With right crypto regulations, India could be the next financial hub on a global stage, says Coinbase CPO Surojit Chatterjee

Surojit Chatterjee, the Chief Product Officer (CPO) of Coinbase, who is an ex-Googler and Flipkartian, spoke at length about his journey as a product manager, his role at Coinbase, crypto opportunity in India, and more.
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In February 2020, when Surojit Chatterjee made a move to Coinbase, the biggest US crypto exchange, little did he know that in 15 months, his wealth would rise to nearly Rs 5,000 crore (or $646 million). 

The Chief Product Officer (CPO) and an ex-Googler and Flipkartian, his Coinbase stake was worth about $180.8 million after its first day of trading on Nasdaq on April 14, 2021. He’s also set to receive share options within the next five years that are currently worth about $465.5 million, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

“The crypto industry feels very much like the early internet days of the mid ’90s. So much to build and so early, and so much opportunity to disrupt technological, traditional industries and make people's lives better. And that's what inspires me, I've always done things that have had a massive impact,” Surojit tells Gautam Gandhi, Partner at RG Advisors in a recent conversation at India Internet Day.

Growing up in a middle-class family in a small town in India, Surojit’s idea of changing his life was through education. This took him to the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Kharagpur (B.Tech Computer Science), University at Buffalo (MS) and MIT Sloan School of Management (MBA). His career spans both engineering and product domains while playing leading roles at organisations like Oracle, Google, and Flipkart.

In his conversation with Gautam, Surojit deep-dived into his role at Coinbase, journey as a product manager, stints at Google and Flipkart, industry trends, government regulations on crypto, and more.

Edited excerpts:

The early days

Surojit actually never saw a computer until he went to college. 

“I think I probably saw some computers during the railway reservation. And it was kind of serendipitous. I was very good at math, and some people advised me, ‘Hey, you should try computer science.’ I didn't really know what it was. But I fell in love with it. After I joined college and started programming, I just loved it,” he said.

At IIT Kharagpur, he did his Masters in Computer Science and then headed to the US with a scholarship from one of the universities there. He then worked at Oracle.

“I loved being in the (Silicon) Valley, because of this entrepreneurial energy that I've always enjoyed around me. At that time, I started feeling a little restless that I should do something more and get some more skills. So, I decided to quit my job and went for a Master of Business Administration (MBA) at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT),” he added.

However, he couldn’t complete the degree and joined Google as Product Manager in the payments domain.

“This was entirely new for me. But I started a small team of two or three people working on mobile advertising. At that time, mobile advertising was not even a thing. So that turned out to be a good idea. Mobile just kept growing. And my team kept growing. So lots of interesting work, innovation, and I am very proud of the team that I built at Google,” he added. 

Later, when he saw the growth of mobile in India and the rise of companies like Flipkart and Ola, he came back to India and joined Flipkart as Head of Product in 2015.

“How do you build a product for a billion-plus people in a country where a lot of the infrastructure for ecommerce was still not there. I loved that challenge,” he recalled. 

Gaining belief in cryptocurrency

It was in 2016 when Surojit was working with Flipkart that demonetisation happened. 

“It was a surprise for everyone. It was a huge challenge for our business (Flipkart) because most of our business was cash on delivery. Plus, at a personal level, it was a huge challenge for people like my dad, who was in the small town and never used a credit card or debit card,” he reminisced.

It was during this time that he started doing some research on bitcoin and took the plunge into buying bitcoin. Over the years, he continued buying cryptocurrency. Thus, in 2019, when he started talking to Coinbase, he got excited about the opportunity and where the company is. 

“Google ads helped democratise advertising for billions of people across the world, and Flipkart made it easy for a billion Indians to shop online. Coinbase has a similar opportunity and continues to feel that way. So that's what got me into crypto and Coinbase in a big way,” he added

Crypto opportunity for India

Surojit believes this is a very exciting time in India in terms of having a rising startup ecosystem and a community of developers as crypto moves into the utility phase.

According to him, crypto can create access to financial services to a lot of Indians, and not just Indians but globally.

“I think specifically for India, what could happen is, particularly for small businesses, you can suddenly access a global pool of capital not just from Indian citizens. If you can tokenise your business, for example, you can raise money, raise funding for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in India from global investors.

Also, there is now an active community of developers and entrepreneurs in India who are creating a lot of value, wealth, and employment in this space.

“I think if India puts the right regulations, it will only help this industry grow. This could be the next big thing. If India encourages innovation and entrepreneurship in digital finance and crypto, India could be the next financial hub on a global stage,” he added.

When asked if he thinks crypto is a bubble or here to stay, he pointed out we have only built less than 1 percent of what could have been built. Probably even a lot less than 1 percent. So, these are very, very early days.

He further emphasised on the fact that decentralised finance is actually building stuff that is disrupting finances and offering lots of opportunities for entrepreneurs to build.

“I would say, if you are a young entrepreneur, fresh out of college and thinking about what to do, get some lessons on how to code on blockchain and do solidity coding, and learn about what's happening in all these different projects,” he added.

On crypto regulations in India, Surojit believes that right and thoughtful regulations can help the industry grow. 

“Having consistent guidelines will help even the playing field for all the players in crypto. For India, and other countries, the US included, there is an opportunity to go deeper into this technology and see how this technology can help make financial systems even better and more efficient,” he added.

Advice for product managers

Surojit shares that one of the biggest challenges in his early years of career was the function of the product was not very well-developed in the country.

“There were very few product managers that I could hire to begin with. So, we actually hired a lot of folks and trained them. I remember I wrote the entire product carrier ladder and framework because even the definition of Product Manager was not clear,” he said. 

Product managers of today should think through where they are in their career at what stage, seek out interesting challenges, take risks and imbibe a passion to learn new things without thinking about things like titles and compensation, advised Surojit.

The second thing is to focus on building skills and having empathy with customers: Learning from others, inspiring people with your vision and being flexible to go into the details are the other things to remember.  

He further added that at Coinbase, two of the main cultural tenets are repeatable innovation and efficient execution. So people who succeed at Coinbase are the people who can try and have the tenacity to come up with innovative solutions to customer problems. And then they will kind of get into the details and efficiently execute. 

“That's kind of what a product manager is. You have to operate at a wide range of spectrum. People who succeed are people who are able to learn on the job and teach themselves or are self-taught. And I'll say, finally, look for great mentors. That has always been the case for me. Like I've always sought out mentors, who have helped me through my journey,” he signed off.
Edited by Sanhati Banerjee