In a conversation steered by Dr Annurag Batra, the exchange4media Influencer of the year 2020-Naveen Tewari of InMobi fame broke down the rules of the post-pandemic entrepreneurial pathway and the importance of sustainability and empathy in building businesses.
In one of the firsts of physical events post-pandemic, Naveen Tewari was conferred with the prestigious exchange4media ‘Influencer of the year 2020’ title on Friday evening at the Taj MG Road in Bangalore. The ‘e4m Influencer of the Year’ is an award that recognizes visionaries in the landscape of advertising and the harbingers of new dimensions of growth.
The Influencer of 2020, Naveen Tewari is the founder and CEO of InMobi Group that comprises InMobi Marketing Cloud, Glance and Roposo. In a journey that began 12 years ago in 2007, Naveen is known for his exemplary work in transforming the company from a startup to a global tech giant. InMobi stands tall today as one of India’s first unicorn companies and has positioned itself as the world’s leading advertising platform.
As of today, Glance garners over 125 million daily active users and is known for delivering personalized content to the users on the lock screen of their smartphones by leveraging the power of artificial intelligence (AI). Roposo, the fast-emerging short video platform in the country has over 100 million downloads on Playstore.
Sitting down for a Fireside Chat with the Chairman and Editor-In-Chief of excahnge4media group and BW Businessworld, Dr Annurag Batra, Naveen Tewari answered questions with unflinching honesty and vision.
The pandemic year has been hard on many people, what was different for you in the last twelve months?
I think it is needlessly to say that the world has been impacted adversely in the last 12 months. Digital (realm) has certainly evolved drastically, and we as humans, and as a society, we’ve evolved in terms of our thinking too. Especially when it comes to balancing and understanding the importance of the environment, family and our health. Hopefully, these lessons will stay and it certainly feels like nature has its way of cleansing the system. But in reality, it has been tough to figure out what would happen professionally and personally. And to manage the business, many people said we’d have to fire people and reduce costs. But we took a hard call and decided not to let anyone go. Instead of letting a few people suffer adversely, we shared the pain and across the company, everyone agreed to a pay-cut to save the others. I believe an enterprise cannot run professionally if it is not set-up right. And I’m very proud of the way people stood up not just for themselves, but for others as well”
On your journey in InMobi, you’ve had many successes evidenced by numbers and you’ve pivoted three large companies within the company, talk to us about your tough moments in the last 5 years. In terms of building products, conquering new markets and especially going up against two giants like Google and Facebook, give us a sense of what didn’t go your way in the beginning?
The reality of every entrepreneurial journey is not in its successes. The list of failures is often too many and that’s why success is that much sweeter. I would say in the last four-five years we have evolved a lot as a company. Five years ago, we were mainly in the digital advertising business, it was very clear that based on how Google and Facebook were growing, they would take over the market and everyone predicted a straight upward line as to how they would dominate the market. Investors had pulled away saying they could see a trend line, and that’s the reality, people draw trend lines too quickly and always in a straight line. And it was told to us that we wouldn’t be as successful. It was from there that we charted a different path for ourselves. Now five years later, in hindsight, I would recommend that path perhaps because we became successful through it. Here are a few things we did:
- Despite being a start-up, it doesn’t give you the pre-right to continuously burn money. So, the first thing we focussed on was building a sustainable business. Because people think if there’s a line of cash coming in, why not just burn through it, isn’t that a sign of building a business? But no, the reality of business is that it has fiduciary responsibilities, we focussed on that and built a sustainable business and we persevered and became profitable in one year. We have maintained this and also grown significantly. This gave us a sense of freedom and even humbled us. Start-ups have gotten a huge status in the country, often much ahead of what they contribute in reality. While this is important as helps create a new economy and a new sector, one should be wary.
- We focussed on innovation. The reality in technology businesses is that the capital will never win you the game. And innovation is not just the responsibility of one sub-unit but everybody in the company. We looked at three major innovations in the ad space- we realised ads are going to be automated, it has to be transparent and it must scale globally without costing people their jobs. We took a bet on the direction of advertising. Back then in 2015, our share of business in the US was about 5-10% now its 60%. And we innovated in the toughest market. We also innovated our core business. We innovated and created a consumer business called Glance, which we funded from our proceeds. Today, we’ve redefined what a lock-screen should be able to do and the fact that a lock-screen should be the biggest content platform. Consumer businesses are never built out of India and India has not created global consumer companies. Hopefully, Glance will be that with its 125-130 million daily active users today. It is already at the top ten consumer platforms behind Twitter and Snapchat.
Also, in the last year, less by our doing we are one of the leaders in short video space also because Tiktok went away. And so, entertainment will change, it will be authentic, creative and from the grassroots and we’ll enable that.
You said, ‘We are a start-up and we want to stay a start-up” Now that you are at such a scale, how to do you retain the qualities of being a Start-up?
We are just getting started. It’s like a test-match and we’ve only reached lunch. It’s been 12 years and I hope the company goes beyond my generation into many generations. And we are catering to the people while also attempting to put India on the map. One often gets too complacent quickly once you built a billion-dollar company. The reality is, it’s a path. Being a unicorn is not a dent in the universe, you are just a speck still. To make an impact you have to be aiming much higher and bigger. To me, Start-up is a mindset and not a size argument. The mindset of continuous learning, being inquisitive, being hungry and executing fast and we do that. We do it by layering it with innovation. I worry only about doing this for the long term. Business cycles will come and go. I don’t control that I only control the process with which we go through it.
You said that you can build products and companies if you see patterns. And you build bigger companies and products when you disrupt the pattern. Tell us what are the patterns InMobi, Glance and Roposo are disrupting
“Pattern recognition is historical, if you can see it, so can others. If you want to change something, you have to create something. (In April 2020) We took a bet on five sectors from an advertising point of view that we never focussed on. Ads in travel and hospitality were all suddenly zero and we looked at new sectors like gaming, productivity and fintech that contributed less than 5% but now 60-70% of our business. These small transformations, helped us take advantage of the situation by the end of the second quarter. We looked at the trend and took a bet, it could have backfired.
Also, I feel there will be more product companies, certainly more in the software space, because India has figured out how to do high-quality go-to markets which are advantageous as they can be achieved remotely. Previously the challenge was to be in front of a customer, and for that, you had to be in New York, San Francisco or Chicago but now you can be in Madurai and efficiently do the sales. If I were to bet on a sector, I would bet on software as a service sector coming out of India and going global. I would take a strong bet on that.
My next question is on having global ambitions. Entrepreneurs always think about conquering India and being Atmanirbhar. Tell us about building global aspirations.
If you build a consumer company in India, your business can be 4-5x larger if you look at taking it to South-East Asia, Middle East as your scope of business changes. India is a small market in reality. It is a big population but a small market with only 27 million people having paying capacity. Unless you build a commodity that serves all, it is tough to have a large business. I would suggest consumer businesses look at South-East Asia and other Asian markets so that they can play the long game in India. That’s the challenge, we are not like China or the US where consumers would pay a lot quicker and you can build a sustainable business. Sustainability will only come if you capture other markets.
What are some of the future trends, you predict, going forward?
Digital. Digital is not a trend but prime time now and that too in just one year. It should have otherwise taken more time. No one watches cable or set-up box (DTH TV) but people have moved on to OTT platforms. The digital leap has been phenomenal. The second leap is happening as we speak in Artificial Intelligence. It more on ppts than used to serve people but if Indian businesses have to succeed then they have to embrace AI to serve customer’s every need. Digitization is aggressive and large and if you leverage AI rightly you will stay in the business 2 years from now, it is that simple. A learning mindset is also important going forward. Remaining hungry about learning and fighting the ego that comes with success is important.
Is InMobi looking at an IPO in 2021?
Can’t comment on it. (laughs) I was taught to say I can neither agree nor deny.
In terms of people, you look up to and admire, who are the people you talk to for the learning mindset, whom to do go to for advice?
In the beginning when you get accolades, you become full of yourself. You then get thrown down and realise you don’t know anything and learn from every conversation. We, the management and I are very open about seeking advice from others. We learn from successful entrepreneurs, in India, we have many, Infosys, Tata, Birla, Mahindra and Ambani, maybe they are not the same business but the fundamentals of business are the same. Sometimes it might not be immediately applicable. In terms of ideas around the creation of business, we learn from Microsoft and Google. You know, people are far more open to sharing than we think they are, you just have to reach out and ask for help. I try and spend time doing that, and COVID made it easier without flying around.
In the context of the March 8th celebrations, what are you doing to further women leaders especially in tech?
I will say women are much better to have in companies than men because their level of dedication and commitment cannot be matched. I believe we are under-invested on the women’s side with 38% of our workforce being women. Every global region of our company was at some point being led by a woman. Our major businesses in China, Asia, and Roposo are run by women with top women in leadership positions. I believe women are more committed to a cause and they are not fazed by short-term ups and downs or by materialism. They contribute a disproportionately higher impact and we need more of them at grassroots levels too.
What has changed about entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship in 2021?
We have learnt the way of doing business from Corporate America. Now we have an opportunity to define the Indian way of doing business. We are more empathetic at our core and this comes out naturally in what we do. With COVID we have an opportunity to imbibe that in our corporate culture…not forced but because we mean it. So yes, definitely empathy, and secondly, the importance of building a sustainable business. Everyone wants to build a sustainable business with empathy and care and that’s visible in the conversations that are growing. And through the tough times, we have all evolved.
In a volley of audience questions, Naveen Tewari also spoke about the dichotomy of embracing human capital and AI simultaneously. He remarked that the key was to upskill employees to stay relevant in their roles and ride the tech-tonic transformation rather than be defensive against it.
He also offered that the key to a learning mindset is maintaining a bifocal approach of both daily working and learning in smaller bites. “15 mins a day can make a difference, learn in small capsules then you won’t need a year to learn”.