Anupam Mittal hits out at Google — 'Tech bullies need one arm chopped off in the form of penalties'

Anupam Mittal hits out at Google — 'Tech bullies need one arm chopped off in the form of penalties'
  • The Shark Tank India judge says gatekeepers of the app ecosystem – Apple and Google – are the new East India Company and they operate with complete arrogance and impunity.
  • Just as startup founders are coming under pressure, venture capitalists and auditors too need to be held accountable for their behaviour.
  • Shark Tank India has become a catalyst for driving entrepreneurship and giving it legitimacy.

Anupam Mittal is India’s original internet entrepreneur, who is the founder and CEO of People Group. Way before platform economy became a buzzword, Mittal built a platform for Indians seeking life partners. And even today one million Indians find their partners on every year. Call him the OG of startups or a serial entrepreneur, he is a man who does not mince words. In a free wheeling chat with Business Insider’s Malini Bhupta, Mittal talks about unfair trade practices of Google, his investment in Ola’s Bhavish Aggarwal and what he thinks is the biggest achievement of Shark Tank India. Edited Excerpts:

With some high profile startups like Paytm and Byju’s coming under lens, what do you think is wrong with the startup ecosystem?

I think the Paytm issue is a little different. There are two issues there in my view – one is valuation. The company came out with its IPO at the height of the unicorn boom and as a result, their valuation was corrected when the pvt. market corrected. This is part of the pricing game and one can hardly blame them for it. Eventually, they would have grown into their valuation is what I believe. However, the second issue which is regulatory in nature is far more serious. Whether it is justified or not I don’t know. I think there is a little heavy-handedness here as what you are talking about is a payments bank KYC stuff being the reason to shut them down, which could be seen as over-reach since they are not a significantly important lending institution.

Talking about what is wrong with India’s ecosystem and why founders are behaving badly is a common issue that occurs when there are high levels of greed. When there is massive liquidity in the system people think they can take advantage of the situation. In the US you have seen Theranos, crypto frauds and an industry that was created around SPACs. Billions of dollars have been lost on that. What is happening in India is a small reflection of that. Greed manifests in two ways – one is the founders who are ambitious who see the ecosystem celebrating unicorns and that gets weaponised. Over time a few start with minor refractions and very soon they start fabricating revenues and manipulating auditors to keep up with the image that has been created. They are riding tigers they can't get off.

The venture capitalists too want to see their investments being marked up as their future fund raises depend on the portfolio's net asset value and so they play along and at times actually drive the founders at a velocity that is unsustainable. I think they need to be held accountable by their LPs. Auditors have a very important role here and are perhaps the ones who need to pay the highest price through government censures. They are market participants who have been entrusted with a certain job for which they get paid hefty fees. When they start looking the other way, the system breaks.
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You have been waging a pitched battle against the unfair trade practices of Big Tech companies in India. What, in your view, are the steps that need to be taken by the government to prevent such unfair practices by large global players?

Fundamentally the experience of the internet is through apps – two companies control the entire app ecosystem Google and Apple. Both operate with complete impunity. Two years ago the CCI passed an order against Google around Google Play Billing System (GPBS). Now they have changed the name to User Choice Billing. If you look at the order CCI says there will be no discrimination at all. Being on the App Store means nothing unless you advertise on Play Store. Startups spend anywhere between 10-50% of revenue on advertising on these platforms already. Essentially, the app store is worth nothing if you don’t have content.

What choice does a company have but to adhere to their unfair practices… Now they say that any transaction that happens on apps downloaded via the store will be subject to 15-30% tax/commissions. What this means is that they want 50% of the revenues of the startups. It is the new East India Company and they operate with complete arrogance and impunity. The problem is in getting these companies to comply. Their strategy is to stretch out the legal process and tire the system.

Our government and regulators have the right intent but sometimes democracies are messy. As a government, we have to ensure that nobody becomes the gatekeeper to our economy which is what these companies are trying to do. There should be penal provisions for anybody who abuses the law or twists and turns it while violating the very spirit of it. Non-compliance with judicial orders is contempt of court and so there is an opportunity to send a very strong message. These bullies need one arm chopped off in the form of penalties, a rap on the knuckles will not work as they are too big to care about a couple of hundred million in penalties.

What is the biggest achievement of Shark Tank, which has now become a huge hit in India?

In life timing is everything. Shark Tank’s first season was in December 2021, which was the peak of the startup hype cycle, and it demystified the whole conversation around startups and funding. Shark Tank has become a catalyst for driving entrepreneurship and giving it legitimacy. India is a land of entrepreneurs with every second person running some small business, many from home. A decade ago, if you told someone you are an entrepreneur, you would be told to come back when you get serious. The show has played an amazing role in celebrating entrepreneurship and the startup ecosystem.

A lot of companies have done very well. About 8-10 companies that got funded in Shark Tank are doing very well out of 180 companies that came to the show. This is an early stage game and will play out the same way. When you invest in 100 early stage companies, 4-5 will do very well and help recover the investments and some will become very big. A majority will fail. What I found amazing was that the companies that came to the show were not the elites who came from IIT or IIM. These are small businesses founded by housewives and family members. Entrepreneurship is not the reserve of the few. The next decade will be defined by Indian entrepreneurs globally and so there is no better time to be an entrepreneur than now. Shark Tank has put belief in every Indian that they can do it and that changes the game.

Many of the founders that come to Shark Tank can do even better than the founders who have come from an IIT or an IIM. I believe that these people understand commerce and ‘dhandha’. The elitist founders are used to being served everything on a platter.

Many professionals who come out of large companies or consulting firms cannot start without large funding. Out of the 100 unicorns we have, many will spectacularly fail in 2024 as they were built on the wrong foundations. These companies were built on a template of Ivy League founders and old school networks and so they got funded.

Of the businesses that come to Shark Tank, what sectors can do well and stand a better chance of being funded?

Indians now have the same aspirations as people in other parts of the world. Anybody who comes in and can bridge the gap between aspiration and affordability will do well especially in lifestyle. For example - Companies in the clothing and jewellery space will do well if they can deliver high aspiration at a value pricing. Last year a company called Snitch came with a revenue of Rs 60 crore and is now doing Rs 250 crore in sales. A company called Skippy, which makes ice pops was funded on Shark Tank too and has a run rate of Rs 50 crore from a few lakhs before ST. I funded a company called Sharmaji Ka Atta which has a revenue run rate of Rs 20 lakh a month in less than 12 months from less than 1 lakh. Another one called Whatsapp Wellness just got funded by HUL.

Fundamentally, companies that can build premium products but don’t break the bank on affordability in categories like fashion, lifestyle and food will do well. People read labels now and the young generation is focused on what they are eating. Beauty and wellness products will do well as a secular trend for most of our history Lakme meant beauty, that’s how unbranded we were.

Do you feel is still relevant after Tinder and other dating apps came about?

Let’s understand why Tinder is used, it is for hookups and is struggling to grow its revenue in India. is not an arranged marriage platform. is a planned marriage platform. Indian culture has four stages of life and marriage is one of the life stages. When you are planning to marry you look for compatibility and it is not about a chemical reaction. On the family and parents collaborate to find a partner. The old community networks are now dying and we replace those networks. We are bringing together people in the same life stage to find a like-minded partner. The hook-up sites don’t do that and don't understand the Indian ethos. They are applying the same global model to India which does not work beyond a certain point.

You were the original internet entrepreneur with a disruptive product. Why did you not create a large business that went on to become a decacorn or a unicorn?

It depends on how you define success. If the definition is labels such as decacorn and unicorn, then that's not the game we are playing. Those are vanity labels that I would rather not pursue. Our definition of success is value creation and we are long-term compounders, much like Berkshire & LVMH, so in a sense our ‘overnight’ success story is still waiting to become obvious to the world. From that lens, our ROCE is perhaps the best in the industry we have only ever raised about $20 mn but created several billion in value between our operated and invested cos. Our investee companies employ thousands, have raised over $20 bn and will go on to create $100 bn in value over time, in the bargain generating tremendous wealth for the country and hopefully for us too. We boast an IRR of 52% consistently for more than a decade which is extraordinary by any standards and a testament to our approach and story.

Many people build businesses but we were fortunate to create entire industries such as online matchmaking via, which we still run; proptech company which we sold to NewsCorp very handsomely; India’s first & still the largest digital ad agency, Interactive Avenues, which we sold to IPG at a benchmark price that is yet to be crossed; India’s first mobile gaming company, Mauj Mobile which spawned a massive industry.

So, whether it is our customers, employees, shareholders, the country or society at large, I think we have already impacted 10s of millions and while we don’t have a market listed entity like Jio or TCS to show for it, we have delivered massive national and global level impact. Keep in mind that we are most often the first to check into investee cost and every company we have founded has been the first in its industry. Our innovations have generated billions of dollars in wealth and given rise to innumerable founders and entrepreneurs who have learnt at our companies and gone on to build massive companies of their own.

Further, I am still very young and the Indian opportunity is only now unfolding. In the next couple of years, you will see some of our other bets in space exploration, mobility real edtech, & sustainable fintech come into the limelight besides something very special we are building on our own. So, in short, I still remain the OG and if you force me to use your labels we have birthed not one or two but several Unicorns & Decacorns and that too with very limited capital. It is perhaps one of the most spectacular untold stories of value creation in the digital economy.

Ola is one company that is headed for an IPO and you own 2% in the company. How did that happen?

When we invested in Ola, there was not much of a concept of venture funding and the company did not have any suitors so we were able to get in at a very attractive valuation and hold an extremely healthy minority stake which obviously has been diluted over time. I think the network effects are so large that it is hard for others to get into it. I am still a shareholder and looking forward to the initial public offering.

I invested in 2012 and when I met Bhavish first, I did not understand the problem he was solving as I live in Mumbai where cabs are available. So I did not think there was a problem. A few days later when I was in Delhi and needed a cab, I was told that they would call a taxi stand. After I came back from Delhi, I realised there was a problem everywhere. And I used to call the call centre and Bhavish used to answer the call centre, which showed me his commitment and reminded me of myself when I had started and so I invested.