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Hire and Higher

When his IIM batchmates were racing up the corporate ladder, Sanjeev Bikhchandani was slogging it out to keep his small business a float.

It is ironic that the founder-CEO of Info Edge, the company that owns India’s largest employment-search website, has a fractured employment record himself. But that record is a testimonial to Sanjeev Bikhchandani’s drive as an entrepreneur. Bikhchandani, 43, passed through three premier educational institutions on his way to founding the Rs 84 crore business, which is now set to launch an IPO.

Info Edge aims to raise between Rs 154-170 crore by selling a 19.5% stake. It will be the first Internet business to list in India. Apart from, Info Edge also owns the online marriage bureau and real estate portal It employs 920 people in 40 offices across India.

Bikhchandani schooled at Delhi’s St Columba’s. By the time he was 11, he knew he wanted to be an entrepreneur. He turned down two shots at IIT and opted to read economics in St Stephen’s, Delhi instead. After graduation, he slogged three years in an ad agency before moving on to do an MBA at the Indian Institute of Managment, Ahmedabad.

This “eduployment” sequence arose from choice. He did not wish to spend an extra year on a B.Tech degree. Bikhchandani’s elder brother, an IIT-IIM alumni, had assured him that a management course would be more useful if Sanjeev came to it after work experience. Hence, he worked before sitting for the CAT.

Post-MBA, it was a sequence of 18-hour days, holding down a job at the Indian subsidiary of MNC GlaxoSmithKline, while trying to establish a business burning the midnight oil. Bikhchandani hails from middle-class family (his father is a retired government doctor). He had to build a business on the cheap with ingenuity and hard work as substitutes for money.

For years, he struggled to make a go of providing niche information services. Along with a friend and former partner, he conducted salary surveys and did searches on trademark and logo registrations for pharma industry clients.

They worked on a shoestring. To keep overheads low, the office was located in the servants’ quarter of his father’s house. The salary surveys fetched Rs 3,500 per report while the trademark searches brought in about Rs 350 per search.

Bikhchandani’s next idea was sparked by the observation that career movement was a favourite topic of discussion among employees. And yet, there was no comprehensive database on jobs and salaries. He concluded that highly fragmented databases of jobs and applicants existed with HR managers and head hunters. If these databases were aggregated and regularly updated, it would constitute a very valuable resource for wannabe employees and employers.

When this insight occurred, Bikhchandani was drawing a salary of Rs 7,000, a reasonable sum in 1991. He knew that he would have to quit and devote himself fulltime to the new project. There was a cushion—wife Surabhi, an IIM-A batchmate, was also pulling a decent salary.

So, after six months of agonising, he put in his papers and launched Info Edge. The company stayed afloat but eventually the partners split up. Bikhchandani kept the salary practice while his erstwhile partner took the trademark search practice. Info Edge was now fully owned by Bikhchandani. He couldn’t afford to pay himself a salary and earned his “pocket-money” through part-time gigs. Among other things, he worked as a visiting professor at a management institute and as the editor of a newspaper supplement.

His batchmates at Columba’s, Stephen’s and IIM-A must have thought he was insane to endure this privation instead of settling into the steady job that his CV guaranteed. But Bikhchandani never thought of quitting.

The 1991 liberalisation led to a huge expansion in demand for the salary database. This expansion was followed by another economic downswing. By 1995 96, Bikhchandani was cash-strapped again.

His next big breakthrough came when he learnt about the Internet in October 1996 at a technology exposition in Delhi. Over the next few weeks, he devoured every scrap of data about the Net. By December, he knew enough to leverage the Web.

Finance was the next hurdle. Bikhchandani roped in two friends on an equity-sharing basis. Anil Lall, a software programmer, became the Chief Technology Officer. V.N. Saroja, a junior from IIM, looked after operations. His brother also got a share in lieu of hosting the site on a US server. was born in March 1997 when there were only a handful of Internet users in the Indian dialup space. “We had never heard of venture capital or dotcom valuations. We just felt it was a good business idea and began to market our job-listing services to HR managers via direct mail.”

Revenue was sluggish—most listings were free. But traffic soared and earned over Rs 2 lakh in the first year. In the second year, revenue climbed to about Rs 20 lakh. At that point, Info Edge exited other projects and poured all its resources into Naukri.

By 1999, dotcom fever had infected India. Naukri’s turnover hit Rs 36 lakh. Venture capitalists started knocking on the door. Ultimately, Bikhchandani sold 15% of Info Edge to Prudential ICICI Technology Fund for Rs 7.29 crore in April 2000. “We chose to go with ICICI since we felt greater investor compatibility,” he says.

Swank new office premises were acquired. But Info Edge remained a frugal organisation. There was no big ad-spend. The infamous “boss from hell”, Hari Sadu, appeared only in 2006—the year Info Edge would declare over Rs 13 crore in profit after tax.

Bikhchandani is modest to a fault. Though his 43% stake in Info Edge could soon be worth over Rs 350 crore, he continues to live in his father’s house and drives a 10- year-old Opel Astra. His personal concerns are focused on buying his own house and funding the education of his two children. And his investments are parked in a portfolio of mutual funds. Although he’s arrived, Bikhchandani remains the proverbial millionaire next door.