In the last decade, we have seen a sea change to the way India buys cars. How has CarWale impacted it?

CarWale started business in 2006, when it was the first online site related to the used car price guide. Today we serve around 20 million visits per month, which is a combination of around 9 million unique visitors on CarWale and BikeWale put together. Our call centre speaks to at least 130,000 people every month. We have been doing that for the last 5 years. When we talk to these people we track how many are willing to purchase the car through CarWale, how many have delayed the same, and how many have purchased a car of the brand that we worked with. From this, we have assessed that at approximately 25 per cent – 33 per cent of Indians who buy cars go through us!

That is an impressive feat. How has the interface with CarWale optimized customer advantage?

Not only that, we have helped the customers to save 5-10 per cent of their total new car transaction value by educating them on all the things they need to know about. To give you an example, each new car transaction is not just one transaction, but five transactions; it often also involves car finance, insurance, car registration and trade of used car on it. Knowing these nuances increases the buyers’ negotiation power. Similarly, with the used car, the customer can actually go and negotiate better with the dealerships because CarWale gives them a benchmark to start off from.

So, given the total car transaction value in India is about $40 billion and at least 25 per cent of Indian car buyers come to CarWale, we influence a transaction of $10 billion. Through CarWale, we help people save around $100- 200 million every year; meaning in the last five years, we would have helped people save around 300- 400 million dollars.

Let us go back to the beginning of your entrepreneurial journey. We hear you gave up on a lucrative career in the United States to be a social entrepreneur. Why did you do that?

It was the Y2K and amidst the fears of an impending apocalypse, I had plans to go to the United States for work. Before leaving, my wife Priya wanted me to first visit Bhopal, my hometown. During this trip to Bhopal, I met a boy in one of the villages near Bhopal and convinced him to be an entrepreneur. I told him to set up a kiosk, charge some fee, and help the villagers get birth certificates, death certificates, and other government documents. But after 2 months when I went back to the village, I came to know that the boy died out of some disease. This happened because it was monsoon and the roads were cut off. His family could not take him to the hospital located in the district headquarters. This affected me a lot and I realized that I was needed more in Bhopal and not in the US!

I had resolved to help the villagers by connecting them to the district hospitals. That is when I decided to do Telemedicine, a start-up dedicated to do just that.

How did you go about putting together a team for Telemedicine?

When I quit my job, I called on to like-minded friends to start Telemedicine with me. They joined me not because they thought I was going to found a million-dollar company. I did not have any money and we did not look like we were all set to make a lot of money. But one thing worked for us – we had a very worthy purpose. When there is a meaningful purpose, people join you because they believe in that purpose and want to do something meaningful with their lives.

My colleague, Gaurav Verma, who also happened to be my junior in school, was one of the first ones to join me. My CTO, Arun Sahlam – an IIT Madras alumnus – quit his job that made him Rs. 9 lakh per annum to start Telemedicine with me. All I could offer him was a rented accommodation and unlimited food; this did not cost me more than Rs. 3000 per month. My batch-mate from MBA, Tufail Khan, came to see what we were doing because he felt what we were doing in Madhya Pradesh, can be replicated in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar as well. He went on to stay and work with us for three years in Bhopal.

All three of them went on to lay foundations of CarWale with me.

Why did it fizzle out?

That is because our idea to connect villages to district hospitals using technology was much ahead of its times then. Today it is happening all over the world and some people are trying to do it in India as well. However, at that time to get the government on board was next to impossible. I met the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh around 20-30 times in three years. We tried to explain our idea but they could not accept it for one nemesis of a question – “When the doctor will consult a patient from a remote location and the patient dies, who will be held responsible for this?” We could not say, hold us responsible and that was the end of Telemedicine.

So, from Telemedicine to CarWale how did the transition happen?

After we met the dead end with Telemedicine, I came to Mumbai to figure out what to do next. While in Mumbai, in a serendipitous manner, I just happened to hear a used car dealer talking to somebody on the phone to get his website done. He was willing to give Rs 15,000/- for it. I quickly capitalized on the chance and offered to do the website for Rs. 7000. This was my first break in Mumbai. It was while working with this dealership that I r e a l i z e d most people who buy cars at car d e a l e r s h i p s do not go out feeling h a p p y with the interaction. They did not know about the hidden costs, had to hop from one dealership to another for comparisons, and had a very limited negotiation power. That is when I first conceived the idea of CarWale.

Once you had the idea, how did you go about implementing it?

I met my former boss to discuss this idea and take his opinions and views on it. I still remember, he told me “Mohit everything is good about you, but you lack focus. You want to do everything! I am willing to support you if you do just one thing.” And so, I decided to be only into the automotive business and continue being there for my lifetime. Once I had made up my mind, I went back to Bhopal and told my team that we are a different company now; we are CarWale.

My team did not like this one bit. They thought that I am letting go of all that we had built together in those four long years of hard work. I persisted. We said no to all the other business we were getting. We returned all the money, apologized, and told the clients that we have changed the orientation of our company. We told them that we do not want to engage in software projects anymore. My team, by then, had understood that our focus is going to be only automotive.

How did your experience in Bhopal help you with CarWale?

I had met the Chief Minister, the Health Minister, the Health Secretary, and other officials multiple times, only to garner negative responses from them. However I have never let the fear of rejection dampen my spirit. Keeping this attitude up and any form of disappointment out of our way, we continued to be persistent. When you persist for long in any game and with determination, you tend to get lucky. That is how we succeeded.

Since I had no money, I thought I would just ask for it. I literally started knocking on the doors of large mansions in Bhopal who had big cars parked in their driveways. My pitch was simple “We are bunch of good guys from your city who are trying to build a good company. Won’t you feel proud having helped us when we succeed and return your money with interest?” Strangely enough, it worked and many of them did fund us. For them Rs. 30-40 thousand was not really a big amount but it was a big push for us in those initial days.

For most entrepreneurs, their entrepreneurial dream dies in the need of VC funding? How did you go about it?

Our product was good; this ensured that we got funding at various stages to fuel our growth.

To give you an example, one of our first investors was Mr. Pravin Gandhi was also one of the earliest users who got benefitted from CarWale. When I first met him, he was about to sell his car, a Hyundai Sonata. A used car dealership had valued his car around Rs. 3 lakh. I requested him to check the expected rates on CarWale and there his car’s value was estimated to be Rs 5.5 lakh.

He called the dealership again and ended up selling his car for almost 40 per cent more than the initial amount the dealership had offered him. This was a working proof for him and he happily invested in CarWale.

Every successful organization is built in a mould of values that are ingrained in its DNA. What are some of these at CarWale?

There are few things that are inbuilt in the DNA of CarWale. First is agility. Every time we figure out that something is not working; we change it. We went on with Telemedicine to software and then from software to dealership and then from dealership to an online dealership portal and so on and so forth.

Secondly, we believe in taking care of our employees. We always treat everyone superlatively well, irrespective of their performance, the tenure of their job, or the seniority of their position. I always tell the managers to treat their team-member the way they’d treat them if they were not being able to pay them their salaries. This attitude has helped us retain our employees till date.

The third is communication. Every day we spend time for 5 minutes and come together and discuss on what would be the focus for the today, what did we do yesterday, and what was our learning from the problems we faced. Every team does it with their managers, who in turn have the same discussion with their reporting authorities. This ensures a regular flow of information; the frontline executives know about the strategic direction of the organization and the top management remains in touch with the ground realities.

Moreover, we have also been doing well in keeping our focus and taking smart risks. In any organization, there are only a limited number of stars. In order to help get the best out of them, we have to focus on limited things; we maintain our discipline and do not go chasing every opportunity that exists.

While doing something new, we do not throw one cannon ball; instead, we throw ten small bullets. This keeps us from a lot of heartburn and saves us the opportunity cost. BikeWale is one such bullet that has come good for us.

What is your vision for CarWale?

India’s car penetration is pretty low right now reflected in the statistics of only 1.8 cars for every hundred people in India. It is very less if we compare it with other countries like the United States, which has 70- 80 cars for every 100 people or Australia where they have 100 cars for every 100 people. If you look at the largest auto-site in the US, it garners a billion dollars in revenue. Two top auto sites in China garner $500 million each in revenue.

By 2017, India is expected to have 10 to 15 cars for every 100 people. That is when we will be the third largest auto market in the world and CarWale, the autosite that helps Indian people buy cars, should be one of the top 5 auto-sites in the world.

What is your approach to realize this vision?

I think we can do it with a two-pronged approach. On one hand we use the technology and automate all our processes internally and externally. On the other hand, while moving forward, we keep looking three years ahead. While we have a short-term focus with the discipline of daily, weekly, and monthly meetings, we are going to focus on the long term. We are already beginning to ask questions like “How differently will people buy cars after five years?” and align ourselves with the emerging imperatives.