Neena Budhiraja on her learning at Ola and Google


I caught up with Neena Budhiraja, Director of Product Management, Growth at Ola, at this year’s edition of TechSparks. Neena had a long stint at Google Mountain View (global headquarters) before moving back to India to join Ola.

Neena loves creating tech products that solve the basic necessities of people seamlessly, saving time that can be devoted elsewhere. At Ola, she has led customer and driver growth initiatives to contribute to the rapid and sustainable scaling of the cab business.

Ola is known for launching several new and innovative products like Ola Cafe, Ola Store, Ola Shuttle, Ola Outstation and Ola Rental over and above the point-to-point pick up and drop that makes up the company’s core business.

There is generally a mind block that a customer has to overcome in order to move from a current product to a new one that might be superior but requires the user to step out of his or her comfort zone.

Neena feels that discounts and price cuts are the easiest way to get people to try out a new product. “Unfortunately, that’s the economy we live in. So we often resort to pricing strategies when launching a new product. But the best way to get a user base for something new is if your product is so good, and if you are solving a problem for the customer that is so innately frustrating for him, then he is hooked.”

Other effective ways to make a new product work is word of mouth or getting the endorsement from another trustworthy service provider. An example would be YouTube getting endorsed by Google, or the endorsement of a celebrity. The team has to brainstorm and decide what works best.

Neena’s stellar stint at Google started as a financial analyst, but she was soon appointed as Display Ads Chief of Staff, thanks to the growth spurt era of the company. She was managing annual strategies and later took over as the Product Manager for the brand display ads, essentially being a key member in the direct response advertisement division of Google.

I quiz her about what Indian startups can learn from one of the most admired employers of the tech world, as she is somebody who was an insider. According to Neena, the answer is threefold:

  • Google has really cracked the way to make every last engineer or sales person feel ownership of the problem. She feels that all organisations, irrespective of being Indian or not, can learn from Google. Indian startups still have a bit of top-down culture, where the lower rung is not used to taking up ownership.
  • Innovation is not a luxury, but a necessity for Google. They can afford to invest a lot of time and money on innovative new products and processes. Indian startups need to solidify their revenue base such that they have the liberty to diversify in multiple directions. Indian startups tend to focus on scale and not sustainability.
  • Neena also feels that India is not lacking in talent. She says, “Ola is solving the same problems as Uber. But Indian work culture needs to develop the Google mentality of asking the question – ‘How can we make something good even better?’

The general Silicon Valley culture is worth learning from - from distancing oneself from day to day details to think of the big picture, to going beyond ensuring one’s team is meeting the work goals to seeing to it that the team is eating healthy and working out, making the organisation a wonderful place to work just requires a bit of thought. After all, founders and employees of startups are responsible for defining the culture of companies, and the Indian startup ecosystem has the potential to easily match up to international standards.


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