India GameChanger recorded an interesting conversation with Varun Goenka, CEO & Co-founder at Charge-up. Charge-up is a renewable energy semiconductor manufacturing that offers Battery as a Service, solving the high cost problem and inconvenience of long charging hours, through its distributed network of battery swapping hubs.

Some of the topics Varun covered: 

  • How Charge-up evolved from connecting a problem to curiosity
  • The impact of Charge-up
  • How India is well trained to design products based on the environment of the users and businesses.
  • Charge-up’s 3 non-negotiable drivers

Some other titles we considered for this episode: 

  1. Plug and Play
  2. Being Done Through Us

This episode was produced by Stephanie Ng

Read the best-effort transcript below (This technology is still not as good as they say it is…):

Michael Waitze 0:03
Hi, this is Michael Waitze. And welcome back to India GameChanger today we are joined by Varun Goenka, a Co-founder and the CEO at Charge-up. I don’t think that’s the last time we’re gonna hear that little phrase. Varun, thank you so much for joining the show. How are you doing today?

Varun Goenka 0:19
Good, good. Michael, I’m charged up. How will you? I am

Michael Waitze 0:22
super duper did you think about this, by the way, before you named the company, you know what I mean? Because I always say this all the time. I’m like, I’m super, I’m doing really well. Something like that. But you get to say I’m charged up, which has multiple

Varun Goenka 0:37
forget to stay charged up instead of thanking you and anything. So yeah, I did came up with the name of the company thinking on this. But yeah, more that yeah, that it should become like a verb for the customer. That’s how we named the company.

Michael Waitze 0:52
I want to get back to this right. Can we get some of your background too. But I want to get back to this branding thing, because I think it’s super important. And I don’t think a lot of people think about this enough. So just a little bit of your background, just for some context, how did we get to here

Varun Goenka 1:03
I come from Northeastern part of India from a very traditional family business background. And I came to Delhi, North India to start something on my own, and had my own series of failures and learnings before I landed up into grid climate techspace. And I’ve been trading to green certificates and doing a lot of solar projects in the previous startup where I was. And from there, yep, I landed up into Georgia. And from Sharjah from there.

Michael Waitze 1:35
You know, you said you came from a traditional sort of business oriented family, I’m presuming that that means that your family had their own business. I just love this idea. You didn’t mention any jobs you had all you did was mentioned this idea that you built a few different things which I love. By the way, was there ever a chance you were going to get a job? Or was this idea of I’m always going to have my own thing always there.

Varun Goenka 1:56
So you know, childhood holidays has been seen business and how to build things. So job was never a question actually never came to my mind. Frankly, you know, there were a lot of conceived notions that we know things versus when we came to the deli and started on my own. I had those things clear that I don’t know a lot of things, and I need to learn and unlearn a lot of things.

Michael Waitze 2:21
Yeah, I think at some level, the unlearning is almost as important as the learning. I was joking with somebody else about this a couple of days ago, I think it was Mark Twain, at least it’s attributed to him who said like, don’t let your education get in the way if you’re learning anyway. Absolutely. Yeah. And I don’t get a lot of arguments about this, I get fewer and fewer arguments about this as we go along. I want to get back to this branding and marketing thing. Right. One of the things that I’ve talked about a lot, as I go through the tech world is this idea of Intel inside, right, creating a brand where you can talk about that brand in relation to other brands, and other brands have to talk about it. But you know, in the same way you used to say not so much anymore, like did you Google that or that kind of thing? Or can I have some Kleenex even though that’s a brand name, not an actual facial tissue, if you can build this into your brand, like Uber did really successfully or like, I’m just going to, I’ll take it over, even if it’s a lift, it doesn’t matter, because you know what it means, right? But to think about this at that level, right? Because it’s gonna happen, people are gonna have to charge their cars, the vehicle markets moving electric, and I’m gonna get back to that in a second, too. But the idea that you thought about this is super cool. Do you have a marketing background too? Or is this just something that your brain is always creating, you know what I mean? Like,

Varun Goenka 3:33
I think every individual from his childhood, he’s into sales and marketing. So he starts with, negotiating with his parents, for stepping out with friends. And I come in from those traditional families, joint family, so we had to do a lot of negotiation, marketing, and founder, I believe, that’s one of the most critical thing he needs to have. Because from selling his first product to getting his team on board, to get the investors, he has to be a storyteller.

Michael Waitze 4:02
But that’s the thing, right? So I’m so glad you use that word storytelling, because it has such a deep meaning, obviously, for me, because I want to build this platform, right? So that people like you can tell their stories. But do you have a philosophy around? You know, you said, even when you were a kid, right? You’re always negotiating? There’s probably a big family around and everybody’s probably competing a little bit. I know what it feels like. Right? But but having established that, do you feel like now you have to think about all of that in like a different way.

Varun Goenka 4:28
I don’t think there’s more thing or different way it first forming the right base and the roots around is very important, you know, because things are definitely changing very fast. You have to be adaptive, flexible, but at least the basic law of nature doesn’t change with

Michael Waitze 4:42
that. Not really, do you get this sense? And I don’t ask the software. Did you get the sense that a lot of the stuff you did learn as a kid you can apply to yourself as an adult and an entrepreneur, you know what I mean? All those little things you did that built up over time? Oh, absolutely.

Varun Goenka 4:54
You know, so I’ve been a huge follower of Ramakrishna about so And I haven’t seen all those Rama and Mahara dollars, mythological Indian stories. So my life is full of lots of stories around. And I’m a regular reader of Bhagavad Gita. So I read every day, what does that mean? So that’s the, you know, World’s Biggest spiritual book of Hindus. Correct.

Michael Waitze 5:18
Just want to, that’s what I thought I just wanted to make sure cited by the

Varun Goenka 5:21
Lord Krishna himself, you know, all all the theories of business life marketing, everything is there. So that’s what helps me to stay grounded.

Michael Waitze 5:30
So you read through the spiritual tech for not just for motivation, but for knowledge and also for information?

Varun Goenka 5:37
Oh, absolutely. As I said, you know, and we don’t tell these things as mythological. This is history. Yeah, because these are crude, but that’s the way it works. Right? So they said, This is laws of nature doesn’t change. And that’s what these books are the laws of nature, that’s not gonna change, right?

Michael Waitze 5:51
And can we get back to this idea? Because this all started with a little bit of storytelling, right? My philosophy, as you know, is that every company should be their own media company, right? And there shouldn’t be this constant because there isn’t, there’s a constant reverse flow of stories, either a not about your business and not about you, or negative stories about you. And unless you’re combating that with a constant storytelling on your own and building up this gravitas around who you are and what you’re building, then that story is going to get told for you. Right, and this was kind of the thing I wanted to touch on with you before we talk specifically about charge up because I think it’s also super interesting. But that idea of storytelling, how do you incorporate that into the company culture as well? Because you’re right. You have to consider this when you’re doing sales in every other part of the business as well. Yeah, Frankie,

Varun Goenka 6:36
when we started charging, there was no such grand vision or plans, we saw certain problem. And that out of curiosity, we went deeper into it. And we saw, there’s a large opportunity, and we started charging up. But over a course of time, what we saw that what we were solving, and we started hearing a lot of stories. So every third or fourth day, I used to be on field with these drivers. Right? And you know, how chargeup was impacting their life, how they started their earnings increased 100% month on month, what was

Michael Waitze 7:07
the issue they were having was just a pure distance and time thing, it may be likely that their bikes weren’t even electric to begin with, right? Can you just tell me about like, what that problem was you were trying to solve? And how Charge-up solved it through battery battery swapping, charging all the stuff that you guys do

Varun Goenka 7:22
in any electric vehicle industry? Across the world. It’s always into a chicken and egg situation. Sure, equal or inferior first. Yeah. In India, at that point of time, we already had 2 million EVs on road. These were those, you must have seen those Asian countries, Thailand and all the tuktuks similar to that. And they are always struggling with a bad quality battery, which they have to purchase. And every six months reinvest into the battery is charging for 10 hours. So demand was not an issue for them. But they couldn’t run more and hence couldn’t earn more. And that’s in charge of came with an advanced solution. Just pay as you go.

Michael Waitze 8:03
Can you just dig into this a little bit more deeply? For me, particularly on the infrastructure side, right? Because you’re right. You guys were lucky there already were 2 million vehicles on the road, but getting the charging station and the battery swapping just the whole infrastructure to handle that doesn’t exist, right? This is what this is where it’s really interesting for me, right? Because you can say, Okay, how do we solve the problem? We just have a battery that’s chargeable swappable, it’s like a SaaS model. That’s okay, that’s done. But now, how do we handle that? Like, because that in and of itself is a big logistical issue, right? How do you handle that? Actually,

Varun Goenka 8:32
we first started with a single station, where we initially just solve for them, the charging hours and the capital expenditure problem. But still, we couldn’t solve the the range problem. Yeah, that travel anywhere. And that’s where we said, okay, let’s put up a station at every pin code of the city, that a driver doesn’t even need to detour or take a U turn for a swap. Now, you know, we always started backward.

Michael Waitze 8:57
How do you get that data though? Right? Because you’re not you’re not you don’t own Google Maps. Like it’s it’s is that data sellable? So that you know where all those individual points are? And then you can just build off of that? Sorry, go ahead.

Varun Goenka 9:08
Thank you that point of time, at least we will not that tech savvy. Go ahead. Yeah. And we had to find the real issue we need see, but I think in any business, the most important thing is how well do you know your customer? Do you know Him more than him? Right? That’s more important. Yeah. Okay. So, for the drivers, we first understood what are the routes and where they’ve travelled, we travelled a lot, I must have surveyed more than 500 drivers. There we plotted that, okay, this is how we need to build the infrastructure, but it has to be asset light. So we made a lot of partnerships with small businesses and work on a revenue sharing model with them. So in a way we unlocked a huge real estate without any fixed cost. And for a driver. Now he could take longer trips and run more but how long

Michael Waitze 9:55
did it take for you to put up a charging station right let’s say you just be partnered with a convenience store that is You know, isn’t selling gasoline, but it’s basically selling everything else right. So then you put a charging station there. How long does it take to put that up?

Varun Goenka 10:06
Two days, two days in India, we are well trained to customise things and make it as per Indian environment. I, we designed a small Coca Cola refrigerator size swapping cabinet with charges, which can be plugged in at any point in any of these SMEs, all of these businesses. So, you know, it was very easy plug and play system for them.

Michael Waitze 10:30
But does that mean you don’t manufacture these things yourself? Right? So you’ve got a manufacturer on the back end that has to do this for you. But that means that as your demand increases, they’re gonna their capacity to build these things have to increase? And I would say this too, do you feel like that’s kind of version 1.0 or version 0.75. And that as the uptake becomes more normalised that you build more sophisticated charging stations along the way, not just the three wheeled vehicles, but four wheeled vehicles as well.

Varun Goenka 11:01
Absolutely, absolutely. We have been upgrading it and you know, now we are in the same swapping stations, we are accommodating two wheelers and three wheelers, both

Michael Waitze 11:09
you are what is the manufacturing base in India like for, for electric cars, I asked just for my own personal information, because I can tell you who’s doing it in the US and then all the big European manufacturers like BMW, Mercedes and stuff, they’re all doing it too. And I know a couple of the Chinese manufacturers, but who are the Indian manufacturers that are doing this at scale?

Varun Goenka 11:28
So in India, it’s more the major ones Tata Tata, for sure. And second is Mahindra, these are the major ones.

Michael Waitze 11:38
I feel like every country has like this big oligopolistic group of companies that just like build into everything. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. But we can we can get to that during a different podcast, can I ask you this? Let’s say you can get a charging station in every place you want. But even as you’re building that out right there, one of the guys who used to work at Goldman with me, built a company in United States called I think it’s volta anyway, very well funded doing a similar thing, partnering with convenience stores and stuff like that, and building sort of sophisticated charging stations just like you do. But once you do that, right, you said you interviewed 500 drivers. But once you do that, and you build it out, even if you have 100 in every state in India, you’ll have way more but let’s just say 100, right? Because the math is easy. Now you have 100 stations that are gathering data as well, right? Because I have to presume that there’s a membership or something right. In other words, I can’t just rock up to a charging station and use it, I probably have to have an app that connects to it that says here’s the battery, here’s the serial number with a QR code or however it works. I give that back it scans it makes sure that I am who I said I was right that I was using the battery for the thing that I said I was gonna use, I take out a new one and I leave. But now you know where I’m going, how often I exchanged my battery, how often the battery gets used, what the power dropped. Like all I could go on and on just about that you’re not just building if your vision is correct here, I think you’re not just building a bunch of charging stations, you’re building this massive sort of customer acquisition platform. Am I wrong, Bangalore.

Varun Goenka 13:11
That’s what we use in our whole video will own the customer.

Michael Waitze 13:15
But it’s more than that, right? We were joking a little bit earlier about Mahindra and Tata. And you know, every country has these sort of oligopolistic with a word that I cannot pronounce, but I know what it means. Companies right to kind of do everything. But every now and then, you know, Microsoft just shows up out of nowhere and says, you know, we’re just the scrappy little guys sort of building this thing, and then they build something gigantic. Alright. Do you feel like that’s a possibility here for you? Do you know what I mean? Because if you can get everybody who has an Eevee SEMA or part of them to do this, sorry, go ahead. I’m just curious, like, do you think this could be gigantic?

Varun Goenka 13:47
This is definitely going to be way bigger than anyone can currently imagine. Yes. But you know, what differentiates is, especially if at all for this industry. You know, the way larger gigantic companies they operate, the speed of operation and decision making gets slower as they grow big. Absolutely. Versus a company like us a startup, the faster that the cultural startup stays even when you grow that big. So how fast we do this. And, you know, as a startup, we don’t look to do too many things. We say we’ll do two or three things which matter the most from a customer but we’ll do best and anyone else in the world.

Michael Waitze 14:26
Sure. I mean, this is typical Jack Welch Six Sigma type stuff.

Varun Goenka 14:31
I don’t read but but you know what it is

Michael Waitze 14:33
otherwise you wouldn’t be laughing but the point is that you can’t you can’t build it out without this idea of okay, we’re going to have all this data so we know all these things. And we know also that everybody that’s going to buy a vehicle or that has a vehicle is going to need insurance we can provide them with parametric insurance directly right through our system because they’re already signed up with us. We can give them to that as a dislike all these things you can do. I mean page GM has what 400 million people on the platform, but more than 400 people on a vehicle like all these things you can do. That’s why I asked, you know, you’re not a product company anymore. You’re a platform company. And, you know, I can tell you what I think is possible, but I’m curious what you think is possible. That’s why I’m asking

Varun Goenka 15:15
to talk to anyone in a company the liquidity clear on two things one, we are a fine tech platform that we create a new category we say the finance network and tech as a platform. Go ahead. We are here to make the driver’s life simple and productive. And we have again devised a new terminology here which we call as a D to E driver to experience. So we are not a swapping company, we are not a product company, right?

Michael Waitze 15:42
Yeah. What does that mean driver to experience and you

Varun Goenka 15:45
know, the two thieves so we drive it to experience. So we have made few non negotiables in our company for the driver. Okay, what is one of those number one higher earnings for him? Right. But 200% uptime number three is accessibility when I say accessibility, no, deterring no waiting right for him.

Michael Waitze 16:06
No waiting either. Interesting. Very critical

Varun Goenka 16:09
for us, we measure that both a safe and reliable, right? Very critical into we have seen a lot of companies going down because the driver loses that trust, you know, a safe and reliable right for him.

Michael Waitze 16:21
So what are you suggesting that you own the vehicles that they’re driving as well? So you buy a vehicle lease it to a driver for them to make money? Like how do you control that part of their life? Or is that through the FinTech platform and the tech platform they’re building? Go ahead.

Varun Goenka 16:36
Yeah, but it’s not fintech. It’s fine tech,

Michael Waitze 16:38
fine tech, excuse me. Tell you can help me you can define that for me in a second. So,

Varun Goenka 16:43
see, there are two categories of customers we deal with. One is who already have any existing Eevee Yep. But his batteries have come to end of life. Yeah. So they shift on our platform. And they start using the batteries which we provide them as a service under different subscription plans. And then there are people who want to adopt a new Eevee they do it through our platform, where they get a better proposition in terms of the cost of financing their cost of ownership. So from there from the vehicle to back to the entire management is done through us. Let me share some very interesting experience. You must have seen those Amazon Great Indian sale the Flipkart big billion Day Sale. Yeah. So two months back, we did chargeup Evie Mela, the carnivals, Evie carnival. Okay, we did it. In a physical place in Delhi two days. 1000 drivers visited us as they enter the carnival. First they were the top vehicle manufacturers are standing with the vehicle. So they took a demo of the vehicle. They went to our financing partner with the biometric within one minute they got the financing cleared. They came to charge up counter got the registration done, did the downpayment got the vehicle delivered there itself. And the next they had the Uber Zomato swiggy is lining up to onboard them. And they could choose we made these drivers the King who is going to decide and we brought whole ecosystem at one place.

Michael Waitze 18:12
Now I understand. Yeah. Now I understand. This is a it’s a really big deal. And also a really, really different take on how the drivers are getting treated. Right now. Yeah. I always like to say like I don’t I don’t think you can separate the thing that you do really well from who you are. And and I’m really curious, because what you’re doing is really is really cool. I’m curious about the tech stack. But in a way, I’m also more curious about why helping the drivers is such an important facet for you,

Varun Goenka 18:43
we are going to start at this company. And we after that the COVID stuck in 2020. During COVID, we could have seen that it was only because of these drivers. We were able to pass for that. Yeah. And you know, our lives are better when their lives are better. So we deeply connect with people understand. And that’s what our whole mission is powering these drivers.

Michael Waitze 19:06
Yeah, I like it. I mean, there’s a part of me that just wants to end there. Because that’s where the real power is, unless there’s more storytelling that you want to do. That sounds like the perfect way to end is that cool? Thank you so much for doing this today. That was really, really interesting and very thought provoking for me. You could see me as we were going along like trying to figure out what the platform was going to look like. And I think I can tell by the way you were smiling. At least I got some of it. Anyway, thank you very much for doing this today. Varun Goenka. I really appreciate it.

Varun Goenka 19:35
That’s nice.

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