Saahil Goel of Shiprocket: The delivery guy

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The year was 2008, and Saahil Goel was in the middle of his master of business administration (MBA) degree at Pittsburgh University’s Katz Graduate School of Business. Looking for some management books, he logged on to a new Indian e-commerce website to order a cheaper reprint that could be delivered to his home in Delhi. But he accidentally placed the order twice. “I wrote to the website’s customer care saying please cancel one order. A guy responded to my email saying they would do the needful. His email ID was [email protected],” recalls Goel, 40, managing director and CEO of Shiprocket, one of the largest e-commerce enablers in the country that offers logistics and shipping software solutions.

In the early days of Indian e-commerce pioneer Flipkart, it was not unusual for co-founder Binny Bansal to be on customer care duty. Goel still has the email archived and enthusiastically shows it to me at Shiprocket’s Gurugram office. After a bonding session with the company’s “chief happiness officer” Bruno, a Labrador, I sit down with Goel for this chat in a room named “Big Bang”.

“He was my dog. But he’s now Shiprocket’s dog and Akshay (Ghulati, CEO of international shipping at Shiprocket) is sort of a foster parent,” says Goel.

Shiprocket provides shipping solutions across more than 24,000 serviceable pin codes within India and more than 220 countries and territories across the world. It has slowly carved a stable position in the direct-to-consumer e-commerce space in India. In FY23, it powered deliveries to more than 45 million consumers, recording a 78% revenue growth to 1,089 crore in FY23 from 611 crore in FY22. The unicorn aims to achieve multifold growth on its current gross merchandise value (total value of merchandise sold) of $3 billion ( 24,900 crore), potentially increasing it by three-four times, in the next five years.

Goel says he was keen on working with technology right from his school days at St Columba’s in Delhi, learning how to write code at the school’s computer lab. “By the 2000s, I was already building websites and hacking the school computer,” he recalls.

After completing his graduation in computer science in the US at Drexel University College of Engineering, Pennsylvania, his first job was at Max New York Life Insurance Company (now known as Max Life Insurance), where he worked on product development. After getting an MBA degree, he worked with Kasper Consulting, which focused on information technology (IT) and business process consulting. His last professional role before starting his own company was in the US with the health insurance company Highmark in 2011. “It’s not that I was not a good worker. But I get bored very quickly, staying true to my nature,” he says.

Shiprocket’s story started around 2011-12. Both Goel and co-founder/COO Gautam Kapoor, whom Goel had met during his undergraduate years, come from families that ran small businesses—technically, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). While Kapoor’s family dealt in automobile parts, Goel’s family business involved steel manufacturing. “Both Gautam and I were in touch and exchanging ideas. We always wanted to do something around SMEs,” says Goel. “I was into tech, while Gautam is a great commercial thinker. SMEs are the backbone of the country, and no one was giving them tech. We were clear that connecting SMEs to technology was going to be our theme.”

Shiprocket began life in 2012 as SmartStore with brands like Da Milano, Globalite Sport and Tiekart as some of the first customers. “We had a vision: we were going to help merchants run their stores in a smart way. We would connect shipping, payments and marketing on one platform, with smart delivery for shipping, smart remit for payments and so on,” says Goel.

They looked at the growing e-commerce market in India, finding inspiration in the likes of Shopify and BigShoeBazaar (which later became Yebhi). The fact that a website was selling shoes online indicated that there was demand and interest in e-commerce. Customers were warming up to online transactions through a host of travel-related platforms such as MakeMyTrip, Cleartrip, Yatra.com and IRCTC.

“(But) startups were not glamorous back then. We didn’t even know we were a startup,” says Goel. They changed the company’s name to KartRocket in 2013 “to sound more like a startup”. “Our angel investor Pearl Uppal, who was running FashionandYou.com and was a marketing guru at Yahoo!, helped us,” Goel adds.

But it wasn’t scaling fast enough. “It was a tough time. We had to convince businesses to sell online,” Goel says. “After three years, we had some 800-1000 merchants.” However, digital adoption was picking pace and data was becoming cheaper, along with affordable smartphones. “We realised that a lot of micro businesses were available on the mobile,” Goel says, as they studied other models and examples—everything from Facebook Pages to Quikr and OLX.

KartRocket was among the first Indian services enabling businesses to set up and manage online stores through an app-based platform called KartRocket Studio. “Most people thought we were crazy… But we were already using image AI to pull keywords and categories from images that merchants were uploading. We offered baked-in payment gateways and shipping. You could be online in 30 seconds. That was the tagline: Get your online store in 30 seconds.”

“Our understanding of this market is rock solid… We have always looked at ourselves as an e-commerce enabler and as tool makers,” says Goel. “The way Amazon is obsessed with consumers, we are obsessed with merchants

It was a masterclass in how Indians use the internet. “We used only the mobile medium and made the tech free, charging 10% commission on sales. The idea was, rather than me charging you a monthly subscription, let’s look at the platform approach… Let the users come and then we make money when they make money. We realised that India ko ye model samajah main aata hai (India understands this model),” explains Goel. “While it didn’t fully work, we were able to distribute at scale and get 5,000-10,000 users who did everything by themselves: signing up and building their own websites. If you give them a simple, consumer-style interface, it does work. That was our ‘big bang moment’ (referring to the name of the room where we are conversing).”

In 2015, the company launched their direct-to-consumer marketplace Kraftly, selling lifestyle and fashion goods from artisans, small vendors and homepreneurs. A year later, Ghulati and Vishesh Khurana joined as the two other co-founders.

While there were many learnings through these different pivots, the one constant challenge that Goel faced was shipping. “It would break at every step,” he says. Issues with cash on delivery, high costs, and complex logistics were plaguing many small businesses. Moreover, the big couriers did not want to work with the small guys. Noticing a clear gap, Goel and his team started Shiprocket in 2017 almost as a side hustle: a technology-driven platform that would aggregate multiple courier partners and offer shipping solutions that were both cost-effective and reliable.

Today, shipping is Shiprocket’s largest revenue stream, accounting for about 80% of total earnings and the company delivers more than 300,000 shipments daily. “Our understanding of this market is rock solid… We have always looked at ourselves as an e-commerce enabler and as tool makers,” says Goel. “The way Amazon is obsessed with consumers, we are obsessed with merchants, businesses, brands, retailers. I think that allows for lots of interesting opportunities in terms of problem solving.”

Leveraging technology to build micro innovations along the way has been key to Shiprocket’s success in streamlining and simplifying logistics and shipping for e-commerce businesses—be it a B2B wallet system or a courier recommendation engine for sellers or a checkout engine.

Towards the end of our conversation, we turn our attention to AI. MSMEs and small businesses also want to delve into it—according to the GoDaddy 2024 Global Entrepreneurship survey released in May, Indian small businesses see AI as a major game changer for their business operations. The survey showed that 94% of Indian small business owners believe implementing AI would result in tangible positive outcomes.

Goel agrees and says AI could change the business of e-commerce and help merchants in several ways—for marketing tech, consumer support (especially for businesses with a large consumer base) or simply adding AI into their products. “If you ask me: it’s as big as the internet,” says Goel.

He is still curious to learn and experiment. “I still love to code and whip out some projects on the weekend. I am constantly using chatGPT to write code now. It’s like having an assistant,” he says.

In a previous interview with Mint, he had spoken about playing the guitar. “I used to be in a band. There was a time when I wanted to study music engineering. But now I teach my 11-year-old daughter. She and I play together and jam every now and then,” says Goel, who also has a six-year-old son.

The 40-year-old says he is slowly getting back to reading. He shows me a couple of books, including one on a compilation of quotes from Berkshire Hathaway’s vice-chairman Warren Buffet, that he has been reading. He also runs every morning without fail. “It helps me structure my thoughts,” he says. “I don’t do to-do lists. I ruthlessly prioritise (tasks). Because ultimately, there’s only this much time. So, you must learn to pick.”

Most of his schedule is about optimising time between family and work. While he’s not a fan of overworking, Goel says work-life balance is a myth. “If you hate your job, then you should balance it, but if you like it then what is there to balance? But I don’t think you can work non-stop. No matter how much you love your work.”

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