Vidit Aatrey Founder & CEO Meesho on Building a Category-Defining Startup

Vidit Aatrey, Founder & CEO Meesho chats with Amit Somani, Managing Partner Prime Venture Partners .

Listen to the podcast to learn about:

01:05 - Early Days of Meesho, the Idea and the Challenges

13:30 - Meesho’s Core Value of Always Listening to Users

16:50 - Team building, Hiring and Retaining Talent at Startups

26:50 - Current Landscape of the Indian E-commerce Sector

33:00 - Importance of Trust and Accessibility in E-commerce

36:35 - Vidit’s Journey as a Founder and His Learnings

Read the complete transcript below:

Amit Somani 01:25

Welcome to the Prime Venture Partners podcast. Today we have with us Vidit Aatrey, Co-Founder and CEO of Meesho. Vidit is somebody that we’ve known for many years and have been absolutely delighted to see his success, both for Meesho and for himself. So welcome to the show Vidit.

Vidit Aatrey 01:45

Thank you so much Amit for having me here and helping us share our story to the broader audience.

Amit Somani 01:50

Absolutely Vidit, and you have a phenomenal story, because I know that Meesho is probably going to rank in the category of like an Airbnb or others, which is truly a category creating startup, not even a category defining one and something that we love to do at Prime and building a category creating thing is easier said than done. So maybe you can talk to us a little bit about the early days of Meesho. And in particular, with respect to one, how did you conceive of this idea? I think you were trying to do a swiggy for fashion earlier, but what are the early days like? And secondly, what are some of the challenges when you’re doing something unique and new, like the world has never seen before?

Vidit Aatrey 02:30

Yeah, sure. So if I go back to 2015, I think that’s when Sanjeev and I left our jobs to start something. I think back then we did not have a very clear idea around what we wanted to do. But we said, let’s pick something which is really large and inspiring enough to keep us interested for a very long time. And we wanted to kind of do something that we relate with as well, it should not be that, we just don’t connect with the problem. So both of us come from middle class backgrounds and have transacted from an organised retail for a very long time. So I think after looking at multiple spaces, both of us said that bringing these small businesses online looks interesting, large and a problem that we can relate with. Because if you look at 80-85% of the entire retail in India is unstructured, long tail.

And most of what was coming online back in 2015 with your large e-commerce platforms are mostly the branded categories and electronics, smartphones, white goods, branded fashion, and almost all of the unorganised retail was primarily offline. So we said, let’s take a goal of bringing this online. How we don’t know and we will figure it out as we were on the ground. But let’s kind of pick this pace because it sounds exciting. And we relate to the problem. I think that’s how we started. So then we said, let’s figure out how to do it. So we started to go, both of us were in Bangalore. So we started to go to small shops in Koramangala, and HSR. And we will just go and ask them, what problems can be solved for you. And a lot of these small shops will say that they have their customer audience local. So we said can we bring these customers online and make it convenient for them to transact from you.

So we built our first app called Fashnear, fashion nearby put together into a single word. And people will open an app and see all fashion shops, mostly small businesses on an app, choose up to three products that they want to try and buy it home. And the chotu from the shop will be sent to that house, give them the product, they will try and if they like something they will keep it, the rest will be sent back. So we did this for about three, four months and realised it doesn’t work. I think one big learning that we had was we started building something purely from a small business point of view, and we forgot the customer to a big extent. And then we realise for a customer when they’re buying fashion, in fashion selection variety matters quite a lot. And you can never build enough selection if you do it locally. And I think that was a really big miss.

But I would say a big learning that we had as very early entrepreneurs. So we said this doesn’t work. So okay, fine.

So then we started to go on the ground again. And this time, we started to go and speak to a lot of these small businesses again, let’s figure out what their problems are. Because this doesn’t work, especially for smaller businesses. So then Sanjeev and I used to do a very unique thing. So we used to go to the small shops, go to the shopkeeper and say, Hey, we are going to sit on the side for some time and just observe you, we will not bother you. But we just want to observe you because we want to figure out what are the problems that you have today and what can we solve? And we just wanted to observe so we used to go to the shops. I remember a lot of the shops in koramangala and HSR again. We’ll go in the morning and sit on the side. The shopkeeper would be quite nice to us, like feed us lunch, feed us tea and so on. We’ll play with the kids, but we’ll just observe what’s happening.

And I remember one day we saw one behaviour that we found extremely interesting, which was that a lot of times a customer will walk into a shop and buy an unbranded t-shirt and come to the counter. Give them money, collect the product, and the shopkeeper will then ask the customer Hey, can you give me a WhatsApp number? Because I want to add you to my whatsapp group. And why do I add you to my whatsapp group, because every time I get new products into my shop, I take photographs on WhatsApp and post them on the group. And you can even buy products that you don’t need to come to the shop again, like many people just keep blocking by referring to that photograph and I just block it for them. I send the chotu from my shop to the house, collect money, and give the product.

And we observe this a couple of times. In the evening, we ask this guy Hey, Why are you doing this? He said I realised this, my brother who runs a shop in Whitefield started doing this. And today half of his business comes from this whatsapp group. So I started doing it today. Like I’ve been doing it for some time. And now I’m doing like 30-40% of my entire business on WhatsApp groups. And we found it fascinating that this person essentially figured out a way to retarget and remarket to the existing customers and essentially make a more and more LTV from them by running these WhatsApp groups. So we said, what do we enable in every single small business to do the exact same thing of leveraging WhatsApp or the channel to sell to customers? Because that was primarily online, it was happening on WhatsApp and it was an existing behaviour, you’re not creating anything, if you can just enable and supercharge it, it would work really well.

We went to another shop and we observed it again. We went to another shop, and we observed it again. We said this is the thing. So we went back and said how can we solve this? And we realised during the entire process, there were lots of, I would say teething problems. Like there’s some problems that this guy has. So for example, many times people will look at the photo and say I want to buy this. And the shopkeeper will say someone already blocked it but it’s still available, so a lot of times people are pissed. Maintaining this in a register was a big hassle. Collecting payments, people can’t pay online, because back then all these payment apps were not so popular. So there were multiple problems. So we said, can we build an app that will solve all these problems for everyone and make all of them start this whatsapp group and sell to the existing customers. And that’s when we created version one of the Meesho app.

So Meesho was supposed to become their online shop, “meri shop”. And we started to kind of go back to the market and give it to them. Okay, this is the app, use this to run your business on Whatsapp, Facebook, back then Instagram was not popular. And we started to see some people adopting it. So we went more widely, we went online. And kept doing this more and more and more and more. We realised like after, again, months and months of doing this, that some people are using it. So this was not as bad as the first product, like the first product, most people didn’t like it. So we know it is not supposed to be taken forward. This time some people are using it, some people not using it. retention is not zero, but it’s not great. So we are stuck. And we keep trying to keep improving our product to see what can happen. But we are just never becoming large, fast enough. Like that was happening for quite some time.

And then we will go back and say, something is wrong, it’s just not growing, we’ll go back to this small business who’s not using the app. He says, Hey, I’m busy with my offline shop. All this guy would say most of these small shopkeepers are also like really old people who don’t want to adopt new behaviours. So I am very happy with the offline traffic. And this is happening, that is happening. So what do we do, plus the value prop that we were solving for them is mostly productivity. So I’m not getting them new business. And we are not helping them reduce their cost. And a lot of these small businesses don’t even care about productivity. So even if they’re using WhatsApp groups, or Facebook groups, they are saying fine, like I have the time to do all of this work, you don’t need to kind of solve for me, because most of the time I’m sitting idle in my shop. So people who knew the problem also, we’re not solving a very core problem for them. And newer people were not adopting the behaviours because of multiple reasons.

So it was like somewhere in the middle. So then we went back. But this time, we were looking at who’s using our app and who’s not. And we found a small group of people who are really using our app a lot of times every single day, like it’s just happening again and again. So we figure out what’s the common pattern. So I started to read their details, and all of them were women. So I said, can we reach out to them and figure out what’s happening? So I picked up my phone, added them on WhatsApp and said, Hey, I’m Vidit from Meesho, you’re using our app. I would love to chat with you to understand how you’re using our product. And I spoke to a lot of them. And many times when you pick up the call and you talk to them, they’ll say hey, I use the Meesho app to run my WhatsApp boutique. And first of all, like when we heard it for the first time, it just did not make sense to us. Like I don’t even know what the WhatsApp boutique means? But many people kept using this word. They say I’m a reseller And I’m running a WhatsApp boutique, and I’m using your app for this.

So it did not make sense to us. And we kept doing this. After that I realised, I think we need to go a bit more deeper to understand what to do. So what we did was, we figured out some of these women were based in Bangalore, I reached out to them and said, Hey, we are coming to your place, we want to really understand your story. And most of them were very forthcoming like come, no one listens to our story, you’re listening to us. Great. So I went to their houses. And I started to understand why they are using our app. And I think I heard some of these stories. And the most beautiful thing was, all of these stories had a very similar pattern, all of them. And that’s when we realised we are onto something really large that no one knows about.

So all these stories go like this, that, hey, I am very educated. And I’m very ambitious. Before I got married and had a kid, I was working in some place. But after that, either I decided or because of the cultural problems, or you can say the family wanted her not to work. So she said, I’m not working. But because she’s ambitious, she really wants to kind of make some impact. So it’s very common for women in India, who are ambitious to start some business at home. Some women start to make food at home and sell to people. Some women start these boutiques at home, when they buy a lot of these fashion products come back and start to sell to people around them. Some women become tuition teachers to kids around them, it’s very, very common. Because they want to do something. First of all, it’s because you want to be financially independent. And second, you want to feel respected and feel proud about making some professional contributions.

So some of them are exactly this, hey, I have been wanting to start my fashion boutique for years now. And then I go to my husband, or I go to my family and say, Please give me some money for working capital. So I can go to a wholesale market and buy these products. And most likely I get the answer, which is that, hey, we don’t have money right now. Maybe we’ll try next year, next year, next year. And she was extremely frustrated. Hey, I’m not able to fulfil my dream, because I don’t have access to capital. Then they realise that so many people around us are now buying products online, like people buy products on e-commerce apps online, people buy products on Facebook groups online? Why don’t I sell products to people online? And the beautiful thing is people don’t need physical products anymore, they can just look at a photograph and buy it.

So instead of like starting an offline boutique, what they did, they created these WhatsApp groups added people from the community, which is friends, family, neighbours, and then went to a wholesale market, added all these suppliers on their WhatsApp asked them to keep sending all the new products they have, she will curate it on a daily basis and send to this whatsapp group where her potential customers are. And people will say I like this, I like this. And she will ask the supplier to directly ship it to her. And she will do it once or twice. And then she realises that her business has already started without any working capital required because she doesn’t have to buy inventory anymore. She’s essentially running as any marketplace runs without any inventory.

Amit Somani 14:20

Yeah, Vidit sorry to interrupt. There are so many interesting follow up questions I have. So let me just maybe pause you for a second here. One thing that is common across all of the pivotal moments in the company, is you’re constantly engaged with the users. Literally from what you were saying about fashnear to the first idea of running WhatsApp groups, men or mostly probably the shopkeepers would have been men, to these women running these WhatsApp boutiques etc. And I also noticed while preparing for this podcast, that you have a programme in the company called “listen or die” or some such thing, which is that look, you have to talk to users all the time, no matter who you are, it doesn’t have to be only the product managers or the sales people or whatever. So is that a really core kind of value at Meesho like in terms of, even now when you scale up to millions, if not 10s of millions of businesses that are working with you and so forth.

Vidit Aatrey 15:20

Yeah, so and I was coming to that basically, if you see the only common thread across is, all of our ideas have ever come, when we have been close to the user. It never comes while we are brainstorming on some whiteboard in the office, it never comes while we are discussing it with someone, or on an excel sheet. Almost 110% of the time, it always comes from the user. And this has happened every single year by the way, this is like the zero to one journey. But every single year, whenever we have found some very powerful insight, it has always come from the users. And that’s why in our nine values in the company, the first value is what we call the user first value, listen or die, which you refer to is the exact same thing, which is all new people who join the company are supposed to speak to users every project by the way that we do, everyone before they come and present what they’re doing, they have to essentially have like few slides just talking about and they are termed “Listen & Die” in the company, all those slides where they talk about what did the user say about this, because I think we realise this more than anyone else. that if you are building a product, which is not for yourself, like, in our case, we did not ourselves use this product, we were not homemakers, and we were not these women. And we werel not have these small businesses.

So from day one, I think that realisation was very strong, that we are not building this product for ourselves. Which also means it is very, very hard to build a good intuition, or a judgement around this particular product, because we need to build it for someone else. And we overcompensated for that by staying extremely close to users. For the first I would say five years, I used to have all of our top users on my WhatsApp list, every single one of them. And they used to use me like the Support Centre, a product is delayed, they will reach out to me, something happens, they will reach out to me. And I wanted a direct channel because that was extremely useful for us, while we are building like newer and newer things. So in summary, I would say it’s extremely important.

And I would say again, this would become important for all new entrepreneurs, when first they’re building for a customer that is at least not them. Like because this is the only way you get access to insights. or second when you’re building something very bottoms up, like very fundamental, very bottoms up. If you’re building something, if you’re building a category defining company, like you’re building something new, again, I believe it will always and always come from the user, there’s no way you can figure out these insights from anywhere else.

Amit Somani 17:48

Completely agree. Switching gears to talk about this category defining or category creating company, how do you rally the whole kind of both your employees, prospective investors, others kind of around the table to this vision because you’re learning yourself. Because you were, I don’t know, if you pitch Fashnear ever but you’re doing this now, tomorrow you’re doing this WhatsApp shops, SaaS, Dukaan Tech, the third day you’re doing, women led social commerce, fourth day you are doing, SMB businesses going online, whatever, so it’s changing.

Vidit Aatrey 18:20

Now, I think you should ask people on the board, and they will tell you like every year, this looks like a very different company. And I think I have believed that every single time, like the way to grow, that keeps growing and keeping that hyper growth strong within the company keeps happening when you keep evolving as a business. So today, we’re able to see one part of the problem very, very clearly. And a big part of the problem is still unclear. And I think as we get closer and closer to some of these, as we unwrap a lot of these problems, we keep changing around this. And I think that’s what we have done, we have never stuck to what should be there and what should not be there. Now the complexity that comes is alignment, which is Hey, you can do it. But sometimes it could look like chaos to either your shareholders or to your team.

And I think one thing that we have done very well, is we align people to the broader problem really well, which is like all of these are solutions. But that problem is still the same from day one till today, I don’t think the problem has changed. Our problem is still the same, which is we’re digitising these small businesses. We are bringing the unorganised retail online, the how key changes and the how changes basis our learnings of what works and what doesn’t work of experimentation of failing of learning. But the core problem stays the same. And then the alignment across the board with every single person, that we are moving towards this problem. I think people understand that this is how we learn and evolve. That did not change.

And the second thing that I think we kept doing really well is just clear communication with everyone. Like even today, I will tell you, we’ve had a weekly all hands every single week for the last three years. Irrespective of what changed, it doesn’t change. And that’s like one big forum for us to communicate everything. Changing direction, our broader goal, our broader vision, our broader mission, you ask the junior most people in the company, what is the strategy for the next one year and what is the vision and mission of the company, that person will be able to tell you clearly. Because we keep reinforcing this again and again. And people are encouraged to ask us more and more. So this happens in board meetings for sure, but even here. So I think that alignment to communication has been there as well. But keeping people aligned over the broader goal, or the broader vision we have has really made things stay very stable.

Amit Somani 20:45

Absolutely, that’s phenomenal. I know you also have this practice where even before you got funded, you would keep people updated on your kind of monthly metrics and so on and so forth. And so I think communicating and over communicating as you’ve scaled up so much has got to have helped you in the journey for scaling the company.

Vidit Aatrey 21:02

Correct very much.

Amit Somani 20:05

Absolutely. Switching gears, let’s talk a little bit about building the team. In the early days, I know you’re very passionate about this, although the world has changed, and people are raising all kinds of money at all levels. Starting from the seed stage, of course to later stage, you guys have raised large amounts of capital lately. So how would you advise entrepreneurs to think about team building, partly of course, what you did, but landscape in 2015 versus 2021 is also a little bit different. Maybe just some of the thoughts on hiring and retaining talent inside the company, especially with the vantage point of an early stage entrepreneur?

Vidit Aatrey 20:41

Sure. So I think I’ll go back to our story first, and then also connect to where the ecosystem has reached today. Because I think the fundamental changes require some fine tuning to how people approach it today. But if I go back, I would say we were very opportunistic when we were starting up. So if you remember, 20015-16 was a time when a lot of companies shut down. So there are a massive number of ex entrepreneurs in the market who have the exact same DNA as us, exactly like what Sanjeev and I used to think. So I remember, out of the first 15 and 20 people we hired, especially at a mid to higher level, every single one of them was an ex-entrepreneur, every single one of them, because there were so many available. And that also made our job much easier, because these are generalists.

There’s nothing like, hey, I do this and I don’t do that. They have very high levels of commitment, very high levels of ownership. And a lot of these people essentially, are very okay to learn, to experiment. They have seen failures in the last company, they know this is the nonlinear journey of getting to the right answer after falling so many times. And that’s why even when we are going through these pivots, it’s perfectly okay for them. It was never that hey, what’s happening, it was never chaotic enough. So I would say we were very opportunistic, when we were starting up.

Second thing that we did, and I think back then it was not so popular, back then people did not realise especially the younger folks in the ecosystem did not realise the value of ESOPs, it was just cash. And people will come and like, then you’re interviewing them, a lot of people don’t even understand the value of this they’ll stick to cash. So I think we spend a lot of time making people understand that, how can you build wealth, if the company works out, like why it makes sense for you to come here, only if you make this wealth. So we again, made sure that we went out of our way, and gave people substantial ESOPs to make sure they feel invested in the company. I think that was another thing. And I think that’s one of the reasons why we still have most of the people from our early days with the company even now. Because they feel as if they have the same ownership of the company as Sanjeev and I would have, the same feeling of being an owner of the company. I think that was really, really important.

The other thing that we did, and that is a practice that we even follow today. And I think that is again, contextual to our kind of company. So when we were doing something like this, it was very unique to people. Imagine investors were not able to size the opportunity and get excited, how will a general engineer out there or a general young guy who wants to work with a startup understand whether I should join the startup or something else. So what we used to do is at the time of the interview, I used to give them 10 to 20 phone numbers of our users. And I should tell them, go and speak to them and get some insights related to some problem statement. So people think that this is an assignment. But while they’re doing this, by the way, everyone will come back and say, I never thought that an app could change people’s life in such a big manner.

And many of them used to get inspired, many of them used to connect this with someone in the family, either their mother or the sister or someone else. If I become a part of this, it feels to me that I’ll be helping someone like that. And that would be inspiring to me. And I think that worked really well. Because if you pitch it to them, it doesn’t make sense. But when they start speaking to them, and they realise, someone was able to buy a gift for her kid. And that happened because of the app and she feels really confident. Or someone is now getting a lot more respect in the family from her in-laws, from her husband because of this app. That is a very large change, and if we can make it happen for millions of women in India, I think all of us can sleep well at night, that we are part of something really large.

So I think we did this as well. And that also worked really well even today, I think that practices still follow people, even the senior most people that are higher CXOs they get to do the same thing. Even today they speak to some of our users and get the same insight whether that’s a hack that works really well. Like after speaking to some of them, you should connect with them, no one ever drops off. So I think we use some of this. That worked really well for us. Again, we were in a very different context, if I connected to what’s happening today, we were in a very different context, we were always out of money. Even when we had some money, it was very, very less, so we used to get people at 1/4th of the salary, 1/3rd of the salary, that’s what we could pay. But I think today that context has changed, like capital is easily available, people have raised a lot of money even before they even start building on a product. So you don’t have to solve for some of this. Ex entrepreneurs, I don’t think are as easily available as they were back then for us. I think a lot of this has changed. But some fundamentals will stick.

The fundamentals are because capital is easily available, ESOP is easily available, what people care about is what kind of company they are working with. I would say, I would do the equivalent of making people speak to our users even today, and make sure this person comes into our company, not somewhere else, because I still remember that made a big difference for us. So I would say some things are the same, some things have changed. But making people really mission aligned, and connect with the problem, all of that is very, very important when no other real data is available to say whether this company will take off or it will not take off.

Amit Somani 27:22

Phenomenal, very, very interesting. I think being close to your users is at the heart of not just your product and your business strategy, but also your hiring strategy. So that is definitely a big takeaway, music to my years, having been a practitioner at product management for many, many years and decades. So I’m really glad to see entrepreneurs like yourself doing it.

Switching gears, maybe talk a little bit about just the overall landscape of e-commerce in India. So of course we have, for lack of a better term, let me call them the first gen e-commerce companies like the Flipkart and the Amazons and so forth, in terms of physical commerce, then you have the incumbents. Like the Tatas and the Biyanis and Reliance’s of the world, when you have new folks like yourself, the new leaders, like whether it is Meesho or other people doing social commerce or video commerce or etc. So how is all this sort of panning out in terms of any kind of macro trends that you can share with our users, from a consumer point of view, as opposed to maybe the small business point of view?

Vidit Aatrey 28:29

Yeah, sure. So, I will do both the consumer and the small business point of view. So I’ll first of all talk about why this is the time, why we were not doing this discussion six years ago, and I’m sure we will not do this again after six years. I think we’ve been lucky with the timing as well. So India’s had two big inflection points in the last three, four years. One was Jio, so we started up in 2015-16 and then Jio happened. And suddenly, most of our current audience has come online in that period, because data cost went down. And the online penetration, especially in small towns, cities, where people generally buy for small businesses went up like crazy. So time, and the size of the opportunity became quite large.

And the second big inflection point is the pandemic, all of us know, it has been really bad for all of us in many ways. But if you just talk about online adoption, over the last one and a half years, the number of small businesses and the number of consumers who have come online is crazy. Like we used to hear stories from small businesses when we were trying to take them online two years ago. They were like “mereko yeh nahi chamakta”, “I don’t want to learn something new”. And people give you 10 reasons why existing small businesses don’t want to come online. I think all of those excuses are now gone. Because every single business that wants to stay relevant, big or small, needs to come online, because people are not going offline anymore, irrespective of where you are.

So everyone figured out that they want to go online, like the intent automatically was created. I still remember as soon as the pandemic hit. Seven months forward, the inbound demand from small businesses to come online onto a platform was massive. And these are the same people who did not want to ,who wanted to stick to their old ways of selling to customers. And the same thing has happened to consumers as well. Consumers who said I don’t want to learn something new buying online. I’m very happy with going to my offline shop and doing this. They also figured out how to do all of this. So I think we’ve been lucky with timing and these two inflection points have happened in a matter of like three to four years and suddenly this market for unorganised retail online has come online in the very recent past. So I think this is like why now, but why it is different from the old models is also really important, because this market was not there. If you see the first ecommerce wave in India, the ecommerce 1.0 as I say was purely focused on tier one customers selling brands.

So bringing brands online across branded categories, and bringing customers and tier one cities online because those are the only folks who are online and bringing brands was easier, because fewer SKUs, these were the only SKUs that work like small businesses long tail, how do you decide what to kind of keep in your warehouse and so on. So it was very convenient. It made sense for you to kind of do this. But when you go towards the unorganised, retail, a lot of problems come that just never were experienced in the e-commerce 1.0 wave. First is trust and quality is an entirely different problem. And I think that was one thing that we really solved very well with our women entrepreneurs, these are well respected, well known women in a particular community, everyone trusts her judgement. And people come to her for recommendations or what to wear in the next marriage or the next function.

And the day she starts to recommend products and give people assurance like hey, don’t worry about the quality. If it’s bad, I will take the return. People start to feel comfortable where if they go to a direct website, they will not. And that’s why the first mall type experience of selling products did not work for them. Because how do you sell some of these products, like in a mall type format, you can’t do it. So I think leveraging them was very important. Thinking about products for small business first was also really important. Like if you look at the e-commerce 1.0 wave because they maintain it like a mall, you will see all products are catalogued with a model wearing it with a white background. Every single product is like this. By the way, you go to a small business and ask them Will you do it? 99% of people will say no. Why? Because they’ve never upfront invested in a product before they even know whether sales will come for this particular product. And it cost about 400 to 500 rupees for a model photo shoot.

This was again, this was built for a brand but they have the same guidelines for every single sale on the platform and it has been carried forward since then. So there are lots of things that we had to solve product wise, policy wise, guideline wise and business model wise to get this unorganised retail online. And some of these problems are fundamentally very different from what was solved before. And when we started, obviously people were ready, like Will you exist when some of these platforms are so large? And we kept saying we will and most people did not believe in us. But we have seen, like we just kept growing, more and more people come and buy from here, they don’t go to some of those ways. Because an online retailer doesn’t sell the way you sell all the other products and categories.

Amit Somani 33:48

Absolutely, very fascinating. And particularly when you think about these, let’s call them tier two, tier three and tier four customers, is also accessibility of the technology an issue? One is of course the trust, to say that I believe this lady who is my friend or my neighbour or senior or whatever it is. But is it more complicated for them to necessarily buy in the e-commerce manner? Which is also why I actually also wanted to get your thoughts about this whole notion of video commerce and social commerce and other forms of social commerce, are all accessible? Is that also an issue beyond trust, to make it easy?

Vidit Aatrey 34:30

Yeah, and I think that’s true. And that’s why WhatsApp as a channel worked much better than some of the other ones because that was something that people learned first. So one thing which is very important was getting this entrepreneur to come in between, but the other thing was, what channel to go after, and nudging people to use WhatsApp, because that’s the thing that will be most familiar to them. And then you keep making them understand more and more parts of the whole experience. I still remember, by the way, like when we built the first version of the Meesho app, we built an app that looked like a whatsapp group where you can buy products. Because when we used to speak to some of our users, who are these entrepreneurs, they never used any other app except WhatsApp.

So what was most familiar to them is to open an app and start browsing like this. So we did not have tabs because they never saw it on the WhatsApp app for a very long time at least back then. We built the same experience because that was familiar to them. So I definitely think accessibility was a problem, which obviously keeps getting better and better as people get used to some of these things. And I feel there are problems even today like people talk about, like for example, I’ll give you one very interesting stat, on Meesho’s product. More people do image search, then they do text search. Because text search is not natural to them. They’ve never realised before but the way they express what they are looking for they come take a screenshot of something and just share and say I want something like this.

And it can be a photograph of something around them, it can be a photograph that they see online. So even today, we have more image searches than we have text searches, which I don’t think you can find elsewhere. But it’s natural to people. The way the access happens in some of these cases is entirely different. And that’s why I am a big believer of something like a video to solve for this. If you go on YouTube, today, you will find like 1000s and maybe lakhs of these influencers, selling products to customers, and they are heavily followed, like people come and look at their every single video. And when this one influencer says buy this from me people buy from her. Because again, she solves the same thing: she builds trust, she shows the product from multiple angles, she adds a value proposition, so she becomes the salesperson here. So she’s solving very similar problems to what an entrepreneur was doing in our context.

Different and different forms of commerce will keep coming that will solve very nuanced and local problems in the country. And I think that will only grow, it’s not going down like people are only moving towards some of these experiences rather than reverting back to the 1.0 wave of how people bought by searching and then getting to the product.

Amit Somani 37:22

Fabulous. So Vidit, as we come towards the end of the podcast here, I want to switch gears from e-commerce and Meesho to just your journey as a founder and I can’t just, but let them say even though it is a little bit of egg on my face. You and I were at an event at Leela Palace in Bangalore a couple of years ago. And I was hustling to get a selfie with Kapil Dev. And I can remember vividly, you saying, what’s the big fuss about this Kapil Dev guy like Who is he? And I’m like, Okay, I know you’re young, but don’t rub it in my face, man. But even so you accomplished a lot in your journey as a founder and as a professional. So what has your personal learning journey been like? What have you learned about yourself? What would you advise the Vidit of 2015 or 2012 as you are graduating from IIT-D, if you were to do this differently, what would you advise yourself?

Vidit Aatrey 38:20

I think if I go back in, I think one thing that I would do differently if I can is I would start up even sooner. So I think we will always place too much value to like, what’s the right time to do it? What experience should you have had before? I think one thing that we realised is when we got into it, we realised like we just don’t know most of it. And you have to figure it out on the job, you have to fall many times and you learn it, and then you start doing. I think in the early days, I worked at a couple of companies, then I thought that hey, now I can do it. This is the right time, I think we could have done it earlier. That’s the only thing if I will go back and change. I don’t think anything else I would change, because even the mistakes that we made is how we have learned and got where we are. Every single mistake we made was a learning opportunity, if we did not make those mistakes, we would not have those learnings and then maybe we would not be where we are today.

In terms of personal development as a founder. What I would say is both Sanjeev and I have a mindset from the early days is what has got us here will not take us where we want to. And I think if you keep reminding yourself of this, you essentially have a very strong growth and learning mindset at all points in time. So we are always figuring out, what does it take for us to get to the next milestone? And then what does it take for us individually to learn new, what kind of new competencies, skills, anything that we need to learn right now so that we can start investing behind it. And when you know you have to keep doing this, you keep figuring out ways, again, specific change, specific change depending on what stage of the company you are in and what kind of problems you’re solving.

So in the zero to one days, we were doing all product, tech, growth, marketing ourselves. Then a lot of things happen as you start to delegate a lot more so I become a manager of people and then you have to learn management for the first time. Then after that, you start to hire very senior people and managing them is very different from the kind of people I was managing like three years ago. The kind of work you start to do, the kind of time you start to spend in like if I start to go and spend time on a specific product every single time now I become the biggest bottleneck in the company. So how do you empower, enable, start to think about processes, start to think about more long term vision of the company like even thinking about culture. Two years ago, three years ago, I did not even understand what culture means.

People used to talk about culture, as if it’s like just doing parties in company, right? Like, that’s what people meant about culture. But to me now I understand what culture means, it’s about people’s behaviour, and then you have to start investing behind it. So every single year, I think we’ve worked on very different things. And we also realise the importance of things that we didn’t even know before. But the underlying theme, the foundation, comes from the fact that we know that what is here will not take us where we want to be. And unless we really upgrade ourselves, then we will be the worst founders to kind of lead this company at that stage. And that’s not what we want to be something that keeps us on our toes. And that helps us keep looking at the horizon and say, Where should we start investing our time in and what should we learn now?

Amit Somani 41:34

I think that is an absolute perfect height to end the podcast on, be a continuous learning machine. I think that applies to entrepreneurs. I think that applies to any professional that applies to VCs, because I think the world around us is changing so fast, that if we don’t, we’re not going to get there. So, thank you so much Vidit. It is a delight. I know we could go on for a while, but really appreciate you sharing your time and your insights with us and all the listeners.

Vidit Aatrey 42:02

Thank you Amit.

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