From being a chartered accountant to a founding member of an online travel portal, Rajesh Magow has come a long way. The CEO-India and co-founder of MakeMyTrip.com tells Anu Prabhakar about the time his team was advised to shut down the portal and that he is yet to travel to a destination that’s bowled him over
In the year 2000, when MakeMyTrip first set shop in New Delhi’s Okhla’s Phase 1, CEO-India and co-founder of the travel portal, Rajesh Magow, spent many hours enveloped in fumes. He, at the time, shared ‘office space’ (we use the term loosely) in a wooden cabin and, alternatively, the terrace of a temporary structure with the portal’s founder Deep Kalra and several other top management employees.
“We used to sit back-to-back and fumes from the generator came all the way to where we sat,” chuckles Magow at the memory. “I remember when someone had come over for a meeting, he was astonished that we were able to sit there with the fumes,” adds Magow.
But questionable oxygen turned out to be the least of their worries. Within a mere five years of launching the portal in the US to cater to the travel requirements of Non Indian Residents (NRIs), several international events sent the world reeling and rocked their own personal world. Key among them were the 9/11 terror attacks in the US, the dot-com bubble burst and the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) — all of which had a direct impact on the world of the Internet and travel.
Rajesh Magow at Lord’s Cricket Ground in England for a JP Morgan exhibition match
So what kept the team going? “We were convinced that it was just a matter of time before the idea took off,” says Magow.
From chartered accountancy to the corporate world Magow was born to two teachers in the industrial town of Batala, near Amritsar, Punjab. His parents taught at a Christian college, while he split his time between Punjab and Varanasi, where his maternal uncle and naani (grandmother) resided. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in commerce, the college topper enrolled in The Institute of Chartered Accountants of India.
Post the untimely death of his father, the family moved to New Delhi and by the end of 1993, he joined Voltas Limited in Mumbai where he was hired as a part of the management team. He gives a small laugh when we quiz him about his time in Mumbai. “I loved Thane which is where I stayed,” he says cautiously.
“But not really Mumbai,” says the chartered accountant, although he quickly adds that he enjoyed his weekends in the city, remembering them as being very “cool”. “But Thane, in those days, was this underdeveloped, beautiful place just outside of town,” says Magow of the suburb, notorious for its heavy population today. “I also liked Mumbai over New Delhi for its road discipline. But today, of course, both cities are bad,” he laughs.
A year later, he wanted to return to his family in New Delhi and explains that the transfer came through quickly as “no one else wanted to go to the capital because of the heavy union activities.” “In fact, during my first day at Voltas, New Delhi, there was this huge union showdown at our Delhi office — I remember that even today. It was very difficult as there were frequent strikes,” he recalls.
After successful stints at companies such as APTEC and Quantum, Magow met Deep Kalra through a headhunter in 2000. Online travel bookings were still relatively unknown to India but Magow says that he “didn’t think twice” before accepting the job to join Kalra as part of the founding team. That he had a four-year-old son and a wife to support (his second son was born in 2001) didn’t deter him from his decision either. “I don’t think it would have been possible for me to stay focused on my career if my wife didn’t do some of the heavy lifting,” he admits.
The initial years were tough. Barring a couple of angel investments, funding was hard to come by. “We had a back office in New Delhi and a front office in the US. So, there was cash flow because we catered to NRIs’ travel requirements. But we had our bunch of hardships and even pooled in some money.
We were even advised to shut it down and pretty soon it became a matter of surviving in the market,” recalls the father of two. The team battled to stay afloat during the 9/11 terror attacks in the US and the dot-com burst. “In hindsight, I don’t know whether we were just too stubborn or zealous, but we were convinced about the idea and were very excited about it,” says Magow.
And when the company launched in India in 2005, there was no looking back. “The Indian Railways also started online bookings and low-cost carriers were also launched. From there, we grew by leaps and bounds,” he says.
Travelling the world for sports
Besides taking MakeMyTrip to the next level, Magow has a mental checklist of another kind. “My aim is to watch major sporting events across the world live,” says the sports enthusiast who has managed to catch the Wimbledon Championship, the French Open, the Grand Slam tournaments and cricket matches in Australia and London among many others.
“I used to watch these events on my black-and- white TV when I was a child. Now the cricket and, much later, the football world cup will come up so that is something to look forward to,” he says, excitedly. “I love playing badminton and cricket. In fact, I was fortunate to play at Lords during a corporate match,” he smiles.
And where does the man, who is part of one of the most successful online travel portals, travel? Magow explains that he discovered the pleasures of travelling only after entering the corporate world. “Now, my family and I go on vacations as that was something I couldn’t do while I was busy building my career,” says the 46-year-old. Magow’s top favourites include San Francisco (where MakeMyTrip has investors), New York and London.
“While New York is modern, happening and full of life, London is calmer and has beautiful architecture,” he says. As Magow nurses a soft spot for beach holidays, his other favourites include Maldives (“the best destination”) and Langkawi. “I prefer to go to peaceful places over flashy cosmopolitan cities while on vacation,” he adds.
And the one travel destination that bowled him over completely? “None,” he says, after a pause. “I am yet to travel to a place that blew my mind,” he signs off.
Book: It’s Not the How or the What but the Who: Succeed by Surrounding Yourself with the Best by Claudio Fernández-Aráoz
Destinations: Maldives, San Francisco, London and Scotland
Films: Speed, Anand and 3 Idiots
The best, yet cheapest, destination: Phuket
The last place you visited and loved: Bhutan
Born: October 20, 1968
Education: DAV Higher Secondary School and Baring Union Christian College
Mantra in life: Try to be a good human being and lead by example
Best advice i ever got: Don’t lose the quality of thinking about others’ feelings, not many people have this