Towards end May, the Tatas picked up a majority stake in BigBasket, an online grocer. In June, it announced two back-to-back deals—first, in CureFit (an online fitness company) and then in 1mg, an online pharma outfit. Even as I write this, there are rumours swirling that the Tatas have shown eagerness to buy Dunzo, an online delivery company.
In another era, nearly two decades ago, another boss of the Tata group had shaken things up and set a strategic course of action through a series of high-profile buyouts. Those buyouts went by the name of Tetley, NatSteel, Corus, and Jaguar Land Rover. Their architect, the then Tata Sons chairman Ratan Tata, was much feted for these fed the big story of that era: globalisation.
The recent acquisitions, orchestrated by the current Tata Sons chairman, N. Chandrasekaran, feeds into the big story of this era: the rise of the digital economy. These companies will be the foundation on which one of Chandrasekaran’s biggest bets will be built: the Super App.
There are a handful of successful Super Apps (apps which do many things from shopping to cab hailing to ordering food to booking tickets and so on) in our neighbourhood—Alipay and WeChat in China; Grab, headquartered out of Singapore but used across Southeast Asia (Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, etc.); and Gojek which came out of Indonesia.
Investors love them. Grab is planning a merger with a special purpose acquisition company sometime later this year at a valuation of $40 billion. Tencent, the company that owns WeChat, nearly hit $1 trillion in valuation earlier in the year, and now is hovering in the range of $500 billion-$700 billion. In comparison, Tata Consultancy Services, the most valuable company in the Tata stable, has a market capitalisation of $170 billion. The next most valuable, Titan Company, is worth around $21 billion, or roughly half of what Grab is eyeing.
So you can’t fault Chandrasekaran’s motives. If he can build a Super App, he can potentially create something of tremendous value, a sort of sequel to TCS, and reap a disproportionate share of a valuable digital harvest. Even Silicon Valley, which has traditionally stayed away from Super Apps, betting on singular apps instead that do one job very well, is tempted by the idea: PayPal CEO Dan Schulman was recently quoted as saying that he was contemplating turning PayPal into a Super App!
Building a Super App isn’t easy. Think of the user journey for millions and millions of users, managing hundreds of mini apps (or mini programs as they are called) within the larger app, customer acquisition at scale, and so on.
But, in my book, Chandrasekaran’s biggest challenge will be to integrate and yet not integrate the startups he has acquired. Everything hinges on managing this paradox.
The key question: Can Chandrasekaran recreate, within the larger Tata universe, the environment in which these startups originally flourished?
Startup founders tend to be a breed of their own, with a near single minded belief in their ability to prevail. They hate being told what to do. (What complicates matters further is that the clutch of founders the Tatas are dealing with—CureFit’s Mukesh Bansal, BigBasket’s Hari Menon and 1mg’s Prashant Tandon—are stars, having built successful businesses from scratch.) The founder mindset is about being all in and being ready for binary outcomes—either they succeed or they fail. They don’t believe in half-measures.
Corporations are about accommodation, weighing the pros and cons, managing multiple opinions, and so on. Indeed, most larger companies work in ways (read bureaucracy) that mitigates risk taking.
Remember, in a startup, a risk taker is a valued employee; inside a traditional organisation, he is a threat.
Now let’s look at growth. Digital products are about continued innovation; the product is never, ever, perfect. Thus, they require continuous, significant, investment, especially in the early part of their journey. Quality product engineering is expensive, as is user acquisition, especially in a hyper-competitive market like India.
In established corporations, funding or capital allocation hinges on predictability. In turn, predictability is based on being able to project past events and outcomes into the future. Bean counters, basically the finance guys who sign-off on investments, love predictability; it de-risks their decision making.
The trouble with the digital space is that the past is no guide to the future. Who would have thought that a platform where people share short videos of random acts would become so successful (TikTok) or a site that started for college kids to connect with each other would emerge as one of the most dominant media companies in the world (Facebook). These two, plus numerous others (Uber, Netflix, Airbnb, Instagram, etc.), would have failed the predictability test. Because, had you looked into the past, you would have drawn a blank!
It’s no surprise therefore that virtually none of the dominant players of the digital economy have emerged from traditional companies. More important, they have been backed by venture capital money (including CureFit, 1mg, and BigBasket), where the risk-reward equation plays out very differently.
So, what happens, hypothetically, when any of these new businesses ask for funding to expand into an area where no Internet company has ever ventured before? Who will win, the bean counters or the founders? And how long will it take to even come to a resolution?
Even legends often don’t get it. In Merchants of Truth: Inside the News Revolution, a book on how U.S. media coped with digital disruption, Jill Abramson, the former Executive Editor of The New York Times (NYT), says how a plan for Washington Post to invest more in digital operations in 2005 was scuppered by none other than Warren Buffet. Then a board member, he believed there was no place for two global U.S. newspapers on the web, and the NYT had already pulled ahead. It would take a startup entrepreneur like Jeff Bezos to fire up the Post’s digital offering. The Post also passed up an opportunity to invest in Facebook, but that’s another story!
And even when legends do get it, they still fail, spectacularly. Back in 2005, when Buffet was being indifferent to Post’s digital push, one media personality saw the future. That year, Rupert Murdoch bought a social media platform called MySpace. It was a smart move: millions of teenagers loved hanging out on MySpace, their idols like Lily Allen or the Arctic Monkeys released songs there, and most importantly, Facebook was yet to become a powerhouse. A prescient Murdoch paid $580 million back then for a digital asset that could fundamentally alter his media empire.
In 2011 he sold it for $35 million. In a later tweet, Murdoch said “We screwed up in every way possible, learned lots of valuable, expensive lessons”.
An article in the Financial Times written in 2009 while NewsCorp still owned MySpace alluded to, among other things, the conflict between the product team which wanted to simplify the user journey and NewsCorp’s pushback that such an implementation would reduce short-term revenue. As someone who has built digital businesses, I can tell you that such conflicts between what’s good for the user (value accretive on the long term) versus what is good for revenue today are very common—and unless handled appropriately, they become huge fiascos.
While many such things went wrong at MySpace, the one that keeps coming back is NewsCorp’s bear-hug, which killed the freewheeling, entrepreneurial ways at MySpace, which at the time of acquisition was adding 70,000 new users per day and was valued at $12 billion at its peak in 2007.
All it needed perhaps was a lighter touch. And the NewsCorp empire might have looked very different today. The Tatas may want to keep that in mind.
Views are personal. The author is Chief Executive, Digital Business at the RP-Sanjiv Goenka Group, publishers of Fortune India. He was earlier President, ABP, Digital.
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