Customize, Don't Copy

Kellogg professor Mohanbir Sawhney in conversation with Founding Fuel on the dynamics of the Indian e-commerce industry, and what it will take to succeed in India

Nilofer D'Souza

PART 1: A cross section of the Indian e-commerce industry. (11 min 23 secs)

Mohanbir Sawhney makes an interesting comparison between Silicon Valley in the '90s and the entrepreneurial landscape in India today. He points out that what's playing out in India is merely an instance of the business models present in the US but adapted to the Indian context. Against this background, he lays out important lessons to learn from their failures. He also addresses the pressing problem of the "seed bubble".

He speaks about mastering the Indian market with a concept he terms as The Economics of Extreme Scale that deals with razor thin margins but profits on the sheer large scale of the market.

PART 2: Produce for the masses not for the money (13 min 34 secs)

Mohanbir Swahney talks about the importance of value creation as any startup's main priority. He elaborates on the basic infrastructural barriers e-commerce companies face, and how they need to find innovative ways to overcome these barriers. He also shares his views on what makes an Indian customer savvy and the prospects of the e-commerce industry in India.

PART 3:The gutsiest cockroach in the e-commerce industry and tailor-made business models for the Indian scenario (9 mins 34 secs)

Mohanbir Sawhney talks about BookMyShow being the gutsiest e-commerce company in India and why they refer to themselves as being a cockroach. He traces their success through the past decade, giving credit to their determination despite almost going out of business several times during this journey and pinpoints the success of their unique strategy.

He talks about the importance of customizing business models to the Indian scenario, and gives the example of how doughnut chain Dunkin' Donuts does this. He says, bringing new innovations rather than sticking to the tried and tested generic e-commerce models is the key to success in the e-commerce industry.

PART 4: Avoid your shadow from becoming taller than you. Don't play in the sun. (8 min 27 secs)

This seems to be the era of the arrogant nouveau riche entrepreneurs, says Mohanbir Sawhney. But entrepreneurs need humility and the ability to collaborate to be able to survive in this harsh world. He gives the example of Indian journalism today where it has almost become a competition to see whose voice can be heard louder above the crowd, and what Indian journalists can learn from the West.

PART 5: The importance of pedigree in entrepreneurship and lessons from global e-commerce players (11 mins 35 secs)

In the final part of this five-part series, Mohanbir Sawhney answers the unspoken of question of whether it really matters to venture capitalists if an entrepreneur has graduated from an IIT and/or an IIM and if she has prior experience at a well esteemed firm. Are we mistakenly valuing credentials over character or are these requirements just standardized benchmarks to assess one's capability?

He also maps out the lessons that Indian e-commerce companies can take from established players in the US and China: an emphasis on customer experience, a focus on market penetration, and creating a work environment that encourages risk-taking and failures.


Virtuoso features conversations with a cross-section of veteran entrepreneurs, business strategists and thought leaders from India and abroad

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About the author

Nilofer D'Souza
Nilofer D'Souza


Whenever people ask me "what do you do for a living?" I always quip back saying, "what do I not do?" In my career as a journalist and now at internal communications, I've had the privilege of seeing both sides of the coin: an external and internal environment. I have also moved across various platforms like radio, print, television, the Internet and social media in both environments.

It's been an interesting journey as it has deepened my understanding of what works and how you can leverage the learnings in both to maximize your reach as a storyteller. Ultimately, as a communications professional, there’s no greater high than having your communication effort reach the right audience.

My favourite platform has always been radio, and it is here at Founding Fuel that I will anchor their podcast offering. I will work with the influential contributor network to build out distinctive world-class audio shows. I will also anchor my own show based from my perch in Bangalore.

I have an M.A. degree in audio-visual communication from COMMITS, a mass communication institute in Bangalore and a B.A. degree from Mount Carmel College in Psychology, English and Communicative English.

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