Ambarish Mitra was living in Munrika, a slum in the southwest corner of Delhi. He’d been there for seven months when he spotted an ad in the newspaper for an “E-business” competition — what they were calling internet businesses in 1997, Mitra explains.
The 17-year-old applied to the business plan contest, submitting his idea to empower women by connecting them to the internet for free. His return address was in the slum, near the water tank, he says.
Mitra did not know that this ad would be his exit route.
With one IPO under his belt, Mitra now has a billion-dollar augmented reality advertising company, Blippar. He’s been photographed with the British royal family. His newest phone was personally delivered by Xiaomi VP Hugo Barra, who arrived in a Tesla being driven by an Uber driver.
Mitra’s long past the slums, thanks to the “e-business” ad he spotted that put it all in motion. But in 1997, with that application floating somewhere in the mail, Mitra’s focus was on one thing: surviving.
‘Just a rebel’
Mitra grew up in a normal Indian middle class family, which prioritised education over wealth. His mother was a home-maker, a singer, and a painter. Mitra’s older sister took after her and went to study the arts at university. She now runs a successful Indian dance school in an Atlanta, Georgia suburb.
His father used to hand Mitra copies of Business Week and Forbes magazines. He was an inventor in his own right, having found a way to re-use coal slurry in one of the largest Indian coal mining towns, and wanted Mitra to follow in his footsteps to study engineering.
Mitra, though, was captivated by the internet — and not very great at school. While the drawers of his desk were filled with Backstreet Boys and heavy metal cassette tapes, business books piled up next to his computer. His two favourite books his father ever gave him were on the collapse of IBM and a book on controlling your destiny.
After witnessing the birth of the internet, Mitra idolized Bill Gates. He read “Business the Bill Gates Way” and Gates’ “The Road Ahead.” Next to his computer, he kept a framed photo pulled from Fortune Magazine, showing Warren Buffet and Bill Gates.
“I was beginning to worship people like Bill Gates, like hardcore idolized him,” Mitra said. “I actually had an image of him on my study table while people had Madonna and Samantha Fox and all these people in that generation. I had a picture of Bill Gates.”
The lure of the internet put Mitra at odds with his father, who wanted him to study engineering. He had a great childhood and a totally functional, fun-loving family, he says, but he was also a bit of a rebel and wanted more out of his life.
“My parents wanted me to be an engineer, and I wasn’t interested in that. It became so hectic that one day, I just ran away from home and started living in the slum in Delhi,” Mitra says.
Welcome to Munrika
Living itn the slumbs, Mitra went door-to-door in the city selling magazine subscriptions by day — a lesson in handling rejection, he says now. At night, he worked in a tea stall.
The two jobs netted him around $US1.50 a day. He stayed in touch with his sister so she could tell his parents he was alive. Otherwise, he was on his own.
“I became a man as a boy very quickly,” Mitra said. “One quality that I acquired, which runs directly in the DNA of Blippar, is that I became completely fearless. Nothing scares me. When you go through violence like I did, and you come out the other side, it makes you stronger.”
Seven months into his life as a runaway, Mitra noticed the newspaper ad. He applied to the contest, submitting his plan to connect everybody with the internet to empower women.
It was “noble topic” for a young person, Mitra said, but it had deep roots in his upbringing.
His grandmother and her four sisters had all received college degrees and rode scooters through the crowded Indian streets. They were a rare sight for 1920s India, but Mitra had grown up realising how education empowers women. The internet was an extension of that.
Three months later, Mitra found out that his plan to connect the world won.
“Absolutely to my shock and surprise and delight,” Mitra said. “It was life-changing.”
He won some money and borrowed the rest from a friend’s dad who was a banker. Mitra then launched his internet portal: Women Infoline.
The company gave free internet access to women with low wages, and subsidized it with ads.
It soon took off as the tendrils of the tech boom made its way to India. By 2000, a 20-year-old Mitra had grown his company from its newspaper ad start in the slums to an IPO in India.
“When this happened, I did this peace treaty with my father,” Mitra said. “I said, I will come back, but I will do whatever I want. They were very proud of me behind the scenes.”
From boom to bust to boom again
Mitra won’t reveal how much money he made in the IPO — it’s insignificant in today’s world, but a lot of money for the year 2000 in any country, he allowed. His resignation shortly after the IPO helped him get out before the tech boom collapsed a year later.
At the age of 20, pockets flush from the IPO, Mitra was lured to London by the glamour of British life and its culture. Four days after arrival, Mitra started working as a retail associate at the Top Shop clothing store on Oxford Street. Then he spent some time helping the British government build out its intranet, and tried his hands at another couple of startups.
But in 2008, as the financial crisis hit worldwide, Mitra was almost bankrupt. He found himself having to get a “proper job,” as he calls it.
He joined Axa, an insurance company, working his way up to become head of innovation, but continued to hang out with Omar Tayeb, a friend from a previous startup.
They were at a pub when they made a joke about having the Queen come to life on a pound note, and Tayeb, who was thankfully sober, remembered it, Mitra says.
They turned it into a party trick, where a photo scan on the phone would turn the Queen on a £20 pound note into an animated photo of their friends. Mitra’s “eureka moment” came when he realised that they shouldn’t be obsessing over a bank note. Any image could become animated.
Tayeb and Mitra came up with $US200,000 to launch, investing all of their money in the new startup, which they called Blippar.
It worked, and the company’s latest $US45 million round of funding in March 2015 has catapulted the company to a $US1.5 billion valuation.
Find your warship
To say Mitra is bullish on Blippar is an understatement. He told Business Insider he’ll never sell to Google or even his idol, Bill Gates and Microsoft, because what he is doing “is bigger than the internet itself.”
It’s not running away as a teenager, though, that brought him the success — it’s the relationships he’s formed since and the timing, he says.
“You can never fire a missile from a kayak. I think I found my warship. I had the right people and the right mix to build this business,” Mitra says.
While the teenage runaway college dropout is a great archetype of tech entrepreneurs, Mitra doesn’t recommend it — and wouldn’t make the choice again.
For one, he knows that the decision hurt his mum a lot.
“It’s a human behaviour to celebrate success coming out of tough environments because it gives us hope. But at the end of the day, the majority of the time when you make decisions like this, things will go wrong,” Mitra said. “It’s not important to be smart. It’s about building relationships around you. It goes along way in life if you actually truly care about your immediate environment and people who care about what you do.”
While Mitra has cycled through wearable devices, there’s one bracelet he’s never taken off. A random priest with a long beard gave it to him on the street and told him it was for happiness and prosperity. He’s worn the same copper bracelet that’s carved into snake heads every day since he was 12.