Kumar, who quit as CEO yesterday over sexual harassment charges, had been asked by Tiger Global to stay away in March
Sanyukta Iyer (MUMBAI MIRROR; June 17, 2017)

Arunabh Kumar, CEO of The Viral Fever (TVF), stepped down from his post and resigned from the company’s board of directors yesterday. Kumar, who is facing allegations of sexual harassment, founded TVF four years ago with fellow IITian and partner Biswapati Sarkar and Amit Golani. According to industry observers, sustained pressure from the company’s investors and its recent poor financial performance played a significant role in his decision.

In an open letter published on his Twitter account, which has been inactive since March 12, Kumar said, “A lot has happened in the last three months which has mentally and emotionally drained me. Through this all it has become clearer to me that, what was and will always continue to be most important is – TVF. I started my entrepreneurial journey with a passion to entertain people with great stories and my dream was to make an Indian content company to match up to the likes of Disney and HBO. In the wake of the recent personal attacks, what really breaks me is the blemish on the brand’s true promise. I have therefore taken the decision to step down as the CEO of TVF.”

While Kumar wrote that he will continue to mentor the content team at TVF, a highly placed company executive, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that Arunabh has not visited TVF’s Mumbai office since March 14, and has been asked to stay away from all matters concerning the company.

The decision to keep Kumar away from TVF was taken after a senior official from hedge fund Tiger Global Management, which owns a 25% stake in the company and invested Rs 70 crore in the company in February 2016, assessed its losses, both financial and in terms of brand perception, after the sexual harassment charges surfaced.

“TVF has faced Rs 8-9 crore in losses since April. Our last digital release, Bisht, Please, which was expected to revamp our image, highlighting aspects such as women empowerment, safety for women at work and pay equality, tanked miserably with less than 20, 000 hits per episode in a five-episode series. The online traction used to be double that for earlier shows, Pitchers and Permanent Roommates,” the senior TVF official told Mirror.

Another senior executive told Mirror that Kumar could make a comeback once the “matter had cooled down”. “TVF is launching Pitchers Season 2 by year-end, in which Arunabh is expected to return as his character of Yogi,” he said. But industry observers think that it is unlikely that Kumar will get back into the firm. Drawing a parallel to Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, who recently announced a ‘leave of absence’ from his company, the venture capital industry expert said, “This is a common practice in the start-up eco-system. Investors step in and put their own man in charge at their portfolio companies once they sense it is in trouble. This decision, though, seems to have been motivated more by the company’s financial performance rather than anything else. If they were indeed serious about dealing with the sexual harassment charges, they should have asked him to quit three months ago.”

In his letter, Kumar said that he is “handing over the reins to Dhawal Gusain, who will take on the mantle as the CEO of TVF”. Dhawal, a Stanford alumnus and former Hindustan Lever exec, joined TVF’s top management last year and was made CEO over TVF’s director Jikku Abraham. Sources told Mirror that Gusain is Tiger Global’s man, and his brief is to first salvage and then rebuild the company’s image. Gusain did not respond to repeated text messages and calls from this newspaper.

Two more shows are in the TVF pipeline. Office v/s Office will be launched on TVF’s sister channel Screenpatti, which is now being developed as a means to get more revenue through brands and Family Matters, which will release on TVF Play, the company’s channel within the next 10 days.

The sexual harassment charges against Kumar first surfaced in March this year. It all started with an anonymous blog post on the New York-based open site Medium accusing Kumar of molesting the writer of the post multiple times over two years while she was with TVF. The woman, who chose to go by the name of Indian Fowler (the name references Susan Fowler who was behind the unmasking of the toxic work culture at Uber) had said that Kumar had told her that they should engage in role-play. The post was taken down, after Kumar made headlines. Over the next week, nine women shared their stories of harassment at TVF. Two of them filed FIRs against Kumar.

TVF initially responded to the viral Medium blog post saying they would “leave no stone unturned” to track down the anonymous writer and “bring them to severe justice”.

It termed the accusations “ludicrous, defamatory and unverified”. In an internal inquiry, which was said to have been initiated, the company stood by their stance and Kumar’s colleagues vouched for his innocence on social media.

On March 31, Mirror reported that there was an entire movement being virtually run through anonymous sources to bring down Kumar. There were two key figures in this fight – one, a Twitter personality called @Corporate-Kumar_, who was the first to send out the blog post by Indian Fowler to the media, and described himself as a “Corporate and Government insider”, and an Indian businesswoman (again, anonymous), who was one among 100 to bag the Women Achiever Award instituted by the Ministry of Women and Child Development in 2016. The lady claimed to be in touch with all 11victims who accused the TVF founder of sexual harassment.