The escalating scandal at BharatPe between Co-founder Ashneer Grover and the start-up’s Board has recently claimed one more scalp.
The fact that the scalp is of Madhuri Jain Grover, his wife, who was the head of controls of the company, indicates that the couple is probably at the end of a long, hard scrutiny that could eventually backfire on them.
If it does indeed, it may escalate far more than they expect at the moment. I’m going to deal with those image implications too, but stay with me.
You’re probably overstuffed now with versions of what the scandal really is about, but are puzzled whether the strategy that Ashneer as a founder of the startup is using is something that either makes sense or even is sustainable in the medium run.
A Unique and Aggressive Path
Ashneer certainly has not been any wilting wallflower during this period and, instead, has chosen to go on a unique and almost inexplicable aggressive path.
He has chosen to ‘up’ his public profile and has chosen to work with audiences, who with every passing day remember less and less about the scandal itself. This is an image management move that could be classically described as “launchy”.
Yes, remember you heard it here first.
Now what he’s cooking up and whether it’ll be a ‘soonicorn’ we can’t speculate yet. But the signposts are pretty visible to any practitioner with pizzazz.
Is this approach an imaging technique that’s appropriate? Is this something that could be recommended for others? Those are the questions that I’ll try to answer too. But the big shiny, bouncy balloon that’s being inflated, before thousands of eyes, is a diversion. This you’d better be prepared for.
From my considerable experience of working with founders and startups, I know that crises can come from nowhere and hit you before you realise it. Of course, being prepared with safeguards, in place and in time, is the cardinal commandment of crisis management.
The boutique Angel Funders and Private Equity folks who I advise on founders’ best practices are actually quite aghast. This is inexcusable as it is inexplicable to them, given the circumstances.
Shark Tank is a Huge Advantage
The scandal, which began with a leaked abusive verbal exchange with the Kotak Mahindra Bank, was escalated by Ashneer to take on Uday Kotak himself – never a good strategy either in comms parlance or in banking patois.
But, leaving even that nuanced warning aside, the fact is that the kind of business plan that BharatPe was working on required its founder to be not just above suspicion, but also squeaky clean, as far as his personal deals were concerned. In the DeFi and FinTech spaces, founders flounder if there’s anything that sticks that can potentially be regarded as rotten.
In this situation, Ashneer has chosen a Brave New World approach. He’s now looking at a whole different audience. The fact that the “Shark Tank” series is giving him eyeballs that cannot be replicated elsewhere is a huge advantage.
But using that platform, he has grown his persona immensely. He has chosen to build out from it and is now creating a robust ragtag bunch of supporters who follow anything that he chooses to dish out to them. Ethics and lofty ideals, be damned.
On YouTube, he is a phenomenon, and he gets people with their own huge followings to interview him because of the simple reason that he does now make better and better content.
He is engaging, he is smart, he talks the language of ordinary people and, most of all, his Hindi is of-the-street homey. An impeccable combo. This gives him the kind of advantage that almost no other tech or fintech founder can hope for.
These audiences are certainly not in his usual orbit. It’s unusual for someone in his particular situation – and not normally the money-mob he would wish to find himself in, given his business.
A High Risk Foundation: Don’t Try This at Home
What does the Ashneer Grover brand now stand for? That’s potentially a million-dollar question (from a time when billions weren’t the most frequently used measure of money). Damaged and bruised as it is, there’s more.
Chances are that lots of people will currently see Ashneer as a feisty but fecund advisor on everything. A kind of poor man’s Chetan Bhagat to startups. But he has segued into a wise voice on almost everything, from drinking habits to sleeping postures to investing.
Building out a reputation of this kind could, under most circumstances, be a huge task. And it certainly is not for someone who is diffident or even moderately self-conscious. Is it a path that others could follow? I doubt it. Not recommended and certainly deserves the “don’t try this at home” tag.
My sense is that this unique positioning he has been able to achieve builds on a rather high-risk foundation. He probably wants to prove that he’s done nothing wrong. But he’s not about to concede that, on Social Media.
The “bad boy” who is brazening it out is the kind of image he’s crafting. Remember it works, only till such time that an investigation actually turns up something hard, that could be potentially lethal.
Impressionable audiences are easy to access using a variety of social media tools and there is almost nothing that Ashneer hasn’t used. In the meantime, the fact is that these audiences are also fickle.
How long can you retain the attention span of those entertained by your hot takes? How long will they accept the bad boy bravado of a man who doesn’t quite care about the fact that his wife is also now at the centre of the storm?
Of course, Ashneer and Madhuri could play to a young audience that has already been put into place. The other option is that she could create a completely different image and head off in a new direction, of being “the bad girl”. Sure, there are takers for both kinds of image creations.
But if the investigations were to actually uncover genuine misdeeds, then what?
My sense is that the kind of audiences that exist in India, are looking to believe in something. Some of them may not be quite happy. But that’s the risk that is worth taking for now.
The duo doesn’t have a choice right now. After all, the benefits of distracting, are at the moment, more than worth the day of reckoning.
(Dilip Cherian is an Image Guru, former bureaucrat, editor, and entrepreneur. He advises HNIs on angel investing, has been on the boards of ASCI and the Kautilya School of Public Policy. He tweets @dilipthecherian. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)