Naveen Tewari on the quest for a purposeful life, the beauty of creating versus competing, and building a culture of compounding trust
- Episode 9
- Reading Time
- 18 minutes
In the finale episode, Sanjay Nath chats up Naveen Tewari of InMobi on building two unicorns, creating an “institution” vs an organization, and not getting fazed by feedback. Sanjay also shares how Naveen has been a major influence in his journey of co-founding Blume. Tune in for more.
This transcript was AI-generated and went through multiple rounds of proofreading. However, there might be a few errors that may have slipped through the cracks.
Before we segue and dive deep into this podcast, I wanted to share a few personal notes on why it's special to have Naveen here today. Interestingly Naveen, I wanted to do this in person, and as it turns out, I'm back in San Francisco just a couple of blocks away from your InMobi San Francisco headquarters. So the next time we do it, we'll definitely plan to do it in person. One continent, one country, and one place. Just wanted to add a personal note here on the intro and the relevance. Some of you may remember that InMobi was one of the first investments of the Mumbai Angels way back in 2009 to 2010, which is interestingly also where Karthik Reddy and I first met more than a decade ago. It was my very first personal angel investment where I'm still a small and early supporter. Naveen's return from the US to India to become a founder also inspired me as I was extremely intrigued by the very nascent India story back then and why Indian founders were leaving their well-paid jobs and taking early risks around the massive, but still then very unproven India promise. I have to say, Naveen, that you've played a key role in my own return to India to spend time with Karthik more than a decade ago and helped kick off my own internal story envisioning of being an India focused early-stage investor and of co-founding Blume. So, as we dive in, I would like to say that our audience would love to hear about not just the story, but also the inflection points, the pivots and the learnings in your journey Naveen, including personal anecdotes, because a lot of those learnings come from those stories and would love, your, to hear your storytelling here. So, let's dive right in. Welcome Naveen.
Sanjay: Thanks Naveen. Much appreciate the kind words. Let's take a walk down memory lane and go back to those formative years. I'll call it the Kanpur to Harvard, phase of a journey. I know you were born to a family with IIT Kanpur heritage, your father was a professor and other members of the family. Would love to your thoughts, on how did they influence your decision to study and be who you are, and then also aspire to go abroad after IIT? Just walk us back through those years.
Naveen: Yeah, look, it's very interesting because I think you start your life to essentially hope to be associated with these brands or these brands to be associated with you. And once you get it, then you find yourself a little hollow, because you work hard to get to the brand and then you don't know what you do now. And I think this sense of, I must get into IIT, and you did, and then I must get to McKinsey, you did. And then I must get to, Harvard, you did, okay, now I got here and it's phenomenal. I don't want to sound arrogant a lot at all. It was huge and they’re massively big brands, you realize that you're still not happy, you're still not satisfied. and the question that was intriguing me is to say, okay, why am I not happy? Why am I not satisfied? What am I trying to do or prove, that I'm not happy or satisfied? Every one of us, work hard to get to these phenomenal places. The question that hits you is to say, okay, what next? Once you get there, the question again comes back, what am I doing here? what should I try to do? And how can I use my, use my time a little better? And I think that question, that intrigue, never stopped in my view, till you reached a point to say, people who really matter, in my view, were the ones who create the future and if you create the future, and not just, define a future, or not just talk about the future, you got to go create it. And creation is hard, is very hard. So, if you can go create a future, then you know, there may be something that you're doing, which is changing the way the world is. And I think that became an important aspect of things, as I went through these several years of these phenomenal brands. And that's where the whole India point also came in. I've always been a big fan of our country and its potential, and its people in all aspects. And, maybe at times, not logically, you don't need to be logically accurate to essentially go after things. You need to be just passionate about them, to begin with. And so there came a point of time where you thought about creation, India kept on coming back and it's okay, maybe if this was to be done, for India, from India it may have a different meaning, of course, realizing at least at that point of time or thinking at that point of time, it may not be as, meaningful just because of the size and scale of it. I think that part certainly got proven wrong because India is just flourished to a different level. But if you go back to that point in time, I think it was the quest to essentially create something and the quest to have a purpose in life that was not as well defined may be as it is today, or I can articulate it much better today, but I think this, emptiness on one hand and the need to have a purpose, on the other hand, led to, essentially going for things.
There was a time when I was at McKinsey where I used to work for Reliance in Infocom and Infocom was getting launched and, I would watch Ambani, from a distance, build his telecom empire. And Reliance was a giant already by that point in time. And here was this person who was working, I don't know, 18 hours, 20 hours a day to create something and it was just the most fascinating thing I'd ever seen in my life, of, how to think about creation and how to go about essentially even doing it and he did it and he did it. Of course, he repeated that with Jio later. Club with all of this, like watching him, you always wanted to be in his position versus, being, an advisor to him or creating documents, those things are nice and important, but they're not the ones where you're really creating, because creation is not about knowledge. It's about, taking that decision, taking that risk with very limited information and, going into the unknown.
Now, coming back to a very important question you just asked, which is about my co-founders. You must go back to the context of when we were starting up right in 2007ish and 2008, and all that timeframe. There was no concept of a startup.
I think here I would love to have your thoughts on how you think of scale both at your level, Piyush’s, and the co-founder's level, and when you look at your P&Ls, maybe acquisitions, just what do you think about scale, both in terms of strategy and how everybody inside InMobi thinks about scale.
But I think we've shown with them and so as advertising business, we saw of ours and we realized that business is going to certainly, scale quite significantly. We wanted to essentially think about how we could actually also build consumer facing businesses, which are unique and have not been created before. We didn't wanna go and create yet another something else, which has been done before and copy it and do it. Not that it's, I have anything against it, just, who we are. We just wanted to create something new. and that has its own challenges because people don't really accept it, to begin with.
I remember, back in 2008 and nine when you backed us, there was no, that was very hard for anybody else to back us in the advertising space because everybody thought that there is no advertising that'll be possible on mobile phones. But, that's not the case today. It's actually the largest space in the world in about 10 to 12 years, henceforth. Similarly, I think we looked at, when we looked at Glance, we said, hey, we should create something new. We should create a new consumption platform. We should create a new form of the internet. We should create an internet on, on the lock screens. We should create the internet on surfaces, and nobody had done it before. and we were at it for years, before we came out with it. And I think it's been phenomenal because I think our scale, on that is already crossing about half a billion phones now carry Glance on their phones. And therefore it's, soon enough, maybe in about a year or two, we would be on, a billion devices and Glance would be one of the few platforms in the world that touch a billion people. Now, that's how we think of scale. Anytime we think about scale, it has to get to a disproportionately large portion of internet users. That's how we think about it. If we get, when we get to a billion users, I think we'll be on a quarter of the internet users of the planet, maybe a little higher. And that's what exciting, that's what's exciting. And we are creating all of these technologies and phenomena from here. We're not creating them from anywhere else. And that we take a lot of pride in that. And when Piyush, Abhay away or more think about, scale, we think about what portion of the internet can we get to and I think it's very important for anybody who does creation. We are not phased with what somebody else has to say about our technology, or what somebody else has to say about our platform. Not because we don't like to take feedback, don't get me wrong. I think it's important that if you have clarity or vision about something, you, and if it is really out there, most people will not see it. And that means you're pushing the envelope. And that means when you're pushing the envelope, you will get naysayers. Not because they're against you, just because they don't see it. And I think it's that, it's at that point you have to essentially stay true to your vision and say, no, I hear you. I think I'm gonna stay at it because this is going to happen. And I think that's what creates phenomena’s in the world. And I think we really like to do that. And we are probably onto, that with, certainly with Glance, we are certainly going to be onto that with what we are trying to do with Roposo, which is, already touched over 50 million people, 50 million users, and in on its way to, very large numbers over the next few years. So that's how we are, and that's what we like to do. And we feel pretty confident about this. The beauty of creation, I'll tell you one more, is you require lesser capital. and if you require lesser capital, if you essentially create something, it's because you are creating, you're not trying to outcompete anybody else.
It was because, at that point in time, I didn't feel the reason for the pivot. At that point, I didn't feel that we were gonna succeed to build anything big. And I think the, I still remember the conversation we had for a few minutes, which was you asked a question to say, hey, there are these three companies that are doing this, then why are you pivoting? And I think my response to that at that time was, I know they're doing it. I know there are a bunch of large VCs who are backing them. I just don't see this as a big market. I can't see it. And if, if I can't see it, I don't know how to go behind it. And I think your answer was, that's a good enough place to be at because if you don't see it, you're not gonna get there. I think we were okay in that decision because the space never became large like mobile SMS search never became large. So that was a pivot reason. I think when you get to some of these reasons here, I think when you get to a certain scale in size, there is in technology, let me abstract my point out a little bit. In technology, there is nothing called, that oh, because of I have a certain scale, nobody else can touch me because new technologies come in and they actually create disruption very rapidly. And so, the only way to safeguard yourself at a true mode as a technology company, long-term mode is you know, that you are able to create and that's becoming visible more and more, as we go forward. And so, when our advertising business had started to scale and we saw certain scale and size that we would be at, we realize that in an advertising-led business, if you were to add a consumer component, it solidifies it, frankly it becomes a full stack company. Now that's easier said than done because that's on paper. The hard part of that is, a B2C platform is, you don't know whether you'll succeed or not. And so, therefore, the thing that we have realized over the last many years is, new initiatives are not about capital allocation or large capital allocation, new initiatives, if they are oriented on creating something newer are based on the quality of people that you can put behind that and keep it really small. So, for almost about two or three years, I would say the Glance team, the first two or three, the Glance team wasn't more than 10, 12 people, maybe 15. It never went beyond that size because the big things are not created because you put hundreds of people. It's only when you know that I have to scale it now you can then put people behind it and try to scale it. And that's been the approach we have had for the longest period of time. We always have a few of these woods in the fire, we don't know where they will go. But we think we always can create something interesting in a certain, dimension space. We also feel more confident about doing so now, and therefore these conversations are actually pretty gradual with the backers, with the investors. Because we are not necessarily going in, in there and saying, hey, I am putting 20% of my resources onto something, no, saying, frankly, in the beginning, nobody even knows because you're just putting 5-10 people onto something and that if that becomes big, then only you come out and say, hey, I think this is an interesting idea. So the first time we really even talked to the board was when this little thing started to show some legs. And the conversation was much easier at that point in time. It's oh, wait a minute, this sounds interesting. It could be big, it could be large. Like, why don't we go ahead a little bit more on it? I think we had, we have had an incremental approach to innovation, with big ideas and without massive capital deployment.
Naveen: You think about any of the great companies that have been created, and if you'll go through them and look through their history, and you could go as much back as you want, or even in today's times, you realize that the best of the companies have had people who have stayed with them for 10, 15, 20, 30 years. And there is a very important reason. And by the way, even in the venture industry, you take your own example, you haven't gone out and like churned people annually or every two years. You have the same set of people. You may add more, you've had a similar set of people. If you take any venture fund, they stay together for 20-30 years and then they start to dismantle because, they're now not, don't do this anymore. But any such, any organization that wants to be an institution and wants to create something that lives beyond them needs to essentially focus on having people that, that share the vision, share the purpose, and are also happy being with you and I think that's what we focused on. I think on one hand we focused on saying that, look, if you are with us, we are gonna play a long game and we are gonna play a long game. to create a new internet world out there that's not been created before. And if you're interested in that worldview, be with us. And there are people who like that and there are people who don't like it. And if those, I'm more interested in people who like it because that's what, that's what matters. So that's on one hand, and we do anything and everything to make that happen, for that group. On the other hand, we also, talk about to say, we, if you are here, we want you to be happy. We want you to be, we want to care for you and we want to essentially make sure that you've trusted both ways. And I think those two things at times are seen as things that cannot necessarily go together. And I think what we have been trying to prove and showcase is that you can live these two words, on one hand, you can win and build something great and build something big, yet have care for your people, have your people happy, have them live a full life, both at the same time. You don't need to churn through people to try and build something great, because that actually never happens. You, if you get a sense that it's happening. And similarly, if your people are happy, that doesn't mean they're slacking. That's just an odd concept. actually, if people are happy, they actually do more work. So somewhere I think these two things come together and that's what we've been, trying to like, live and in a showcase. We'll see when we, over the next several years it's been working well for us for the last, decade for sure. we've had people in the organization, almost about 400 odd people, maybe 500 of us spent a considerable amount of time with us. I'll give you one interesting fact, if I take my top 100 people, I would say about 70-80% of them have spent at least more than 5-7 years with us. Now, what is the impact of that? The impact of that is that when I think about expansion, I don't need to essentially go look around elsewhere. I just have to look inside the organization and give, look at somebody and say, hey, would you be keen on doing this, and they put their hand up and they go about and get it done in most cases. And the reason why that's exciting is that they know who we are and we know who they are. And so there is this trust that gets created. And so, what people don't realize is the compounding of trust, the compounding of trust is what leads to the compounding of business. And I think that is what we are really going for. This is going for this compounding of trust both ways, by the way. Both ways, because, as a company, we gain, but as individuals, they also gain because they would hopefully and more, more often than not, will get opportunities that would be offered different magnitude that, that, somebody else would give it to them for sure, because they're good. But they would need to spend a few years there to gain their trust because nobody gives you the most important piece when you arrive. Not because you're not capable. They, people give you big things to do because they can trust you. I think there's confusion about capability and trust. Capability is there, trust gets built and it takes time. So I just think this compounding of trust is a very powerful concept both ways and, I try to do whatever I could to essentially continue to compound it.
And look, it's been hard because these things are not necessarily the ones that get talked about in the boardrooms or, you get to, you hear about them. Because a lot of what's written in the books are, are people management skills or people management philosophies that were built for a different generation. Not for knowledge generation, in my view, not for the generation that we are living in and therefore some of those things never, like even could not apply to them.
people would call it. I don't know what, why that was ever needed and why that's There is this mad rush of like massive scaling, blitz scaling or whatever even needed now. Because businesses are not built to be sold. Firstly, they should be built to last. When a child grows, you don't want the child to be six feet tall when he's seven years old. You want the child to be six feet tall when maybe he's 18. There is a gradual, like there is a, at 18 when he is six feet tall, it's great. It's like he's really tall and, but he's so businesses like that, you just can't have, you can't just say, hey, let me just grow the business like overnight and, let me just do everything to just be the only player in the market, get a hundred percent market share or winner take all. None of that is true. It's not true. And so, I think compounding of the businesses in the earlier at about a hundred percent, and when you get to scale compound them at about 50%. And if you do that for 10 years you have a business of a phenomenal size with the right unit economics. You don't have to do like faster growth. Now, investors could come in and ask you for faster growth. Just say no. Just say, I'm gonna grow at 40-50%. That's fine. nobody's gonna fire you, nobody's gonna do anything. Don't fall for this rapid growth narrative that has just been out there, and therefore, now comes the fundraise part. Then just raise less amount of money. You don't need that much money if you can just solve some of these things. You don't need too much money. Hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars is fine, you should raise it if you're getting it, but don't use it, then try using less of it.
Naveen: I have gone on record to say I hate rapid fires, but why don't you, why don’t you shoot a few?
Sanjay: Let’s dive into it. What would you order for your last ever meal?
Naveen: Rajma Chawal. I am a big fan of like Indian food. I love that. So, I'm just gonna go for, simple Rajma Chawal.
Sanjay: Fantastic. Fantastic. current book or favorite book of all time.
Naveen: I, there have been few, ‘Hard things about hard things’ is one of those.
Sanjay: That's great.
Sanjay: One great piece of advice you have gotten.
Naveen: Huh, yeah, I've gotten few advices. I would say. I think one, let me try and articulate this. The most important advice that I got was, there will be a lot of people who will not see the vision that you have. Beauty is in not trying to please everybody. You should listen to everybody. The beauty is in staying true to your vision, despite a lot of people coming in, not agreeing with you. And to me, that was just the most beautiful thing that I ever heard and has stayed with me for long.
Sanjay: Beautifully said. Quote-unquote, favorite failure, most valuable learning. Maybe there's a bit in what he said, but if there's anything new you'd like to add.
Naveen: Yeah. Look, we, there was a product that we launched. It was called Miip, we launched it in 2015. I think it was a spectacular failure, public failure. And you gotta take it on the chin, is as simple as that.
Sanjay: I remember being there that was close to the 10x, the 10-year anniversary. But you also just picked yourself, dusted yourself off and just moved on.
Naveen: Yeah. And we created Glance after that.
Sanjay: Last fun one. Favorite way to unwind after a long day.
Naveen: I love to watch sports, so that's my favorite way to do it. And I love F1, I love cricket. I would just watch sports, most of the days, towards the end of the day, I would watch some sports, even if it's highlights or even it's recorded. I just end up watching some bit of it.
Sanjay: This is wonderful. There could be a, I think a separate section on just the learnings and the takeaways and the synergies from sports and sports champions and sport leaders on entrepreneurship.
Sanjay: Absolutely. I'm forgetting the name of the work, but, so Alex Ferguson, I think is teaching at HBS, right. The book that he coauthored with Michael Vaden, I think it's called Leadership and it's exactly about. a story, a venture capitalist interviewing Alex, about the lessons from sports to management. So that's wonderful. Naveen, just wanted to thank you. It is an absolute pleasure. So very special, for you, to be here with us. Thanks for covering out the time and next time. whenever we do it next, we'll try and do it in person in India, at your HQ here in San Francisco. maybe on a long plane flight if you're sitting together, that may be one of the most interesting, innovative ways to do it. But thanks for making the time.
Naveen: Absolutely. And thank you so much Sanjay for inviting me. It's an always, it's always a pleasure to be speaking with you.
Thank you for checking out X- Unicorns. This podcast is proudly a Blume matches offering led by my marketing team, colleagues Mesha Bhansali and Disha Sharma, a sound engineer Shrey Tiwari, and our producers, Vedant Nayak of Manic Port Studio.
Part of X-Unicorns
What is a unicorn? A mythical creature, known to be proud, untameable, fiercely independent and difficult to capture. When venture capitalist Aileen Lee first coined the term, the definition was strictly limited to privately-held companies valued at over $1 billion within a decade of its existence. This definition was applicable to only a select few Indian companies such as InMobi and Flipkart. That’s all there was in 2013 that fit this definition.
After more than a decade at Blume, it is now becoming clear that India is birthing new variants of this mythical creature and we’re calling them ‘X Unicorns’. But when we look at a Carbon Clean or a Dunzo, they don’t look like typical unicorns. Some look like zebras and hippos, others rhinos, gazelles, and seahorses. They look like they could be any shape or size as long as they have spouted a large single horn or even two for effect.
It doesn’t matter what the path to the unicorn is, it doesn’t matter when they go public, it doesn’t matter whether they have a body of a horse or any other creature in the animal kingdom — as long as it reaches there and we want to look back and celebrate the ones that have entered and are soon entering the X‑Unicorn club. The age of the X‑Unicorns is upon us. Silently, they grow unnoticed and emerge valiantly into the limelight.