To win India, you have to win culture; And culture can mean a lot of things: Times Bridge CEO Rishi JaitlySohini Mitter
Times Group’s strategic investment arm Times Bridge is bringing a host of “internationally proven” internet businesses to India. CEO Rishi Jaitly breaks down what goes into its impact investing.
Rishi Jaitly joined Times Bridge as CEO in the fall of 2016 after successful stints at Google, YouTube, and Twitter. His last role was India Market Director and VP of Twitter’s APAC/Middle East operations.
Over the last decade, Rishi has extensively toured India, evangelised its internet ecosystem, interacted with stakeholders from the government and NGOs to businesses and sports federations, and helped them “take flight” in an increasingly interconnected world.
At Times Bridge — the global investment arm of Times Group — Rishi helps international businesses “and ideas travel evenly” to India, which is almost a buzzword in Silicon Valley. “I go to a lot of conferences where people proudly project that they have planted their flag in India. The challenge really is to show them additional possibilities,” Rishi tells us during his visit to Mumbai.
He oversees Times Bridge’s enviable portfolio of companies that include cross-category internet leaders like Airbnb, Coursera, Houzz, MUBI, Smule, Uber, Vice, Business Insider, and Thrive Global.
All these “internationally proven” businesses are looking to establish themselves in the Indian market. Rishi and his team provide them with strategic investments, operational support, counsel, consulting, and help leverage the legacy Times Group’s strong understanding of the Indian consumer.
Rishi speaks to YourStory about Times Bridge’s investing philosophy, its partner-companies, the changing digital and entrepreneurial ecosystem in India, what it takes to go beyond “superficial” market growth and the rising demand from China.
Edited excerpts from the interview.
YourStory: In the last 10 years, what has changed in the ecosystem, and the way people do business here?
Rishi Jaitly: A lot of my journey in the last 10 years has been to help global mission-driven internet platforms think differently about India. In this country, everybody has scale, but scale doesn’t necessarily mean “emerging”.
The story of Digital India is now being told. The story of mobile usage is dramatically different from two years ago. The non-English usage too is a different story. While at Twitter, I don’t recall it being a heavy topic. So, those two things are real changes.
The other thing that has changed is - there is no one button that drives consumer growth of a digital product in India. It is not just about performance marketing or localising your app or throwing in a dot-in. It is a multitude of things.
You got to think about how to work with NGOs, what is your connection with Bollywood, how to involve sports federations, how to work with the government. If you’re coming to India, you are not just thinking about sales. You have to think about how to work with telcos and these phone makers, if you are a digital business. So, there are many stakeholders. I think growth in this market requires a much wider approach and not just a dot.in.
YS: Is it now easier to sell India to established global businesses?
RJ: I think it’s a double-edged sword. If you were to talk to entrepreneurs around the world about the Indian market, they will say it is a blessing. You go to San Francisco, Stockholm, Shanghai, everybody will speak with pride about how they are doing in India, the growth they are seeing, which is great. Everybody has an initial scale in India. So, it’s easy to sell the story.
But India is more than just coming to Bombay and Delhi, doing a press release, having a brand ambassador, and saying “we are here”. In the next 5-10 years, India will have new markets coming up.
So, that to me is the fun, the challenge and the opportunity of my current business because a lot of folks feel successful in India, and feel intelligent about India. The dynamics of scale, of the English language, and openness in India have led to a scenario where market entry is much easier compared to say China, but it has led to a superficial form of market entry. So, what keeps me literally awake is to help global businesses extend past that.
You should have a mission in India, you should hire in states you haven’t thought of, you should have a vendor in the northeast doing something, you should take that meeting with the government because you don’t know what it will lead to, you should have public policy initiatives, you should talk to the entertainment industry.
That is where I want to build with my experience in India and the strength of the Times Group for entrepreneurs around the world.
YS: What does the Times Group bring to the table?
RJ: For me, it is important to tell the story of not only India but also of the Times Group. Here, you have a company founded in 1838 that is not just a legacy media business surviving and thriving but is also a digital business that has taken flight. The successes of Gaana, Magic Bricks and Cricbuzz are extraordinary. The numbers are deeply impressive. So, what the group is also sitting on is an unmatched know-how around consumer growth, scale, imagination.
YS: Talk us through your two years at Times Bridge. What have been the key takeaways?
RJ: What I have observed is that truly ambitious founders and entrepreneurs in the world are not interested in checking the ‘I am in India’ box. We only do things that involve real, high-order passion and conviction about India.
Our prime takeaway in the last two years has been to find entrepreneurs for whom India is high up in the order as a user market, a revenue market, and also a learning market. When Dara [Khosrowsahi], the CEO of Uber was here, he said to me, ‘Rishi, for me the lessons for Uber in India will spill over to other markets’.
So, our job is doubling down on entrepreneurs, brands and businesses that see India multi-dimensionally. Those are the kind of businesses we are craving to work with, and I think we are having a lot of success. We have essentially focused our portfolio on businesses we feel that alignment with. We are well-known in Silicon Valley now, and have a lot of companies coming to us seeking our counsel and involvement in India. In fact, even before Times Bridge, there were efforts at the Group to partner with global companies.
YS: So, how do you go about picking these companies? What really goes into the selection process?
RJ: There are three criteria that matter.
One, is the business proven somewhere in the world in a big way? Times Bridge is not an effort to ‘go invest in the next Google’. That’s not what we do. We’re looking for companies that are proven in their home market. So, you’re talking about later stage businesses. Second, is it a big and original idea? And third, does the business convey high-order India commitment right down from the board to the founder and management?
All I do all day is talk to people around the world about India. So, I am able to calibrate people’s sincerity of ambition about India. We are gauging their India commitment. And finally, we also look at our ability to align on a partnership construct that feels mutually exciting? If we can figure these three things out, we have a deal.
YS: And, how do you assess revenue opportunities?
RJ: We are equity investors. So, for us, we are strategic global partners. If they win, we win. If their global value grows, and India is, of course, a part of that global value, then we grow too. Each business is valued differently. For some businesses, revenue is more important in assessing the overall value. For some, it could be users, while for others, it is engagement. It depends. What we are saying is our partnership has to be at the global strategic level.
YS: The Times Bridge portfolio is an interesting mix of essentially very different companies and brands...
RJ: Well, we are sector-agnostic. Tomorrow, if a payments company were to come to me, or another B2B company or someone else doing something in healthcare, we are happy to engage. The portfolio’s collective character is a result of focussing on those three criteria before selection. I think we have a wide expertise, and we are responding to market interests. So, it just so happens that the portfolio is what it is right now.
YS: Which are the sectors you’re focusing on? Fintech is big in India… yet you don’t have a fintech property.
RJ: We work with companies that prioritise the availability of their products on digital. There is a lot of demand in the fintech space. There is interest across ideas, genres, and geographies. The lessons we are learning from one sector are very transferable to other sectors. We are focusing on all sectors right now, and are working in transportation, hospitality, music, climate, wellbeing, enterprise, education, content. And, we are going to keep the variety up.
YS: You’re also working with a lot of NGOs…
RJ: We are looking to bring global NGOs to India. Half of my career has been spent in working with NGOs. India is a huge market for the international development sector, for foundations, for social entrepreneurs. You can expect to hear some announcements soon. There’s actually no difference between an NGO and an entrepreneur. They’re just as bold and as strategic. It’s just that their revenue models are different, but the skill sets are really similar.
YS: How does a global enterprise win India? What is the secret sauce?
RJ: To win India, you have to win culture.
It is a sort of existential question: What is one’s thesis about how growth happens in India? Some might say it is product. Some say it is marketing. My view is that it is culture. I think you have to immerse your product and give it currency among the culture in India. And culture can mean a lot of things - it could be a business culture or consumer culture or language culture. That is what we bring to the table in a lot of forms.
YS: How much has Times Bridge invested in its portfolio companies so far?
RJ: We shared that our recent investment in Smule (music social network) was north of $20 million. What I can share is that example as an illustration. That is the scale at which we commit to our partners. We are looking to find a select set of partners and focus on a leader in an industry or a category.
YS: Times Bridge recently announced its first investment in China (in South China Morning Post). How similar or dissimilar are China and India?
RJ: There is a lot of demand in China now. We hired our first person focusing on China about six months ago. I am really optimistic about the relationships we have begun building there. I sense a shared commitment in both markets to moving fast, innovating, hustling, being bold and ambitious. We wouldn’t know of the regulatory struggles because we are not entering China. We don’t take products there. We are helping businesses in China to speak to the world. Our mission is the same there - to find a select few Chinese entrepreneurs.
YS: Coming back to India, what has been the biggest challenge and the biggest opportunity so far?
RJ: The biggest challenge is the nuance in the Indian market. To me, this is a profound point that is not discussed enough. Everybody achieves Phase 1 of scale here, which is fantastic. I saw that at Twitter and Google as well. The question is: Who is eager and ambitious to go past that? That’s the opportunity for us. But, that’s the challenge too. It’s not easy.
So, I go to a lot of conferences where people project that they have planted their flag in India. The challenge really is: how do you show them additional possibilities? My approach to this market has been to see beyond the initial highs. Emerging markets aren’t just about what can you do, it is also about what emerging markets can teach you. Google is a great example of that.
YS: So, how do you go about building your own team that can address these challenges?
RJ: It goes back to your earlier question on what changed between 2007 and 2018. The skill set around product growth in India has to be multi-faceted now. I look for people who are genuinely athletic and wide in their skill set. I don’t look for expertise as much as I look for capacity. I look for people who are able to think cross-functionally. It is not easy to find such talent. Viral Jani [SVP - Investment Operations] in my team is a great example. While his experience comes from the digital and media industry, he brings so much pan-India curiosity and ambition. That’s the kind of people we want to hire.
YS: There’s a phrase we hear a lot of late - impact investing. Would you say Times Bridge is into that?
RJ: Yes, you could say we are doing that. We believe in mission statements. This is not a dollars-and-cents game. It is at least a 10-year project. In 2028, what I would be most proud of showing to you is an eclectic set of brands from a diverse set of countries who have all palpably approached India with respect, with curiosity, and with attention to all 29 states. That is what drives us, this mission-driven approach to investing and partnerships. To me, I am really interested in building an institution that helps ideas travel. Times Bridge has evolved with that in mind.
YS: And lastly, do changing governments impact ventures like yours? We ask this because India’s going into Parliamentary elections next year. How do you deal with the changing political climate of a country?
RJ: India has always had an open door, especially for digital. For me, this has actually been one of the most cosmopolitan places I’ve ever lived in or visited. I have been to many places that are far more closed digitally. With all of our portfolio companies, we say it is really important to engage with the government. We pay attention to opportunities to collaborate. What’s exciting is the Indian consumer is always eager to experience and connect to the best in the world. They have displayed excitement and enthusiasm for domestic and global digital innovation. I think there’s no end in sight.