Why it's all cool for the Zomato chief

Deepinder Goyal's consumer internet startup is making waves globally but the 32-year-old founder manages to stay unruffled despite competitive pressures. And he tells us how

Published: Apr 21, 2015
Why it's all cool for the Zomato chief
Image: Amit verma

As a child, Deepinder Goyal was unremarkable: He had no perceptible talent, both in and out of the classroom; he made few demands of people around him and was rarely up to any mischief. Also, he had an older brother who would regularly outshine him academically. So, of course, he was invisible.

But that was then.
 
Today, it is impossible to overlook Goyal. The 32-year-old founder of Zomato, a global player in the online restaurant search business, is among the most visible faces of the consumer internet space in India. His startup is on an expansion trajectory that is setting the standard in the industry. Consider that Zomato now has a presence in 22 countries, a rare achievement for an Indian startup—most of them struggle for validation from customers even within the country.

Started by Goyal with his friend and colleague from consulting firm Bain & Co, Pankaj Chaddah, in 2008, Zomato was based on the simple idea of providing scanned menus to customers, along with contact numbers of restaurants, to enable them to order food over the phone. In a span of seven years, it has emerged as the country’s largest online and mobile restaurant discovery service, with over one million restaurant listings across 500 cities in 22 nations, clocking more than 80 million monthly visits on an average.

Over the last year, the startup has been working aggressively on its international ambitions and has acquired seven firms so far, including Urbanspoon for $52 million, one of the largest purchases of a US-based consumer internet company by an Indian startup. Zomato was the country’s third-fastest growing technology company, according to Deloitte Technology Fast 50 India 2014 winners’s ranking, and registered a combined three-year (2012-14) revenue growth of 1,399 percent. To date, Zomato has raised over $113 million with a valuation of more than $660 million, over multiple rounds of funding from Info Edge, Vy Capital and Sequoia Capital. It is currently in talks to raise $100 million (Rs 625 crore) in fresh funding.

Let’s press pause on the Zomato juggernaut story here.

And try and connect the uncertain Goyal of his childhood with the ambitious and successful internet entrepreneur that he is today. It’s tough, even for him. “I had no perspective on the future,” he tells ForbesLife India.

Born in a family of academicians—a Botany teacher father and English educator mother—he grew up in small-town India, in Muktsar near Bathinda in Punjab. However, Goyal struggled in school till class VIII, even failing class VI. “In the last exam of class VIII, a teacher gave me all the answers. And I topped. It gave me false confidence. Once you are on top, you don’t want to go back to the 25th spot. I started taking myself very seriously,” recalls Goyal, sitting in his Gurgaon office, the image of a new-age entrepreneur in a blue jacket, a black Lacoste sweater, blue T-shirt, jeans and black leather shoes.(Note: The sharp-eyed Goyal managed to quickly sift through our list of indicative questions even when the sheet was nearly two feet away from him and we had no plans of giving away the questions beforehand!)

The improved academic spell continued for two years, he says. Then, for classes XI and XII, Goyal was sent to Chandigarh where he was a science student at DAV College. And there, he failed again in class XI. “In Muktsar, I was topping among 25 students. In Chandigarh, I had 500 other kids as good as me. I got disillusioned,” he says. But here’s the happy irony: Despite his travails at school, he was able to crack the tough Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) Joint Entrance Examination in his first attempt. “When I wrote the exam, I had nothing to lose. These exams are about the mindset of a person, not what they know or don’t know,” he says. And this attitude continues to be his strength. The CEO of Zomato does not get perturbed easily and, in the chaos that suffuses the startup world, his composure has proved handy.
 
His calm is particularly tested when rivals try to poach his colleagues. Goyal, it transpires, is fiercely protective about his team—and, at the same time, confident about retaining them. He even challenges other companies by ‘inviting’ them to organise career fairs in the Zomato office. “For me, it’s the people I care for… I can’t let them go from Zomato,” he says, adding that it’s not about salaries at all; it’s a shared vision for the company which will keep the team together.

And it doesn’t seem to be just empty talk.

Why it's all cool for the Zomato chief
Image: Amit Verma
Despite struggling at school, Deepinder Goyal cracked the IIT-JEE in his first attempt

It’s about people
While at IIT-Delhi, Goyal forged relationships that continue to be a significant part of his life. He met his wife there and others who are now working with him. Fun fact: Seventy percent of his over-1,500 Facebook friends are from Zomato and IIT-Delhi.

More seriously, however, for a budding entrepreneur, the biggest challenge after deciding on a business idea is to identify the partner. Goyal found his in Chaddah, now 29, while at Bain & Co. They were not the best of friends at the time. “It was a business plan… he has great convincing powers,” chuckles Chaddah, co-founder and chief operating officer of Zomato, adding that it took a few discussions for them to forge a working partnership. Over time, the two have become closer and can sometimes be seen playing the ‘good cop-bad cop’ gig in various situations at work. They have identified—and play to—their strengths: Goyal is the guy with the vision, Chaddah is the cautious one who often brings in the reality check.

Compatibility is a running theme in Goyal’s hiring policy: Take Gunjan Patidar, 28, for example. An IIT Delhi alumnus, Patidar was in college when he started helping Goyal with technical issues at Zomato. Goyal would pick Patidar up from college and they would spend the weekend at Goyal’s home, working out the glitches over bowls of steaming Maggi prepared by the Zomato chief. “I had no idea about the internet business. We faced problems, and we would solve them,” Patidar says. A few months later, Goyal asked Patidar if he would like to work with him. “He is very straight, to the point. He doesn’t care if it sounds negative or positive,” says Patidar, who is now the chief technology officer at Zomato, and has been working with the company since 2009.

Maintaining relationships comes naturally to Goyal, and this is not restricted to work alone. For instance, he still visits the women who ran the paying guest (PG) accommodation where Goyal stayed while in Chandigarh for his senior secondary schooling. Abhimanyu Sood, who was Goyal’s room-mate at his PG digs, says he is genuinely concerned about people and likes to stay in touch. “I would call him Deepi bhaiyya. He was good at playing cricket and would sometimes make food for us,” says Sood, who was a year junior to Goyal at school. Despite the academic rollercoaster ride, students and teachers at DAV College were not shocked when Goyal cracked the IIT-JEE in one go—instead, they were pleasantly surprised. “He was very intelligent but would never take studies seriously… ho jaayega, kar lenge (it will be done, will do it) would be his answer to suggestions that he study,” Sood remembers.

As someone who connects almost instinctively with others, it is no surprise that he has found validation from his investors as well. “I like his audacity, he is a risk-taker… he is confident of achieving his goals and he sets out on that path right away,” says Sanjeev Bikhchandani, founder and executive vice chairman, Info Edge (India), which runs portals like Naukri.com and 99acres.com. Info Edge is also the biggest investor in Zomato till date, having put in $60 million into the company.

Bikhchandani says Goyal has delivered on every commitment made to his investors. “Most people deliver just about half of what they commit,” he says.

Investors are equally impressed with Goyal’s clarity on where he wants Zomato to be in the next five years: It, quite simply, has to dominate the world. “One should use it [Zomato] three times a day,” Goyal says. “The kick in our lives comes from Zomato. We have to go to places where Indian startups don’t typically go.” To that end, Zomato has identified acquisitions as means to get a foothold in new geographies and has been on a buyout spree over the last eight to ten months. “These acquisitions were not planned… things just happen. It takes me 30 seconds to decide whether to acquire a company or not,” says Goyal.

Why it's all cool for the Zomato chief
Image: Amit Verma
Zomato boasts over one million restaurant listings across 500 cities in 22 countries, clocking more than 80 million monthly visits on an average

Not everyone was as convinced about the Urbanspoon acquisition. These money-guzzling deals can go horribly wrong, they feared, and Urbanspoon could prove to be the bite he choked on: After all, it was bigger than Zomato and putting in $52 million seemed like a huge risk to many people, including Chaddah. “What if it failed?” Chaddah remembers asking. Goyal had his answers ready: He said that since Zomato had been planning an entry into the North American market for some time, Urbanspoon would give it a presence there as well as in Australia and the UK. Also, it would triple Zomato’s size overnight. “I listen to people and there is always a chance that I may change my mind based on their input. At the end of the day, I do what I feel is right. Opinion is awesome and I appreciate it. But the decision is always mine.

I don’t blame others for it,” he says.

Now the Urbanspoon acquisition may have worked for Zomato. That, however, does not rule out the looming threat of competition. “But competition for us is in our own mind,” says Goyal. Reason: Zomato already has a 90 percent market share in the restaurant search space. “We have to disrupt ourselves all the time. How do we do that?” asks Goyal. At the same time, for a company like Zomato which is growing at 300 percent year-on-year, trouble can creep in from anywhere—wrong business decisions, team issues or even the timing of certain initiatives. “There are times when s*** hits the fans. But I sleep through these phases. The next day is a new day,” says Goyal, adding that he can sleep for 20 hours straight. “Stress doesn’t solve anything. It will only aggravate it.”

Growing up on the job
Goyal, as is evident, has a distinctly independent approach to work, and his leadership style is an offshoot of that. He doesn’t refer to management books nor does he have any role models. Instead, Goyal is learning to lead on the job. “He earlier used to execute what he liked. Now he executes what needs to be executed,” says Jayant Chauhan, vice president-content, Zomato. He has created a circle of trusted allies whom he relies on as a bouncing board for ideas and decisions; he has also empowered them to lead at various levels. Huddles during a crisis are not unusual.

His evolution as a leader is visible, say colleagues. Earlier, Goyal was prone to over-reaction but he has learnt control. He is authoritative without raising his voice. He has built a culture of patience towards slow-learners—the company believes the mistake was made at the hiring level—but there is no tolerance for lies and unethical behaviour. “Deepi gives a lot of importance to ethics. Lies and unethical ways make him very angry,” says Patidar.

Discipline is non-negotiable as well. Work starts at 8.30 am for a few teams and (you may not want your boss to read this) there is a penalty of Rs 100 for late-comers. To rub salt on a few wounds, the team later parties on the collected money—and this is in line with the youthful tone of the Zomato way. The average age of the team is between 24 and 26, and there is no dress code. Even the office space is a reflection of its non-hierarchical set-up. There are no cabins apart from small meeting rooms and everyone, irrespective of their designation, sits somewhere with the team. There is a big gong which is sounded off every time the sales team meets a target. More importantly, there is a large punching bag for those who need to vent their anger. An in-house gym, on-the-house food and a non-stop supply of tea/coffee and snacks on each of Zomato’s five floors are now expected comforts.

Goyal spends some of his downtime with his team, often even three times a week; it could be at his or Chaddah’s place or at a pub. For him, a celebration is about being with his “own people”—colleagues, family and friends —drinking, eating and letting his hair down. “I don’t sing or dance. I do the DJing… but they don’t like it,” says Goyal.

Camaraderie does not mean laxity, and Goyal does not mince words when it comes to feedback. This can, at times, ruffle feathers. However, he ensures his team doesn’t get bogged down by competition or by what others say about Zomato. “He is very sane about competition, he never sniggers at them. He repeats Zomato’s goals over and over again. People don’t get bothered —he is the kind of leader who makes you feel safe. At the same time, he can be pushy,” says Upasana Nath, chief recruitment officer, Zomato.

Why it's all cool for the Zomato chief
Image: Amit Verma
Movies, he says, help him switch off. “If it lets you think, it’s not worth it.”

The family, his anchor
We find that Goyal has all the answers ready when it comes to his business. But prod him about his family and personal life and he suddenly becomes reticent. He wants to keep his family away from the media glare, he says, particularly his one-and-a-half- year-old daughter.

People close to him say that his wife, Kanchan Joshi, assistant professor at Delhi University, is his anchor. He met Kanchan at IIT-Delhi—they were both in the same department (mathematics and computing). She was doing her MSc in Maths and Goyal would see her in the labs. Then 18, Goyal fell irrevocably in love with her. “I chased her for six months,” says Goyal. How, we ask, and Goyal sheepishly says, “by hanging out with her”, hoping he would grow on her.

And he did. They got married in 2007. “We understand each other very well. We haven’t fought in years,” he says. On October 29, 2013, their daughter Siara was born. On the same day, Goyal signed a deal that took the company’s value to above Rs 1,000 crore.

Little Siara has changed her daddy’s life in more ways than one. “I am more responsible for things in life now. I don’t drive very fast anymore,” he smiles. And that, to be fair to him, is a big sacrifice since Goyal loves fast drives and can go up to 190 km/per hour. He says he is taking better care of his health and gets up at 7.30 am to hit the gym at least three to four times a week. He also takes care of what he eats. “I have had no food poisoning for the last couple of years,” he jokes. “I am healthier at 32 than I was at 25.”

Sundays are exclusively for his family. The day can typically include going for a brunch at a place pre-selected by Kanchan.

Goyal doesn’t smoke and his drinks change every three months. Right now, he likes gin and tonic. He loves food and can turn around a quick meal for himself in the kitchen.

At IIT-Delhi, Goyal was famous for playing ‘Age of Empires’, a series of history-based real-time strategy games, on his personal computer. He has little time for any games now. When he does get some room to breathe, he likes to blog, surf the internet and read anything that piques his interest. After watching the movie Interstellar, for instance, he found himself engrossed in reading about time travel. His favourite film is Batman; he particularly likes the first one. He has also seen The Lord of the Rings “over a hundred times”. Movies, he says, help him switch off. “If it lets you think, it’s not worth it.”

His universe—both at work and at home—has given him a sense of security. And Zomato has provided him with the belief that he can “do something”. “If it wasn’t for Zomato, I would still be at Bain. I had a great time there. Bain and Zomato… these were the two good choices for me,” he says.

When he left Bain, it was to follow his heart. He always wanted to do something of his own. And his family didn’t try to dissuade him either. They believed in him. And he proved them right. The last seven years have catapulted Goyal to rockstar status in the Indian consumer internet space. Fears that it can all go away would be legitimate but Goyal isn’t losing any sleep over it. “You need Rs 20,000 a month to survive,” he points out. “I can make that money anytime.”

Meanwhile, Goyal’s parents, who now live with him, still don’t understand the internet—or the concept of eating out. “Muktsar has no restaurants. They feel we are dealing with odd people,” he laughs, as yet another hungry Indian searches Zomato for the closest Chinese food delivery restaurant in the vicinity. Yes, Goyal can afford to laugh.

(This story appears in the Mar-Apr 2015 issue of ForbesLife India. You can buy our tablet version from Magzter.com. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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  • Achintya

    Deepinder is truly an icon for those who have failed academically

    on May 28, 2015
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