The Road Less Travelled


Let’s start with a story.

The picture above is from my first few weeks at UC. I was in Bangalore to meet with some of our partners. We met with Anjali (second from left) and Ruth (third from left) that day. Ruth was previously a salon owner herself and one of our best-rated partners on the platform.

I was trying to understand from her on what makes her tick. She was clear, she wanted to work hard and give a better life to her son. (I could see her son and her husband playing outside the cafe – he had recently started taking speech therapy class.) Her son had speech challenges and she was working hard to get him the care he needed. And it did not come from a place of sadness, Ruth was proud of her ability to now run the household while her husband stayed home and took care of their son. Every time I feel I am having a rough day, I think of Ruth!

Anjali was no less of a fighter. She moved from West Bengal to Bangalore to provide a better life to her parents. She was still young and finding her feet in Bangalore — especially since she could not speak a word of Kannada. However, she was full of energy and was working hard to learn both a new trade and the local language so that she could make her life better.

There is, I am sure, a similar story behind every one of our partners – as what they do is not easy.”

However, they are being propelled forward by a need to make things better and more importantly take their destiny in their own hands.

Most of us who are reading this blog are exceptionally fortunate – many of us have been blessed with the “ovarian lottery” as Warren Buffet calls it. As I have grown older, I have realized how fortunate I have been and hence the mission of an organization has always been a key factor in my decision to commit.

“Urban Company’s core mission to empower our partners so that they can build a better life for themselves has always resonated deeply with me.”

The reason I am proud of UC is that we have not just made this an aspiration, we have also made long-term choices to make this a reality. A few years back when I joined, I was surprised to note the level of investment we were making on skill-building – half my team was trainers (and still is) and we had prime location property in most cities to train our partners (as it made access to the centres easy for our partners). I have seen very few companies invest this ahead of the curve to build skill.

When you take a long-term view, it seems obvious that if we invest in skilling, we can provide great user experience, which will, in turn, lead to user love and loyalty. And any business which aspires for long-term sustenance needs great user loyalty – as that will limit the need for marketing spend and hence a profitable growth.

This is not some new business innovation, however, these are tough choices in the short run, when you also have aspirations to grow at a brisk pace. That is where I feel UC has more often than not taken the road less travelled – the path which has short-term pain but long-term gratification.

“As the world is still getting its feet back amidst this pandemic, I have seen us take hard calls again.”

We provided interest-free loans to all our partners to the tune of INR 11 cr, provided health insurance cover and enabled proactive support pay program for partners who were not keeping well. These at the surface may seem like an act of kindness, however, these are again deeply rooted in our belief that if we stand with our partners when they are in need, they will more than make up for it over the long run through their commitment to the platform.

This comes from a deep belief that empowerment at scale is only going to happen if we build a sound business and that can only happen if we provide an amazing experience for our users. So coming back to Ruth, we hope she feels truly empowered as we have trained her, shipped her products and tools she needs, provided financing when she needs working capital and, most importantly, provided her with the flexibility to work at her pace and balance. This has taken a fair bit of effort to build and we believe that this investment in building capability will reflect in Ruth providing a great experience to our users – as she is now only focused on the job at hand and knows that we have her back.

Of course, we still have many more problems to solve to make the experience better from today for our users and partners. However, we are at it every day.

One of the keys to making this work is to ensure that the internal teams are also aligned with thinking longer term and taking hard calls. So our compensation and reward systems are also designed with the same intent. UC has consciously built ESOP ownership across a large part of the team as we want everyone to participate with skin in the game in this journey. Hence, ESOP is a key tool in our compensation structure. In our view, it is a great way to assess how long-term oriented is a potential team member and are they really long on UC!

Our third ESOP sale program for employees is again to reaffirm our long-term orientation. For more employees to truly think of ESOPs as a value creation tool, they need to start seeing value. Yes, this may lead to a few folks to go take the risk and build another enterprise – and we wish them good luck. When you think long, this will help everyone get more skin in the game.

Finally, we should not forget why we are here. We are here to enable many more Ruths and Anjalis to reach their dreams. Many more.

Mukund Kulashekaran is the Senior Vice-President at Urban Company.