“Pacman and Mario!” 

“Pacman versus Mario!” 

“Pacman or Mario?”

Given the number of times you’ll hear those two words pop up in animated conversations within the Bengaluru offices of Udaan, you’d think Udaan was a gaming company.

Instead, the four-year-old company that is worth over $3 billion is India’s leading business-to-business (B2B) e-commerce platform. Hundreds of thousands of small and independent stores across the country use Udaan each day to order the products they stock and sell. These products, which can range from smartphones and home appliances to apparel and daily groceries, are in turn sold by thousands of wholesales and brands. 

“Mario”, in Udaan lingo, is the name given to categories like smartphones, apparel, home & kitchenware, toys and stationery, etc. Because, like the video game on which it is based, these categories offer higher rewards and power-ups as you play the game.

The rewards being higher gross margins and even profits.

“Pacman”, in contrast, refers to categories like staples, fruits & vegetables and common consumer products. Even though they offer very low margins, often as low as 2-3%, they are immense drivers of order volume. 

So what does that have to do with Pac-Man, you wonder?

Well, these categories burn through Udaan’s formidable pile of venture capital (it has raised over $1 billion to date) like the eponymous character from the Pac-Man game eats through dots in the maze.

Pacman products are easier to sell and scale, but at the cost of losing money. Mario products are profitable but take time to reach scale. 

Up till late 2019, Udaan played both the characters deftly to grow its business. It used fast-growing Pacman volumes to show newer investors how rapidly it was growing the volume of products bought and sold via its platform (gross merchandise value, or GMV) and its own topline revenue. Those investors, in turn, gave it hundreds of millions of dollars to grow even faster and to invest in Mario categories and markets.

It was an audacious bet – raise massive venture capital rounds at higher valuations and faster speed to hire, build and scale a business that would be the Flipkart of India’s B2B space. 

Pacman!

Like running so fast over water that you wouldn’t sink, while also making a ship that would eventually be the grandest out there.

Mario!

Udaan’s valuation grew from $40 million in 2016 to $1 billion in 2018 to $2.7 billion in 2019. 

Pacman and Mario!

It was treading water so fast you could have seen the water turning to steam.

AUTHOR

Pranav Balakrishnan

Pranav writes about the business of moving people and things around, i.e, mobility and e-commerce. Over the past two years, he has written about Ola, Tesla, Flipkart, Amazon, and the increasing role played by Reliance Industries in the Indian technology story. Pranav joined The Ken from Asian College of Journalism, Chennai, specialising in business journalism.

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