Billon-dollar startup story: author Mihir Dalal on the journey of writing the book about Flipkart

This book about Flipkart will be the foundation for a web series about India’s high-profile ecommerce player. Here are the author’s insights on storytelling.
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Mihir Dalal is the author of Big Billion Startup: The Untold Flipkart Story. He grew up in Mumbai and presently lives in Bengaluru. (See also my reviews of the related books The Making of BigBasket and Failing to Succeed.)

Mihir’s book has been shortlisted for the annual Gaja Capital Business Book Prize, which honours authors who chronicle the spirit of entrepreneurship in India. With prize money of Rs 15 lakh, the award is regarded as the highest business book award in India (see my awards writeup here).

The 300-page book makes for a fast-paced read, with over 20 pages of references and sources. Spanning two decades, the story is placed within the broader context of the rise of the internet economy and venture capital industry in India.

Mihir paints a detailed picture of the company’s workings based on over 250 interviews, articles, and documents. Founder passion, VC politics, and boardroom conflicts are portrayed along with the tensions of finding a balance between technology and product, growth and profitability, and local and global priorities.

The cast of characters includes founders Sachin Bansal and Binny Bansal, CEO Kalyan Krishnamurthy, Lee Fixel (Tiger Global), Jeff Bezos (Amazon) and Doug McMillon (Walmart) – as well as a string of managers from Flipkart and the CEOs of competitors, spinoffs and acquired startups.

See also YourStory’s Book Review section with insights from over 280 titles, and our pick of Top 20 Author Interviews of 2020.

At the Bangalore Business Literature Festival 2020, Mihir's book won the CK Prahalad Best Business Book of the Year Award (see my writeup here). Mihir joins us in this interview on the journey of authoring a book, business storytelling, and India’s startup boom.

Edited excerpts below:

YourStory [YS]: What was the most fulfilling part of writing your book, and the challenge?

Mihir Dalal [MD]: Narrating a seminal business story in its entirety was fulfilling.

But soon after, I started working on the book; it became clear that I couldn’t (and didn’t want to) do it as a side project. So it was challenging to juggle two jobs at once initially. I finally decided to move to a new role and then take a sabbatical to work on the book full time.

YS: What are your favourite books about Indian business?

MD: Ambani & Sons by Hamish McDonald.

YS: What makes a good business story different from a case study or chronology?

MD: A good business story faithfully and accurately recreates the real world of its subject. It doesn’t dumb down the financial and technical details but illuminates how those phenomena came into being. Case studies and chronologies offer a more limited view.

YS: What makes a business book different from a series of long articles about the subject?

MD: Articles are always about specific aspects and time periods relating to a business. A book allows you to write about that business in a way that provides a bird’s eye and a worm’s eye view at once. There’s a lot more nuance, depth, and range.

YS: If your book were to be used in a business course, what advice would you give the teacher on how to leverage the material?

MD: There are certain aspects in the book that I feel are worth highlighting. One, how technological determinism is a folly that many tech leaders are susceptible. Two, how innovation happens in different forms. For instance, many people believed that Flipkart wasn’t an innovative firm just because it had ‘copied’ its idea from Amazon.

As if, Amazon invented the concept of online retail (it didn’t). Anyone who reads the Flipkart book would know that Flipkart was a very innovative company and, in fact, often out-innovated Amazon India.

YS: What are your thoughts on using figures/charts/tables in business books? Why did you choose not to?

MD: In general, I think charts and tables are helpful in business books when they supplement the text and help the author prove or illuminate something. I thought about including them in my book but decided against it eventually.

The internet business has its own logic, which is very different from that of traditional sectors. I did not think adding charts and tables would help provide a better understanding of the story so I stuck to text.

YS: You have elements of humour in the book, in the way you name some chapters (for example, Tiger’s Cub, Kalyan Raj, The Son). What role does humour play in a ‘serious’ business book?

MD: Using humour is part of the attempt to faithfully recreate the real world of Flipkart. Apart from humanising the people in the book, it helps realise a sense of proportion.

YS: As a journalist, was it easy for you to get access to the inner workings at Flipkart?

MD: It wasn’t easy, but I had been covering Flipkart for more than four years before I started working on the book, so I had already established a network of people I needed to speak.

YS: What about the movie that's based on the book? When is it coming out, and who is in it?

MD: There is a web series being made. The details about the cast, production timeline, and so on will be announced very soon.

YS: You mention that Flipkart often 'out-innovated Amazon India' – what are some examples you can cite here?

MD: Some examples are no-cost EMIs, product exchange programmes, and other services that Flipkart launched in the mobiles and electronics categories.

Even its acquisition of Jeeves, which offers installation and after-sale services for electronic products, was an important differentiator. All these allowed Flipkart to dominate sales of mobiles and large electronics, which together comprised 55-60 percent of the ecommerce market for several years.

YS: What do you observe as the success factors for good founder-investor relationships?

MD: Transparency seems to be important. Another factor is how aligned founders and investors are about the company’s priorities – whether it should pursue growth even at the cost of huge losses, or whether it should pursue slower growth.

But eventually, the relationship comes down to whether the company can continually increase its valuation.

YS: What opportunities and challenges do the online medium pose for book authors?

MD: The opportunities include: reach a wider audience; get access to sources quicker; and being able to see how the book was received by lay readers.

One major problem is that spending time online even for work sucks up a lot of time that you could otherwise spend doing more interesting and satisfying things like reading a book.

YS: Are you noticing any change in reading habits among audiences?

MD: It seems like people, young and older, are still reading, but are gravitating in increasing numbers towards self-help books, certain kinds of business books, and pop fiction.

YS: How has the pandemic affected you and your work? What are your tips to our audience on resilience in a time of uncertainty?

MD: The pandemic has forced me to avoid meeting people for work. This is a big loss since calls or video calls cannot completely replace meeting people in person. It’s also forced me to be indoors far more than I’d like.

For me, it’s helped to go off to a (safe) vacation place every two months for a few days and work from there.

YS: As we enter the new year, what are some major trends you see and experience in the media and publishing industry?

MD: Time spent online has increased, and this has resulted in more time spent on news sites. Newspapers seem to have been resilient, but they have taken a hit.

It remains to be seen how many readers who have temporarily halted paper subscriptions will return.

YS: What would you do with the prize money if you were to win the award? What would the honour mean to you as well?

MD: I would save it and use it to work on my next book.

India’s business landscape has transformed since liberalisation, but there aren’t nearly enough books about the businesses that have been made possible since. The initiative by Gaja Capital is one of the few serious attempts to change this and encourage the pursuit of business books.

It would be fantastic to see the Flipkart book being recognised thus.
Edited by Suman Singh