Punit Soni may have chosen to return to Silicon Valley but he remains incredibly bullish about India’s startup ecosystem.
In March 2015, Soni was appointed chief product officer of Flipkart, India’s biggest domestic e-commerce company, to much fanfare. It was quite a move for the Wharton alumnus, who’d spent around eight years at Google, including a stint as vice president of Motorola Mobility when it was owned by the search behemoth.
A year later, Soni quit and returned to Silicon Valley to eventually establish Robin, a healthcare-focused artificial intelligence (AI) startup.
After his departure from India, Soni cited the lack of maturity in the startup sector and cultural differences, among others, as reasons for leaving, but he remained optimistic about opportunities in the world’s third-largest startup economy. “If you saw the energy in India, you would be foolish to give up on India,” he said at the time. Since then, Soni, in his personal capacity, has backed Indian ventures like payments gateway Razorpay and New Delhi-based Innov8 Coworking.
In a Facebook Ask Me Anything (AMA) with Inc42 Media on Nov. 06, Soni reaffirmed his confidence in Indian startups making it big, though he warned that there’d be plenty of failures on the way. Edited excerpts:
The Indian startup ecosystem
I think that India has the most exciting startup ecosystem in the world right now…I think that it has the largest concentration of young people in the world who are actually trying to build companies of their own, and so it’s gonna be a rough ride. There’s going to be quite a few years and a lot of failed startups but I do believe that one of the greatest companies in the world, in league with Google, is going to come out of India and it’ll happen in the next few years. Fundamentally, the potential of India is way bigger than almost any place in the world.
The Flipkart miracle
I think that Flipkart is a mammoth company. It’s not really a startup by any account whatsoever. It’s almost 10,000 or 15,000 people if you catch all the other operations people in the game. They have massive infusions of cash. The way they operate and the problems Flipkart has to solve is very different from what has to be solved when you are operating a small startup so it’s hard to translate learnings. But I will say this—there are few people I know who are bigger hustlers than Sachin (Bansal) and Binny (Bansal) are. And if there’s anything you can learn when you start your company is that you just need to hustle. There are going to be pretty bad days and pretty good days but if you put your head to it, there’s a shot that you’ll actually get through it. Any company that successful, let alone has the success of Flipkart, is a miracle because 99% of startups die.
More learnings from giants
The question that I ask everybody, whether they’re a product manager at Google or they’re starting their own company, is “What problem are you really solving?” I care less about how much money you’ve raised, and who you’ve got in your team, and, you know, the fact that you may have some early revenue also…do you actually have a problem statement you’re completely convinced about and do you have a solution or at least a thesis for a solution that you want to test out?
Building a team
I am solving a problem in healthcare. I have no experience in healthcare whatsoever. It was very obvious to me that I knew I could figure out product but I would not understand how to go to market. I needed somebody who’s actually a clinician because they will understand how the product can work more than just a product guy can. You have to ask yourself what the problem is and then you have to identify the vacuums in your skill set for that. You can build a team once you’ve identified what skill sets you need, and you can identify what skill sets you need once you’ve identified a problem and what you can solve. If you go about it that way, the best people will want to work with you.
The right decision makers
The role of head of product didn’t exist a few years ago. People didn’t know what it meant and, no, it doesn’t mean that you do whatever the founder or CEO tells you to do. It actually means you have a strong point of view, you’re the voice of the consumer, you’re gonna figure out how to put everything together. The CEOs and founders in the country still have the tendency to be hierarchical and push through what they really think needs to be done. But slowly and steadily, as more and more companies become successful, we will have the right kind of role models show that a relatively autonomous setup is much better for product development than a hierarchical setup…I have to spend a lot of time arguing with everybody to get anything done (in the Valley) but on the flip side, the Socratic method of discussion means fewer bad decisions are made.
The gamble of consumer tech
Consumer is basically a crapshoot, man. You know after having spent most of my career doing consumer, some of my worst products have been a big success and some of my best products have actually failed. If anybody comes to you and tells you they know exactly how to distribute and get to the first 1,000 or 10,000 users, they’re just bullshitting you, to be honest. I think that the best you can do is make sure that you have identified a problem that is so seminal that it is pretty clear that it makes a fundamental difference if anybody uses it.