Meet the Mavericks: the CEO of India’s first unicorn talks entrepreneurship, cricket, and dealing with rejection

No guts, no glory. YourStory’s brand new video series, Mavericks, gives you insider access into the lives of some of the country’s most successful entrepreneurs. In its season premiere, Mavericks talks to one of India’s best-known entrepreneurs, Naveen Tewari, the CEO of India’s first-ever unicorn.

A maverick is a person of incredible vision, someone who challenges the norm and forces people to think beyond the ordinary. YourStory is going behind the scenes to uncover the inspirations and secrets of the ultimate maverick in the business world: the entrepreneur.

Meet YourStory’s first Maverick: Naveen Tewari, the Founder and CEO of InMobi.

“I have a huge passion to do something different and that’s how I define myself.”

This Maverick, an IIT-Kanpur and Harvard Business School graduate, is someone everyone in India’s startup ecosystem is familiar with. His startup, InMobi, is India’s first unicorn and is instantly recognisable in India and abroad.

InMobi has disrupted advertising on mobile devices, is set to take the world of marketing, Artificial Intelligence (AI), and media by storm, and made headlines when Japan’s Softbank invested $200 million in it. But getting to the top wasn’t as easy.

Through the highs and lows, the ultimate success of the trail-blazer founders boils down to challenging the established boundaries and revolutionising the system.

InMobi Founder Naveen Tewari, along with his co-founders, made calculated and strategic bets about the mobile industry and the opportunity to tap Asian markets, where consumers were increasingly opting out of owning PCs and directly moving to mobile devices.

InMobi Founder Naveen Tewari, along with his co-founders, made calculated and strategic bets about the mobile industry.

“Innovation has been a constant theme and that has been a big pivotal reason why we are what we are today.”

This gamble ended up paying off beyond their wildest dreams as the company grew from strength to strength. Once known for mobile advertising, it has now evolved into a global provider of enterprise platforms for marketers.

A die-hard cricket fanatic, our first Maverick keeps a Tendulkar-themed meeting room in his office and manages to make a comparison between growing a startup and a test match sound cool. In the office, you’ll probably find Naveen fiddling with a cricket ball, a la Microsoft’s Satya Nadella, whose memoir he keeps on his bookshelf along with (who else) cricketer Shane Warne’s autobiography.

Early lessons

“Rejection is a thing you learn first in entrepreneurship. Nobody prepares you for rejections. The biggest thing about entrepreneurship is to deal with rejection on a constant basis and then still come out of it all right.”

Naveen Tewari has learned the ins and outs of entrepreneurship since he founded InMobi with Mohit Saxena, Amit Gupta, and Abhay Singhal in 2007. Back when the company was known as mKhoj, and focused on SMS search and monetisation, Tewari learnt his first lesson. mKhoj had raised $500,000 in its angel round from Mumbai Angels in 2007, but the company was still not taking off.

Naveen Tewari realised just how tough it was to be an early-stage entrepreneur, particularly when he was pitching his dream company to venture capitalists who just didn’t understand the vision.

“What we didn’t understand very well and which we did eventually over the next several months was the asynchronous nature of text messages, which did not lend itself well to an advertising ecosystem around it. The limitation of 160 characters was just not conducive and exciting enough for anybody.”

Even when mKhoj pivoted to the more promising InMobi, there were still no takers.

In the early days, InMobi was talking to more than 20 venture capitalists in India, and it dawned on Naveen Tewari that none of them saw the potential of the internet or mobile platforms. He realised just how tough it was to be an early-stage entrepreneur, particularly when he was pitching his dream company to venture capitalists who just didn’t understand the vision.

Naveen Tewari says that in the early phases of the company’s journey, they only had a few thousand dollars in their bank account and were about three weeks away from shutting down completely, but he and his co-founders refused to give up.

“It is hard to be confident about your own self because you are looking for validation at all points in time.”

In 2008, with maxed-out credit cards and no investor support, the gang hopped on a flight to San Francisco and laid everything on the line in a presentation to Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers. They walked out of the meeting after securing funding for InMobi.

Also read: NaaSeHaanTak: InMobi’s founder Naveen Tewari on the challenges of building a world-class company

Growing pains

InMobi currently has 1.8 billion users globally, and competes with Google and Facebook for data-driven mobile advertising. The company has more than 20 offices across the globe, and China is emerging as its largest market.

InMobi’s clients are established brand names, including Samsung, Mastercard, and Myntra. The company is seeing growth in its advanced video ad platform, and even tied up with Microsoft last year to move its platform to Azure and launch a cloud-based marketing platform aimed at enterprises.

InMobi is also betting big on its two new offerings - TruFactor and Glance. TruFactor, which was announced earlier this year, is a unit of InMobi that focuses on data management for telecom companies, and has Sprint as its first customer.

Glance is an AI-powered solution that provides high-quality, short-form content that is designed to grab the user's attention on mobile devices’ lock screens. Glance is already receiving about 81 billion (glances) views a month and has 26 million daily active users.

However, despite its rapid growth and further funding rounds, InMobi has had its fair share of tough spots. In 2016, the company had to deal with the failure of its highly-touted mobile commerce platform Miip, and in the same year, lost “Clash of Clans” game developer Supercell as a customer.

This forced the company to transform, to become more prudent, and resilient. InMobi’s measured approach saw them achieve the unimaginable - it became only the second Indian unicorn to declare profitability, and they did it in 60 days.

“We have shown the world that India can actually create a global technology company and stand on its own.”

Cricket and entrepreneurship

For inspiration, Naveen Tewari looks to the greats of technology and cricket - Steve Jobs and Sachin Tendulkar.

He takes particular inspiration from one of legendary Apple Founder Steve Jobs’ quotes: “You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.”

"Entrepreneurship is like a Test match," says Naveen Tewari, whose love for cricket is well known.

Ever since his days of playing gully cricket as a child, Tewari has been a self-proclaimed Tendulkar “fanboy”. At one time, all his passwords had some Sachin reference or the other. Tewari says he is drawn to Tendulkar’s ability to stay grounded through his failures, burdens, and pressures, and finds a lot in common between cricket and entrepreneurship.

“I connect cricket a lot to the journey of an entrepreneur. Think of the rhythm of a bowler bowling and a batsman batting. Entrepreneurship is that rhythm; you need to do it day in and day out - the output starts to change when you consistently do the right thing again and again. Entrepreneurship is like a Test match.”

Video Producer: Shivani Muthanna

Camera person: Rukmangada Raja

Video Editor: Anjali V

Content Writer: Anya George

Also read: Here’s why Naveen Tewari of InMobi wants you to 'Glance' at your smartphone. And keep looking – one lock-screen at a time