A compelling startup story is that of redBus, the online bus ticket platform, which started its journey in 2006 and has been inspiring and teaching young entrepreneurs crucial lessons in pursuing their ideas since. The idea came about when Founder Phanindra Sama was struggling to get a bus ticket to make it in time for Diwali celebrations with the family in 2005. This got his curiosity rolling: he decided to go back to the bus operator and figure out the whole process behind this seemingly complex system and ask him questions like why it wasn’t centralised.
Today, ’redBus Mafia’ (a term referred to a startup culture that encourages employees become entrepreneurs) has grown and expanded. YourStory decided to talk to the key players on the team to understand the culture at the startup which helped build a team of great entrepreneurs.
Building a hands-on team
At its inception, redBus’ initial team was to new to whole idea of e-commerce and startups. They had to step out of their comfort zones to be part of the venture. "When I joined redBus, I was working for ICICI Bank. It was quite a move: I was moving my entire life from Mumbai to Bengaluru at that point in time. It was a leap of faith with some rationale," says Mayank Bidawatka former team member and Co-Founder at Mediaant. Mayank today is an angel investor and is also looking to start a new venture in the consumer space.
Being part of a startup needs a slightly different bend of mind. The regular rules simply do not apply. redBus was no different: the team was built of individuals coming from different fields and backgrounds. "People who join startups have an entrepreneurial bend of mind. This is what happened at redBus," adds Alok Goel, former redBus employee and the current Managing Director at Saif Partners.
An entrepreneurial mindset begins with taking ownership and willing to do any task or take on any challenge. Though teams were growing in redBus, it did not mean that ownership got transferred. Each individual had her/his responsibilities and was willing to take on challenges. "One crucial lesson I learnt at redBus was to understand ground realities. Each product that was built at redBus was tried and tested inside the organisation. I would travel by bus and see whether the systems actually work," says Puneet Chawla, former redBus man and now Co-founder of Jaypore.
Success creates success
A hands-on team of enthusiastic and passionate players on field just meant that everyone saw a unified vision. Also, when you're part of building something from scratch you get a sense of confidence and belief in your own abilities. Challenges and creation become easier for the team.
"We learnt things and how to deal with situations with limited bandwidth. This gave us a sense of accomplishment and confidence that we can take on anything and create anything,"says Surajit Chakrabartty, former team member and now CFO, MedGenome.
There would be fights and disagreements, and yet each player had his authority intact. It wasn't uncommon to see two members fight at one point and walk out for chai together the next. It built a culture of belief, transparency and faith. "We were a rock solid team, we knew whatever arguments would happen were purely professional. And this didn't mean we rejected authority, if what someone was saying made sense, we backed them hundred per cent. Also working in a startup changes your perspective towards your work and personal life drastically," says Niranjan Seelam, former team member and now in the core team of Zippr.
Building organisations on trust and transparency
Inmobi’s Naveen Tewari had told us earlier teams need to be built on trust. You need to trust your employees. That was the basis of the culture of redBus. "Transparency was something that came from top down," says Ganesa Murthi of the team and now founder of Sellerworx.
Transparency comes with trust. Whatever was happening at redBus was open for debate and discussion. This in turn keeps the vision clear. Everyone knows what needs to be done and the roles each one plays. Transparency is the key to keeping an organisation healthy. It is a point that everyone of the 'redBus Mafia' agrees with and has incorporated it in their organisation in some way or the other.
redBus didn't work on the principles of micromanagement. Each team was trusted to do their jobs to the best of their abilities. This, in turn, gave every individual within the team an opportunity to learn and grow.
Frugality, working with nothing
Abey Zachariah, former team member of redBus and now Founder of Adloc, says redBus was a very difficult business to build. This in turn gave everyone the opportunity to learn quickly and be resilient. "It has taught us how not to give up on things," adds Abey. Also, building a startup means working with very limited resources and funds. Adloc has pivoted to Goodbox, and has also received a funding.
This in turn taught the team to be creative and push themselves. "When you build something out of nothing, it truly gives you a sense of accomplishment, and frugality is something I've tried to incorporate at Mediaant," says Samir Chaudhary, of the team and now Co-founder Mediaant.
Mayank seconds this thought, he adds that it's easy to build things when you've the resources, but it becomes a very interesting challenge to build something out of limited resources. This probably was one of the biggest lessons taken away from RedBus.
Shashaank Shekhar Singhal, former redBus, now Co-founder of Dazo says that redBus gave him the discipline and even pushed him to be innovative. "When you have limited budgets, you think of ways that can truly add value to the customer redBus never had a US counterpart to follow and this is one of the prime reasons why redBus was so successful at being innovative than it's competitors and this become a leader. Many heavy funded startups resort to short cut in growth by discounting and thus never create real value through their products, which doesn't sustain."
Value your customer
Rajesh Bysani, who's with Freecharge currently believes that one of the lessons he learnt from redBus was spending time with your customers. "We used to spend a lot of time at the bus stands talking to consumers that gave us tremendous insights on how we could improve the experience of the bus consumer. We learnt a lot about the issues that the customer faces at the last mile that helped us significantly improve our product offering," says Rajesh.
Apart from this he has also tried to incorporate the values of trust and humility that he learnt at redBus into Freecharge. He says that at redBus they believed that their role was not limited to selling bus tickets but to provide the best bus experience to the consumer. This led them to build features that gave the consumer visibility into a lot of aspects of the journey hence limiting the chance of a poor experience.
Bhaskar Raju Konduru, former redBus team member, now Co-founder of Helloclass says: "Product-market fit matters the most. Translating customer feedback into useful product-features, in resource constrained and high expectations environment, determines the difference between good and mediocre startups. In redBus, I learnt this important lesson and am going to use it religiously at HelloClass."
Shashaank believes that one of first learning he had at redBus was to stay close to customers to know what they need, than building entire company on your assumptions. He adds that staying close doesn't mean occasional phone/email feedback but meeting them in-person. "At redBus my mobile team would go to bus stops and talk to customers and also travel in same buses to understand our customers," says Shashaank.
What are they doing
MediaAnt - Founded in 2012, Mediaant is a marketplace for offline media. On one hand businesses are looking at ways to advertise and on the other hand, people had open ad spaces, with no clue of it's worth. Mayank thus came up with the idea of space that could help both media owners and advertisers, and bounced off the idea to Samir and Mukesh Agarwal, who became a part of the Founding Team. Today, Mayank is an angel investor and is also looking to start a new venture in the consumer space. Samir believes that learning to work and come up great ideas with limited resources was what he learnt at redBus. "I tried to incorporate this quality into Mediaant as much as possible. We try to come up with great ideas with limited resources," adds Samir.
Jaypore - Founded by Puneet Chawla and Shilpa Sharma, Jaypore was envisioned as an e-commerce portal that aimed at taking Indian made products to the world. Puneet believes that the core value of Jaypore, which is 'Love thy customer,' was ingrained during his time at redBus. He says that during his seven months stint, Puneet would speak to customers and understand what they need. His bus rides told him real-time whether the processes were easy to use. "I've tried to incorporate that as much as possible in Jayore. I make it a point to speak to my customers whenever possible," says Puneet.
Adloc - Founded by Abey Zachariah, Nithin Chandra, Mahesh Herle, Mohit Maheshwari, Anand D K and Charan Shetty, Adloc was established in May 2012. It is a location based advertising engine that delivers advertising inside buses. The business has pivoted to Goodbox, an app where users can connect & chat with businesses directly for various needs. Abey believes that his stint in redBus, taught him not to give up. "I've tried to incorporate that quality as much as possible here. We take challenges head on and are not bogged down by it," says Abey.
MedGenome - Bangalore based MedGenome is a player in genomics-based diagnostics in India and is a leading provider of genomics research services globally. The company has today announced $20 million Series B investment from Sequoia Capital. Surajit, the CFO believes that the ability to do anything is what he's tried to bring to his team at MedGenome.
Zippr - A new age smart address, Zippr is an eight digit code of user choice pointing to the exact house on the map. The app shortens your address the way bit.ly shortens bulky URLs to solve the problem of explaining complex addresses. Niranjan, who's part of the core team at Zippr believes that the ability to be open and transparent with your colleagues is a quality he's tried to incorporate from redBus. "At redBus arguments would last only to get a point across, and that's what I've tried to bring here," says Niranjan.
Sellerworx- Founded by Ganesa, Venkat Potluri and Chandramouli, Sellerworx helps organisations go online. It develops an inventory management platform that helps e-commerce and retail optimise their business. Ganesa believes that one of the biggest learning from redBus is transparency. "At redBus, we had an open and transparent system of operation and that's what I've tried to incorporate into Sellerworx," says Ganesa.
Helloclass - An edutech platform Co-founded by Ashutosh Seth, Prakash Rengarajan and Bhaskar Raju Konduru, focuses on bringing personalised home tuition to students at their home or online. Bhaskar believes that the learning of product-market fit was one of the biggest learning of his stint at redBus. He says that taking customer feedback and actually turn it into something useful and profitable was what he learnt at redBus.
Dazo - While an android app that can be used to order food, Dazo isn't a delivery service. The menu is curated and users are given an option to choose from 8-10 menu items for lunch and dinner. Shashaank believes his all his learnings at redBus have been implemented at Dazo in some way or the other.
He says: "Every new employee spends one day in the beginning to do the deliveries themselves. This way they not only learn what the customers have to say, but also learn about our other 'customer' - delivery - what they go through. Another one of the main learning that he took from redBus was frugality. He adds that for many months, they didn't build the offer code system. It would have been easy also he adds that it wouldn't have forced them to think what does the customer really want.
Startups, as we know are built with limited resources and funding. Once you build something out of nothing, it's a different high on its own. That's how entrepreneurs are made.