Thoughts Become Things
They say the best things in life are destiny’s gift. In the case of Xoxoday, the maxim panned out quite literally. After all, gifting was how we started our rather eventful journey way back in 2012. It was a different world back then. One we started charting with the wide-eyed excitement of a cheetah cub that was learning to swim for the first time. It felt familiar and alien at once. It was familiar because I was born with an entrepreneurial gene so there was no denying a cosmic connection somewhere. Alien, because gifting was still a largely ‘unorganized’ sector in India and if I and my team were to proceed, it would have to be pretty much without a map. But I must admit: The combined sensation – the goosebumps of landing on Mars and the bliss of a barefoot walk in the park – was irresistible. The stuff all entrepreneurs live for. So yes, I DID take the plunge – exactly 8 years to this month (which also happens to be my birth month) – a step that triggered a crazy journey of discoveries, heartbreaks, laughter and undiluted fulfilment. As we kept experimenting, iterating and correcting courses – pruning steps with agility and scaling models (sometimes with impunity) – we finally arrived at a place that looks remarkably significant from where we started in 2012, a time when I was working with Flipkart. Okay, let me begin at the beginning.
Meeting Becomes Mission
Flipkart, the poster boy of Indian entrepreneurship, was where this movie has its seeds. From the point of view of a professional career, it was the right place and the right time. For me, it also spelt the right acquaintance, as Flipkart was where I first met Sumit Khandelwal, who had recently quit his job at Metro Cash & Carry with the dream of building something of his own. Being from business families, we both had the entrepreneur bone in us, and connected instantly. The proverbial ‘Eureka Moment’ happened sometime in the March of 2012 when we finally decided to throw our hats in the gifting ring. Why the gifting sector? Answering this one is easy. Both me and Sumit have been eyewitness to the sizeable revenue that flowed from the gifting channel both at Flipkart and Metro Cash. Coupled with the fact that India was a land with a deeply ingrained culture of gifting – together with our compulsive habit of splurging billions of dollars in the activity every year at both corporate and personal level - and a dive into one of the oldest ‘industries’ of a nation of ‘generous and hospitable’ people sounded, frankly, like a foolproof idea.
In fact, the more we studied the space, the better it sounded. The only thing bigger than the monstrous numbers and figures that surfaced, was the gaping lacuna of technology & innovation in this sector. Despite its timeless presence, gifting in India specially gifting the digital gift cards seemed to be trapped in a time warp, with no innovations worth noting. With our strong tech backgrounds, we instantly realized that adding technology strategically into the current mix and model could lead to unprecedented disruption.
Group and social gifting as a concept was, of course, already quite hot in the western world in 2011-12. We felt India was ready for it too. It sounded big and novel. At the nuts and bolts level, the idea encompassed migrating the offline model of gifting into a digital ecosystem through social platforms, emails and mobiles. We swung into action mode without ado, crunching primary and secondary data frantically and landing some pretty cool (read multi-million dollar) revenue projections ☺
The idea being tech-driven, it was time to find the hero of our script: A solid technology partner. Initial efforts to outsource the work locally didn’t quite work out and it was clear that we must bring the tech-stuff in-house, with a tech co-founder. This was a make-break part of the exercise: The Co-Founder had to fit a certain mould, and resonate with the idea with the same passion that we did. We started searching through friends, family and networks, meeting over 100 people over the next few weeks. I’ve heard the saying ‘Coffee is the answer, no matter what the question’. It was time to find out the real power of the quote. We met our elusive co-founder at a Barista outlet through a common friend after about 4 months of combing. The ‘deja-vu moment’ wasn’t lost on any of us: I and Sumit had met at Costa Coffee. Cosmic codes were at work.
Serendipity Becomes Identity
With the team finally in place, it was time to turn to the other thing that needed fixing fast: Our name. A good name is much more than logo and legalese; it can act like a tonic – pepping the journey and keeping spirits high even when chips are down. A moment of serendipity - over a dinner discussion with the family - gifted us the name GIFTXOXO. There’s a little sub-plot at this stage that I think merits mention. You see, we wanted to keep overheads and fixed costs to a minimum and so started out our version of the ‘Google Garage’ from a sliver of a room in a friend's office acquired in exchange for equity (shared offices did not exist then).
While our business model was focused around social and group gifting, we had one-to-one gifting options on our platform as well, primarily to get the action going quickly. We had our first online customer on 20 July 2012, which is also my birthday. Chased by a dog (who evidently wanted to gatecrash the party), Sumit & Abhishek delivered the celebrations in the form of cake & flowers at midnight.
Tip Becomes Mantra
After the high of a happy start, it was time for ground realities. We were beginning to see that social group gifting, digital gift cards gifting, while appearing super on paper – didn’t really pan out quite as formidably on-the-ground. A little digging showed that even funded companies in the US and Europe in this sector had to shut down fast. So somewhere around September of 2012, we started rethinking the model. This was also the time when Kushal, who had interned under me at Flipkart, joined us as the youngest co-founder. As a foursome – each with complimentary skills that cumulatively covered nearly every aspect and angle of a large business - we were finally complete.
We have always been very open in taking advice from seniors, competitors and industry experts. Even today, we spend a lot of time reading about the latest trends, competition, mentors and geographical developments with interest and energy.
Which brings me to the former Air Deccan visionary John Kuruvila whom we knew through a connection. We discussed our business model with John, stressing on how we are struggling to get transactions on group/social gifting. That is when John Kuruvila gave us a piece of advice that continues to guide and inspire us. He said, "Revenue momentum in a business is very important, and if you are able to get that momentum, you can always use these revenues to fine-tune your business model in the long term. So the show must go on in the short term and keep fueling the long term business".
This advice perked us back up. We refocused on individual & bulk gifting of cakes, flowers and chocolates with new vigor to keep the revenue channels active, hitting our first bulk order on 10th August 2012. The Diwali of 2012 was a bit of a milestone for us, a season where we dug-in resolutely to leverage the mood of bulk purchase. Slowly and steadily, we had hit the monthly revenue of around 20 Lacs. We had done it by selling pretty much anything and everything a corporate needs: Gift cards, Gift Vouchers, Tshirts, mugs, sippers, mobiles, mobile covers, pens, diaries, bags, jackets and beyond.
Grind Becomes Growth
We picked up the tricks of B2B businesses, the psyche behind corporate sales and built strong relationship bridges across India Inc. The other hallmark of a meaningful journey is the team you have managed to build. If you have truly built a unique culture code, you stay as a team for life, even when members physically leave. We were fortunate to have built a core team that stuck through thick and thin, and is still together.
We had always been clear about one thing - that corporate product gifting wasn’t our real target; it was only a stepping stone, a means towards greater goals. Product gifting, after all, was a linear, price-sensitive and manual business model and not conducive to the kind of scale we had in mind. So in a way, we were still in search of our niche, our golden fleece. To find our ‘promised land’, we kept fine-tuning our model at every step and ploughing back our corporate gifting revenue into innovation and R&D. We also kept meeting industry veterans and connecting with minds we felt we could mine. It is during this period of recce and exploration that we stumbled upon the concept of experiential gifting. Experience gifting, in simple language, is the act of gifting experiences instead of tangible products, gifting memories instead of things and gifting moments instead of assets. We found it promising and decided to add it into our business. We launched our first mock-up of the experience product in March 2013. We sold our first experience box in April 2013 for an anniversary gift and slowly started getting orders for the category.
Encounter Becomes Fuel
It has been rightly said that “When you meet or speak to someone, it is for a purpose already marked in your destiny". We experienced this first-hand. We had spoken to an experience-gifting player in Singapore before launching our experience gifting vertical.
The chance encounter came full circle now, and these guys connected us with Naveen Kshatriya, our very first investor. Naveen had been exposed to the experience gifting concept in Singapore & HongKong and wanted to do something similar in India. Naveen remains one of the best mentors we ever had and has been helping us on various fronts even today.
We really did not try to raise funds in the initial year and wanted to focus more on finding the right product market fit. But thoughts have their way of becoming things, and before long, we were closing our first seed round in May 2013. This was a big milestone for us.
While products and gift vouchers had provided us a good entry into the corporate world and proven to be stable revenue drivers, it was Experience Gifts which, for the first time, brought in the differentiation and competitive advantage. We slowly started strengthening our experience gifting vertical. Our B2B gifting universe - now a pretty diverse mix of products, experiences and gift vouchers - kept growing through 2013-14.
In a short period of time, we had signed up long term contracts with some pretty large companies. And between 2015 and 2016, we acquired companies like Bluebulb, Yipeedo, Actizone, Bookmyinterest, and Fundoo.io, all geared to add muscle and steam to our experiences and activities business. In 2016, we got pre-series A funding from Mahindra Holidays and got a great corporate mentor in it.
The habit of innovation – be it in product, sales or supply – remained a constant refrain in the way we work. The goal in the cross-hairs this time was to move our transaction billings in corporate to subscription billing. The result was XOXOENGAGE – A Rewards and Recognition SaaS platform that can be used by companies to handle their rewards for employees to motivate, rewards and recognition program and engagement seamlessly. The rewards could be redeemed on our experience catalog or gift vouchers. The market responded well.
The time had come to take another look at our name GIFTXOXO which, now that we were not just a gifting company (having moved onto rewards, incentives and experiences), was both a bit of a ‘misnomer’ as well as limiting to future horizons. We wanted a name that was sufficiently broad in terms of perspective to be able to support our forward evolution. We finalized the name as XOXODAY.
In terms of growth, we have moved in phases. 2012 to 2016 was a period of horizontal expansion in the reward category with merchandise, experiences and gift cards. During this phase, we had also built systems for order management, front end reward redemption, point delivery for rewards and XOXO CODES for rewards. The early stage of employee engagement software was also good-to-go, with about 10 clients. Abhimanyu & Anindo joined our founding team in 2015-16 and P K Gopalakrishnan also started helping us with leadership and strategy advice.
2016-18 was all about adding more clients and end-users into the mix.
Luncheoning with the Moguls - our journey has given us the opportunity to meet many great minds
In 2018, we went international by launching operations in Dubai and Singapore and ran into some early wins. We have subsequently added more geographies to our map across the USA, Europe, SEA and GCC.
Growth Becomes 3d
In fact, in 2018, our growth curve took on a distinctly 3 Dimensional Flavor.
Dimension One entailed a long overdue tech makeover that would allow us to scale fast and smooth. The whole system was now constructed around micro services with a very loose coupled architecture, a robust database and good user experience. We also deployed the second version of our employee engagement platform with a richer suite of capabilities and covering the employee motivation and employee engagement universe holistically. The answer for the question how to keep employees motivated and engaged can be found here.
Our homepages reflect the sea of change that our offerings have undergone - Giftxoxo website in 2015 (above) and our current home page (below
Refocusing on user experience - Our new employee platform (below) distinctly offers much better usability and much less cognitive load from our earlier employee platform (above)
A new catalogue for the new things - Our latest catalogue platform (below) has a neater information architecture and better content display features in comparison to our older catalogue site (above)
Dimension Two was about portfolio expansion. We trifurcated our product canvas into three Business Units (BU) to achieve optimal focus and P&L ownership. Each BU would henceforth engage with a particular Target Persona, customer problem and market. For instance, PLUM BU would deal exclusively with rewards and recognition programs in the workplace which includes rewards for employees to motivate, loyalty and benefits with its own, unique global catalog which featured international digital gift cards, international experiences, perks, benefits and even financial instruments like savings and insurance. EMPULS BU would be tasked with innovating on engaging employees and building employee-first culture at the workplace. COMPASS BU was set up for engagement product for ‘extended teams’ - such as sales, channel partners, sales team motivation, delivery units, gig workforce, back-end support teams and other forms of ‘fleets-on-street’. Working in unison, these three BU’s had the power to synchronize a scattered, silo-fied and under-optimized workforce like never-before, unlock hidden growth pools and drive exponential business for our clients. Here are our 3 products:
Plum - Best suited for Consumer Promotions, Loyalty Programs, Corporate Gifting, Perks, Survey Incentives, Gift Cards, Experiences, Trade Incentives.
Empuls - Best suited for Employee Engagement, Rewards & Recognition, Pulse Surveys, Remote Working, Social Intranet, 1-on-1 Feedback.
Compass - Best suited to engage, incentivize and motivate sales team, channel partners, delivery teams, dealers, distributors, agents and gig workforce.
If the second dimension possessed the wherewithal to change the game, Dimension Three had the character to transform the very sport. You see, so far, the engagement industry (and even us, till 2018) was pivoted around the concept of extrinsic motivation. For initiated folks, that was the part of the motivation iceberg that was above the waterline. Or, if you are familiar with the concept, the lower portion of Maslow’s pyramid. Largely linear, the extrinsic approach broadly means that good deeds are rewarded and failure punished.
While extrinsic motivation has its merits – such as making us explore new pursuits & horizons (that may not be our ‘natural’ traits) and comply with set targets and quality benchmarks - it doesn’t address inner needs, which can leave us a bit hollow at the end of the day. It is here that XOXODAY engineers a paradigm shift by balancing the extrinsic equation with intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation – mapping to the portion of that same iceberg that is hidden below the water’s surface, or the top part of Maslow’s hierarchy - is all about doing something purely because it feels good and is deeply meaningful. In other words, the activity is its own reward.
Done right, this can lead to actualization of both individual and organization - by sharpening native strengths, creating a culture that goes the extra mile to achieve excellence (happily over-performing and besting set benchmarks) and leading to truly fulfilling vocations. Stoking intrinsic motivation is all about designing an encouraging and facilitative work environment and then setting workers free to explore and leverage it in their own, ‘autonomous’ ways. XOXODAY lets companies get the best (which is not necessarily the ‘most’) out of their employees, sales and channel with the right brew and blend of extrinsic and intrinsic motivation.
What Will has The Future Become? More Awesome Things, We Hope.
It’s been a memorable ride. For a team that has worked relentlessly to redefine the way human is motivated and engaged, we have been on the receiving end of our own fair share of motivation - from being featured on CNBC Young Turks (2015-16) to being awarded the PeopleMatters HR Tech Award (2016-17), is ranked in Deloitte’s Fast 50 (2017-18), being a SaaStr finalist 2019 and FT top 100 tech companies 2020.
Be it the thrills of new experiences every day or the satisfaction of knowing that we are making a real difference to both individual’s motivation and business performance – XOXODAY has become a legal addiction we may never be able to get out of. We are as full of energy today as we were back in 2012. We remain unsettled and constantly inquisitive of making our offerings better. I believe that this drive comes from witnessing how millions of our end users are motivated, engaged and happier through our products. We advance everyday in our pursuit to solve complex human motivation and engagement problems - whether this human is an employee, a customer, a sales guy, a dealer, a distributor, a gig worker or a delivery executive. While we have built a fundamentally good company, we now want to build a good institution out of this company.
Our mission is to put motivation and engagement technology at the center of business growth.
Some key numbers
Number of Employees: 175
Number of Clients: 1000+
Turnover: $53 M
Offices: Bangalore, Delhi, Mumbai, California, Dublin, Dubai, Singapore