In conversation with YourStory, Divyank Turakhia speaks on how he first started up with his brother Bhavin with a small loan of Rs 25,000, and later went on to start media.net, the sale of which put him on the Forbes' list of India's billionaires.
The advertising technology company is, however, only one of the several successful, mainly bootstrapped, ventures to Bhavin and Divyank’s credit.
YourStory hosted Bhavin at TechSparks 2016, but got a chance to catch up with Divyank only recently. Still part of media.net because he loves what he does, Divyank splits his time between Dubai, San Francisco, London, Los Angeles and Mumbai. The 36-year-old with a disarming, down-to-earth approach to everything has a passion for scaling a business, and his other ventures include Flock, Zeta, and Radix. The brothers are part of Forbes’ list of India’s billionaires.
Edited excerpts of an interview.
Shradha Sharma: Divyank, I am very honoured to be talking to you. As an entrepreneur, you, if I may say so, are the most phenomenal exit story in this country. Tell me, how does it feel to be in this seat?
Divyank Turakhia: Obviously, it feels good. It’s not because of a specific transaction, I think, the journey is a lot of fun. I can say that I was as happy and as passionate when we were a two-people company, or a 10-people company, or a 20-people company, to how we grew to a 50 to a 200-people company, and we believed in everybody at that time. And now, in our history, we have hired a few thousand people.
Shradha Sharma: How do you become someone like you?
Divyank: Most people can do whatever it is they want to do, and whatever it is they want to achieve, they can achieve.
It takes a lot of effort, which is obvious, and it takes a lot of learning, and a lot of evolving, which basically means that you have to, on a weekly basis, look back and see how could I have done this better? What did I not know? What should I keep learning?
Progress doesn’t happen overnight, there is nothing like overnight success.
It’s important that you realise that whatever you start, it’s going to take you somewhere between five and 20 years to get to where you want to get to, because you are not going to get there overnight.
It doesn’t matter what age you are, you can be 50, you could be 25 - the date to start, if you ever want to start, is today.
Shradha Sharma: Your story is so remarkable, and it stands out because as you said, that you come from a very middle-class family, you weren’t born with a silver spoon…
Divyank (interjects): Came with a plastic spoon!
Shradha Sharma: Plastic spoon…paper spoon…but the thing is, where you are does not happen (easily). Like, in a country of 1.3 billion people, at your age, having the kind of exit, the kind of business that you built on your own, that doesn’t happen. What I am hearing from you is that you had that drive, and you had that curiosity from early on.
Divyank: I think a lot of people have that drive, a lot of people have that curiosity, and both of them are very important in order to succeed.
I think where people sometimes fail - everybody fails - is when they fail, they stop or they don’t learn, because if you do the same thing over and over again, you will get the same outcome.
You need to figure out how to get out of that situation, and to get out of that situation, you need to learn a lot more. Everybody can do that; obviously, if you want to do that and you don’t put in the effort, that is an obvious one. But, if don’t continue to figure out how do you tweak the formula, which needs to keep changing because change is a constant, you will keep learning to figure out how to now adapt to this environment, how to adapt to the resources I have.
When you are a two-people startup, you obviously know your co-founder really well, and you know everything about the business you are running. You will know every variable. As you continue to grow as a business, you need to continue to evolve how you manage everything. When you grow from a 200-people company to a 1,000-plus people company, to a 5,000-plus people company, again that change needs to keep coming, because as you scale, you need to know that you need to change faster, and you need to build processes to manage that. The more and more companies realise that, you will see larger companies come out of it.
Shradha Sharma: Particularly with media.net, you built this large business very quickly, it takes years, and decades, to build a company of this value...
Divyank: My first business that I started, I started with my brother. We started with $500 - it was a domain registration and hosting business. It was the most logical business to start in India at that time. The reason for that was India had 50 to 100 thousand internet users, the only two businesses that made sense for scale was either become an ISP, and help everyone in India get connected, or (believe that) everybody in India would transact using websites and (businesses) should (therefore) have an online presence.
Domain registration hosting was a scalable product business.
We consistently grew for many years. We started with 500 - 600 rupees, and then we started with 25,000 rupees, or whatever was the equivalent dollar value at that time. Eventually, in 2014, we sold it for about $160 million.
Whenever you build businesses, one of the important things while you are building them is (to) keep figuring out what can I do to make something bigger. One of the important things to help you figure out how to grow anything, or build anything, is first to identify your core strengths. You need to know what you are really good at, and you need to know what you suck at also.
I realised two businesses that made sense – one, the largest, was mass merchants, and the second business was online advertising. I started thinking about media.net in 2005, and the idea was the only way to build something larger than the industry is you understand the sector first, then you understand what is the niche within the sector that you can become big in.
Every industry vertical that you are in - you might be in autos, oil and gas, accounting, building stuff, social media, publishing, doesn’t matter…Each business vertical is generally extremely large, and within that business vertical, there are many smaller verticals of different sizes. My strategy was to pick any niche within the online advertising vertical in which I could use my core strengths.
Shradha Sharma: What you did with media.net is directly take on Google…
Divyank: Parts of the competition was Google, but we also partner with Google on many things now. That’s another interesting thing that happens with large industries - once you get to a certain size and scale, everybody works with everybody, because everybody realises that there is value in working with everybody else that has scale, because they are good at something that you can leverage, and Google, obviously, is really good at many things.
Shradha Sharma: But you would have been told by many people that …
Divyank: All the time… I have been told many things. (One was) that there is a lot of bad advice that you will get in your lifetime as an entrepreneur...You will generally get it from people who love you the most, because they have your best interests at heart. They are close to you, they are afraid for you, they are concerned about you. Only you will know enough about your industry segment because you spend more time on it.
Shradha Sharma: But you are working after the exit also.
Divyank: Yes, I love the business. I love the space and the industry.
We had grown to a point where we were the top five most profitable businesses in ad tech globally. In 2015, we got an inbound from a large US-listed company. We got bids from the US, we got bids from Europe, we got bids from China, lots of interest. Eventually, in the final round, we had seven people and we narrowed it down to this great company in China with a great management team that we really liked, and we did the transaction and I have continued to run it.
There have been so many times in my history that I have felt, ‘Oh shit! I destroyed the business’.
Just like the example that I have been talking about - when the fifth CEO came in while we were negotiating the same commercial deal that we had already signed. Pre-launch, her first reaction, we were told, was why would Yahoo! want to give its brand to anybody else which is a third-party - very fair question from her end.
Obviously, her team, as they showed her the logic in the case, it made sense, but there was a point of time where we felt ‘oh shit, is this gone!’ Have we destroyed whatever we built, and do we have to rebuild something.
Shradha Sharma: You have been following the Hindu philosophy of doing your work and not worrying about the results. And the results have been phenomenal for you.
Divyank: I would not say don’t bother about the results. Keep tracking the results and identify what you need to tweak into your strategy to make the results better.
But just because the results are bad doesn’t mean you give up or feel like, ‘Oh my God! this is the end of something’. It’s never the end of anything.
Shradha Sharma: At your position, what is your stand on paying it forward to startups, to people? Are you engaging, are you mentoring, are you investing…?
Divyank: Eventually, we want to give back everything that we built…I have always truly believed in focus.
If you do two things at a time, you are going to not give justice to either, and you will only be likely average at both.
Even if you are significantly smart, you will be slightly above average at both, but there are lots of smart people that can compete with you at whatever you are doing. If you don’t spend all your time and attention in doing that one thing, you will likely not come out to be the top X (number of) people within that space.
Today, we love building businesses and want to continue (that). At some point when we stop doing that, we will focus on giving back and there are lots of ways we have thought through that.
Shradha Sharma: You were talking about this descending order of revenue. I am very curious about that...
Divyank: If you think about it as a startup founder, there are many product philosophies that I have built over time through learnings.
One of the core ones has always been, no matter how big a company you are, or no matter how small a startup you are, you always have limited resources.
You could be a startup with 20 people and 10 developers, or you could be a Fortune 500 company in technology with a 100,000 people, but if you take a single project, it always has limited resources and you will always run out of resources, which means you could build infinite things (around) how you prioritise what to build.
The way I think of it is always prioritise in a descending order of revenue, not just for product, but for every decision that you can make and that is extremely important.
You always should know what you are building - what is that worth, and the way I think of that is, and I have said this before, if you are building something, a lot of people will go to a customer and ask, ‘I am building this, do you think it’s cool?’ Almost 90 percent of the times the customer is going to tell you, ‘Oh this is so cool.’
‘Do you think you will use it?’ They will tell you, ‘Absolutely, I will use it.’
‘Do you think you need it?’ They will tell you, ‘Absolutely, I will need it.’
You are asking the wrong question. The right question is, ‘How much will you pay for it if I give it to you?’ And if they don’t pay for it, or they don’t want to pay for it, that’s the wrong thing to build. That might be cool to build, but it doesn’t make you anything.