A Billionaire and his Battle for Food: The Zomato Story

Entrepreneur peels the layers to understand the persona beyond Zomato. Here are some Deep thoughts on the Secret Sauce of the decade and how Deepinder Goyal built the giant with 5000 Zomans

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From being a startup that just focused on scanning menus to becoming the go-to online guide for food and nightlife to mastering the art of delivery and going full throttle over food, Zomato has truly come of age in the last decade. In the rollercoaster journey, the foodtech giant has seen it all: the devaluation of the startup, the exit of the co-founder, or the bleeding wars in the overall sector. Standing in the middle of the battleground is the braveheart founder Deepinder Goyal. As his area of expertise kept expanding, Deepinder's stand is very much clear even now. He wants to do anything and everything under the sun related to food but will not touch anything outside. The focus on the core product and not spreading itself too thin is nothing to scoff at. Says Deepinder Goyal, "We didn't start out to build what we're building right now. And we are excited to be playing a huge role in transforming food as a whole."

The Zomato founder has not just presented a tech platform to the now burgeoning Indian food industry but also given it a celebrated unicorn. The company is a willing partner in India's growth story for the last 10 years. As we enter the company's new Gurgaon office on the closing day of the financial year, we are greeted with an alumni wall pasted with pictures, including Pankaj Chaddah, the ex co-founder of Zomato. The best thing about meeting Deepinder on a Saturday is he is not being reminded of any other urgent tasks at hand. We meet a super fit and relaxed Deepinder sporting a new bald look in his den. Close to 50 odd people are working in the new office as the culture here is not to spill off work to the next week. There are no deadlines at Zomato, everyone is assessed based on the impact they are able to make at work, says Deepinder. His management mantra: "When people are aiming towards outcomes, they feel ownership towards driving those outcomes, you can just leave it to them instead of trying to micromanage anything."

Deepinder Goyal has never shied away from speaking his heart out. He has been famous in the startup community for saying what he believes in. When asked about the current HSBC valuation, which has earlier valued the company negatively and now puts it at a whopping $3.7 billion, he says, "For me, valuation is a short-term and frivolous measure of success. Valuations didn't matter much earlier. But now it doesn't matter at all." When asked about the recent exits in the Indian startup ecosystem, with Flipkart being the biggest last year, he says, "Going public is also taking an exit. That's something we aim to do in a couple of years. But we're not building to sell."

What are your hacks to sort out a problem at hand?

I Deep Sleep through it. I mean all the troubles are very in the moment kind of thing. So the next morning they are not that significant anymore. 90 percent of the time, our mind makes up these issues; it starts to think that these issues are bigger than they are. And nine out of 10 times you can sleep through stuff. So only one out of 10 things that trouble you are actually worth going through the trouble. I have come to realize this to be a good process recently. But earlier, I used to do this out of not having a choice.

What part of the business do you enjoy the most?

In the first few years, I used to do only tech and product. And last two-three years, there was so much going on that I wasn't able to do. But the last couple of months are back to them. I think, my interest area, what makes me happy is working on the tech and product side of things. I think that's the biggest leverage point for us as a company. You being able to find the intersection of what you love doing and what you're good at. Over the last couple of years, we've been able to build a solid team, which can handle everything else outside of tech and product so that I can really do tech and product and lead the company from that point, rather than from the operational point of view.

What have been your learnings from ex-Partner Pankaj?

His attention to detail and the ability to go deep into the problem was very, very good.

What's unique about Zomato's culture?

We must be one of the few organizations of our size, which have a large percentage of people who do not know who they report to. That results in an insane amount of ownership. So, we typically look for people who are entrepreneurial in nature. And people who have a spine to say what is wrong. The setup here is not built for comfort; it's big for pushing you out of the comfort zone.

So how do you handle topics like employee conflict?

I tell people this simple rule that if you have a different point of view, or you get into a healthy conflict, you should stop looking at each other. So the simplest hack we have found is that people go discuss that point when you look at the whiteboard, many are going to look at each other. Because as soon as you look at each other, it really becomes personal. If you look at the whiteboard while doing it, 90 percent chances are that the discussion will be what the topic at hand is and not about me versus you.

How do you train your people?

We give product training to everyone. This is not what most companies do. All business analysts, engineers, we do deep product training for everyone. Three days, it's a crash course kind of a thing. An intense exercise with lots to read. People have to do like three, four weeks of prep and reading before they enter that boot camp.

What's your way of solving a problem?

I go deep into a problem. Thinking backwards from the goal helps.

What has been the hardest time of your startup journey?

One of the hardest moments that I faced during the last 10 years was when we laid off people at the end of 2015. When you do that, the next day, you don't want to come to office because the office is going to feel like a graveyard. But at that moment, there are people who need to see you more than you wanting to avoid going to the office. Be there, be the first one to go to the office and be the last one to leave.

What was the reason behind selling off the UAE business?

The rationale was a long term partnership with Delivery Hero in multiple countries. And food delivery was pretty much the only business space where we overlapped and competed with each other. So to get to the framework of a larger partnership across the world where we collaborate in multiple markets, you have to get this out of the way. And it has created value for us, this created value for them. So it was a no brainer kind of a deal.

What are your comments on competition?

Our ambitions are large, and we'll be happy if we get there. So we don't care about someone else. We're very focused on food, nothing else in the delivery space. Learning a new sector is a pain. We know food inside out. And there's a huge opportunity here.

Companies go offline to online and you are trying to fix the food supply chain after building an online business for 10 years, what led to this move?

HyperPure has been on our mind for maybe the last three, four years, we've been wanting to do it. And it's the right time and having found the right team to be able to do it. It's not a capital intensive business, which makes it a profitable business for the most part.

After doing the pilot run in Bangalore, we launched HyperPure in Delhi now. We've worked with farmers, we find ethical farmers, who don't want to use pesticides and who want to grow food the healthy way. And we sell this produce to restaurants. All this is fresh and clean food, so every morning, like at about 4, our warehouses would be almost empty, and we don't have any fresh storage in the warehouse. There are back orders being placed to farmers on the basis of the demand prediction that we have on our side. It's a deeper integration to the farming supply chain, and better quality checks.

(This article was first published in the May issue of Entrepreneur Magazine. To subscribe, click here)