The Hunger Games – How MakeMyTrip whets its appetite by hiring and siring entrepreneurs

The Economic Times,

Hunger  GamesHarkirat Singh and Deepak Wadhwa are two of a kind. The 29-year-olds went to the same engineering college in Punjab and were reunited at online travel portal after their MBAs.

At MakeMyTrip, both were product managers responsible for the overall user experience of the website. But more than their age, pedigree and responsibilities, it was the entrepreneurial bug that they shared in common.

Last year, they quit MakeMyTrip and decided to float their own venture, (read WeAre-Holidays). If that’s what Wadhwa calls his ‘WAH’ moment, Make-MyTrip Chairman & CEO Deep Kalra was stumped by their “fervour”.

For he believes people should work as entrepreneurs within MakeMyTrip. “If they have been good Trippers (as the MakeMyTrip staff is called), I don’t want to be a career-blocker for them,” he says.

So instead of raising barriers to their exit, Kalra even suggested a couple of business models that would enable the duo to provide services to MakeMyTrip. “We didn’t take any of his suggestions since it would be easy pickings for us devoid of challenge, the basic premise of any enterprise,” says Harkirat Singh, as he prepares to launch his holiday booking platform next month with around 15-odd team members.

Cut to serial entrepreneur Aniruddha Maitra. A BITS Pilani alum, Maitra toyed with ideas early on in college. In 2006, he teamed up with a couple of likeminded folks to launch, a visual-based vocabulary learning platform. Down the line, funding issues forced him to park the idea and sign up with Google where he worked in the search quality team for about 15 months, before launching ‘Places’ last May.

Places was a local recommendation engine for the best places to eat, shop and hangout. Despite making waves in the startup community, Places again ran into rough weather with further funding. Again, Maitra parked his venture and signed up with Make-MyTrip this February.

As a product manager at MakeMyTrip, the 26-year-old has designed an Android app that has garnered 60,000 downloads with zero marketing in just two months, overtaking downloads recorded for the company’s BlackBerry app, which was launched a year-and-a-half ago.

“I need to learn things beyond technical skills — business development, sales, marketing — and MakeMyTrip has given me the platform to hone my skills before I can take the plunge again,” says Maitra. Whether it is new recruits like Maitra or former employees like Singh and Wadhwa, MakeMyTrip thrives on the cult of the entrepreneur.

“In our selection process, we see how hungry a person is and give 20% more weightage to people who may have worked in unstructured environments,” says Purva Misra, senior VP-Human Resources. And that has triggered an organisational structure where about 70% of the workforce is risk-driven while the remaining adheres to processes.

“The risk-driven profiles come from e-commerce backgrounds, startup firms and also from B-schools with an ambition to run their own ventures,” says Misra. Besides, MakeMyTrip has lined up a range of activities to promote ‘intrapreneurship’. At Hackathons — 24-hour events that cofounder and COO Keyur Joshi fondly dubs ‘pyjama parties’ — a bunch of people get together and hack code all night.

“From brainstorming to execution, Hackathons encourage not just launching of products for customers but live products that can be shared with our user groups,” says chief products officer Amit Somani. If that were not enough, the listing of MakeMyTrip on Nasdaq in 2010 gave stock options to 70% of its workforce, which came as a boon for those who eventually started out on their own.

Take the case of 30-year-olds Amit Lakhotia and Udai Singh Meena, both IIM-Ahmedabad grads who had donned senior roles in MakeMyTrip, only to start in June 2011. “At MakeMyTrip, I had P&L responsibility and took care of end-to-end solutions, which gave me the confidence to start my own venture,” says Meena.

In fact, when Lakhotia signed up with MakeMyTrip in 2007, he met up with CEO Deep Kalra and was honest about his plans of starting his own venture in 3-4 years. While Kalra had no option but to let them go, the duo took huge learnings from MakeMyTrip while unraveling their cab aggregator service.

“We looked at the complete online experience, including booking flow and business metrics; just what we did at MakeMyTrip. Besides, I had been heading a team of 120 people and that came in handy when leading a team at getmecab. com too,” says Lakhotia. While starting out, Meena was even able to cash in on most of his ESOPs, which gave him both the financial push and the agility to bootstrap his venture for longer. Neil D’souza, who joined MakeMyTrip as AVP in 2008, quit two years later to start his surveillance-based playschool, Troy Education, out of Mangalore. “I always wanted to do something in the education space and never had the funds until MakeMyTrip’s IPO in 2010, which gave me enough cash to float my school,” he says. Today, D’souza runs his 40-plus children playschool on the tenets he imbibed at Make-MyTrip.

“First, I make people who work for the school feel like a family. They should know it’s ‘our’ school and not ‘their’ school. Second, I celebrate fun at work, an integral cultural trait at Make-MyTrip by celebrating birthdays of every staff member with cake-cutting ceremonies and gifts for even the caretakers. Finally, we share responsibilities as well as benefits, since the principal not only receives pay but also a part of the profits. So I’m making key people accountable by sharing the wealth with them just like MakeMyTrip does,” elaborates D’souza.

D’souza’s comment finds favour with Sanjeev Aggarwal, senior managing director at Helion Advisors, which owns about 4% in MakeMyTrip. “Deep has set up a framework where he has allowed talent to flourish and one reason he has been able to diversify into other dimensions is because he has ensured that functions work with a fair degree of autonomy,” he says.

Helion picked up a stake in the company in 2006 when revenues were in the $5 million region. It stands at $88.2 million today. “When you are dealing with such a complex business manned by such a talented bunch of people, the only way to handle it is by letting go. Deep and the top management hire very smart people and allow them to flourish by getting out of their way.”

There have been many in the smart set who have picked up the thread at Make-MyTrip and carved out their own businesses. Among them, 40-year-old Shubhro Mukherjee stands out. Mukherjee joined the online travel company in 1997 in Mumbai and was handpicked to establish its Kolkata outfit.

He rose to AVP from a general manager and the going was great until last year, when he too succumbed to the entrepreneurial bug. But when he approached Kalra, he found the man to be extremely encouraging. “Instead of a rebuke, he doled out tips about starting my business and directed me to move in a planned manner and be analytical at every step,” says Mukherjee, who runs a major franchisee of MakeMyTrip from Kolkata.

While Mukherjee was absorbed by the flagship as a franchisee when he desired to go solo, finance controller Vikas Bhasin quit MakeMyTrip this January to kick off a couple of ventures, and While the first one has run into a legal quagmire, Urtechmate continues to provide technical support to US customers.

Though Kalra claims he had warned Bhasin about the online maid service when the latter spilled the beans, he was determined to strike it out on his own. Nevertheless, Bhasin too claims to have benefited significantly from the ESOPs he received after the IPO. While the list of entrepreneurs from MakeMyTrip goes on, there’s an equally large, if not bigger, collection of intrapreneurs.

Among them is Pranav Bhasin, director, innovation & content, who signed up with the company last year after selling off his photo-sharing online venture Lifeblob to another startup, Printo. Bhasin co-founded Lifeblob in 2006 after a stint with the Bangalore-based Trilogy where he saw the company grow from 20 to 200 people. In a pre-Facebook era, he realised that nobody had quite cracked the way in which photos could be shared with people.

That’s how Lifeblob came into being and soon he was the toast of Bangalore’s startup circle. In 2008, he was able to raise a million dollars from the Mumbai-based SeedFund and a couple of years later, even partnered with Printo, which had 18 stores in Bangalore, for instant photo printing. But Printo was keen to expand and didn’t have an e-commerce platform and that’s when it acquired Lifeblob.

“After that, I was in conversation with many a VC and one of them advised me to meet up with MakeMyTrip,” says Bhasin. Negotiations followed and Bhasin shifted to MakeMyTrip’s Gurgaon HQ after meeting the top leadership. “I joined because there was a lot of ownership here and you don’t have to go through multiple levels to get jobs done,” he says, adding that at the interview stage itself, he made it very clear to Kalra that he was looking at a 4-5 year horizon at MakeMyTrip before branching out on his own again. Perhaps that explains why Ravi Adusumalli, managing partner, SAIF Partners (another investor in Make-MyTrip), is unfazed despite the predictable churn.

“I would much prefer a company always strives to hire the best people in the market knowing fully well that some folks may leave to start their own companies….I have little doubt that there will be a number of very successful companies started by folks that cut their teeth at MakeMyTrip,” he says.

Abhishek Agrawal, 31, heads flights and flight-cum-hotel packages at Make-MyTrip. In 2005, he co-founded, a website for booking movie tickets as well as online content for films. Soon, ilog was doing service assignments for overseas clients and the shift in focus was enough to shut it down. So Agrawal latched on to another startup, Minglebox, before joining MakeMyTrip in 2008. “At Make-MyTrip, I was given full freedom to set up the bus ticketing business. I could do it because of my past experience when I wrote my own business plan for my startup and that taught me how to do business development and the art of negotiation,” he elaborates.

“For me, being able to do things in a high growth environment and taking on risks without being penalised for them, is just the right fit.” Inside or out of MakeMyTrip, Kalra’s Socratic debates forces people to think differently. Dinesh Agarwal of IndiaMart, on whose board Kalra was on till recently, explains — “Deep questions everything with five why’s. He wants to find out the real reasons for the hypothesis. So you are forced to come up with solutions.”

No wonder it reflects in the recruitment at MakeMyTrip so strongly. Even the 28-year-old Vaneet Singla has dabbled in entrepreneurship before making his way as a manager of the innovation division at MakeMyTrip. In 2008, along with a couple of friends, he launched, a unified interface for accessing content across platforms, such as Youtube, Slideshare, Docstock, Scribd, Flickr, Picasa, Hulu and what have you.

“Though we got 4 million page views a month, we shut down in 2010 as we were not being able to figure out the business model,” he says. After a brief stint with Spice Telecom, in December that year, Singla joined MakeMyTrip and was clear from the onset that the role he was given was an independent one. “Last year, we revamped the entire portals business at MakeMyTrip and the beauty is that you get to do all of this independently and yet have a big safety net because you’re allowed to fail, just like in entrepreneurship.”

For CEO Kalra, hiring entrepreneurs is high on the agenda as “they have done a crash course in risk-taking and come with a huge wealth of experience”. He sincerely believes that they want to give it another shot and MakeMyTrip is perhaps the only platform where they can live their dreams. “Even if they fail, it is much better than not trying,” he says, but is quick to add that chances of failure are further diminished in an environment backed by analytics and AB testing, which exposes a new feature to a finite list of people before actually taking it to the market. “Once you’ve done Formula One in online travel, why would you go to an offline vintage rally?”