Friday, April 10, 2015

WHEN DID FLIPKART BECOME THE BAD GUY?

I remember a more innocent time. 

When Twitter was filled with early adopters and quality conversation than brand contests and Bhakt trolls. 

A time when Facebook was more an alternative from Orkut than a marketing monolith. A time when a phone over 5 inches was simply called a landline. 

It was a time when we loved Flipkart. 
It was also a time when very few people knew of Flipkart. It was a time when they sold only books, too. 

Supporting the spirited underdog is hardly a novel concept. It's a narrative that has, since time immemorial, fed literature, popular culture and sport. From David vs Goliath to New Zealand vs Australia, there's a sense of romance in seeing the one against whom odds are stacked beating the big bad bully. 

But it doesn't take long for that underdog, once successful, to metamorph into that bully, even if only perceptually. Human beings are fickle that way, that's the way they're wired. Metallica were once the darlings of the underground who wanted them to be famous. And like the lyric in their own song, King Nothing, goes, "Be careful what you wish". With the popularity of their albums, they increasingly tended towards the Goliath end of the metal scale. They made a video for 'One' - and this was unpardonable in the underground metal community. This was seen as a sign of selling out. Popularity, it would seem, was fine as long as it was within limits.

Back to Flipkart. They were our beloved book etailer (how cool was just saying that word, back in 2008?). They stocked the most obscure of things, that Landmark and Crossword (who, no doubt, had to stock popular titles and diversify to meet rapidly increasing overheads) didn't. Books, more than anything else, was the true love of the English-speaking intelligentsia, and Flipkart soon became their darling. It was their (sorry, our) little secret. It felt cool. Delays in delivery were forgiven. They were cool, too. Witty replies on Twitter. 

Remember this?




















Honestly, it was with mixed feelings that I saw their diversification. They did it very naturally and organically. We cheered them along the way as they got funding. Much deserved! Now more people can know of their awesomeness. They had some truly innovative products like Flyte, the online music store. This was the peak of my personal love for them.

With more funding came acquisitions. Suddenly our little underdog was no longer one. When they became an online megastore, we were still with mixed feelings. Sure, they created the most adorable ad campaign in India since Vodafone's Pug, but not too many people from 2008 could have pictured Flipkart one day selling refrigerators. 


Their replies got less and less startuppy and more corporate. The complaints grew, an inevitable thing to happen to a service company trying to achieve scale. Consumers were more demanding. And the financial tabloids feasted on gossip. Negative news. Foreign funding. Listing in Singapore. Tax avoidance. 
News of multi-crore salaries. Mahesh Murthy's epic description of them as "VC-funded ecom charities". 















Competition didn't help. Two years back, we'd have laughed if we were told Amazon could dent Flipkart's hegemony. The number of voices who, almost regretfully, said, "Dude... It's actually cheaper on Amazon / Snapdeal... Getting it from there.", almost like if they were cheating on a spouse, increased. The Indian consumer was as promiscuous as a Frenchman in a brothel (I think it was Andy Zaltzman who said that. The latter - he is not an expert on Indian purchase behaviour as far as I know).

Another thing that didn't help was a totally useless loyalty program called Flipkart First, but I'll rant about that later.

Here we are. 2015. Flipkart has all the signs of a corporate Goliath. Money. Ads. Customer complaints. Lots of hatred around the mobile app being pushed to your face (ugh). These were Flipkart's 'One' moments - to recall what happened to Metallica.

But it was alright. Deep down, we somewhere still like(d) Flipkart. It is, after all, a homegrown example. 'Sachin and Binny!' automatically came to mind when we thought of new-age Indian entrepreneurs. They were our star duo, our answer to Sergei and Larry. Kids from the IIMs, who used to prefer HUL and McKinsey, now go there. They are the beacon of Indian Startupnagar.

How did that love turn to like, which is such an untenable position in this day and age?

Today morning, I saw a campaign on Reddit, in response to an absurd comment made by the Flipkart CEO. The campaign was to get as many people to rate the Flipkart app as 1-star on Google Play.

It felt like a natural conclusion of all the Net Neutrality debates that were happening over the last few weeks. But I'm not going to talk about that - it's another debate.

But it led me thinking.
Rewinding to that simpler time.

Where IPL had just started. Where I had a Nokia E63.
Where Flipkart was universally loved.

Fans of 'professional wrestling' will know that the storylines are written in such a way that a 'face' becomes a 'heel' or vice-versa to maintain interest and drama. This ain't no wrestling match.

Which led me to wonder:
When did that lovable Flipkart of 2008 become the heel?

I miss ya, Good Guy Flipkart.