Mahesh Murthy’s Open Letter To John Kuruvilla Of Taggle

09 December, 2011

It was with a sigh that I read the e-mail from Taggle saying it was shutting down. Especially because I know people there: I have friends at Battery Ventures who invested there and the founder, John Kuruvilla, and I go back some 24 years, right to the early days of our careers when I would hang out at his barsaati in South Delhi.

John and I have argued many times in the past. He last took offence when I said a few years ago at a conference that Air Deccan was the kamikaze airline that would kill itself and take the entire industry with it. John was earlier the marketing head there and understandably miffed. Seeing how things have eventually turned out, perhaps I was not too wrong.

John and I also disagreed about Taggle. My point was simply this – there was no differentiation among deal sites and till that happened, there would be no real traction for anybody and no chance of building a real business.

I stand by that point. And will add a few more.

Relevant experience. SnapDeal has the advantage that its founders actually ran a newspaper-based deal business and knew what it would take to get a lot of deals and good ones at that. Perhaps none of the other players could match this execution scale.

Deal quality. Most deal sites are all about spas, nail treatments and tattoos, and people are tired of those. There’s not much new to attract folks. In fact, even SnapDeal traffic has fallen by 65 per cent in the last month.

Merchant satisfaction. What I hear from merchants is that the original promise of “offer a deal, win a loyal customer” has not proved to be true. You do – at best – get a few new customers. But they’re bottom-scrapers and will go next time to another deal elsewhere. So justifying a deal through increased customer lifetime value is a fallacy here.

Flawed business model. Acquiring a customer for a deal site typically takes Rs 1,200-Rs 2,500. And the economic value of the customer is around Rs 200 or so per deal. In theory, you should break even as a deal site when the customer buys six deals from you. In practice, he buys six deals from six different people and in your case too, customer lifetime value does not justify the cost per acquisition.

Death march to victory. Given these basics, the only way one can win is to spend more money than the others and lose more money than the others till rivals throw in the towel and drop off the map. Taggle was the first prominent one to do so. But believe me, others have already done so and more will do so. But this is a pyrrhic victory as both investor and deals company have a bloodied balance sheet. And at the end of it all, there’s little or no likelihood of either making a decent exit, given in this case that potential acquirers – the global leaders Groupon and such are doing even worse.

With all this, I don’t want to sound pessimistic. This is a good thing. We need to learn that you don’t win markets and e-commerce by throwing money at it.

We will soon see similar attrition in the broad e-commerce space, too. And once again, it will be healthy for the industry.

Deadwood needs to burn to make room for healthy new plants.

And John, I owe you a drink. Let’s catch up soon!

(As told to Shrija Agrawal) 

JOHN KURUVILLA RESPONDS

JOHNKURUVILLA

December 07, 2011

Hi Mahesh,

Good to connect with you here. Some well wishers called me to say ‘Mahesh Murthy is taking digs at you’. I initially decided to ignore the same since I have always operated with the philosophy – Kutta bhonken hazaar… Hati chale bazaar

But you being a friend..I thought I’d clear the air… so that when we meet for the drink you promised we can talk of family, the birds and the bees.

For the record since you disappeared from the scene at the conference where I spoke after you spoke- in ignorance about Air Deccan’s fall from Grace and why it died(it had died as brand in 2008 and you were speaking at a conference in 2009- long after the dust had settled. The impression you are giving people in this article is that you predicted Deccan’s demise. Dont do that buddy.)

You attributed a major reason for Deccan’s death to the Rs 500 ticket. On every flight 30-60 days out we were giving off 6 seats on a 180 seater Airbus at Rs 500(With an 80% load factor we had 36 seats empty on bad days and 5-6 seats on good days and these Rs 500/- seats were for travel 30-60 days out- it was revenue management at its finest by a very very young but talented team that one had recruited from IIM, IISC, IAI).

On 250 flights a day that worked out to 1500 seats a day.THAT Changed many lives. Will share this magic with you when we meet.

Now for the reasons for Deccan’s demise as a brand. It is available on and in Capt. Gopi’s book SIMPLIFLY.

I get miffed by people who speak out of ignorance.Especially when it comes from people of stature.More so when its from a friend.

Let me clarify once and for all the Air Deccan Issue. Air Deccan provided very healthy returns to its early investors (ICICI Ventures and Capital and the other independent investors will bear me out). In fact the smart retail investors who invested at the IPO at Rs 148 exited at Rs 290 at the peak. Data can be gleaned from MoneyControl.com.

We gave customers value, grew the industry,gave wings to the dreams of the common man and delivered value to the shareholders. Not sure where we erred?

While I was CRO- Till October 2006..the company was operating at the lowest cost, had the highest load factor and was losing money ONLY due to very high no of cancellations. This too was set right between July and September 2006 where we bought cancellations and delays down from 35 a day to 9 a day.

It did well long after I was gone till the Tech fiasco happened. For the record Ryan Air, Southwest, Easy Jet, Virgin Blue and many more LCCs are profitable and growing.Closer home Indigo is financially sound and has been for a while.( and this is not just from Sale and lease back.) All these companies were written off by the best minds in their countries.

On Taggle the reason I moved on in July was because my partners were very keen to create a solid etailing business- something I did not agree on and despite being the single largest shareholder I respected their views and handed over the reins and chilled for a few months.

It was an emotional decision and not an easy one to make. But at that time since convictions were high amongst my partners and the investor too thought it was a good idea I thought it was good for the company to pursue their goals.

They grew the business 10 fold in 4 months. But they realised early on that it was suicidal to carry on burning money to play the ‘valuation game’. I salute them for taking the decision to get away from the valuation game since they realised that this game was not sustainable for a long long time.And called it a day.

It takes guts and nerves of steel to decide when the sales nos were looking real good.To make this call.Hats off to them.

In its 20 months Taggle spent less than 9% of its investments in marketing AND in September had Revenues close to what companies in the etailing space in India had achieved in years by burning marketing $s.

However your point on differentiation,marketing expenses etc is what every company around the world is worried about and working on… and some will win.

Flipkart for one I believe has built a brand India can be proud of. Via.com is another case of Blue Ocean resulting in profits year on year for the major part of its existence and has achieved significant scale.With a very robust business model.

There are jewels that you should help unearth..and create a positive environment that will help entrepreneurs learn from all our mistakes (I am sure you made some too) rather than be the proverbial crab who will never let others succeed.

Remember Amazon took 8+ years to turn the corner..and had short sighted analysts write off Jeff Bezos every year for those 8 years..and now say..We told you Amazon will be a success. Mahesh with every mistake comes learnings for a new dawn. Taggle has been a great learning. I worked with some great investors and some great people.

I for one am more than happy to spend time with young companies sharing with them where potential minefields are. Did so with one online insurance company this morning. They left with learnings that will help them save time and money. Let’s get positive and help and make that difference based on the years of experience we have gathered.

Let’s stop being soothsayers and become guides… I know you are an early stage investor… but let’s share experiences with as many and not the select few with a financial motive… that’s more valuable than mere money…

Let’s see what the morrow has in store for Taggle. Any Ideas? Jeez I sound very philosophical here..look what you have made me do… 

So on an 80 per cent load factor planned, my pricing works out to Rs 1250 approx., a price difference of about 30 per cent. 

With proper yield management, the last 10 seats on an LCC is your profit. Deccan was operating in peak season at 90 per cent-plus load factor and in off season at 80-plus. 

On innovations, I sold the exterior of my aircraft for crores – my advertising budget came from such advertising opportunities we created. Some of you may remember NDTV and Sun branding on the outside of our aircraft and Idea Cellular inside… We did not have resources, but we’re resourceful.

Every company – start-up or otherwise – must think out of the box on cost rationalisation and revenue optimisation, using analytics and revenue management tools.

As for Taggle, I guess we will need to wait and watch.

It was a company that innovated from Day I with its hologram for security vouchers, pay on phone, selling group-buying in travel for the first time, selling jewellery through group-buying product sale – much before Groupon’s Gap jeans sale… and more… The team could have continued to burn investor money… losing millions and then taking a call… But hats off to the team who put their integrity at work and called it a day. Thereby, losing less… That, my friend, is the true measure of leaders who put their personal agendas second.

For the interest of young entrepreneurs I am attaching a blog that I wrote while I was recuperating… on my experiences and how thinking out of the box and innovating helped the companies I worked with, succeed. These are real examples and not textbook case studies. Examples of working in the trenches and winning over seemingly insurmountable odds. Here is the blog if you want to check it out. 

Thank you, once again, Mahesh for starting this dialogue. I am sure it would have set many of the readers thinking… 

God bless

John

 

 


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21 Comments
rohit . 5 years ago

Mahesh ! you rock !

Shyam . 5 years ago

Thanks Mahesh, I share the absolute same mindset on deals. For deal sites, the challenge is to get new deals, new merchant sign-up almost everyday to maintain the interest and pace resulting in a lot customer acquisition cost.

At the other side, stores with good quality and footfall are not willing to participate in such heavy discount rush. Those who tried running such deals have burnt their hands (we meet such business for our business) who offered a heavy discount but never seen those customers back. I think No business can run for a long with heavy discounts to deal hunting customers.

johnkuruvilla . 5 years ago

Hi Mahesh,

Good to connect with you here.

Some well wishers called me to say ‘Mahesh Murthy is taking digs at you’.

I initially decided to ignore the same since I have always operated with the philosophy -Kutta bhonken hazaar..Hati chale bazaar..

But you being a friend..I thought I’d clear the air..so that when we meet for the drink you promised we can talk of family, the birds and the bees.

For the record since you disappeared from the scene at the conference where I spoke after you spoke- in ignorance about Air Deccan’s fall from Grace and why it died(it had died as brand in 2008 and you were speaking at a conference in 2009- long after the dust had settled. The impression you are giving people in this article is that you predicted Deccan’s demise. Dont do that buddy.)

You attributed a major reason for Deccan’s death to the Rs 500 ticket.

On every flight 30-60 days out we were giving off 6 seats on a 180 seater Airbus at Rs 500(With an 80% load factor we had 36 seats empty on bad days and 5-6 seats on good days and these Rs 500/- seats were for travel 30-60 days out- it was revenue management at its finest by a very very young but talented team that one had recruited from IIM, IISC, IAI).

On 250 flights a day that worked out to 1500 seats a day.THAT Changed many lives.

Will share this magic with you when we meet.

Now for the reasons for Deccan’s demise as a brand.

It is available on http://www.dnaindia.com/money/interview_air-deccan-was-sabotaged-by-indigo-operator-interglobe_1215866 and in Capt. Gopi’s book.SIMPLIFLY.

I get miffed by people who speak out of ignorance.Especially when it comes from people of stature.More so when its from a friend.

Let me clarify once and for all the Air Deccan Issue.

Air Deccan provided very healthy returns to its early investors (ICICI ventures and Capital and the other independent investors will bear me out)

In fact the smart retail investors who invested at the IPO at Rs 148 exited at Rs 290 at the peak. Data can be gleaned from Money Control.com).

We gave customers value, grew the industry,gave wings to the dreams of the common man and delivered value to the shareholders.Not sure where we erred?

While I was CRO- Till October 2006..the company was operating at the lowest cost, had the highest load factor and was losing money ONLY due to very high no of cancellations.

This too was set right between July and September 2006 where we bought cancellations and delays down from 35 a day to 9 a day.

It did well long after I was gone till the Tech fiasco happened.

For the record Ryan Air, Southwest, Easy Jet, Virgin Blue and many more LCCs are profitable and growing.Closer home Indigo is financially sound and has been for a while.( and this is not just from Sale and lease back.) All these companies were written off by the best minds in their countries.

On Taggle the reason I moved on in July was because my partners were very keen to create a solid etailing business- something I did not agree on and despite being the single largest shareholder I respected their views and handed over the reins and chilled for a few months.

It was an emotional decision and not an easy one to make.

But at that time since convictions were high amongst my partners and the investor too thought it was a good idea I thought it was good for the company to pursue their goals.

They grew the business 10 fold in 4 months.

But they realised early on that it was suicidal to carry on burning money to play the ‘valuation game’.

I salute them for taking the decision to get away from the valuation game since they realised that this game was not sustainable for a long long time.And called it a day.

It takes guts and nerves of steel to decide when the sales nos were looking real good.To make this call.Hats off to them.

In its 20 months Taggle spent less than 9% of its investments in marketing AND in September had Revenues close to what companies in the etailing space in India had achieved in years by burning marketing $s.

However your point on differentiation,marketing expenses etc is what every company around the world is worried about and working on…and some will win.

Flipkart for one I believe has built a brand India can be proud of.

Via.com is another case of Blue Ocean resulting in profits year on year for the major part of its existence and has achieved significant scale.With a very robust business model.

There are jewels that you should help unearth..and create a positive environment that will help entrepreneurs learn from all our mistakes( I am sure you made some too) rather than be the proverbial crab who will never let others succeed.

Remember Amazon took 8+ years to turn the corner..and had short sighted analysts write off Jeff Bezos every year for those 8 years..and now say..We told you Amazon will be a success.

Mahesh with every mistake comes learnings for a new dawn.

Taggle has been a great learning. I worked with some great investors and some great people.

I for one am more than happy to spend time with young companies sharing with them where potential minefields are.

Did so with one online insurance company this morning.

They left with learnings that will help them save time and money.

Lets get positive and help and make that difference based on the years of experience we have gathered.

Lets stop being soothsayers and become guides..I known you are an early stage investor..but lets share experiences with as many and not the select few with a financial motive…thats more valuable than mere money..

Lets see what the morrow has in store for Taggle. Any Ideas?

Jeez I sound very philosophical here..look what you have made me do>>>

Cheers!

satheesh . 5 years ago

Taggle is a victim of herd mentality.Infact I was expecting this behaviour of deal sites going the jugular way even in tier II & III cities. The fatigue sets in too fast.There is now the trend of companies going the product selling way on the net. Unless you get to see some some differentiator in that space, people will talk about a bubble. Companies whose valuations are merited by a clear differentiator will rule the roost.

Alok Mittal . 5 years ago

Well this was bound to happen in daily deal space but the way Mahesh Murthy is behaving seems suspicious. He missed the bus with some good ones doesnt mean he will try to put the whole industry into bad light?! Mahesh you are a respected Early stage investor so maintain that stature rather than being a participant in mud-slinging game. If you cant get a deal dont try to sabotage the deal. Be a real winner rather than a #@$%^ bird.

Alok Mittal

Vikas . 5 years ago

Great reply by John…

Observer . 5 years ago

It is always interesting to watch Mahesh in action. He pick a news-making article, sniffs out the most obvious, adds a twist and ruffles feathers! Makes for interesting time-pass in an otherwise boring day. Given that he is in the business of attracting attention with Pinstorm, should not be a surprise! Dubious or not, some of his ventures do end up making money leaving people wondering whether to write him off yet.

Venky . 5 years ago

Well articulated John.

Sahil . 5 years ago

Mr Mahesh Murthy is acting like a cry baby here. So sad that he could not make good ecommerce investments. In his last blog, he said amazon has more traffic than flipkart in India. Dude, check your stats!!!

You killed redbus by giving them a random dilution at the angel stage. And i am sure a smart VC like Accel would have made handsome returns and redbus would have been much bigger than its today.

And Mr Murthy for the sake of your hungry LP’s, don’t justify not investing in the ecom “bubble”. Would love to see your face the day Flipkart gets listed!!!!

Mahesh Murthy . 5 years ago

Gosh, this is turning into a right royal barbfest.

Let me step in and calm things down.

1. To start with, the intention was never to write to John in public. Indeed, I can connect with him directly at any time.

I was called by Shrija of VC Circle on a different matter and as an aside also asked about my views on the shutdown of Taggle.

Considering I had already put those down in writing before (here, on Quora: http://www.quora.com/Reasons-for-the-failure-of-Taggle-com ) I thought I’d repeat most of what I’d said, and add a small personal note (let’s have a drink) as John’s been a pal for a long time.

This was neither meant to be “scathing” or an “open letter to John” as the editorial team here puts it. If it comes off that way, I’m sorry. That wasn’t my intention.

2. I don’t hold John personally responsible for Air Deccan or Taggle. I believe the founder in the former case and the investors in the latter case had key responsibilities for setting the direction of each company.

In addition to perhaps taking bolder entrepreneurial steps than I ever have and making better decisions than I ever have there’s a lot I respect John for – he’s also created better campaigns than I ever have (the Air Deccan campaign touched hearts like great work should) and he’s connected me to some of the more important people in my life, including the mother of my 13-year old and my best guy-friend on the planet.

My issue was and is not with him – but with the broad business directions in both cases.

3. I was a fan of the low-cost carrier business till I looked deeper into what Vijay Mallya and Jet were saying about this business (here’s one example: http://www.business-standard.com/india/news/the-flightlow-cost-airlines/339049/ ). “In India there are no low-cost carriers, only low-fare carriers.”

It rang true. Ryan Air and all the other international examples quoted fly out of different, cheap airports, into different, cheap airports, with cheaper staff, cheaper landing and parking fees and cheaper infrastructure, while charging for everything from drinking water to even passing water. (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/travel/article-1263905/Ryanair-toilet-charges-phased-in.html )

All the so-called low-cost carriers in India had pretty much the same costs as everyone else. They simply charged less and hence lost more money.

Capt. Gopinath’s claim in the article referenced earlier “keep fares low while costs are high and costs will spread out over more passengers” reeks of the famous “we’ll lose money on every seat but make it up by selling more” joke.

This discussion with John was around 2008 when Deccan was called Kingfisher Red. Three years later, Kingfisher Red breathed its last. Meanwhile, the full-cost-carrier Kingfisher is saddled with debt and its problems are well-known. Jet is not making much money. Neither is Go. Or Spice. Or Air India.

Of course it’s possible that all these airlines have crappy management – but it’s a little more likely that the impact of higher fuel costs and a global slowdown combined with the pressures of unreasonably and insanely low fares has kept them in the red. Again it’s a game where only the ones with the most cash will survive.

Some people hold Indigo as an example of how a low cost carrier can make money in India – but you need to look at its books to see that it makes its money not from selling seats – but from buying and selling aircraft.

I still maintain that till there is a significant difference in costs – for the planes, the crew, the landing and parking fees, the airports and such – there is no viable business for a low-cost carrier in India or anywhere else.

Sure, you can look at the nobility of opening up air travel to those who had only traveled by train before and the social buzz and excitement and all that. All that is well and good from a CSR point of view – but it’s not good business.

It wasn’t good business for Deccan, and it wasn’t good business for the other airlines that followed it down the spiral.

4. Now to Taggle. My points still remain. Without unique consumer delight coming from differentiation, there is little chance for an online business to organically survive. Ctrl-C, Ctrl V is not the way to build a company here.

I take John at his word that the business was fine. But I do wonder why any VC in their right senses would then pull the plug on it.

Of course, I also accept that, like me, there might be other VCs who are also not in their right senses.

5. Now to all the other points on the “greater glory of entrepreneurship”.

Sure there’s nothing wrong with failed companies. It’s what teaches us how to do it better the next time around, because textbooks don’t quite help here.

There’s a lot to learn from Taggle and the other impending closures – or, as they’re called today, “pivoted business models”.

This learning is what helps us do things better the next time around.

We all learnt from the horror that was Indya.com how to never launch a portal again. We learnt from HomeTrade.com how to never do a product strategy again.

There’s more to learn here.

We need to learn and do it right – and it’s important to do so quickly, because the world is looking at us warily.

I just came back from a global investor’s conference where the consensus was that China was a much better investment destination than India as its government stood by its word and the exits were great.

Given the flip-flop men like Manmohan and Sibal we have around, the first is not a likely competitive advantage we’ll have in the near future.

Let’s at least get the exits right. Let’s have reasonably-funded, reasonably-grown profitable companies that make money for all – investors and entrepreneurs alike.

Let the world see there’s real money to be made in India, especially online. Not spent, mind you, but made.

And let more money pour in here as a result.

Amen.

Alok Mittal . 5 years ago

John, I don’t know you but would love to. Love your ability to take risks, have conviction, but call a spade a spade when you see it. It is a very unusual ability. In the venture world, it is easy for us to point to all the minefields we missed, but hard to accept the great companies we passed on. And hence, we always finds opportunities to say “I told you so” 🙂 Risk is an inherent part of entrepreneurial success, and you seem to have imbibed that well.

Look forward to connecting,

Alok

PS: I saw another comment from “ALOK MITTAL” on Dec 7th – someone else with the same name. I dont see a reason to abuse people simply because they hold a different view.

Baan . 5 years ago

Why this Kolaveri … Mahesh and John?

Anon Menon . 5 years ago

Mahesh,

i don’t know u, but for sometime i have wanted someone to respond back to you with the same venom. John did it brilliantly.. In malayalam, there is a proverb “Vadi Koduthu Adi Vaangikkuka” translated, it means ‘to give someone a stick to get beaten by him’

Big Boss . 5 years ago

Big Boss chahte hain ki aap donon confession room main aa ke apne drishtikon prakat karein. Aap logon ka is tarah ladna hamare “startup ghar” ki shaanti bhang kar raha hai.

Anon Swami . 5 years ago

Alok Mittal’s (the VC) comment below is perfect. If one applies (rather generously) Pareto principle on startup success ratio, 80% of startups will bite the dust at one point or another. So, a VC would have an 80% ‘success’ rate on passing up bad ventures. And that would yield a ton of opportunities for ‘I told you so’s. And, if you have a melon on your shoulders like MM does, you don’t pass up on a single one of them.

MM, there are two views on your current train of thought (reflected in this and your earlier eCom articles). You think you are the kid that discovered that the emperor has no clothes. Many others think that you are sourpuss grinch that came to steal their Christmas. Truth is in between.

kk . 5 years ago

i do not know john but have met mahesh few times. so not taking sides, i can only say that we need more people to come out and do start-ups, irrespective.

when one becomes successful there are stories spun talking about how a particular strategy worked and when one fails again same stuff is packed but with a label of failure.

lets help one another to fire-up the entrepreneurial spirit and push each other who want to take that plunge.

jayadeep reddy . 5 years ago

Hi all I think you people are rubbing each other on wrong side. As an entrepreneur it is tough challenge to call off a venture as there are lot of emotions involved in it despite many odds and the right decision saves money to the investors. It would have been the toughest decision to shutdown taggle even when revenues look good. My kudos to Jhon. I hope this experience will make him much more stronger on deciding the business model for his next venture and I am sure that will succeed. http://www.dialurdoctor.com

Prem . 5 years ago

Loved the style John. The way you responded made it a healthy discussion.

skeptical . 5 years ago

I do not understand the rage directed at Mahesh.Yes,he could have ommited taking names here but its ok to not feel fascinated about efforts or learning.You go against basic business sense ,might as well prove something or be ready for the brickbats.We all make an effort, and we learn everyday,lets not sweeten up the pill for that.The fact remains that ecommerce companies are burning monies mindlessly left right and centre.

Air ticketing or broad ecommerce sites, you have new entrants with no real differnce than faster or slower or better portfolio with 200-300 additonal discount taking away market share> y , bcoz i have more money to waste in media and discounts.Its a circus led by th CEO for the vauation carzy Investors.

Amazon , facebook , Google are fantastic examples, thrown around frivolously to point at growth, they were conviction led businesses and all anchored to core competencies and beliefs.Core intent was not valuation or scale , it was a by product.Our intents is so frivolous:Lets package better , the same wine and make money before the music stops.

I guess e

the majority knows they are on a weak wicket and they are posturing but what the hell if it puts some good money into everyone’s pocket, I hear the music still!

Its the best time to do business you dont have to make money, you just gotta spend it !

Kunal Singh . 5 years ago

So Mahesh, I know that John Kuruvialla is a Megalomaniac. A guy with an enormous ego who comes as brilliantly self effacing that he could put Gandhi to shame. Wonderful control on words which he has shown he can use in his reply to you. I want to understand is this a PR exercise both of you have planned? Because Kuruvilla’s reply are not part of the comments. He has low integrity and will hurt more people, investors, and merchants in his career. But why are you helping him at all. Talk to the people he partnered with. They may know more. But ofcourse you had to do the PR job for your old friend John so both of you can pat each others backs?

Akhil . 5 years ago

Good they shut down early. At-least they won on time-to-shut if not on time-to-market!!

A star-burst of e-com start-ups in 2010-2011 will show up in this part of world as amazing fireworks in 2012-2013.. keep an eye out for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. There is lot more to witness and story-tell about.

Mahesh Murthy’s Open Letter To John Kuruvilla Of Taggle

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