For once, it’s not the office itself but an item of clothing that catches my attention. I am in an open-plan office space in Gurugram which Upasana Taku, its inhabitant, describes as “simple and cheerful”. With functional rows of desks and obligatory splashes of colour, there’s really nothing to distinguish it from so many startups offices across the country.
Taku, 42, is the co-founder of MobiKwik, one of India’s earliest fintech companies, with revenue of ₹540 crore in financial year ending March 2022. The company offers a mobile phone-based payment system and digital wallet as well as small loans to consumers. She started the company in 2009, with her husband, Bipin Preet Singh, the company’s chief executive officer. Today, she looks after investor relations, finance and corporate communications. Her preferred workstyle is to alternate between working from an open-plan desk, a private cabin shared with her co-founders, and other meeting rooms in the office. The desk “allows her to be more clued into her own ecosystem”, the private cabin is good for more “intimate meetings”, and the larger meeting rooms are good for discussions with groups and with presentations, she says. Rotating between open and closed spaces is a practice followed by many in the tech industry.
The space is so undifferentiated that I’m beginning to wonder if there’s anything worth writing about when I spot Taku’s black leather biker’s jacket. An unusual item of clothing in a business setting, and one that she pairs well with a formal dress. Forgive me for describing an entrepreneur by her dress code, but the jacket is a compelling metaphor for Taku’s workstyles, sparking a layered conversation on business leadership.
Taku says she learnt how to ride a motorbike in 2006, while working in the US, and commuted to work on a Kawasaki Ninja. She and her husband did road trips regularly before their son was born, and hope to restart soon.
Biking seems to be an interesting aspect of her identity, and one where she finds several parallels with business.
The business strategy
The most obvious parallel between biking and business has to do with speed. “One has to know when to go top speed and when to go steady. In business too, you have to know when to push the pedal. We are at that stage now, all my business models are established. I now have to get the capital so we can speed through. There were times when the business model was not clear, we weren’t sure if we had a profitable strategy, and we didn’t want to keep burning money unnecessarily. People were burning money as if all the users in India were going to adopt payments in one day; it wasn’t going to happen,” Taku says. “You have to know when to drive at a stable speed and also take bends and turns so that you are able to maintain balance and identify which direction to pick.”
She is today confident of the business model, which consists of digital payments and credit, in the form of a Buy Now Pay Later (BNPL) offering aimed at consumers looking for relatively small amounts of credit to be paid back in a short time span. “Today MobiKwik has the largest number of pre-approved BNPL users at 25 million,” she claims. “No other Indian company has 20 million or more BNPL users. There isn’t a single Internet or fintech company in India that has 124 million users without having pumped in billions of dollars. We have done it with approximately $1 per user, so $124 million. It’s a very little amount of money to reach the scale,” she says.
Any journey, whether building a business or a long-distance bike ride, requires resilience—another parallel between biking and business.
Taku recalls an incident when she and her husband were biking in Ladakh. They were hoping to cross the Chang La Pass, a high mountain pass, to reach Pangong Lake, but a group of bikers tried to dissuade them from doing so, saying a downpour of water had blocked the road.
Taku was clear. “Let’s go slowly and if the deluge is too much, we’ll turn back. But the decision to turn back has to be our own. It can’t be dependent on what others are saying,” she recalls, telling her husband. “So we went slowly and we kept going, and within an hour we were having Maggi on the bank of the lake. You will always have naysayers telling you to turn back, but turn back only if your logical brain tells you to turn back. We have lived through intense competition at different stages of the company’s growth, and several times people have written us off.”
Success is about overcoming “setbacks that nobody noticed, and about continuing to go forward”, rather than winning accolades, she says. Resilience is a trait that she will need to count on in an industry that is fast-evolving, highly competitive and open to more regulatory scrutiny.
The right attitude
Finally, while it’s a cliché, biking is about an attitude, and the leather jacket is emblematic of a spirit of independence. Taku is forthright in speaking her mind. For example, on workforce diversity: “Men-driven startups in India need to have more inclusive policies from Day one.” Or on valuation. “You can’t have a vanity number. You can’t have, what I call, a frothy valuation in a private market, which nobody is willing to pay for in the public markets.” The company’s planned IPO is currently on hold until market sentiment improves.
It’s going to take a lot more than a leather biker jacket for Taku to navigate the fintech industry, but as a corporate workplace talisman for business success, it’s certainly a compelling choice.
Aparna Piramal Raje meets heads of organisations every month to investigate the connections between their workspace design and working styles.