The Unofficial Freecharge Story And The Most Important Lessons For Founders.

Freecharge has been acquired by Snapdeal, making it India’s biggest M&A deal in Internet space.freecharge_logo_small.jpg
Freecharge has had interesting beginnings and importantly, a lot of interesting stories while they built the rocketship. As an outsider but a keen observer, here are some of the milestones (in my opinion) that led to Freecharge’s growth story.

1. The Small Start.


Naman wrote a guest piece on NextBigWhat (at that time, Pluggd.in). Kunal shah contacted him immediately (liked his insights around the recharge business model). Naman joined him as employee#1. The name ‘Freecharge’ was coined after that. Naman was leading the initial product management+feature decisions + development part (with only 1 engineer).
In short, there was no serious tech that was built – everything was based on ‘jugaad’. In fact, a lot of initial features were built on community feedback over Pluggd.in.

2. Hustle. Hustle.

This is a well known story of Freecharge. If you have been to the summer edition of UnPluggd conference (2014), you know what was shared.freecharge-new-logo
Before the term ‘growth hacking’ became a buzzword, Freecharge growthhacked and hustled their way to glory.
The team created a *fake* Facebook profile of an extremely good looking girl who would share all the usual girly stuff on her page. In a very short span, she became super popular (is that a surprise?) and the GTM strategy was based on using the Facebook profile to drive traffic to Freecharge.
Did it work?
Watch this interesting talk by Kunal Shah on human behavior and tech startups at NextBigWhat’s conference.

3. Momentum and Deap Ubhi

Momentum is an extremely good thing. Very few get it and the smarter founders ride on it. Those who fail to, they need to rework on building the momentum (again!).freecharge
One of smartest decision Freecharge made was to bring in Deap Ubhi (ex-Burrp cofounder) and have him lead technology + product.
That turned out to be their biggest differentiator and defined the next growth strategy (and also the UX strategy).
I won’t be wrong to say that Deap seeded a lot of product and design thinking inside Freecharge.

4. Bringing Alok Goel As CEO

Being a CEO is more about ‘E’ (Execution) and less about C.
Luckily, Kunal Shah knows (I guess?) his shortcomings and strength. He is a great ideator – and needed somebody who can take care of execution. And Alok fits in beautifully well.
At different stages of the company, you need different skill sets in the leadership team. Luckily, Freecharge understood this at the right time and Alok’s mobile+Google experience helped them build the rocketship.

5. The Exit Timing?

Well, I guess that Freecharge hit its innovation limits (of being a freecharge/recharge company) and needed to do something more ballsy.
That’d need much more ammunition and ecosystem support – which Snapdeal will provide. Frankly speaking, Freecharge’s nearest competitors Paytm and Mobikwik are taking on much bigger play with payment tech and aren’t limiting themselves to just a recharge business.
Maybe, Freecharge will do that at a bigger scale. Maybe, they will aim to be the largest app install marketing business in India (why aren’t they doing it??). But what’er they do, the next disruption is NOT on recharge business model anymore.

Startup Lessons From Freecharge?

Now, that’s the boring part – but if you look at it, apart from hustling, Kunal Shah ended up making smart decisions and that helped him grow the business (even at a cost of giving away ownership/equity/control).

After all, a few percentage of a $400mn+ business is better than 100% of shit.

Very few founders do that. Most of them are stuck in ‘me me me’ mantra and Kunal knew his strength/weakness. He steered the company around his strength (the unique business model) and built a team that compensated for his weakness.
In the end, Hustlers do win.

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