“Where were you when you first heard about...”
That is a question that usually ends with a calamitous event, such as the September 11 attacks or Indira Gandhi’s assassination. But for Vijay Shekhar Sharma, the man and force behind the Paytm mobile wallet, it can end with something from his most pleasant dreams.
So where was he when he first heard of demonetisation? He was receiving an award in Mumbai. His mobile phone, naturally, was on silent. When he finally saw it, it showed dozens of missed calls, and 73 messages on his office WhatsApp group. Since then, Sharma hasn’t slept more than four hours in a day. He says he does not need to, because he is living his dream.
Some dream it is. Since November 8, when the Prime Minister announced that Rs. 500 and Rs. 1,000 notes were no longer valid, Paytm has added 8 million users to go with the 150 million who already had the app on their smartphones. It claims a 700% growth in traffic, and a 1,000% growth in the value of money added to Paytm accounts.
The explosion reminds Sharma of Mufasa, Simba’s father in Lion King, telling his young son: “Everything the light touches is our kingdom.” That is how Sharma thinks of the opportunity. “We are going to make this country more proud than any other technology start-up has,” he says, his joy filtering through the exhaustion on his face.
Not just pride, he also evokes other emotions. Three days after the Prime Minister announced demonetisation, Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal tweeted: “Paytm is the biggest beneficiary of PM’s announcement. Next day PM appears in its ads. What’s the deal Mr. PM?” Others have taken pains to point out that China’s Alibaba group is the biggest shareholder in Paytm’s parent company, One97 Communications, and that should rein in the nationalistic talk around demonetisation.
Sharma’s response to Kejriwal was statesmanlike. “Dear Sir, the biggest beneficiary is our country. We are just a tech startup, trying to solve financial inclusion and make India proud,” he tweeted. His response to the Chinese shareholding chatter is more emphatic. “We are as Indian as Maruti. We are more Indian than many other financial institutions in this country. We are operated, run, and governed by the laws of India, by a board that has Indians, and by a management that is by Indians.”
He chuckles to hear people such as Kamal R Khan, Bollywood’s enfant terrible, saying Sharma has been raking it in because of demonetisation.
“The truth,” says Sharma, “is that we are losing money every day.” Paytm has waived the 1.5% it charges from merchants. Taking Rs. 180 crore to be the worth of transactions on its platform every day, that is a daily notional loss of Rs. 2.7 crore. And then there is the expense on advertising and promotion, which, in the two weeks after demonetisation, crossed Rs. 27 crore. It spends that much in a whole month of cricket matches.
Sharma thinks of that as the price on his journey to commercial sainthood, when a brand becomes a generic term. Just as Xerox came to mean photocopying, he wants Paytm to be used as the verb for payments through a mobile wallet.
That dream may soon look more realistic, when Paytm becomes available to the vast mass of feature phones (the non-smartphones). Users of those phones will be able to get a wallet, put money in it, and spend it by calling a toll-free number, or by sending text messages.