1. What problem/societal need are you trying to solve and why is your approach unique?
In India, 70 percent of women are not part of the workforce, largely due to cultural factors. Many of these women are educated, confident and ambitious. They want to start home-based businesses but are not able to do so because of lack of capital.
Meesho is an online platform that enables women to start an online store without any investment. Our platform provides access to supplies, logistics, payments, branding and marketing tools to start and grow a business.
2. What or who inspired you to start the company?
Ours is a classic startup story – what inspired us at first isn’t where the business ended up!
Our focus initially was very different – to help take small businesses online. We started in 2016, when most small businesses in India were offline, so we built a free app for existing shops to help them move onto the Internet.
In India, most shopkeepers use Facebook to connect with suppliers or wholesalers. So, we spent a lot of time communicating in these groups to promote our product. It turns out that in these Facebook groups there were also many women who were well-educated and ambitious, but were out of the workforce and, after marriage, kids, etc., were wanting to start their own businesses. These women discovered our app, they started telling their friends about it and it went viral.
After six months we realized that most of our users weren’t existing shops but were these entrepreneurial women. So, we pivoted in that direction and focused on building future versions specifically to meet the needs of that audience.
3. What has been the hardest challenge and the most pleasant surprise along the way?
India is a heterogeneous country with many languages, cultures, fashion tastes and so on. Building a product that solves the needs of the entire country was a big challenge, but we achieved it by building a personalized product that serves local needs well. We now have over three million users in more than 5000 towns and cities across India.
In terms of surprises, we get notes from users all the time from across India. The most common ones say something like, "Before I was a Meesho entrepreneur, I was known as someone's wife or someone's mother in my community. Now I am known as the owner of my online business and I feel so much more respected and confident". Professional identity from starting a business is a much bigger motivator for our user base than the income they make from the platform, and that has been the most pleasant surprise for us. Here, people don’t respect housewives as much as they should – so it is great to know we are helping people shift how they are perceived.
4. What’s the best advice you ever got and what advice do you regret not following?
The best advice was to never compromise when building a team. Team is everything in a startup, so even when we were growing day-on-day, and were super resource-crunched, we kept a high bar on talent and cultural fit.
Building a team is about two components – hiring and performance management. Hiring is obviously important, but it’s impossible to avoid mistakes, so performance management really is the key. However, we believe that only basing performance management on KPIs just doesn’t work. We have seen that if you don’t live up to the core values of the company, it is hard to be a success. Values even trump KPIs – people delivering numbers will be held back if they aren’t seen to be living up to the company values. Part of the reason for this is startup businesses are not predictable – so you’re highly likely to have the KPI targets wrong. In fact, if as a startup you’re hitting the KPIs every time, it suggests you aren’t setting ambitious enough goals! It is essential to build a set of values based on the essence of your business – look at who succeeds consistently and what behaviors they show.
On the second part, my regret is the same as many entrepreneurs - not starting up younger! People told me to do it, but I held back for a while. Even just a few years ago it wasn’t easy to do a startup in India. Tradition said you had to have capital and come from money, so most people didn’t think about starting a company – they would take a corporate job instead – which is what I did initially. However, over that time, startup costs dropped dramatically – anyone can write code, and capital requirements are a lot lower – so I left my job and started Meesho and haven’t looked back.
5. What are the future implications of the technology you are developing?
India, and developing countries in general, suffer from high unemployment and a lack of opportunities for its population. Meesho is making opportunities available to the broader workforce by removing barriers of geography, capital and resources. We truly believe this will play a key role in the growth of the economy over the coming years.
6. How do you stay one step ahead of the competition?
Meesho's guiding principle is to make our entrepreneurs more successful – growing their businesses every year and making their identities in the communities stronger. It is very hard to build a great product without being close to customers, so from the start we have had a singular focus on our customers, and not on what our competitors are doing. I think this is what has kept us ahead of everyone else.
7. What top tip for success would you give to other aspiring leaders and founders?
This is connected to the last answer - stay focused on your customers and everything else will fall into place.
It is very easy as an entrepreneur to be pulled towards building features that fit your idea of what is needed, not your customers. In some ways we are lucky because we build a product that isn’t used by us – so our intuition is useless. Not only is it impossible to guess whether new products or features will deliver for users, but whenever we have made assumptions, they always seem to have gone wrong!
As a result, we implemented programs to ensure we stay close to the customers – the biggest being our “Listen or Die” program. Everyone in the company is tasked with speaking to at least ten users every month. Those conversations get written down and sent to the customer experience team who consolidate the inputs for sharing with everyone.
We also connect with users on WhatsApp – which provides a big, open channel for feedback. We use random selection to try to avoid bias – fast growing businesses and slow growing ones, big users and lesser users. The key is sharing all these inputs across the business so everyone can benefit.
8. How has partnering with a company like Prosus helped your business to flourish?
Prosus obviously has great experience investing in amazing tech companies across all developing markets, helping them expand globally - they have supported and helped us in our launch in Indonesia for example.
In our situation though, a real selling point is that Prosus is the only tech investor in India with a strong public policy team. Policy always lags innovation – no-one creates policy for things that don’t exist. The situation is certain to change over time and there are bound to be new policies that will appear. So, it makes sense to be involved in the development of policy to ensure they are as good as possible. Prosus’ capabilities have really helped us get our points across to the relevant stakeholders in the government.
9. What other technology or societal trend will have the largest impact on our future?
The Internet mostly impacted developed markets in its first two decades. However, with high smartphone penetration and lowering data costs, developing markets will leapfrog developed ones across many sectors in the NEXT two decades.
There is a lot of old infrastructure built into more established economies we don’t have. The new technologies allow developing countries to leapfrog certain stages of development and jump to a truly modern way of doing things – using virtual infrastructure.
The key is to make data cheap and smartphones plentiful. It is hard to overestimate the impact these two things have - they aren’t just nice to have but are key to the growth of developing markets. No one has desktop computers in India – EVERYTHING is mobile first. The smartphone has become the conduit to a lot of things we never thought could happen in India.
10. What is your favorite city to visit and why?
New York. I love NY Museums and Broadway.
I love culture more than anything else, and I assess a city by the kind of museums they have. I particularly enjoy history and science – so top of my list are the Metropolitan Museum and the Natural History Museum in New York – they are so detailed and exhaustive. I also love theater, and the caliber of acting on Broadway is amazing.
What drew me to New York in the first place? Initially, it wasn’t for either museums or Broadway – I was there to watch the US Open. My biggest passion beyond work is playing and following tennis. I have played it a lot and have followed it for years. I really enjoy Federer and Djokovic, but my favorite is Nadal – hard work beats talent – you don’t have to be born with it to be able to win!
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