Neel is currently Vice President International Operations of Zomato. Being a finance student of SRCC, Delhi and the London School of Economics, and having worked in a New York based hedge fund (D.E. Shaw) for 2 years, Neel looked set for a career in finance – only to realise that he found excel sheets and financial analysis exceptionally boring. This led him to the world of food and startups, and he joined a small passionate team that believed in building a world-class product. Neel is a bit of a nomad and has lived in 6 cities across 4 countries in the last couple of years, setting up operations of Zomato worldwide. In his free time, Neel enjoys horse riding and attempting to convince the world that cricket is actually a sport. Enjoy his story!
Q: So tell us a little about Neel?
It’s funny how I’ve asked this question a lot in job interviews, and now I am struggling with a straight answer. I’ve lived across different cities in India and have been fortunate to have the opportunity to work across a few countries as well. Friends are an extremely important part of my life, as is my family. What is even more important, of course is the Indian cricket team. I also happen to be exceptionally lazy and always look for the fastest way to get things done. Luckily I work in an organization where they put up with that.
Q: Zomato. Zomato. Zomato. How did Zomato come into Neels’s life or vice versa?
My resume read Finance all over, and I knew very little about startups, and had even less tech knowledge. So, I was far from the perfect fit for Zomato. The only hitch was that I was not passionate about what I did at the time, and I really wanted to do something in which I could create an impact. This led me to the startup world, and a friend who had left the corporate bandwagon to join Zomato had great things to say about the team.
Unlike today, a few years back startups were not really a trendy career destination. Choosing to take the leap and convincing my Bengali family, who believed in the sanctity of higher education and a stable banking career, was far from easy. The transition from being a financial analyst to explaining to restaurant owners in broken Hindi how an online product would help drive business, was not the smoothest. But rest assured I learnt more about how a business works in my first two weeks at Zomato, than I did in two years of working in a corporate firm. Luckily one thing led to another, and the last few years have been a complete blur of building and growing Zomato.
In other news, my parents are Zomato’s biggest ambassadors :).
Q: You guys have grown from a little start-up to a one of the best know companies in the world. What is the secret?
That’s simple – the team. I’ve been lucky to work with some of the smartest, most inspirational folks I have met – who also happen to be really nice people. Each person in the organization brings something unique to the table, and an attitude to hustle and get shit done. Resumés do not have much value in Zomato, and everyone is expected to get their hands dirty. Along the way, we have made mistakes and had our fair share of luck, but the passion with which we approached work has never wavered.
I think something which works for us is that we always consider ourselves to be a startup. It is an approach we have always taken as a team and it helps us scale greater heights with the trademark drive and ambition of a growing organization. Deepi and Pankaj, our founders, always remind us that we are ‘1% done” – that helps brings perspective to what we are doing and prevents us from resting on our laurels.
Q: How do you all continue to differentiate yourselves and maintain your unique identity?
That sounds like a trick question. Honestly, I don’t think as a firm, we consciously try to create a unique brand identity. The team comprises of a bunch of young, fun people who are incredibly passionate about what they do – I think that constantly reflects in our work and ultimately the unique identity which Zomato is known to represent.
Ownership is a big part of Zomato culture – which literally means treating the organization as if it’s your own.
Q: What is it that gets you excited to take on the world with Zomato every morning?
Building stuff. Watching a bare idea take shape and materialize into something disruptive which influences people around is a different high in itself. Whether it is setting up a new revenue vertical, launching in a new country or just grooming someone who is incredibly bright – every challenge has a unique story.
We’ve achieved a few milestones over the year like international expansion, funding etc. but the best part about the job is the smaller things. One particular incident comes to mind – we had been in London for a few months and were slowly becoming a force in the market. Our London users were increasing by the day, but we were nowhere near being a household name (or so I thought). One Saturday night, I went out – it was one of those parties where you just land up with a friend, and most people there didn’t know me or where I worked. It was 2 am in the morning, and suddenly a bunch of guys (who were very drunk) got into an animated discussion of where they could eat in Covent Garden. I was in the other end of the room and was about to suggest an awesome app which would help them, when one of them beat me to it saying: “Why don’t we ‘Zomato’ it ?” I could’ve cried :). The guy used it as a bloody verb. It just made all those hours and effort put in – seem 1000% worth it. For me, that’s the real Zomato.
Q: Tell us a bit more about the Robin Hood Army?
This honestly happened by chance. In Lisbon, we partnered with an organization which distributes surplus food from restaurants across to the less fortunate folks via a few thousand volunteers. I really wanted to implement something similar in India, where there are way more hungry people than there should be.
With the help of a partner (Anand Sinha), friends and colleagues, we got a volunteer driven body going in Delhi and hoped to create impact in our own small way. We figured since we are helping people find places to eat by day(Zomato), we might as well do it by night to those who really need it.The model is simple – to create self-sustained communities across the city – for eg. restaurants in Green Park will contribute to the homeless of the locality via volunteers who live in Green Park.
We’ve been lucky to build an ‘Army’ of people who feel the same way and currently serve 1600 people a night across Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad and Kolkata
The more time we spend doing this, we just realize how acute the problem is in our country. There are no dearth of people who wish to create a difference, it’s just about channelizing this right.
With the wedding season hitting the country, we are actively reaching out to caterers to source food wasted in bulk. In Delhi, which experiences a harsh winter, we are organising a collection drive for warm clothes for the homeless. We have recently launched operations in 5 cities across India including Bangalore. If this strikes a chord – please do get in touch on – https://www.facebook.com/robinhoodarmy, we could always do with more help.
Q: Any challenges and advice to us all who you are an inspiration for!?
Most clichéd advice ever – follow your gut. Always. We all go through different social pressures which define the career choices we make – it is important to know yourself and realize what works for you, irrespective of how classy it might sound on your resumé or to your family friends.
Even more clichéd – be happy. It is insanely important to prioritize this. There are a lot of people who base all their efforts and energies towards the pursuit of a single goal. What’s necessary, is to be happy and at peace in the journey too, honestly that’s the most fun part of the job.
Also – avoid giving and taking a lot of advice (like I am doing :-p). Think less, and do more.