The Power Couple Annihilating Credit Cards
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because life as a power couple isn’t all Underwood.
By Sanjena Sathian
“Bipin, who’s my cofounder,” is how Upasana Taku refers to her cofounder. There would be nothing weird about it, except that he’s also her husband. It’s not her habit to over-disclose her marital status, she tells me. Let’s be professional.
Taku and her spouse, erm, cofounder, Bipin Preet Singh, feel exceptional — even more so as the conversation continues, offering windows into their high-powered yet down-to-earth family life: Taku, a new mother, was in the office the night before delivery. Singh took just four days of paternity leave. They raced to ship a product two days before their wedding five years ago. (Singh brought a laptop to the ceremony, briefly entrusting it to their single employee, in case of emergency customer requests.) It is dizzying, this picture of leaning in.
Perhaps it’s what’s required to run one of India’s top fintech startups. Backed by Sequoia Capital and American Express, MobiKwik is a leading mobile wallet company and one of the original players in an increasingly crowded space. Singh has been noodling on mobile money since 2009, though taxi-hailing, food delivery and e-commerce services are all heating up — India is home to two billion-dollar online shopping platforms battling Amazon. The digital payment world, here, is “all coming together now,” says Rajat Aggarwal, partner at Mumbai-based Matrix Ventures.
Data from Statista shows that more than 800 million people will use mobile phones in India by 2019 — a market more than double the population of the U.S. But credit card use here is among the lowest on the planet, according to a Reserve Bank of India report this year. Those with bank accounts often still pay cash, though some might use mobile wallets like MobiKwik or Paytm to store their digital dough. Instead of dealing with the headache of multiple layers of security and failed transactions that come with trying to pay by debit card, MobiKwik users’ wallets sync up with, say, a phone company’s app. Users get cashback deals and can send money between friends, à la Venmo or PayPal, too.
The story Taku and Singh tell of their company matches with the narrative of mobile money systems such as M-Pesa, which lets people pay via phone and even withdraw money from local vendors like a bank. We’re in a conference room at MobiKwik’s headquarters in suburban Gurgaon, outside Delhi; Taku gestures to the dusty streets outside, filled with Audi dealerships next to 10-rupee chai stands. Banks, she points out, are all chasing the same upper-class customers — the Audi shoppers, not the chai sippers. Navigating banks and credit here even for the wealthy can be mind-boggling. (Singh, she laughs, applied for an Amex platinum card and was rejected — despite the fact that American Express has invested in the company.)
Taku argues MobiKwik can creep into the crevices of lower-class life in a way that branch banks can’t; people like her driver use the wallet to top up a cell phone, but they don’t use cards. Which means MobiKwik possesses tons of data on consumer spending — information that the company will now use, in lieu of formal credit histories, to offer loans.
Some are placing their bets not on MobiKwik but on competitor Paytm, says Matrix’s Aggarwal, or on banks themselves, which are growing wise to the digital space and allowing users to connect their accounts to apps directly. Aggarwal is also skeptical of wallets in general; they sound a bit like stuffing your money in a sock, where it can’t gain interest. And cashbacks? “That story should end at some point — they’re just burning VC money,” he says. And then there’s the Unified Payments Interface, a government-blessed initiative meant to make all digital transactions easier — which might render companies like MobiKwik obsolete.
The company is still lean, with some 200 employees and zero sexy-startup vibe. It’s all ’90s corporate. One doesn’t get the sense this is the place to work if you’re into perks.
Obviously, senescence hasn’t yet descended. Singh and Taku reportedly just raised a $50 million series-C in May. They’ve got the qualifications you want on a slide deck: Taku is a Stanford alumna and former PayPal senior product manager — it was her job to integrate an Israeli antifraud company’s technology into the company when PayPal acquired them, a task that taught her that “the technology and all is easy, but cultural differences are very hard.”
Singh is a graduate of the prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology (Delhi) who grew bored after jobs at Intel and NVIDIA. He was on the verge of heading to the U.S. for an MBA when he and Taku met in 2008; she’d just returned to India. They hit it off. They were in their late twenties, living on a budget of 15,000 rupees (less than $230) a month, in Dwarka, the rather postapocalyptic area of Delhi filled with stark concrete housing and little greenery. They rented two apartments and built the company fueled on chai and instant Maggi noodles.
It wasn’t an easy choice. Both come from middle-class families, and in 2007, Singh’s father, a former bookshop owner whose store burned down in the ’80s, sustained a stroke and couldn’t work. “It was a tussle,” he says of the conversation with his mother. “Like, are you going crazy?”
The company is still lean, with some 200 employees and zero sexy-startup vibe. It’s all ’90s corporate. One doesn’t get the sense this is the place to work if you’re into perks. The culture seems spartan and ambitious. “You always feel free to question them at any point in time,” says Atul Goyal, who runs the company’s mobile team. Does their marital status make them a unique leadership duo? Goyal looks surprised. “I hadn’t really thought about it.” He rushes back to work.