
“What is Ola’s current org structure? How many people do you have reporting into you,” asked the investor.
Aggarwal, as the story was recounted to us, didn’t know what “org structure” meant. Till that point, he had run Ola as a typical small business – with no formal structures and processes in place. He quickly Googled what “org structure” meant when the investor was distracted taking a call, a person present at the meeting, requesting anonymity, told FactorDaily.
Cut to 2019. The Ola Group now has a sprawling, so-called group structure in place, with six key elements: the core cab business, the food delivery unit of Foodpanda, Ola’s fintech services, cab leasing services, an international business, and the electric vehicle unit.
Aggarwal and Ola have come a long way since that meeting in 2012.
During the chat in a Bengaluru college earlier this year, Aggarwal himself conceded that he struggled big-time during the early days of Ola.
“The first 3-4 years, we were a very, very small company, 10-20 people, figuring out the next month’s cheque. We didn’t have too much capital, we didn’t have any customers. Challenges (were) very existential. You are awake just to be existing next week or next month. So over there, it was more of an existential problem-solving, while also dreaming about how things would be when your existential issues are solved,” Aggarwal recalled.
Tiger Global’s Lee Fixel was the big cheque man behind both Flipkart and Ola
2012 also saw a key Ola milestone and a turning point of sorts. Aggarwal and Ola were introduced to Lee Fixel. The cash-strapped venture had struck a goldmine, literally.
Fixel, who until recently headed the private investment business of Tiger Global Management, is a legendary figure in India’s Internet start-up ecosystem. To a generation of entrepreneurs, Fixel will always be the man who helped deliver Flipkart’s $16-billion sale to Walmart and turn the Bansals and other top executives of the e-commerce firm into overnight millionaires.
But even before the sale of Flipkart, Fixel had acquired near-mythical status among founders and VCs in India. He was the man who used to single handedly write large cheques to early-stage start-ups and helped boost valuations many times over – that too at a lightning pace. Term sheets were offered overnight, often after just a video call.
Fixel will always be remembered for his close, yet unique, relationship with the Bansals at Flipkart, although that soured much later.
With Aggarwal, that relationship was very different, sometimes bordering on combative. Yet it was no less significant, as Tiger made a sizable bet on Ola.
In 2012, Fixel was introduced to Aggarwal by a mutual friend. The New York investor moved quickly, as is his wont, and wrote a $3.5 million cheque to Ola as part of a Series A round, having been impressed by Aggarwal’s passion and vision.
That cheque proved to be a turning point – much as it did in Flipkart’s case when Fixel wrote a $10-million cheque in early 2010 – and opened the floodgates for Aggarwal and his fledgling cab-hailing business.
Soon other investors started queuing up. And Ola was headed towards a multi-billion dollar valuation.
The top equity holdings in ANI Technologies, which owns the Ola group
“Phase two happened for us between 2014 (to) 2017. These three years, it was a very aggressive expansion. That is not about us – it was the opportunity that opened up in the market. During 2013-2014, a couple of things started happening in the country in the technology domain. People started buying mobile phones, data connections became cheaper, and the Indian economy started opening up much more. That was the time when, for us, the consumer opportunity took Ola from a very small fleet of a few hundred vehicles to a fleet of more than a million drivers every month. That kind of scale (in) those three years happened,” said Aggarwal at the Bengaluru event.
“We felt like we were riding a tiger,” he added. Much like Fixel-led Tiger was riding the Indian startup boom.
“It was not like we planned it all, like we designed it. We were always trying to catch the tail of the tiger. And (during those days), not just me, the entire team used to be up till about 1 a.m. And, we used to get up early to keep (our) hold of the tiger.” Aggarwal recounted.
That period also saw a transformation of the Ola CEO into a more ruthless, paranoid and cut-throat operator, the people cited above said. The days of not knowing about org structures and processes were far behind him – and the man that emerged was barely recognisable from the rookie entrepreneur of the early 2010s.
“When you are riding the tiger, you do not even know that there is something called the organization. Because you are busy, you are just (about) able to meet the growth you are having,” Aggarwal said.
The SoftBank-Ola combine could have been formidable but for Aggarwal’s worries of ceding control. In picture (from left): Nikesh Arora, Masayoshi Son, and Aggarwal.
Last year, when SoftBank’s Son visited India, Aggarwal cancelled an appointment with the legendary Japanese investor at the last minute, citing a scheduling conflict, according to a person aware of the development. Earlier this year, when SoftBank’s Rajeev Misra, who heads the $100-billion Vision Fund, visited India and met the founders of all his portfolio companies, Aggarwal was conspicuous by his absence.
The frostiness in Aggarwal’s relationship with SoftBank is a far cry from the heady days of 2014-15 when the Japanese conglomerate first invested in Ola and Aggarwal was the poster-boy of the Japanese firm’s India investment portfolio. Son and Aggarwal spoke regularly during that time, with the latter sometimes flying out to Tokyo to meet Son. The two had been introduced by former SoftBank president Nikesh Arora. Son, like Fixel, was sold on Aggarwal’s drive and ambition.
However, even as Aggarwal’s bond with SoftBank was growing during that period, he kept one eye on the Bansals at Flipkart, paying close attention to how their relationship with Fixel at Tiger was souring. Aggarwal privately told some of his close associates that he would never let SoftBank call the shots at Ola, the way Fixel did at Flipkart. At Flipkart, the Bansals were over-dependent on Tiger Global’s support and the founders did not strengthen their rights in a manner that could prevent a large investor group from taking control. As a result, when Sachin Bansal made strategic blunders in 2015 that allowed Amazon to gain market share at Flipkart’s expense, Fixel acted swiftly and eventually removed both the Bansals from day-to-day operations, and installed long-time Tiger Global lieutenant, Kalyan Krishnamurthy, to run the show at Flipkart.
A spokesperson for Fixel replied in an email to FactorDaily that he has no comments to offer for this story.
Aggarwal’s paranoia of losing control of his company grew manifold in the months after.
Turns out that his paranoia was not misplaced, even though it has come at a cost. As the funding boom of 2014-15 drew to a screeching halt and valuations of top Internet startups including Flipkart started plummeting, SoftBank started to grow impatient. The Japanese wanted a bigger say in the scheme of things at Ola.
In late 2016, SoftBank offered to invest $1 billion in Ola at a lower valuation from its previous financing round, Aggarwal baulked and turned down the money. He ended up taking $250 million from SoftBank, as he did not want the latter to gain a bigger stake. SoftBank, in the meantime, switched tracks and tried the secondary route, attempting to strike a deal with Tiger Global, which was keen on exiting Ola at the time.
Aggarwal found out about the talks and acted swiftly, changing the company’s articles of association, amending clauses around voting rights and drag-along rights, and effectively preventing any large investor in Ola from buying shares from another investor, without the consent of the founders.
A similar situation played out at the end of last year, when SoftBank offered to invest big in Ola. But Aggarwal once again turned down the offer and struck a deal with a clutch of new investors, including Sachin Bansal and carmaker Hyundai Motors. In Aggarwal’s mind, while the fight with SoftBank has hurt Ola’s ability to raise large amount of capital at sky-high valuations at one go, it is a price that is worth paying.
He has, after all, learned from the mistakes made by other peers, such as Bansal, according to people aware of his thinking.
While the relationship with SoftBank is by no means at a point of no-return – according to a person aware of Son’s relationship with Aggarwal, both men stay in regular touch and Aggarwal recently visited Tokyo – those heady days of 2013-14 are a thing of the past.
Aggarwal at a meeting with Facebook executives in 2015. Ola worked with Facebook to promote its own brand and grow its business. | Photo: Public photo posted by former Facebook India head Kirthiga Reddy on Facebook
There are very few people in India with an understanding and knowledge of the cabs business deeper than Aggarwal. Since starting out, he has made bold bets and made ambitious, outsized acquisitions as part of his vision to turn Ola into a sprawling ride-hailing behemoth, with elements such as fintech and food delivery feeding into the core cab business. While that vision has not completely panned out (at least not yet), the Ola CEO has displayed uncommon chutzpah in terms of his risk appetite. For him, profitability and improving so-called unit economics remain a top priority ahead of a potential public listing over the next few years. But, he has not shied away from ploughing millions of dollars towards growing out newer bets such as electric vehicles, the international business, and food delivery.
A ruthless, blunt and hands-on operator, Aggarwal is known to favour his close circle of lieutenants, while considering others to be dispensable, if they do not perform.
An early executive reporting directly into the CEO described times in 2014 as “hacky”. Ola had no product managers and there were just five engineers in the development team. Aggarwal squabbled hard even then. “I remember negotiating salary with him. That day I knew it was going to be difficult working for the guy. He was very much like negotiating for vegetables… everything from equity to compensation,” the executive recalled.
When it came to a point of both sides disagreeing and the executive got up to leave, Aggarwal agreed to his terms. “I learned that if you don’t stand up to him, he will keep pushing. The day he realises he can push you, he can push you a lot,” the hiree said.
Another strange pattern is how Aggarwal loads top-priority work on his favourites. “Everytime he gives you more work, he gives you his top priority work. But after a while, you can’t take it anymore and then he stops giving you more of (the priority) work. That’s when you lose relevance with him,” this executive recalled.
Senior roles are like “fancy holes,” the executive said. “He will push you inside and you will be like, ‘Wow, this looks amazing.’ And then he will start burying you deeper.” To be sure, not all of Ola’s senior rung have such a dim view of Aggarwal, the manager.
Still, many agree Aggarwal’s edginess comes from paranoia. “His ability to get motivation from paranoia is beyond most entrepreneurs. He has Steve Jobs level paranoia,” the executive said.
If Aggarwal could retain talent, Ola would have been much bigger than the $5-6 billion company it is today, according to this person. He takes the example of someone like Pradeep Dodle who worked on Ola Prime during its second launch attempt among such talent that Ola lost.
In a lot of ways, Aggarwal is a man of two sides — while his hard-charging, aggressive persona is evident to those working around, he wears a different persona – Sachin Bansal describes him as “polite” and “soft spoken” – outside Ola in social circles. Over the years, he has grown more reclusive and shied away from media interactions, considering them a distraction. A control freak, he has kept a close eye on peers such as the Bansals of Flipkart and developed a close relationship with them, and often approached them for advice, while also learning from their mistakes. Stories of his long working hours are galore, but over the past few years Aggarwal has started delegating more responsibilities to leaders such as CFO Harish Abhichandani, his IIT Bombay junior Pranay Jivrajka, and M&A head Nimish Joshi.
“There is one thing we believe in our organisation — young people. Let them run large parts of the business. More often than not we have been positively surprised. So the effort has been to empower them, so that I can go home earlier,” Aggarwal said during the Om Swami chat.
While he is blunt, ruthless and has a temper, Aggarwal’s unapologetic, all-or-nothing, ambitious persona has also won him his share of admirers and loyalists within the commpany. Although Aggarwal has over time empowered some trusted lieutenants within the organisation, the buck still stops with him, according to people in the know. He has been known to be supportive of early-stage founders and has over the past few years, ensured that Ola has invested in and acquired a fair number of smaller startups such as scooter rentals company Vogo and Ridlr, a transportation information provider, to fill vital gaps in the business.
Aggarwal, who signs his name as Bhavish, lives in Bangalore’s startup hub, Koramangala in an upscale apartment complex that overlooks a busy intersection, with one of Flipkart’s old offices across the road. Aggarwal, who married his long-time girlfriend Rajalakshmi in early 2014, does not own a car. Every morning, when he’s in Bengaluru, he takes an Ola cab to reach work.
At work, Aggarwal mostly turns out in smart casuals, often pairing collared t-shirts with jeans, while turning out in blazers and formals during important meetings. Although he is fluent in both Hindi and English, he is more comfortable putting his thoughts across in Hindi, according to executives and employees who work with him.
His boyish, chubby-faced looks from the early days of Ola have now given way to a leaner profile. Over the past two years, Aggarwal has started sporting a cropped, buzzed haircut, often with a thick stubble, and has dropped nearly 10 kilos after getting into a fitness regimen, which included a no-sugar diet, workouts, playing squash, cycling, and preferring home-cooked meals. At one point, he also consulted with a nutritionist and a trainer to get into shape. He rarely takes a prolonged break from work, often preferring short getaways for treks.
“The last couple of years…were more about (building) a business for the next 5 years. We have gotten to a certain scale, we touch more than a million drivers, we touch more than 10-15 million customers every month. How can we now institutionalize some things and make the business more sustainable, make the organisation more sustainable? Our ambition or our aspiration is not to shut down for anybody. We want to really build something that outlives us, and outlives our own capability. A system which grows on itself. That is how the last couple of years have been. That is how I see our journey,” said Aggarwal in the chat.
That journey has been far from smooth, with many formidable speed bumps along the way.
Former Uber CEO told Ola investors his company would “run Ola into the ground”. | Photo: CC
As alluded earlier in this profile, the hard-charging Aggarwal is not one to back down from a fight. Which, according to three people directly aware of his thinking, has been his biggest strength and, at times, his folly.
Back in 2016, during his first trip to India as Uber’s CEO, Travis Kalanick had Aggarwal in his sights. Despite Uber having gained market share at Ola’s expense, the latter had proven to be a formidable rival in one of the world’s fastest growing consumer internet economies on which billions of dollars were piggybacking hoping for the big moneyspinner.
There are notable similarities between the two men. Like Kalanick, Aggarwal graduated in computer science. Like Kalanick, Aggarwal helmed a company with a do-or-die-even-it-means-cutting-corners culture.
Internally, Kalanick told his lieutenants in India that Uber would eventually overrun and topple Ola. His confidence was further boosted by Amazon’s success against Flipkart at the time, when the American ecommerce giant was consistently gaining market share at the expense of Flipkart and Snapdeal.
Kalanick, as his wont, decided to try a tactic that he has used numerous times in Uber’s markets against rivals such as Lyft — undercut the competition and scare them into submission.
So, one day in January 2016, Kalanick put in play a particularly aggressive manoeuvre dialling a number of Ola’s leading investors such as Accel Partners, Matrix Partners India, Japan’s SoftBank and Tiger Global Management. He told them, in no uncertain terms, that Uber would “run Ola into the ground”.
His message was as simple as it was outlandish: “I would recommend that you cut your losses, stop backing them and exit from Ola soon.” Uber, at the time, had committed nearly $1 billion to grow its India business, with the option of increasing that corpus by several hundreds of millions dollars more.
Word of that episode reached Aggarwal quickly. He was unfazed. He quickly spoke to key investor representatives on Ola’s board and reassured them that the company “would not back down and be intimidated”.
This incident has been recounted by at least three of Ola’s top five investors. FactorDaily reached out to Kalanick for comment but hasn’t received a response yet. We will update this story if we hear from him or his office.
“Bhavish is a total warrior, one who will go to any lengths to succeed. In that sense, he’s very different from the Bansals at Flipkart, especially Sachin, who backs his own big-picture tech vision and is not as ruthless,” said one executive who has worked closely with Aggarwal and also is friends with both Bansals.
TaxiForSure and Foodpanda are widely seen bad bets that Ola CEO Aggarwal made
Still, the Uber-Ola comparison doesn’t stack up. The Indian cab-hailing company is still yet to hit a double-digit billion-dollar valuation, despite several rounds of funding from leading global investors such as SoftBank, DST Global and Tiger Global Management. Even though it has received multiple infusions of capital over the past few weeks, including a $300-million investment from Hyundai and Kia Motors, as well as a $100-million cheque from Sachin Bansal, the company is still valued at less than $7billion, after having raised nearly $3.5 billion over the course of the last decade, according to data tracker Tracxn.
Moreover, Ola is still well short of its 2016 target of raising over $2 billion – it has so far barely managed to raise $1.5 billion in several tranches from a variety of investors in a strategy seen as keeping SoftBank at bay. But, these extraordinary steps may not work: while the latest talks with SoftBank may have fallen through, Aggarwal is likely to eventually be forced to accept more capital from the conglomerate, which has offered to invest another $1 billion in Ola, as it looks to build a sizeable warchest to fend off Uber, prior to a potential public listing.
Aggarwal’s fight at the board against investors such as SoftBank and Tiger Global has come at a cost and proved to be detrimental to Ola’s value in the market. Newer internet upstarts such as Oyo Rooms and Swiggy are poised to overtake Ola’s valuation when they next raise funds. In 2015, Ola was valued at $5 billion and was headed for a valuation well over $10 billion within a short space of time. That hasn’t quite panned out.
His relationships with key investors have also undergone a sea change over the past few years – the cancelled meeting SoftBank’s Son is not the only highlight. “Board members get information and reports on ‘an FYI’ basis,” the Ola executive added.
In the past two years, Aggarwal has rarely met some of the company’s earliest backers. One early investor, who requested anonymity, said Aggarwal does not even take his calls or bother to reply to messages “more so in the past 24-30 months”.
Aggarwal’s abrasiveness with investors has also started to have a ripple effect across the start-up ecosystem — in some pockets, founders at a number of early-stage startups have started asking for stronger voting rights to prevent investors from gaining too much control.
While Ola remains the market leader in India’s Internet cab-hailing economy, maintaining a slender lead over arch-rival Uber, it has also made sizable strategic blunders along the way.
For one, Ola’s acquisition strategy over the past five years during which it has splurged on companies such as TaxiForSure (TFS) and Foodpanda is yet to pay off in a big way. TFS, acquired for $200 million in cash and stock, has been shut down since, while other acquisitions such as Ridlr have been incremental at best. With TFS in particular, Aggarwal’s handling of the shutdown shocked many.
The ex-Ola executive directly reporting to Bhavish quoted earlier tells the story: “There was a weekend I remember when he had called all of us. ‘What can we do to destroy this company, distract its investors’ was what he asked.”
“Bhavish found out about which investors TFS was talking to raise funds from and he was pitching them. He single handedly brought TFS down.” Other company insiders from then talk about a “Kill TFS” WhatsApp group that Aggarwal created.
Ola faces an even tougher challenge trying to make its Foodpanda acquisition work, given that it has already burnt its fingers in and exited food delivery as a business in the past when it shut down Ola Cafe. The low-margin food delivery business is currently dominated by Swiggy and Zomato. Such is their lead in the business that even Uber is poised to cut its losses and sell off its UberEats business in India to Swiggy. For Aggarwal, making the Foodpanda acquisition work is a pipe dream at best — and a costly one at that, given that he’s already invested millions of dollars to grow out the business. Ola is already starting to feel the pinch with Foodpanda, as they have been forced to cut costs.
More worryingly, Ola’s attritional work culture under Aggarwal’s watch has taken its toll on top management — it has struggled to retain key top talent and lost a number of senior leaders over the past few years, a fact that has some of its top investors privately worried. In the last 36 months, Ola has lost more than a dozen top leaders, many of whom reported directly into the CEO, including CFO Rajiv Bansal, marketing chief Raghuvesh Sarup, design head Sunit Singh, former Flipkart executive Saikiran Krishnamurthy who used to head marketplace at Ola, cab leasing business head Shalabh Seth and Pallav Singh, one of the first employees of Ola and a long-time, key lieutenant of Aggarwal.
One name that surfaced time and again in our interviews was Pranay Jivrajka, earlier Ola COO and now heading Foodpanda, and his calming presence in the team. “I don’t know how a man with such high EQ, a nice and kind person, stuck for so long. He was the COO and ops was the key function. He had a lot of pressure. He handled Bhavish really well.”
According to experts and executives in India’s cab-hailing business, Ola’s international foray looks unlikely to make a major dent. Ditto for the electric vehicle initiative, which has sputtered so far and failed to take off.
Ola has also had to deal with other challenges along the way — as FactorDaily reported last year, Ola was rocked by fraud allegations against its human resources head, who has since been fired by the company. In mid-2017, it faced a severe backlash over a passenger kidnapping case that damaged the company’s reputation in a big way. The latter incident triggered an overhaul of safety processes at Ola and led to increased scrutiny over onboarding of drivers on its platform.
Some of these troubles can be traced back to the CEO’s office. “Bhavish is an instinctive thinker rather than a strategic thinker,” says the ex-Ola executive.
“One of the reasons why most people don’t know how to deal with him is because they don’t know what he is going to say next. He doesn’t have a clear strategy in mind. For most things he would wait till the last moment to make a decision, that’s a clear sign of being an instinctive thinker,” said the person cited above.
An undated picture of workers in an unidentified Ola office from its website.
Aggarwal’s relationship with an obscure, behind-the-scenes executive called TVG Krishnamurthy, who now sits on Ola’s board as well, has left many around him baffled. Ola’s board currently consists of Aggarwal, Bhati, Avnish Bajaj of Matrix, David Thevenon of SoftBank, Brent Richard Irvin of Tencent, and former Vodafone plc CEO Arun Sarin. Tiger’s Fixel left the board of Ola in 2017 after a spat with Aggarwal.
For an executive with hardly any meaningful experience in the business of transportation, Krishnamurthy wields an extraordinary amount of power and influence within Ola, often overseeing the vetting and hiring process of top managers, according to three executives who were interviewed for senior roles by Ola in the last 24 months. All of them requested anonymity.
One of those executives cited above recounted how he had been called in for an interview with Aggarwal, but found himself across the table with Krishnamurthy, who took charge instead. Aggarwal was not present in the room.
“TVG was not qualified to take that interview — and yet Bhavish let him go ahead with it. And not for the first time,” said a person who was present in the room during that interview.
Aggarwal is extremely close to Krishnamurthy and the latter enjoys his complete trust, due to his unswerving loyalty to Aggarwal. Word inside Ola and in investor circles is that to get an idea across to Aggarwal one needs to enjoy a rapport with Krishnamurthy, whose LinkedIn profile is sparse and describes him as an independent management consulting professional. Krishnamurthy has also weighed in on key strategic decisions, including Ola’s move to expand in international markets, said to a person directly familiar with Ola’s strategy.
An investor at a VC firm, which has backed Ola, conceded that Krishnamurthy’s presence at Ola made little sense and may have caused “more harm than good.”
As FactorDaily reported earlier, Krishnamurthy’s presence is part of a broader problem at Ola — the problem of an untenable workplace. Ola under Aggarwal has been obsessed about Uber ever since its entry into India in 2013 — in doing so Ola’s workplace culture, while nowhere as toxic as Uber, has turned into a version of the Silicon valley-based cab-hailing giant. “There’s nothing unusual,” a founder of one of India’s top 10 startups had told us in our ‘Ola’s Culture Problem’ story. “The gig economy has its stresses.”
However, two other executives who worked with Krishnamurthy in 2014-15, said that he was a vital presence around Aggarwal in the early days, and came in with invaluable experience around “organisation building”.
“TVG came in with strong FMCG credentials, having worked in senior positions at large companies such as Cadbury’s. So, he really helped push Ola in the right direction in the early days, often pushing the young team to execute well and being very vocal on what needed to be done. And it wasn’t like he was vague about his ideas — he actually was pretty articulate on what exactly needed to be done,” said the first executive mentioned above.
Mementos on display in an undated picture on the Ola website
Being Bhavish Aggarwal is not easy at the moment. Even as he attempts to swim through the tide of challenges he finds himself faced with, Ola is quietly gearing up for a major financial event: an initial public offering.
People directly aware of the matter say an IPO is a “sure thing” to happen in the next two to three years.
But the bigger question remains: can Ola and Aggarwal clean up the act ahead of such an important milestone?
Ola currently claims to be profitable on each of its rides, after consistently increasing ride prices over the past few years, but that has come at the cost of growth. And even as its core cabs business faces a slowdown in growth, Ola finds itself being spread too thin as it expands into newer businesses.
To be sure, even as some of his top backers grumble privately about the way he’s running the 7,000-strong Ola, Aggarwal is likely to broadly enjoy their confidence for the foreseeable future and given his stranglehold on Ola, following the amendment of its Articles of Association, is highly unlikely to suffer the same fate as the Bansals of Flipkart who were eventually forced out of the company they founded.
“What Bhavish lacks in terms of attitude, he makes up for with sheer will, determination and focus. He’s unlike any other entrepreneur in India,” said one of the people cited above.
It is also highly unlikely that Aggarwal will make any significant changes to the way he currently runs Ola. Aggarwal and Bhati together still own nearly 10% of Ola and enjoy strong voting rights. With Ola’s current valuation inching towards $7 billion, Aggarwal’s stake in Ola is worth hundreds of millions on paper.
From his perspective, Aggarwal sees no reason to overhaul the system that he himself has put in place. In his mind, he believes that “to make an omelette, one has to crack some eggs,” according to two executives who work closely with him.
Nearly a decade after starting Ola in a small corner of Ludhiana, Aggarwal still finds himself fighting multiple battles — albeit from a position of power, as far as his own destiny is concerned.
The exit timeline for Ola’s investors, however, remains far from clear. One backer sums the dilemma up such: “I believe in India, too, you will have local Alibabas and Tencents. Some version of conglomerates will emerge. But where are the leaders who will create such internet generation conglomerates. That’s where Bhavish matters.”
For others who are less charitable, there is no choice but to back the steel-willed man from Ludhiana. Yet, there is a thin line between a strong will and arrogance. “I’m worried about the company because his ego is bigger than his greed,” worries the former top Ola executive quoted earlier.
(Additional reporting by Nilesh Christopher)
Visuals and design by Vasu Agarwal, layout and tech by Gautham Sarang.