INSIGHTS #25 — Kunal Shah — Cred shares anecdotes from his entrepreneurial journey

In this edition of the #InsightsPodcast series, we are joined by Kunal Shah, Founder and CEO of Cred, and Founder and former CEO of Freecharge.

Freecharge was part of the first wave of ecommerce startups in the country, along with the likes of Flipkart and Paytm. It was acquired for $450 million by Snapdeal in 2015, making it the biggest startup M&A in the Indian startup ecosystem at the time.

In the podcast, Kunal starts off with talking about his early days, and how he started working at the early age of 15 to help his family tide over a financial crisis. He juggled a full-time job while pursuing a bachelor’s degree in philosophy (which he chose based on class timings given his work commitments) and some freelance work in the evening, making him financially independent at a very young age.

He talks about his journey from a being a freelance designer and programmer to building a small SaaS company that pivoted many times to eventually become Freecharge. After the acquisition of Freecharge, Kunal had a couple of stints in investing, before deciding to start up again in 2018 with Cred.

In true entrepreneurial spirit, Kunal jokes about how he has done almost everything under the sun — from selling music CDs and mehendi, to running a SaaS business and even a BPO company. He also had a laptop import business for a while before finding his calling with ecommerce.

On how he achieved the product market fit for FreeCharge, Kunal says it started with the simple idea of offering a mobile top-up (which was the largest selling product at the time) free of charge to draw enough customers on the platform to potentially build a business. This was very much on the lines of the ‘loss leader strategy’ adopted by grocery stores to attract footfall. Kunal says he saw big opportunity in the mobile recharge space, which had a use case for 99 percent of the population who were on the verge of getting comfortable with online transactions, thanks to IRCTC.

That, along with reduced interest among merchants who were selling mobile recharges offline due to diminishing margins, made it a no brainer for these transactions to move online. As Kunal puts it rather nicely, “I saw recharge as the gateway to a transacting India.”

He calls himself a mediocre founder who found a great product market fit, and adds, “Terrible product market fits, even with the greatest founders, can never create value. Fighting headwinds never creates value, you only burn fuel.”

In the podcast, Kunal also talks about how it is challenging to get investors and team members on board when dealing with original ideas that do not have any global models to serve as comparables. Interestingly, it is these original ideas that have disproportionate wealth creation opportunities.

Kunal also gives the listeners a glimpse of the philosopher in him as he explains how platforms with a high frequency of transactions almost always win because the trust and habit built over many transactions enables such categories to expand faster in a mistrust democracy like India.

He also speaks of his famous Delta 4 theory, which encapsulates the need for new products to create significant delta in value creation for the customer through superior product/ service experience, making the switch from old behaviour to new behaviour irreversible, instead of giving massive discounts to infuse the delta in value creation for customers which is not sustainable without systematic change in consumer behaviour .

Answering a few questions from the audience, Kunal shares some words of wisdom for fellow entrepreneurs to succeed in a rapidly changing world. “Founders that try to fit in don’t raise the bar. So, if you want to be an outlier, don’t try to fit in.”

Accel shares such interesting entrepreneurial stories, with informative nuggets to run and scale your startup. Follow the links below and subscribe to our #Accel #INSIGHTSPodcast Series using the following links: iTunes, Google Podcast, Stitcher, Twitter@Accel_India, and the RSS feed.

Below, we’ve shared an edited transcript of the conversation with Kunal.


Anand: Hi, welcome to the Insights Podcast series from Accel. I’m your host Anand Daniel. We’re continuing our series on founder scaling. Today, as my guest I have Kunal Shah with me. He’s a successful serial entrepreneur and comes from a very non traditional background and has a very interesting story to share with us. He’s also a successful angel investor as well as he was a partner at Y Combinator based out of India for a short period of time. We also managed to squeeze in a few questions from the audience which I was able to crowd source through twitter. So hope you enjoy this podcast. Let’s dive right in.

Anand: Great. We’ll start with your journey. For the few in the audience who might not know your journey, start out from maybe from your college days, whatever you want. You’re a college dropout.

Kunal: Sure. I’m a very old founder, I’m 39 years old. I would say fairly old for a lot of the younger lot, but I actually started working probably at the age of 15 or so. The primary reason for doing that was not because I wanted to, my family went through some serious financial crisis and I had no choice but to work to take care of the family. I have been doing multiple things since then, I had to pursue my education in philosophy and not in science because that was the only class I could actually go and attend and I used to do a full-time job, and I used to do a lot of freelance activities in the evening to take care of money.

I think I have been financially independent from 15. If you ask me what my work experience is, probably 39 minus 15, that’s been a work experience of 24 years. I’m a fairly old person from work experience perspective. I think that helped to shape a lot of things, I did my philosophy major then I was involved with a bunch of young internet companies back in the day. I used to be a freelance designer and a programmer, then built a small SaaS company, pivoted that into a BPO company, then pivoted that to a marketing solutions company, moved on. Marketing solutions company became a cash back promotions company, which was called PaisaBack and then got that into Freecharge.

Freecharge was exited in 2015. In the middle of that I also attempted to do MBA which I dropped out in two semesters. I also spent a bunch of time like you said with Y Combinator, I was a part time partner with them for a year. I was also with Sequoia Capital for a year and then decided to start up again. 2018 is when I started Cred. A bunch of experiences I’ve done anywhere from selling music CDs to selling Mehendi, to doing SAS, to running a BPO company, to having a laptop import company, doing e-commerce too a bit, I think I’ve done almost all internet businesses in some form or the other. Not very successful in many cases but have had a taste of almost everything.

Anand: You had a big exit in Freecharge, well congrats. That’s a very varied set of experiences. The whole purpose of this series is to learn from people like you, on your journey and maybe we’ll start with the Freecharge one. What were some of the key learnings: you pivoted a number of times on the product market fit? If you reflect back, what were the key learnings from that journey? Maybe for the few in the audience who don’t know, who haven’t used Freecharge, you can talk about how you found that product market fit and some learnings from there.

Kunal: Sure. Freecharge was something I started in August 2010. At that point of time, I did not have any e-commerce background or payments background. For me, it was a simple idea that if you took the largest selling product of the country, that is mobile top-up, and made that free, then everybody will come and if you can get everybody, you can potentially do anything on top of that. It was like the loss leader strategy that a grocery store does, where they sell the milk for a lower cost and hope for the people to come and therefore, be able to buy groceries from there. For me, recharge was that: a single product that was used by 99% of India. At that point of time, only 1% of people were recharging online. I observed that people had already started doing railway tickets booking online, so maybe few lakh transactions were already happening on railway tickets online but recharge was maybe 10,000–20,000 transactions at that point of time.

I realized that the reason for that is that a lot of people can get recharge very easily. They can walk up to a shop, maybe 100, 200 meters and get a lot of these things done. What had happened is that systematically, by that time, because the telco penetration had gone through that much of a level, we had reached a point where margins had disappeared from recharge. The offline guys were not too interested in selling that product anymore because they would probably barely make a ₹1 or less on that product and they would not be interested in servicing that customer. I realized that it was a great opportunity to create a transaction platform that would probably have more transactions.

I think it’s a very simple thing to think about. Will people recharge online first or buy shirts online first? If you can answer that recharge is the first thing, it looked like a perfect product to start with. That was the idea behind it. I did not think about e-commerce and payments at that point of time. I just realized that recharge was the gateway to transacting India. I went ahead and reached out to Master, Visa and a lot of people to tell them that this was the next big thing and obviously, nobody believes you because recharge as a category is not something that you copy from the west.

FreeCharge is an original idea where we give equal value coupons for the amount you recharge. FreeCharge at that point of time was probably the only original idea that came out of India. I think Redbus was another one. I would say that it made sense only for India. You had no global models to copy from. To me, that worked as a great platform. I learned a lot from that. When we exited the company, we were close to almost touching a million transactions a day, which was significantly higher than probably companies like Flipkart or any of the other companies at that point of time because the frequency of these transactions was a lot more than what people would do for other goods per say.

Long story short, after that, in the top 500 apps in India, around 200 were recharge apps and obviously, we saw someone like Paytm capitalize on the idea much better because they could get a lot more cash, get a lot more access to talent. I struggled, being a philosophy major and not having a strong tech company background. Before, I always struggled to hire people. I remember, almost begging people to come and consider FreeCharge. I would actually take them to my server, show them the live dashboard to make them believe that we actually do so many transactions a day. Nobody would believe that. I have taken so many senior candidates to our board meetings to make them believe that this is all real. It was the perfect Trojan Horse and obviously now, fast forward you see even today the top payment companies, 70% or 80% of transactions are still recharge, right? I think that to me was a good insight.

Obviously, we did not capitalize on it as much as we should have, but at least we were glad that we could build that company and I think even when the company was sold, at least the number of transactions and that whole GMV value had almost doubled or tripled by that time. It means we are at least happy for the company too. It still continues to do a large volume of transactions even today, even though it does not have the same level of capital intensity that other players have right now.

I think lots of learnings, one big learning I would say is that one should always expect nobody to believe that you have an original idea that will work, right? You cannot have hard feelings for somebody because people are used to seeing stuff in the West and China and saying, “Okay, this makes sense, and this is like that” but wealth creation opportunities are also disproportionate for original ideas because nobody’s doing that.

Anand: I want to double click on some of these points I noted down. The reason I want to go into some of these is, we’re seeing more and more of these characteristics. One is, it’s very unique to India, second is, you talked about a lot of transactions but very low either margins or very low EBITDA potential down the road. High frequency but lower margin. The third one was you being a Philosophy Major. I’m a firm believer you can come from any background or from a Major even if it’s not STEM. Even if you’re from STEM but from an unknown college, it is the same. We as Accel try to be agnostic, let me put it that way. I’d love to hear from the entrepreneur’s point of view, any advice.

Kunal: I think in the world we’re living right now, education background probably is not a good enough signal unless you are trying to clone an idea. I’ll tell you why I’m saying that. It’s like cracking a curriculum. These founders do extraordinarily well when the goal has been defined. They are probably the perfect missiles that exist because they have cracked their entrance exam by passing against millions of people who have applied in that year because they know how to crack a finite problem really, really well.

Therefore, it also becomes their curse to find original ideas because they are designed to hit a target. They are wired to hit a target. If you say that it will also make the target to hit, then it’s a very different problem, right? This is like, there are guys who can make the masterpieces and there are guys who can make unlimited copies of the masterpieces and scale it like nobody’s business. I think there is value in some of these things. I think therefore, we’ve not seen as many original ideas. The reason we don’t see original ideas is because they come from original insights. Original insights come from being interested in humans and human behavior almost at a deep core level. I have seen better insights come from stand-up comedians than founders. In fact, I believe that most founders should go to stand-up comedians to understand original insights and then kind of make sense of that and how do you make a business model out of it? I remember going to a stand-up comedy once.

There’s a stand-up comedian who told me that there was a time when I used to request to rickshawallas by pushing my hand up and he would just ignore and drive away. Now I press a button, a car comes and not only the car comes, there’s an AC in that car. By the time from Borivali I reach Bandra I’ve got an accent. There’s such an important insight that you’re making such a delta shift in the consumer behavior.

You’re not thinking from a consumer’s perspective because you just copied. Let’s say, if you just think from Uber’s perspective it’s not a delta change. For Indians it is a delta changr where we were haggling with rickshaw guys, trying to get the best price and convincing the guy to go to the destination we want them to. We’ve come so far that we just use it like a utility that never mattered just eight years ago.

Anand: I want to stick to that for a second. Let’s take Uber’s example. I invested in TaxiForSure. When I invested in TaxiForSure, Uber was in a no-name company. My model was FastTrack in Chennai, which is doing through the phone call booking. Some of these later become something where X or Y is the Uber. When we originally invested that wasn’t there, like Uber wasn’t big.

For many founders, there is no equivalent you can point to originally, when you start out but as you continue on, do you need that to be able to be successful or do you know of enough examples where it’s purely Indian and it’s taking off and global investors are able to come and invest a lot more?

Kunal: If you think about how Freecharge/Paytm did, they was no precedence of recharge as a way to spread the customer payments behavior and then do other things. We forget that Paytm did not just become a payments company. It was a mobile recharge company just like Freecharge for at least probably three-four years before it turned into anything else.

I think you have to understand and be patient about it. For example, if you guys or others had held onto RedBus hypothetically, could it have become a bigger travel company? 100%. The bus was the Trojan to kind of do more things. A lot of times we do not think of life that way. We think of things point in time and it’s hard to predict future but there are some patterns that continue to win.

The patterns that continue to win is that I haven’t seen a platform that has high frequency of transactions not do well. High-frequency results in trust and habit. High-frequency creates trust because it’s a human wiring. When you see something multiple times you try and create more trust on top of it and because of that, for them to do cross-sell or upsell is much easier.

It comes from the core understanding of the market. India is a mistrust society. We forget one thing that India is 25 countries put together to become one country and therefore we find neutral platforms to create trust. For example, this podcast is in English. We found neutral platforms to come together. Therefore, in a country that has mistrust, you will see concentration of trust on neutral platforms. I’ll give you a small example. You will not see conglomerates emerge in trusting emerging nations, like you will not see a Tata in the US because trust is fairly decentralized to the government. Over here that trust is centralized in brands.

Therefore, you will see a Tata launching from a salt, to car, to potentially air conditioning company and they will be successful because there is a concentration of trust. You will see conglomerates emerge in most trust nations. You will see nepotism do really well. For example, you will trust the celebrities’ kids for a new movie versus a new guy. You will probably also have super apps in mistrust nations because mistrust nations also results in concentration of trust.

If tomorrow Swiggy is going to launch stores, you should not be surprised if 25% of GMV suddenly starts coming from that because this has happened for every other super app. I have been investor in Gojek. I have seen that for some time that categories expand faster when you have trust. To me, all the founders and investors who have a US bias have a massive disadvantage, because they’re trying to force fit and Indianize. It’s like trying I want burger but let me make an Aloo Tikki burger out of it instead of saying that I don’t need the burger maybe.

I always thought I’m a mediocre founder who became successful. I was looking at people who were really smart who are not successful and I’m like, “Why does that happen?” Then I realized that great product market fits even with mediocre founders, create a lot of value but terrible product market fits, even with the greatest founders can never create value. Like fighting headwinds has never created value, it only burns fuel. How do you constantly find tailwinds is the other quest that I was into and I came up with a framework.

To be able to predict success of a startup. I think it was more to help the founders understand how things work. I mean the insights actually came from biology. Like when do species wipe out other species? (when they’re in a limited land) What is the dynamics of that. There’s a lot of research on that. Galápagos Island where this was studied: it was observed that the monitor lizards of a certain type when they came to islands. This A type, which was built with less resources. When the islands merged, they just wiped out the other lizards from resources because they could multiply faster. You should think companies are also like species and you’re constantly fighting for the resources that are existing. Even though wealth is not here, somebody can suck out a lot more wealth. I realized that there is a framework and that to me was most interesting is that humans are the only species which can claim that there was nothing more efficient 10 years ago.

If you ask a lion what was more efficient for you 10 years ago, they’ll say life is almost the same. They are waiting for evolution to make them more efficient, but humans are the ones which are constantly finding tools and technologies to become more efficient. If I asked you, “What is more efficient 10 years ago?”, the answer is you would probably not answer a single thing. All the efficient stuff is in the future. All the inefficient stuff is in the past. If this is true, how do you use that framework to predict startup success? I came up with a framework which says that you measure ideas based on old and new behavior, and measure it against a score of efficiency. If I asked you a score: This is perfect time to ask this question. If I asked you a score of let’s say Meru or Fast Track out of 10, give me a score for old behavior, and give me a score for new behavior.

Anand: Old is two. New one is probably nine.

Kunal: Two and nine, when the Delta is greater than or equal to four, three things happen. It’s an irreversible behavior. Every time humans discover a delta 4, they never go back to the old behavior. Number two is that there’s very high tolerance for the delta 4 behavior. Even if Uber messes up with their maps or whatever, you’ll not say, “Oh shit. I’m going to go back to Meru.” You’ll never do that. Third thing is UBP: Unique Bragworthy Proposition. Humans love to brag when they discover delta 4 products. These companies don’t require advertising. For example, I give an example of Truecaller, 100 million DAU, does not spend any money on advertising. It is a true delta 4 product for people. Based on original insight, this did not come from India. A lot of times, delta 4 companies therefore don’t require this. Let me give you another example. If I asked you what is your score for buying shirts online, or buying shirts off-line. Give me a score out of 10 Anand.

Anand: I would say six for buying offline.

Kunal: And online is?

Anand: Roughly the same.

Kunal: Roughly the same?

Anand: Yes.

Kunal: What you observe is Delta is close to zero. If it’s close to zero, it is an irreversible behaviour. One bad experience online, you’ll never try it again. It is low tolerance for the same reason, and there’s no brag-worthiness in that. Therefore what these companies do: let’s say the shirt online companies is to start giving massive discounts to infuse the Delta, which are not sustainable. You’ve systematically not changed the behavior.

Uber can give you one-time discount, and still you’ll never go back to the old behavior. If discount creates irreversible behavior, they’re sustainable. If discounts create a reversible behavior, then we destroy wealth. When I proposed this framework many years ago, Google Allo had launched. I had done a live audience delta 4 test of that, and the Delta came out to be -1 for most people and their product died in a year’s time. That’s the maximum I’ve got to testing some of these things. I have not found an example that does not follow this principle.

Anand: It’s very specific to people. My wife will kill me for this. For her, online shopping is good.

Kunal: Perfect. This is great. For her, it is very important to not appear in the same clothes like other people. Let’s say Anand, if I had worn the same shirt as you, you would be extremely happy that we’re wearing the same shirt. Women function differently. That’s the core insight. Therefore, they would find more and more obscure places to buy stuff, so that they can appear to be different from other people. Therefore, for them it is delta 4. Food delivery for some of us is delta 4 . Moment we take it to our distant cousin or our dads, it’s not delta 4 because they order from the same two restaurants, same four dishes. Sometimes there’s a lot of false signals of the market that you get by the early traction and you will see, “Wow, there’s insane amount of retention. Cohorts are just firing away.” According to me, e-commerce is not delta 4 for more than 40 million people in this country.

Anand: It is very specific to the target audience, right? It’s more inside that delta 4 for the set or subset of the audience. It’s the key from entrepreneurs listening. The reply in this framework especially, it doesn’t matter whether it’s consumer or who your customer is, right? As a human being, it’s a very interesting insight. You need to take that, and then probably apply it to that particular subsegment, and then see how much value creation opportunities still exist.

Kunal: For example, I’ve always felt that people who have double income and who are migrants love grocery startups because it’s delta 4 for them because they can’t speak the local language or can’t communicate, so they struggle to do groceries over here. For people who have double income, they are struggling with time. For them, online groceries is a great delta 4 for that. For the rest of us, I don’t know if you know, but 90% of our Indian women don’t work. For them, the only time to go out is for groceries. If you take that away from them, is this delta 4 for them? The answer is no. For me, a lot of times they make the mistake of estimating the market size by looking at the first million customers behaviors.

Anand: The first million by itself could be okay as long as the market is large enough.

Kunal: Correct. You will see that companies go horizontal much quicker in this country because the depth of the market is just not there.

Anand: The philosopher in you is coming out in these. [Laughs] So, you sit and think about these, or how do you- especially for people who are saying, “I want to start.” How did you go about this?

Kunal: Philosophy comes from the word “philo” and “sophos”. Philos means love, and sophos is knowledge. The core premise of philosophy is seeking truth. A lot of people are not very comfortable seeking truth because sometimes things take them to very uncomfortable zones. Sometimes your own business model looks stupid to you if you start seeking truth. Therefore, a lot of people just avoid it. I’ve also seen people who are not truth seeking are really easy to offend because they have no knowledge about themselves, therefore they get shaken very quickly. I think truth seeking is almost compulsory. I’ve not seen a single super successful founder who is not a philosopher.

They are all truth seekers, right? They are very comfortable with uncomfortable truth. Philosophy is not some Gyaani Baba stuff over here, it’s about seeking truth.

Anand: Can you talk about how you apply that as you build a company whether it be practical things like team building, product etc. I can almost think of it, but I just would love to hear your thoughts.

Kunal: When you get to good insights, you realize that you can build elegant solutions. Without getting good insights, you’ll always have inefficient solutions. Study a predator in nature, they’re not crazy. They’re actually very smart. They don’t burn energy. Therefore, you would see, they don’t need running around fighting, they already have a watering hole. They have the deadliest bite. According to me, philosophy allows you to find the watering holes, and have deadliest bites, but do not expect elegance. There’d be lot of times — We celebrate Sachin, but let’s say measurement of success in cricket was number of calories burnt per run, maybe Dravid will win. We don’t expect that. We love the machoism of founders and doing all these crazy stuffs. Elegant solutions are not appreciated. I think that allows one to find good places. I don’t believe in fail fast. I believe in plan better, get close to good insights and then go after it. Once you go after it, have the deadliest bite.

Anand: Deadliest bite, and you also talk about being open to the truth, as a philosopher. If you look back on FreeCharge, how have you applied that? What are some of the truths that is not obvious to you, but took some time to learn.

Kunal: I think first of all when you’re a first time entrepreneur, you think that people know more than you. It’s just completely not true. A lot of times, because we meet investors who have done multiple investments, you assume that they know better than you. Second learning I’ve had is that it’s important to understand what is culture. A lot of times we think of culture as something that do not evolve. It’s not that. It’s about what you do almost on a daily basis, and how do you handle that in the early team and that becomes the religion of the company. I’m not saying this is the right format, I’m saying that it’s very important to have one. Third thing I would say is that just defining the endgame clearly. If people can see that endgame with you, it doesn’t matter how scary it is. The greatest guys always get attracted to the scariest goals. A lot of times, we interview good candidates and we say, “Hey, sorry. We don’t give any titles to anybody in the company for a year.” You see their reactions. The guys who are designed for early stage, they don’t even flinch. They’re like, “Whatever. I’ll come.” They’re excited about that journey. They’re not excited about what my title will be, or where’s my cabin, where is my desk, what is the work timing for this place. It’s a great filter. For me, if I can find a motivated set of people, I can direct them. I can’t solve for their daily motivation. I can’t say, “Guys, cheer up, good stuff.” I don’t believe in this celebrations all the time. I don’t believe in celebrations of families, I don’t believe in celebration of, “You’re one-year-older.” I think it’s complete nonsense, like as a startup why do you want to celebrate when you’re 10 years old. Talk about milestones and the customers achieve, talk about milestones in terms of — for example, imagine if Sachin raised his bat for lasting for 20 hours, sorry it doesn’t matter, what matters is lift your bat as you reach a century.

Anand: On the team part, I wanted to pull in one of the questions from the audience that had tweeted earlier. Manav Das asks, what are your metrics to hire team members, you talked about a couple of them.

Kunal: I think we like people who are generally misfits. I like getting people who probably did not have it served to them on a platter and still managed to get where they are.

Anand: Is it possible to check that in the interview?

Kunal: It’s hard but you can — we usually take 6–7 interviews before we get somebody in, and once they’re in, it is like we’re responsible for their success, because then we don’t want to second guess the guy to, “I’m not sure but I’ve got him.” Once they’re in, they’re in. One hack I’ve used which generally works for me is there are a lot of people I like and respect. I tell them you’ve to give me one reference only.

Anand: Switching gears, we have a few minutes, so Sunita Vishwanathan asked what has changed for you from a perspective while building Cred?

Kunal: Cred is diametrically opposite to FreeCharge. The reason it was done differently is that all the stuff that we think of Indian market is completely false. For example, in India the top 2%, the per capita income is around $15,000. The bottom has probably less than $800 maybe 98%. So, will they value stuff that provides convenience. Wealth it is concentrated in a certain way. Now that’s the market front. If you want to be in business and you want to make money, you have to be where the money is. I believe that consumers that have money will value convenience, and therefore you should go after that. So that was the whole background about why I do what I’m doing.

Anand: Well, make it on what is Cred?

Kunal: Well, Cred what we’re trying to do is trying to build a community of people with high credit score, so if we can systematically accumulate people with high credit score, we will be able to make a parallel community which can get more benefits, right, and if we can do that systematically we will be able to drive people to do good behaviors so our whole idea is to create a community of trustworthy people, reward them for being trustworthy so that more people desire to be trustworthy.

Anand: On that note maybe close out Sunita’s question. What has changed from your perspective more from individual journey — if Cred what they do different?

Kunal: I think I have become a lot more confident about what I think in life versus earlier. I also had this doubt because nobody seems to be talking your language, but now, I have gotten very comfortable realizing that people don’t think like me, so I should not expect them to understand what I am trying to say. That has been a huge saving grace.

Anand: To be yourself?

Kunal: Be yourself, or if you think you are more right than wrong, then trust yourself. From FreeCharge to now, I think I’m better equipped to understand human behavior and human motivations. I understand ecosystem, I understand fundraising, I understand how product works, what are the important aspects, what are not the important aspects, what are the vanity-metrics, what are the non-vanity-metrics. I think just wiser, which makes it harder also, because if you know a hundred things that can go wrong, then you are also not taking some irrational leaps, so there are tradeoffs for this one.

Anand: Got it. Avinash from our team, Avinash Raghava had a question, what are you not doing this time around?

Kunal: I think it’s a tough question. I think what I’m not doing this time is believing in common wisdom believing this is done like that, this is what it is. Going with more original connection and backing it with data. What I am not doing this time is trying to understand what the market is wanting you to do.

For example, the current season, everybody is doing mass startups. I’m going in the exact opposite direction, going even more premium that premium. The other thing I would say is, that I am not doing is that I’m not in rush of hiring. I’m being very, very selective about hiring and making sure that people love coming to work next year?

Anand: Any other advice for the founders listening on scaling themselves?

Kunal: I think the only thing I can think about is that the world is changing quite rapidly around you. Unless you are in the mode of constantly understanding and appreciating the change at a nuance that you need to do, most likely, you will always suffer and not catch on to a trend, especially for B2C entrepreneurs.

B2C entrepreneurs are somewhat like artists. They are not trying to get everybody’s consensus and make things work. B2B is slightly different. It’s about partnerships and long-term relationships and making the client feel good and all of that. Or sometimes you don’t make the client feeling good, but you just do a great job. I think founders that try to fit in don’t raise the bar.

Anand: If you want to be an outlier, don’t fit in?

Kunal: Absolutely.

Anand: On that note, thank you very much. This has been extremely helpful.

Kunal: Thank you.

Anand: Hope you enjoyed the podcast. Pick out a lot of topics there starting with Kunal’s very non traditional background. The recharge problem is very unique to India, he started with that, Freecharge is a large company and exited that. He also talked about importance of high repeat and how that builds trust and by building trust how you’re able to expand even more broadly as a startup. Then he went into his delta 4 model for how to evaluate interesting consumer ideas. Thing is a very unique model and he talks about how delta 4 kind of solutions are irreversible, how consumers have a high tolerance for putting up with irreversible solutions. Then we switched gears and talked about entrepreneurship and philosophy, Kunal being a philosophy major impacted his thinking on startups. That was a very unique thing. He also made the point that most startup founders have some aspect of philosopher in them. And finally we took a couple of questions from twitter, this is the first time we’ve tried it. I hope you liked that section and if you like that please do tweet us with more questions that you have or suggestions on future guests, who you want as future guests as well as any questions you have for them as founders. That’s it for today.

Hope you join us and also if any suggestions that you have Do visit us on insightspodcasts.in and tweet us @Accel_India with your questions or feedback. Thank you.

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INSIGHTS #24 — Girish Mathrubootham shares his learnings on building and scaling Freshworks

We continue with the #AccelInsights Podcast series, and on this edition we have Girish Mathrubootham, Co-founder & CEO of Freshworks. Freshworks scaled from $1 million Annual Recurring Revenue (ARR) to $100 million ARR in five years and two months, making it one of the fastest growing companies in the ecosystem, and one of the first VC backed software-as-a-service (SaaS) companies in India to achieve this milestone.

In this podcast, Anand and Girish discuss Girish’s early life, and the series of events that led to starting Freshworks. They speak about how Girish’s ability to translate even the most mundane stories, his product training, and focus on culture has helped build a successful organisation poised to grow even further.

Girish talks about his upbringing, and about how he was an average student in school and college. But he really loved to learn; just not in a classroom environment. He attributes most of his learnings to after college as he could learn through practice, not confined to tests and a specific set of topics. Teaching is something close to his heart, and he is always looking for innovative ways to teach or communicate. This has honed his storytelling ability.

His learnings from Zoho, and his ability to tell stories has helped him immensely as he scaled Freshworks. This is especially so when it comes to hiring (Helpdesk is very boring, he says), and selling his vision for the company to a new hire.

His motto for fundraising is very simple and is something he’s been meaning to tweet for a while: “Data is your enemy, story is your friend”.

Girish further delves into how he got into products at Zoho, and later how business models influence products and not vice versa. Company culture is very close to his heart — Happy “work” organisation is his motto, and he’s always had an eye on how to build the organisation’s culture. The importance of culture fits within your organisation, and gearing the organisation to stay true to its values is further highlighted.

We end the podcast in true Girish fashion, discussing the next leg of growth for Freshworks — the jump to a $1billion business, and how he believes that Freshworks is not an aberration in the Indian product space but is just the beginning of India producing great global product startups, with a simple, yet intriguing story.

Accel shares such interesting entrepreneurial stories, with informative nuggets to run and scale your startup. Follow the links below and subscribe to our #Accel #INSIGHTSPodcast Series using the following links: iTunes, Google Podcast, Stitcher, Twitter@Accel_India, and the RSS feed.

Below, we’ve shared an edited transcript of the conversation with Girish.


Episode transcript

Girish:Winning or losing is not something that motivates me, but learning is something. So, even if I learn and fail, or if I want to do something new and I don’t know anything about it, I will learn and try, but if I fail, I’m okay. I start with ‘I play to win’, but I’m not afraid to lose.

Anand:Hi, welcome to the Insights Podcast Series from Accel. I’m your host Anand Daniel. Today, I have as my guest, Girish Mathrubootham. I traveled to Chennai to visit Girish at Freshworks. I also had a chance to chat with some of his leaders on their perspectives of what makes Girish tick. We talked about a lot of things, but three things stood out for me from my chat with Girish as well as his leaders are: his ability to learn and teach, his amazing storytelling abilities, and the beautiful culture that Girish and team have built at Freshworks. Let’s dive right in.

I’m super excited to be in Chennai with none other than our own superstar, Girish Mathrubootham. Freshworks is a very special company for Accel. We’ve been involved from the early days. I still remember the first time I heard the Freshworks (at that time Freshdesk) pitch. Girish, I don’t know if you remember the first time you pitched in public, it was at ‘Unplugged’ in 2012.

Girish:2011.

Anand:2011, is it? Okay, 2011 Unplugged. Do you remember the opening and what you shared there?

Girish:Yes, of course. Happy to be here, Anand. I think I can still remember standing alongside with all the startup entrepreneurs who were finalists at the Unplugged 2011.

Anand:Which was a big competition at that time.

Girish:For a startup who wants get noticed by investors like you, definitely it was big. That was your deal flow. I think I opened with the Rajini dialogue which is “Naa late aa vandhaalun, latest aa varuven” . I said that in reference to being in the Help Desk product category so many years after the Help Desk was invented as a category, but —

Anand:What does that mean “Naa late aa vandhaalun, latest aa varuven”?

Girish:‘Even if I come late, I will come with the latest whatever it is’. I think it was in reference to showcasing that the opportunity in SaaS was actually latest at that time. There was still an opportunity to build something. I think that was the plug-in of that Talaiwar’s (Rajinikanth’s) dialogue to get the interest of the audience going.

Anand:I still remember.

Girish:I think what I still remember about that is, I think we were going third (on stage). The first company to go on stage was InterviewStreet. HackerRank was called InterviewStreet at that time. I think Vivek or Hari, one of the co-founders were going and pitching interviews then. The second company was 99tests. I remember opening with telling the audience, “Okay, you saw a great story by InterviewStreet which will help you hire great programmers, who will then write awesome code. Then you saw one of the great ideas from 99tests where you can make your product completely bug-free with an army of QA folks. If your product has awesome coders who can write bug-free code and you ship it then all’s good. For those of you who still have problems with products and you need to support customers, that’s where we come in with Freshdesk.”

Anand:It was so well received, I still remember that. You almost got standing ovation in a competition setting. That’s the whole reason to do this podcast series, to get out stories like this, mainly to learn more about founders that people can’t easily read about, and what has helped them scale as founders. You’re an icon now in the startup ecosystem. I want to go a little bit deeper into: as a founder, how have you scaled in the last seven, eight years. We can go back to your childhood or college or wherever, we can start from that. I want you to talk about some of the things that you feel have helped you become successful as a founder.

Girish:I’ll start with what I’m feeling right now as you’re asking this question. I feel I’m really lucky and where I am today is something that I’ve never dreamt of in life. I come from Trichy, my father is a retired officer in Bank of India so I had a very normal middle-class childhood and I was always an average student. I have never failed in exams but I was also not top of my class. Most of school and college went by. I’m not Ivy league, Anand, like you.

Anand:Thanks for pulling my leg.

Girish:I used to call myself Aam Aadmientrepreneur’.

Anand:That was an amazing introduction to who Girish is as a person. I want to switch gears now and hear from one of his colleagues, Arvind, who heads marketing for FreshWorks. He was recruited fresh out of college by Girish more than 13 years ago and has been friends with Girish ever since. Let’s hear what he thinks is the secret to Girish’s scaling.

Arvind:Girish, I’ve seen him in different stages of his life when he was a project manager to VP of Product Marketing and Product Management and then as a SaaS startup CEO and then a Unicorn’s CEO. What makes Girish different is he’s always adapting and evolving. (From) the guy who I saw 13 years back, he’s been constantly evolving. He’s never in his comfort zone. He always improvises. I think that’s what makes Girish different.

Anand:Let’s hear from Girish how he developed this appetite for learning and trying out new things.

Girish:Two or three years into FreshWorks, I went to the US. One of my friends in college came to me and asked me, “Girish, in the four years of college I have never — “ He’s talking about himself. “ — I have never watched a single movie. I used to be very studious and study all the time and you have never missed a single movie. [laughs] You had so much fun and it doesn’t seem to matter because you are where you are. His basic assumption was, he studied well, I didn’t study as much but I still managed to be something in life. What I couldn’t tell him that day because I hadn’t articulated it in my mind but later on I thought about it was that all my learning happened after college. Fundamentally as a country, we all respect classroom learning. We all respect degrees a lot. There’s nothing wrong with that.

That is definitely a great way to learn but I think there are also used cases like me where we have had the opportunity to learn from life, learn by doing stuff, lucky enough to discover what we love and that learning is also valuable. That’s been my biggest learning in life and I think probably to answer your question of how I have scaled, I think as a student it’s not that I did not like learning. I did not like learning the way we were supposed to learn at school and college.

Anand:To prepare for exams and do the rote thing.

Girish:Yes, probably I think I came back with vengeance and started learning more and more and one of the things I love to do is teach. As much as I like to learn, I really like to teach to people. Even in college the way I used to study for exams is I would actually teach my friends. Everybody would come to my hostel room and sit around and ask me to teach. I would construct the whole thing, say boring subjects like Field theory, I’ll try to construct it as a story flow so that they can remember. I think when you’re studying only for two days and you have to go and write the exam, that (strategy) worked and we always got somewhere in the 60–65% mark.

I think that aspect of teaching has shaped who I am. I think if I really think back throughout my life at least in the last 15 years of learning and teaching, if you want to consistently teach you have to learn more. I think that is what I would say has played a big role and even today what I really enjoy doing is, getting out of the comfort zone and learning stuff that I don’t know. Winning or losing is not something that motivates me, but learning is something. So, even if I learn and fail or if I learn, I want to do something new and I don’t know anything about it, I learn and try. If I fail, I’m okay. I start with ‘I play to win’, but I’m not afraid to lose.

Anand: Got it. Everyone who knows you notices that you’re extremely good at telling interesting stories like the one we started all with. Many people teach, but they don’t make it interesting. How did you develop that? Was it natural to you or you consciously developed that?

Girish: I think, broadly, when you look at teaching, there are teachers by chance and then there are teachers by choice. I think I am a teacher by choice. I want to teach. I actually had a Java training institute. What happened was some of my friends wanted to learn Java, I told them to go and talk to many institutes. I told them go and talk to the instructor, ask questions, and not fall for the fancy marketing. Make sure that the person who is teaching really knows the stuff.

My friends went and did all that, but then they came back to me and said, “Girish, we want you to teach and we’ll pay you a fee. Only then you will be serious and only then we will be serious.” The training institute actually walked into my room. Basically, my friends brought some of their other friends and so six people came and paid me 3,000 rupees. With 18,000 rupees I went to Saravana stores, purchased some chairs and a white board and we rented three computers. This was 1998 or 1999. That’s how I started teaching Java.

To answer your question, now, how do I make it interesting. When you are teaching something like Java, one of the things for me, whenever I am teaching anything, I always pay close attention to whether what I’m saying is resonating with the audience or not. That is important to me. I cannot go on in a room full of people where I’m not making sense to people. It demotivates me.

Anand: Reading the audience.

Girish Yes. Reading the audience feedback, knowing whether I’m connecting to them or are they just doing their own thing. This forced me to improvise. I can tell you that my toughest thing to teach was interfaces in Java. Many people who are new to Java, some of them if they had any program experience they will have C or C++ experience. At that time what I felt was, how do you explain this abstract concept of an interface in Java to somebody who knows C++ and make them really understand what’s the difference.

I had to really improvise again and again and again to make them get at it.

Anand: Yeah, that’s very good.

Girish: I think that idea of improvisation later on helped me even in my career when I moved to pre-sales. I think another aspect was, I don’t like doing the same thing again and again. Pre-sales is a job where you’re going to do a demo again and again. It’s actually quite boring. In order to make my work more interesting for me, I started to improvise on pre-sales.

Meaning, I won’t give the same demo to the customer even if it’s the same product. Everyday when I’m doing a demo I’d actually try different versions of the demo. I would try to take a completely different path to seeing whether I can impress the customer with a completely new script. I won’t have a script, so improvisation actually helped me figure out some techniques of making it interesting.

Basically, I think those techniques are also very simple. If you have heard me speaking a few times, it’s all about giving good examples, giving analogies and anecdotal stories so that people can easily remember and talk about it. Anytime, when you do a PowerPoint with a lot of gyaan slides, I think people have sat through enough sessions with PowerPoint gyaan. Even when they come for conferences, I think that is where, my simple stories seem to be interesting, I think I need those PowerPoint Gyaans to bore them to a point where —

Anand: [laughs] You come and make yourself interesting

Girish: So, somebody is coming and speaking in simple terms with simple stories but they’re getting the message. The point I’m trying to make hopefully for the listeners is, we don’t have to give the gyaan, but you have to make sure that the gyaan can be inferred from the stories that you are saying.Everybody loves to hear stories of other people, like if you see all the TV series why they are so popular?Because people like to take a peek into other people’s lives.If you dig startups also, look at the best top leadership content that’s coming from other companies, it’s when companies share things about what’s happening in their companies. Because that is something you can’t read about easily.

Anand:Learning and teaching are two aspects of what makes Girish a great leader. Let’s hear it from STS who moved back from Silicon Valley where he was running a team of more than 2,000 people at Walmart Labs to join as Head of Engineering at Freshworks, what does STS think are the key skills that make Girish a great leader?

STS Prasad:There are two aspects to it, I think one aspect is his finding out what you are passionate about and letting you work on your passion. Not so much of him saying that this is what needs to get done. Therefore, let’s all rally around and get it done. It is about finding out what are you passionate about. “Yes, you’re part of Freshworks, we do have shared goals, we do want to get to a certain point in time but, also what are you passionate about, what do you want to do?”

Anand:What makes you happy?

STS:What makes you happy. It’s something that you are looking to accomplish in your life. Can you do that at Freshworks? That is something which is very strengthening, empowering and energizing in terms of people, when they know that they are working on what they are passionate about. They are just doing things- we’re literally talking about people operating 2X, 3X of what they would do. We should tell them, “Okay, this is what you need to do let’s go out and do it.” That’s one aspect of it. which is how he really wants to get people to work on what they’re passionate about. The second aspect is presenting the vision for Freshworks. Saying, “Folks, this is where we can be. This is what our potential is. This is what we can accomplish as a team.” Letting people get to identify what is it that they want to do, to help towards accomplishing that vision. As opposed to breaking it down and saying, “Here are the things that need to be done to accomplish this vision. You go do this, you go do this, you go do this.” Share the vision, share the big picture and let people step up to say, “Okay, I will take that part of the puzzle and work on that piece.”

Anand:As STS points out, Girish is an amazing storyteller. Let’s hear it from him on how he uses the skill as a founder.

Girish: That’s one of my strengths, so I’ve probably used it everywhere. Definitely, in terms of hiring. In the early days when you’re trying to attract talent, people need to understand what we are doing. It’s very hard to get people excited about Helpdesk. It could be that it’s one of the boring subjects in the world. How do you construct the real purpose of what we are trying to build and tell it as a story which they can relate to and they want to be a part of.

Definitely in fundraising, so you have to tell great stories. In fact, I even have a tweet that I haven’t posted, in my mind, which is “data is your enemy, story is your friend, when it comes to fundraising.” If I think about the last few years, getting the company aligned on where we want to go, getting the team rallying behind a common cause, all of this requires story telling. In a fast-growing company, a lot of times things have to change. You have to create new structures, new ways of working, bring in new people.

All of this creates a lot of chaos and un-structure. People who are working, like employees, may sometimes feel that their role is being disturbed. They may have a frustration with something that happened and it’s very natural for an employee to feel that, “Oh, okay, I spent four years here and now they’ve changed it, so I should move. I should go on.”

The reality is, there are no villains here. It is just situational and this could happen in any company. If the employee goes to the next company, it could happen there also. Really talking to the employee about what is happening, and this is factual storytelling meaning, to tell them about, from the CEO’s vantage point, “Hey, why are we doing this change and why is it necessary for us to take us to the next level? Why what worked for us three years ago is not going to work for us, say, three years from now.”

For example, let’s take SMB to mid-market movement, we need to understand that if we are to grow to 100 million, maybe what got us here was enough, but for the next five years of our plan, we have to make these strategic shifts. I think even there, storytelling is important. Maybe I’ll give you another fundamental example. What I have learnt in hiring leaders and making them successful, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, as I sit and think about, “Why are some leaders — “ See, all the leaders that we hire, we put them through six or eight rounds of interview. The senior management team actually interviews them. They all come with very smart backgrounds, so, obviously, they’re all accomplished people. We select them after these interviews because we believe they’re the right people for the job.

Now, after this process, “ — why does somebody not actually fit in and become successful?” That was fascinating for me because you’re dealing with top talent. Hiring leadership is not like you’re making a bad hire. When you hire this kind of top talent, why is it that some people are successful, and some people are not? When I look at my own learnings, first I’ll tell you my learnings. See, when a leader is not working out and they quit the company, it is also very demoralizing for the employees. It impacts morale.

Like we put in a new leader, give them a big role and they spend six months, one year in the company and then they leave because it’s not working out, the team is wondering, “What’s wrong with the company?” It’s a big thing. We need to educate the employees also that, “Hey, it’s not like why this happened?” I’m just using this one case of what I learned and how I could tell it to employees and other startup founders. I came up with this simple story of, “Which cow, which ditch?”

The story starts with the old village fable where if a cow falls into a ditch, the conventional wisdom is you first take the cow out of the ditch, then you fill the ditch, and then you worry about how to prevent cows from falling into ditches. The most important thing is, the sequence is important. That is the old fable. Now my story is when you’re hiring a new leader into a fast-growing startup, a successful leader should understand that a fast-growing startup is a place where 100 cows have already fallen into ditches and people are trying to lift cows from those ditches.

A good leader will actually ask the question, “Which cow, which ditch?” Which means he’ll pick the top two or three problems, go and help those cows out of the ditches and then, finally, figure out, “How can I prevent cows from falling into ditches.” What happens sometimes is because the leader comes in with a lot of experience, they have worked in a big company where everything works smoothly, they come and start changing processes because they’re going to stop cows from falling into ditches. None of the employees can relate to it because they are all busy with the cows in the ditches.

That has been my learning. For any new leader, now I actually tell them, “First 60 days or 90 days, just absorb. First, find out which cows are falling into ditches and then ask the question, “Which cow, which ditch?” Meaning pick two or three problems and come and talk to me. I will tell you if it’s worth solving or not. Then go and fix those problems. Then, later on, once you have earned enough trust after three or four cows, then you can really figure out how to prevent cows from ditches.

Anand:Prevent cows from falling. [laughs] That’s great.

Hope you like those stories about cows in ditches from Girish. Now let’s hear from Suman who’s the head of HR at Freshworks. She’s an industry veteran in HR and was about to take up a role as CHRO outside of India. She walked into Freshworks to have a chat with Girish and without the intent of joining them but ended up joining them anyways. Mainly, it was because of the culture of Freshworks. Let’s hear from her more about this.

Suman Gopalan: If you ask me what stood out for me with Freshworks, versus a lot of the other startups, actually three things. One was just the founder himself. Not only so articulate, but very passionate about the kind of organization he wants to build. It wasn’t only about building a successful business. For a lot of founders, it can be about validating their business idea and building a successful business.

To me, what stood out in my conversation with Girish, was his thought about not just building a successful business but building a great organization. That was very different from a number of the other conversations that I had had, which was my reason number one for actually jumping at an opportunity like this. The reason number two was just the business itself and how thoughtfully we had grown the business and not just gone for growth for the sake of growth, but really being thoughtful for, “Is this the right way to grow? Is this growth sustainable? Do we have a view to being profitable at some point?”

Because when you want to be a large organization, you have to demonstrate that you can sustain yourself as well. It’s a solid sound business as well. The third one which is the most unique part of it, is the thought around what kind of a company do we want to build and what kind of a culture we want you to build? Girish as all of you would know by now is a person with a heart. I think he does a lot of it more from the heart than from the head. If he was conflicted, he would go with the heart and that shows in the kind of organization he’s built.

Anand: What is culture at Freshworks? When did you start thinking of that in here?

Girish: Before starting to talk about culture, I will also talk about something that we fundamentally believe.I think even before I started Freshworks. When I was in Zoho, I was very happy with my career, but I used to meet some friends and cousins who used to always crib about their work. I used to wonder, “If you’re so unhappy with your work, why don’t you just quit and find another job.” Why would somebody continue to spend years of their career being unhappy? This was a sub-conscience belief in my mind when I started Freshworks. I wanted Freshworks to be a place where people can be happy, and happy about their work.

That is our first culture value, which is ‘happy work environment’ with the double quotes on work, because anybody can create a happy environment. Let’s say, you have a lot of games, flexi-timing, free food. The environment can be very happy. The happiness I am talking about is, people really feeling that, “Hey, I’m playing to my strength. The job that I’m doing is really tapping my potential. It’s giving me an opportunity to learn. I’m working with other smart people. I have a manager who’s a role model.”

These are all the things that is what is important for an employee to be happy in the company. Nothing else matters.

Interestingly, you see, I don’t look at salary as the only thing that will make somebody happy. If you hire that kind of employee, the culture is going to go for a toss.

Anand: Good. What are some non-negotiables when you’re hiring from a cultural perspective? Because that gives an intuition into what you’re looking for.

Girish: Fundamentally, when I interview, I always look at: There’s almost a feeling when you’re talking to a person- do you see them as your colleague or no? Did you walk out of the conversation feeling good about the person?

Sometimes you may meet technically solid folks, but you didn’t feel really good about the meeting and you can’t actually point it out to any particular flaw, but there’s something abnormal. For me, simple rule is, when in doubt, it’s a no there. Because it’s okay to lose a good candidate, but it’s never okay to hire a bad candidate. The other thing is if somebody is a team player. I always look for: have they played any team sport or how do they work with teams because I believe that the days of the individual superstar are over -pun intended and all. [laughs]

In building a company you can’t have one superstar, you need a great team. When somebody talks about their accomplishment as if they did everything by themselves that’s a strict red flag for me. People have to understand that the chest beating is definitely not a part of our culture. When I am interviewing I would also look at humility, down to earth (nature). Can they put down their head and work? Anybody who thinks they’re going to help the company by joining the company I will not hire. For me, I want to hire people who look up to the company. They have to be inspired by what we’re doing and come. They should be aiming to learn from the company and contribute. Someone comes in thinking, “I am great and I am going to help this company grow.” I think that is something which has never worked out well.

Anand:Even from early days?

Girish:Even from early days. We consciously do our hiring strategies like that. For example, when you hire from a BPO to a customer support role in Freshworks, people actually look up to it because in the BPO they don’t have ownership that it’s their product. Whereas here that ownership makes it feel better but if you hire somebody and directly ask them to work in the US shift, for example, they may think, “This night shift is bad or I don’t need to be here.”

We don’t disagree with that. That goes back to their happiness. Our whole vision at Freshworks is to enable every team to deliver moments of ‘wow’. What I mean by that is, this is tied to their happiness. If you think about happiness, there is another saying that I like which is, “success is in the big things and happiness is in the small things”. When you deliver moments of ‘wow’, you think about customer support. In your life think about any time when you bought something or you had an interaction with the company, somebody did something which made you feel happy for that five minutes or two minutes and that forms your opinion and perception of the company.

You love a company because — When you use an Apple product there is a small joy delivered. It comes with the product. When Gmail says you said attachment but that you didn’t attach anything, that’s a ‘wow’. When you eat a restaurant, and somebody actually remembers what you have that’s a ‘wow’. Happiness is actually delivered in these small doses. That is our purpose. So when you look at our office, you say it’s a great office. We do not have to spend all this money. We can make a boring office which is not colorful. Artwork is a separate project. So painting all the walls is not part of the Architect’s contract. We have somebody else who comes and paints all the walls. Why do we do all these things? We want to go the small extra inch to make it a special place. I don’t know if you noticed the coffee. Every office has coffee machines. We have live filter coffee because we want to give the greatest coffee to our visitors so that when they go back to their office next day, they should remember our coffee today.

Anand:Yes, I’ll remember it for sure.

Girish:This vision is not about only products. We are in customer support but think about a salesperson who can quickly solution with the customer and find a deal or a recruiter who can close a candidate by giving them an offer on the same day. ‘Wow’ can come or happiness can come but you have to understand the emotion of the other person. If a candidate is coming for an interview, they would like a result on the same day. Now, can we build something that can enable and foster collaboration because many times companies take days and weeks to actually communicate the result.

I think even at Freshworks we used to have in the early days, when you come for an interview, you will walk out with an offer or you will know that you’ve not made it on the same day. I think at scale we are struggling a little bit but I would like that to be the goal setter. Let’s say in any deal, people like to close and move on. Enabling every team to deliver ‘wow’ is a company-wide philosophy. Whether it’s our legal team or HR team, our product teams, I think that fundamentally goes back to “Life is short.” It’s worth celebrating. Being happy is important. Those small doses of ‘wow’ is what’s generating happiness so we like to be the happiness quotient.

Anand:Nice. What would be a couple of your other passions of working in —

Girish:I think it all goes back to happiness. I spoke about how happiness was important for everybody in the company. It includes me. There’s one decision that I’ve taken in my life several years ago, that no matter what, I will be happy. I’m not willing to give the remote control of my happiness to anybody else, it doesn’t matter whatever happens, because at the end of the day, I think it’s in the mind. If you have reached wherever you are, you can choose to be happy and choose to be unhappy. Now with that I will answer your question on what are some of the other interests? I fundamentally believe that you only die once. Which also means, you only live once so I would like to enjoy and be happy and do whatever I want in life. I love soccer. I don’t play but I’m a Chelsea fan and now my other passion is FC Madras where we have created a grassroots facility. Full Academy with residential, food, training, education, everything for kids. We have 38 Kids.

Anand:This is for soccer. Or football?

Girish:Yes. Okay, football is the real football but for the US audience it is a soccer.The football that we play with our foot.

Anand:Yes.

Girish:FC Madras is actually for under 13 and under 15 kids. We recently inaugurated full-size FIFA artificial turf. Basically again, it comes back to the same belief. If you look at India. For a country of billion plus people, we don’t even have one team to qualify for the World Cup. If you look at the last World Cup, Iceland which has a population of 3.3 lakh people, so 330,000 people is the population of Iceland, they’re able to assemble a football team. Most of the players were actually not professional football players. They have other careers like dentists and bankers and teachers, now if they can come together, practice and qualify for the world cup.

I think we have to really think hard about, “Don’t we have the talent? What is lacking?” So, I think how building a global product company out of India is hard but possible. Same way building a global football club from India has never been done but it should be possible, so we want to try and that’s the belief from FC Madras where we believe the next Messi can come from Madras.

Anand:Awesome. Would love to hear. What’s your vision going forward? Maybe for not only Freshworks but a message or a story for the community that’s the entrepreneurs who are listening in?

Girish:I never imagined we would be where we are today. I know that there are many entrepreneurs who, when they start the company, they want to conquer the world, change the world make a dent in the universe, I didn’t start like any of that. In fact, I used to tell Shekhar also that I like to dream in installments. When we started, we chose a help desk because that’s what I like to do and when Shekhar invested, we had $2,000 in monthly recurring revenue and he asked me where will we be at the end of next year.

I just thought about it and said, “Okay, as a product manager who is building a global product, if you’re not at a million dollars, then that’s not — “ My dream was to get to a million dollars. We actually hit it one month late and whenever I dream about something, I feel very happy that we are living to see the dream. Realizing the dreams is one of the greatest joy. We are actually being celebrated as one of the successes for an Indian startup, in the SaaS space, was founded in 2010, launched product in 2011 hit 100 million. The journey from one million to a hundred million was five years and two months. One of the fastest. We didn’t plan for being one of the fastest, all of that is good.

What excites us even more is, and this also comes back to the learning that I talked about, for me, I don’t want to be celebrated and rest when we’re at 100. When I look up and I see all the great companies that are there in the US, companies which have crossed a billion dollars, not valuation but revenue and say five billion revenue and 10 billion revenue. I think we fundamentally believe that we have a shot, we have a very credible shot as probably the first Indian SaaS startup to really build a global business and establish Freshworks as a global brand.Clearly, I’m again out of my comfort zone because in my previous career I had built a very sizable, scalable business. similar to what we’ve done in Freshworks, and that journey helped me. With all the learnings that I had, I was able to take Freshworks to where it is here. This 100 million to wherever this journey takes us, this is completely new, uncharted territory. Now, while we are saying this, I would also like to say, one of my passionate dreams is India as a product nation.

Now, the fact that Freshworks has come to 100 million and has crossed 100 million, is actually making the world look up and take notice. Scaling a SaaS product company within a short span of time completely starting as a VC-funded startup, has not been done before. Many people have asked me and this is also being discussed in boardrooms of multi-billion dollar companies like, “Is Freshworks an aberration or are there more people that’s going to follow?” I am a strong believer in the India as a product nation dream.

I would like to probably share a story which will be apt for this situation. The story probably some of you may know, which is the four-minute mile story. I think for a long period of time in the history of running, no athlete had actually run a mile under four minutes. That became a big talking point and a big challenge, and a lot has been written in the media about who will be the first athlete to actually run a mile under four minutes. There are also lots of sports consultants who are actually predicting when this record will break and how would it break, under what conditions would it break.

Like they said, it will happen on a dry day, on a hard surface with 10s of thousands of people cheering the athlete to break it. It so happened, there’s a person called Roger Bannister who picked a cold day and a wet surface, and with a few thousand people cheering him, he actually ran a mile in under four minutes. That’s not the story. As soon as he did that, I think in the next 46 days there was another person who did it under four minutes, and beat this record by a second. Within the next few weeks or months, in the same year three other runners beat this record. In the subsequent 50 years, thousand runners broke that record.

The reason I’m saying this story is, I think at Freshworks we have run the zero to hundred journey, but what we are seeing with all the new SaaS startups coming in. I think this will be the biggest opportunity for India, for our entrepreneurs, for our startups to really take the lead, break this record and actually get hundreds of more startups that are crossing this barrier and taking over the world as the market.

Anand:On that inspiring note, and hope you cross your next four minute mile which is your next 18 month installment. On that note, thank you very much Girish.

Girish:Thanks, Anand. It was a pleasure.

Anand:Awesome.

Anand:That was an inspiring story indeed, about learning and teaching, about storytelling, about building a company with an amazing culture, importance of building an organization versus just building a business. These are some of the lessons we can take away today from hearing Girish’s story on how Freshworks is being built and how Girish has scaled as a founder himself. Hope you like the podcast. If you like the podcast, please do leave us a review. Also, please do check out insightspodcast.in and do tweet us @Accel_India with thoughts and comments and how we can make this podcast a lot more helpful to you as a first-time founder. Thanks for joining.

Anand:For those of you who are still listening, these are some outtakes. In particular, this section has some belt of wisdom on Girish on how he became an excellent product manager and how that has helped him as a founder. Listen on.

Anand: There are other questions which is on the products side. How did you develop that? Again, like the product thinking? You’re one of the strongest product founders.

Girish:Okay. I’ll start with the brutal honest truth. In 2001, when I started at Zoho, I started out as a presales engineer and then I had a brief stint in marketing. I did not even know what the term product manager meant in 2001. I thought the next move in my career should be a project manager. There was a certification called Project Management Professional something, PMP certification.

I along with all of my colleagues, we thought we’ll study for that exam and we downloaded all the books. I hated it when I looked at the table of contents. It talked about risk mitigation, and estimation of project work and resource allocation and none of that made sense. At that time (I met) my boss and mentor Kumar Vembu — I think I was getting a little bit frustrated in marketing. I went and talked to —

Anand:This is your first year in Zoho or —

Girish:Yes. After 12 months, I think it was probably second year.

Anand:Second year, okay, yes.

Girish:After a year in presales, I was given marketing. We had the US teams also doing marketing and I was doing marketing from India but I had to go to US for review and so on. I talked to Kumar about my frustrations in marketing. I asked him to give me independent control and rest of the world marketing for certain products and so on. Kumar just took me out for a chai and tea [laughs] When we were just having the chai, he was actually telling me, “Girish, you know what is the problem? You are an authoritative person. Marketing is a consultative role. That is the problem. You should think about being a product manager and building a product.” In one of my presales trips to Korea — I had some feedback from resellers so I came back to Kumar. I had a little talk to him about building a network monitoring product. He said, “Why don’t you consider building something in that line, like building a product?” Actually, Kumar said, “Think about it.”

As we were having the chai, I told Kumar “there’s nothing to think about, I will take it.” That’s how I decided to be a product manager and then I came back to my desk and googled for product manager. Then only I started reading about roles and responsibilities of the product manager. I started liking it because it talked about everything from understanding customer problem to working on pricing and owning marketing and sales. It was almost like, I can really own my territory and do whatever I want. That’s how I became a product manager.

I didn’t know anything so I started learning. One of the things I can tell you is, when I was a presales engineer, my first product was OEM product. It was sold to developers. The UI was an afterthought. It didn’t have great UI, but as somebody who’s going and training, I took on training as part of my presale job because I love teaching, I told you. When I went to train customers like I used to hate the UI but it was my internal feeling.

One of my first things that I wanted to change when I became product manager was, we took the same OEM product and we started building end-user products but really wanted to put a lot of emphasis on the UI. I focused on really getting the aesthetics right and the usability right, making sure all the buttons are polished, the pixel perfect. I got obsessed with good UI and good design.

I think till this date I like that. Basically, one of the aspects of product management is, “How do you really think about design and usability also? according to me. There are a lot of things I didn’t know because we’re sitting in India and building for the rest of the world, a lot of this figuring out was happening after we released an early version of our product, I went and took it to customers and met customers and then I realized what problems are worth highlighting and what features customers won’t really pay for. My first network monitoring product in fact, I remember the first banner had network servers, switch router, desktop monitoring solutions, so we can monitor everything.

Then when I spoke to customers I realized network monitoring is a problem that they really want to solve and server monitoring is another problem but nobody cares about printer monitoring or switch monitoring. Those are all not categories by themselves. When I realized that then I came back and changed the copies. I think it is all by trial and we also stumbled upon a google adwords account that somebody had created in the company in 2003 and put $50 into it.

For an on-premise product, we started putting money on Google getting the downloads and we actually hosted the on-premise product for an online demo on the website. We removed the forms, we said, “Let people try the product and no forms, no white papers, no PowerPoint, no sales person going and talking. It’s just the customer and the product.” That’s all. We had an optional form where we said, “I want free technical support.”

The customer can fill the form, if they want, even otherwise we’ll allow them to download the product. We moved from a hundred downloads per day to thousand downloads per day to thousands of downloads per day. It was just phenomenal. I’m talking about 2003–2004, where the rest of the world was using India as a back office so we were actually doing everything from Chennai like building a product, engineering, QA, sales, support.

The only reason why we needed somebody in the US was for the trade show, we wanted someone to set up the booth and then we would fly from here to do the demos. We really pioneered this building global product from Chennai and a lot of that was also trial and error. The business model was discovered by trial and error because we priced our products at $795, $1,500 and our salespeople in the US were really making 150k, 200k. It was very simple business decision at the time. 150k salesperson selling a $795 product doesn’t make sense because in those days again I think we probably had WebEx but all this inbound marketing and all of that stuff hadn’t really taken off.

We were actually doing all of that. We were getting people to come to our website and download the product themselves. It was a good design, they could figure it out by themselves and they didn’t have to meet a salesperson. They can call and we’ll work in the night shift from Chennai and close the deal. $795 you don’t really need an ROI calculator.

Our competition was building ROI calculators and white papers, we were just closing the deals [chuckles]. What we saw was larger companies also started coming. Even though initially we tough it would be a lot of smaller companies, but because anybody could try the product for 30 days, and I’m talking about pre-SaaS. On-premise product we had a 30-day trial. I think the whole point is there was a new business model discovery like how you can use our advantage and strengths.

Today I can actually articulate it as when you are building from India, you can actually have a business model disruption advantage where you can build great products, acquire customers online, sell and support from India to the long tail of global SMB mid-market customers. I think that’s really worked well.

Anand:That’s what freshworks is doing across categories

Girish:I was on the front lines figuring this out. I think if that is my learning at Zoho, I would clearly say this was the opportunity to play and do this and figure it out, was a great opportunity.

Anand: Product and business model innovation, but on the product side, you’ve talked about design, UI and all that and you also talked about customer empathy or really understanding the customer. Anything else on the product front that you developed in this period?

Girish: Business model shapes product. If you’re selling to large enterprise, there are two or three fundamental differences. Number one, the user is not going to see the product until the company buys it, most of the time. Then the implementation is done by consultants, or the company’s professional services team, and so on, because in a large company, there are multiple teams and somebody has to project manage the whole thing. When somebody else is implementing stuff, it doesn’t need to be really intuitive. It’s a small team of people who will continuously do it.

That’s why if you look at large enterprise software, it’s usually hard to implement because not everybody in the world needs to implement. What we discovered when we were selling from Chennai through online, somebody coming on the website and signing up for a trial, within the first 20, 30 seconds, they have to like the product, that’s why it needs to be aesthetically beautiful.

They decide that they’re going to spend the next week or so to evaluate it, so they have to feel that, “I’m able to configure it on my own.” They should be able to click and see the admin and settings and actually go and do it themselves. If they don’t feel that, they’re going to close the browser and go away. This fundamental difference in business model of which customer you’re targeting, actually changes the dynamics of how you think about product.

Anand:You were talking about how the product ties into the business model and how the business model shapes the product. You said, fundamentally, you have to get both of these right.

Girish:I think one of the ways I have operated, one of the things I’ve seen this, when companies are building product teams, there are actually two models to build, one is what I call the authoritative product manager or product manager as CEO of the product. The other is the consultative Product Manager. I think there are companies which do both models, in my opinion, I would prefer the authoritative product manager, but there is enough argument to do both.

What I mean by that is, the entire product team reports into the product manager, and the product manager takes the final call on all business decisions like running support, running sales or basically almost like a PNL owner. The problem that we also realized is it’s basically two roles combined into one, it’s having a product CEO versus having some other person as CEO.

I think if you can find that, it’s great, but lot of times we can find great product people but who are not great business people, they don’t like owning the PNL. In those cases, what we have done is we try to thought play to in-the-box, there’ll be a product leader and there’ll be a BU leader.

INSIGHTS #23: Serial entrepreneur, investor and author Elad Gill talks about tackling high-growth…

We continue with the #InsightsPodcast Series with a conversation on the evolving role of a Founder-CEO with Elad Gil, serial entrepreneur, investor and most recently, author of High Growth Handbook.: Scaling Startups from 10 to 10,000 People.

Elad Gil has had a lot of experience with super-high-growth startups, having grown Google from 1,500 people to 15,000 people in just over three years. Following the stint at Google, Elad started a company called Mixer Labs, where he expanded the team from 90 to 1,500 in just a couple of years. The firm was acquired by Twitter in just a few years.

It was around this time that he started contemplating high growth and how to build a machine that can recruit 10 people a week instead of one person a month. What was supposed to be a blog post became a massively successful book. Elad is also involved as an operating executive, investor or advisor to private companies such as AirBnB, Coinbase, Gusto, Instacart, Optimizely, Pinterest, Square, Stripe, Wish, and Zenefits.

In this podcast, we talk about the role of the startup CEO. Until very recently, the Founder was CEO only until they could get the company off the ground. After that, professional management took over. Mark Zuckerberg changed that, establishing a tradition where the Founder and CEO became the mainstay with a very strong executive team backing them.

Elad tells us about the importance of the Founder-CEO, and the vision and entrepreneurial spirit they bring to the table. He also goes into greater detail about the evolving role of the CEO.

While hard work is important for success, avoiding burn-out is even more critical. It is important for founders to take a break and make some time for themselves. Founders should focus on building relationships outside of work, because this will be their support system when they go through really hard times at work. The typical image of a Silicon Valley founder is that of an individual who works very hard. What we don’t hear about is the vacations and breaks they take that allows them to push that hard.

As startups scale, it is important for the CEO to play multiple roles, but it is even more critical for them to realise their weaknesses and hire for those positions. They also need to be willing and open to learn from the next level. The “growth mindset” is extremely important for founders to lead the company and make it a truly generational one. Learning from your peers, and being able to trust them with their work and letting go is key to taking the company to the next level each and every time.


Accel shares such interesting entrepreneurial stories, with informative nuggets to run and scale your startup. Follow the links below and subscribe to our #Accel #INSIGHTSPodcast Series using the following links: iTunes, Google Podcast, Stitcher, Twitter@Accel_India, and the RSS feed.

Below, we’ve shared an edited transcript of the conversation with Elad.


Episode transcript

Elad Gil: Make sure that you’re also taking care of yourself: exercise, it will help a lot with sleep. When I started Color, I was CEO there for the first four years. Frankly, one of my big regrets is there is a couple of circumstances where I worked through weekends where I really shouldn’t have. My first anniversary with my wife, we went away to Napa which is wine country in the Bay area. We were supposed to have a romantic weekend, and then I spent half of it negotiating a big deal on the phone that didn’t come through. Honestly, if I’d waited three days, that deal still would have ended up in the same result.

Anand Daniel: Hi and welcome to the INSIGHTS Podcast Series from Accel. I’m your host Anand Daniel. Hope you had a chance to listen to our previous podcast with Binny Bansal in which he recounted the journey of Flipkart. Today, we’re going to be chatting with Elad Gil. Elad is a successful entrepreneur as well as an operator in some of the high growth startups and also an active angel investor. Elad has written a successful book called a High Growth Handbook. It’s a must read for most entrepreneurs, and we at Accel India really like the book and gave it as a holiday gift to all entrepreneurs. Hope you get a chance to read it as well.

There are a lot of great lessons in the High Growth Handbook. Today, I focused on a few topics with Elad. The first is, how to figure out who among the co-founders should be the CEO, what are the key roles of a CEO, what are some of the skills both hard and soft that as a CEO you need to be working on. Also, what are the skills that other co-founders can be working on themselves as well. It’s a reasonably short, fast-paced chat that I had. Let’s dive right in.

I am super excited to welcome Elad Gil to this podcast. Welcome to the podcast Elad.

Elad Gil: Thanks so much for having me today.

Anand Daniel: Awesome. Thanks for joining in from San Francisco. This is the first time we’re doing a remote recording. Hopefully, this goes well. Before we start, just talk to us about your trips to India, maybe that’s an interesting one. It is great to hear that you’ve been here a number of times.

Elad Gil: Yes, sure, I’ve been to India multiple times. In a work context, I’ve been there for Google when I worked at Google. I visited the Hyderabad and Bangalore offices. Then I also have spent many months at a time in India doing yoga in Mysore, India or traveling. I’m a huge fan of the country and the startup ecosystem.

Anand Daniel: That’s awesome. We want to take some time off and go do some of these things, I’m glad you could do that.

Maybe let’s start out with your background. Tell us your story before writing this book.

Elad Gil : Sure. My career has basically been split between operating and investing. On the operating side, I’ve started two companies. One was acquired by Twitter, and one is still up and running, it’s called Color Genomics. It’s raised about $150 million to date. I actually started my career at Google where I started the mobile team there. I joined when there was about 1,500 people. By the time I left, three and a half years later, it was 15,000 people.

Similarly, when Twitter bought my first company MixerLabs, which is an early developer infrastructure company, Twitter was about 90 people and about two year later, it was 1,500. In both cases, those were very high growth startups. It went through all the turbulence of those things growing very quickly. Then as an investor, I’m involved with companies like Airbnb, Coinbase, Gusto, Instacart, Stripe, Square, Pinterest, Wish and the like as an angel. I’ve been involved with a number of companies that have more recently broken out and seen growth from the angle of a investor, adviser in companies.

Anand Daniel: Congratulations, that’s amazing. Maybe that leads me to the question of what made you want to write the High Growth Handbook?

Elad Gil: I think the primary driver — Originally, I was actually going to launch it as a website versus a book. I sat down over Christmas break a few years ago, maybe two year ago now, and just as there are very common questions that arise for early stage companies, as companies start to scale and break out, there’s common questions that founders start to ask in terms of, how do they hire executives for the first time, especially for roles like a CFO or a GC that they’ve never actually worked with or hired for? Or how do they buy other companies, or how do they internationalize? How do they raise late stage rounds? How do you manage your team? How do you communicate effectively at scale?

The same sets of questions kept coming up over and over and over again. I just really sat down to try and write a guide to answer those questions. It was almost like an FAQ for high growth companies. The focus was very much on tactical advice. I tried to avoid platitudes, telling somebody that A players hire A players and B players don’t isn’t really helpful because nobody ever writes I’m an A player on my resume.

I think really what you need to do is ask, “Well, how do I build a recruiting org that can hire 10 people a week instead of one person a month?” Really, I thought that the tactical advice would be really valuable and in parallel, I started interviewing a number of people who’d been through the high growth road themselves, Rita Hoffman or Marc Andreessen or Claire Hughes Johnson from Stripe or the like. I thought that overlaying their stories on top of tactical content would help bring it to life and provide other perspectives for my own.

I wrote all this up. I ended up with 100–150 pages and I had the website coded and ready to go. Then I had dinner with John Collison, one of the founders of Stripe, and I mentioned to him that I was working on this. He asked to see it and he circulated it to a couple of his friends and then a day or two later, he wrote back and asked if Stripe could publish it because Stripe had already been issuing different guides on the Atlas side or they have a quarterly for developers. This, eventually, led to them launching a publishing imprint called Stripe Press which has now published books from Tyler Cowen and a variety of other luminary authors. It was very organic honestly in terms of how it all came together.

Anand Daniel: You got Stripe to think about publishing seeing your manuscript. That’s amazing. Congrats on the first book becoming out to be so well written and so very thoughtful. It’s amazing. I hope you write many more.

Elad Gil: Thanks. The next one will be a romance novel. I’m very excited to — No, I’m joking, to change direction.

Anand Daniel: I was starting to think that you are.

Elad Gil: It’s a Silicon Valley romance. It’s very exciting.

Anand Daniel: That’s a different side of —

Elad Gil: Yes. I’m not going to write that.

That would be awful.

Anand Daniel: In this series we are focusing on founder scaling and what are some of the key skills for the founders to be working on. Before we get into that, I want to spend a lot of time today on what is the role of the CEO, which you have written a chapter on in your book. Even before getting into the role of the CEO, let’s start with how do you figure out who should be the CEO? I want to start with that question.

Elad Gil: It’s a great question and I think it’s a tough one because it’s actually evolved quite a bit in terms of what people think best practice is. If you go back into the ’90s, for example, often the founders ended up not being the CEO. They ended up getting replaced pretty quickly by their board with a “grey-haired” person or professional CEO or adult supervision.

Oddly, what was found is that the companies that organically kept the founder as CEO or one of the founders as CEO, in general, tend to do best and build truly generational companies. Often, the ones where they hired in somebody, eventually lost that entrepreneurial pizzazz. I think the big transition really happened and Bill Gates and Microsoft would be an example of that or-

Anand Daniel: Steve Jobs.

Elad Gil: -Steve Jobs or Michael Dow. There’s actually quite a few of them. In the ’90s, everybody got swapped out as CEO, unless they were a profitable company or unless they had additional leverage. Jeff Bezos obviously stayed on as CEO and has done amazing things at Amazon. I think, really, the transition that happened was in the mid-2000s, Mark Zuckerberg really negotiated a strong position for himself for board seats largely because Sean Parker had gotten fired from a company called Plaxo before joining Facebook as founding President.

He basically convinced Zuck that he should only raise money in a way apart from Accel actually, that would allow him to maintain board control so he can never get fired. What Zuckerberg ended up doing is hiring Sheryl Sandberg as COO and that really flipped the whole model of Silicon Valley because that company was very successful. Suddenly, there is a new model for investors and for founders in terms of having a founder CEO, but then hiring a COO to cover all the functions that the founder really didn’t want to deal with. Those could be people issues, it could be sales and marketing, it could be a variety of things, obviously the CEO should be involved with those things.

In terms of who should be CEO, I think part of it comes down to what’s the CEO job and what type of company do you have? If you have a developer-centric company, you may need a very different CEO than if you have a consumer products company. When all is said and done, I think that the role of the CEO is, number one, to set the strategy and direction of the company. Number two is to make sure that the company can hire and retain great people and then allocate them against their strategic directions.

Number three is making sure that the company is well capitalized, either through fund raises or through making money off of its customers. That means that the CEO often has to be good at selling because they have to sell to people that join them. They have to sell the company for capital and then they have to sell to their end customers. It needs to be somebody who can be very convincing. That doesn’t mean charismatic, but it means convincing.

Lastly, I think, the unwritten rule of the CEO is that almost like a chief psychologist. Eventually, as a company scales you deal with more and more people issues and people are upset about not getting promoted or whatever it may be. Often, that’s not mentioned frequently enough for the role of the CEO, at least until they build out a stronger management team under them.

Really, what you want to optimize is for the person who can do all those things. When all is said and done, I would choose a more product-centric CEO who can sell effectively over a very technical CEO who can’t do those other things or a very sales-centric CEO who lacks the product sensibility that will really set the right strategy up for the company. Obviously, it’s very contextual because it really depends on what the company is actually doing. I’m not saying that a product-centric CEO isn’t very technical, I’m just saying, say that you had three engineers starting a company, I’d bias towards the one that had the strongest both products sensibilities but also is very effective at selling.

Anand Daniel: Selling doesn’t necessarily mean only selling, it’s also for hiring and all kinds of selling.

Elad Gil: Yes, it’s convincing. Can you convince people to join your company? Can you convince investors to give you money? Can you convince customers to take a shot on you? Often that ends up being a very crucial component. It doesn’t have to be that way. I know of founding situations where the more effective founder at selling is not the CEO and those companies do perfectly fine too.

Again, it just comes down to what sort of company it is. To take a bigger step back, I think the most important things are: number one, you just need somebody in charge. One of the myths of Silicon Valley is that you should always have equal co-founders and I would separate equal in equity from equal in decision making. Ultimately, you need somebody to make a decision and a lot of the founder blow ups I’ve seen have been due to the fact that you don’t have clear decision making.

People say, “Well, I make the decisions on product and this other person makes decisions on business and therefore it’s no big deal and we get along great.” That doesn’t really work because eventually the product and the business will conflict on something. The technical side of the business will conflict on something. You need somebody who can just make a final call with the agreement that everybody just moves on.

Anand Daniel: The one almost, for lack of a better way, the deal breaker, where the buck stops with them. If there’s any any conflict, they should be able to resolve that.

Elad Gil: Exactly.

Anand Daniel: Actually the framework you mentioned is very good for the listeners listening, so overall the skills needed or overall strategic direction, hiring and allocating resources, raising capital be through either fundraising or sales, and then the final one is act as a psychologist. That’s pretty unique. Maybe talk a little bit about that. That’s not often heard.

Elad Gil: I think it’s a little bit of an add on simply because what a lot of founders find themselves doing or how they morph, how their role morphs over time is that eventually a lot of their job is one, strategic direction and weighing in on things, but two is really managing teams at scale and communicating effectively to those teams. What that means is you really have to get in touch with how do people view the world, that may be very different from your own view as a founder, and how do you ultimately encourage and nudge them to do the right things for themselves and for the company and simultaneously, how do you just align people against a goal.

Part of that alignment means that there may end up being some pretty high touch interactions with people on your team around different things that they’re thinking about or facing, almost psychologically in the role that they have. Similarly, can you identify when an executive is reaching the point of scale at which they’re going to break? What are the warning signs of that. Those are often almost psychological cues. Somebody always late to meetings and seeming very flustered. Is somebody starting to micromanage because they are out of time and they’re just jumping on everything. You start to see these patterns. I do think that’s another role that a CEO can play over time.

Anand Daniel: Got it. That’s really good advice there. You give some really good tactical advice in the first chapter, the role of the CEO. Could you talk about a few of those for the founders listening in. Which of those, in your opinion, is a must do? I’m sure all them are, but if you could talk about a few of those.

Elad Gil: Sure. I think one thing I’ve seen a lot of founders struggle with is ultimately they are very used to, as a founder, having to do everything themselves. That’s everything from writing the code for the product initially to all the hiring, to customer calls, to everything.

Anand Daniel: Superman.

Elad Gil: Yes. They’re basically Superman and as the company scales, a lot of founders keep doing things that they actually shouldn’t be doing. It’s not the most valuable use of their time. Often what I end up eventually doing with some of the founders I work with, is I literally sit down and say let’s go through your calendar day by day for this week and talk about the things you actually shouldn’t be doing.

A friend of mine has this really interesting framework which is the way that you become successful early in your career is you say yes to everything. You take on more responsibility, you go to networking events, you take on more meetings, you do whatever you can to scrape your way in, but then once you become successful you will have to switch to saying no to almost everything. It’s a very hard mental transition for people, because it’s the opposite of the thing that made them successful.

I think in the context of a startup, the version of that is you’re used to do everything yourself, but then you suddenly realize, do I really need to be in the weekly sales meeting that’s getting into the nitty-gritty of every single thing or do I really need to be in the meeting that’s discussing the exact technical architecture of my back end? Related in the flip side of that is, you don’t want to get rid of all the stuff you enjoy however. I think the biggest reason that founders eventually burnout is in their role as CEO, they take on more and more stuff that they don’t want to be doing day by day. In some sense, those are the things that you should most actively delegate. If you really hate having to sit in the sales comp meeting, delegate that and then discuss it with your VP sales.

On the delegation side, I think the one other thing that is a good thing to do besides the auto-editing of your own calendar, is try to leave meetings without any action items as much as possible. There’s lots of times that I’ve seen CEOs jump in and take action items that really one of the people on their team should be doing instead. First and foremost is delegate.

Second big transition is growing skills as a manager. There’s tons of say about that. Third, is focusing on communication. I think fourth, which is another thing that a lot of people don’t talk about is becoming more commercial if you’re a technical founder. Really start teaching yourself what are the different pricing models in the world? How should I actually price my product? Think more strategically about that. There’s all sorts of online content around that or people you can talk to.

A lot of people will see organic bottoms up success for an enterprise SAS company now, and they’ll just take a very long time to build a sales team because they just don’t think it’s needed, but they could have been growing two, three times faster if they actually thought about sales and marketing more as a tool. I think it’s almost like forcing yourself to fill out your weaknesses.

That doesn’t mean you have to know how to do everything. It’s more just educate yourself and then maybe hiring the people who can do it because ultimately, startups are a team effort. You should figure out the one or two things that you’re exceptional at and then hire out a team that can do all the things that you don’t do well.

I’ll give you an example of that. There was executive at Google who I worked with, who’s one of the best people manager I’ve ever seen in my life. He was extremely detail oriented and an amazing operations person. This was somebody on the sales and operations team, but he was very non-analytical. In other words, he just wasn’t very good with data.

Anytime a data-centric project would come up, he’d put up his hand and want to do it because he thought that he’d be rounding out a skill set, but really he just wasn’t very good at it, he didn’t have the right skill set, he didn’t have the right instincts. Frankly, he was very good at managing the people who could do it very well. Sometimes, if you’re weak at something, it’s okay to be weak at it. Just find somebody who’s good at it and let them do it. You don’t have to be great at everything.

Anand Daniel: Hope you’re taking notes there. There were a lot of deep points there, first on the role of the CEO and what are the four main things that the CEO should be focusing on: strategic direction for the company, focusing on hiring great talent, raising capital be it through fundraising or through customers and finally, being the psychologist for the company.

Then he went into a series of tactical advice on starting from auditing the calendar and figuring out where you should be actually spending time and delegating the rest of your tasks to other people as well as leaving meetings without action items, unnecessary action items, working on your communication skills, developing managerial skills, developing good commercial acumen as a founder and figuring out what you are as a founder exceptional at, and figuring out other team members to compliment you and round out the team.

At the end of the day, startup is a team sport, as he pointed out, and you as the CEO, need to develop a team around you that can really make you shine together as a team. Now, in this next section, Elad is going to be talking about how do you take care of yourself as a CEO? This is not often talked about, but very important for the CEO to be working on.

Elad Gil: I think a related point is take care of yourself. If you’re working seven days a week, 10 hours a day, eventually, you’re not going to be able to sustain that. You should also figure out how to carve out time. Do a date night with your spouse once a week and make sure that you make that 80% of the time or 90% of the time or whatever. Do take occasional long weekends. Make sure that you’re also taking care of yourself. Exercise, it’ll help a lot with sleep [chuckles].

When I started Color, I was CEO there for the first four years and frankly, one of my big regrets is there was a couple of circumstances where I worked through weekends where I really shouldn’t have. My first anniversary with my wife, we went away to Napa which is wine country in the Bay Area. We were supposed to have a romantic weekend and then I spent half of it negotiating a big deal on the phone that didn’t come through. Honestly, if I’d waited three days that deal still would have ended up in the same result. I should have just waited three days.

I think we also put this burden of urgency on ourselves as founders and most of the time, that’s the right thing to do but sometimes you also have to draw clear lines just for your own health and the health of your relationships.

Anand Daniel: Actually I want to double click there because in India, founders think that the more number of hours they work, it’s better for the company. I want to hear your thoughts there, is the thinking different in the Bay Area or in the US?

Elad Gil: I think you do have to work hard to be successful. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes you see founders who are always off on some boondoggle, they got invited to some networking event or they’re doing just things that frankly, are just not real work. Definitely, there’s the extreme lazy side of the world which I definitely don’t endorse. The flip of it is it can go too far where if you’re working 10 hours a day, seven days a week, frankly, you’re not probably being ultimately productive even if it feels that way.

Even if you are productive, you’re just going to hit a point where you’ve either completely destroyed other aspects of your life and support system which is bad for you psychologically and eventually will come back and bite you. Or you just exhaust yourself to the point where you’re just not effective and you’re making bad decisions, and you’re always tired and grumpy and creating a bad environment because people learn from you as CEO in terms of how to act culturally.

I do think that it’s very important to make sure that you unplug. I also think it’s very important to make sure that you’re building those other relationships in your life. So if work is going really hard and bad, but aspects of your personal life are positive you’re going to weather the storm much better than if everything’s going bad because you’re not investing in those relationships long term.

Anand Daniel: Do you have any examples in the valley of people you think who have done outstanding job? I know I’m putting on the spot, but we hear of all these legendary people, so anyone you think who does it well?

Elad Gil: Sure, I think the Collisons from Stripe are very hard workers, but you also see them they’ll take the week vacation to go somewhere or the weekend off where they’re doing a quick trip. I do think they work very hard. Honestly, a lot of the people that have modeled themselves as workaholics in the press, you then hear of them, “They just spent a week in London.” So you’re like, “What?” They’re talking about how they’re sleeping on the floor of their office all the time but they’re off doing all these other things.

I think some of those things are a little bit of the mythos of a lot of founders that they create for themselves. I do think they have periods of incredible intensity and hard work, especially around shipping a product or in the early days of a company. If a company is 10 years old, and the founder is still sleeping on the floor because they didn’t leave work for the night, usually there’s something weird going on or it’s just not correct.

Anand Daniel: Absolutely. These are all really good points in the role of the CEO. I want to switch gears and talk about what are the other things as a founder, it could be the CEO or it could be any of the founders because there could be one who’s in charge of technology, another one in charge of operations, any of them. The reason I’m asking this is the thesis is that the founder scaling is an important part of the company scaling. You’ve talked about some of it already, in your view — and you’ve talked about a few of these in your books, maybe you can just go through those points, like what are the top ways that you’ve seen founders scaling well?

Elad Gil: Sure. I think the first thing to ask yourself as a founder is, what do you really want to be doing and what are you good at if you’re not the founder CEO? That’s going to be a conversation with the CEO and with the board and with your other co-founders. There are some circumstances where founders decide, “All I want to do is be an IC and I’d be happy with that.” A great example of that would be Steve Wozniak, Apple, where he was actively relieved. They didn’t have to manage people.

There are some people who just want to be very deep technically, and they’re very happy with that and that’s great. I think usually those people stick with the company for a long time and they work out very well. Similarly, you see situations where founders really continue to take extremely important roles throughout the life of the company, even if they’re not the CEO, and they play an important role in the strategy and the development of the company. A great example of that would be Nate, one of the co-founders of Airbnb, where Brian Chesky has always been the CEO, but Nate’s taken an enormous responsibility.

He actually started off as the engineering co-founder of the three of them, but his role morphed dramatically over time and now I believe he’s the Chief Strategy Officer, he’s the chairman of Airbnb China, he’s been involved with their internationalization, with their operations. He’s really been one of the key backbones of the company. I think there’s circumstances like that where somebody is extremely capable, and they just take on a wide variety of responsibilities. Then there’s other circumstances where people take on a more narrow role as a VP or, again, as an IC, and I think that’s great too.

I think it just comes down to what you’re good at, what you want to do, how everything evolves. I think where things tend to break down is where a founder wants a role that’s bigger than what they’re actually capable of doing. Sometimes you just have to ask yourself is that really the right thing for you to be doing then long term? Should you stick around or not? At some point, it’s okay to leave if the company is successful.

In other words, if the company’s not successful, you want to be all hands on deck and keep it going until you decide to pull the plug or to sell it or something starts working. If something’s working very, very well, at some point, it may be okay to have that conversation of, “Do I still want to be here and am I still needed?” There’s two components of that: one is are you working on things that you’re excited about. If the answer is no, then what can you work on that you would be excited about?

Alternatively, it’s quite possible that it’s just not the stage of company that you enjoy anymore. You’re just not somebody who likes things that are 1,000 people or likes 10,000 people. Maybe you just like it when it’s 10 people and you should go do that again, or maybe you prefer investing because you’ve started doing that on the side. I don’t think every founder has to be the CEO. Or eventually, they may decide that they don’t want to be.

Reid Hoffman at LinkedIn is a great example of that where he was CEO of LinkedIn for the first couple of years and he realized, “You know what?” He just didn’t want to be CEO. That wasn’t the role that was right for him. He wanted to work more on strategy and deals. He didn’t want to run the day-to-day. He’s one of the smartest people in Silicon Valley. I think if Reid Hoffman can do it, anybody can in terms of admitting, “You know what? This is not the thing I want to do. I want to do these other things.”

Anand Daniel: For the founder who’s continuing on as the CEO, what are the other skills that they should be actively working on? Some that you might have touched on on the book? The reason I’m asking is just to set the context, we want to get this list from a few different people like yourself, and then maybe start going deeper into each of those areas in further podcasts.

Elad Gil: I think the first thing is really finding and hiring and retaining great people. In particular, the executive layer under them. Because those people give enormous leverage to the CEO. A lot of first time founders, when they hire the first great executive that they’ve had, they have this moment of relief and excitement because that person goes and does a dozen things that they hadn’t thought of and they do it better than the CEO ever could have. They’re like, “Oh my gosh, this is what excellence looks like for this function.”

I think the other aspects that are really important are figuring out how do you start thinking a bit more strategically and commercially, and setting the long-term goals of the company, what are the processes that you adopt so that the company’s all moving in the same direction and coordinating, communicating clearly, and then really, the communication side I think is crucial. A byproduct of that are things like setting culture.

There’s other skills that you can develop over time, but I think the core is really the finding, hiring, retaining talent, thinking strategically and then translating that strategy into actual tactics and operations and movement, and planning processes and things like that, and then communication. Those would be my big three.

Anand Daniel: Got it. Okay. Those are all really good things. In your book, you talk about some tactical areas like marketing and PR, product and tech, are these skills that the CEO comes with or can they learn some of this along the way?

Elad Gil: They can definitely learn some of it along the way. Some founders are just naturally very good at PR or marketing ,or they may just be naturally very good at other things. Fundamentally though, I think it comes back to thinking of a startup as a team effort, and what’s the team that you can assemble who’s really excellent at each one of these areas because no one person is superhuman at everything. [chuckles]

It’s almost like what’s the super power you have and then what are the ones that you want around you. Also, I think there is real functional expertise. In some cases, it takes years to build up. It’s funny because if you talk to somebody about that from an engineering perspective, they say, “Of course, in engineering somebody who has zero experience versus somebody who has 5 years of experience or 10 years of experience, they know how to do different types of things and they’ve seen a lot of things. I’d hire them for different roles.” Then they don’t always necessarily translate that to the business side.

If you’re a technical founder, for example, ultimately, you have to learn that there’s expertise everywhere and then figure out what are the areas where that expertise is really crucial in the function and what are areas where you can just take a bet on it on a person with less experience who’s a bit more of an up-and-comer. I think absolutely, for each of those areas, you’re going to want people who know what they’re doing.

Anand Daniel: Specialist in each of those. It boils down to raising the bar on talent overall, particularly at your executive team. Related to that is something that you talked about earlier on, delegating and letting go. Do you have any comments on that? Because there are founders who find that difficult.

Elad Gil: I think almost every founder I know, including myself, finds that difficult because — part of the reason you’re a founder is you’re controlling your own destiny, which means you have certain aspects of a control freak naturally, otherwise you wouldn’t start a company. Especially if you’re a younger founder, you may not have had experience working as an executive, you’re not as good at delegating.

I think, for example, the way that I ran my first startup, which Twitter ended up acquiring, versus how I ran my second startup, which was after I was an executive at Twitter, was very different, because at Twitter I operated at much larger scale which meant that I was much better at delegating by the time I started my second company, which meant that I avoided a lot of the first time CEO issues the second time around, right.

I do think that it’s something that you’re going to learn by doing, and sometimes you also learn it by hiring really good executives and then just seeing how they operate and learning from that. Bill Gates, there was some interview I read with him years and years ago, where I think he talked about how he will sequentially sort of upgrade the COOs who worked for him, and then he’d learn everything he could off of them.

Years later, he’d hire the next COO and they’d be at the next level of scale and he’d learn from that person. I think some of the best young founders, I know, in some sense learn a lot by hiring great people under them and then learning from that, and observing what they do. Then they often also will do tours. Those go and meet with a dozen other founders or a dozen executives in a specific function and just quiz them on what they do that makes them effective? What do they look for in people for that type of role? What are the interview questions they ask? How would they hire for them? Etcetera. They just also learn a lot by going and spending time with the people who are best at things.

Anand Daniel: Got it. That brings me to — some of the founders that we’ve worked with, I’ve had the fortune of working with, have this growth mindset, what we call as a growth mindset, always learning and wanting to scale, have you observed that? You could talk about people or any characteristics that stood out among those entrepreneurs.

Elad Gil: Absolutely. That’s a great point. I think there’s focus on openness to learning things and realizing that there are people who know how to do things better than you is really important in terms of actually being able to grow and learn things. That’s really crucial. Some of the best founders I know have the right balance of asking a lot of questions, getting a lot of inputs, synthesizing it, and then deciding what to do. What they may decide to do is at odds with what everybody told them, but at least they thought about it and listened to it versus just knee jerk rejected it. I think it’s that open-mindedness that’s really crucial and then that willingness to just make a decision even if it’s unpopular.

Anand Daniel: Hopefully, we’ll get to host you in India sometime soon and really appreciate your time. This has been extremely helpful.

Elad Gil: Thanks so much for having me on. Obviously, I’m a huge fan of Accel India and really appreciate you including me.

Anand Daniel: That was a treasure trove of information in this podcast with Elad Gil, author of the High Growth Handbook highly recommended for any of you who haven’t read it yet. We covered a range of topics from how to pick the right CEO to what are the key roles of the CEO, then we went into some really good tactical advice on skills to develop as a CEO from delegation to hiring to communication and a bunch of other things. Then an important section on how to take care of yourself as the founder and as the CEO, and finally into the section on co-founders’ roles and how to think about that as the companies scale.

Hope you enjoyed the podcast, do tweet us at accel_india with any thoughts feedback on the podcast, as well as you can bookmark insightspodcast.in. That is insightspodcast.in. You can check out all the podcasts from the series there. Look forward to hearing from you and having you back in the INSIGHTS podcast series from Accel. Thanks again for joining.

INSIGHTS #22: A behind-the-scenes look at scaling Flipkart with Binny Bansal

In the first episode of the #INSIGHTSPodcast series for 2019, I had the pleasure of speaking to Binny Bansal — his first ever interview after his departure from Flipkart.

The pace at which Flipkart scaled remains unparalleled in India — it inspires both envy and awe. The pitfalls of scaling too fast are well known but scale is what every startup aspires for. It’s what Sachin Bansal and Binny Bansal wanted, and it’s what they achieved, that too in just a few short years.

With scale comes having to let go — something that most entrepreneurs struggle with. It requires a level of trust that is not easy to give. But Flipkart wouldn’t have been what it is today if the founders hadn’t made that leap of faith.

In this podcast, Binny takes us through his childhood growing up in Chandigarh and how that moulded him, his early interest in computers and how he was “lucky” to join the Computer Science Department at IIT Delhi.

We get a glimpse of his life in IIT Delhi, his love for the “not so popular” courses and how a very unique set of circumstances had him meet Sachin, a year senior to him, as well as the woman he would marry.

He talks about the businesses that he and Sachin considered going into before zeroing in on ecommerce. Coding was easy, convincing distributors to sign up with them was not.

Binny also talks about why Flipkart bought Myntra (and the one reason they wouldn’t have done so). He’s candid about the acquisitions that didn’t work out. When it was time to plan the next leg of growth, what it took to decide to bring in the likes of Kalyan Krishnamurthy (now Flipkart CEO) and Ananth Narayanan (until recently CEO of Myntra).

Binny also discusses his next venture and the role he plans to play in India’s startup ecosystem — one that was synonymous with Flipkart for the longest time.

Accel shares such interesting entrepreneurial stories, with informative nuggets to run and scale your startup. Follow the links below and subscribe to our #Accel #INSIGHTSPodcast Series using the following links: iTunes, Google Podcast, Stitcher, Twitter@Accel_India, and the RSS feed

INSIGHTS Podcast Series — #21: Dinesh Katiyar on Cross-Border startups

In this episode of #INSIGHTSPodcast Series, we focus on Cross-Border startups — particularly software startups that are cross-border in nature from early days. Dinesh Katiyar, our Accel India partner who is based in Silicon Valley shares some of his key learnings from working initially as a cross-border entrepreneur and now as a VC who focuses on this sector.

There is a range of important topics we cover in this podcast:

Sub-sectors in cross-border startups: What are the various sub-sectors within Enterprise Software that Dinesh is excited about? What are some of the nuances of each sub-sector and developing and scaling cross-border startups in these sub-sectors?

India advantage: Is there an India advantage while building Enterprise Software products out of India for the globe?

Product Market fit for cross-border startups: Does building a product for India first and then scaling to international markets make sense? What else startups need to think about in the early days while talking to potential customers of cross-border companies.

Enterprise customers: How can you service Enterprise customers sitting out of India. What can you do differently for these large enterprise customers vs. small-to-medium customers?

Getting the team right: Right hires in the US for an early stage startup with a majority of the team is based in India? Does it make sense to find a co-founder in the US?

Multi-cultural team: How do you build a multi-cultural team and why is that super important for a cross-border company?

World class products out of India: Israel is seen as a hub for tech startups that go global— is there a scope for India to build such a hub and if so how? Some examples of world-class software products built from India.


Accel shares such interesting entrepreneurial stories, with informative nuggets to run and scale your startup. Follow the links below and subscribe to our #Accel #INSIGHTSPodcast Series using the following links: iTunes, Twitter@Accel_India, Google Music: (US & Canada Only)and the RSS feed

INSIGHTS Podcast Series — #20: Barath and Radhika on the Healthcare Landscape in India

We continue with the #INSIGHTSPodcast Series and in this episode, we focus on the healthcare sector and discuss opportunities and the market landscape using examples from the Accel portfolio. To talk about this exciting topic, We have Barath & Radhika, Principal & Sr Associate at Accel whose core focus investment areas are in Life sciences, Medtech and digital health.

On this podcast, we discuss the healthcare landscape in India using examples from the Accel portfolio and what to look for while building out a healthcare company from India :

Examples from Accel portfolio on problems being solved in healthcare for global markets

  • Lifesciences
    What is life sciences — the model of an IP led lifesciences company solving global problems
  • Mitra Biotech
    Why did they choose to start in India?
    The solution to an age old problem — How do you understand the effects of drugs on tumors without bombarding a patient with the drugs
  • Zumutor
    Building a platform to develop molecules for improving drug delivery to cancer cells
  • Healthcare Delivery
    The problems with the healthcare delivery in India
    Moving care back to the home — counter intuitive insight and how Portea plugs the gaps in the delivery space
  • Digital health
    Onco.com — using digital distribution to disrupt the current value chain and deliver better care for patients
  • Using AI to deliver healthcare in the diagnostics space — How sigtuple uses digital distribution and AI to deliver healthcare and diagnose correctly.

The Indian Advantage — Why healthcare is attractive in India

  • Capital efficiency from being in India
    3x-5x advantage in capital required from building from India
    Talent, Infrastructure arbitrage from India — The Indian pharma story for next wave of lifesciences
  • Speeding things up — How India helps speed up development
    The regulatory advantage — lesser regulations for initial development of drugs. Using the initial momentum and taking the drugs to more regulated markets for trials — the difficulty of trials in the Indian market
  • Examples where the thesis on cost and time plays out
    The estimates from Axio — getting to market with 1/10th the capital and 60% of the time to get to market with a great product
    Setting the standards in India so the product goes global — no compromise on quality

The healthcare business — things to consider while getting into the healthcare sector

  • The trust process — building trust, and the time and effort it takes to build trust
  • Importance of IP — having a good IP and using peer-reviewed publications for validation and marketing
  • Patent portfolio and defensiblity of patents — defending incremental IP and not infringing existing patents, and filing patents to get it out in the world
  • The team — building a team as the company grows, and the expertise required; the differences between life sciences, and non-life science businesses
  • The Indian story — shift from communicable to chronic disease, infrastructure gap, mobile first country and the advantage technology provides in such an environment.

Accel shares such interesting entrepreneurial stories, with informative nuggets to run and scale your startup. Follow the links below and subscribe to our #Accel #INSIGHTSPodcast Series using the following links: iTunes, Twitter@Accel_India, Google Music: (US & Canada Only)and the RSS feed

INSIGHTS Podcast Series — #19: Narayan, Power2SME on Building a B2B marketplace for India

We continue with our discussion on building for India in the #INSIGHTSpodcast series and in this episode, we focus on selling to manufacturing SMEs. To talk about this important topic, we have Narayan, Co-founder of Power2SME, a “buying club” for SMEs. Narayan is a serial entrepreneur and before starting Power2SME, he was the founder & CEO of Denave, India’s largest technology powered sales enabling services company. Previously he held various leadership positions in companies like Oracle and Microsoft.

On this podcast, we discuss the need for a “buying club” for the Indian SMEs, the role of credit in the economy, the life of a few and inescapable market effects:

Identifying a value proposition that can scale
– Solving the right problems — choosing a problem which is a real pain point for customers
– Importance of aligning with the interests of all players in the ecosystem

Building out the marketplace
– Building out a marketplace for large sellers and small buyers
– How is the market structured, and the quality of supply in India
Onboarding small unorganized players onto an organized marketplace
– Turning Skeptics to believers — getting your first large seller to take you seriously

Working capital for SMEs
Challenges with getting credit for SMEs and the challenges for banks to — underwrite and service SMEs
– Why is working capital a big issue for SMEs? Potential for innovation
– Taking on risk with NBFCs to enable credit for SMEs
– The ILFS, liquidity crunch and how the credit system operates

Lessons learnt from running a startup
– The ups and downs of running a startup — dealing with market effects
– Effects of policy and regulation on business and SME
– Diversification of portfolio of customers and lenders
– Advice for startup founders — the importance of building a strong leadership and mentorship network


Accel shares such interesting entrepreneurial stories, with informative nuggets to run and scale your startup. Follow the links below and subscribe to our #Accel #INSIGHTSPodcast Series using the following links: iTunes, Twitter@Accel_India, Google Music: (US & Canada Only)and the RSS feed

INSIGHTS Podcast Series — #18: Rahul Garg on building Moglix — a B2B Marketplace for MRO

We continue with our discussion on building for India in the #INSIGHTSpodcast Series and in this episode, focus on building an eCommerce company for Industrial India. To talk about this important topic, We have Rahul, Co-founder of Moglix, a B2B marketplace for MRO (Maintenance, Repair, and Operating Supplies). Before starting Moglix, He has held various leadership positions at Google in Asia Pacific and is a graduate of ISB and IIT Kanpur.

On this podcast, we discuss building a B2B marketplace for the Indian Industry:

  • Choosing the problem — How do you think about the problem to go after? How do you evaluate B2B market opportunities?
  • Importance of market size and, conversely in especially large markets figuring out what is the value proposition and the market-segment you can address with this value proposition
  • The chicken and egg problem — what comes first in a marketplace — solving for what comes first on your platform — identifying the size of buyers and sellers and determining the build-out of your marketplace
  • Contrasting between B2B and B2C — buying behavior and differences in customers
  • The difference in the decision-making process of B2B and B2C customers and ticket size changes and the way the product must be built out
  • Cash flow — B2B runs on credit while a B2C is on cash being paid upfront; rethink cash cycles for your business
  • Winning in the space — How Moglix is building a well-loved and resilient business
  • Building a tech-first marketplace to handle scale in the future
  • Surviving the initial few years and emerging as a leader in the space
  • Hiring the right talent for the team, and hiring for B2B
  • B2B businesses are not glamorous — finding the right talent means finding people with a passion for the business and the problem you are trying to solve
  • Hire a diverse group of people who bring complementary skill sets to your team — juggle responsibilities till you find the right hire for the role

In the next few podcasts, we will dive deeper into startups in the Indian Business Sector. If there is any feedback on this podcast or questions for the next set of episodes, please do share as a comment below or tweet us at @Accel_India


Accel shares such interesting entrepreneurial stories, with informative nuggets to run and scale your startup. Follow the links below and subscribe to our #Accel #INSIGHTSPodcast Series using the following links: iTunes, Twitter@Accel_India, Google Music: (US & Canada Only)and the RSS feed

INSIGHTS Podcast Series — #17: Prayank Swaroop on exciting startup opportunities in the Indian…

We continue with the #INSIGHTSpodcast Series and in this episode, we focus on tackling the Indian market, why selling to Indian businesses is an exciting untapped opportunity and how one can build for India. To talk about this important topic, we have Prayank, a Principal at Accel who invests in B2B, Consumer Brands and Fintech. He has invested in multiple startups solving problems specifically for Indian Businesses across sectors.

On this podcast, we discuss building for the Indian Business and how to go about building it out:

  • Indian Business Sector — Why it is an exciting space to build technology enabled startups
  • Picking a sector — What to look for and things to be wary about while picking a sector
  • Handling capital in a B2B business — payment cycles, working capital and managing your finances
  • Dynamics of a marketplace — Building supply, demand and building robust marketplaces

In the next few podcasts, we will dive deeper into startups in the Indian Business Sector. If there is any feedback on this podcast or questions for the next set of episodes, please do share as a comment below or tweet us at @Accel_India


Accel shares such interesting entrepreneurial stories, with informative nuggets to run and scale your startup. Follow the links below and subscribe to our #Accel #INSIGHTSPodcast Series using the following links: iTunes, Twitter@Accel_India, Google Music: (US & Canada Only)and the RSS feed

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