Neeraj Singh, the Co-founder and CTO of Bengaluru-based fintech platform Groww, spends most of his time simplifying investments for the layman.
But before launching his fintech startup, he charted his tech journey across different fields, including an IT company, a gaming startup, and ecommerce major Flipkart.
A military brat, Neeraj was born in Rajasthan, but spent his childhood at army schools in cantonment areas across India.
He recalls that his first introduction to computers was in 1997. “In those days, the computer had three large parts - a large monitor, CPU (big box), and the keyboard. This is exactly how it was introduced to us,” he recollects.
Starting the tech journey
Computers had then been introduced into central government services, and Neeraj’s father became a computer instructor for the Indian Army.
“Everything was filed in a written format in a register. Using computers made the system work faster. I learnt everything about computers from my father. I learnt to code on DOS, and my interest kept increasing,” he says.
In Class 11, Neeraj decided he wanted to enter the field of computer science. And so, when he passed out of school in 2000, Neeraj went to Kanpur for IIT coaching. He spent a year, but decided to go back home (now Gwalior) after failing to crack the IIT entrance.
“My father was then posted out of India, and I wanted to stay close to my family. I chose to join the computer science course from IPM Institute of Technology and Management in Gwalior,” he says.
Neeraj was part of the second batch of that college that passed out in 2005.
Focus on coding and programming
In those days, jobs posed a major challenge in cities like Gwalior.
Neeraj, who had a 94.4 percentile, wanted to learn more about coding and programming. That very year, he decided to join Centre for Diploma in Advanced Computing (CDAC), which was responsible for building Param, India’s first super computer.
The intensive six-month course covered all the major programming languages. “Before CDAC, I knew only C++ and Java, but later I gained in-depth knowledge about database technologies. I learnt speed at CDAC. We would sleep only a few hours; we were in the labs 24x7 and would code all night. I did 100 to 200 programs in a night,” Neeraj says.
Working on supply chain and product management
In 2006, he was placed at JDA Software, a company in the supply chain domain that was similar to SAP Labs.
“Everyone was older, and I realised my selection was the first time they had picked someone with less than three years of experience. I was at JDA for four years and worked on a supply chain product called Strategy, which helped in planning, production, and manufacturing. The idea was to focus on production at a strategic level,” Neeraj says.
Next, he worked on building Inventory Planning and Optimisation (IPO). In a supply chain network, how you plan your inventory and optimise is as important as distribution, warehousing, and retailers. The product worked on each layer and focused on each layer, and a real-time plan for production and inventory.
However, after a while, Neeraj felt he was stagnating. A lot of people would work on a release for six months, but he would finish his work in two weeks. “I would take up work from other people and it still wasn’t enough…I knew I had to shift jobs.”
In 2010, he joined IVY Comptech, an online gaming startup that made products only for the European and US markets (where they were branded as Party Gaming). Neeraj worked on casino games and even built a jackpot game.
Eleven months later, he got a call from Flipkart, then a growing ecommerce startup.
“I said no; it was just 11 months and I didn’t feel it was right to move to Flipkart. But everyone at IVY told me that Flipkart was the next big thing and I had to grab the opportunity. I didn’t know much about Flipkart. I learnt about the work and did my research. The second time I got a call I said yes,” Neeraj says.
The Flipkart ride
In August 2011, Neeraj joined the supply chain team at Flipkart, which was then at 30,000 orders a day.
He started working with the warehousing team. The ecommerce giant needed software for warehouse management to streamline orders, pickups, packaging, and shipping. Everything was handled by the warehouse team, but the need for a new product was high as orders went up with every day.
“We were using open tabs, an open source software. It worked well, but was prone to breaking. The team couldn’t scale it to the next level,” Neeraj says.
While the team worked on building the new product, Neeraj had to ensure that the current product was optimised to take more orders.
Flipkart then had 19 categories and wanted more. “We launched 32 categories and order volumes increased to about 60,000 to 80,000.”
By mid-2012, the company shifted to the new product, and Neeraj moved in to optimise the order management flow.
Order management has different modules, and the team began work on the synchronisation model, ensuring one product for one customer and focusing on one booking at a time. “We did distributed logging to avoid overcommitting.”
Later that year, Flipkart moved to a marketplace model, where Neeraj was one of the initial members. He was the only person who had worked with the supply chain, product management, and order management. This helped with integration at marketplace level.
From experimentation to exponential growth
“I joined as a level two software engineer and soon moved to a managerial level. I had started working on a small project: the product exchange programme. In 2014, we started with Motorola E, where people would buy a new phone in exchange for an old phone,” Neeraj says.
He explains that returns are an expensive and loss-making process for any ecommerce company. The product - shipped, opened, and probably used by the consumer – is returned and hardly has any value. But the exchange programme soon grew from mobiles to laptops and the entire electronics category.
“By this time, I had experience of setting new teams from scratch and delivering whatever was needed. Flipkart had started hyperlocal deliveries, but it wasn’t a primary business line; it was an experiment,” Neeraj says.
It was here that he connected with Lalit Keshre, Harsh Jain, and Ishan Bansal, who would go on to co-found Groww with him.
“For Flipkart hyperlocal deliveries, we hired delivery boys. Each delivery would cost Rs 30-50. While doing this, we realised we could create a bigger impact outside Flipkart and had the experience to build products from scratch,” Neeraj says.
Starting up to simplify investments
The four came together to start Groww in 2016. The investment platform leverages technology to eliminate hassles at every step of the customer’s investing journey.
The co-founders had realised that any business with physical fulfilment was difficult. “We can’t control the behaviour of third person. There are frauds, delivery boy issues, difficulties in ops manangement…and you have to do it pan-India,” Neeraj says.
Aiming for a pure digital business, they began thinking of a marketplace for professional services. Practo was already structuring doctor discovery, and the co-founders looked at financial services.
“We realised that financial services were huge. Just focusing on them was enough as mutual funds, stocks, loans, insurances etc are all complex. If you ask people where they want to invest in mutual funds, they are confused. Account opening was tough, and we decided to start with that,” Neeraj says.
Groww needed a UI engineer and designer; the co-founders outsourced the design work and hired an engineer from Flipkart. The first integration was with ICICI AMC, and they started with three mutual funds.
However, feedback showed that consumers wanted more options.
“They don’t like to be controlled and want freedom, so we decided on a self-serve app that offered choices and DIY options in a simple and seamless manner,” Neeraj says.
Robo advisory was growing, but trust was low and people continued to look for choices.
Groww focused on simplicity and transparency, positioning itself as an advisor or ‘buddy’. The platform is powered by intelligent UI and UX, and offers paperless investing options.
The fintech startup has grown from 1,000 transacting customers in 2017 to more than six lakh customers now.
Neeraj adds that they are now adding other products like stocks. He continues to code even today, but his focus now is overall product growth and evolution.
Offering advice to all techies, Neeraj says, "What you learn next is extremely important. It is important to continue learning. I always learn about tech in other spaces, even agritech, advanced computing…anything that speeds up your work or can be replicated. I focus on how I can speed up processes.”
On what he looks for when hiring, he says he considered energy level and a never-give-up attitude in the early days.
“Today, we also look for skill sets and the ability to solve the problem. How do you approach the problem? We are not new; how you solve the problem is important. Engineers can do same work in two months and in one day…there are variations, and we look for people who can work with speed,” Neeraj says.
(Edited by Teja Lele Desai)