From Pirated CDs To A $4 Billion Business – Kunal Shah and The CRED Success Story, Revisited
Back in 2018, Kunal Shah was already recognized as something of a maverick businessman when he had what he describes as a ‘simple idea.’
“If we could just aggregate people of high trust,” shared Shah a few years ago, “we can create interesting business models on top of that.”
What followed was one of India’s greatest modern startup tales – a journey that took Shah’s brainchild on the front lines of IPL ad culture, breathed new life into a stale fintech ecosystem, and in its own way, has challenged the paradigms of how New India spends, saves, and splurges.
With CRED paying homage to their roots with a special ‘12th Main’ cocktail event, it’s a great time to revisit Shah’s fascinating story, the unique business model CRED is aiming to establish, and what customers can expect as we move into 2022.
Two Decades In The Making
Fate plays strange games with famous entrepreneurs, or so it would seem. Unlike many other business hotshots, Shah’s initial experiences with money-making were deceptively simple and born of necessity more than invention.
Back in the 90s, Shah’s father worked in the pharmaceutical distribution industry in South Mumbai. At sixteen, he came face to face with a tough reality check. Hit by a financial crisis, his family was forced to rely on creating side sources of income, and it was then that Shah developed an early understanding of money, its value, and perhaps more importantly, how demand for various goods and services worked.
During these years, he carried out a wide range of odd jobs to support himself and his family, from selling henna cones and pirated CDs to operating tuition classes and a cyber cafe. This meant that when Shah graduated from Wilson College with an Arts and Philosophy degree at the turn of the millennium, he already had something of a business education – whether he realized this at the time or not.
“All students should have a startup during college. Doesn’t matter if (it’s) successful or how big or small. Worst case scenario it will make them a 10x better employee than someone with no exposure to how a business works.”
Eager to start his own career apart from the family business, Shah initially spent 10 years working with TIS International Inc. as a programmer. During this time, he would choose to consider and drop the idea of an MBA – deciding that a formal business degree was better designed for “scoring marks and not really understanding things.”
This turned out for the best – especially when Shah eventually crossed paths with a key TIS investor named Sandeep Tandon.
The Startup Game
Through the 2000s, Tandon would come to realize that Shah had serious entrepreneurial zeal and a latent passion for understanding the flow of money – particularly within the Indian economy.
This would come to fruition in 2010 when the pair teamed up to create Freecharge – a digital payments platform that set records in 2015 for a historic $400 million acquisition by Snapdeal. Flush with cash, a stellar reputation as a business-maker, and newer goals, Shah stepped down in 2016 to chase his next golden goose.
For a while, Shah served as a chairperson and advisor to many companies such as BCCL, Y Combinator, and Sequoia Capital India. By April 2018, he would introduce India to CRED.
Shah’s initial musings on CRED, as we mentioned above, were tied to the idea of trust. His core criticism of most Indian digital marketplaces and financial ecosystems was centered around this.
Think about it – how often do websites such as OLX offer trustworthy, legitimate deals? Sellers and buyers alike cannot operate on just good faith, after all.
“Imagine if you could create a platform where people don’t need to take deposits from each other,” he enthuses. Much like western insurance systems where car drivers are penalized with higher rates for rash driving records, Shah thinks of CRED as more than a rewards system – instead, it takes the shape of a self-regulating, gated community that stays gated because of its strict credit score requirements.
What CRED aims to do, in a nutshell, is bring some sense of positive accountability to the world of Indian personal finance – by creating a lifestyle-tied community of credit-responsible customers, the platform ultimately enables interesting horizontal growth. Shah himself has teased ideas from premium classifieds to streamlined Visa approvals – no doubt there’s more left in the tank there.
Also, Shah summarizes much of these ideas on trust and the Indian economy by describing it as a ‘Mistrust-based Nation’. I guess you need a sense of humor to be a good investor, too!
Where CRED Is Due
True – CRED currently holds a powerful position atop the heady heights of India’s aggregated startup pile, but haters gonna’ hate. CRED’s detractors generally argue that Shah’s business model is flawed because of a lack of clear revenue opportunities – a common point of interest when the CEO has made his infrequent press appearances.
CRED’s revenue generation system is fairly straightforward – businesses pay the company to promote their items and offers on its app, and it gets money from listing fees. In return, CRED’s partners gain access to a pre-vetted, reliable source of high-value customers. With a proven track record and obviously convinced investors, Shah isn’t particularly concerned with naysayers.
The real goal, however, has always been his trust-based customer ecosystem. With more services such as instant credit lines, a RentPay platform, and an increasingly potent cocktail of rewards for members to choose from, the sky seems to be the limit for the once-little startup that could.
CRED’s ’12th Main’ Event
Speaking of cocktails, CRED’s recent ‘12th Main’ event at Social outlets in Mumbai and Bangalore was a standout year-ender that we had the pleasure of covering. With it, the brand has both curated its lifestyle quotient while giving its members a taste of something quite special.
Named after the address of CRED’s birthplace in upscale Indiranagar, the 12th Main is an homage to the spirit of both the modern Indian entrepreneur and the men and women who support that drive to constantly innovate. There’s also a slight nod to the area’s burgeoning coffee culture – in essence, the 12th Main is a well-executed flourish of cold brew coffee, Jameson Irish Whiskey, and a playful, decadent hit of popcorn syrup.
Trust me – this thing was invented for the end of a busy week. 7 PM on a Friday with one of these in your hand? Sounds pretty damn good. We got to test one (or more) of these treats during Mumbai’s event – if you love coffee, whiskey, or both of them together, you’re seriously missing out. Try one ASAP!
CRED’s customers were also treated to a 10% discount on their bills and a glass of 12th Main, on the house.
Meanwhile, the event kicked off with a hard-hitting electronic set by Ambika Nayak, AKA Kayan. Members and Social visitors alike hit the dance floor at an absolutely packed Khar Social, Mumbai – with Kayan’s set cascading between mellow, soothing vocals as the sundowner began – ending with a thrilling mix of 2000’s pop and Punjabi hits.
Like many of you out there, I was raised as something of a credit card skeptic. Many of us experience something of a ‘lack of trust’ when it comes to managing credit and personal finances – but CRED seems to flip that idea on its head in increasingly effective, efficient, and even enjoyable ways.
From helping his family to helping a community of 7.5 million credit-conscious Indians, Kunal Shah’s story will probably end up in the MBA books he decided to avoid. With big plans on the horizon for 2022, there’s no better time than now to try out his team’s unique idea – and get on the ground floor of India’s most innovative fintech platform.
(Image Sources: CRED, Forbes India)