The chief who never gives up, BookMyShow’s Ashish Hemrajani

BookMyShow is in the news this week after they joined the 1000 Cr valuation club. We caught up with BookMyShow CEO Ashish Hemrajani to know what it takes to build a customer obsessed brand like BookMyShow that touches lives of millions of Indians.

Ashish has taken many knocks in his journey as an entrepreneur in the past 16 years. But each time he gets punched, he gets up and moves ahead in pursuit of loftier goals. He shares with us his ultimate Holy Grail for BookMyShow, what inspires him and what keeps him going. There is a lot to learn from his story for all early stage entrepreneurs looking to build long-term businesses and deliver value.

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YS: What do you plan to do with the newly raised funds?

AH: One of the reasons why we raised capital was that the timing was right for us. We have known SAIF Partners for a while now. The company is profitable. We don’t need the money to fund our operational burn. We are already sitting on last time’s capital, so we were not in a hurry to raise funds. SAIF as an organization thinks like us, the team is very grounded and humble; they have a large vision about where they want their companies to go. The new funding will enable us to take all the sensible risks we want to take and run some experiments, like going more aggressively into tier 2 and tier 3 cities, and investing more heavily in some of our product lines. We launched our mobile app last year, which has been very successful.

YS: Tell us about growth?

AH: We have doubled since last year. We have delivered close to 3 times the value in the last 18 months and that shows that we are doing something right. Our consumers and the team are extremely happy.

We get close to 500 million page views per month and 35-40 million unique visitors a month. Since the day of inception in 2007 to now, we have done 100 million tickets. But by 2017, we are hoping to hit 100 million in a single year  – that is, all of the traction we have done in 7 years in just one.

YS: Tell us about the mobile traction?

AH: 45 to 50% of BookMyShow’s transactions today are driven by mobile. Initially, most of our traffic used to come from top 3 Indian cities, but today it comes from top 10 cities. And now we are focusing on the next 50 cities/towns in India. The iOS customer is the highest lifetime value customer for us. Android users come from everywhere and not just top 3 cities unlike iOS. Windows has been a really big surprise for us. Windows driven by Nokia phones has given us some very interesting results. We also work closely with Nokia. We are pre-burnt on Nokia X phones and Lumia 520 series.

YS: How do you plan to grow this market?

AH: Though there are 10-15 million users transacting via cards, the online buyers themselves are 25-30 million (via other mechanisms like cash on delivery etc). E-commerce players have introduced COD and grew that ecosystem. Similarly, you will now see BookMyShow doing a lot of strategic things to grow this ecosystem for all.

YS: What about your plans to expand to other markets?

AH: For us, India is the Holy Grail, anything else is a plus. There is so much potential in this country; there is so much to do here; our focus is going to be largely entrenched in India.

YS: You have been on this journey for 16 years now and you have taken several knocks during the dot-com bust and recession, what is the secret to success?

AH: We are just persistent. We are persistent like a woodpecker that keeps chipping away and eventually the tree falls. Having a belief in yourself, being persistent, and coming to work every day and thinking about how to do something better — all great companies across the world have done the same thing. Look at GE, Coke, McDonalds, Dunkin Donuts, Berkshire Hathaway, Tata and Birla; they all have this in common. If we had packed our bags and gone away during the dotcom bubble, we would not have been where we are today.

We were wiped out in 2002 during the dot-com bust, we were on the road, but we persisted.

YS: Tell us about the culture at BookMyShow?

AH: Rajesh and Parikshit (my co-founders) are close friends of mine, we all studied together. We have been together for 20 years now. We go on holidays together. We come into work every day thinking like it’s college. Our VP of Marketing went to college with us too. The Operations VP has been a friend of mine for over 10 years now. The person who heads our Products and Strategy is someone we brought in via one of our most valued investors. The person who heads sales used to be with us from 1999-2002 and then the dotcom bust happened. When we needed a sales head she came back again, she is again a dear friend whom we have known for over 18 years. Our head of customer support has been with us for over 11 years. She started as a call center agent. The people who we come back to are family to me. It’s a different kind of culture at BookMyShow.

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YS: What does it take to build such a team?

AH: There is ‘zero ego’ at BookMyShow. There is no pressure. We come into work feeling it’s our own. Interest free student loans are given to all employees if they want to study further. Our office boys are put through college. We enrolled one of our office boys, Roopesh, in a night college. He has to leave office everyday by 5:30 pm. All of us sink and rise in the same ship. When the global financial crisis happened in 2008, everyone took 30% cut. There was a vote in the company and the result was that 90% agreed to take a cut for 6 months.

It’s about being honest and straightforward. You should not just fluff and bluff and take things for granted. I come to work like everybody else. I have absolutely no shame in what I do. Sometimes at events where we partner, I am helping our volunteers to usher people in and in checking tickets. That’s the kind of joy that we have in the product that we have built.

The offices that we have today, the fancy coffee machines that we have, our investors, our advisors, and all the publicity that we get in the media are all secondary. The ultimate joy is when our customer is able to have an excellent experience because of the platform, and that is the last mile in everything that we do. If that is the case there is no shame in ushering people at our events. The margins are just metrics, it doesn’t matter to us.

As long as Monday mornings are as exciting for me as Friday evenings, I will continue to do this.

YS: What does it take to be a winner in a segment?

AH: We have put together a fantastic team that can deliver day-in and day-out. I think it’s also a little bit of good fortune. We were in the business very early, so we learnt by getting the knocks earlier too. We do not overspend, we all fly reasonable carriers, we all stay in reasonable hotels, and that is because we have come up the hard way.  We try and do things better every day. We are obsessed with our customer experience, and we own up to our mistakes and we try to fix them as soon as possible. We pay keen attention to any bad experiences of the customers.

YS: What have the tough times taught you?

AH: My biggest learning has been that good times and bad times do not last, and both will pass really quickly. Anything free in life is not valued, never give anything for free, charge always, even if it’s one rupee.

Make sure there is a culture of Monday mornings being as exciting for everybody as Friday evenings. Do not fear the competition and any environment for that matter and do not complain about the environment. Everybody complains about the environment. If it is hot, then remove your shirt and go for a swim; there is an opportunity in that. Is it too cold? Go, have a scotch or coffee. The environment is not in your control, focus on what you can do.

YS: When do you plan to go IPO?

AH: I would rather ask the question, ‘When will you have 100% happy customers?’ I am hoping that in the next 4 years we would be able to do that. That is the metric that I would like to pursue, IPO or any other kind of exit is only a byproduct.

YS: What is your advice to entrepreneurs?

AH: Stop behaving like investors who are thinking about investments and exits. Your obligation as an entrepreneur is to build a great product that will continue to make end users happy and satisfied. That is your only obligation, rest will follow. I see many entrepreneurs are now worried about valuations and exits, if you take care of customers, all of that will happen.

YS: Are you expanding your team?  

AH: Right now we are 200 people in the company, and we have an outsourced staff of 150. But even they are technically on our payroll. We are looking to add 100 more people in the next one year across all departments.

YS: What are the books you have read and who are the leaders you look up to?

AH: On the consumer side, one of my favourite books is ‘Nuts!’ This is the story of Southwest Airlines. The other book that I thoroughly enjoyed reading is Steve Jobs’s biography. He has been a huge inspiration in my life. I have been a consumer of every possible product of Apple. Another book that I have completely enjoyed is ‘Delivering Happiness’ by Zappos CEO. The book that I am currently reading and I bought copies for my office is ‘The Hard Thing about the Hard Things’.

Team YourStory wishes BookMyShow much success.


Varsha Adusumilli

Varsha Adusumilli, while is busy donning multiple hats at YourStory, likes to spend some of her free time catching up with inspiring leaders and uncovering their stories. Varsha is an alumnus of BITS Pilani, and has worked with Amazon.com and Samhita.org before joining YourStory full-time in 2011. Feel free to drop in a note to her at varsha@yourstory.com