In this edition of the #INSIGHTSPodcast series, we have Naveen Tewari, Co-founder and CEO of InMobi, talking about his early days, the work culture at his organisation, and the importance of purusing constant growth by meeting people and experiencing new things.
We continue with the #InsightsPodcast series with a path-setter: Naveen Tewari, Co-Founder and CEO of Inmobi, India’s first unicorn. Naveen started a product company at a time when most people weren’t thinking about it, went global and cracked the China market, and is now starting a group of companies under Mobi.
In this podcast, he shares a number of great lessons for first-time founders, from how to go through pivots successfully and the role that co-founders play in maintaining morale in an organisation, to scaling internationally and building a culture that is deeply enriching for the employees who’re part of your startup journey.
Naveen kicks things off by talking about the three businesses under InMobi Group: InMobi Marketing Cloud, Glance, and TruFactor. InMobi Marketing Cloud, the group’s business that everyone associates the brand with and that has been built over the last decade, has a strong presence across the US, China, and the rest of the world. The second business, Glance, is an AI-led content discovery platform at screen zero (ie the lock screen) that hopes to change the way content is consumed on mobile platforms. The third business, TruFactor, is a platform for data scientists, a bet on a future where data will drive business strategy, oftentimes requiring data scientists to solve complex decision-making problems for the company.
Rewinding back to the early days, Naveen talks about being born in an intense academic environment with many family members taking up teaching roles at IIT, and how he took a whole different path of joining management consulting instead of the expected PHD or exploring further studies. Post three years at McKinsey, Naveen did his MBA at Harvard Business School, which he calls “the most pivotal two years” of his life, enabling him to go beyond the restrictive thinking of a middle-class boy by establishing belief in his own abilities and that anyone can do big things in life.
After business school, Naveen dabbled in the startup world for a couple of years before starting a venture in the SMS-based search business only to realise that the world was headed towards internet usage with mobiles becoming more prevalent.
He speaks about how this phase, before hitting upon the final idea that led to success, was a very tough one — beset with societal pressure and self-doubt. The failures brought in lots of personal learning, but the phase was nevertheless a painful one, especially in the first two years when Naveen didn’t have co-founders.
He adds, “Always have a co-founder because you know in these journeys there are a lot of low moments. Actually, most of them are low moments and the co-founder’s job is not to really go ahead and hit you on strategy. It’s far more important for a co-founder to bring you out of these moments that you are constantly in, and vice-versa.”
On the early days of InMobi, Naveen talks about how he saw the need for businesses to invest in advertising systems once internet became prevalent, and this is the use case that they went after. They quickly realised that India was a small market at the time and expanded to Asia, before going global. The first markets that they entered were ones where they garnered contacts in, expanding from one new market to another, solving for the immediate next step that was planned out for the next 6–12 months.
Elaborating on international expansion, Naveen says that a good strategy for today’s times would be to build momentum by being in a market where one can have natural advantage, like the Southeast Asian, Middle East, or China market, before venturing into advanced markets like the US, which are the biggest but also the most competitive.
Talking about the key to success in international expansion, Naveen says, “The only way to really build a global business is to have local people in those markets. Being able to attract local people in those markets becomes very important. The reality is that your success and failure of a market is not a function of your strategy or the competition or anything; it is singularly based on the leadership team that you are able to put together in that market.”
One of the phenomenal feats for InMobi was cracking the China market, one that is seen as almost an impossible task by many. Naveen shares how they saw the bright side to the opportunity as it was the second largest market in the world, where the biggest global competitors are unlikely to enter and one only needs to fight it out against the local competition. Today, China contributes to a quarter of InMobi’s business (listen to more on how they cracked the China market in the podcast).
On the fantastic team culture that they’ve built at InMobi, Naveen talks about how they went through ups and downs before redefining the culture, built on the core belief of the team from initial days — ‘trust’. They did away with performance tracking and gave 100 percent bonus to everyone across the organisation and also removed restrictions around reimbursements and leaves. Rather than using performance management systems to generate report cards, they focussed on truly caring about the employee’s growth by introducing growth conversations and allowed people’s aspirations to drive their performance. This worked in InMobi’s favour to an extent that they announced a new co-founder in 2017, Piyush who grew internally within InMobi.
“We’re building a cultural environment where we think of ourselves as a fierce clan that is together to win. That’s very important at the end of the day because it just cannot be that you’re together without the intention of winning,” he says.
Like every episode, we end on a note of personal growth. Naveen talks about the importance of keeping up with the company’s growth, learning from failures, having a learning mindset, having mentors, and most importantly going out and meeting people. “Meeting people that you know and that you respect can tell you something interesting and picking those anecdotes from people or your peers, people who have done this in the past, spending time with them is very important. Subjecting yourself to new environments will give you access to different perspectives and all this builds up as you meet more people. It is just phenomenal.”
— Shrrinesh Bala & Anand Daniel
Accel shares such interesting entrepreneurial stories, with informative nuggets to run and scale your startup. Follow the links below and subscribe to our #Accel #INSIGHTSPodcast Series using the following links: iTunes, Google Podcast, Stitcher, Twitter@Accel_India, and the RSS feed.
Below, we’ve shared an edited transcript of the conversation with Naveen.
Anand: Welcome to the podcast Naveen, its a real pleasure to have you on the podcast. Thank you for doing this.
Naveen: Thank you Anand for inviting me for this quite excited about being on this with you
Anand: awesome, so for the few who don’t know InMobi I would love to start with a background of InMobi or more importantly or where you are at current scale just give a give a sense for the audience as to what InMobi is.
Naveen: Absolutely. Look you know InMobi very recently actually organised itself as a group company under which we now actually have three different businesses which we have built over the last ten plus years and therefore we have a slightly different structure and given the recency of it you know several people might not know about it as part of the group company we have three companies underneath it. The first one is called as the InMobi marketing cloud which is the erstwhile business that everyone associate up with which is the advertising and marketing that we have built over the past ten plus years. That business in itself is doing a phenomenal growing, and very excited about that business. We have global presence in the advertising and marketing space. You know we have all sorts of platforms that are required for us to sensly provide one of the most advertising and marketing services across the globe. With very strong presence across the US, China and the rest of the world. You know the business has substantial presence over twenty plus countries and you know it’s quite an exciting business for us to be in and so that is our first business which is the InMobi marketing cloud and that business is run by my co founder Abhay Singhal. He is the CEO of that business now. And the second business is you know something which we very recently you know announced is called glance and it is our array into B2C you know plattform. Glance is a screen zero platform that you know kind of sits in between and the thesis behind glance is quite simple that you know glance thinks of itself as a new way of consumption of content on mobile platforms and if you think about mobile platform and mobile consumption the app ecosystem is a very intent driven ecosystem and does not really you know it is not really built for discovery. In the world that we live in today there is so much content out there that we felt there has to be a way for consumers in a better way to use that in a great manner and we have built glance as an AI led content discovery platform right at the screen zero which is the lock screen at the phone and so therefore and you know that it is something that we launched a year ago and its now you know grown very fast and its largely in India today and it has over forty million plus daily active users spending over twenty minutes a day so we feel very excited about you know what and how we think of glance and how its changing consumption patterns of the country and we feel it is really you know and this was not just to put into perspective this business was not started you know as an independent business or a venture but it actually came out for the InMobi cloud marketing and you know this how something gets kicked off versus where it leads to over a [scumbled ] period of time and you know it is very hard to predict and you know it was small project in the InMobi marketing cloud that has now taken shape into you know company in itself and so we feel excited about glance and so that is the second company and the third company is called true factor it is a platform for data scientists it is our foray for providing intelligence and services and again this business emanated from within the InMobi marketing cloud. We used to we were experts in handling global data and leveraging intelligence from fast moving data you know that comes in from the interaction of adds [scumbled] and we use to use that intelligence we think that there is an interesting playout with true factor there with the true factor in a far more secure and privacy centric manner and therefore we now have true factor out there which is our third company which the latest out of the three and we feel very excited about the potential of the business is because in the world there would be two kinds of companies at one point of time. One that will have data to make decisions and the others will not and we all can predict where the business and what would be the fate of the companies and fundamentally one way to think about is the future of any enterprise very strongly lies in the hands of how well their data scientists are solving complex decision making problems within the company. But you know all of them lack high quality data which is ready for them to use. They spend you know two to three years in kind of thinning the data before they can use. This is what true factor hopes and attempts to do is to provide and solve for those challenges that you know anyone across any enterprise in the world faces. So that is what true factor does and that business is run by the other co-founder Piyush. So that is the status of the business we evolved drastically in the last many years we lead a lot with innovation and we have shown that innovation is rightly believed that showing that with innovation we are rightly believed that with innovation we are able to sense the drive the business strategy that can change the you know drastically grow companies you know very interestingly and that’s what you know the motto of InMobi is and we hopefully will continue to do what we do well and so that’s where are right now.
Anand: Congratulations and now its been a long journey and you guys have been at it for almost a decade now or more I wanna go rewind back and start from those days but really great to hear all the innovations that you are doing in India and most of this is started reaching out initially in India and going global. So congrats on the success so far.
Naveen: Thank you.
Anand: Awesome. Great so let us rewind and go back Naveen if you don’t mind. Early days of InMobi or actually before starting InMobi. Just give us a quick two minutes background of who is Naveen before InMobi.
Naveen: Look, I think you know I think we all have very similar backgrounds. I come from a family of academicians you know i was born into a family of academicians I would say. My grandmother was a professor of was the first woman professor across all IITs by the way. And she taught you know mathematics to literally everybody who came through IIT in the 60s, 70s and 80s and she did that and then my father became professor and a dean at IIT Kanpur. My aunt did the same thing, my father in law is a professor was a professor till recently ah, my uncle so everyone by the way [scumble]. So everyone so I was born into a fairly intense academic environment and the importance of education and the power of education and the power of you know teaching on how it can revolutionize the world was you know the very common thing within my household. And I myself went to IIT Kanpur which was quite awesome to go through because you know the whole family was literally there so I did my under graduation in IIT Kanpur. And you know quite contrary to what you know what my family background is and ideally I should have gone and done PHD and further studies which you know everyone expected that I should do. But my father essentially got through McKenzie and my father basically convinced me to essentially join that and i didnt know what really McKenzie did by the way and so I was not very convinced on why I should go and join them. But I think it was a great decision and you know I did some phenomenal work with McKenzie for three years and that is the only job that I have done. And post that I did my MBA from our Business-school which was you know I would say was the most one of the most pivotal two years of my life you know apart from great education. You know I came from a middle class background you know the typical middle class mentality and thinking is I think fairly restrictive one in anyone’s life and I think what our Business-school was able to do was to open that up quite a lot and make one believe in their own abilities and the fact that one can anyone can do bigger things in life was a realization that I went through there so therefore I call it very pivotal you know that was a very [not clear] by the brands and unknown collecting the brand and saw the value in that only and probably that changed for me and therefore I started to venture post the Business-school. I ventured into the world of startups. For the first few years where I dabbled around and could not really make a head way into anything meaningful which was obviously very challenging because you know when you look around everyone in your society and in your circle is essentially making great ways and doing good things and you know buying a house, buying a car, or getting a dog, you know you kind of feel really left behind and creates a lot of pressure. But in this no one is really there to tell you that it is okay so you kind of feel on to your own pressure and kind of go very deep into it. So I spent the first few years after Business-school doing this before you know ventured to start M-coach which I did in sometime in 2007 or so. And that idea behind M-coach was to do research on SMS which at that time felt really interesting for India but within a few months of starting that business you know one could see that M-coach is going against the broader tide of you know of where the industry, where the world is headed, where the internet is going to be prevalent. So while it had a great use in a great way for it to do something in the short period of time. It would have been a decent business [not clear] if you ask me I think what we felt was that the UNESCO founders had left a lot to hopefully to do something big and not to do something which was just nice to have and therefore we shut M-coach in 2008.
Anand: Sorry I wanna pause for a second because your going through a phase that is very important. So first of all post B-school when did you graduate?
Anand: [scumbled] 2005? Two years you were looking at various startup ideas and when did you find the co-founders for M-coach. This is the phase, first of all people being without a job for two years is a big risk right so coming from a middle class background as you mentioned and I am sure you had B-school loans and something , how did you go through that?
Naveen: You know absolutely that this phase is very tough and you know more than financially I think its lot to do with the societal pressure of constant questions that keeps hitting you which is to say hey, you know what you are upto, all the fact that you are [not clear] that you are not really getting any [not clear] it is very odd point but you know you are basically you are not of importance in any sector and you feel so very alone and I think that is you know I would not I don’t think I can go through that phase again. It was just very tough. It would be one of the toughest phases now financially was still okay because my wife was earning and so it was fine to go through the phase because you know that was not the biggest of the challenges but you know everyone is looking everyone in life looks for relevance right, you want to be relevant in that phase your not at least you feel that your not relevant your not doing anything important and you know everything that you might have done and put together is a waste and we all you know are also very used to short term gratifications in life you know it is only at a much later stage in life you realise that in long term gratification you know is different but how do you talk to yourself and your whatever you know in your late 20s to say look this gratification will come later. These things don’t make seem to make sense so I think it is a it was a personally very tough phase to go through But you know we spent two years not really looking for not having a job and trying to figure out different startup. I think I explored you know it was none of those startups very early stage companies and I think I did four of them for one reason I which we were all [not clear] these things never took off and you kind of you know convert into anything meaningful and that is very painful. So when we started M-coach and by the way I met my co-founders during that process and you know at sometime in 2006 I met now well actually I have known them for a very long period of time. But you know I had known Abhay, I had known Amit, I had known Mohit you know for a very long period of time. So it was not as if I had met them for the first time. But we started to decide and discuss doing things together in sometime in 2006 and in 2007 we really kicked off with M-coach you know we came together to do it again you know the fact that M-coach also did not succeed had a huge impact on us personally for sure because it was how one would look at this right when your an investor you look for trends in a very strong way and you know you would sit there and say hey it has been three years and you have really did not achieve anything just had a series of five failures one more spectacular than the other one and why should anyone trust you for anything further and I actually would completely if I were on the opposite side I would completely agree with that okay. You have just not done anything for three years and so there is no reason to be able to trust you and that eats you by the way. That is a very painful phase to go through. And when we finally did manage to get people backing us upon M-coach and that also failed that was very spectacular. It is not gonna workout and but I must you know at that given credit to one of my angel investors [not clear] who went I went to speak with say look I don’t know I dont think M-coach is going to make sense. I think it is I have a different idea, different thought process that I could do something different with some of the money that is left what you gave. He kind of just looked at me and said look if you think it is not gonna work, it is certainly not gonna work. Because an entrepreneur when you think that something is gonna work there is a small probability for things to happen. Look it is never gonna happen so one should use money that is left in and start the next company, which obviously was InMobi. I think no, it is certain that they have to return of their money and they were convinced that it is a failure and which is fine I think I would have done the same thing as well but I think that was a tough period I would say for almost three years which was very very tough.
Anand: Got it and in two of the three years you did not have a co-founder also. [scumbled] you were going through a [scumbled]
Naveen: ya, correct. For those two years it was just you know me and myself and we have talked to each other. [scumbled] and that is why I always say that I always have a co-founder because you know in these journeys there are a lot of low moments actually most of them are low moments and you know the co-founders job is to not really go ahead and like you hit you on strategy its like far more important role for a co-founder is to bring you out of these moments which you are constantly in and vice-versa. By the way and so therefore that is why you need co-founders specially because they help and come out of these periods and I did not have one for the first two years and so it was even more painful.
Anand: Got it. And the other when you had brought on the co-founders were friends from IIT days or,
Naveen: Ya, that is correct. You know Amit and I were together at IIT. We had known each other very well even away we spent a lot of time with I had spent a lot of time with Abhay also, undergrad he was one year after me but you know I had known him well enough with Abhay I was not in touch with the first few years after the undergrad. But we came back together and he was by the way Abhay had interesting stories because he was a serious one. He was an entrepreneur he started his first company out of IIT was very very rare in those days. You know almost talking about 18–19 years back and it was never done that way. So I had a huge amount of respect for someone who you know kind of takes a level of risk that he did you know and it did worked out quite very well for him. And so when I was thinking about M-coach you know and when I bumped on to him became my natural choice because he of all the people I knew how things could go wrong. We were all in a more the fairy land but he has been in the [not clear] for almost 6–7 years prior to that. So he knew what was gonna happen and so yes so both of those I knew from my under graduation days and Mohit and I had met when you know I was doing those two years of hanging around in the you know after the business school I had met him, and staying out with him. [scumbled]
Anand: That is in India?
Naveen: That was in US. So and so I met him then really enjoyed his depth, enthusiasm and energy depth on the several topics and when we started M-coach you know I shot him and went to say what do you think, he jumped board without even blinking an eyelid. And it was just amazing to have my co-founders and we have remained very close to each other extremely close to each other ever since.
Anand: Awesome, so M-coach to InMobi so the thesis was what at that time and work is through the initial phases of scaling in InMobi
Naveen: So the thesis of InMobi was very simple that you know the reason to shut M-coach was the thesis for InMobi. The reason to shut M-coach was to say internet is going to be prevalent on mobile platforms and therefore the SMS based search is not going to be the way to go about this and that was the thesis alright. And I used this I moved into say look there will be you know a prevalence of the internet usage on the mobile platform and for any such eco-systems it will take off you know one needs to invest into you know the advertising system to support it such that the content be free and we said look why don’t we go and do that that is exactly what we did which is to build an advertising platform for you know mobile application system and that just seems to work and that took off. We, our earlier focus was on to India which we changed within a few months to make it you know Asia. And the reason behind that was look India was just a small market there is no way we could do anything meaningful large for India and because we went to Asia we realised that the ability was to do things at semi-global skills was a possibility which further went and we went on to be a very big global company which is a great thing. You know we gained up a lot from that time and from that perspective and yes that was the thesis of evolution of internet and us trying to make that internet free for consumers to essentially have great access to great content was the thesis.
Anand: And more mobile internet right? Got it and going international you touch upon that may be talk a little bit more in the initial phases 3–4 years.
Naveen: Ya look, we, there were two forces there but as I think I said earlier that one was you know India was never going to be a large market. Howsoever you cut it, it is going to be a small market for you know from an advertising lens and so [scumbled] trying to build something in India`s point of view, was you know was not making any feasible sense and one of the things that we have always believed that we have done as a co founding group has been that we will build large scale business and we really enjoy that and we really want to think big about these things and that has remained true to us and as we thought about you know building InMobi just for India we realised it is gonna be a small business so therefore we forced ourselves to essentially think about building this in Asia which better could be a smart way to do it because you know there were few platforms emerging in the US and we had realised that instead of going to the US we might as well go to Asia and be an Asian advertising platform which you know worked quite well, and we then [scumbled] the so the first set of countries we went were in South East Asia specifically Indonesia and if you ask me hey was there a very smart way to make that decision no, absolutely not. A lot of these decisions were built on partly to with contacts that one would essentially garner in some of those market leds that leads you to actually land in those markets and explore the opportunities and then say because you have made progress on that front, why don’t you just go ahead and do it now and obviously luckily Indonesia is a good market and therefore it worked out for us. So and then that led to the whole of South-East Asia being an important player for us, in Australia eventually from there you know a lot these were you know sorry to disappoint but were necessarily the mostly deeply thought there was strategic decisions at that point of time a lot of them were cut paste decisions and they were we actually you know you might be surprised with this one of the markets that we spent the 24 months in was also Africa and again it was because the mostly SouthAfrica but you know it saw some initial success you know coming from SouthAfrica and we were obviously very surprised why we were getting to see all this happening from SouthAfrica and we went about SouthAfrican market and saw great success obviously those markets cannot sustain themselves given the size of those markets is relatively small so we gave up on the market at the later stage, but at the beginning what we wanted were looking forward to things that could help us to boost us to the next stage reality was that we were not necessarily trying did not have the , you know we did not have the ability to look at business from a very long period of time because you know when you are building a startup as you get into different phases you have to sensly figure out how to get into the next and that is more important than to have a sensly very long term strategy with this , but that could fail and you may not have enough [not clear] let for yourselves and so you know thinking you know you kind of have a bifocal approach where you know you kind of keep a very strong eye on short term and then try to do with the remaining resources you know whatever far sightedness put out there typically in the early days that farsightedness is pretty short. And you know you kind of go 6–12 months out trying to think and so that is how our global expansion you know took place which was very which is you know in that time you know people obviously very critical of us going to the global market but I felt at a later stage that it was one of the biggest success criterias for us to and one of the biggest and strongest modes that we have created for ourselves and it is the learning over the last 10 years that you know how to take and build a global business that is you know a great skill to have by the way and now utilizing that as we take glance global and as we take true factor global so you know we believe that we are specialized in learning to specialize in building a business out of India and taking that to global.
Anand: Got it, so this is 2009–10 time frame right? So were there any other product companies that were trying to go global [scumbled]
Naveen: No actually, in that time by the way there were hardly any product companies let alone to go out of India for sure, very very handful could count them like you know less than five for sure so and a lot of these decisions were not based on you know any other learning any other factor that you know may have been available you know out there so they were all very you know first time decisions that we were making, the if you have to see the common at that age was don’t go out, you know dont go global, the common [ not clear] was you know don’t build a product company out of India or any other place, this was 10 years ago. And the reality was that there was a common [not clear] was don’t go for startups, so you know it was very hard to even get people to come in and work for a startup because the smartest of the people would either go and you know join the banking or consulting, or join a venture capital like yourself you were brilliant and we would not get the people into come and join startups. And that was a big factor in people saying you know don’t try and build a product company out of India because it is very very hard. And certainly don’t take it to global.
Anand: Got it, so this is very and i wanna come back to that team building aspect also, you have built a fantastic team over the time, but going back for founders listening so today India is evolved and there is a lot more confidence that people can build products globally right, so if someone were doing this or if you were doing this again any advice on international expansion,how to think through this,
Naveen: look, I think from an international point of view there are you know a few things, one is the one can think about these things in several manners you know one is obviously you know building a product, because you know you have to have a very strong product, and a product which can scale on its own without even having to put a lot of people behind it, so you know there is a whole product architecture question that really comes out here, thats one, and the second which is coming into the play is a very what I would call a data architecture question and this more relevant for today as it was not that relevant several years ago where the data architecture of the localisation of data and using that there becomes a big factor. [scumbled] is thinking about whether one must go to the US as the primary market to begin with which was a very common thing to do earlier but i think today as you would have seen certain examples where people are not necessarily their products to begin with you know with the US directly, it is always the biggest market and at the same time also most competitive one. So one can actually build a lot of momentum by being in another market where we can have natural advantage purely because of [not clear] and so Asian markets Middle East and Asian markets even China would be an interesting place to start with so,before you could go to the most advanced market, so that could be you know the third window and the fourth thing I would say is as people think about this you know there is these all think about you know sending your own people to those markets which I think is okay to begin with but the only way to really build a local you know global business is to have local people in those markets to do it and you know being able to attract and go for attracting the local people in those markets becomes very very important and the reality is the following your success and failure of a market is not a function of your strategy of the competition or anything, it is singularly based on the leadership team that you are able to put together in that market. So today if you are successful in China, is not just because that China’s strategy and is really very different at the beginning of it because we had a great team over there. If you are not successful in that market it is not because that our strategy did not work out for that market, because we just won’t be able to get the team which should actually help us scale so, Finally the most important you know aspect of this is the local team which can make break the market and people end up making a mistake of sending your own people as a long term solution to this problem, which I don’t think is the right one.
Anand: Got it, so let us pick China, which is one of the toughest markets to crack for at least Indian companies I am assuming, so how does a company go about doing that? [scumbled]
Naveen: Ya, look the first statement that you made you know that is a myth, because I think it is a hard market, but you know it is not an impossible market right, it is hard only because you don’t know, therefore you don’t know something you know, it just seems harder. And I think for Indian companies Chinese markets are a lot more open than what they are opened for other developing countries. So one should use that advantage. Unlike in other countries where one can walk in and you know start to connect with the people that is little hard I agree and therefore it becomes more complex to try and be in China. But one of the things that one could do to be in China is to be essentially it takes a little bit of time to get your footing in place just because of the language issues but I think once that is done, your are over that barrier which requires 3–6 months of you know investment into that market, the market you know gives a great return because it is a very very large market and most of the American companies do not venture into these markets at all, and so therefore if you were to think about one of the largest markets in the world, maybe the second largest market in the world where your biggest competitor is not going to enter, and yes you will have local competition but you will certainly not have any global competition. It is a great you know probabilistically from our success probability perspective it is a great market to be in and try your hand at it and we have seen massive success in China and today as I already mentioned a quarter of our business of our InMobi marketing cloud comes from there. So we are very fortunate to have stumbled upon you know in China and we by the way I will give you another fact about China which is I think that India is a lot more closer to China than to the US not in terms of relationship or whatever but more in terms of how we function and how we are and how our businesses should grow, and there is a lot more to be learnt from China if one is an entrepreneur one is trying to build something out there and so therefore learning from China is a very important aspect, people should explore that and try and figure out if there is a way to spend time there and learn and you will gain a lot more about by doing that and we have done that for sure.
Anand: Got it, how about maybe talk to us about the first two months that about said about learning the market. [scumbled]
Naveen: Ya, look we would land up in those in Beijing and Shanghai and you know obviously use you know some either an event happening or some connections that we are able to get through spending time with the folks there and meeting them and talking to them and obviously stressing about our interest of launching in China. And I think the understanding of the local regulations around it, we spent almost 6 months trying to do it by the way, maybe if not longer, we did hire like 2 or 3 people there just to you know favour something out. And so you would make mistakes and I think I would say that we you know for the first 6 to 9 months was a learning phase where we made mistakes and something which worked out but most of them did not, we learnt our way into it. I think spending time with people are very open to meeting by the way so just like spending time you know to talk to folks and to meet them use their venture capital industry because that is a very well connected industry so talk to them, they will connect you to the local folks, Just see you have got to figure your way out basically right, and if you are willing to spend the initial effort to crack the market then it will pay you.
Anand: Got it, and you have a full fledged team there, but how about the product side of things, did have to do a lot of customisation?
Naveen: Ya, so we had over a hundred people in China and in the beginning we stayed with obviously apart with localisation we stayed with the global product for the first several years I think China has now reached a stage where it has its own product and engineering teams but it was not the case for the first five years of our time in China, because look you only want to [not clear] your code you know once there is enough and more scale,I think China in the past several years has shown the scale that they have gotten for us and so therefore [not clear] them now makes sense and now they have their own independent product and engineering teams now.
Anand: Got it, and that is great and very helpful for my international expansion, coming back for the team aspect, so InMobi from I have been in India for close to a decade from the time I have came until date like you guys have built a fantastic team culture and you have gone through ups and downs together walk us through how you thought about culture, team building and as well as some of the challenges that you have been through this decade,
Naveen: Ya, look absolutely and by the way the team aspect is a very crucial piece for us you know people would bend with us for a long period of time, understand a bit, but we are still trying to improve ourselves but we live in this aspect of this in very intently, and the realization of this you know i think everyone believes that they should have a great team by the way so I don’t think you know the fact that we have realization is like anyone you know that would be very surprising, I think what we realized was that there was a huge gap in ourselves between what we said or what we wanted but what we really did and to me that is where the core of culture kicks in, right because culture is what you do, and how you do it every day, that is what culture is, it is not about what is written in the wall but it is what happens in the halls right, and I realized you know for the first few years is that there was a [not clear ] and there is a gap between what goes on the walls and what we did in the halls. To me it came to life when you know after we had seen massive success and you know we were really expected to do well and we were doing really well, we were seen we had become a revolving door right so people would come and live and you know when you are like flushed with money you know all of these things could tend to go unnoticed or you could ignore them and or you could blame that on something else look that is fine but, who cares let us focus on you know this and that and what you have and one thing what I realised was that you know we have grown from almost 200 people to [not clear] people but in the process you know in a year I think we are sitting at an attrition of 40% or something and some anybody new coming in with those 600 people were running out you know very very quickly and those 200 that were there in the beginning they were also leaving, so it was just like a, it was just a realization that hey did not we just get everything right in place very recently like what happened here and then you kind of put this aggressive goals on yourself of growth and you fall flat because who is gonna grow because what we said it was gonna increase by 4X in terms of size of the company so we should expect you know whatever around 3X growth on business, hell no we did not even come close to 3X growth and how could you because the assumption that was made was built on the fact that you know those people were around to me understand what you are trying to do and I was in myself [not clear] so what I realised is when I got hit and I felt you know those were the weak nodes for me what was happening to me am I not even somebody who can build a scale company and it was the moments of truth that was the setting, and I think at that moment we said look we had to relocate what have we picked on and I think people as founders when we start off companies we obviously start them of with the right intent and you know we had right set of systems not systems the right set of environment that we create because we are very close to people, passionate about our passion trickles down and we don’t know when that change would have happened we won’t be aware of it, because we as an entrepreneur you have not changed but the environment is changed you just don’t know because just around you everything looks exactly the same and to me that is when we started to take this up and really tried to build the culture where we truly trusted people when I say truly trusted people I meant like really trust them like I generally trust them so you know trust them doing the right things for trust them for [not clear]
Anand: So let me do it.
Anand: No as I’m going to. So we got the part that you realized that you had to do something different What did you change. I mean to be on from that point on.
Naveen: Yeah absolutely. So you know we realized that we were hit and we had to do something and so we did a lot of introspection. And you know and when we realized that we really moved away from you know what our core code was in and we were just of a different company we had to change that. And so things that we decided to change were very simple but they’re so simple that you know they start to sound innocuous or you know they’re not even mean that it’s anything to do with anything. You know we did anything great. But I think when it comes to culture you know small things matter it comes to culture simple things are what’s needed. So you know the first thing that we looked at was you know was a trust and and you know again if you would ask anyone across the across whoever runs the companies they do trust you people say yeah we do. But I think we we we kind of looked at this very deeply and said I don’t think we trusted. And you know trust means you know. Like trust really has to mean something people. And so we spend time trying to understand trust and we said hey if if one was talking more trust then you know we should trust our people to make the right decisions. And into one of the things that we we we took away was to do was to say look we have this whole mechanism for being bonuses for engineers and product people but I thought it was just not the right thing to do because you know in an environment where you’re willing to trust them to do the right thing. We are actually forcing them to do something which is which is built on a short period of time and not having them focus to build long term products. And long time strategy on products. And so we’re not really trusting them because of the fact of bonuses that is to say I don’t trust that you really put in the 100 percent so I’m going to put a dangle in front of you so that you are running that 100 percent( you know you do it). And so we removed that. And people responded to you know quite well,well for it. We did.
Anand: So when you say you know more that you said you had allowed the bonus to your salary and.
Naveen: The 100 percent
Anand :And across the organization or.
Naveen: Yeah. How do you for the commission when sales commission across the organization we made the change.
Naveen: And that worked out really well for us. We also said to people we also changed like you know things like we used to have this you know the reimbursement policies were pretty you know complicated and then the question was very simply can I not trust somebody to use the kind of book a right hotel. And while you can trust somebody to build a 50 million 100 million out of business for me like what’s going on and and so we change that say look we will just reimburse people and not take any permission and these guidelines try to follow them. And you know we didn’t find anybody really breaking the law making these rules. They just stayed within it because we trusted them. Then in turn to break it and earlier people tried to break in because you had these strict rules and so people would try to go around them similarly for leaves. We said look if you on leave just just go like it’s your life. We just take a leave and you want to take Billy would just tell us to leave. And you’re taking leave or whatever. And that’s that’s how it works and it works fine. Obviously some things will come in and say look we have a tough period and we have a crunch period it’s not anywhere do it those are micro rules that people create for their own benefits and it works for them. So we really kind of took this whole thing on trust to the to the next level. We then talked about care very differently. And to me that was very important. I didn’t feel that we really cared for our people. We treated people like commodities and a lot of that probably is you know in our own culture in India we are we take a lot of pride in care. And I felt that we should keep that because that’s a great thing to have and so we cared for people’s growth for example. And and I realize that you know we we we do lip service to people’s growth and we have these performance management systems that we create but then are really for people’s growth by the way that we have these performance management systems to to essentially create a report card not with the intention of giving them a growth or creating growth path for people but for creating a way to pay them the bonus and to create these mechanisms which are very complicated which means nothing like in today’s. Like you know we are not adults. And you know when someone gets like you know three point seven six out of five what does it mean. What does it mean for him.
Naveen: Is he going to think of all this the next day and the next day and the next day or is he just going to be upset that you paid me like less bonus you’re not really carrying the people’s growth. We said look we should just remove the delete this whole we get rid of the performers and systems because they’re so kind. They’re built for I don’t know what kind of a word but let’s get rid of it and introduce a new performance weapon system which is a blank sheet of paper where somebody should just come in and say here’s what I think I want to do and and have conversations. So we really introduced you know having growth conversations about people about their life and about their you know what they want to do. And people really responded well to it and that’s why we have people who remain with us for a very long period of time because we start global growth in a very holistic manner and we can’t avoid people by the way in a manner in which they are truly truly truly going and that work for us. We cared about you know we cared about the fact that you know people you know. Companies because you know they want to do new things you know no one is built to say every day for the next five years. This is the only thing do. And good people have a lot of capacity in them. So we said Hey why don’t we create this whole program of going and doing part time work in other things so that you can learn and that program essentially was a massive hit because people suddenly realized that they could they could go in and know a sales guy could go and learn finance and a marketing guy could go and learn you know engineering or you know the the you know some operations guy could go ahead and do data sciences because end of the day everyone of us have an aspiration to do more than what what we are doing. So let’s people’s aspiration and fulfill it within the framework of the companies that the company also gains from it. So today I don’t myself like hundreds of people do these part time jobs within the company and and everyone gives roadways. It’s a win win for everyone everybody. So yes. So we did a lot of these kinds of things where we really cared and trusted our people and took some measures which in that time seemed hard and tough and Today they are part of the culture and and that works. The result of that is that today over 40 percent of our people have spent more than five years with us in the company. My management team for example has been has the average age within the within the organization for my management team is probably about seven plus years. So we have a stable management team. Hardly anybody moves out and people you know it makes the executional to be a relatively very easy. So they really like it. So Denise has started to work in our favor and we have gone to the extent where you know Piyush is my co-founder. Now earlier I was you know earlier was part of our team and part of my exact team and you know we really believe in having a in trying to build a co-founder mindset and everyone. And we saw it we saw that you know Piyush was literally behaving and and working like a performance. And you know in 2018 we actually sorry 17 we actually and announced him as a co-founder in the company. And so we added another co-founder into our company and again more to do with the fact that you know what we are building is is it is a building a culture environment of where we we think of ourselves as a as a as a fierce can a family which is together the family is together to win. And that’s very important by the day because you know it just cannot be that you you know you’re together not with the intention of not winning. So that has its own challenges. Where do you come in you can’t you can’t you trust your people you care for your people you care for their growth but you also want to win. And so therefore we create this culture of you know where we come together as a family as a clan but we are you know we we want to win and that’s what we are trying to create here.
Anand: That’s that’s outstanding. So hopefully the founders listening and take notes on this particular section because not too many startups think about this deeply and how to retain people. People think it’s only money and stock and everything but it sets a lot to do with the kind of culture that you guys have managed to be. And that came from hard learning which is good to know. So maybe I want to get.
Naveen: But I also wanted us to add on something. Sure. Well I also think that’s because I don’t think at the board level these are important questions. Sure. And so while I completely agree with you that I think the the the founders should should have taken a different view on these things. I think the this has to go beyond that and had the board level these. This has to be a genuine deep question we asked in the end but it is not a question because it doesn’t have a space on the Excel sheet unfortunately and because it doesn’t have it it it becomes very hard for me to know you know how do you track it. What does it mean like what is it giving me. And so I I’ve interacted with enough and more people to know that the you know this this has to be. Unfortunately this is this is one of those things where the founder himself has to figure this out and just do it completely on his own you know self interest and motivation or see something that if he is missing out on it there is a systematic way of making that happen. So I think the caller ID also goes to the boards.
Anand: That’s that’s a very valid point. So for those who are on the board and listening also does great great learning that it’s great. So I want to switch gears maybe for the next five minutes or so talk about some of the some of the things that have helped you scale and grow as a founder Rachel. How did you manage your own personal growth than any other tips for founders that they can pick up from that.
Naveen: Yeah look I think you know. Personal growth is obviously very important and as the companies scale and I don’t do a lot of the founders though the challenge is that in every one of us face is. Are we going to scale at the base of the company or not. So if you can keep up with that base that’s great but if not then you know painful conversations will start to happen where people will follow off on the sideways etc, etc, and I think that’s very painful. And so that has to be ways of figuring these things out right up front. So it’s that you know hopefully these things don’t happen. Now one of the most important things to learn from is failure itself. Now that’s a hard one to essentially put out there to say Hey once you fail and then you will learn right. So. But the beauty of this beauty of entrepreneurship is it’s when I Anyway happen you’re going to fail in many many things you want to do so you’re going to learn from those quite quickly. Right. So if so one has to have a very humble in a learning mindset to begin with in order to in order to essentially absorb a lot of the things that could go wrong and big signals from it. So that’s that’s the biggest learning component that that exists out there. And you know people can understand if they learn from those things not. Second I think is to surround yourself with people that can really tell you what it is and you can tell them what it is. And and and that’s typically not on the board because unfortunately the boards some of the board members or some of the board situations that that exist today you know the vulnerability of a founder is not necessarily is not a welcome scenario that unless something people build those relationships but that don’t necessarily seem to be happening. And so you know there has to be people and maybe the boards by the way should create the system where they force the founders to effectively go and get advisors on the board or you know just get coaches and then such that they can speak with them. And that’s an important one because in order to you can only do it with people who have done these things in the past. So you cant just go ahead and get it just generally any coach right. There has to be context to these things. So being able to essentially talk to a few of those people out on your board or advisory is critical and having them there.
Anand: Without naming people who would you who did you lean on for these kind of things.
Naveen: yeah we will look we have always made you know we have always made space for having you know people who are very closely associated with this either you know as you know people who kind of committed to be an adviser. And so therefore they have stayed with us for two to three years and then you know they were gone and we get somebody else and few other people. So that’s helped us and we keep getting more and more people like that at all points of time. You know recently I you know I was able to you know get one of my professors Tarun Khanna on board and you know one of the objectives of getting on the board was essentially you know be a student again. And and that’s that’s one big bucket. The second the third big bucket for me in that is to meet a lot more people I think a lot of entrepreneurs kind of are introverts and find hard to essentially go out and meet people and therefore they they stay within the they stay within the boundaries of their own environment and don’t go out and they obviously hide behind the fact that I’m operationally very busy so therefore I don’t have time to spend you know go there but that’s just you know making a fool of yourself of yourself. And so I think clearly going out and meeting people just meeting you know people that you respect people that you think can tell you something interesting and picking those anecdotes from people or your peers people who have done this and the past just like you know look you know just talking and spending time with them is very important. And to me you know one of the big jobs of of this of founders and CEOs is to essentially be able to see where the company has to go and see things before they really happen and the only way you can see things if if you if you if you’re a subject yourself to new environments which are just going to create and give you a different perspective sources being in the same environment of which you are you’re you’re looking anyway. And you are you you’ll become you know you’ll have a spark. You will have a shorter vision or a weaker vision but all of these things build up when you meet people who have done phenomenal things in life and you learn from them. So just you know I would say almost 30 percent of the time which is a lot of time by the way needs to be spent in meeting people and so people. So for example I’ve put you know every quarter I have to meet at least 50 people outside of you know people outside and just talk to them. And I know for the last four to six if. For the past three to four years I am you know I’ve done more than that every quarter. And that’s a goal that I said to myself just to meet and talk in and that’s just the most phenomenal thing to do because you learn so much.
Anand: So someone in your office that helps you with putting together pull you should be meeting new people in a partner.
Naveen: Look I think it’s just easier to you. You’re going in different places why don’t you write to somebody and then you can come and catch up with you and or catch up and it’s just an hour. Yeah. And nobody minds by the way. Everybody’s very happy to come across and meet and ideas and you learn and if nothing else you know a good drink right. And this half hour maybe lasted why we would ask me. Yeah.
Anand: And also by building some just on that one. Some of the people you you’ve also build some deeper relationship right to go back to the same set of people.So from this maybe I make.
Naveen: A lot of a lot of these you know so-called agenda less catch ups lead to businesses by the way. So you know but that’s not the intention which we want. So the intention is always to be explorative and learn and what have you. But eventually all of these give you a great amount of learning businesses also sorry. So you know there’s benefit there also. On the last one I would put out there is to just to be able to go meet customers and you know. I don’t know. We are a B2B company so we have to meet customers anyway in B2C might be slightly different but certainly for B2B founders and CEOs one has to actually go out and meet customers and again put a number to yourself to say how many unique customers I met this quarter. And what is that number that people meet and then you put that number and then then go go meet them and force yourself to meet. And I think this external perspectives are very important and one needs to absolutely make sure that they they get those.
Anand: Awesome. These are all great great tips for people to think or not tips actually strategies that people can follow as they scale US founders.
This has been extremely helpful and I mean thanks for taking time on a weekend and chatting with me. This is going to be extremely helpful and really appreciate you and this you continued such as you’ve been a part, part setter here in India starting with the product company even there with most people were at the keyboard at Good going global. Cracking China and now starting a group of companies under Mobi so wish you continued success and thanks for doing this.
Naveen: Absolutely. Thank you for chatting I Really enjoyed this and thank you.
Anand: Thanks. Bye.