Kothari was born in Hong Kong and spent most of his time in the city. And never learned either Cantonese or Mandarin. He got into Wharton School of Economics where he met a young man named Kunal Bahl, who went on to become the CEO of Snapdeal, one of the largest e-commerce companies in India. This friendship continued to blossom after college. Especially when Kothari bought a struggling comic book company called Valiant Comics.
Kothari wanted to make Valiant Comics the next Marvel comics. But it didn’t work out. He withdrew from the company and let his co-founder run it. Valiant allegedly made deals with studios but nothing materialized and he moved back to Hong Kong and there he reconnected with his college buddy Bahl.
Snapdeal: A dark horse
Even as all this was happening, back in India, Rahul Yadav fell out with SoftBank and Nexus Venture Partners at Mumbai-based real estate startup Housing. At the time, Snapdeal was the rising star in SoftBank’s portfolio and when Bahl made a recommendation, it stuck. The Housing board was shopping around for a new CEO. Bahl recommended Kothari for the position.
“They called him a media entrepreneur. And he knew nothing about building a company or repairing what was wrong,” says a former board member of Housing. Kothari, however, came in as the chief business officer (CBO) and was then elevated to CEO.
“While he was the CBO, he had to meet builders and start developing relationships with them. But he didn’t want to do that. He kept trying to redefine his role,” adds the former board member. What role did he want? “He wanted a leadership role within the company. He asked the board for a Co-CEO post,” the board member says. The board refused.
At the time, Kothari was to replace Rishabh Gupta, the interim CEO of Housing. Gupta was a placeholder until Kothari learned the ropes. But Gupta fell out with the board as well and quit. The investors’ patience with the company had worn thin. And then Kothari was asked to do what he was brought in for. Trim the headcount, contain the burn and make the company viable for a sale.
Housing, during Kothari’s tenure, fired close to 800 people. Almost 600 people were asked to leave in September 2015. And another 200 in March 2016.
So, why did Kothari stumble in February 2017? Like in everything else, there is fine print. The first round of firings was not his design. It was designed by his predecessor, Gupta, and the next one in March was handled and fashioned by Ajay Nair, the then chief administrative officer.
“It would be fair to say that he [Kothari] was in his cabin and never left it during that period. He had almost no interaction with anyone who was being laid off. Everything was delegated,” says a former colleague of Kothari at Housing. Apart from signing off on the retrenchment, Kothari did little else. He didn’t make a list, nor could he figure out which department to trim.
We are in January 2017. This time in Powai, Mumbai.
“I want to change the impression of the company,” Kothari says to the person sitting in front of him
“In what way?” says the senior Housing employee.
“I want people to talk about us again. No one is talking about us. And I think that’s why we can’t get new investors,” he replies.
“But what will we say, right now? What are the talking points? There is nothing new.”
“We must find something to talk about. What’s happening in the company?” he asks.
“You are the CEO, you must know,” the person laughs.
“We must ask someone. Let’s call Ajay (the CAO),” he replies.
It was a short conversation. But the disconnect he felt with the company was obvious to all those around.