He revolutionized how millions of people spend money in India. His next target: America
2019-11-08 16:38

CNN商业栏目,Rishi Iyengar报道

Video by Richa Naik, Tawanda Scott Sambou and Janelle Gonzalez, CNN Business

CNN商业栏目,Richa Naik, Tawanda Scott Sambou和Janelle Gonzalez制作视频

Photo illustrations by Ken Fowler


Updated 0039 GMT (0839 HKT) October 24, 2019


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To say that Vijay Shekhar Sharma is ambitious is an understatement. The founder of Paytm, India's largest digital payments company, has already revolutionized the way 400 million people spend money — whether it's buying dinner, paying an electric bill or sending money to a friend.

说Vijay Shekhar Sharma雄心勃勃过于轻描淡写。印度最大的数字支付公司Paytm的创始人已经彻底改变了4亿人的花钱方式——无论是买晚餐、付电费还是给朋友寄钱。

Over the course of his career, he's also ventured into online retail, banking and even gaming.

在他的职业生涯中,Vijay Shekhar Sharma还涉足在线零售、银行业甚至游戏产业。

But he's not done yet. Sharma wants to bring at least half a billion Indians into the banking system through Paytm's app. He also wants to put Paytm on the global map alongside the Googles and Facebooks of the world.


His business philosophy is fuelled by a phrase that echoes throughout Paytm's office in Noida, an industrial hub on the outskirts of New Delhi: "Go Big or Go Home." The concept is driven home on a frosted glass wall of Paytm's main boardroom, on office stationery and on countless coffee mugs in its pantry.


It's an outlook that has helped Sharma, 41, grow Paytm into a company valued at $15 billion in less than a decade.


But with that growth comes the risk of doing too much too fast.


Paytm is fighting battles with deep-pocketed rivals on several fronts, and losing those battles could mean missing a huge opportunity. India already has more than 600 million internet users, but, crucially, there are nearly 800 million Indians yet to go online for the first time.


Sharma has a sizeable war chest of his own, thanks to investors like Chinese tech giant Alibaba, Japanese behemoth SoftBank and Warren Buffett. But even so, Paytm is dwarfed by the companies it is trying to fend off — Google, Facebook, Amazon and Walmart— all of which have already spent billions of dollars trying to get a piece of the action in India.


That hasn't stopped Sharma from wanting to take the fight to them. He has started a push to take Paytm global, with all roads leading to the United States and a battle with a fresh set of competitors including Venmo, Square and Apple Pay.

但这并没有阻止Vijay Shekhar Sharma向他们发起挑战。目前他已经开始推动Paytm在全球范围内的发展,所有道路最终都通向美国,并与包括Venmo、Square和Apple pay在内的新一代竞争对手展开了一场殊死搏斗。

A decade of driving digital payments


In India, Paytm is best known as a one-stop shop for digital payments. You can use it to send money to a friend, like Venmo, or to pay for anything from bus tickets to utility bills using your smartphone.


Millions of shopkeepers across India also now accept Paytm, prominently displaying QR codes that can be scanned with the phone's camera to pay for purchases.


"What we've changed in this country is that now you don't need to actually carry a wallet, or a card, or a currency," Sharma told CNN Business.


Paytm's journey began back in 2000, when Sharma founded its parent company, One97 Communications. One97 started as a mobile services platform offering horoscopes to cellular network providers before expanding into other services like voice-based gaming and customized ringtones.

Vijay Shekhar Sharma(Paytm的联合创始人)于2000年创立了其母公司One97 Communications,该公司最初是一个面向移动网络提供商星座占卜的移动服务平台,后扩展到语音游戏和定制铃/声等其他服务。

Paytm came a decade later, launched in 2010 as a platform for buying prepaid cellphone plans and paying cable bills online.


"Vijay was at an interesting crossroads. He was the majority shareholder in One97... the company was growing well and very profitable," said Ravi Adusumalli, a managing partner at private equity firm SAIF Partners and One97's first institutional investor.

私人股本公司SAIF Partners的执行合伙人拉维•阿杜苏马利(ravi adusumalli)是one97的第一位机构投资者。在接受采访时,拉维表示:"Vijay Shekhar Sharma正处在一个有趣的十字路口。他是公司的大股东,现在公司发展良好,利润丰厚。"

"He could have easily sold the company and retired, or he could invest 100% of his net worth into creating a new company," added Adusumalli, who serves on One97's board of directors. "He clearly made the right choice, but it wasn't obvious at the time."


The One97 board wasn't convinced Sharma should invest aggressively in a consumer business, since all of its previous endeavors had been B2B. India's smartphone boom had yet to take off, and the country had fewer than 140 million internet users. But Adusumalli said the board compromised and gave Sharma a small amount of money to invest and see how it went. Sharma also put in $2 million of his own money to get Paytm off the ground.

最初One97的董事会并不支持Vijay Shekhar Sharma冒着风险开发Paytm,以积极投资于消费者业务。因为当时智能手机在印度还没有兴起,互联网用户还不到1.4亿人次。但在Vijay Shekhar Sharma的坚持下,董事会最终妥协并提供了一小笔资金,他还自掏腰包200万美元让Paytm起步。

"When the results came back positive, my recommendation was to 'go big or go home,'" said Adusumalli. "Trying to do something incremental would lead to certain failure, so he needed to decide whether he wanted to risk One97 for Paytm."


It was Sharma's first big risk. Had Paytm failed to take off in the way it did, it could have doomed the company he'd spent a decade building. Missing the boat on India's internet boom would have been difficult to recover from.


The milestones for Sharma have kept coming. In 2012, Paytm got approval from India's central bank to launch the mobile wallet that now forms the core of its business. In 2014, it partnered with Uber to become a payment option for the company's cab rides across India, and in 2015 it snagged another big partnership with the online booking portal for Indian Railways, which sells nearly 700,000 tickets a day and 25 million tickets a year.


But the app really exploded in November 2016, when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi suddenly banned the country's two biggest currency notes — around 86% of the country's cash at the time — with the aim of cracking down on tax evasion and illegal wealth.

Paytm这款应用程序真正迎来用户量的爆炸是2016年11月,当时印度总理Narendra Modi为打击逃税和非法财富,突然下令禁止发行该国两种最大的纸币,这两种纸币占印度现金总量的86%左右。

The move shocked India's economy, where vast the majority of transactions are made in cash. Millions of people spent weeks lining up at ATMs to exchange their currency notes just so they would have enough money for everyday expenses.


But those who had smartphones started switching to mobile payment apps, and Paytm was primed and ready. The app signed 10 million new users within a month of the cash ban, going from adding tens of thousands of people a day to around half a million.


The cash ban "made us a folklore name in this country," Sharma said. And while its rate of growth is no longer as rapid as it was back then, Paytm has more than doubled its user base in the last two and a half years to 400 million.

Sharma说:“废钞令让我们成为了这个国家的一个民俗名称。” 虽然Paytm的增长速度不再像当年那么快,但在过去两年半里,其用户数量依然翻了一番多,达到4亿。

Paytm's growth is reflected in digital payments overall as well. The average number of cashless payments per person per year in India has gone from 2.4 to 22.4 in the last five years, according to a report commissioned by the country's central bank published in May.


But cash still rules. Despite the growth of digital payments, the value of currency in circulation increased by 17% to more than 21 trillion rupees ($296 billion) in the past financial year, according to the central bank. That's around ten times the value of mobile payment transactions over the same period.


"India remains a largely cash-driven economy. Economic growth has been possible through many transactions that are done primarily in cash," the report said.


"The biggest challenge that we face comes from customers' ability or intent to pay digitally," Sharma said. "Paytm and the mobile payment has taken off, but still there is a huge amount of resistance."


Driven by ambition


Sharma grew up in Aligarh, a small town about 100 miles south of India's capital, New Delhi. He finished high school by the time he was 14 and graduated from the Delhi College of Engineering at age 19, according to a blog post on Paytm's website.


But Sharma didn't speak much English and struggled to understand what was being taught in class. He got through college by reading two versions of the textbooks — one in English and the other in his native Hindi. He would also spend a lot of time in the college computer lab, according to the blog post, "browsing the internet and dreaming about being in Silicon Valley."


By the time he graduated, Sharma had taught himself to code and already had his first startup under his belt. He cofounded a company called XS Communications that made content management systems used by several major Indian publications. The company was sold to a US entrepreneur for $1 million in 1999.

毕业时,他自学编程并合作创办了一家名为XS Communications的公司,为印度几家主要出版物提供内容管理系统。1999年,该公司以100万美元的价格卖给了一位美国企业家。

He spent the next year trying to set up One97, taking on significant debt that he paid off by doing odd jobs like setting up internet connections for paying customers. It would take nearly two decades for him to become one of India's youngest billionaires and a household name in the country. To many Indians, he is the recognizable face of the digital payments company he founded. (Forbes has his net worth at $2.4 billion.)


"Vijay is the heart and soul of Paytm. He honestly never stops with new ideas," said Adusumalli.


Big battles at home


Paytm will need every ounce of Sharma's ambition in the coming months in order to hold on to its dominant position in India, as the biggest names in tech and retail use their deep pockets to eat into business on his home turf.


Google launched its digital payment service, Google Pay, in India two years ago, and has signed up more than 67 million users. PhonePe, owned by Walmart, has 150 million users. Amazon also has its own digital payment platform, Amazon Pay, and added person-to-person digital payments earlier this year.

两年前,谷歌在印度推出了数字支付服务Google Pay,注册用户超过6700万。沃尔玛旗下的PhonePe拥有1.5亿印度用户。亚马逊也在印度布局其数字支付平台Amazon Pay,并在今年早些时候增加个人对个人的数字支付。

And an even bigger rival is waiting in the wings. WhatsApp, the mobile messaging app owned by Facebook, which has more than 400 million users in India, is gearing up to launch its own payments service.


These companies already have large user bases for their core services, which gives them a running start when trying to add users to their payment platforms.


"The biggest challenge [for Paytm] will be from the competition point of view — to make sure people stay on their platform," says Tarun Pathak, an analyst at Counterpoint Research.

“Paytm面临的最大挑战将是从竞争的角度——确保人们留在自己的平台上,”Cometerpoint Research的分析师塔伦•帕萨克表示。

Paytm wants to offer more services to its millions of users, starting with an e-commerce portal called Paytm Mall, backed by Alibaba. Launched in 2017, it's aimed at cashing in on India's online retail market, which Morgan Stanley forecasts will be worth $200 billion by 2027.

Paytm希望为数百万用户提供更多的服务,首先是一家名为Paytm Mall的电子商务门户网站,由中国的阿里巴巴支持。该公司成立于2017年,旨在利用印度在线零售市场赚钱。摩根士丹利预测,到2027年,印度在线零售市场的价值将达到2000亿美元。

But while Amazon and Walmart-owned Flipkart have taken over the market and disrupted India's millions of smaller retailers, Paytm Mall has failed to make much of an inroad. The platform has a little over 3% of the Indian market, compared to more than 30% each for Amazon and Flipkart.

然而亚马逊和沃尔玛旗下的Flipkart占领了印度市场,并扰乱了印度数以百万计的小型零售商,Paytm Mall未能取得太大进展。该平台在印度市场的占有率略高于3%,而亚马逊和Flipkart的市场占有率均超过30%。

There are other potential hurdles as well: New Indian regulations requiring digital payment firms to do more background checks on their consumers could drastically increase costs. Heavy regulations govern Paytm's other businesses, including banking, loans and insurance. One97 is also racking up losses — its total loss in the financial year that ended in March 2019 was nearly 40 billion rupees ($560 million), a 165% increase from the previous year, according to multiple media reports. It also reportedly has around $96 million in debt.


"We have invested more in consumer and merchant growth," a company spokesperson said, adding that it aims to reduce losses by "more than 25%" this year.

“我们在消费者和商家的增长上投入了更多,” Paytm的一位发言人说,“公司今年的目标是减少25%以上的损失。”

But Sharma is confident he can make it all work. He's practically evangelical about helping bring millions of Indians into the mainstream banking system.


"I say to my team that our mission is so pious that God will give us a way to do what we want to do," he said. "I believe that God above will take care of us, giants will give way and stumbling blocks will disappear on our way."


In fact, he wants to start preparing for an initial public offering by the end of next year.


Going global


Sharma's latest bet is not a new business but a new country. Last year, he teamed up with Yahoo! Japan and one of Paytm's biggest investors, SoftBank, to launch a mobile payment app called PayPay in Japan. The app signed up 10 million users and brought a million stores onto its platform in its first 10 months, and Sharma wants to cash in on a huge influx of tourists for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.


But it's a big leap for a cash-obsessed country: 80% of transactions in Japan still use cash, and even the digital payment pie is split between big players like Samsung (SSNLF), Apple and popular messaging app Line (LN). While the early signs for Paytm have been encouraging, it's a long road ahead.


"It is tough to convince a Japanese business unless they are totally convinced. And there is not a 'let me try' attitude there; it has to work perfectly well," Sharma told CNN Business in early August.


He makes no secret of his global ambitions. Every meeting room on Paytm's main floor is named after a major global city: New York, London, Seoul, Barcelona, Dubai.


There's also Hangzhou, the headquarters of Paytm's biggest investor Alibaba. "That's for Jack Ma," he said, referring to Alibaba's billionaire co-founder. "And we have Tokyo for Masa Son," the CEO of SoftBank.


There's also an Omaha room, he added, where legendary investor Warren Buffett is based. Paytm last year became the first Indian company that Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway (BRKA) invested in.


Sharma told CNN Business last year that he wants to get all three men in the same room for a board meeting. But he has an even bigger dream.


"Look, the ultimate dreamland for tech entrepreneurs is if America becomes a market," he said. "For us, it's an ambition, very outspokenly stated, that we would love to be a part of the American economy where we can serve American citizens."


Sharma is already fighting several battles at home and abroad, but he's confident that he can make it happen.


"The success of Japan tells us that our technology is up to that mark ... just like where we got Masa Son as a partner in Japan, if we get some partner like that, we're headed to the US soon," he said. "We would love to start the journey ASAP, but we would have to build our finances well for [the] US market... inshallah if it happens soon, then we are going to do it soon."

“日本市场的成功告诉我们,我们的技术已经达到了所要求的标准……正如我们在日本和孙正义(Masa Son)结为合作伙伴一样,如果我们在美国也能结识这样的合作伙伴,那么离我们打入美国市场也就不远了。”“我们希望下一步的计划尽快提上日程,但在开始之前我们必须为进入(美国)市场做好准备,管理好财务问题(首轮公开募股)……愿真/主保佑,如果资金在短时间内到位的话,我们很快就会实施计划。”

Adusumalli, who says his founder-investor relationship with Sharma has evolved into a "strong friendship with a great deal of mutual trust," says the United States is still far behind countries like China when it comes to online payments, creating a potential opportunity for Paytm.


Only 55 million people in the United States used mobile payments last year, according to research firm eMarketer — about 20% of the population. That's just a fraction of China's 525 million users. Even India, where less than half the population uses smartphones, had around 74 million people making mobile payments, eMarketer said.


"While India is a large and growing market, it requires a great deal of patience. The U.S. is appealing because it is a massive market and payments are antiquated relative to what is happening in China," he said. "Vijay sees an opportunity to being a disruptor in a market that is very profitable for incumbents."

“尽管印度市场巨大且增长潜能良好,但需要投入极大的耐心。美国因其市场巨大对海内外企业有极大的吸引力,但与中国相比,美国的支付方式早已过时了。”Vijay Shekhar Sharma称其看到了美国市场蕴藏的商机,并希望扮演一个颠覆者的角色从中获利。

It would be a huge bet — but Sharma is used to seeing those pay off.


"I think I've been lucky that in my life I had to take risks without even thinking of downfalls because I did not start with a lot of things that I could have lost," he said.


Clues about how he approaches risk are all over the walls of Paytm's offices. "Just because they say it's impossible doesn't mean you can't do it," reads one poster. "No bird soars in a calm," reads another.


"If you don't give yourself a chance, who will? If you don't take a chance, who will?" Sharma says. "And I think you should take a chance on you."


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