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How FreeCharge found its Mojo

Shailendra Singh

About ten weeks ago, I remember picking up my phone to the usual buzz of a late night WhatsApp message from Kunal Shah, the co-founder of FreeCharge. Over the last four years, my wife had become used to our frequent late night exchanges. I assumed this would be another quick discussion on business strategy or brainstorming a new idea Kunal had about the business. However, it became soon obvious it would be a longer conversation, because of a chat that Kunal had just had with his namesake Kunal Bahl at SnapDeal. The rest, as the cliché goes, is history.

The heroes of this story are Kunal Shah and Sandeep Tandon, who co-founded FreeCharge in 2010. Kunal, a philosophy major, was running a BPO business owned by the Tandon Group. Kunal, who is always brimming with new ideas and creative answers to problems, came up with the concept of marrying mobile talk time with couponing. Sandeep provided the initial angel investment and brought to the table some key relationships in the retail industry. Like all good founders, they immediately launched a simple website with a simple value proposition - free coupons of equal value for mobile recharge.

I was among the few lucky ones who noticed. In those days, couponing was very hot (think Groupon during its heydays) and FreeCharge felt like a clever proposition to sell a lot of coupons. I went to LinkedIn and mailed Kunal Shah, first in December 2010 and then again in January 2011. I also requested an analyst from my team to cold call him. We persisted for a while, but there was no response.

After a few weeks, we heard back from Kunal and Sandeep, and we agreed to meet. We still laugh about the first meeting. I asked them, "What is your CAC?" (Customer Acquisition Cost).

Kunal asked, "What is CAC?" They hadn't spent any money on marketing yet.

I asked them whether they charge their big merchants like McDonalds for lead generation. They hadn't thought of that either.

Then I asked, "How many transactions do you do?" Kunal said, "14,000."

I asked, "Every month?"

He said, "Every day, and they’re all credit and debit customers."

Every e-commerce company was spending like crazy to acquire customers. I knew from my JustDial experience that customer acquisition engines can become very valuable. There were many questions to be answered, but by the end of that meeting, I told them we would love to invest.

We had found many of the soft ingredients we look for. An improbable set of founders with deep conviction in their approach. A product that needed no marketing to get tens of thousands of transacting customers. An incredibly grounded, creative and open-minded founding team, willing to learn about building a mobile and Internet business.

The only issue was that there was no business model yet. In fact, there was a widespread perception in the venture capital industry that recharge is a bad business because of low margins and supplier concentration. But we saw things differently. This could be a customer acquisition platform, and potentially a big data play focused on user preferences and brand affinities. To us, mobile recharge was a means to an end.

We quickly put terms together. I remember Sandeep telling me, "Your offer seems fair. There is nothing to negotiate." I knew right away this would be a strong and uncomplicated partnership. Our relationship has stayed that way. I know people will find it hard to believe, but in the years that we worked together, there was never a difficult negotiation among us. And yes, such founder and investor relationships are not uncommon.

Soon after closing, we encountered our first major challenge. The technology platform was built in a hurry. Our users were experiencing failed transactions as we tried to grow faster. Kunal and Sandeep needed to hire a chief technology officer (CTO) desperately. We looked hard. However, finding CTOs in Mumbai is always tough, and our first hire didn't last long. For several months, we couldn't grow because our technology platform wouldn't scale with our marketing ambitions.

After six months of struggle, things turned around when Deap Ubhi joined the team. Well known to Sequoia, Deap was the ex-founder of Burrp. The platform was re-architected so it could scale and the company agreed to move a significant part of operations and technology to Bengaluru. Transactions started to grow again in early 2013, and we regained confidence that this could be a large business.

However startup journeys are bumpy, and the next roadblock is never far away. By late 2012 we had run out of money, and the company was in an unproven category. We stuck to our original hypothesis though and Sequoia led an inside round, with participation from Ru Net and Ajay Agarwal of Sirion Labs, a Sequoia entrepreneur, who liked the concept.

In end 2013 Deap had to return to the US with his family and we needed to hire another senior Internet leader. Kunal had gotten to know Alok Goel, an ex-Googler who had recently exited redBus.in. We worked hard to convince Alok that he join FreeCharge. Kunal volunteered to step aside to make him the new chief executive. Not just that, Sandeep and Kunal agreed to part with equity to make the offer attractive to Alok. They didn't even bother to inform the board members of the promise they had made. These were incredible gestures. Few founders have the maturity to do what Kunal did, let alone volunteer personal equity to an incoming chief executive.

A few weeks after Alok joined, in September 2013, FreeCharge launched a major TV campaign with Pepsi that Kunal had devised and convinced Pepsi to run. Top celebrities would ask consumers to drink Pepsi on TV in very attractive and fun ads, and get free talk time on FreeCharge. That campaign was a coup for FreeCharge, and won it immediate brand recognition. Alok organized FreeCharge in smaller pods around specific product and engineering issues, which accelerated the pace of progress. Freecharge now started to aggressively hire and build out a team to focus on the mobile, and Kunal took on the mantle of driving growth.

In early January 2014, when the company launched their new mobile app, it accounted for barely 10% of all transactions. But during 2014, mobile app transactions grew almost 50x. The company raised two quick, successive rounds of financing, both with significant insider participation. After the company launched its first TV campaign in September 2014, FreeCharge became the Number 1 shopping app on Google Play, at least temporarily.

That did not go unnoticed. E-commerce majors had spent multiples more to drive downloads and transactions. And now this upstart had taken the top spot within weeks of launching a TV campaign. It then became clear to everyone that recharge has significant potential to acquire online transacting customers fast. The category was validated.

The team was brimming with confidence on what the company could become. In an early 2015 board meeting, the management presented a plan to grow Gross Merchandise Value (GMV) almost 5x in the next one year. And FreeCharge had $90 million in the bank to get there.

Enter another terrific Kunal - Kunal Bahl of Snapdeal. Both Kunals met up one day in late January, and what started as a "let's do more things together" conversation quickly ended up in a "this can be disruptive if we join forces" meeting. Things moved fast after that. In February, the board agreed to 21 days of exclusivity to put the two companies together. In 22 days, the largest Internet M&A deal in India was signed and closed.

It was important to the board that this deal was a good financial outcome for as many people as possible in the senior FreeCharge team. While there are no perfect answers in such situations, we managed to achieve our objectives. For this alone, this M&A event probably stands out, as one where the whole team won, and the economics were generously shared by the shareholders.

This is a summary of many years of developments condensed in a few paragraphs. Many others deserve credit, and possibly some material events are missing. But FreeCharge had some interesting lessons that might benefit entrepreneurs and investors reading this account.

Kunal's talent was realized when he was able to let go and create an institution that could help him achieve his goals. All founders face this challenge as they scale their companies. But Kunal was selfless and the lack of emotional insecurity helped him emerge into a wonderful leader. He did not have a title for 18 months after Alok joined, and he didn't care. He worked insanely hard to grow the company at an exponential pace. In my mind, he is not only a talented entrepreneur, but also a great leader and a brilliant mobile and Internet visionary.

It is very rare for us to find companies that have an anchor co-founder like Sandeep Tandon. He was never full-time, never drew a salary, and yet was always available for the most important projects. Sandeep was the true quarterback who guided the team to achieve aggressive goals. It is unusual to find an individual who brings a founder's DNA without any baggage or agenda. This journey would be impossible without his massive contributions.

We always counsel our founders to believe great companies and great entrepreneurs can have room for co-founders at any point in the company's life. Kunal, Sandeep and the board worked hard to embrace Deap and Alok as though they were co-founders. Building partnerships, treating people as peers of the founders, and focusing on the company' interest first made a massive difference. These relationships were not flawless, but they were very strong. And they helped to build a great culture even through the leadership changes at the company.

As for us, we are never on-field - we are cheerleaders and coaches and assistants on different days of the week. It wasn’t so much of what we did, but how we were able to partner with the founders and team that really allowed us to have a successful partnership. We were lucky to have a very collaborative board dynamic, and an investor base that was very supportive. It was the strong trust and relationships that allowed us to overcome many obstacles and get to a great outcome.