Growing business

The engineer who went on to become Paytm’s first CEO is eyeing half-a-billion users

Harinder Takhar is the man behind the deal that propelled Paytm closer to the top of India’s startup pyramid.

He convinced Uber to do business with him in what is now its fastest-growing market.

So the San Francisco-based ride-hailing company began using the Paytm wallet exclusively in India in 2014. That deal propelled the Noida-based Paytm, hardly a household name at that time, closer to the top of India’s startup pyramid.

But no, we are not referring to Vijay Shekhar Sharma, Paytm’s gregarious founder, here. The person who brought about that big tie-up was Harinder Takhar, one of Sharma’s first employees and a former batchmate from the Delhi College of Engineering.

Takhar is currently the chief executive officer of the company’s Toronto-based research and development arm, Paytm Labs, but he’s worn other hats before.

The first engineer

The 39-year-old may not be in the limelight often, but at Paytm, he has had many firsts to his name. For one, he was the first and, for a while, the only engineer at One97, the company that owns Paytm. The firm, which started out by providing astrology services over mobile phones, was launched by Sharma in 2000.

Takhar left the startup to look for more lucrative opportunities and enrolled for an MBA at INSEAD in 2005. After graduation, he went on to work in strategy and business development at Nokia and Research in Motion.

He returned to India in 2011 when One97 had just launched Paytm, short for “Pay Through Mobile.” He became the startup’s first chief executive officer and brought with him significant disruption.

“I wanted to completely change the entire tech stack. You will find that most engineers hate whatever has been done before and they want to completely revamp it,” Takhar, who is an Elon Musk fan, told Quartz. “And I also made the classic mistake of underestimating what it takes. So we all went through a lot of turbulent time for four to five months.”

He was also the first to streamline the workflow within the company. “I built a process around product management. It was a bit Vijay-ish earlier. Vijay-ish means that Vijay would get an idea and he would want it implemented yesterday. That is his superpower. He can see a little bit ahead of everyone else.”

Once the wallet business began growing at a steady clip, Takhar – who has no qualms about referring to himself as “the nerd” – moved to Canada with his family and started Paytm Labs in 2014. The move was made for personal reasons but he proved its worth to the board almost instantly by striking the Uber deal.

The unexpected bonanza

Outside the company, though, there are two men who played a defining role in Paytm’s dizzying success. One is obviously Uber chief executive officer Travis Kalanick and the other is Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

In November last year, Modi announced a ban on two high-value rupee notes, which formed the bulk of currency in circulation in the country. He also declared his intention to make digital currency the mainstay in Asia’s third-largest economy, where cash has always reigned supreme.

As expected, India was plunged into confusion and chaos overnight. For Paytm, it was a bonanza. Within hours of the announcement, the wallet saw a 200% hike in the number of app downloads and a 250% rise in overall transactions, as Indians scrambled to look for alternative forms of payment.

Harinder Takhar. (Paytm)
Harinder Takhar. (Paytm)

While other online wallets also benefited, nobody could notch up the fantastic numbers that Paytm boasted. By the end of a week, everyone from a restaurant owner to a sex worker was promoting the Paytm app. Six months later, it had 220 million wallet users – more than the population of Brazil – and five million merchants.

Its ambition has soared along with its valuation. While other Indian unicorns are struggling to raise money, Paytm recently got Softbank to invest $1.4 billion in it. The money will be used to expand its services, including the launch of its payment bank on May 23. (From today, the company will transfer its wallet business to the bank.) Together with the wallet and bank, Paytm now wants to bring half-a-billion Indians under its wing.

But its steady climb hasn’t gone unchallenged. Some of the world’s biggest corporations have entered the country’s payments business. This year onwards, Uber customers in India can use Reliance Jio Money, too. In April, it was reported that WhatsApp might launch peer-to-peer lending in India, the Facebook-owned firm’s largest market.

However, Paytm can stay ahead of the curve if it can leverage the humongous amount of data it has gathered on its customers. And that’s what Takhar is now trying to do at Paytm Labs – plumbing through a petabyte of data.

This data is used to market, prevent fraud, launch new products, and make the app more intuitive.

What the hell is a petabyte?

This is how Wes Biggs, chief technology officer at Adfonic, described petabyte in

One petabyte is enough to store the DNA of the entire population of the US – and then clone them, twice.

Takhar, who picked up the basics of machine learning only a couple of years ago by studying on Coursera, says the easy availability of data and machine learning engineers in North America makes Toronto a better base than Delhi. He is also working on being the “face of the company” in America and in March launched a bill payments app in Canada – its first international market.

After the latest investment from Softbank, Paytm is also expected to launch a slew of financial services ranging from wealth management to insurance, to attract new customers. Takhar’s team has built a credit score internally for each customer and merchant. “It tells us how credible a person is or how honest. So that score is what we intend to use when we plan to extend to financial services to people,” he said. “We use more than 1,000 signals – everything from how you use the app, the times at which you use the app, the kind of purchases you make, how fast you scroll down the app – and we update the score every hour,” he adds.

But how is his lab, which now has 50 employees, attracting engineers in one of the world’s most competitive markets? Takhar says his employees come from some of Canada’s best universities, besides Silicon Valley. “At the risk of sounding arrogant, I think the kind of scale we offer to anyone working in our company is simply not available in Canada, which has a population of 35 million. We have 220 million users... and we want to bring 500 million Indian people to the mainstream economy.”

This article first appeared on Quartz.

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Removing the layers of complexity that weigh down mental health in rural India

Patients in rural areas of the country face several obstacles to get to treatment.

Two individuals, with sombre faces, are immersed in conversation in a sunlit classroom. This image is the theme across WHO’s 2017 campaign ‘Depression: let’s talk’ that aims to encourage people suffering from depression or anxiety to seek help and get assistance. The fact that depression is the theme of World Health Day 2017 indicates the growing global awareness of mental health. This intensification of the discourse on mental health unfortunately coincides with the global rise in mental illness. According to the latest estimates from WHO, more than 300 million people across the globe are suffering from depression, an increase of 18% between 2005 and 2015.

In India, the National Mental Health Survey of India, 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) revealed the prevalence of mental disorders in 13.7% of the surveyed population. The survey also highlighted that common mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect nearly 10% of the population, with 1 in 20 people in India suffering from depression. Perhaps the most crucial finding from this survey is the disclosure of a huge treatment gap that remains very high in our country and even worse in rural areas.

According to the National Mental Health Programme, basic psychiatric care is mandated to be provided in every primary health centre – the state run rural healthcare clinics that are the most basic units of India’s public health system. The government provides basic training for all primary health centre doctors, and pays for psychiatric medication to be stocked and available to patients. Despite this mandate, the implementation of mental health services in rural parts of the country continues to be riddled with difficulties:

Attitudinal barriers

In some rural parts of the country, a heavy social stigma exists against mental illness – this has been documented in many studies including the NIMHANS study mentioned earlier. Mental illness is considered to be the “possession of an evil spirit in an individual”. To rid the individual of this evil spirit, patients or family members rely on traditional healers or religious practitioners. Lack of awareness on mental disorders has led to further strengthening of this stigma. Most families refuse to acknowledge the presence of a mental disorder to save themselves from the discrimination in the community.

Lack of healthcare services

The average national deficit of trained psychiatrists in India is estimated to be 77% (0.2 psychiatrists per 1,00,000 population) – this shows the scale of the problem across rural and urban India. The absence of mental healthcare infrastructure compounds the public health problem as many individuals living with mental disorders remain untreated.

Economic burden

The scarcity of healthcare services also means that poor families have to travel great distances to get good mental healthcare. They are often unable to afford the cost of transportation to medical centres that provide treatment.

After focussed efforts towards awareness building on mental health in India, The Live Love Laugh Foundation (TLLLF), founded by Deepika Padukone, is steering its cause towards understanding mental health of rural India. TLLLF has joined forces with The Association of People with Disability (APD), a non-governmental organisation working in the field of disability for the last 57 years to work towards ensuring quality treatment for the rural population living with mental disorders.

APD’s intervention strategy starts with surveys to identify individuals suffering from mental illnesses. The identified individuals and families are then directed to the local Primary Healthcare Centres. In the background, APD capacity building programs work simultaneously to create awareness about mental illnesses amongst community workers (ASHA workers, Village Rehabilitation Workers and General Physicians) in the area. The whole complex process involves creating the social acceptance of mental health conditions and motivating them to approach healthcare specialists.

Participants of the program.
Participants of the program.

When mental health patients are finally free of social barriers and seeking help, APD also mobilises its network to make treatments accessible and affordable. The organisation coordinates psychiatrists’ visits to camps and local healthcare centres and ensures that the necessary medicines are well stocked and free medicines are available to the patients.

We spent a lot of money for treatment and travel. We visited Shivamogha Manasa and Dharwad Hospital for getting treatment. We were not able to continue the treatment for long as we are poor. We suffered economic burden because of the long- distance travel required for the treatment. Now we are getting quality psychiatric service near our village. We are getting free medication in taluk and Primary Healthcare Centres resulting in less economic stress.

— A parent's experience at an APD treatment camp.

In the two years TLLLF has partnered with APD, 892 and individuals with mental health concerns have been treated in the districts of Kolar, Davangere, Chikkaballapur and Bijapur in Karnataka. Over 4620 students participated in awareness building sessions. TLLLF and APD have also secured the participation of 810 community health workers including ASHA workers in the mental health awareness projects - a crucial victory as these workers play an important role in spreading awareness about health. Post treatment, 155 patients have resumed their previous occupations.

To mark World Mental Health Day, 2017, a team from TLLLF lead by Deepika Padukone visited program participants in the Davengere district.

Sessions on World Mental Health Day, 2017.
Sessions on World Mental Health Day, 2017.

In the face of a mental health crisis, it is essential to overcome the treatment gap present across the country, rural and urban. While awareness campaigns attempt to destigmatise mental disorders, policymakers need to make treatment accessible and cost effective. Until then, organisations like TLLLF and APD are doing what they can to create an environment that acknowledges and supports people who live with mental disorders. To know more, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.