As we are in the first month of a new year, let us look back and see who made the most noise last year
While some of them found themselves stuck in the middle of many stumbling blocks, some soared new heights and broke glass ceilings
We took a closer look at the army of startup founders, their key challenges and the reasons that made them included in the list of 11 newsmakers
From Amazon’s dispute with Future Group on the Reliance deal and the ecommerce giant paddling against the retail favouritism tide, or the Paytm’s stock prices tumbling-we had our dose of infotainment in 2021. And yes, we love a good controversy. We love it even more when one of our role models is involved.
For this series, we have curated a list of leaders, who were newsmakers; who either found themselves stuck in the middle of many stumbling blocks or soared to new heights and broke glass ceilings. These personalities were a part of the news cycle, throughout the year — for their highs and lows. Thus, we took a closer look at the army of startup founders, their key challenges and the reasons that made them included in the list of 11 newsmakers.
Be part of our year-end journey as we bring you closer to some well-known business icons, interesting business developments, startup heroes and a few others who were the talk of the town as they faced key challenges and made history — winning a space in this list.
Vijay Shekhar Sharma — The Highs & Lows
Paytm founder Vijay Shekhar Sharma has never hesitated to rise to the occasion — whether it was taking a dig at Google’s ‘unfair’ Play Store policies or supporting the Indian tech ecosystem. Amid a myriad of events, the top incident that comes to mind when talking about Sharma, is Paytm grabbing the limelight in 2021 with its $2.4 Bn IPO (at $20 Bn valuation) but less-than-stellar listing performance.
Not only Paytm’s IPO was one of the highly anticipated, but also the largest in India to date. Quite understandably, the man behind the brand turned emotional during the listing ceremony. The NCR-based businessman exuded confidence that the listing of the shares would inspire millions of entrepreneurs in the country going ahead. Previously, Sharma also mentioned that the upcoming decade (2021-2030) would be India’s decade as global investors are emphatically interested to invest in the Indian startup ecosystem. But surprisingly, his own venture received an underwhelming response.
While some market analysts have concerns over when Paytm will turn profitable, Sharma is confident of his company’s success. Many even alleged that Sharma’s ‘obsession’ with creating records landed him (and Paytm) in trouble, wiping over 45% of the market capitalisation since its listing.
But Paytm’s IPO aside, throughout the year, Sharma has also been an active angel investor in Indian startups. Some prominent names include the dating app TrulyMadly, Bhavish Aggarwal’s Ola Electric, edtech startup Masai School, among several others—where Sharma made an investment.
In 2021, Vijay Shekhar Sharma has been actively speaking against big tech in India — Google, Apple, Meta (formerly Facebook), Amazon and even Microsoft. At the very beginning of the year, he had asked big tech companies to “stop treating India like a third-world country”. The comment grabbed eyeballs, especially since it was a popular notion that the Paytm founder holds grudges after the fintech giant’s Play Store delisting in 2020.
Subsequently, Sharma also led a vocal group of domestic internet entrepreneurs and criticised Google’s 30% commission on Play Store, calling the action ‘anti-competitive’ and ‘monopolistic’. He had referred to Google as ‘toll tax collector’, and his anti-Google group later formed the Atma Nirbhar (now Alliance of) Digital India Foundation (ADIF).
Among the top 100 richest people in India, the 43-year-old was also in news for backing cryptocurrencies — a topic for hot debate in India due to its unregulated nature. He had claimed that he was positive about crypto, and it becoming mainstream, very much similar to the internet phenomenon.
Falguni Nayar — Blockbuster Wealth Creation, For Self & Others
After working for around 20 years as an investment banker at Kotak Mahindra, Falguni Nayar left her job to pursue her entrepreneurial dream and started Nykaa in 2012. In 2021, her venture made one of the most stellar debuts on the Indian stock exchanges, bringing returns of over 80% to its investors on the day of listing.
Nayar, a self-made billionaire started Nykaa as an online cosmetic and wellness ecommerce platform. Not only in 2021 but also in history, Nykaa’s Falguni Nayyar will go down as the one who broke glass ceilings while building her wealth from scratch to become the second-richest woman in India. She has gone on to prove that entrepreneurship is about the right time, not the right age.
Another noteworthy point is that Nykaa is one of the rare profitable startups in India with a majority of shareholding still with the founder Nayar. Top startup founders including Paytm’s Vijay Shekhar Sharma, Zomato’s Deepinder Goyal, Mobikwik founders Bipin Preet Singh and Upasna Taku hold less than 20% stakes in their companies. Nayar, on the other hand, holds 53% of the company — proving that the right product-market fit is the key to success, and not having heavy financial banking from large investors.
By becoming the first beauty marketplace to go public, Nayar very easily paved the path for other ecommerce startups to follow. Interestingly, unlike other newsmakers in the list Nayar has been socially unmotivated, and only came in limelight for her company’s blockbuster performance on the stock exchanges.
In FY21, Nykaa reported positive EBITDA, free cash flow (FCF) and high return on capital employed, indicating its fundamentals were strong. During its IPO, Nykaa attracted bids worth nearly $32.53 Bn for a proposed IPO of approximately $720 Mn.
Overall, the IPO was subscribed 81.78 times at the time of closing. On the day of listing, the company was listed at an 80% premium, going as high as 96% above the issue price. Amid the IPO, the top six employees at Nykaa made over INR 850, becoming millionaires overnight.
The 10-year-old startup is also continuously evolving, and now banks on its profitability to acquire companies in FY22 to grow inorganically as well. From a multi-brand retailer, the company now plans to spread its footprint in the lifestyle and beauty segment and transform into a ‘house of brands’.
Deepinder Goyal — The Poster Boy Of Indian Startup Ecosystem
Deepinder Goyal is one of the poster boys of the Indian startup ecosystem, an alert netizen and the one entrepreneur who is likely to make to this list every time. The first mention naturally goes to Zomato being the first unicorn among many to list on the stock exchanges this year. Goyal’s foodtech startup Zomato listed on the bourses at nearly 53% premium over the issue price, bringing a successful momentum to around 10 startups which, too, listed in 2021.
Zomato’s IPO was oversubscribed by 38.96 times on the final day of bidding, and listed at a 53% premium over the issue price. Infoedge, one of the largest share offloaders, reportedly had sold shares worth INR 375 Cr (at INR 11,000 Cr valuation), and its remaining stake still multiplied to INR 15,000 Cr post-listing. Zomato also minted 18 millionaires from its IPO!
Goyal had started Zomato as a relentless effort to improve how Indian consumers discovered and consumed food. While the idea was laughed upon, at the time, Goyal’s $1.1 Bn public offering in 2021 was a testament to how continuous efforts into a business idea shapes up not only the entrepreneur’s but also the future of the entire ecosystem.
Throwing more light on Goyal’s on-again, off-again news cycle (and not just for the IPO), I quote Uncle Ben, directly — with great power, comes great responsibility. And there has never been a time in 2021 when Goyal’s power and responsibility were not in question.
Most recently, Zomato’s investment in Shiprocket pulled Goyal into a controversy over conflict of interest within the company, as Goyal was once an investor in Shiprocket. Aarin Capital founder and partner TV Mohandas Pai claimed Goyal would gain from the latest round, to which Goyal sent out a statement clearing the air claiming that he exited his personal investment in Shiprocket at zero profit/loss before Zomato backed the startup.
Before that, Goyal tried to keep his fingers from tapping away on Twitter, apart from sharing the occasional repost/statement by the company. Zomato faced controversies in the form of a woman alleging one of Zomato’s delivery executives assaulted her. Next, two of its advertisements with celebrities Hrithik Roshan and Katrina Kaif in August had backfired.
But giving in, Goyal finally broke his silence when a customer care executive’s comment to a Tamilian consumer that “Hindi is a national language” led to the ‘Reject Zomato’ trend on Twitter, over the insensitivity of one of Zomato employees; he also called for India to take lessons on ‘chill and tolerance’, the comment which backfired at him.
Parag Agrawal — Indians Lead The Way
Parag Agrawal assumed the charge of social media giant Twitter as its new CEO after Jack Dorsey resigned from the post. Agrawal, who joined Twitter 10 years ago as an engineer, was the chief technology officer from 2018 to 2021.
With the promotion, Agrawal joined the list of Indian-origin Silicon Valley CEOs who are holding top positions at some of the world’s biggest companies such as Google’s Sundar Pichai, Microsoft’s Satya Nadella, IBM’s Arvind Krishna and Adobe’s Adobe Shantanu Narayen.
While some Indians naturally celebrated the appointment of Mumbai-born Agrawal as the CEO of Twitter, others labelled the move as India losing its top talent to foreign companies, and thus, should focus on minting entrepreneurs.
“Lots of people are going to have lots of different views and opinions about today’s news. Let’s show the world Twitter’s full potential!” Agrawal had said in a statement to Twitter employees, putting aside any apprehensions.
A Stanford University doctorate candidate, Agarwal completed his schooling at the Atomic Energy Central School and later studied engineering from IIT Bombay. After this, he did his doctorate from Stanford University. While at Stanford, Parag Agarwal also worked as an intern at Microsoft, Yahoo and AT&T Labs.
He joined Twitter by working on ad-related products, and later moved on to working with AI for Twitter; more relevantly working on making Twitter timeline more relent through AI.
Only a day after his appointment, Agrawal also announced a media sharing policy that allows Twitter to take down images or videos of private individuals posted without their consent — a product he has been working on since he became the CTO of Twitter in 2018.
This further sparked a debacle when Agrawal posted an image of Dorsey and him, with certain people in the background (implying that the people in the background have not naturally consented to be on the platform).
Not only that, Agrawal stayed in the news for some while as netizens dug his decade-old tweets with singer Shreya Ghoshal, his cryptic tweet for the white community in the US, among others.
Girish Mathrubootham — Taking Indian SaaS Ecosystem Beyond
In 2021, Girish Mathrubootham and his team made corporate and tech history in India when Freshworks became the first SaaS venture started by Indian entrepreneurs to list on NASDAQ. Entrepreneurs and investors across the country cheered and congratulated each other, majorly because Mathubootham’s startup signalled a new era for the Indian startup ecosystem.
Mathrubootham’s Freshworks had been plagued with naysayers who had claimed that the SaaS ecosystem worldwide was very large. Mathrubootham had been told that the company wouldn’t be able to survive amid a host of large SaaS players such as Zoho, Sendesk, Salesforce, among others. Interestingly, post-IPO, Freshworks’ market cap stood at $13.56 Bn compared to rival Zendesk’s $12.1 Bn in the same period.
With an IPO of $1.03 Bn, at a $10.5 Bn valuation, Mathrubootham became an inspiration for many of the SaaS startups that have followed it in the Indian market. The company was listed at $47.55 per share, against the listing price of $36 per share, taking its market capitalisation to $13.3 Bn.
When Freshworks was listed, over 500 Freshworks employees in India became crorepatis — with 70 of them below the age of 30. Mathrubootham’s IPO success rang across the world bringing around 25% profits to its investors including Tiger Global, Steadview Capital and Sequoia Capital.
The stellar listing soon turned the smiles of investors upside down, when the company gradually wiped over 45% of its market capitalisation in Q3 FY22 — the shares fell after Freshworks reported a loss of $107.4 Mn and expenses of $214.63 Mn during Q2 FY22.
Mathrubootham was also part of the news cycle apart from creating history by taking the Indian SaaS (and startup) ecosystem beyond borders. In 2021, Mathrubootham alongside Manav Garg (founder and CEO, Eka Software), Shubham Gupta (ex-Matrix Partner) and Avinash Raghava (ex-Accel) launched a SaaS startups-focussed VC fund called ‘Together Fund’ with a corpus of $85 Mn.
The year 2021 also marked the closure of an important tussle between Freshworks and Zoho. Before confounding Freshworks, Mathrubootham served in various leadership roles with Zoho for almost a decade. And later, Freshworks has been engaged in a legal tussle with the competitor and former company Zoho on account of data theft.
The battle began when Zoho had filed a lawsuit alleging that Freshworks had stolen its confidential information and built a business out of it. After much denying, many allegations, and media as well as court trials in the US, the companies decided to end the lawsuit via settlement.
Ending one of the SaaS ecosystem’s largest inter-company feuds, Freshworks revealed that a former employee of the company wrongfully accessed and used Zoho confidential information relating to sales leads.
Kunal Shah — The Big Bull Of Indian Startup Ecosystem
With investments in 150+ Indian startups, there’s no one as bullish on the Indian startup ecosystem as CRED’s Kunal Shah. While the serial entrepreneur needs no introduction, Shah is prominently known for his current venture CRED, a unique idea that allows users to earn rewards on credit card bill payments. He previously launched Freecharge which was later acquired by Snapdeal, and later Axis Bank.
Shah has become a brand of his own, with every startup backed by him, using his name like a badge — “Kunal Shah-Backed XYZ” or “Kunal Shah Invests In ABC”. In 2021 alone, Shah has invested in over 90 startups including Rapido, Leap.club, Masai School, Eka.Care, Mensa Brands, Evenflow, Vahak, Hike, among others. Interestingly nine of his backed startups are unicorns/soonicorns — the highest among individual Indian entrepreneurs-turned-investors.
While Shah still does not make it to India’s top 100 richest people, he has a net worth of $800 Mn. But most importantly, Shah is among the top Indian startup ecosystem players to have garnered a huge fan base — mostly on Twitter, with his ‘elite’ tweets concerning the ecosystem.
From talking about ESOPs and wealth creation for employees to taking a dig at big tech; from product management tips to entrepreneurship spirit, Shah has never been short of making his opinions known, especially in under 280 characters. Never a day in 2021 went by when his gyaan (or personal notes, as Shah himself puts it) went without becoming a news piece.
As for his personal venture, CRED, Shah was recently in the news when CRED raised $251 Mn at a $4 Bn valuation, in October 2021. Later, also ventured into peer-to-peer (P2P) lending with a community-driven product — CRED Mint. Kunal Shah and brother Rohan Shah Naresh, also reportedly joined liquor delivery startup HipBar’s board and acquired the startup for a prepaid instrument licence.
Sanjay Bhargava — The Controversial Retirement
Among the very few Indians to be on the receiving end of praises from Elon Musk, Sanjay Bhargava was majorly in the news throughout the year due to his role as Starlink’s director.
In November 2021, SpaceX had registered Starlink as its 100% Indian subsidiary, days after Elon Musk praised Sanjay Bhargava. “Sanjay deserves a lot of credit for making X/PayPal succeed. Now helping SpaceX serve rural communities in India. Much respect,” Musk had tweeted.
Bhargava was the vice president-international at PayPal between 2000-01. A founding employee, he is known for devising the backend of PayPal.
In late 2021, Bhargava grabbed the limelight when Starlink opened collaborations with Indian telecom companies while rolling out a satellite internet pilot in 12 districts in the country. Bhargava-led Starlink had also claimed to have received over 5,000 pre-orders from India. It had charged customers a deposit of $99 (approximately INR 7,345) and promised to deliver internet speeds between 50 mbps and 150 mbps during the beta stage.
In an interesting turn of events, the department of telecommunications issued a notice that Starlink was not authorised to offer satellite-based internet services in the country. The company had to return the $99 pre-order amount, post-which Bhargava stepped down from his role at Starlink, and sought retirement.
Bhargava was also in the spotlight for his active role on LinkedIn, most recently sharing his professional experience on the possibilities of a dynamic, financially inclusive, employment-rich, high-speed broadband-based India. He wrote a whitepaper talking about the startup ecosystem in India.
Bhavish Aggarwal — EV Is The Future (?)
Ola founder Bhavish Aggarwal hardly needs any introduction. He was the talk of the ecosystem with the launch of Ola’s FutureFactory, Ola Scooters and the foreseeable IPO. Aggarwal, an avid mobility enthusiast, is very well known for Ola Cabs. But 2021 marked Aggarwal’s playbook readying India for an EV revolution.
Aggarwal first made headlines when Ola Electric played a very believable prank of introducing Ola’s “flying car”. Aggarwal put up a rather serious video detailing his company’s new product — an autonomous electric flying car called Ola Air Pro. The ‘too good to be true’ prank was likely masked as what was coming next for the company.
Shortly after the prank, Aggarwal unveiled Ola’s EV-making super factory and was in the limelight for mimicking Elon Musk’s ethics such as sleeping in the factory, working for 24 hours at stretch.
Ola’s EV vision also materialised when the company announced the launch of the first in its line EV scooters named S1 and S1 Pro. With bated breath, Indians looked forward to the launch of Ola’s EV scooters — especially after Aggarwal was seen driving the scooters on Bengaluru roads.
While the PR was too good, the output with Ola’s e-scooters was unbefitting. Yet, Aggarwal ensured that every critical press was followed by a positive tweet — whether it was apologising for the website crash and blaming it on the “good public response” or poor review and delayed deliveries of the EV scooters followed by “software upgrade” bribe.
If that was not enough, to keep him in the limelight, Aggarwal was seen taking digs at automobile industry stalwarts including Tesla’s Elon Musk and Hyundai India MD SS Kim who stated that India’s import duty rates were not helping them scale.
He has, on numerous occasions, stated that India’s auto sector needs to attract global OEMs to build in India, not just import. When Bajaj Auto’s MD Rajiv Bajaj took a jibe at new-age EV startups, Aggarwal also subtly got back to him by resharing a user review mocking Bajaj.
Aggarwal also grabbed headlines over plans to take two of his ventures — Ola Cabs and Ola Electric on the bourses soon.
Narendra Modi — The Startup Prime Minister
The Indian Prime Minister is sometimes attributed to the moulding of the Indian startup ecosystem with several initiatives such as Digital India and Atma Nirbhar Bharat Mission. He has always championed the cause of the ecosystem, going as far as calling it the “decade of Indian startup ecosystem”.
Throughout 2021, he has held discussions, forums with the faces of the ecosystem. At the beginning of the year, the Modi-led government also launched a Startup India Seed Fund Scheme to back over 3,000 early-stage Indian startups.
Like a true evangelist, he has been aiding the policies for digital companies such as the New IT Rules, 2021 and the draft of the ecommerce rules. Most recently, he has been reported to be working the crypto regulatory framework and called for a fintech revolution in the country.
Sanjeev Bikhchandani — The Father Of Indian Internet Startups
Info Edge’s Sanjeev Bikhchandani was honoured with the Padma Shri award in 2021 — the fourth-highest civilian award of India for his contribution to trade and industry. While Bikhchandani’s name was not previously mentioned in the government notification, his achievement later was naturally celebrated on Twitter, with many calling the Info Edge founder a pioneer of internet startups in India.
The term is true in many senses. Bikhchandani’s investment venture Info Edge was one of foodtech Zomato’s earliest backers. Zomato, one of the first few internet companies, to go public in 2021, set the tone of startups stock performances. In fact, as mentioned previously, Infoedge which was one of the largest share offloaders has seen its investment multiple by 1000, with its remaining stake still valued at INR 15,000 Cr post-listing.
But before that, Bikhchandi has been attributed to the founding of Naukri.com — an internet-based job listing platform, way before the norm. Info Edge was also a significant investor in another startup that went public in 2021 — Policybazaar parent PB Fintech.
Throughout the year, Bikhchandani’s bits of advice have been instrumental in shaping the startup ecosystem. For instance, he showed solidarity after Vijay Shekhar Sharma’s Paytm failed to show quality performance on the stock market.
The Info Edge founder has also stated that the next few years will be critical for the Indian startup ecosystem, as many startups will go public. His tweet after Zomato’s listing is a testament to his belief in the ecosystem (very much like a father)
“Here is the ultimate evidence why India should invest more behind its startups and in early-stage VC funds.”
Sridhar Vembu — An Unpretentious Tech Entrepreneur
Back in January, it was announced that Zoho Corp founder and CEO Sridhar Vembu would be conferred the Padma Shri — the fourth highest civilian award in India. This was followed by Vembu being named a member of the National Security Council by India’s security advisor Ajit Kumar Doval KC.
Throughout the year, Vembu has been often criticised and praised. Criticism has come through his active support to the right-wing government as well as his right-wing ideologies. The Silicon Valley return SaaS giant leader, who is often revered for his simplistic lifestyle choices, has shrugged the support as a personal choice.
The SaaS entrepreneur currently stays in his home village and leads a close-to-earth lifestyle — for which he has been appraised several times. For instance, he made headlines in mid-2021 when he was seen driving a 3W EV auto in his village. He had stated that the Mahindra EV had become his personal vehicle for 5-10 km rides, and even gave Anand Mahindra feedback on the vehicle.
Where high-profile individuals are seen driving expensive cars and wearing designer clothes, Vembu’s dhoti-shirt lifestyle has been a conversation-maker throughout 2021 — well into 2022.
Not only his lifestyle, but his comments have invited heat from around the world. For Instance, when Twitter announced that Parag Agarwal was taking over as the company CEO, Vembu did not shy away from stating that many American companies were led by Indians.
While the comment has been mirrored several times, Vembu’s way of putting it was quite different. He stated that America’s topsoil — both agriculture-wise as well as talent-wise — was eroded. Some comparison!