Niraj Singh on aspirational purchases, solving for trust, and building the most loved used car platform in India

S1 E2
Reading Time
21 minutes

In our maiden X‑Unicorns episode, Arpit Agarwal sat down with Niraj Singh of Spinny to discuss his journey from a small town called Daltonganj to becoming a unicorn founder of an online used cars marketplace. After two failed ventures, Niraj hit on his (literal) billion-dollar area with Spinny. But how do you know your idea works? How do you keep going without the validation of venture backing? How do you make sure you hire for success? Tune in for the answers.

This transcript was AI-generated and went through multiple rounds of proofreading. However, there might be a few errors that may have slipped through the cracks.

Arpit: Hello everyone. Aaj Hamare guest hai Neeraj Singh (Today our guest is Neeraj Singh). Neeraj ke saath relationship rakhte huey kafi zamana ho gaya (It's been a long time since we've had a relationship with Neeraj). Hum ne invest kiya tha Spinny me 2015 mein (We invested in Spinny in 2015). And then Neeraj was building this very early company called Spinny about used car retailing. Aur is samay who socha muskhil tha ki  itne saare used car dealer duniya mein (At that time, it was difficult to think that there are so many used car dealers in the world). Haamare desh me har kone mein used car dealers hai (there are used car dealers in every corner of our country). Ek naayi company kya karegi aur kaise karegi yeh kehna kaafi mushkil tha (it was difficult to say what a new company will do and how it will do it). But Neeraj, Mohit and Himanshu jinhone juda aur suru kiya  (but Neeraj, Mohit and Himanshu, who joined together and started this), this is a very exciting story to think about how they have managed to solve the problems. Neeraj himself is a very exciting and a very inspiring entrepreneur. Neeraj, welcome to the show. I find it fascinating that all this life you have actually been only an entrepreneur, never tried to find a job. Generally, hota kya hai ki aap IIT ne nikal ho aur job dhundhna shuru kartey ho (what happens is that you leave IIT and try to find a job). Aur acchi job bhi mil jati  hai  (and you do find a good job). Aur smart logon ki kucch bhi limit nahi hai  (and smart people obviously have no limits). Yeh kaise hua ki aap ne job ke baare mein nahi socha aur hamesha hi startup kiya? (how did you not think of a job and instead started a startup?) First Locals, then Tech Monkey. At what point did you know that entrepreneurship is it? This is what you wanted to be?

Niraj: So Arpit, I believe your experiences shape you as a person. Mere Bachpan se aadat  rahi hogi that I’m always not just doing the first order thinking, but also second order and thoda credit pyhsics ko bhi dunga (I will give some credit to physics too). In my school days, class 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th, and IIT entrance I was madly in love with physics. Wahan se  (from there) I think in personal life, regarding everything, that kind of attitude develop ho gaya tha (had developed). Abhi bhi  (even now), whenever I have discussions regarding anything in the team, I keep pushing for second order thinking, third order thinking, not just the first order thinking. 

During college days, jab sochta tha  jo thinking thi ki college ke baad kya karna hai ke baad kya karna hai  (I used to think differently in the first year what I wanted to do after college, what I wanted to do after B.Tech). This idea of what I wanted to changed through second, third and fourth year. So, thinking karte karte  towards the end of third year, early beginning of fourth year, samajh mein aya ki life mein kuch impactful karna hai (I understood that if you want to do something impactful in life), if you want to harness your full potential, full energy, then entrepreneurship is the way. Kyunki entrepreneurship mein ...  (because in entrepreneurship)

Arpit: Yeh full potential kya hota hai? (what is this full potential?) Lag raha hai kehne ki baatein ho rahi hai (it sounds like you are speaking in clichés).

Niraj: Yeh kehne ki baatein nahi hai  (there's nothing cliche about full potential) . Jahan pe tum apne aap ko different limit tak push kar pao, aaur us limit ko bhi baar baar redefine karte raho aur  celing ko bhi tum define karo  kyun tumhare potential... (Entrepreneurship is where you can push yourself to a different limit, keep redefining that limit, and decide the ceiling because your potential)

Arpit: But ek 22 saal aur 21 saal ke ladke ke liye sochna ki uske liye ek limit hai meri yahi baadi baat hai (it’s a big deal for a 22 year old, 21 year old boy, to think that there is a limit for him). Aur job mein wo limit nahi tutegi toh inspiration kahan se aayegi?  (and if that limit doesn't break in the job, where did the inspiration come from?) 

Niraj: Koi single point of inspiration nahi hai  (there's not a single point of inspiration). There are lots of cases jahan pe logon ne bohot sari baadi baadi companies ya orgs ya institutions build kaare hai  (where people have built big companies or big orgs or institutions). So this was not just about company or business or any kind of monetary gain. This was just about the size of the potential impact, right? This is more about what is the largest platform you can build? What is the largest impact you can create? So it’s having that kind of mentality, that kind of thinking.

Arpit: So, entrepreneurship ke baare mein kaise pata laga? (how did you get to know about entrepreneurship?) Entrepreneurship karni hai startup karna hai  (how did you decide on pursuing entrepreneurship and startup?)  IIT ke baad kaafi saare dost jobs liye honge aur life mein aaj 15 saal ke baad accha kar rahe honge, koi limit toh nahi hai isme (after IIT, you must have a lot of good friends who have taken jobs and are doing well after 15 years). How did you know that you wanted to be an entrepreneur?  

Niraj: So, you know while doing that thinking, that college ke baad kya possibilities hai, aur aap second order thinking karte ho, mere ko aisa feel ho raha tha ki mein kisi job se start karta hoon ki aisa feel ho raha that ki  journey kafi linear kind of hai (I was thinking of what are possibilities of a career after college. The second order thinking made me feel that in a job - my growth will be linear). Uske kitne time pe exponential bana paoge uspe (I was not comfortable with the time in which I would be able to make my growth exponential) I was not getting enough of comfort. Us time yeh bhi pata tha ki entrepreneurship (at that time I knew that entrepreneurship) journey will be difficult a lot of risk, a lot of uncertainty…

Aur log bewakoof bolenge (people will consider me as a fool). Aur bole bhi honge shayad. (people robably did say that).

Arpit: 2007 mein startup term exist hi nahi karta tha (In 2007, the term ‘startup’ did not even exist).

Niraj: Haan nahi karta tha. (Yes the term did not exist)

Niraj: I think around 2010-11 people started using the term startup. Jab hum log pehele company start kar rahe they, main  intentionally company use kar raha tha (when we were starting the company in the beginning, I am intentionally using the word ‘company’). Us time VC word mein suna nahi that apne life mein (I had not heard about the word VC back then). Pata nahi tha VC kya hota hai (I did not know what VC was). Us time startup type buzzword exist nahi karte thay. (at that time buzzwords like startup did not use to exist). Acceptance to dur ki baat aur awareness nahi tha us time (Forget about acceptance, at that time, evem awareness about startups did not exist). I got a lot of pushback, and resistance from family, friends and well-wishers. So, there were problems. Jab decide kar rahe thay hum log entrepreneurship karna hai aur job ke liye opt nahi karna hai  (when we were deciding that we wanted to do entrepreneurship and not opt for a job), of course, it was a very difficult decision. We knew yeh kafi difficult ho sakta hai aur kafi risk hoga, fail ho sakta hai  (that entrepreneurship could be very difficult, there could be a lot of risk, it could fail). But at the same time, the desire to build something of our own and finally making it big and finally creating large impact was so intense that we thought that yaar (friend) let's not compromise with that desire, that passion. So, jab humne decide kiya ki college ke baad hum log job mein nahi jayenge aur khud ka kuch start karenge  (when we decided that after college we won't go for a job and we'll start something of our own), we were trying to answer two questions. One, that khud ka kucch karna hai  (we wanted to do something of our own). And second ki society ke liye kuch karna hai (that we want to do something for society). So, at that young age, that might sound a bit naive but this is what it was. And dono question mein common answer tha ki (the common answer to both the questions) was like do something in education. Build something in education. Khud ka kucch build bi kar rahe ho aur society ke liye benefit be ho raha hai  (you are building something on your own and benefiting the society at the same time). Next generation ki thinking, philosophy aur thought process ko improve kar rahe ho  (you can help improve the thinking, and philosophy of the next generation). The idea was not to do just IIT entrance coaching. The real idea was to build an open education online platform something like Khan Academy you see today. So we wanted to build something like that back then. Hamme laga ki ek open education online platform build karte hai jahan pe saare log aayenge aur contribute karenge aur usko leverage karenge  (we thought of building an open education online platform where everyone would come, contribute and leverage it). Students, teachers, mentors, schools and other institutions would use it. So that is the kind of open education online platform we wanted to build. That was the real idea. But as I already said, hame us time par VC aur other kinds of funding ke liye kuch bhi pata nahi tha (we didn't know anything about VC or other kinds of funding). And we knew ki yeh jo open education online platform build karna hai (that to build this open education online platform), that will require a lot of resources. You need to build the platform, so wahan all product aur tech related resources chaihiye  (you need all the product and tech related resources). Then you need to seed the content, then you need to seed the users, and you need to spread awareness. We knew ki isme kafi  time aur hardwork chaihye (that it would require a lot of hard work and time). And just time and hard work won't be enough. There will be a lot of resource requirement also and resources aayenge kahan se? (where will the resources come from). We were very confident about our respective skills. So basically sab kuch saath mein start hua tha (everything started together). The original idea was to build this online open education platform and iske liye resource arrange karne ke liye humne IIT entrance class start kiya tha (to arrange resources for this we started IT entrance classes). Because we knew that usse start karne ke liye hume koi capital nahi chaiheye (we don't need any capital to start it). We were very confident that we will do good Immediately. We will be able to build a good brand and that business can be profitable and wahan pe  (there) we will be able to generate significant surplus and whatever surplus we generate hoga, we will use that to build that online platform. So building an open platform for education was the whole idea. The coaching part, the IIT entrance classes part was to basically generate resources to build that online platform.

Arpit:  Very cool. Spinny ka idea kahan se aya? (Where did the idea of Spinny come from?) Because yeh aapke life se directly related nahi (that this wasn't directly related to your life). I know you love cars. So, car ka ek love toh kafi salon se tha (you had the love for cars for many years). But Spinny ka idea kahan se aya ? (where did the idea of Spinny come from?) Aur yeh inspiration kahan se jo gap hai jo apko dikhta hai bohot jald (and where did you get this inspiration that there is a gap that you see very early) in the market but no one else is able to see. What is the origin of the idea of Spinny? 

Niraj: So, jo first startup hai Locus (the first startup was Locus), we operated for close to four years. Uske baad second startup kiya which was Tech Monkey (after that we did the second startup Tech Monkey)  that was into web media. We operated that for close to three and a half years. So Tech Monkey se move on kiya  (when we moved on from Tech Monkey) there were some issues with Tech Monkey uske wajah se (because of which) I had to move on. Tech Monkey se move on karne ke baad (after moving on from Tech Monkey) that phase in my life was a very difficult phase. Of course college completed kiye huey 7-8 saal ho gaye (it's been 7-8 years since I had completed college). Koi clarity nahi hai (I didn't have any clarity). You don't have anything. So, very desperate times. But still, I was not giving up on entrepreneurship. Mere ko laga ki  (I thought this) is already kind of rock bottom. Isse neeche yah isse kharab situation kya ho sakta hai ?(what could be a worse situation than this?) Tab tak kuch learning accumulate ho gayi thi  (I had accumulated some learning by then). I thought ki entrepreneurship pe give up nahi karte hey  (that I should not give up on entrepreneurship). But at the same time, it was also clear that life roz flip-flop nahi kar sakte hai (I can't flip-flop every day in life). So what I told myself is iss baar haste mein kuch nahi start karte hai  (that this time I won't start anything in haste). 

Arpit: Ek baar baneage aur acche se banage . Soch ke banaenge (I will start the next company with thought behind it . 

Niraj: Agar do baar attempt le sakte hai toh third time bhi kar sakte hain  (If I can take an attempt twice, I can take it a third time). But again, flip-flop baar bar kar nahi sakte (I can't flip-flop every time). So whatever I do next, woh definitely long-term perspective se hona chaihye (it should definitely be long-term perspectives). 

Arpit: But iski guarantee nahi hai ki easily successful ho jayega (but it's not guaranteed that it will be easily successful).

Niraj: Of course, woh entrepreneurship mein ho nahi sakta. (it can't be done in entrepreneurship).

Arpit: Absolutely not. But tab bhi yeh call liya (even then you took this call). Because even at that point, and then ecosystem had started to build, you could have found a recent job, right? Aur (and) you were already making angel investment. Uske baare mein batao  (tell us about that).

Niraj: I was not giving up entrepreneurship. That was very clear. So I thought fir se thir attempt lunga aur phir khud ka hi kuch build karunga (I'll take a third attempt and build something of my own). I'll take one more shot. But iss time jo bhi try karunga who pre-defined time bound project nahi hoga  (whatever I try this time, it won't be a pre-defined time-bound project). That this is going to be like a four year, six year project. So matlaab long term commitment hoga (it will be a long term commitment). It will be undefined for ten years, twenty years, and rest of life. And out of that engagement, jo bhi mein build karunga ek long-term mindset mein build karunga (whatever I build, I'll build it with a long-term mindset). So, jab tum class 7 mein hote ho (when you're in class 7), when you're in standard 8, 7, high school, right? Uss time se life mein effort lagane wali journey chal rahi hai ( from that time, the journey of putting in effort is going on). Fight tab se chal rahi hai  (the fight is going on). So, you're trying to get a good score, then you're trying to top in your class, then class 10th board, then 12th board, then IIT entrance. Woh effort chala hi ja raha hai ( that effort is continuing). College mein  (then, in college

Arpit: Uske baad after that, you... - 

Niraj: Uske baad maine pehle startup ke liye 4-5 saal effort dala (for the next 4-5 years I worked on my first startup). Then I worked for 3.5 years in my second startup. So there is already a journey of 15 years that you have completed, to do something meaningful in life. Agey ja kay tum 10-15-20 years ke commitment ke baare mein baat kaar rahe ho (moving forward now you are talking about further commitment of 10, 15, 20 years). We are talking in terms of decades of efforts. 

Arpit: Correct. Bara saal se lekar abhi 40 saal ho gaye aur agey aur karenge (I have been doing this from 12 years to 40 years and we will continue working on this ). 

Niraj: Bilkul (absolutely). So aap log decades of efforts ki baat kar rahe hain (you are talking about decades of efforts). So that must point to something meaningful. Meaningful hona chaihye, impactful hona chaihiye, impact at a scale hona chaihye aur satisfying hona chaihye  (it should be meaningful, impactful, impact at a scale and be satisfying). So, ab jo bhi build karenge long-term perspective se build karenge (I thought whatever we build next, we should build it from a long-term perspective). And out of that engagement jo bhi (whatever)... 

Arpit: Were you reading something? Did you speak to someone? Kahan se aya (where did it come from?) 

Niraj: No, just introspection. Khud ka introspection kiya (I introspected myself). 

Arpit: Apne aap se ati hai ! (It comes from within).

Niraj: Yes. Introspection karte raho (keep introspecting). Be open for feedback. There are all kinds of signals which give you... 

Arpit: Does it have anything to do with the brief period of active angel investment?

Niraj: Main wahi pe ja raha tha (I was going there). So when it was very clear that ab yaar jo bhi karna hai wooh long-term perspective se karna hai  (whatever we do next, we should do it from a long-term perspective). So, agar us mindset se execute karna hai, waise orientation se build karna hai toh (if you want to execute with that mindset and build with that orientation) then you can't start in haste. Isko force fit yah force engineer nahi kar sakte ho (you can't force fit or force engineer it). So, I thought that I'll allow myself some time. We'll build for with a strong conviction for something jahan pe meri ek certain relatability bhi ho (where I have a certain relatability), high level ki conviction bhi ho (where I have a high level of conviction), clearly dikh raha ho long term build karne ka real purpose bhi ho ( I could see real purpose of building it in the long term). So, I thought that for that kind of clarity, it's okay to wait for some time. Aur who jo free time that (and in that free time) I thought that I can do angel investments in this free time. And thinking yeh ki (that) was that even if I'm not able to recover or multiply my money, at least kuch learning toh ayegi hi ayegi (I will get to learn something). 

Arpit: Would you advise people who want to start up to do angel investing, before they start up? Agar unke pass paisa hey toh ya fir access hey toh. (If they have money or access)

Niraj: I think agar time aur paisa dono hai (if they have both time and money), they should definitely try. But jis time pe mein kar raha tha  (the time I was doing it), this is late 2014 and early 2015. So there were a very limited number of angel investors. So you would get face time with founders. You will get the opportunity to you know interact with them, hear from them, and learn from their journey. 

Arpit: And you could see a pattern saying which are the better entrepreneurs and maybe there's something to learn from there. 

Niraj: And what's working, what's not working. Aisa nahi hai ki jinke cases mein cheeze click kar rahi hai wahi par learning hai (it's not like that in the cases where things are clicking, there's only learning there). I think jahan par failure wahan  par insane amount of learning hai  (where there's failure there's also an insane amount of learning). So, aaj jo angel investment ka environment hai wahan par there ar hundreds and thousands of angel investors  (today the environment in angel investment, they are hundreds and thousands of angel investors). 

Arpit: Koi face time nahi hai (there is no face time).

Niraj: So I think abhi jo angel investing  (even now in angel investing), most of the people, I'm not saying everyone, still there are really good individuals who are doing it for the right cause. But jis tareke wahan par ek herd mentality build ho gayi hay  (just like there is a hard mentality built there). So for many people it's a pure financial investment. I am not from that school of thought that angel investment is financial investment. So and coming back to your original question, learning ke liye (for learning), future entrepreneurs or co-founders ko angel investment karna chaihye ya nahi? (Should entrepreneurs and co-founders invest in angel investing or not?) Aap agar learning ke liye karna chaha re ho ya future founder banna chahte ho (If you want to do it for learning and become a future founder), then I'm not sure what kind of deal flow you will get. And then what kind of face time you will get. Woh learning hogi ya nahi hogi  (Will you learn or not?). So, I'm not very confident about that in this environment. 

Arpit: So, there are a lot of people who want to learn and people who also have money sometimes. So, I've started advising those friends that they should start making small angel investments because only when they make an angel investment, they can really at least have one call with the founder maybe in a month. So ek cheez hai jisse fyda hota hai  (that is one thing which might be beneficial) 

Niraj: Iss environment mein pata nahi founder one call to every angel investor ko dega ya nahi dega (in this environment, I don't know if the founder will give that one call to every angel investor). And as a found er, I can tell you that that is a kind of nuisance. So, jaise company mein rounds honge (as there will be rounds in the company) there will be a lot of investors. Aur saare investors ko one-one call karne lag gaya every month (If you start calling all the investors one on one every month) then that's very painful. 

Arpit: Fair enough. Okay. Spinny pe wapas aate hain  (let's come back to the Spinny). So, used car opportunity badi hai  (is very big). Lekin used car mein bohot saare log (but in India used car market has a lot of players in India), maybe 10-20,000 dealers, maybe more, maybe 50,000 dealers. Aur bohot saare online platform thay tabhi bhi (and apart from that there were a lot of online platforms at that time as well). Apko kya lag wahan pe opportunity kahan hai aur gap kahan pe hai market mein? (what did you think about the opportunity there and what was the gap in the market?)

Niraj: When I was planning for my third startup, after moving on from my second startup, as I just told you, I was very clear that long term perspective se karna hai  (I wanted to do it from a long-term perspective). And if you look at my journey since my childhood, I come from a very small town in Jharkhand. The name of the town is Daltonganj. So coming from that kind of place, then doing IIT in Delhi, then my first startup in education and its major IIT entrance wala vertical tha  (there was an IIT entrance vertical). Meeting lots of parents on daily basis, then doing second startup in web media, jahan pe (where) you are doing lots of research on every aspect of the life of the society, of the country, about people. Then doing angel investments, so meeting all kinds of founders who are trying to build something in different areas. If you look at my whole experience or exposure whatever you call it. So I was able to see the entire spectrum of the Indian society from one extreme to another and it was very clear to me that jo meri journey hai (my journey is like this). So what is the typical journey of a common person in India? You come from a small town, then education is a ladder to success or whatever you want to do in life. Padhai ke elaba aur koi tareka hai nahi (there is no other way except studying). So, that is the proven thing for everybody. So, aap chote town se aate ho (you come from a small town), try karte ho ki studies accha karo ( try to study well), aur acche college mein jao (go to a good college). Then you start with a job, then you try to do good at your first job, then you start doing better in your professional career. And when you start earning, you buy your first car. When you start doing better in your career, you buy a better car. Maybe you are buying a car for the second time and that would be much better than your first car. Then you get married, you buy a house, so yeh typical journey hoti hai  (this is a typical journey). And most logon ki (people's journey) ya toh ye hey  ya fir wooh isko aspire kar raha hai (is either this or they are aspiring for this). So everybody is basically you know on this journey or aspiring to be on this journey. So I was clearly seeing that yeh sabki journey hai (this is everyone's journey) and ye 3-4 key events hai (there are 3-4 key events). 

Arpit: Haan Yes, milestones. 

Niraj: Milestones hai like getting your first job, buying your first car, after some time buying a better car, getting married, buying a house. Uske baad  (after that you have kids aur ek different journey start ho jati hai (and a different journey starts). But in this journey, if you look at the two, three key purchases, those two, three key purchases are buying your first car, buying your house. So, these are very important milestones, and important events in anybody's life. And when you are buying your first car, that is the first purchase of that kind of specialty. So, very... - 

Niraj: Long-term purchase. It is probably just all of this. 

I would say very special. Very special moment. And very aspirational and emotional purchase. So, net-net, very special purchase for people. 

Arpit: Aur wooh experience yaad rahe jata hai (and that experience is remembered). 

Niraj: Bilkul (absolutely). One of the, you know, most important milestones, events or moments for anybody. 

Arpit: Mujhe abhi bhi yaad hai jab pehli car kharidi maine (I still remember the first car I bought). It was a used car. Aur mujhe experience yaad hai (and I remember the experience). Mujhe yaad hai mein kahan tha aur kya kar raha tha (I remember exactly where I was, what I was doing) 

Niraj: And when you are buying your first car, tum thode young ho (you are a bit young), apne career mein bhi early ho (you are early in your career), you will have a limited budget. But since this is a very aspirational and special purchase, emotional purchase for you, you would want a car that can match your aspiration in that limited budget. Then you will start looking out for options in second hand car market also. But the purchase remains very special for you. Because of that, you have certain kind of expectations around quality, around performance, around transparency, and around overall experience. The kind of treatment you get in the market is exactly opposite. So, I was very much able to relate to this and I was like if we go after this problem statement, this won't be just about the used car market opportunity or Indian automobile opportunity. This will be more about solving for quality, transparency, accountability,  and fairness. If inko we do common packaging kare for all of these, then basically more about solving for trust. So, this was very clear that if we go after this problem statement, then this will be not just about used cars, but this will be more about solving for trust and since very special purchase for people, so solving for experience also. So, more about building a brand that relates with aspirations of the new age young people and is willing to do anything to solve for their aspiration. So, mere ko wooh clear opportunity dikh rahi thi (I was seeing that clear opportunity) because of the nature of the purchase, very important, very aspirational, emotional, special purchase and purchase is process and transaction process is completely broken. So agar isko sahi tareekhe se solve kar diya (if we solve this correctly), because of the nature of the purchase, we have a clear shot at building a central brand of the country. Not just the central brand of the category, I am saying central brand of the country. Because bohot important purchase hai but completely broken hai (very important purchase is completely broken). Agar isko solve kar diya (If we solve this), then you will create a very special place in people's hearts. 

Niraj: Aur yeh lifelong hai (and this is lifelong).  

Arpit: Ek baar car se start kar liya toh hum aur bhi bohot kuch karenge (once we start, we will do a lot of cars and more). 

Niraj: Exactly. Mujhko yahi laga ki used car market opportunity already badi hai  (I felt that the used car market opportunity is already big). So you are chasing a large opportunity, number one. Number two, this is not just about chasing that opportunity. This is more about building a brand that is synonymous with trust and experience. So tum basically net-net trust aur experience ke liye solve kar rahe ho (you are solving for net-net trust and experience). It is a very satisfying, and fulfilling journey. Pata nahi build hoga ki nahi (I don't know if it will be built or not). Of course, there will be a lot of effort. In case you end up building a brand like that, you will inspire more and more people to do a work like that. In a way, you will be building a benchmark.