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The myth and reality of startup “slumdog millionaire” Ambarish Mitra

Summary:
In a few months, Ambarish Mitra will arrive in Monaco as a contender in Ernst & Young’s global ‘Entrepreneur of the Year’ awards.The chief executive and co-founder of augmented reality app Blippar, one of Britain’s few technology “unicorns”, the name for billion dollar startups, will be there to represent the UK against 60 other countries.When he was nominated last October, EY’s judges called him “a man with big vision” whose social conscience is “driven at least in part by his own early life experiences”, a reference to Mitra’s frequently told tale of triumph over adversity in the slums of Delhi, which prompted the BBC to dub him a “real life slumdog multi-millionaire”.It won’t be the first time Mitra has flown the flag for Britain abroad. Championed by the UK government as one of the

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The myth and reality of startup “slumdog millionaire” Ambarish Mitra

In a few months, Ambarish Mitra will arrive in Monaco as a contender in Ernst & Young’s global ‘Entrepreneur of the Year’ awards.

The chief executive and co-founder of augmented reality app Blippar, one of Britain’s few technology “unicorns”, the name for billion dollar startups, will be there to represent the UK against 60 other countries.

When he was nominated last October, EY’s judges called him “a man with big vision” whose social conscience is “driven at least in part by his own early life experiences”, a reference to Mitra’s frequently told tale of triumph over adversity in the slums of Delhi, which prompted the BBC to dub him a “real life slumdog multi-millionaire”.

It won’t be the first time Mitra has flown the flag for Britain abroad. Championed by the UK government as one of the finest minds in British technology, he accompanied former prime minister David Cameron on trade trips, and was tapped “to promote British innovation around the world” with the government’s GREAT Britain campaign.

Investors have embraced him too. Mitra has raised over $100m for Blippar from the likes of Qualcomm, Lansdowne Partners, Nick Candy and a Malaysian sovereign wealth fund. The startup has built an app that recognises real world objects and overlays relevant information; CNBC placed it ninth in its top 50 “disruptors” in the world.

But when it comes to the story of his remarkable life, a closer look at Mitra’s background suggests significant discrepancies between the tale people have wanted to believe and the available evidence. In the many interviews and stories written about him, a compelling but sometimes contradictory narrative has emerged with details that are hard to verify, others that seem exaggerated and some that appear false. In the exuberant world of technology startups, it seems the power of a feel good story can all too easily trump cool-headed due diligence.

For instance, the founding myth of Mitra’s career is a business he founded and floated in India during the dotcom boom, but we could find no record of an initial public offering for the company. Mitra also reportedly claimed to have attended the London School of Economics, but the university said he was never a student. And the “three large-scale disasters” Mitra is said to have launched in the UK before founding Blippar were personal projects he never incorporated as companies.

Mitra told us it was “a bit complex to analyse my life without truly understanding me” and said he had been misquoted by the media.

“I have not paid much attention to what’s been written in [the] media. I have always wanted to talk about Blippar but [the] media keeps wanting to sensationalise my past,” he said.

After we approached him, Mitra removed several claims from his LinkedIn page.

The myth and reality of startup “slumdog millionaire” Ambarish Mitra

The story told in the numerous articles about Ambarish Mitra begins in India in the mid-1990s, when he ran away from home.

The teenage Mitra resented the pressure from his parents to study medicine or engineering. His father, now a director of Blippar’s India branch after they reconciled, was an engineer at Tata Steel, but Mitra was more interested in computers. He had a picture of Bill Gates in his bedroom.

Fleeing his family home in Dhanbad, an industrial town in the east of India, he landed in the slums of Delhi. It was there he had his first big break.

As the story goes, around 1996 or 1997, Mitra saw an advert in a newspaper for a business plan competition. His proposal for a women-focussed website won and, with the $10,000 prize money, he launched womeninfoline.com. In 2000, he floated the company in India. The now defunct site was his first taste of business and a remarkable achievement for a teenage runaway. Soon after the flotation, he resigned to come to the UK, go to university and start on the road that led him to launch Blippar in 2011.

It’s a captivating backstory, an entrepreneurial tale which naturally drew comparison to Slumdog Millionaire, Danny Boyle’s film about a young boy from the Mumbai slums who wins the TV quiz, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.

Today, those close to him speak in glowing terms about his personal integrity and his talents, describing him as a “visionary” and an accomplished salesman with the ability to gently but effectively bring people around to his way of thinking.

“The word I would use for him is disarming. He’s a very charismatic person” said Jason Ball, a partner at Qualcomm Ventures and the first investor to back Blippar.

Daniele Beccari, who worked with Mitra before he founded Blippar, called him “one of the nicest guys on the planet”.

Perhaps because of those qualities, and a sometimes credulous technology press, there appears to have been little critical scrutiny of Mitra’s backstory, the details of which change from report to report. In some press reports he is 14 or 15 when he flees home, in others he is 16. Sometimes he flees from Dhanbad to Delhi, on other occasions his family had moved to the capital before he ran away.

The myth and reality of startup “slumdog millionaire” Ambarish Mitra

The task of corroborating his story is made difficult by the fact much of it takes place many years ago. Mitra told us he has lost touch with all but one of his friends at the time. “It’s a long time ago and pre-smartphone and messaging engines,” he said in an email. We were unable to reach the friend he connected us with before publication.

However, setting up a website and floating a business are the sorts of activities that leave a paper trail. And the trail we found has no mention of Ambarish Mitra, his exploits or the stock market float in 2000.

The earliest copy of womeninfoline.com saved on the Internet Archive is from May 2000, which is around the time Mitra told us the website floated. There is no mention of him on the ‘About’ page. There is also no mention of Mitra in the contemporary English-language stories about womeninfoline.com available on the Factiva archive. The first references to him as the founder begin to surface in the UK media in 2011, the year he launched Blippar.

Instead, in the contemporary reports and on the archived version of womeninfoline.com, there is a reference to a company called “Mudra Consultants”.

Mudra was incorporated in 1991, floated in 1995 and then launched womeninfoline.com in January 2000, when it was already a public company, according to its annual reports. The business was originally in leasing but later became an internet service provider and software business, rebranding as M Womeninfoline.com Ltd and then Women Networks Ltd, which is still listed in India.

Ambarish Mitra does not appear in any of the Mudra documents we found. We asked the Bombay Stock Exchange to look for an initial public offering document from 2000 but they did not find one.

Mudra’s chairman when womeninfoline.com launched was Ashok Kumar Gadiya, who is now chancellor of Mewar University in Rajasthan, a region in the north-west of India. According to a report in The Times of India, last year, Gadiya was accused by the local state government of falsifying scholarships to boost the private university’s income, a claim he strongly denies. “It was a false case,” he said.

Gadiya told us it was his company, Mudra Consultants, that launched womeninfoline.com. He said Mitra “was not a regular employee” and suggested he might have acted as a consultant. Later, he said, “I am sure that he was not associated with us in any manner”.

Mitra strongly disagrees with Gadiya’s account. He told us he had photocopies of share certificates and photographs that would prove his own claims, but had not provided them to us at the time of publication.

He said Mudra became the legal owner of womeninfoline.com, but insisted the website was his idea and that he built it.

“Mudra was a pre listed company, it got inspired by our idea and product and changed direction as a business,” he said, suggesting that Mudra’s name change was the basis of his claim about womeninfoline.com’s “IPO” on his LinkedIn.

“Had the company remained Mudra and did consultancy and still taken over [womeninfoline.com], I wouldn’t have ever said it went public,” he told us. He said the collaboration with Mudra happened after he was introduced by a “middle man”, who he declined to name.

“I have always mentioned in my interviews that I was very young and was not in full control of the business,” he said.

In an interview with the BBC in 2016, Mitra was asked about womeninfoline.com and how at just 20 years old he was “able to float, sell shares, in your first business”. The interviewer noted this was “very unusual”.

Mitra’s reply was: “Yeah it is, I mean life does give you opportunities and you’ve got to sometimes grab them. For me, it’s been an incredible journey.” He added: “There was a factor of luck because it was the first IPO boom, the tech boom, and there was a lot of money floating in into these tech companies.”

In a blogpost published on Wednesday, after we contacted him with questions and shortly before publication, Mitra told a different story about womeninfoline.com. He said he left the business “and handed the product to Mudra Consultants, who took it public”.

The myth and reality of startup “slumdog millionaire” Ambarish Mitra

After womeninfoline.com, Mitra moved from India to the UK, where he attended university. He did a bachelor’s and a master’s degree here, but the details of when and where he studied changed as we asked questions about them.

The version of events reported in the media is that he moved soon after the float of womeninfoline.com in 2000. Last year, Mitra told a Financial Times reporter he moved to the UK the following year, in 2001. He has said he studied for a bachelor’s degree at the University of London and has reportedly claimed to have done a master’s at the London School of Economics.

On his LinkedIn, Mitra said he was at the University of London from 1999 to 2002. He told us he studied at Birkbeck, which is part of the university. When we asked how he was able to study in the UK at a time he was reportedly running womeninfoline.com in India, the story began to change.

Before

The myth and reality of startup “slumdog millionaire” Ambarish Mitra

After

The myth and reality of startup “slumdog millionaire” Ambarish Mitra

He told us he actually studied at Birkbeck years later, from 2003, and that it was for a master’s degree, not a bachelor’s. He said his undergraduate course was a long-distance degree from the University of Lincoln. “I started it in Delhi,” he said. Both institutions confirmed his attendance.

Then there’s the question of the London School of Economics.

In 2015, Mitra tweeted a story by The Sunday Times that reported he “earned a master’s degree” from the university. An early version of his Wikipedia page also claimed he studied at the LSE, with Mitra’s LinkedIn given as a source.

In August 2016, The Economic Times reported Mitra as saying, “I went to LSE because of this deep-rooted Indian mindset of getting a degree”. Mitra shared that story on Twitter too.

A spokesperson for the LSE said they could not find Mitra in their alumni database.

Mitra told us he didn’t study at the LSE and suggested he was not the source of the claim. “I was invited to speak at LSE at some major event and then it was mentioned in [my Wikipedia page] by someone,” he said.

He added he did not recall telling the Economic Times he attended the university and said “interviews done on phone can be often misheard.”

The Economic Times reporter who wrote the story told us the interview took place in person in Cannes and said the quote was accurate.

The myth and reality of startup “slumdog millionaire” Ambarish Mitra

The next part of Mitra’s life is the years he spent in the UK as an entrepreneur before founding Blippar in 2011. Like many startup founders, he worked on a number of different projects before he hit on the idea that has made his name, but disentangling fact from fiction in the various media accounts is not easy.

Last year, The Times of India reported Mitra as saying he launched “three large-scale disasters” during the 2000s while in the UK. According to The Sunday Times, he “launched” five companies, four of which failed.

It’s the sort of thing you expect to find in the backstory of an entrepreneur, the setbacks that preceded their success, but it’s unclear to which businesses those comments refer. He has only been the director of one company in the UK, according to Companies House records, and that’s Blippar.

Mitra said the ventures were not registered as companies “as we never got funding”.

“Entrepreneurship doesn’t mean you own something with legal stamp paper — it also means when two friends spend a lot of time in their flat building things [and] spending their own money,” he told us.

But as well as his personal projects, Mitra was employed at a number of British businesses before founding Blippar.

For example, he worked at a travel startup called Isango from 2006 to 2008. He said on his LinkedIn he was the third employee there and the business was sold to Thomas Cook, the British travel group.

Accounts for Isango show it was sold to TUI, the German travel company, in 2013, five years after he left. Mitra removed the reference to the sale and being Isango’s third employee from his LinkedIn after we contacted him. He said the profile was out of date and he “had to update it with more relevant stuff”.

Before

The myth and reality of startup “slumdog millionaire” Ambarish Mitra

After

The myth and reality of startup “slumdog millionaire” Ambarish Mitra

After leaving Isango in 2008, Mitra struggled with money. By February 2009, he had just £5 in his bank account, he told us.

However, he soon got a break and in March 2009 joined Swiftcover, an online insurer owned by AXA Insurance. The following year he was promoted to head of innovation, according to his LinkedIn. It was a senior job in which he began to be quoted in the media.

In a 2015 TechCrunch story, he was given a much bigger role at Swiftcover: founder. The tech website wrote that after studying at the LSE, Mitra “sold his next business, Swiftcover, to AXA Insurance”. Mitra was not a founder or director of Swiftcover, which was sold to Axa two years before he joined.

He does seem to have made an impact at the company, however. One of the projects Mitra launched soon after joining Swiftcover was a social media app called ‘Stuck’. It went live in January 2010 and had some 200,000 users by the end of the year.

Again, the story seems to have gotten mixed up in the press. In a recent Inc profile, which Mitra praised on Twitter, Stuck was characterised as a project that failed before he joined Swiftcover, leaving him almost penniless and forcing him to find a real job.

“[Stuck] too flopped, and Mitra’s savings finally ran out. He moved into a tiny apartment and took a job as head of innovation with an insurance company called Swiftcover, which was about to get acquired by the insurance giant AXA,” the American magazine wrote, despite the evidence Stuck was first launched while Mitra was at Swiftcover, which had been acquired before he arrived.

It was at Swiftcover and Axa that Mitra and his Blippar co-founder, Omar Tayeb, began to work together in an official capacity. Steve Hardy, a co-founder of Swiftcover and then chief executive, remembers them as a “double act”.

The pair soon quit the insurance world to strike out on their own in 2011 with Blippar, which now has hundreds of employees in 10 offices around the world. The company, which lost £26m in the 16 months to March 2016, says its augmented reality app has 65 million users.

Blippar’s first round of funding came in 2011 in the form of a convertible loan from Qualcomm Ventures, which followed up with more cash in 2013. The following year, Blippar raised another, larger, round of funding from Qualcomm and Lansdowne Partners, the hedge fund manager.

In 2015, Mitra’s startup won backing from Nick Candy, the property tycoon and startup investor who was in the news last year following the implosion of Crowdmix, a music business he helped fund. And in 2016, Blippar raised $54m in its biggest round yet and added Khazanah Nasional Berhad as an investor.

Companies House records suggest 2014 was the last time Qualcomm put money into Blippar. Jason Ball, the partner at Qualcomm Ventures, said he would have been happy to invest in the 2015 and 2016 funding rounds but was asked not to by the startup’s management. Mitra gave us a different explanation. He told us it was rare for early investors to invest in later rounds as it “becomes very expensive for them”.

To-date, Ambarish Mitra has managed to raise over $100m and Blippar is reportedly valued at $1bn. In 2015, he told the Financial Times that a US company, which he refuses to identify, offered him $1.5bn for the company.

Now 38, Mitra has come a long way from the slums of Delhi. Success for him has come after what he calls “a fairly tough life with lots of ups and downs”.

He said if Blippar had never happened, no-one would have been interested in his past, which “exposes the superficial side of […] society”.

“Blippar is my real start,” he said.

kadhim.shubber@ft.com

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Kadhim Shubber
Kadhim Shubber is a freelance journalist who first bought bitcoins so that he could buy a beer at The Pembury Tavern, Hackney’s bitcoin pub. He has reported for Slate, Wired, The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Times and Ampp3d. He is currently studying for a Masters in Journalism at City University London.