Hazāroñ ḳhvāhisheñ aisī: Paytm’s string of pearls
Paytm has a Product-Founder problem. It needs a Chief Product Officer who can say one word i.e. No. Paytm must find its Ikigai (甲斐), say "No" to all distractions, find purpose and secure its future.
I write a weekly post on India's internet economy - the past, present, and future.
Vijay is a start-up hero, an icon.
Vijay is is a technical Product-Founder, who has not only built Paytm but sowed the seeds for India’s mobile payments industry, which today employs tens of thousands, serves hundreds of millions of happy customers and merchants, and yet [checks notes] Mr. Market is super unhappy with Paytm.
Vijay on Q2 earnings call: “I am very pleased to announce that my team and I are super, super excited, energized, to see the opportunity in front of Paytm. We are fully committed to keep our heads down and execute and deliver great results quarter-on-quarter, year-on-year going forward.”
Vijay, like all founders, speak, act, behave in superlatives - they are permanently-super-excited, always be like hum phod denge, macha denge, aur khatam kar denge types. My first-hand experience of having worked for 2 legend founders, is immensely gratifying and you ain’t never going back to soul-sucking-snail-paced corporate jobs.
Superlatives are necessary, they energize and motivate the team, thwart anti-incumbency, build the necessary ‘bias-for-action’ culture but [check notes, once again] disappoint, when the key operating metrics of Paytm - India’s 2nd largest IPO boast about deploying 2 million, sound-box hardware devices, 5 million users availing a Paytm Postpaid credit feature, and as a start up-addicted-to venture-capital-OPM, continue boasting about GMV, while being a big public company.
The Paytm ecosystem story which was sold (via the prospectus and multi-media interviews etc) to its shareholders rests on synergies and opportunities arising from One97 Communications operating a string of pearls: Paytm Payments Bank Limited, Paytm General Insurance Limited, Paytm Life Insurance Limited, Paytm Money Limited, Paytm E-Commerce Private Limited, Paytm Entertainment Limited among other smaller entities.
One may argue, legally the relationships within this ecosystem don’t fold up under One97 (read: regulatory arbitrage for licensing, etc), but practically - it’s one i.e Vijay’s Paytm !
Paytm’s Dec earnings update had no reportable metric for the shareholders on the “string of pearls” in the Paytm ecosystem, the synergies story they purchased. Is there nothing worth reporting?
Management guru Peter Drucker famously said, “If you can't measure it, you can't manage it.” Currently, the Paytm ‘strings of pearls’ ecosystem chase the elusive SuperApp dream, competes with founder run, customer experience obsessed companies, inter alia, like PhonePe, Razorpay, Zerodha, ClearTrip (I am a Cleartripper, I love it), BookMyShow, Simpl and Cred across UPI Payments, Enterprise Payment Gateway, Stock Broking, Travel, Entertainment, PayLater, Credit Card repayments respectively.
Ok, In the world, there is one and only SuperApp, WeChat i.e. you cannot survive in China without WeChat. SuperApps can’t exist in India, the calculus of Super Apps i.e. Trinity of Social (Messaging)- eCommerce-Payments is broken in India. Only WhatsApp India had an opportunity, which has fast sunk into oblivion. (I am drafting a piece - Super App Calculus, subscribe to keep a lookout.).
Paytm ecosystem has a silicon wafer-thin chance of winning across all its “string of pearls”, then why not remove the distractions and focus on winning in limited categories? Which categories are those - I don’t know. Maybe take something from Jack Welch’s playbook - be number one or number two, else Paytm should exit that ‘pearl’. Jack Welch said, "When you're number four or five in a market when number one sneezes, you get pneumonia. When you're number one, you control your destiny.”
Maybe ikigai can help, the age-old Japanese ideology that’s long been associated with the nation’s long life expectancy. A combination of the Japanese words “iki” (生き), which translates to “life,” and “gai” (甲斐), which is used to describe value or worth, ikigai is all about finding joy in life through purpose. It can be well applied to corporates to realign business purposes for longevity.
Paytm needs to find it Ikigai, since the current Paytm Super App ecosystem ambitions are reminiscent of Ghalib,
हज़ारों ख़्वाहिशें ऐसी, के हर ख़्वाहिश पे दम निकले, बहुत निकले मेरे अरमान, लेकिन फिर भी कम निकले
(Thousands of desires, each worth dying for, many of them I have realized…yet I yearn for more…)
At Paytm clearly, it is the classic Product-Founder problem - a grown up company with a CEO for a product manager has neither a true CEO, nor a true product manager.
I’ll explain - Zuckerberg, Dorsey, Sergey and Larry Page, Bill Gates and Vijay are all Product Founders - deeply technical founders “who set out to solve a technical problem, stumbled upon a large commercial opportunity, and went on to become the titans of their industry.”
When a company’s product manager is also the founder or CEO, that company’s products are often at risk of being developed the wrong way, for the wrong reasons, and with few people — perhaps nobody — within the company able to correct the problem.
The Paytm Ecosystem needs a Chief Product Officer, someone who can say “No”.
I am drafting new pieces on 1) The Fintech Froth 2) India’s Super App calculus 3) Imminent need to privatize ‘Rupay’ 4) India’s tech IPO analyses. You can subscribe here: