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'If they have OATS for breakfast, I put ICE cubes in my drink': Ola's Bhavish Aggarwal

The founder of Ola Electric talks about why Indian funders and founders need to raise their game, and why incumbent companies need to invest in future technologies

Rajiv Singh
Published: Sep 13, 2023 02:47:32 PM IST
Updated: Sep 25, 2023 12:42:25 PM IST

'If they have OATS for breakfast, I put ICE cubes in my drink': Ola's Bhavish AggarwalBhavish Aggarwal, Founder and CEO, Ola Image: Selvaprakash Lakshmanan for Forbes India

“People find it hard to fit me into a box,” confesses Bhavish Aggarwal. The IITian might be right. Over the last decade, the outside world—analysts, critics, cynics, sceptics, media, former employees—has used multiple tags and adjectives to describe the founder who started his entrepreneurial journey with Ola in 2010. From being labelled “arrogant” to being billed as “aggressive”, from being described as “workaholic” and “maverick” to being dubbed as “relentless”, the first-generation entrepreneur from Ludhiana, Punjab, has had to live with loads of personality stickers that have come handy to build a nebulous sketch of the founder. “That’s the price you pay for dreaming big,” smiles Aggarwal, alluding to perceptions and misperceptions about him. “I don’t believe in sweet talk,” the 38-year-old founder and chief executive officer of Ola paints his personality. “Hum dil se bolte hain [I speak from the heart].”

A one-and-a-half hour meeting with Aggarwal indeed turned out to be a heart-to-heart talk. The founder was 45 minutes late for the interview, which was slated to start at 5.30 in the evening. The usual suspect behind the delay, though, was not the notorious Bengaluru traffic. The chopper ferrying Aggarwal from Ola Electric’s Futurefactory in Tamil Nadu to his corporate headquarters in Bengaluru didn’t land on time. It’s a breezy September evening in Bengaluru, there has been an unexpected fleeting drizzle at Koramangala, but it has not dampened the intensity that one gets to feel inside the sprawling campus, which is spread over half a million square feet and comprises an eight-storey building.

As one clears the security check, a huge LED screen greets you with peppy videos of Futurefactory. On the right, one can spot a bunch of colourful EV two-wheelers—a yellow and green one parked on a podium, a guitar hemmed in between the scooters and standing erect against a pillar, and a red and another light green EV stationed a few metres away from each other—and a Chaayos counter selling tea in the city of coffee lovers. There is something more that you don’t expect. Husky, Happy and Fatty—three stray dogs among the 19 adopted at the campus and the Futurefactory—are in a playful mood and sprint freely across the ground floor. After a few minutes, Fatty jumps on a couch, and parks herself.  

Meanwhile, on the eighth floor of the building, which houses the office of Aggarwal, one gets to meet one of the latest employees of Ola Electric. Bijlee, one of the 19 canines, has an ID card and an employee code: 440V! “Let her come in if she wants,” Aggarwal instructs the staff manning the meeting room. “She is free to roam wherever she wants,” says the founder who starts the meeting by apologising. “I am extremely sorry for the delay,” he says. “Would you like to have tea or coffee,” he asks. Since I already had a few cups of masala tea at Chaayos, I opted to start the conversation with something to munch. “Champions eat OATS,” I asked Aggarwal, alluding to the dig Rajiv Bajaj took at a bunch of EV newbies—Ola, Ather, Torq and SmartE (OATS).

It was October 2021, and the managing director of Bajaj Auto was in the midst of rolling out the Pulsar 250. “We are champions… Champions eat oats,” Bajaj reportedly remarked. “What do you have for breakfast,” I asked Aggarwal. He glances at his smartwatch. It’s evening, and the founder dishes out a fitting reply. “I put ICE cubes in my drink, and enjoy sipping it,” he bursts into a hearty laugh, alluding to his ICE (internal combustion engines) rivals who have been selling petrol two-wheelers. Over the last two years, Aggarwal has been aggressively talking about how EVs will usher in the ‘end of the ICE age’. There is more expected in his high-voltage fight against the established players. “ICE cubes will melt when we roll out EV cars,” he laughs boisterously.
Over 30 minutes into an exclusive meeting with Forbes India, Aggarwal is at his candid best and exhibits zero filters. He is charged, exciting, stirring, dynamic, rousing, electrifying…verbs are best suited to capture his emotions rather than adjectives. “I’m what you see is what you get,” he says, alluding to a wide range of perceptions about him. Ask him about the allegations of being hyper-aggressive and all the talk about the so-called ‘toxic’ work culture at Ola, and he has an answer. “Ola is not a place for every person,” he says. “It is the best place for those having josh, jazba and junoon,” he says, confessing that there are tough meetings at Ola. In fact, there are meetings even at 3 am, which is three hours after midnight. “Does the Indian cricket team not hold meetings at 3,” he asks and laughs. Virat Kohli, he lets on, is expected to bring intensity and aggression into his play. “He doesn't touch everyone’s feet when he is on the pitch,” says Aggarwal. “I am straight forward. I don’t have any hidden motives,” he says in a free-wheeling interview, which is generously and repetitively peppered with words such as tapasya, passion, India, Bharat, and future. Edited excerpts: 

Also listen:  Can Ola Electric launch the 'world's most successful e-motorbike' yet?

On Work-Life Balance

I don’t think we need work-life balance.
Every generation has its destiny, and the destiny is written for every generation as a cohort. While two generations ago, people fought for India’s independence, our parents' generation spent their lives to get the basic securities of life. So our generation has got a good platform. We don't have to worry about the basics and roti, kapda and makaan. But we are not where the world is. And it will take an entire generation to build India into the world's leading nation, economy and technology-driven country. That is our destiny.

We are not the generation which can afford to talk about work-life balance. We are the generation which needs to do tapasya. We have to struggle and work hard in life.

On Why Ola Is A Place For The Daring & Ambitious

Ola is not a place for every person. Ola is a place for the ambitious. Ola is the best place for those having josh, jazba and junoon. At Ola, they feel like a fish in water because we have so much entrepreneurial energy in this company. We don’t over-manage our people. We tell them ‘boss, you have to do this work, please do it’. And once they finish, they themselves go notches above what is expected. Ola is that kind of a place and those kinds of people are the ones who really shine at Ola. But in that journey, there have been some people who have not found this the most relevant place for them. That's okay. Not every place has a fitment with every person, and our culture is one of impact and purpose-driven, business building.

I have seen people talking and writing about our tough culture. Our culture is like that. We are honest to our purpose, we don’t hide that from anybody. We don't tell people, ‘you will get a 9-5 work life’. No, you will not get that. I will say that openly. If you want that, don’t come to me. If you want to make stories for life and tell your grandchildren that you were part of India’s electrification and energy-independence journey, then Ola is the place for you. We are honest people and have an honest purpose.

On Always Being Under Scrutiny

It’s okay. If you are trying to change the status quo and if you are crafting a path of your own at a scale, people will question you. And you have to be okay with it. It's a big boy’s world. It's a big boys’ game. If you're playing with the big boys, you have to be like a big boy. So, I feel when we think of India's future, and when we think of our contribution, Ola’s mission and purpose is to build technologies of the future in India.

On Making India A Global Ev Hub

We want to make India the global EV hub, and it can become so by solving for itself. So we started with building the right products for India. We made two-wheelers. On August 15, we announced that bikes will be launched next year. We are working on electric three-wheelers and cars, the kind of products that will be required for India. Not just the products, we are also building the technologies for India, which is the lithium cell technology, the autonomous technology, the motor and electronics are all being produced in-house.

When we started two years ago in August 2021, and announced our first product, India's EV penetration in two-wheelers was less than 1 percent. Now, it is almost 7-8 percent. In electric scooters, it is almost 20 percent. So that’s how quickly we have progressed in just one-and-a-half years.

India is at the heart of sustainability solutions globally. India will solve it for itself and then the same solution can be applied to Southeast Asia, Africa and Latin America. India is a great microcosm for the rest of the world. There’s the West, there’s the ‘rest’, and India is the best microcosm for the rest of the world.

Also read: Ola Electric Wants To Disrupt India's Car Industry. Does It Have What It Takes?

ON Indian VCs Raising Their Game

The whole VC model was built to invest in the future, not to invest in whatever seems like a nice ‘India X’ for a ‘Y US company’. A bunch of VCs in India need to raise the game as a community. They don't understand technology. This is not how global VCs are. Global VCs understand technology. Some of the Indian VCs do a little bit of me-too mentality investing. They need to up their game. They need to have a deeper understanding of technology, and invest in future technologies at scale.

On Founder-Funder Relations

I don’t think my journey has been dotted with confrontations with investors. When you are building a large business, there will be some investors who might not agree with the direction. And that’s okay. In the end, it is a game of numbers. It is a game of an entrepreneur’s vision and investors backing the entrepreneur's vision. We have had so many investors who have supported us across multiple companies of ours.

At times, when entrepreneurs are young, they get blown away by the glamour of the world of investors. And if you have started for reasons other than true impact, you might give preference to investors. If so, they will take advantage of it. They have to do business. But the right relationship is where the entrepreneur has a vision and the investor backs it. The investor has to make a return on his money, and rightly so. And the entrepreneur has to continue to inspire investors with his vision. It is a symbiotic relationship.

On Building For The Future

In our country, entrepreneurs need to dream more about the future. Instead of building one more edtech app, one more food brand, one more social networking app or one more Twitter clone, we need to build future technologies at scale. But this shouldn’t happen as a cottage industry. Technologies of the future are beyond digital such as energy technologies, space technologies, biotechnologies, AI technologies, material sciences and many more. These will create future wealth and enhancement of human life and human productivity. This is where I feel the ecosystem needs to grow much stronger.

On Why Startups Must Scale

Starting up should not become a lifestyle business. People say they have started a business of their own. Starting is good, but scale is the name of the game. Scale has to start with the entrepreneur who has to dream bigger. There is no better place than India when it comes to scale. It is one of the largest countries in the world, has the fastest-growing economy, and has access to capital and talent.

On Types Of Disruptors

There are two types of disruptors. First are the cute ones who don’t threaten anybody and nobody is scared of them. Then there are others who genuinely disrupt, and the entire incumbent army stands against them. We belong to the second tribe. To begin with, the ICE rivals [legacy petrol two-wheeler players] were in denial about us, and then they turned dismissive. Whether or not we have got acceptance among them is immaterial. What we have definitely got is recognition for the fact that we deliver what we say and promise. They are now realising it.

Also read: From Commercial To Consumer EVs: The Upheaval Afoot In India's EV Market

On Incentives For Global Companies

I really believe India has to attract the best companies from the world to manufacture in India, and make in India. Apple should come to India, Elon Musk should come to India, and whoever else is the best in the world should come to India. It is the right thing for the country. But they should come to India for India, they should not come to India as a market only. The companies which should come to India need to come with a long-term vision for India and invest in India's ecosystem, technology, and market. That's how I think the government is engaging with some of these global companies, and I truly totally support that. I don't think anybody is getting any special treatment. But incentives should be there, and they are already there for everybody and for us too and for them too. Companies that come in should focus on India as a holistic opportunity versus just as a narrow-minded market to profit here.

On Unicorns

Unicorn is not a bad thing. It shows our ecosystem is growing. But it is not an end in itself. It is a milestone. If the entrepreneur takes it as a milestone, then it is good. But if a founder takes it as an end, it will be an endgame. Many entrepreneurs have lost focus once they become a unicorn, but many have retained focus. We have so many entrepreneurs who are continuing to build and continuing to commit their lives to building whatever industry they are in.

On Smartness Of Consumers & Public Investors

In India, at times the incumbents underestimate the customers. In a similar way, we underestimate an average retail investor. I think the Indian consumer is the smartest in the world. When we started Ola Electric, people used to say, is the Indian consumer ready? The right question is: Is the Indian producer ready? The Indian consumer is always ready. Is the Indian enterprise ready to serve the Indian consumer with best quality products at affordable prices? That is the question. Is the Indian investor ready? The Indian investor is the smartest of the lot. The value of money is in our DNA. Indian investors will understand value, which is different from valuation and short-term profitability. You have seen it in the digital stocks also. As they evolved in the business models, the market rewarded them.

On Why He Is Not A Prolific Angel

I don’t do much of that [angel investing]. You may not have seen my name. I do contribute to some other things that I believe in. Even with angel, I might have done only one or two. When friends are doing something, it's difficult to say no [laughs]. There are already so many angel investors. I don’t see what difference I will bring. How is my money better than any other angel investor’s? Do I have a differentiated angel investing proposition? No. I won’t be able to give my time, I will only give my money.

On His Advice To ‘Ice’ Rivals

If you only live off your generational entitlement and don't invest in the future, you will become a relic of the past. Not all incumbents are like this. There are some who are smarter, who have invested in technology, and I appreciate their efforts. But there are some who talk big but do less. My advice to them would be to focus on your technology and your product and don't become a relic of the past. Otherwise, as mammoths went extinct along with the end of ICE age, they would also become extinct. When EVs will end the ICE age, old mammoths will also become extinct.

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