Friday, September 1, 2017

Jason Kothari after Valiant...and it's not pretty

My Google alert for Valiant Comics found something pretty interesting this morning. An article about Jason Kothari. For those that do not know, Jason Kothari was partners with Dinesh Shamdasani (current Valiant CEO and Chief Creative Officer) with Dinesh bought the rights to Valiant. The two worked together for many years to bring Valiant back and eventually relaunch comics in 2012. Strangely, right as they launched Jason Kothari stepped down with Dinesh taking on his duties. Strange timing as things were just starting to happen. Nevertheless, happen they did and Valiant has gone from strength to strength ever since becoming a major force in comics and publisher of what may call the best books in the business. Jason disappeared for a couple of years and then reemerged as CEO of something called in India. He has had one other job since but I don't want to get ahead of the story. Valiant fans have often debated what happened with Jason and why he isn't involved at Valiant in any way despite all the success. Now we may have the start of some answers to those questions and perhaps to the question of why things took so long for Valiant Entertainment in the beginning. What follows is an article about Jason Kothari's time in India post Valiant and it isn't pretty. Here it is reprinted with permission.

Jason Kothari in a room

Very little is known about the man who was parachuted into two SoftBank companies. Even less is known about the work he did there. But the impression is that he saved both of them

Room 1

The two men stare at each other silently. It is a game of one-upmanship. The first person to bring an end to this awkward meeting, where tempers are frayed, will be the one who concedes. The hum of the air conditioner seems louder than usual. But there is another way to win this argument. Fight another day.

“Let’s just take this up with Kunal,” says one of the men. Jason Kothari, the chief strategy and investment officer, at Snapdeal, looks back at him and nods.

The meeting breaks. This senior Snapdeal employee walks out of Kothari’s cabin shaking his head. Nothing about this makes sense to him. The cabin. The way Kothari speaks. The isolation. The defeated faces of employees in the organisation. Nothing is right.

It is February 2017. The two had spent an hour, or maybe more, trying to work out how to lay off most of Snapdeal’s staff. It was Kothari’s first week at Snapdeal. He had no idea that he was going to be asked to take over the biggest layoffs in the company’s history. It was nerve-racking. He had never done this before. It showed.

“We need to fire everyone in the next three days,” says Kothari.

“No. It needs to be over a few weeks. It is an emotional time for the employees. They should be given time to adjust, to prepare,” the senior employee explains.

“But isn’t it easier to rip off the band-aid,” Kothari replies.

“Telling people they don’t have a job is not supposed to be done quickly. People have to be eased into it.”

“I fired 600 people in Housing. We did it in three days. It can be done,” Kothari whispers back.

“This is not 600 people! This is 1,500. This is not Housing. This is Snapdeal.”

While these two talk, let’s step out of the room for a bit.

You must know Jason Kothari. So, let’s start with simple things. He is the former CEO of Housing who managed to sell it to PropTiger. He is the former CEO of FreeCharge who sold the digital payments company to Axis Bank. That both these companies found a buyer is a feat in itself. So far, the impression has been that Kothari has savant like capabilities of finding the mess in companies, cleaning up, fixing the business model, making the sale and moving on. He seems to be SoftBank’s one-man cleanup crew. Whenever the mess is too much to handle, Kothari is flown in. The joke within SoftBank companies is that if you see Kothari being introduced, it is time to move on. He is supposed to be the man who turned around Snapdeal, calmed the waters, made the sale to get ready to move on to the next SoftBank company in distress. But since the sale didn’t happen, sources close to Kothari credit him with Snapdeal 2.0.

But, all of this, literally, all of this is what Kothari does. A better question is, who is he?

Well, for a start, Kothari is a quiet man. When he wants to make a point, he lowers his pitch to a whisper. He is intense and works hard for a living. He likes to have a small team around him, but he prefers taking decisions alone. He likes the old world structures. Cabins, wearing expensive tailored suits to work and, like everyone, he enjoys the good things in life.

We reached out to several people who have worked with Kothari. At Housing and Snapdeal. Quite a few of them spoke about him in great detail but requested that their identities not be revealed. Needless to say, The Kenreached out to Kothari. He refused to meet us. A detailed questionnaire sent to him did not yield any reply either.  

The fixer

As the senior Snapdeal employee walked out of the room he was angry. “And I felt pity,” he says. “There was a little of both.” Kothari had stumbled onto this job without knowing what he was in for. It is amusing to imagine that the 30-something one-time CEO of Housing, which was valued at $500 million at its peak, had come on board a ship, which was in deep and choppy waters and he had no idea what was in store. He had not taken the time to study the company. Or to even read the coverage of Snapdeal by the newspapers. If people spoke about it, Kothari ignored it. Kunal Bahl, the founder and CEO of Snapdeal had asked him to join. The investors had okayed it. That was all that was needed. He did not care to know more. 

Which brings us back to the room.

“Why can’t we fire people in three days?” Kothari asks.

“Because it is physically impossible to have conversations with 1,500 people in three days. And give them time and explain why the company needs to go in a different direction,” the senior employee replies.

“We just ask their managers to send them emails,” Kothari replies.

“We can’t do that,” the senior staffer snaps back.

The senior employee is at his wits’ end. The duo lapse into a long silence. It feels like hours but it is probably just a minute. No one is minding the watch.

“He did not know how to fire people. His world view was narrow,” says the senior Snapdeal executive. Kothari viewed layoffs as an irritant. And often understood the need for it but not how it had to be done. Ultimately, Bahl ruled against Kothari. The layoffs were conducted over six weeks. Everyone was spoken to. Given time to leave. There was a doctor on the premises. Not one person reacted adversely. But all through these layoffs, which Kothari was a part of, he barely came to the Snapdeal office in Gurugram. For a long time, he was working from the business centre of his hotel. And the day he did come in, it was in a new, spanking Audi. Even the cheapest car from the manufacturer’s showroom would cost Rs 30 lakh.

“The message to the employees was loud,” says a former Snapdeal staffer, who was among the top leadership. Too loud. “Here you say we can’t afford to keep you but our new hire can be paid enough to buy an Audi. I don’t think Kothari meant harm. It is just that he was tone deaf.”

The origin story

Kothari was born in Hong Kong and spent most of his time in the city. And never learned either Cantonese or Mandarin. He got into Wharton School of Economics where he met a young man named Kunal Bahl, who went on to become the CEO of Snapdeal, one of the largest e-commerce companies in India. This friendship continued to blossom after college. Especially when Kothari bought a struggling comic book company called Valiant Comics.

Kothari wanted to make Valiant Comics the next Marvel comics. But it didn’t work out and he moved back to Hong Kong and there he reconnected with his college buddy Bahl.

Even as all this was happening, back in India, Rahul Yadav fell out with SoftBank and Nexus Venture Partners at Mumbai-based real estate startup Housing. At the time, Snapdeal was the rising star in SoftBank’s portfolio and when Bahl made a recommendation, it stuck. The Housing board was shopping around for a new CEO. Bahl recommended Kothari for the position. 

“They called him a media entrepreneur. And he knew nothing about building a company or repairing what was wrong,” says a former board member of Housing. Kothari, however, came in as the chief business officer (CBO) and was then elevated to CEO. “While he was the CBO, he had to meet builders and start developing relationships with them. But he didn’t want to do that. He kept trying to redefine his role,” adds the former board member. What role did he want? “He wanted a leadership role within the company. He asked the board for a Co-CEO post,” the board member says. The board refused.

At the time, Kothari was to replace Rishabh Gupta, the interim CEO of Housing. Gupta was a placeholder until Kothari learned the ropes. But Gupta fell out with the board as well and quit. The investors’ patience with the company had worn thin. And then Kothari was asked to do what he was brought in for. Trim the headcount, contain the burn and make the company viable for a sale.

Housing, during Kothari’s tenure, fired close to 800 people. Almost 600 people were asked to leave in September 2015. And another 200 in March 2016.

So, why did Kothari stumble in February 2017? Like in everything else, there is fine print. The first round of firings was not his design. It was designed by his predecessor, Gupta, and the next one in March was handled and fashioned by Ajay Nair, the then chief administrative officer. “It would be fair to say that he [Kothari] was in his cabin and never left it during that period. He had almost no interaction with anyone who was being laid off. Everything was delegated,” says a former colleague of Kothari at Housing. Apart from signing off on the retrenchment, Kothari did little else. He didn’t make a list, nor could he figure out which department to trim. 

Room 2

We are in January 2017. This time in Powai, Mumbai.

“I want to change the impression of the company,” Kothari says to the person sitting in front of him

“In what way?” says the senior Housing employee.

“I want people to talk about us again. No one is talking about us. And I think that’s why we can’t get new investors,” he replies.

“But what will we say, right now? What are the talking points? There is nothing new.”

“We must find something to talk about. What’s happening in the company?” he asks.

“You are the CEO, you must know,” the person laughs.

“We must ask someone. Let’s call Ajay (the CAO),” he replies.

It was a short conversation. But the disconnect he felt with the company was obvious to all those around.

“Since the second round of layoffs, Jason never met the technology or operations team. He never understood what Housing was really doing,” says a senior Housing executive who has since moved on. Kothari’s staffers often felt that he didn’t trust the technology either. “And that’s why he never managed to add anything of value to Housing,” adds the executive. If Kothari was hands-off on technology, in a tech company, and operations,  what was he doing?

“A lot of public relations (PR),” says another former Housing executive. “I worked across companies and industries. But I have never seen a CEO so interested in PR. It was almost as if he really wanted to be the head of communication than running the company.” He delegated running the company to others while he focused on ‘refreshing the impression of the company’. Kothari though believed in the PR overdrive because Housing was perceived as a loose cannon. But people who were once on the board say that it was the founder Rahul Yadav who gave that impression and not the company. It was made clear to Kothari several times. But Kothari stuck to that argument until the very end.

Even if Kothari found joy in the cosmetic, he did manage a face saving burial for Housing.

Or did he?

The deal was brokered by SoftBank and Housing CFO Mani Rangarajan. Kothari was handling communications. Why? Because he did not want conflict. He wanted to focus on easing the sale. The penchant for avoiding conflict was something that Kothari carried with himself to Snapdeal as well. “He did not want any confrontation. It is fine if you don’t want to be the CEO or in the top three positions in a company. Confrontation is necessary,” says the senior Snapdeal executive.

The pivot

When Housing was sold, Bahl called him again; this time to lead fund raising for Snapdeal. While at Housing, Kothari raised no money from external investors. SoftBank promised to pump in money until the company was sold. People close to Kothari claim he was handpicked by the investors but senior employees in Snapdeal say that the board was surprised when Bahl pitched his name as someone who would lead fund raising for the company.

“SoftBank did not care. In December 2016 [when Kothari’s name was mentioned], SoftBank knew that they were not going to fund Snapdeal anymore. The only reason he was brought in at such a high salary was so they could keep Bahl on their side and negotiate with him when the time came to make a sale,” says one of the Snapdeal executives quoted above.

Soon after he joined, Govind Rajan, the CEO of FreeCharge quit. Almost immediately Kothari was appointed the CEO. Employees at FreeCharge expected him to come to Bengaluru, the payment company’s headquarters.

But Kothari almost never visited the FreeCharge offices in Bengaluru and chose to operate out of Snapdeal in Gurugram, where he had a special cabin to himself.

What happened between Rajan leaving and the company’s sale?

Nothing. Not a single change.

The company did not innovate. Neither did it add any new technology or vendors. Kothari let the company run on autopilot. What was Kothari’s role in Snapdeal at the time?

“No one knows. He really didn’t do anything,” says a former FreeCharge staffer. “It was left to us to run the company.”

Kothari was trying to broker a quick sale. And he did.

To Axis Bank.

Some more fine print. The first offer, which was made by Paytm, was brought to the table through Snapdeal’s investors and had nothing to do with Kothari. And when the eventual offer from Axis did come in, the sale was brokered primarily by Snapdeal co-founders Rohit Bansal and Bahl. Kothari was not at the table.

Let’s look at his role at Snapdeal. When Kothari’s name was first announced, he was to be heading funding and strategy. Funding was off the table. But strategy was a big role.

Room 3

People close to Kothari claim he was instrumental in Snapdeal 2.0. So, let’s take you to Room 3, where senior executives in Snapdeal were discussing the way forward. Here’s a snippet from the meeting.

Present in the conference room in July 2017 were: Bahl, Bansal, Vishal Chadha, CBO; Jayant Sood, head of the customer experience; Anup Vikal, the CFO; Rajiv Mangla, CTO; and Anubhav Goyal, who led price analytics.

“We have to fire almost 1,000 people,” says Bansal.

“Where is it coming from?” asks Mangla.

“Everywhere,” replies Bahl.

There is a commotion in the room. Everyone wants to know if the board is aware of this drastic step.

“Show us the strategy and we will make a list,” says Goyal.

“The board knows. It is just us now. Rohit has discussed 2.0 with each one of you. Vishal has been working on it with him,” says Bahl.

There is general discontent. People talk over each other. And then there is grim silence. A list has to be made.
Did you notice something? No? Go back to the list of the top Snapdeal executives. Kothari is absent. The man who was allegedly at the centre of 2.0 was absent when the top leadership was discussing the way forward.

So what was he doing at the time? “He was handling communications,” says a senior Snapdeal executive, who has now left the company. The press release sent out by the company announcing Snapdeal 2.0, was written primarily by Kothari. He was also liaising with SoftBank on their public statement.

Kothari, for now, seems to be existing on the fringes of some of the biggest companies in the ecosystem.

And he has managed to build a reputation of some sort. From the outside, he has been compared to Winston Wolf’s character in the movie Pulp Fiction, the cleaner who knows how to get the job done.  A comparison that comes close but doesn’t hit the mark. Others have described him as a stunt double for an actor or an announcer for a famous act. Plays a role but not important enough.

In a mature tech economy, there are several fixers who are sent into companies to rescue them or even kill them. India has not reached that level yet. Kothari, despite that reputation, is not the white knight that he is made out to be. The enigma that is Kothari seems to be helping him but scratch the surface and the mask slips just enough to know that he is just a man who has managed to use his connections to get plum roles. So, is that it for him? No. But what he does next will define him.

Where does he go now?

He could stick around in Snapdeal, which is seemingly not going anywhere. Kothari has made no bones about his desire to return to Mumbai from Gurugram and he has been talking to venture capital and private equity firms for a possible role. In the life of Jason Kothari, there will be many crossroads. And this is one of them.

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