Right across, inside the conference room, Mehta is deep in thought. Bespectacled, dressed in a blue tee, denim and sneakers, he has a boyish look about him. “We went with a very classic startup approach,” he says. “Like how it is so cool to not have systems and processes; super cool, that’s how we will be. My co-founder actually kept telling me, we need to have a lot of tight systems. We have to make a full vehicle. We need to have a program team cracking timelines with everybody. And I was like come on, timelines I can do myself.”
Needless to say, things got palpably chaotic. For building something that has as many as 1,000 parts going into it, Ather’s organization structure and process flows resembled that of a college project. The company’s team grew from 15 in 2013 to 100 people by 2016.
How frustrating it was for the management?
When it was a small team, all of them came to Mehta and Jain to taking any decision. And when that expanded to 100, all of them still came to Mehta and Jain for weighing in all decisions. It became a management nightmare. The result of this structure or the lack of it was felt in the process flow. Of its employees, 90% were engineers building components. And most of it from scratch. But there was little coordination among the different teams.
This resulted in a cascading delay. Let’s take a chain to understand this better. For instance, there’s one person heading the battery management system (BMS). He needs components to assemble the BMS, so on a particular day, say, Wednesday, he calls up the customs guy to check on the status of the part.
The customs guy says, there’s a delay and the component will only arrive on Friday. In a team size of 15-20 people, everybody is in the loop. But with 200 engineers, a delay in the BMS hurts the battery pack, which cannot go into testing, which in turn affects the vehicle because it cannot go out on the road, which in turn affects the testing schedule of the battery pack. This means that the industrial design team is sitting, twiddling thumbs.
“People were getting frustrated,” says Mehta. “They would work seven days for 15 hours, and two weeks later you have to move five steps backward. One small change affects nearly everything else as the vehicle is highly integrated.”
To fix that, Ather went through a complete structural overhaul. It set up one central SWAT team called a Product team whose main job was to have a spec-by-spec plan for the entire vehicle and develop a logical development plan.
Testing the parameters
And a separate team called the Program team was set up to track the timelines of engineering groups for hardware, software, battery, and vehicle intelligence and other operations to ensure no one in the chain is surprised. “Earlier we didn’t have anyone tracking timeliness,” says Mehta.
“It was basically me going around with an Excel sheet convincing everyone that they should be building it faster, but with no sense of how. We woke up to this in April 2016. Project management was a big gap. When we are taking 10 decisions every day, it was chaotic because people would be like, let me speak to Tarun or a Swapnil.”
Even as all this was happening, it became amply clear that the timeline to get the vehicle on the road was completely out of whack. Launch first, tweak later was not an option. Here’s why.
One thing that has not changed in the last decade that electric vehicles have been around in India is the lackluster response towards it. Remember Electrotherm? It was one of the first to launch a battery-run scooter called YoBikes in 2007. And soon every two-wheeler manufacturer from TVS to Hero Group had one.
If the Indian made vehicles cost around Rs 35,000 the Chinese made ones were even cheaper. Anywhere between Rs 18,000 and upwards.