[Podcast] Naveen Tewari on building InMobi as a global leader in mobile advertising
We continue with the #InsightsPodcast series with a path-setter: Naveen Tewari, Co-Founder and CEO of Inmobi, India’s first unicorn. Naveen started a product company at a time when most people weren’t thinking about it, went global and cracked the China market, and is now starting a group of companies under Mobi.
In this podcast, he shares a number of great lessons for first-time founders, from how to go through pivots successfully and the role that co-founders play in maintaining morale in an organisation, to scaling internationally and building a culture that is deeply enriching for the employees who’re part of your startup journey.
Naveen kicks things off by talking about the three businesses under InMobi Group: InMobi Marketing Cloud, Glance, and TruFactor. InMobi Marketing Cloud, the group’s business that everyone associates the brand with and that has been built over the last decade, has a strong presence across the US, China, and the rest of the world.
The second business, Glance, is an AI-led content discovery platform at screen zero (i.e, the lock screen) that hopes to change the way content is consumed on mobile platforms. The third business, TruFactor, is a platform for data scientists, a bet on a future where data will drive business strategy, oftentimes requiring data scientists to solve complex decision-making problems for the company.
Rewinding back to the early days, Naveen talks about being born in an intense academic environment with many family members taking up teaching roles at IIT, and how he took a whole different path of joining management consulting instead of the expected PhD or exploring further studies.
Post three years at McKinsey, Naveen did his MBA at Harvard Business School, which he calls “the most pivotal two years” of his life, enabling him to go beyond the restrictive thinking of a middle-class boy by establishing belief in his own abilities and that anyone can do big things in life.
After business school, Naveen dabbled in the startup world for a couple of years before starting a venture in the SMS-based search business only to realise that the world was headed towards internet usage with mobiles becoming more prevalent.
He speaks about how this phase, before hitting upon the final idea that led to success, was a very tough one - beset with societal pressure and self-doubt. The failures brought in lots of personal learning, but the phase was nevertheless a painful one, especially in the first two years when Naveen didn’t have co-founders.
He adds, “Always have a co-founder because you know in these journeys there are a lot of low moments. Actually, most of them are low moments and the co-founder’s job is not to really go ahead and hit you on strategy. It’s far more important for a co-founder to bring you out of these moments that you are constantly in, and vice-versa.”
On the early days of InMobi, Naveen talks about how he saw the need for businesses to invest in advertising systems once internet became prevalent, and this is the use case that they went after. They quickly realised that India was a small market at the time and expanded to Asia, before going global. The first markets that they entered were the ones where they garnered contacts in, expanding from one new market to another, solving for the immediate next step that was planned out for the next 6-12 months.
Testing the waters – China calling
Elaborating on international expansion, Naveen says that a good strategy for today’s times would be to build momentum by being in a market where one can have natural advantage, like the Southeast Asian, Middle East, or China market, before venturing into advanced markets like the US, which are the biggest but also the most competitive.
Talking about the key to success in international expansion, Naveen says,
“The only way to really build a global business is to have local people in those markets. Being able to attract local people in those markets becomes very important. The reality is that your success and failure of a market is not a function of your strategy or the competition or anything; it is singularly based on the leadership team that you are able to put together in that market.”
One of the phenomenal feats for InMobi was cracking the China market, one that is seen as almost an impossible task by many. Naveen shares how they saw the bright side to the opportunity as it was the second largest market in the world, where the biggest global competitors are unlikely to enter and one only needs to fight it out against the local competition. Today, China contributes to a quarter of InMobi’s business (listen to more on how they cracked the China market in the podcast).
The radical InMobi work culture
On the fantastic team culture that they’ve built at InMobi, Naveen talks about how they went through ups and downs before redefining the culture, built on the core belief of the team from initial days - ‘trust’.
They did away with performance tracking and gave 100 percent bonus to everyone across the organisation and also removed restrictions around reimbursements and leaves. Rather than using performance management systems to generate report cards, they focussed on truly caring about the employee’s growth by introducing growth conversations and allowed people’s aspirations to drive their performance.
This worked in InMobi’s favour to an extent that they announced a new co-founder in 2017, Piyush who grew internally within InMobi.
“We’re building a cultural environment where we think of ourselves as a fierce clan that is together to win. That's very important at the end of the day because it just cannot be that you're together without the intention of winning,” he says.
The importance of meeting people
Like every episode, we end on a note of personal growth. Naveen talks about the importance of keeping up with the company’s growth, learning from failures, having a learning mindset, having mentors, and most importantly going out and meeting people.
“Meeting people that you know and that you respect can tell you something interesting and picking those anecdotes from people or your peers, people who have done this in the past, spending time with them is very important. Subjecting yourself to new environments will give you access to different perspectives and all this builds up as you meet more people. It is just phenomenal.”
Tune in to listen to Naveen talking about his early days, the work culture at InMobi, and the importance of pursuing constant growth by meeting people and experiencing new things:
Anand Daniel is a seed/early stage venture investor with Accel Partners.
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)
(Edited by Evelyn Ratnakumar)