The COVID-19 pandemic is the most unprecedented crisis of our times – It can be likened to a war and in many ways it is. However, it is a war where there are limited policy measures that can control the ripple down effects on businesses and the economy. During these trying times, it is imperative for companies to have wartime decision makers, who can keep their ships afloat during this economic tsunami that COVID-19 has plunged us all in.
As part of our Building Against all Odds series, we invited Naveen Tewari (CEO and Founder of InMobi Group), to provide guidance to our founders. Naveen founded InMobi in 2007, and in over a decade has not only built India’s most successful technology powerhouse, but has also steered InMobi through two wartime scenarios – the subprime crisis and 2015 (which was one of the toughest years for InMobi).
Naveen unraveled key tenets in communication, strategy, culture building, frameworks for identifying scale, and a playbook for innovation, that has enabled the Group to stand in good stead now and during similar trying times.
It is a time where everyone is learning on the fly and there are limited dimensions of control in this environment. Key would be to maintain transparency in communication and to not build strategies in the hope of recovery – At the bare minimum, preparing for 12 months to recovery is essential. As a company the strategy adopted by InMobi Group is as follows:
Taking measures that have a deep impact and are short-lived – such as hiring pauses, salary hike deferments, etc.,
Shouldn’t be fatal to the overall strategy and culture of the company, and should be reversible.
Forecasts are meaningless in these times, and as a company InMobi Group has stopped doing forecasts.
Pushing the team to try new things, and find areas in which new businesses can be created. (JD.com was actually created during the SARS crisis in 2003)
Evaluating new verticals that can be targeted in the advertising business.
Tripling down on acquisitions since enterprise values would be low during the crisis.
Having a capitalistic view at this point would be inhuman, and the entire org is collectively taking a hit to prevent making difficult decisions.
Pain is being distributed across the 1500 odd workforce by pushing out pay hikes, to prevent letting go of business divisions and people.
In addition, InMobi Group has implemented an online counselling program led by mental health experts, which has been very popular and has helped people pull themselves out of their negativities.
Naveen strongly believes that “Human beings are built on the fabric of things they value – security and trust”. If the workforce knows that the management has cared for them in the past and can be trusted, they will support every decision during wartime.
Naveen’s advice to all founders finding themselves in a wartime situation would be:
Have one person making decisions with an authoritarian approach – Time is of the essence and there needs to be minimal questioning to ensure execution.
Be prepared for the culture going for a toss, however you survive wartime only because of the culture you’ve nurtured during peacetime.
Leaders should be ready to embrace wartime – The bullet should go through you first, before touching your people.
The last time InMobi faced a similar situation was in 2015 due to internal issues. During this period they experienced least attrition since people believed in the cause and trusted the leadership to look out for them. In addition, Naveen believes that wartime also presents the opportunity to get a lot of things done that wouldn’t get done otherwise. During the crisis of 2015 the major achievements of InMobi were:
The group as a whole became profitable.
The advertising business flourished in multiple directions.
Glance & TruFactor were created, which can become Bn dollar companies in themselves.
Key tenets of InMobi Group’s people-centric approach that were highlighted by Naveen are as follows:
Creating a family – InMobi is essentially a group of people who are fiercely together for each other. A family doesn’t disown their members when they leave home.
Welcoming people back – 25% of InMobi Group’s leadership team are Boomerangs – employees who left and came back.
Naveen believes that there are two broad approaches that founders can have to build big companies:
Go after an existing market and internet-able it: Generally margins are low in these existing markets and even if one internet enables them, they still remain a commoditized business – key is having phenomenal scale.
Innovate to create something that doesn’t exist:
Tends to be enterprise software and IP driven.
Margins are high, even without a large market share large businesses can be built.
It is difficult to create large consumer businesses in India due to the low purchasing power and consumer businesses would have to target global markets eventually, however IP driven businesses have a global appeal from the beginning.
Founders should be aware that the era of massive funding is over, and companies would have to build profitability at scale with sub $100M funding.
An angel investor himself, Naveen’s approach in identifying entrepreneurs who can scale is, having an open-hearted debate on the problem and understanding the structure they adopt in solving the problem. He believes it is important to not judge but nudge entrepreneurs in the right direction, and to see their ability to adopt the right structure.
Naveen was gracious to share the ingredients of the secret sauce of innovation, which has propelled InMobi Group towards becoming one of the most innovative companies of the past decade. The things that worked for the Group are outlined below:
A great team that has spent a lot of time working together: Among the leadership team of 50-60 people, the average tenure is 7 years. This has not only helped build trust but knowing each other’s working styles improves efficiency.
60-30-10 framework: 60% of investments go into revenue centric businesses, 30% into well understood strategic initiatives, and 10% into experimentations that can build the next moonshot businesses.
Working with large enterprises: The skill to manage and maintain partnerships with large enterprises, where patience is important, has been key in their success.
Resilience – As a company there is a culture of resilience and not giving up on things easily.
Every company has their own set of challenges and there isn’t a one size fits all strategy that can be adopted. However, learning from organizations that have waded through challenging times can provide inspiration to look internally and introspect on what would work best for us.
It would be imperative to not only build your own wartime strategy and communication, but also keep in mind that it is during wartime, when the greatest innovations happen. This could very well be the time to write your own playbook of innovation.