At that very moment, you know the man is speaking from his heart. He isn’t just spitting something because he wants you off his back as the question is a little uncomfortable. “Last year was tough,” says Tarun Mehta, co-founder of Ather Energy. “For fundraising. I had almost given up that we would be able to raise any money. But it is not just about the funding. We were way too optimistic on what it takes to build an electric vehicle. We were ridiculously aggressive on our estimates.”
“Like three times. That obviously caused me a lot of pressure managing the communication. It was hard because we made a lot of mistakes in 2015, and we sort of realised them in 2016.” The exact moment would be sometime in June 2016.
The countdown clock was ticking; Ather had just six months left for the launch of its one-of-a-kind smart electric scooter. One it had unveiled with much fanfare in front of a 5,000-strong audience at a conference in Bengaluru in 2016. It was an idea that stood out starkly, different in the startup world, which is full of borrowed ideas from the West. But as the days passed and the deadline loomed closer, Mehta could feel things collapsing around him. The vehicle cryptically called S340 was supposed to be production ready by December 2016, but it hadn’t even run 15,000 km on the road. Typically, in the automotive business, a vehicle is tested for at least 100,000 km before it is put in the hands of users. In real-life conditions, an untested vehicle is like an unpredictable monster. You never know how it is going to behave; who it is going to hurt.
It wasn’t the lack of money or ambition. Ather had the who’s who backing it—Flipkart’s founders Sachin and Binny Bansal and Tiger Global invested close to $12 million. But in June 2016, Mehta felt like he was losing control. “At one point, I began questioning what are we doing running this company,” he says. “We were given a golden opportunity and we were throwing it away…” It had all come down to this. When Ather started out, its founders believed that they were building a technology company. Just like Google or a Flipkart where employees will sit together, brainstorm, pick up responsibilities, meet deadlines and get shit done. The prototype is already there, how difficult can it be to put several such vehicles on the road? Very.
“We had grossly underestimated the need for having processes that traditional auto companies have,” says Mehta. “They are not idiots.”
Juxtapose this with conventional startup wisdom. One that you have come to see in the Indian ecosystem; myriad companies in the business of selling phones, clothes, house, cabs, food, travel tickets, hotels, leisure or just about anything online.