Wealth Issue: The Romance of the First Million

Aprameya Radhakrishna, Founder, TaxiForSure

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‘Listen to every conversation for the next problem to solve’
‘Listen to every conversation for the next problem to solve’ Running a startup can feel immensely isolating. It can also make you fat, so you end up looking like the bloated capitalist you are not. Fortunately for Aprameya Radhakrishna, he found love amid the frenetic momentum of TaxiForSure, the cab aggregator he started with former classmate G Raghunandan one gloomy evening at a Bengaluru pub. Fitness, though, would have to wait. Since Olacabs’ acquisition of TaxiForSure, which had come to be valued at Rs 1,200 crore within three-and-a-half years of existence, Aprameya has gone from noshing on untimely fast food dinners to eating small, carb-free meals. A gym and spa routine, good taste in clothes and a placid smile now lend him the air of a sauntering millionaire. For the first time in years, he has time for himself. “I have lost 18 kilos in the past eight months. I had been abusing my body for a long time, working crazy hours and eating whatever I liked,” the 34-year-old says. A tired afternoon sun shines through the canopy of trees around the café at the JW Marriott in central Bengaluru. Tall and fit, clad in blue from head to toe in a printed shirt, Diesel jeans and loafers, Aprameya looks as though he may finally be coming to terms with selling the business he had painstakingly built, with the dream of consolidating the then highly fragmented market for city taxis.

The past few months have been dreamy—he has vacationed in Sri Lanka and in Europe with his wife Parinita whom he first met at TaxiForSure, mentored half a dozen startups, bought a Range Rover Sport and spent quality time with his parents. But the flashbacks don’t stop, and in his mind, the giant wheel of fortune that decided the fate of TaxiForSure continues to whir, churning out alternate outcomes each time. The company, incorporated as Serendipity Infolabs Pvt Ltd, ran not on luck, but on a sustainable business model. “We were growing aggressively, expanding to over 40 cities while spending a third of the money as Ola to get as many customers. We would hit milestones and have a party every month-and-a-half. If two months went by without a reason to celebrate, employees would assure me with a grave face that we’d get there soon enough,” Aprameya says, his eyes wide, reliving the excitement.

There is no such burning urgency now. Aprameya is happy to wait: for the next big idea to start up with, for his Rs 18.5 crore house on Kasturba Cross Road to be ready, for the car he expects delivery of in January 2016. He has once again struck the ambling pace he knew growing up in salubrious Bengaluru in a middle-class family. An education in engineering from NITK Surathkal, a two-and-a-half-year-long stint at Infosys where he admittedly worked very little and made a lot of friends, and an MBA from IIM-Ahmedabad had all but expunged him of imagination. But then, a challenging stint as head of business development at Jones Lang LaSalle India opened his eyes to the possibility of starting up. “Raghu and I had come up with an idea only to discover it already existed, as Dejected, we got drunk and started talking about the problem of commuting in Bengaluru, and that is how TaxiForSure was born,” he says. They each invested Rs 4 lakh and borrowed Rs 15 lakh from friends and family, unwittingly entering a cutthroat market that would see Uber and Ola slashing rates and losing up to Rs 200 a ride to acquire customers.

When TaxiForSure raised the first round of funding from Accel Partners, Helion Venture Partners and Blume Ventures in 2012, the investors gave it a year to touch a target of 500 transactions a day. It breached the mark in half the time. “That was when we first knew we could be really big. We hadn’t planned on this kind of growth,” Aprameya says. In retrospect, incremental planning and the lack of a grand long-term vision crippled the company. “But there was no way we could have anticipated that Softbank would pick Olacabs to invest $210 million in. We had wanted to be sustainable as we grew—many of our cities were profitable—but we switched to the fast lane to outrun the competition, and we were confident we would. When the Softbank investment came through in October last year, all bets were off. We knew we had to raise serious money or prepare to be left behind,” he says.

Over the next few months, the denouement unfolded in agonising length, like a ballet with a predestined ending. As TaxiForSure negotiated with prospective investors in San Francisco, an Uber driver was accused of raping a young woman in Delhi, triggering a heated—and as it turned out, short- lived—debate on banning private cabs. Raghunandan tried in vain to explain away the stray incident in meetings with Silicon Valley VCs, while Aprameya was in damage control mode in Bengaluru, liaisoning with police and government, and on one occasion, answering to the city police commissioner why the TaxiForSure website said the company was not responsible for what happened to commuters. The race was obviously over, with the hare outrunning the tortoise. “We chose Olacabs’ offer over Uber’s because this way, our employees got to keep their jobs,” Aprameya says. “We didn’t want to be the only ones making money.” When Ola finally acquired TaxiForSure in March for $200 million, it was the biggest acquisition in the Indian consumer internet space since the $300 million Flipkart- Myntra deal last year.

Aprameya has since been in detox mode. But every now and then, he toys with the delectable vice of eating butter chicken—or starting up. “My parents, who were once dead against my entrepreneurship, now ask me what I am going to do next. I will only startup if there is a chance that the idea could become as big as Facebook,” he says. He has meanwhile invested in eight companies— between Rs 10 lakh and Rs 40 lakh in each of them— ranging from hyperlocal apps Goodbox and Daily Ninja to a beauty salon aggregator. “I meet a lot of entrepreneurs and I have set aside a sum of money that I don’t mind losing. I want to build a portfolio of about 20 companies. If a few of them end up doing well, I will be happy to have played a part,” he says.

With a net worth of about Rs 250 crore—including his stake in Olacabs—does he not want to live a wild, opulent life? Aprameya laughs, shaking his head. “Most of my money is safe with my wealth managers. I get bored of travelling for more than 15 days. I am anxious to return to Bengaluru. This is where the roots are,” he says. “You must understand the background I come from. I have never had savings before. I love buying surprise presents for people who are close to me. I had never seen my mom wear jewellery, so in April, my wife and I went to C Krishniah Chetty and Sons and bought a gold necklace, earrings and bangles.” His mother isn’t the type to wear diamonds, he says. His father, who headed the Department of Physics at Bangalore University, still teaches after retirement. Aprameya bought him a car to replace his old Maruti Zen that had manual steering. He himself drives a Honda City that he bought five years ago, just before starting up. “During the early days of the business, I ran out of money and I had to figure out how to keep paying the EMI, apart from contributing to the expenses of the company. So I borrowed Rs 5 lakh from my uncle,” he says. For as long as he ran the company, however, he never cashed out his stake despite pressure from his parents to “settle down and buy a house”. “It just did not feel right,” he says.

Now, it feels good to fund his sister’s marriage—“We were a 24x7 call centre from day 1, and she would stay up at night taking calls,” he remembers gratefully—and to consider opening a boutique for his wife. “She loves Bengaluru’s old buildings. The boutique will be in one such building,” he says. Aprameya does have one indulgence of his own. He owns 20 pairs of footwear, from rubber slippers to Louis Vuitton shoes. “My prized possession is an electric blue pair of Cesare Paciotti shoes,” he says. Singing soft, romantic Hindi songs is another passion. His new residence will have a state-of-the-art jam room that he plans to periodically open up to artistes. “I started singing when I won a competition at 15 and realised I was a decent singer. I didn’t want to ruin a good thing with formal training,” he says.

A quiet man, Aprameya likes to think of himself as a lateral thinker. “Sometimes I think that all the cartoons I watched and the comics I read over the years have made me believe that anything is possible,” he says. “Just like cartoon physics.” He does not have the patience to get through a full-length book—he has been hacking his way through Elon Musk’s biography— but he makes it a point to meet two or three startups every day and to hear their stories. No one can teach you to notice the important things in life, Aprameya says. “In every conversation, there is a crypt. You may mention, for instance, that you are late because of such and such reason. I am always listening closely for such a thing. Because who knows, it could become the next problem I will solve.”