Satyen Kothari Talks About Citrus Pay, Cube and his Firm’s Fanatical Zest in Hiring the Right Candidates

Satyen Kothari came back from Silicon Valley four years ago to create Citrus Pay, a giant in the Indian online payment gateway arena.

He admires Steve Jobs for his passion and intensity, President Obama for bringing back “individual rigour to his field” and the Dalai Lama for “making us realize that wallowing in your own misery is not fun.” But it is Elon Musk, the South African-born Canadian-American business magnate, inventor and investor, that Satyen Kothari looks up to the most.


Like his hero, Kothari, Founder and Managing Director, Citrus Pay, believes in revolutionary ideas. He forayed into the online payment gateway space when e-commerce was still a blip on the Indian business horizon. Within four years, it metamorphosized into a market leader with more than 8,000 merchant establishments as clients including every airline in India, movie theatres, telcos, insurance firms, e-commerce companies and taxi firms. Its eight offices all over India employ 250 people who handle Rs 130 billion worth of transactions every year. According to one estimate, there are 35 million active Indians in the e-commerce space. Around 20 million of them deal with Citrus Pay.


Kothari believes a sharp focus on product development, technology and customer satisfaction have helped his company immensely in its path to speedy growth. But there is much more. There is a certain Silicon Valley sensibility in anything that Citrus does – and this has paid rich dividends. Take, for example, the firm’s almost fanatical zest in hiring the right candidates.


“We believe in empowerment and we work very hard in selecting the correct people,” says Kothari. “Ours are not ordinary interviews. Our tests are assignments that potential recruits – at all levels – have to take home and come back after 4-5 days. If an employee I have hired does not perform well, I am to blame for having chosen the wrong person.”


Another interesting takeaway from the interview is Kothari’s firm belief in minimalism. He takes a minimalist approach when designing his products and follows the same philosophy when doing business deals or dealing with issues at his workplace. Even the office on S V Road in the Mumbai suburb of Khar where we are talking can be said to be minimalist.



Apart from a chaise longue, there are only two desks – one on which are scattered a few wooden paper weights with the Citrus logo and the other a taller one, which Kothari uses to work on while standing. The only communication device is the one that the 42-year-old entrepreneur holds in his hand – a smartphone which is also the mainstay of his business.


Silicon Valley often crops up in any conversation with Kothari. Not surprising, since he cut his teeth there between May 1996 and July 2010, after completing a Masters in HCI (Human Computer Interaction), CS (Computer Science) and Entrepreneurship from Stanford. He first worked for companies like Apple Inc. and frog design before floating three firms, the first at age 26.


He returned to India in 2010 because “I found the life there too comfortable.” Back home, he started looking for big impact activity areas and narrowed down on three: real estate, money and social causes. Citrus Pay was launched in November 2011 as a digital payment player. Kothari roped in two partners, one who had rich experience in digital money and the other in Indian banking.


An online school supplies retailer called SkoolShop was their first client. “We pitched and the credit goes to them for giving us a chance. They were very supportive,” remembers Kothari fondly. The first big name that came Citrus’ way was Airtel, which obliged the fledgling company by giving it three per cent of its work. BillDesk – then the biggest payment gateway firm around – was handling 97 per cent of the Airtel account. In the last three years, every year, Citrus has been handling 80 per cent of Airtel’s transactions.


The Indian businessman has always believed in rokda (cash). But Kothari says selling the new concept of online payment was not difficult, for he and his team took a pragmatic approach. “We went to companies that were already online, people like e-tailers, insurance firms and airlines. We told some potential clients, if you are not a believer in e-commerce, sorry. To those who came on board, we said, leave all the headache from the shopping cart to closure to us.”


Over the years, Citrus’ investors have included Sequoia Capital, Beenos and E-Context Asia. Within the company, Kothari handles overall strategy, product, design, and marketing. But these days his focus is on Cube, a division floated last year. “The mission of Cube is to simplify money management for the new generation in the 15 to 35 years bracket,” says Kothari. “They need instant gratification and are not keen on traditional banking methods.”


Staffed by 40 people, Cube is the smarter and faster way to pay bills. It reminds subscribers about bill due dates, helps pay bills smoothly and tracks them over time. It helps manage payments for mobile, DTH and data card bills, lets you do top-ups, sets reminders for payments to the driver, maid, school fees and gym membership and a host of other things.


An adventure junkie, Kothari is into kite surfing. He also de-stresses by reading, mostly humour, satire and biographies. But when work beckons, he loses all sense of time. “My team members are now used to my very odd hours,” he says. “If something strikes me, I mail them even at 3 am. Then I go back to sleep.”

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