NaaSeHaanTak: InMobi’s founder Naveen Tewari on the challenges of building a world-class company
This article is sponsored by Haywards 5000 Hausla Buland Academy.
“Entrepreneurship is not for the faint-hearted.”
This is the conclusion of a man who is part of a team that built a world-class product from India. Naveen Tewari today basks in the glow of success, which is doubly sweet for him considering his product had faced innumerable challenges, including being written off by ‘experts’. Today, as the CEO of InMobi, a young mobile advertising and discovery platform that is challenging industry giants, this man’s infectious positivity belies years of struggle.
We let him tell the story. “It was the summer of 2007,” he recalls. “I called Abhay, my friend and IIT batchmate. We met and, by the end of the day, decided to work on something together. We got our friends Amit and Mohit to complete our gang and moved to a one-room apartment in Mumbai. Our office was a roadside dhaba where we came up with the idea of mKhoj, an SMS-based mobile search engine.” Today, the three co-founders hold key positions at InMobi: Abhay Singhal as Chief Revenue Officer, Amit Gupta, as President, North America, and Mohit Saxena as Chief Technology Officer.
‘Boys with the PPT’
During the early days of mKhoj, they were dubbed the “boys with the PPT” in the market and faced a series of rejections. But then, with the resilience and insouciance of youth, the undeterred quartet kept at it till they secured the initial funding from Mumbai Angels.
But there was no happily ever after. A year on, mKhoj was in a bad shape; it didn’t take off according to plan and it was clear that they had to evolve. “We had to look at a more scalable model and fast. We decided to move away from an SMS-based search platform to mobile advertising.” Again, there were no takers.
Says Naveen, “After multiple rejections, we were distraught. So, in mid-2008, with our maxed out credit cards and no investor to support us, we risked it all. We landed in San Francisco with a ticket on credit and a bundle of nerves. We presented our idea to KPCB (Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers) and walked out happy with our first funding breakthrough for InMobi.”
Inspirational startup story
This story has been told and retold on numerous platforms. Yet, it continues to be one of the most inspirational startup stories because InMobi remains one of the few product companies from India that went on to grow phenomenally, enough to make global giants like Google and Facebook to sit up and take notice.
In its initial years, InMobi garnered a total of $15.6 million in three rounds of funding -- $500,000 in 2007, $7.1 million in 2008 and $8 million in Series B funding in 2010. And in 2011, it raised about $200 million from Japan’s Softbank Corp. Today it is a part of the exalted Unicorn club (where a startup is valued over $1 billion) and has offices in 14 countries. The startup on its website makes bold statement, “We're not just another mobile advertising company. We are a technology powerhouse.”
Boon as well as bane
Looking back on the catalogue of failures and rejections before InMobi became big, Naveen says, “When we started in 2007-’08, mobile tech was an untouched market across the globe, which was both a boon and a bane for us. We were new in a nascent market, and not many believed in our idea. We faced multiple rejections, which wasn’t easy. After several months of trying, we got our first round of funding. But our struggle had just begun.”
Another hurdle was this was a young and untested team with no prior experience in entrepreneurship. At the time, the start-up ecosystem hadn’t yet evolved.
Chutzpah and self-belief
Did they feel like throwing up their hands and quitting? “Certainly and multiple times.” But, armed with chutzpah and self-belief, the few and rare successes en route “kept our motivation up and we persevered”.
What made him stick stubbornly to the idea of building a product company that was initially written off by VCs? Naveen’s answer is priceless: “It’s all guts; at times even to the level of foolishness.”
On a more sombre note, referring to those hard times and heartaches, he says,
“Every naa or no hits you more brutally than the one before it. You lose your confidence. Your willpower dwindles. Every step becomes so difficult that you want to quit. However, you don’t give up. You continue on the arduous journey of executing and innovating, despite all the naysayers around you. And then, when you hear a haan / yes, it gives you a high like never before. This is what an entrepreneur's journey is all about. You fail, you struggle, you change course. But, eventually your persistence pays off, and you proceed full throttle towards your next goal. Little wins along the way are all that an entrepreneur needs.”
As it nears its 10-year milestone to become a key player in the ad sector, Naveen gives us a brief overview of the challenges in the ad sector globally and where InMobi stands. Says this poster boy of the Indian entrepreneurship ecosystem, “This sector is huge, with a handful of large, successful, full-stack players at the top; but critiqued based on the many small, niche, regional players dabbling with ad tech at the bottom of the pyramid, and struggling to sustain themselves. Users today spend roughly 30% of their mobile time inside the walled gardens of FB and Google; which means they spend 70% of their time on thousands of other apps - what we like to call the ‘wild gardens’. Several brands and developers partner with us to reach and engage users outside of Google and Facebook.”
His belief in InMobi’s potential is unshakeable. “We are the only independent, mobile-first and mobile-only player who have scaled globally to reach more than 1.5 billion users. Other ad tech players started out in the desktop world and later transitioned to mobile. We are the market leader in iOS in China. As there are very few end-to-end, full stack global players, frontrunners are poised to succeed in this multibillion-dollar market. Over the years, we have seen many competitors come and go.”
Miip’s bad press
Asked to comment on InMobi’s discovery commerce (d-commerce) platform, Miip, getting bad press despite its popularity in certain markets, he says,
“The vision behind Miip is to make users fall in love with advertising. We not only want to improve the relevance of ads and enhance users’ experience but also enable consumers to buy products and complete transactions through ads. This is not an easy problem to solve. Building a world-class product takes time. The critical dialogue continues to keep us on our toes and honest to the vision we set for ourselves.”
He adds, “Stories around Miip in the media talk about how we’re struggling; yet we drive an average of 7% sales for India’s top e-commerce companies. Clearly, expectations around InMobi are high. Our teams are working harder than ever, and our challenge is to ensure that we not just meet these but also handily beat them. After all, we’re compared with the biggies because we set the standards and that’s a badge you don’t earn overnight.”
Such put-downs aren’t a big deal for this entrepreneur who believes they’re inevitable, especially when you are building a world-class company. “There are some inputs we gloss over; there are others we learn from and raise our own bar of expectations.”
As a startup run by co-founders, when asked if this factor puts it at an advantage during tough times, crises, and even during the good times, Naveen says, “Our friendship has made our business partnership even more fulfilling and successful. Being college buddies, we understand each other well. Even today, we try and meet weekly to discuss issues, which sometimes stirs an argument, just like during our college days. These arguments, countering each other’s views, have helped to strengthen our rationale, boost our confidence, and even led us to solutions and bold ideas.”
So what does it take for an entrepreneur to succeed in today’s startup ecosystem? “Startup is a state of being. Each needs to have the spirit of entrepreneurship and should be a disruptor at heart. Young entrepreneurs today need to be ready to fail, and go through enormous hardships.” Adds,
“Take any fairy tale, it is always full of failures.”
Watch the video and see how a strong resolve can make your dreams can come true.