With Kashmiri blood that pumped in the pursuit of greater meaning, Gujarati alma maters that engendered unshakable gumption in her, and a Punjabi coming-of-age stint that taught her to always appear formidable in adversity, Upasana Taku was raised with great expectations and even greater aspirations.
Finishing her schooling in Surat, Upasana Taku went on to National Institute of Technology, Jalandhar for her B.Tech in Industrial Engineering, and, eventually, she did her MS in Management Science & Engineering from Stanford University, US.
Her carefully executed education led her, first, to HSBC in San Diego, where she donned many hats, ranging from marketing and outreach, to forecast and market research. When the next wave of finance discovered the American shores, Upasana joined PayPal, where she learned about payment systems in the Americas, Europe and Asia, risk detection & fraud management, user experience and design.
However, by 2008, even though she had her corporate throne, she realized she no longer wanted to be a corporate drone. “Work was becoming too easy. I had worked on some high-impact projects running into hundreds of millions of dollars, but the satisfaction was not there. I wanted to come back to India and contribute to the ecosystem back home,” she says, of the turning point in her career.
Wasting no time, Upasana was back to India by early 2009, meeting a lot of people, and soaking in ideas about buzzing sectors and unresolved gaps. “I learnt that a wallet like PayPal was unheard of in India, as users couldn’t imagine a cashless world. I understood why - no matter how good the technology, it had to make life easy for them,” she recalls.
Serendipitously, she happened to meet Bipin, her husband and co-founder, through a mutual friend at the same time, and learnt that he was eager to startup in the same space, too. When he took the plunge in August 2009, Upasana was testing the waters and helping him with certain aspects of the business. Six months down, her confidence in the idea grew and Mobikwik had started gaining traction, so, she joined MobiKwik full-time as its co-founder.
“MobiKwik was very simple and need-based. We launched MobiKwik as a recharge platform and, soon, it became the mobile wallet of every Indian. I take pride in saying that MobiKwik was the first mobile wallet of India,” Upasana quips, adding, “at a time when we were dependant on physical cash for something as trivial as Rs 10 mobile recharges. With MobiKwik, we launched the much-needed convenience of an online recharge platform that enabled users to recharge their phones from any location.”
Today, a millennial cannot imagine running down to a local shop for petty recharges, and Mobikwik was part of this revolution.
MobiKwik has grown exceptionally, since Upasana first embarked on this stupendous journey in 2009. And she’s kind enough to give us a trip down the memory lane, over the timeline of everything, right from MobiKwik’s smallest joys to their biggest milestones.
In 2010, MobiKwik hired its first employee. “Back then, it was challenging to find the right fit with exceptional talent in engineering, to convince them to join a startup and be ready to take on the challenges of a new organisation,” she recalls.
In 2011, the team grew modestly, to a total staff of six, including Bipin and her. “We used to work out of two rooms of a 4bhk apartment, which happened to be my home too. The society and guard found it funny that Bipin and I, were not seen outside, till after 10 pm. On most days of the week, I used to cook lunch for everyone, and one of the other employees had his signature to Maggi on offer in the evening,” Upasana reminisces.
The bonds made in a home-office over the dancing steam of home-cooked meals ensured that the tightly-knit team never felt the need to separate the personal from the professional, and worked in a 24x7 culture. In fact, here’s some trivia - even on Upasana and Bipin’s wedding day, as they took their vows to be together through days bootstrapped and funded, they couldn’t help but sneak some “work-breaks” every so often, to get work done from the venue!
By late 2011, they were renting their first office in Dwarka that had five rooms. Yet, the family stayed nuclear, and every employee had 'a room of one’s own'. And, rather poetically, the situation even played out exactly like the literary theory. Within a year, they were able to put in their best and expand to a 25-member team, and thus, a second rented-office in Dwarka.
“We were growing at an exceptional pace and were 35-people-strong by the beginning of June 2012. In September 2012, we applied for RBI’s PPI licence and received it in July 2013, a milestone for us,” Upasana says.
And all these milestones were clocked as the co-foundercouple stayed cash-strapped through thick and thin, for the first three years. But, they turned profitable by the end of it with 30-plus employees. The investor community didn’t fail to notice and, by early 2014, swooped in to change the scenario. Their first round of funding was worth of $5 million, which helped them move to a much larger office in Udyog Vihar, Gurgaon with over 50 employees.
By then, they had expanded their payments network to many offline and online merchants. In 2015, the second round of funding came along, at $25 million from Sequoia Capital, American Express, Tree Line Asia, and Cisco Investment.
Despite the increasing growth of e-commerce transactions in the country, sluggish payment gateways had been one of the biggest deterrents to their growth. There weren’t too many payment choices available, and just a few players were ruling this segment till a couple of years ago. Besides, almost all of them had either high sign-up costs or inferior technology, or both, notes Upasana.
In 2016 came round three of investment: no less than $50 million was raised from Net1, GMO payment gateway, Mediatek, Sequoia Capital and Treeline Asia. “This was a remarkable achievement for us. Today, MobiKwik has over 35 million users and 1,00,000 merchants on its platform. We expect to be profitable again by 2018,” states Upasana.
Airbrushed by this incredible story, though, are Upasana’s personal trials and conquests. “Initially when I was responsible for managing finances at MobiKwik, often auditors or investors and bankers would be surprised and ask to deal with someone male. This was shocking to me given that banking is an industry where female leaders are not uncommon,” she reveals.
Raising three stupendous rounds also made her somewhat of an expert on VCs. Her ABCs are simple – explain why your sector is the hottest sector with the largest open opportunity, why your product or service is the right fit for the market, and why you and your team are the only ones who will solve it.
Speaking of numbers, let’s summarize Mobikwik’s journey with pure numbers – seven years. 35 million users. 100000 merchants. 25000 offline merchants. 2 million active daily users. 1-1.5 mn daily transactions. 4000 daily bus ticket bookings. 250%YoY growth. Cash pickup in 5 cities - New Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Jaipur and Surat.
And the sails have been set for next year - GMV of $2 billion and a merchant base of 5,00,000. They plan to serve over 150 million users by 2018, and have introduced ancillary products, like bus bookings, recharges, consumer loans etc. “Users should be able to pay, borrow, save, invest, all using MobiKwik,” Upasana states.
Her mantra ‘Kick up a storm or die trying’ has helped her stay focussed. “Tenacity is key. When you start something new, the ecosystem doesn’t accept you easily, people say no. It took us 10 months to get the first bank on board for wallet loading, while the second one happened in 15 days. It took us 3-4 months to get our first few top merchants in 2014. Within 3-4 months we closed eBay, Domino's and other large merchants. All because I held on tight,” she concludes.