Meet Mayank Kukreja, a hustler on a mission to disrupt the global business travel and expense market.
People around him know he is logical, driven, aggressive, and yet humble. Let’s read about the journey of building ITILITE – A Unified Platform to Manage Business Travel & Expenses, hopefully, the next unicorn from India in The Travel Space!
YC – Mayank, welcome to Yellow Chapter. The objective of the interview is to get to know you as a person. So, tell us about your journey from the very beginning.
Mayank – Let me start from the beginning. I was born in Ludhiana, a city in Punjab. My father worked for a bank. My mother was a homemaker.
My father had a transferable job. So we used to move around a lot. At some point, our parents felt that it wasn’t good for us kids. So, since the third grade, we’ve lived in Ludhiana, with only my father traveling.
My mother was a teacher before she decided to leave her job to take care of us. I talk a lot about logic, and I think I got it from her.
She always used to say that if you cram things, it’s not worth it. When it comes to learning, it is essential that we understand and use it. She always encouraged us to do things outside of studies/academics. I think that the teacher element was always in her.
If I look back, my parents encouraged me a lot to participate in extracurricular activities and competitions outside of school. I even represented Ludhiana in a competition in Delhi. The idea was to give me exposure and let me see what other kids are doing so that I could make informed choices.
There’s a fascinating story to it. I was not clear at all.😄😄
I had topped the district in 10th grade. I was giving an interview for a local newspaper, and the reporter asked, “What do you want to do next?” I said, “I want to be a doctor.” And 15 days later, I chose to be an engineer.
Back then, my elder brother (Ankit Kukreja – Director of Software Engineering – ChargePoint) was pursuing a degree in computer science engineering. I talked to him and a bunch of my cousins and friends to understand what medicine and engineering involved.
One of the things that struck me was that computer science engineering is very logical. It appealed to me because I’m logical. So I chose Engineering.
I do believe in taking things to extremes. I would study for seven hours after school, preparing for entrance exams. I had put in five times more effort than my peers. I read any book that I came across. The most challenging project I have ever worked on was my IIT preparations.
Getting through tier-1 engineering colleges was not a big deal in Ludhiana. But no one had ever cleared the IIT entrance with a rank lower than 1000, and I wanted to be the first!
What was unbelievable was, when I left home for IIT (the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi – B.Tech, Computer Science), my parents said, “Do not study, please don’t study. Do something else. Enjoy life.” 👀👀
YC – So, how was IIT? What were your learnings? What are your suggestions for the young grads out there?
Mayank – IIT was great. What I love about engineering, specifically Computer Science, is that it is super logical. You must understand the concepts well. It’s not about remembering 500 things.
When you get some experience, you realize how much more potential there is. And that’s where I think the value of hard work comes in. You can’t rely on talent alone. You have to put in the work. That, I believe, was a concretely built ethos in school.
From those four years, three things I remember are:
1. Explore – The first time you get out of home, you should explore things other than studies. It’s your first time living away from your family. I got into dramatics and did a lot of acting, drama, and theatre. We even did professional shows outside of IIT, which people paid to see.
Exposure gives you a choice. Consciously expand the surface area of your exposure – try different things, and then consciously take a call because doing a little bit of everything is not great.
2. Practical knowledge – Do projects. Practical application of what you’re studying is a must. It has a lot of value.
3. Try out challenging problems – Every problem can be solved. I remember the first day of our second year. We barely knew how to code, and our professor told us to build a robot that plays football by itself. We were like, “Are you kidding?” I didn’t even know how to code. And a month later, we had done it!
Push yourself. The most significant learning comes from practical experience and not from academics. Taking up challenging problems will help you later in life. The confidence that every problem is solvable is super awesome. 💪💪
Just one– Do projects; if it is not a part of the curriculum, go out of your way to do practical tasks. Do internships while studying. I know there are exams, but it’s okay; I know you will manage. Maybe work with a startup.
YC – That’s interesting! Now, can you now tell us about your professional roadmap and what you’ve learned along the way?
Mayank – I started my professional journey in 2007 as a Sr. Software Developer at Lime Labs LLC – a web company focusing on creating and delivering user-driven web applications and services.
The parent company of Lime Labs is Limewire. They hired 7-8 people from IITs, very smart kids, to build something (Interestingly, all of them run their own companies today!)
It was a great experience to build a startup environment from scratch. It was an eye-opener and extremely helpful. That is when I started thinking about building my own company in the long term.
As an Engineer, I lacked expertise in business. Therefore, I decided to pursue an MBA.
Learnings from LimeLabs:
1. Early in your career, work with a startup, it will tell you whether it’s for you or not. The beginning of your career is not the time to learn processes or how to scale systems. It’s the time to learn as much as you can.
LimeLabs was a fantastic decision, though it happened by chance. I had three or four offers, but LimeLabs looked cool. So I joined them.
2. Surround yourself with the best people you can. As I said, the 7-8 people selected from IITs were a very, very strong group, which is evident now as each of them is running a successful company. I think a good group pushes you, and they will show you your limits. That’s true for every work, studying as well. If you’re working with the best, you can’t survive by saying, “I am smart.” “You realize what you can achieve only when you are pushed.”
3. What to do and what not to do – Two other business lessons I got from LimeLabs, very early on, were: Never overhire and get your MVP quick.
After that, in 2009, I joined the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad – PGDM, Business Management.
YC – Was doing an MBA helpful?
Mayank: Doing an MBA was super helpful. I know this is a very unpopular opinion. Most people, unfortunately, even at the time, were doing MBAs just for a job. But, I took a pay cut after my MBA.
Doing an MBA was indeed beneficial. As an engineer, I used to look at problems as either 0 or 1. It was either the right solution or the wrong solution. MBA teaches you that there are a lot of grey areas. Most things don’t have a perfect solution. It’s a very soft aspect, I would have taken a long time to learn if I hadn’t gone through this journey.
1. The most significant lesson is that you have to learn soft skills. Again, a lot of engineers love to start early. That’s great, but they have to be conscious that things are not always 0 or 1. They have to be okay with this ambiguity.
2. Soft skill is science and can be learned. Earlier, I used to think otherwise. You might have the right solution. But whether you can express that or not depends on communication.
I see that as a challenge, even in my startup. In our engineering team, some of the most brilliant engineers cannot communicate what they are thinking.
3. Networking helps. I was a supreme introvert. I’m a bit introverted even now. I didn’t see the value of interacting with people. MBA taught me that making connections can be extremely beneficial in the long run. It is my biggest takeaway from IIM.
YC – Great! You mentioned that you had always wanted to build something and were preparing for it . Did you have any ideas at the time?
Mayank – Not really, but I used to maintain a list. The idea was not clear. But there was always a list of ideas.
YC – This is interesting. What were the ideas that you were evaluating?
Mayank – Hahaha…you know, ideas don’t matter. One idea was ITILITE, and the other was Uber Share. I won a business contest for this. But as I said earlier, ideas don’t matter unless you execute them.
YC – Thinking of the past, You joined Mckinsey post MBA, right?
Mayank – That’s correct. I joined Mckinsey in 2011 as the Engagement Manager.
YC – Right. So what made you choose consulting?
Mayank – I did not know; there was no right time to start. Though I did my MBA, I still thought I didn’t know enough about business.
So it got me thinking, what job will teach me about business? Consulting was the answer. It gives a vast exposure. Rather than getting into one particular industry, I thought of getting into consulting. So that was the thought process; consulting for two years and then starting up.
Consulting just happened from there. McKinsey is a fantastic place. They call it a “finishing school,” and indeed, it is. Unlike many jobs, McKinsey is one where people are very open about it, that they are not here for the long term. The conversations about when you will leave happen very openly.
The firm has very, very long hours. They push you beyond your limits. Every six months, you will reevaluate whether you want to stay here or not. The answer can be yes, but only if you can see that you have grown professionally.
So I think the biggest takeaway, which we use quite a lot at ITILITE, is to make sure people are getting a lot professionally out of their job. Otherwise, they have an open market.
Looking back, I still wonder why people stretch themselves so much at McKinsey; living out and travelling five days a week can be a lot to take. But I think the speed of professional growth is unmatched..
Learnings from McKinsey:
1. Professional growth is significant in a job. Looking solely at the monetary benefit is not the right way to go about it.
2. Prioritisation – You will always have hundreds of things to do. How do you ruthlessly prioritise and do the most important ones?
3. Communication – McKinsey teaches you to communicate very complex and ambiguous problems concisely.
I entered for two years and ended up spending four years there.
Finally, I decided it was time to start something of my own. At that time, I thought; I knew business broadly, and I knew how to engineer. But I still didn’t have an idea and, more importantly, a co-founder. I knew I would need a co-founder. There would be bad days, and I would need someone to fall back on, on those bad days.
I was in North America in my last few years at McKinsey. When I left McKinsey, the problem was not ideas. I wanted to understand the Indian ecosystem. I needed some connections and a little bit more understanding of my customers.
So I decided that Myntra would be a good fit, and I joined them in 2015 as Director, Strategy & Planning, Product Management
YC – That’s amazing! Tell us a bit about your stint at Myntra and your learnings there.
Mayank – The exposure I got at Myntra was very helpful. Mukesh Bansal hired me. He loved hiring consultants. The founder’s team that he had built had five, six people who were Ex. McKinsey, Ex.BCG. We received extensive exposure within the company by working on special projects.
Takeaways from Myntra:
1. How to think big – McKinsey works with huge companies, which means a great outcome with 10%, 20% or 30% improvement. Team Myntra was working on growing 3x the following year. I think that contrast was an excellent learning experience.
2. Very Functional learning – I moved to product management in the second half of my Myntra journey. I had clarity about starting my own company. The idea was almost finalised as well. This was when I thought that product management was a role that I had not done professionally, so I moved to the PM role.
3. Myntra has a fantastic design team. I used to think that design was an art and that it was only for creative minds. But I was wrong, “Design is science.” How do we choose whether the button should be on the left, right, or centre? It is logical. This is something that we use at ITILITE as well.
YC – So now, coming to the present. Why did you choose Travel? Why this space?
Mayank – We had many ideas across many industries, but no love for one particular sector. But we were very clear on a few things:
1. The problem has to be large.
2. We need personal connections and insight into the problem.
3. We will not do B2C. I just can’t relate to it for two main reasons:
(a) I’ve worked at Myntra. People used to say that you can’t buy fashion online, but Myntra made it possible. But for me, I couldn’t see a company’s path where for years you do something, hoping that you will change behaviour. That was a tough path that I didn’t believe I was built for. For me, the problem had to be very logical. Like, here is a problem, and I’m solving this problem.
(b) In B2C, there is a lot of ambiguity when it comes to profitability. In B2B, I knew what I wanted to do. I believe that at a unit level, you have to be profitable from day one.
For us, the problem had to be logical. Business should make sense; there should be potential customers ready. You just need to build a good product and scale it up. That’s what we wanted to do.
I have heard someone say the company has to be a reflection of its founders. You can’t go too far away from it. I’ve spent the longest part of my career at McKinsey. When you’re a consultant, you go one-on-one to sell. One-on-one sales happen in B2B and not B2C.
Business travel was a large problem. Even while working at McKinsey, in multiple constraints, a very rich company, we used to call a travel desk. I had travelled quite a lot for three years out of those four and a half years; I didn’t even have a house. Wherever McKinsey sent me, I used to go and live there. So, I saw that the end-user experience is broken. I can open an app and book tickets for my personal travel. But during business travel, I still have to call or email for it.
As consultants, we have helped many companies reduce costs. Travel costs were always a big part. We would apply policies and processes. But, 3 to 6 months later, these would become inconsequential.
So it was very clear that processes wouldn’t work. If McKinsey can’t do it, then no one can. So we had a personal connection to the problem as well as some experience with the situation. And it was a large, large industry. It only seemed logical.
By the way, the idea that enamoured us was not just booking tickets; it was actually how to incentivise employees to save costs.
For example – Let’s say a company says you can stay in a Taj Hotel worth 8000 rupees. If you voluntarily choose to stay in a Treebo Hotel for 2000 rupees, you save 6000 rupees for the company, right? What if you get 3000 out of it? That’s when you will make that choice.
Reasons why we were so confident with the idea:
1. I related to it a lot. I stayed in five stars for four years with McKinsey. I would always wonder, why am I booked in a room worth Rs 5000 for just four hours of sleep? So it personally resonated with me.
2. Secondly, we went and spoke to a bunch of people, and I got very encouraging feedback.
3. Google has been doing this internally for the last ten years. We spoke to some of the ex-Google people, and they said they loved it.
Very logical ideas. So unique. We decided to start from there. But then, we also pivoted not long after.
Pivot 1 – We knew the ideas we needed to implement. But then we realised that the travel industry and the end-user experience related to it were broken. So we first would have to fix that.
YC – How were the initial days of ITILITE? So basically, a SAAS founder has three problems: product-market fit, sales and marketing. What are your views on each?
Mayank – So even today, when we do updates or discuss what’s happening with the company, we put them as two problems:
1. You have to build
2. You have to sell (Sell = sales and marketing)
PMF – I think we did a few things very well. Dhandha (business) was at the top of my mind. We had to build, sell, and make money. We had to check whether we could make money from day zero. So, we iterated swiftly.
I remember when we started going to customers with a PPT and two web pages. We got two paying customers on two web pages. Then we again built and iterated on top of it.
Sales – The part that went very well was outbound sales. We could do it because we have done a lot of consulting. We could sit in front of someone and logically say why this works and why it doesn’t.
Marketing – One thing that we did entirely wrong in the start was marketing. We didn’t have any idea how marketing works. Even today, I believe the number of relevant customers who know about ITILITE is much smaller than our actual size. We are a large company, but people don’t know about us.We realized marketing is essential, and course corrected quite early on, and have done a lot about it in the last two years. You have to reach out to your customers. And I think it was a mistake not to leverage marketing right from the beginning.
Some of our recent marketing initiatives are:
1. Invest in mass media to build top-of-mind recall – For instance, front-page ads in publications like Times of India and The Economic Times and on billboard on the Nasdaq building in Times Square, New York, USA.
2. Educate through content marketing – We produce a lot of travel-management-related content to help our stakeholders keep up with the latest best practices.
3. Build on-ground visibility of our product through events marketing – We host and participate in many events. We don’t have to reach out to everyone. What matters is that we reach out to our target customers. We know the events that they prefer. So if there is any finance or admin event today in India with more than 200 participants, chances are that you’ll find ITILITE there.
4. Proof building: Testimonials from clients. Some of our clients are super happy with our services and do not shy away from telling the world about their travel partner.
The ideal customer for ITILITE – We sell in India and the US. A perfect customer in India is a company of 1000 to 1,00,000 employees, who spend at least 50 lakhs to one crore on travel each month. We generally pitch to finance and administration desks.
YC – Tell us a little more about the market, and the competition?
Mayank – Business travel expenditures worldwide in 2019 were $1.4 trillion. In India, it was $40 billion. Today, 90% of business travel happens offline via emails and calls. When you have to travel for work, unless you work in a 100 – 200 people company, the default answer would be, “I will call my travel desk.” The purpose and mission of the company are that we will take this online.
It’s a vast, unorganized market, entirely different from personal and leisure travel, which is primarily online. When you bring a massive, cluttered offline market online, you usually end up being a significant value creator for businesses. Whether that’s cabs with Uber and Ola or any other player, that’s what we are trying to do.
Our competitors are small and large travel agents sitting in your office and booking your tickets. We are helping companies to go online. Along with the travel agents, the travel desk expenses, which is our secondary product, is also a competition. Many software programs can do that.
Some companies like Tripactions and Travelperk are in the same domain of business travel and expense.
Why Travel & Expense?
We were the first software company to do this. We didn’t do it because we had 1,000 customers ready, but because we realized that travel booking and expense reimbursements are related problems.
As a finance head, that’s one spend to me. I want to see it and manage it together. But I am getting it from two different vendors, which creates many problems. So if you build good expense software, you may not be the best, but still, you have to be at least in the top 10-20 percentile. But if travel and expenses are combined, they add great value
Simple example – Finance teams have a big problem – Employees don’t file reimbursements on time. Three months, four months… The finance team keeps waiting. Employees, on the other hand, have no idea where to file the documents.
If you use ITILITE, we already know you have traveled. So if you have to file reimbursements, we can remind you of that, something other expense softwares cannot do by themselves. In addition, people will file reimbursement faster because we can remind them daily. That’s why Travel and Expense together are very powerful. And that’s why we went for expense software as well.
As of today, if we take the list of companies that spent significantly on travel, the collective expenditure of the top three companies would amount to $14 to $15 billion. But for the last 30 years, they have been doing it the same way. This means even new-age players can win. That’s the idea. “We have a right to win.”
Today, we have 350+ paid customers across India and the US.
The exciting part is that during COVID, in those 18 months, we grew by 5x. HOW? That’s a tricky question – There are three main reasons:
1. I think we were fortunate to be in the right place at the right time.
2. We had enough capital to survive. We never thought that we would go out of business.
3. travel desks were fired from large companies. This meant that they were looking for digital solutions.
The right metric of CAC for us is – CAC payback – Time taken to recover the amount you spent on any customer. Our average CAC payback is about eight odd months. And it’s a relatively low churn industry unless you have a 10x better product. Customers don’t move. So economically, it’s a pretty good industry.
Having said that, we can go live within a week, however, the purchasing cycle carries with the company’s processes.
YC – Sounds good. So, based on your experience, are there any suggestions you would like to give fellow co-founders?
Mayank – Definitely;
1. A start-up journey is a marathon. Early on, we were very impatient. We always felt, “We are working very hard. Why doesn’t it show up?” You have to be patient. But that doesn’t mean you have to run slowly.
The analogy I always use is this: the best marathoners sprint throughout the marathon. You must run like a sprint, but remember it’s a 42-kilometer marathon.
2. On Sales vs Product – Do we build a fantastic product and then go to market, OR do we go to market on day one and keep building the product? I think that balance is essential. You have to build your product iteratively.
I don’t believe in a perfect product; we’ll take it to market. A very important thing is the MVP. An MVP has fewer features. Yet, they are amazing. You build less, but you build it amazingly. And then iterate very, very fast.
3. Sales side: Talk to the customer even when you don’t have a product. To be honest, I don’t have a product. I will give it to you in two, three, or four months, but don’t wait for the product to be ready.
4. Marketing is vital from day one. Marketing has different meanings, depending on the company. We are very conscious after starting the company in the US about a year ago. Our most significant effort and money go into it.
5. Company’s DNA – Be very, very, very particular about the first few employees and customers you get. They will define what you build as a company. Employees are more evident as they are the company’s building blocks. What is not obvious are the customers. They also define the nature of your company, especially the first five to ten. DNA, once defined, is tough to change. So be very conscious about it.
YC – That’s great! Now, a little philosophical question, what is your fundamental belief as a person? What keeps you going? What is that one dream you want to achieve?
Mayank – I’m now in self-actualization mode. I have to build a legacy, something that’s significant. That’s what keeps me going. I’m competing against myself, not against anyone else.
My father says, “Hope for the best and prepare for the worst.” It’s a straightforward thing. You have to be positive and put in all the effort you can, but be prepared for the worst. That is, I think, my philosophy as well.
Books/Blog recommendation – I read a lot of blogs. Unfortunately, I do not get time to read books. Anyone who’s in SaaS should follow Jason Lemkin on Twitter – He runs SaaStr, the world’s largest B2B/SaaS founder community. He is the managing director of SaaStr Fund, a $90 million venture capital firm focused on early-stage enterprise investments.
Mayank, it was a great conversation. Thank you for your time. Yellow Chapter wishes you every success in your future endeavours.