Look around the digital commerce space as it is today, and all you find is deep discounting, cash backs and more rewards for the customer. But much before everybody hopped onto the bandwagon, there was a company which had not just tapped and hacked the cash back model in India, but were making money out of it and helping people earn hard cash as well!
We’re talking about the now famous CashKaro, who recently found an investor in Ratan Tata but whose journey started in UK with PouringPounds. It is the story of friends turning partners turning business partners. Rohan Bhargava and Swati Bhargava started their coupons and cash back model in London, and after witnessing initial success there decided to bring the model to India, a country which was only warming up to e-commerce at that time, and cash backs were practically unheard of on a large scale, barring credit cards and some institutions offering the same.
What a lot of people may not realise is that CashKaro is actually one of India’s finest Affiliate Marketing case study. Affiliate marketing allows a business to share a part of their revenue with another business, who in turn helps them get more business. In their case, all e commerce portals like Flipkart, Amazon, Snapdeal and more become a client, while the customers who buy via their platform, become a partner who they share their affiliate income with, thus generating a cash back.
We caught up with the more outspoken Co-Founder Swati Bhargava in Delhi, and here are excerpts from our conversation.
Q. PouringPounds was finding its feet in UK, but you decided to cross shores and come to India. There were ample coupon websites at that time and the deals model was also doing well in 2013. What made you take the leap and start a cashback model?
SB : While coupon sites and the deals model were doing well in 2013, we were sure the Cashback model which was a proven, tried & tested model in the West can bring value and sweeten the deal for the conscious Indian online shopper. This led us to start CashKaro.com in India in mid-2013. We were inspired by the success of Ebates.com, largest US Cashback site and Fanli.com in China. Both are Rakuten-backed companies— Ebates.com was acquired by Rakuten for $1 Billion and Fanli.com, largest Chinese Cashback site recently raised investment at $1 Billon valuation.
The burgeoning Indian e-commerce was also one of the biggest motivations for us to start CashKaro.com. Indian e-commerce is projected to reach $100 billion by 2020. Affiliate marketing would account for about 20% of these sales, making the market size for CashKaro about $20 billion. On the other hand, we picked up this idea because Rohan (my husband and Co-Founder, CashKaro) & I are users of Cashback sites ourselves and personally believed in the concept.
Q. At the time explaining what cashback is must have been difficult and today every debit card, mobile wallets and practically all other transactional mediums offer a discount/cashback or a coupon. How has this change in the ecommerce segment in India helped you or is it a cause of worry?
SB : Cashback deals are common now with credit card issuing companies, mobile wallet providers, taxi hailing companies, e-commerce websites, retailers and loyalty programme portals all offering them. But when we entered the market the concept of cashback was almost non-existent. When we started out, only coupon sites existed in India. We had to ensure that our Cashback concept was understood by potential partnering e-commerce sites and customers both – because our Cashback can be redeemed and transferred to users bank account as REAL CASH. We invested heavily in creating awareness through media and PR. Today, with multiple cashback sites into existence the awareness has surely increased and affiliate programs are established and adopted across e-commerce sites. The change is positive and with increased acceptance of the model, CashKaro now has become the default site for shoppers to begin their online journey.
Q. The consumer is growing smarter and will look for the best place to get that extra discount. With so many coupon sites around, what makes customers keep coming back to CashKaro? Does the ‘cash in bank’ model tip it in your favour?
SB : Indian online shopper has grown smarter over the years and 80-85% of them now typically look for discount coupons & cashback offers before making a purchase. The paradigm shift in behaviour has helped CashKaro attain a premier position as we offer the benefit of both Cashback & Coupons to users. Our site acts as a singular platform where online shoppers can ‘Search, Compare and Save/Earn’ on shopping. Our “Cash in Bank” model has definitely favoured and accelerated our growth in just 3 years. Today, we enjoy a user base of more than a million and have credited over Rs 30 crores as cashback to our valued users and have enabled more than Rs 650 crores of sales to partner sites.
In addition, our strong backend team has led to high customer satisfaction encouraging users to come back to the site again and again.
Q. Among many other achievements, one of the most special in the recent times must be having Ratan Tata’s backing. How did that happen and what does it mean for you as a company.
SB : The funding from Mr. Ratan Tata has indeed been an important milestone in CashKaro’s three-year journey. In November 2015, we raised Rs 25 crore in a Series A funding round led by Kalaari Capital. Since Mr. Tata is an advisory board member of Kalaari, we requested an introductory meeting with him. During the meeting, we shared our vision for building CashKaro into India’s leading savings destination and we were ecstatic to know that he shared this vision! Mr. Tata’s investment into CashKaro is a demonstration of our leadership in the Affiliate Marketing segment and it is probably the biggest stamp of approval & credibility that anyone could get!
Q. Which also brings us to how big is the team behind making all this happen? After Pouring Pounds and other stints globally, how tough was it to adjust to Indian working conditions?
SB : We are a team of 75 people now including 10 senior managers who are experts in different verticals including Technology, Digital Marketing, Operations, Customer Relations, Design & so on.
Doing business in India is quite different from working in the UK. I am of the belief that every country possesses its own challenges and opportunities and one has to adjust accordingly. In India similar to other start-up ventures we also faced issues related to infrastructure and talent availability amongst others. On the brighter side India has among the most driven and intelligent workforce I have ever come across. The desire and hunger to succeed is unparalleled. People don’t worry about working late into the night, working on weekends or holidays, they just get work done. This go-getter attitude has helped India quickly get onto the start-up world map.
Q. How easy has it been to find people willing and wanting to work with a start-up?
SB : More and more employees are now receptive to the idea of working at start-ups. There is a favourable outlook and employees want to learn & take up responsibilities which often larger companies cannot offer. They want to work in an environment where there is no red tape and one can innovate and get recognised. We at CashKaro can boast of a strong team which has been with us since inception.
Q. How does it work between the co-founders? Is Rohan more focussed on operations while Swati works on marketing?
SB : I really enjoy working with Rohan as our skill sets are quite complementary and we work well together as a team. I am involved in online marketing activities like email marketing, social media, customer relations, business development and Investor relations among others. On the other hand, Rohan is spearheading strategic product development and innovation while leading departments like SEM, SEO etc. He also works closely with the Chief Technology Officer to strategize and execute our technology development.
Q. How would you say has word about the organisation spread through the years. Have you deliberately invested efforts in marketing the company through word of mouth?
SB : We have built the Cashback category in India. We invested efforts in marketing the model through digital channels and PR. We invest in Email Marketing, Google ads, Facebook ads, Social Media channels (Facebook, Twitter, Google+ etc) and work on attracting a different audience pool from each vertical. We run brand campaigns on all our channels regularly.
We also have a strong student program which continuously helps in marketing the company and helps in word-of-mouth promotion.
Q. If you were to look back and compare, which medium among SEO, Google Ads, Email Marketing, Social Media seems to have helped you the most? Going forward, what you are heavily betting on?
SB : No single channel can work in isolation in this competitive environment. Every medium helps in propelling the business forward. Though I believe a balance needs to be struck so that ‘The Cost of Customer Acquisition’ (or CoCA) which is the most critical metric for every business should be minimal thus maintaining overall profitability. We continue to use different Digital Marketing avenues to keep growing.
Q. CashKaro sets itself apart by not just being a coupon and cashback site, but also an aggregator and a product discovery platform. Do you see yourself as becoming a one of a kind marketplace for e commerce websites in the time to come, or will the focus remain on deals and discounts?
SB : Our vision for CashKaro is to become the Google for online savings by offering all kinds of Cashback, discounts, offers and Coupons. Our aim is to create a singular platform which is the best way for anyone to shop online, which delivers the convenience of price comparison & product wise sorting and provides best price all in one place. We believe this market is big enough and therefore we do not need to try and switch categories to ecommerce itself.
Q. You mentioned recently after the Series A funding that we should look forward to an app and expansion into other parts of SouthEast Asia. While that is a lot in itself, what else should users look forward to from the world of CashKaro?
SB : While we are working on extensions and derivatives of our mobile initiatives including launching the CashKaro app and expansion into other parts of South East Asia, we’ll continue to work in parallel to grow the recently launched product comparison ecosystem while creating more partnerships with various other online businesses to build great synergies.