Supam Maheshwari and the art of quietly building unicorns

Supam Maheshwari and the art of quietly building unicorns


Madhav Chanchani

121 reads

Madhav Chanchani

121 reads

Unlike many founders, he doesn’t believe in creating hype or tweeting a thread about how good his grasp of the startup workings is. Yet, in 11 years, Maheshwari and his colleagues from a dot-com-era startup have produced 3 unicorns — FirstCry, XpressBees and GlobalBees. What’s his playbook?

February 15, 2022


In 2016, a candidate interviewing for a senior position at logistics company XpressBees, which had been just hived off from FirstCry, shocked Supam Maheshwari with one of his responses. 

He told the serial entrepreneur that his current employer, a large ecommerce player, spent Rs 60 crore to build a warehouse, parts of which were flown in from the US. Maheshwari couldn’t believe it because XpressBees had set up a similar warehouse at a fraction of that cost — Rs 6.5 crore. 

Maheshwari, 48, swears by capital efficiency. That his three businesses — FirstCry, XpressBees and GlobalBees — achieved a significant degree of it matters more to him than the fact that they are all unicorns. FirstCry and XpressBees are also profitable, a trait many cash-guzzling startups are unable or unwilling to develop.

“We are frugal in every sense. We still haven’t used most of the $400 million that SoftBank invested in the company two years ago,” he told The CapTable in a rare interview last year. In fact, over $550 million raised since last year has gone towards giving existing investors an exit. 

Though he made sound finances a focal point, he managed to create unicorns after FirstCry in shorter timelines. That’s quite a triumph, considering that for over a decade, he has been quietly operating from Pune, and not the startup capital of Bengaluru or the busy hub of Gurgaon.

  • FirstCry, now the largest omnichannel player in the baby care and kidswear market, took 10 years to become a unicorn. Latest valuation: $2.1 billion.
  • XpressBees, which competes with Delhivery and Ecom Express in the third-party logistics business, turned a unicorn after a little over 6 years. Latest valuation: $1.2 billion.
  • GlobalBees, an aggregator of ecommerce brands like Thrasio, gained the same status in about eight months. Latest valuation: $1.1 billion. 

The building blocks of all these companies came from a little-known e-learning startup, Brainvisa Technologies, where Maheshwari and his co-founders Amitava Saha (FirstCry, XpressBees) and Nitin Agarwal (GlobalBees) first worked together. 

Maheshwari declined to comment for this article.

Back To The Beginning

Maheshwari graduated with a mechanical engineering degree from the Delhi College of Engineering in 1995. He followed this up with an MBA from IIM Ahmedabad in 1997 and had short halts at multinationals such as Vivendi and PepsiCo.

It wasn’t long before Maheshwari, who comes from the entrepreneurial Marwari community, began exploring startup ideas. He briefly considered building a water purifier business, according to Anand Lunia, the founder of investment firm India Quotient.

Maheshwari was eventually drawn to the dot-com space and launched Brainvisa. For this, he needed tech co-founders, and that’s how he met Vikas Kumar, who worked at Infosys, and Nitin Agarwal, who was at Citibank. Lunia, Kumar’s batchmate at IIM Lucknow, also became a part of the fledgling company as a co-founder.

“Vikas and Supam would come to meet investors in Mumbai and stay at my apartment while I worked in ICICI Bank. We would brainstorm about the business. Supam asked me to join (Brainvisa). I liked the idea and Supam’s energy — it was contagious,” said Lunia. 

Later, Lunia became an investor, first with Seedfund and then with India Quotient. Kumar is also a co-founder of fintech Loantap.

In March 2000, three to four months before the dot-com crash, Maheshwari raised Rs 3 crore for Brainvisa from Infinity Ventures. “In 2001, investors backed out and everyone went quiet. Supam then focused on making the company profitable. He never really wanted to blow the money. The guy doesn’t think about fundraising and all; he’s a genuine business builder,” said Lunia.

For six months, Lunia recalled, the founders asked their families for money to meet payroll. Finally, they secured a bridge round from Infinity.

Brainvisa started out as an online test preparation platform. The base of internet users was not large enough at the time, so it had to pivot to a business-to-business (B2B) model. Maheshwari ran the company as the CEO for over seven years. In 2007, Indecomm Global acquired it for $16 million, and he stayed on till the end of 2009.

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