MARCH 20, 2022
To Ashneer Grover, BharatPe is a thing of the past. His LinkedIn profile, which is constantly being updated, says “Own Master” in his current occupation, with ex-MD and Co-founder of BharatPe also finding a mention. Even his harshest critics concede that he has a razor-sharp mind, but he will cross the line if he wants to.
The facts are indisputable. Founded in March 2018, BharatPe turned unicorn in less than four years. Unfortunately, after a series of events leading to Grover stepping down this March, BharatPe marks the first instance of a potentially huge financial fraud among India’s proud unicorn story. One has seen crises breaking out at ShopClues.com or Housing.com, but they were more about disagreements between promoters.
Unfortunately, that is not the case with BharatPe. One is staring at a mess of enormous proportions, which the start-up, once a darling of the investors, is looking to clean up. And there is a good chance that it will be a long haul. Several issues have cropped up, such as a leaked investigation report from consulting firm Alvarez & Marsal, which spoke of a recruitment fraud at BharatPe and fictitious payments (allegedly involving Grover’s wife, Madhuri Jain Grover, a NIFT graduate, who was head of controls at BharatPe). The company’s investors (and that list has some very eminent names) ought to have known what was going on. As things stand, there are far too many questions lying unanswered.
Last July, BharatPe did something quite extraordinary. It gave out high-end BMW bikes to new recruits or they could go for an expensive gadget, as joining bonus. Such bonuses are a norm in the industry, but not goodies of this kind. Grover’s personal life was no different. He owns at least three luxurious homes in the capital (valued at over Rs 20 crore each) apart from a car collection that has a Porsche Cayman, an Audi A6, a Mercedes-Maybach S 650 and also a Mercedes-Benz GLS 350. Pictures of him and his spouse are splashed liberally in social media. To at least one generation of Indians, Grover was a role model—the boy who grew up in middle-class Delhi and studied at IIT Delhi before going to IIM Ahmedabad. He was rich, owned a fancy fintech company, and was the person to emulate.
BharatPe, too, loosened its purse strings at the drop of a hat. In October 2020, the company launched the Team BharatPe television campaign. Directed by Punit Malhotra, known for Hindi movies such as I Hate Luv Storys and Student of the Year 2, it had 11 cricketers as its brand ambassadors—including Indian cricket captain Rohit Sharma, K.L. Rahul, Jasprit Bumrah and Ravindra Jadeja. A year earlier, it had popular actor Salman Khan as brand ambassador. With Grover, there was never a dull moment. Only one thing obsessed him—growth, at a frenetic pace.
In October 2018, BharatPe had just raised $2 million, with Beenext Capital and Sequoia Capital India as lead investors. It was not a huge amount, and it seemed like a good time for Grover to get in some more money. One venture capitalist (VC) Business Today spoke to, recalls meeting Grover during that period. Grover’s need was around Rs 3 crore. The VC recalls Grover liberally using Sequoia’s name to push BharatPe’s cause: “They are fully backing me. You will not lose your money.” Having seen many a business plan in his career, the VC asked for time to think. “I am giving you no more than two days to decide. Chinta mat kar, kyunki tere liye paise bana doonga (don’t worry, I will make money for you),” was the retort from Grover. It was “quite crazy”, the VC recalls. “We were extremely uncomfortable with that kind of aggression. BharatPe was a small entity, but Ashneer’s confidence bordered on cockiness, and we did not go ahead.”
Often, his brashness landed Grover in trouble. Top it up with an insatiable desire to be visible or even dominate, and you have a very potent concoction. Take the case of grocery delivery start-up Grofers, where he was the CFO. A former Grofers official says it hurt him that the founders—Albinder Dhindsa and Saurabh Kumar—were constantly in the limelight: “No one from the outside world knew Ashneer and he could not deal with that.” In his letter to the BharatPe board where he said he was resigning as MD and Director, Grover said he helped build Grofers from scratch. “That’s a bit strange since he was never a part of the founding team,” says the same person.
Equally confounding was the decision to move to PC Jeweller to take over as head of new business in November 2017, before moving out a year later to become CEO and Co-founder of BharatPe. His LinkedIn profile eloquently mentions “leading digital transformation and strategy at the second largest jewellery retailer in India”. Why he chose to join PC Jeweller, not really a big name, is hard to understand.
BharatPe followed right after. The company was actually founded by Shashvat Nakrani and Bhavik Koladiya in March 2018, before Grover entered the scene in October that year; Koladiya sold his stake to Nakrani and Grover, which made the latter a Co-founder. Nakrani remains in that position, but nothing much is known about Koladiya. His LinkedIn profile says “Unemployed” and based in the Greater Pittsburgh Region.
The VC community is rife with stories on how Grover “could not stand” Paytm’s Founder & CEO, Vijay Shekhar Sharma. “The difference is that Vijay always maintained relationships while Ashneer was quite the opposite. Even today, when the Paytm stock is floundering, Vijay has kept a low profile, while Ashneer is in a soup because he continues to rub people the wrong way,” says a VC who has known both of them. It was not just a question of running down Sharma in private, but also making harsh statements in public.
Neither Ashneer Grover nor BharatPe responded to Business Today’s detailed questionnaire.
Courtesy/Source: Business Today