It was a cold, foggy morning in Delhi on January 21, 2014. I had just broken a story about Motorola’s quirky plan to re-enter the Indian market on BGR India. My sources had confirmed that Motorola was indeed coming back to India and had planned an online exclusive go to market model and was most likely partnering with Flipkart. It had barely been 30 minutes since the story went online when my phone rang. On the other end was a seemingly irritated man, who identified himself as Amit Boni from Motorola and who didn t exactly seem too pleased with my reporting. There were two big things I did not know back then when I answered that call. Also Read - Best smartphones for photography under Rs 20,000 to gift for Father's DayAlso Read - iPhone 11, iPhone XR up for grab with massive discount on Flipkart Big Saving Days sale
I had no idea that I had unwittingly stolen the thunder from probably one of the biggest moments of Boni s professional life. I also did not know that this partnership between Flipkart and Motorola will change the way India sells and buys smartphones. Also Read - Flipkart Big Saving Days sale begins: Pixel 4a, Realme X7, Samsung Galaxy F62, more on discount
What follows is the story of Motorola India, and how it went from being a smartphone brand no distributor wanted to touch, to being the pioneer of a successful online sales model.
One December evening in 2013, a contract rested on the table of Motorola s Corporate VP for EMEA and APAC Magnus Ahlqvist. The contract was an agreement with a distributor, who, after many rejections and tedious negotiations, had agreed to bring Motorola back into the Indian market. Everything was finalized and a celebratory banquet was set up downstairs at a five-star hotel in Gurgaon. But this executive s mind was distracted by an idea his India strategy guy (Boni) had suggested. He postponed signing the contract. This impulse decision by Ahlqvist changed the course for Motorola in India.
Motorola’s India innings was written off soon after the company’s acquisition by Google. In August 2012, BGR India broke the story about Motorola shutting shop in India and how it had fired most of its employees. For the next one year, the company was mostly dormant in India.
Motorola had retained Amit Boni, who was looking after the go-to-market strategy for India and South East Asia. After the massive reshuffle of August 2012, the company promoted Boni to lead strategy and sales for APAC. Prasoon Sharma had joined Motorola just a few months earlier and was also looking after strategy and planning for South East Asia in Boni s team. Harsh Bansal had been with Motorola since 2008 as a financial planner doing weekly short term forecasting for EMEA, APAC and China as well as long-term planning for APAC region. No one knew back then in August 2012 that in less than two years, this trio would chart Motorola s dramatic re-entry into the Indian market.
The Do-Not-Distribute Brand
A substantial chunk of Motorola’s success in India can be attributed to a plan that this trio hatched to bring back the brand no one wanted to touch. This plan, which was to be imitated by almost all smartphone vendors later, was pronounced crazy when it was first proposed.
It was May 2013, when Motorola first started talking about the Moto G internally. It was the first smartphone developed from scratch by Motorola under Google. The product sounded fit for the Indian market, which had just started growing rapidly in terms of smartphone shipments. Boni and his team thought it was the perfect smartphone for India but back then India was nowhere on Motorola s radar. They were strategizing for the APAC market, but his team started driving the conversation about launching the Moto G in India.
In August 2013 Boni & Co started approaching distributors describing them a product like the Moto G to get feelers about their interest. While most felt a product like that could sell in the market, no one really wanted to touch Motorola. All distributors told them that Motorola was dead as a brand in India and there was no coming back. However, considering it is India, where everything sells, most distributors suggested they could sell between 20,000-80,000 units of the Moto G but no one wanted to make any commitment. In other words, they would help distribute the phones and ensure they are on shelves, but they didn t want to play any role with unsold inventory. It had to be Motorola s headache.
One national distributor told Motorola that he could sell a million units provided Motorola committed a marketing budget of $50 million. But Motorola India had no marketing dollars to spend. The next day, the distributor met the team again having reworked some numbers. He offered to do 110,000 units of the Moto G if Motorola was willing to spend $10 million on marketing. The talks ended there.
After several failed discussions with distributors, the trio started doing market visits asking retailers about Motorola and what they thought. To their surprise, many thought it was a brand that would sell if reintroduced in the market. Irrespective of what distributors, analysts and even Motorola s internal teams were saying, this gave them confidence that it wasn t over, yet.
However, to say the very least, things looked bleak for Motorola India. The top management back in the US was not too keen on entering the Indian market. They cited Motorola s past Indian misadventure and declared they were in no mood to get into the pricing bloodbath that was intensifying in the country. Plus, they had a very lean operation in India to support a full fledged distribution and retail operation.
While Motorola was still amidst thick dilemma over the Indian market, Motorola launched the Moto G globally in November but India was not on the map. Boni however, was invited to an internal conference on disruptive distribution models in California. That s where he presented a model for going with an e-commerce exclusive distribution model for India and even called out Flipkart. He went on and even suggested acquiring a smaller e-commerce player. On returning to India, the trio started working on the Motorola-Flipkart strategy. But even before it took off, it was shot down.
In 2013, online retail was just 5 percent of the total smartphone retail market in India and Flipkart accounted for 2 percent of that pie. The management wasn t willing to put their bets for just two percent of the total addressable market.
It seemed Motorola would go for a traditional offline distributor led retail model, which would have meant a launch limited to just the top cities of the country. Ironically, it was a senior Sony executive who came to Motorola s rescue in India.
Motorola had hired Magnus Ahlqvist from Sony, where he was looking after the greater China region. Ahlqvist flew down to Delhi in December 2013 where he was presented with two go to market strategies for India – one with a distributor while the other was going online exclusive. He asked Boni, which one did he want to do. He preferred the online distribution model.
Boni s logic was that Flipkart had just started selling smartphones and even if there could be any way Motorola could get half of Flipkart s smartphone sales, it could account for one percent of India s total smartphone market. No one remembered when Motorola last had that much market share in India in smartphones.
He also felt that this model would give it an edge over Samsung and others, which had invested millions of dollars in setting up their offline retail channels that they wouldn t be able to reap the benefits of an online-exclusive model. There were no middlemen and retailers who got a share of margins, which would give Motorola a big pricing advantage.
There was only one problem. The deal with the distributor had been negotiated and they were waiting for Motorola to sign it. A banquet had been set up downstairs to celebrate the signing of the deal! But Ahlqvist didn t sign the contract saying he needed more time and flew back to London. The next day he pinged Boni to work on the e-commerce strategy and sent him a deck to look at and work on.
Ahlqvist had seen the online retail boom in China and was expecting the same to happen in India. On December 15, 2013, he told Boni he was presenting his e-commerce strategy to CEO Dennis Woodside as their India go to market strategy. There were massive disagreements during the meeting and while many declared that this cannot work, there were some who found it worth giving a shot.
That was the good thing about the new Motorola under Google. There was more appetite to do new things and take risks. Woodside eventually gave the go ahead. Though, as some insiders suggested, he also asked the India team to keep their resignations ready if this did not work.
Here again, there was a small impediment. They had to create and sign a contract with Flipkart between December 20 and January 5 so that Motorola s supply chain could start the process of manufacturing and shipping devices to Flipkart. But being Christmas holiday season, there was nobody working in US or Europe. So it eventually came up to Motorola s Indian team and Flipkart to chalk out the contract.
Indian teams from Motorola and Flipkart had to come up with the contract – an American contract – that had no precedence. It was the first such contract Flipkart would have signed with a smartphone maker, where it wasn t just picking up a small inventory but looking at importing a huge volume of smartphones over a long period of time.
Eventually the two companies managed to create a contract that gave visibility for hundreds of thousands of units and was much bigger than the distributor contract Motorola dropped signing at the last moment. It also gave Motorola much better pricing since the distribution, marketing and retailing overheads were negligible.
Change of Guard, and History in Making
Between the signing of the contract and the launch of Moto G in India, news came out the Lenovo had agreed to buy Motorola from Google for $2.91 billion. However, the transaction would take long to close, which meant it was business as usual for Motorola.
On February 5, 2014, Motorola launched the Moto G in India exclusively on Flipkart. The smartphone went on sale at midnight on February 6 and was sold out in 25 minutes, during which Flipkart s site crashed a few times. For the first time Motorola has revealed that it had sold 40,000 units of Moto G during its first sale.
However, the first sale didn t go as smoothly as everyone expected. Within minutes of going live, Flipkart s site crashed – something that wasn t a normal occurrence. The site came back up, only to crash again. In less than 30 minutes, Flipkart s site started showing it had no more Moto G units to sell.
People at Motorola s HQ in the United States were agitated with the crashes followed by what seemed to be technical glitches that showed there were no more phones to sell. No one even thought of the possibility that the phones would sell out in under 30 minutes during an online midnight sale.
But it turns out consumers stayed awake for the clock to strike 12 so they could buy the Moto G and Flipkart had indeed sold 40,000 units of the device in under 30 minutes. Flipkart co-founder and CEO, Sachin Bansal had then told BGR India that the Moto G sale had brought more traffic to Flipkart than what they had experienced during the Diwali sale a couple of months ago. All this only signified one thing – that Motorola was back in business in India!
The rest, as they say, is history. Within a year, Motorola announced it had sold three million smartphones in India and crossed 5.6 million units in September. Flipkart then announced it had sold half-a-million units of the latest Moto G (third-generation) in just 47 days.
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Motorola s online exclusive retail model became the blueprint for other smartphone brands that wanted to do business in India. Xiaomi took the same route and perhaps used a tweaked version of the contract Motorola and Flipkart had hammered to start its India operations. Buoyed by the success of Motorola and Xiaomi, Flipkart aggressively courted other brands like Huawei s Honor while Amazon bagged OnePlus and Yu. Snapdeal started exclusive online retail deals with Micromax for the Canvas Spark range.
Perhaps the biggest endorsement of Motorola s online strategy s success came from Samsung. Despite having a massive offline distribution and retail channel, Samsung too created online exclusive models in its portfolio.
In April 2014, Motorola formally announced the formal appointment of Amit Boni as general manager for India operations and made him responsible for the company s India strategy.