Akshay Kothari Curated
Co-founder of Pulse, a mobile application that ...
CURATED BY :
What is your favourite book?
Do you think you lucked out with pulse?
If not at LinkedIn then where?
What kind of music do you like?
What really inspired you?
Where do you spend most of your time distressing from work?
Would you look at expanding in the sense doubling the kind of workforce out of India?
What will you like to tell us about your acquisitions & changing of monetizing products?
Can you kindly percentage-wise break revenue for us?
Do you look increasing the kind of share of paid users at LinkedIn?
Can you expect to possibly double the revenue over the next 2 to 3 years, is that a target you are working with?
What is the right number of revenue jump at LinkedIn & trajectory of it?
When can LinkedIn cross that milestone of achieving 100 million users in India?
What more can we expect in the Indian Market locally developed products?
What are the numbers looking like in terms of the downloads & acceptance in Tier 2 & 3 cities?
What is the kind of growth and strategy out there as far as LinkedIn is concerned?
What would be your three key priorities when you've taken over & it has been years now?
How does it feel to be the youngest amongst your peers?
I think people ask me this because they compare me with the other multinational company's country managers. So yes, I feel kind of young with them. But then I also, hang out with a lot of entrepreneurs, building these amazing companies and feel very old with them. So, I am somewhere in between(*Laughs). Personally, for me, LinkedIn India is a start up! We are a small organisation, building products to deliver value to our members. We need to constantly evolve and be upbeat with the market and cannot afford to be slow moving dinosaurs in today's world. There are start-ups building up businesses in a garage!
Any particular advice you have for start up businesses?
It's hard to generalize these things, but if I have to give only one advice, it would be to remain customer and member centric and focus on whom you are driving value to, by creating these products. Therefore, start-ups or established entities, make sure that the people that are working in your organisation are obsessing about the people they are serving.
Any other acquisitions or projects in the pipeline for 2017?
In terms of new projects, we are very excited about the recently announced project in collaboration with Microsoft, when Satya was in town, called the Project Sangam. We have a massive amount of people in India who maybe are looking for contract jobs or hourly positions that we don't currently address. It's still in its early stages but would be worth taking a notice of, once it kicks off. Beyond Sangam, there is a deeper focus on the SMBs (Small Medium Business) for us. Last year was a lot of 'Make in India, for India'. A lot of products that we built for India are actually very applicable for the other emerging markets as well. So, LinkedIn Lite is going to be the first product that would go beyond the country to the other markets. Akshay, before LinkedIn, you were an entrepreneur and inventor of Pulse, as we all know. Seeing the start-up industry today, which is coming under the negative radar, what are your views… I want to begin by saying that it's very easy for people on the outside to comment and it's always harder when you are in the game. Because of my entrepreneur roots, I have gone through the struggle, it's very hard to build up these businesses. I am extremely bullish and optimistic on how far the Indian ecosystem has come in the last 10 years, considering that it's such a nascent market and would continue to do well. There have been ups and downs in the start-up's health and the funding, but in general the ecosystem is stronger than ever.
LinkedIn has been in news for acquiring the London based Beatmysalary.com. Are you in talks for the same?
We don't comment on rumours or speculation. We have nothing to announce at this point.
Going to the other side of the table, how active is the Indian talent?
A big portion of our global numbers are driven from the Indian members, including the unique applications that we have on our site. What we have noticed in India is that people are a lot more active job seekers than the rest of the world, percentage wise. Few months ago, the researcher in the room asked 10 people, 'Who in this room is at their dream position'? and everyone raised their hands. He again went on to ask, 'Who in this room is looking for a job?', and all the hands were raised again.
You recently came out with a list of top social recruiters on your portal. Taking a cue from the same, how has the trend or outlook of the recruiters evolved over the years?
India is at a growing stage in terms of social recruiting. Leveraging the power of networks for warm introductions and building on common connections is so much more valuable than the traditional recruitment process. Even resumes have become very dynamic these days. The people you meet and connect with, the conversations you have online are probably a lot more interesting to an employer than the piece of paper stating which college you went to and where you worked before.
There are a lot of traditional Indian firms who still do not believe in sourcing people online. How do to plan to break into that market?
We are optimistic about the change. If you see the number of unique people signing up on LinkedIn today, its reach is across the whole country, including tier 1 and tier 2 cities. We have focussed a lot on making LinkedIn very accessible in these cities. I have a funny story to share. When I moved to India, we went out to do a user research session and went to 4 tier 2 towns - Nasik, Durgapur, Davanagere and Meerut to see the perception of LinkedIn. It was kind of embarrassing when we sat down with the students because 30% of the time, the site would not load due to low internet connectivity. We made this a priority to build up LinkedIn Lite, a mobile website which would be blazing fast even on a 2G connection and most of the Indians have access to the same today.
This huge gap that you talked about between skills learnt and skills required, does LinkedIn platform plan to enter this space and bridge the same?
Effectively LinkedIn is a market place. We are uniquely positioned to see what kind of opportunities exist for a particular town or state or country. We recently published a report for Bangalore, where we could tell you that out of 2.5 million people, who are on LinkedIn in the city, what skills they have, what skills are becoming hotter or declining. So we give a good view of what the demand side looks like and where the companies are looking for jobs. We have recently and more actively partnered with the government, giving them the above information mentioned, so that they can adapt their public policy based on that.
So what according to you is the big challenge in the job market for India, apart from skill development?
There is a certain segment where India needs to focus more on- the younger demographic. A recent report by OECD (Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development) says that 30% of Indians between the age of 15-29 are not in employment or education. This is a little bit alarming. Therefore, helping early career starters is one of the areas we have laid our focus on. It is a bullish market, but what we can do better is to link what people are studying and what jobs exist. Our data suggests that there is a big gap between that. People are getting trained or skilled in areas where there may or may not be jobs in future. So if we can somehow close that gap to align our education and learning with where the future jobs exist, the country would benefit from it.
How is the hiring Sentiment in the country? Is it bullish at the moment?
I will take a very objective view with the number of jobs that are there on our platform and the openings the way they are growing, I would say that it's probably the best it's ever been. Now whether these openings will be filled and the companies would be able to source the same, that is a challenge. The better we get with people understanding these opportunities and locating them, it gets better for the country. You hear people complaining where are the jobs and at the same time hear companies say that there are not enough people. We get that a lot on our platform and this is what we call the skills gap. Also there is a lot of disruption happening in the job market due to automation and other things. The functions of the job is changing very quickly. So, unless people are up-skilling themselves to get ready, they will find it very hard to get the future jobs.
What are your insights regarding blue-collared and white-collared jobs?
The blue- and white-collar worlds are getting increasingly blurry. An Uber driver today, could be earning more than some entry-level engineers, while a person with a desk job could earn way less than some delivery boys. So how can you call that desk job a white-collar job, and the delivery boy a blue-collar worker? We’ve one crazy thought: Maybe we don’t need to distinguish like that and find a completely new way to address this gap. Our goal has always been to include all sorts of jobs.
How was Jeff Weiner's visit to India?
In September 2016, Weiner visited India and besides launching the three products, spent an hour with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. For at least half an hour, Modi ji spoke about the necessity of creating a platform for the blue-collar workforce. We started with the knowledge workers because we felt that was the more organised sector, also the more lucrative sector. But there’s no other way to grow, we have to go into this [blue-collar] segment.
What did Jeff Weiner have to say when you shared your blog with him about your plans for India before it was published?
Jeff looked through it and said all was good till he reached the end, when he said: "You write that you’re building products for India. I don’t think we discussed that. I thought you’re going to build products in India that will start with India but can be taken on and applied to the rest of the world. Your goal is not just fixing India; you can start with that, but a lot of things that you start there should be applicable around the world." So my plan for 2017 was to take the three products global. Placements can work well in Southeast Asian countries, while Lite can be used around the world, including some parts of the U.S.
Tell us about your move to attract businesses.
LinkedIn Starter Pack—a highly discounted trial package for small and medium businesses. Until recently, all of our premium offerings—recruitment, marketing, sales, and learning—were focussed on the big enterprises—not just from the pricing perspective, but also from a product perspective. It works when you have a team of 10 people in each function. We can now see the appetite of people buying this, how actively they use this product, and if it is really helping them do what they want.
Apart from work, what else have you done?
I did this amazing trip on my own, flew into Kolkata, drove to IIT Kharagpur, drove to XLRI Jamshedpur, drove to Ranchi, spent a few hours there...That fuels me for the next few months. It allowed me to interact with the students at these institutes, to get an idea of the job trends, what’s hot, what’s not. So this year, startup funding has slowed down, startups are avoiding campuses. In fact, students are going back to banking and consulting jobs. Last year, it was all startups.
How well is Placement.com functioning?
Placements.com serves to create a level playing field and democratise job opportunities. If you were at IIT and I’m at a relatively unknown college, it doesn’t matter because we’re both going to take this standardised test and whoever does well, gets an interview. In two months, 250,000 students took the tests, sending 2 million job applications. In about 10 weeks, 37 companies, with thousands of job openings, looked at the data, shortlisted candidates, and interviewed them.
How did Placement.com come about?
Placements.com lets students take a standardised test based on which they are matched to prospective jobs. India is a unique market with a massive over-supply problem. If a company is looking for an entry-level software engineer and puts that up on LinkedIn, chances are that company will be inundated with 100,000 applications. And there’s no way of evaluating these applications because even a GPA system won’t work. Therefore, standardised tests.
What was your first move when you introduced LinkedIn to India?
My first move of note in my new role was to cobble together a team of engineers, web developers, designers, and marketers and travel with them across four cities, non-metros all: Nashik, Meerut, Durgapur, and Davangere. I hadn’t been in India for 12 years and I felt as if I didn’t know much of the target segment we’re going after. So part of the trip was me wanting to learn. The other reason was the realisation that LinkedIn’s growth in India wasn’t going to come from people with 4G connections or broadband. LinkedIn, like Google and Facebook, would have to roll up its sleeves and find its next customers—students in small towns, a segment largely not understood by the LinkedIn team. For two weeks, we interacted with people we wanted to design products for. The results of this India yatra: three distinct products. Lite, Placements.com, and a Starter Pack. Fresh from the trip, I had overseen a number of minor tweaks to the product: content specific to India, improved job recommendations, a faster sign-up process, and standardising data among others. But these three new products were to solve problems that couldn’t be addressed by tweaking LinkedIn.
What was your first move when you introduced LinkedIn to India?
My first move of note in my new role was to cobble together a team of engineers, web developers, designers, and marketers and travel with them across four cities, non-metros all: Nashik, Meerut, Durgapur, and Davangere. I hadn’t been in India for 12 years and I felt as if I didn’t know much of the target segment we’re going after. So part of the trip was me wanting to learn.
How did LinkedIn grow in the past years?
Like a startup it may be, but with over 39 million users, India is LinkedIn’s second-largest market and has been among the fastest growing since it set up shop in December 2009. Although the company grew multifold in its first six years, some of its stated objectives were still to take off. By 2014, LinkedIn India had identified the need to attract students. But nothing had brought them to the fold until I had walked in.
What was the charter for LinkedIn?
The charter was always product. But I remember Jeff telling me that if I do my job well, LinkedIn India will be like a startup within LinkedIn. So we don’t have to operate as one of 10,000 people at LinkedIn, or now 100,000 at Microsoft. We have to think like a team of six, disrupting on our way to meet our goals.
What made you consider about introducing LinkedIn to India?
I hadn’t taken a break in a long time, and I had promised my wife that I was going to take a year off and we’d finally get our honeymoon. The idea was to spend that year in India. I had told LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner my plan, expecting to be let off easily. Instead, Weiner told me I could definitely go to India—and run LinkedIn there.
How did Pulse become a success?
Pulse proved to be a huge success, and within three years, it was snapped up by LinkedIn. I joined the LinkedIn team, initially to help integrate Pulse with LinkedIn, and later to develop new products. By 2015, the Pulse integration was complete, making LinkedIn not just a network for recruitment, but also a professional publishing platform.
How did pulse come into being?
It was a project that was part of my course, but ended up as a successful startup in its own right. The techie became an entrepreneur.
What would you say is important for your business?
Today I wouldn’t start a new project without first having spoken to the target group, culling insights, having a point of view and building a prototype. So the product teams at LinkedIn don’t have weeks of meetings to figure if we want to build a product. Instead, we sit with the designers and hack together a prototype, which helps them decide if they should pursue the project. The value of empathy and bias towards action is something I picked up at that class at Stanford.
How did the ramen experiment transform you?
Like many geeks, I too used to fiddle with codes, tweaking or creating products purely out of academic interest. The focus on empathy that I had learnt at design school made me start thinking of the user and creating products designed to improve user experience.
Tell us about one of your first projects at design school?
To develop a product that helps people eat ramen or noodles better, with my teammates, I had to spend the next three days staring at people eating noodles at restaurants and talking to customers buying ramen at the Japanese supermarket. We quickly realised that people had pretty deep opinions about ramen. Some liked it soupy, some liked it less soupy, some liked when the noodles were long, some ate it on the go, some ate it as fine dinner. There were a lot of insights coming through, just because we had paused to observe. Before the week ended, we had built prototypes to improve the ramen-eating experience. One of them was a thick straw that let people slurp the soup and noodles simultaneously. It didn’t work as well as we thought it would, but it taught me the importance of prototyping.
Can you encapsulate your learnings from the design school in just one word?
What took LinkedIn so long to figure out India needed Lite?
Low connectivity isn’t a recent problem. When you are a big company like LinkedIn, you come up with 20 different things you want do in a quarter, but realise you can do only 12. Sometimes the eight that get cut end up being things that are internationally.
So, no interest in building a chat or video chat product?
Not in the near term. I think Slack is one of those enterprise tools that people at companies actually like. For a lot of these other tools, we just have to use it, not because we love it but because that that’s what exists.
Are those needs universal for big and small teams?
For the first 100 people you can actually do a lot with Notion. With 30 people, we pretty much run the entire company, except for using Slack for internal communication and Intercom for external communication like talking to customers. Everything else is actually on Notion, like our application tracking system for recruiting inside Notion, our sales CRM is in Notion, our wiki obviously is, our project management as well — no, we don’t use Jira. For sub-100 businesses, you actually don’t need another tool. When you get to hundreds of people what tends to happens is that some person or some team tends to have a preference for a specific tool. In those situations, Notion plays well with other tools. You can embed things easily. So let’s say Excel or Google Sheets is something that you want to use, you can just embed that inside Notion. So Notion becomes this kind of central nervous system for all of the work that people are doing. Building on that, one of the things we haven’t done is we don’t do synchronous communication so we’ve stayed away from that because I feel like people like using Slack. On Slack, you can’t actually collaborate on a project… Notion has become a place where you can actually do a lot of your work alongside the synchronous communication.
Since you joined do you think the idea has shifted at all?
In terms of the original idea, we were thinking about how people who didn’t know how to code could build things like tools and software that were really useful. I guess the only realization has been that not everyone wakes up wanting to build software, but everyone wakes to solve problems. That was the pivot to focusing on notes, wikis and tasks, because that’s actually something that every team needs.
Where does your story begin with Notion? Give me a snapshot of where the team is now.
[Notion co-founders Ivan Zhao and Simon Last] started Notion six years ago and that’s when I invested. I had sold my previous company and I had this newfound money that I didn’t know what to do with. I invested in Notion, so that’s my connection. We were kind of in research mode for many years trying to uncover what the market needs were. We launched about two years ago; 1.0 was just notes that you could take and a wiki so that you could collaborate with people. And then last year we launched databases and that was the 2.0 version, which kind of seemed like an inflection point, where now you could not only have your notes and your wiki, but also manage your tasks, manage your projects, manage candidates and recruiting, all in a single tool. Over the last year and a half, the company has grown extremely fast. I joined about a year ago, there were about 10 people at the beginning of this year and now we’re close to 30. It’s still a really small engineering team. We’re 9 engineers, we don’t have any product managers, and we’re 2 designers. So there are about 10 people that are building the product, and 10 people on community and support teams, something that we’ve invested very heavily in. We’re starting to have a sales and marketing team. We have 2 people in marketing and 2 people in sales. That all rounds up to about 27 which is where we are now.
What are your future plans?
I'm going to give Pulse my best shot. My dream is to make it into a significantly big company. I'm going to give it my all, and then after this, I'll decide if I want to stay here or go back to India. In life, it depends on the opportunities that you get.
Tell me about the path that got you to where you are now.
I was fortunate to get a lot of right opportunities at the right times. It's amazing how when you think that you missed out, or failed, or something didn't work out how you planned, things really work out for the better. I wanted to go to Berkeley or Stanford for undergrad, but I went to Purdue, and I had a nice experience. It has lot of Indians there, and it's a university town. It was an easy transition, knowing there would be similar people around you. And then I ended up making my way to Stanford. The reason I came was because I had a great job with a [venture capital] firm and in 2008 or 2007, there was this huge rush to get H-1B visas, and there were only 65,000 seats, but 150,000 people applied for them. They did a lucky draw and I didn't make the cut, but my back-up plan was Stanford and I got in. It turned out to be a good idea not to be in that industry for a couple of years because there was the economic meltdown. While I was at Stanford, I applied for some dream jobs but I didn't get them, so Pulse happened. I think it's amazing when things don't happen your way. Because other things open up. As a young entrepreneur, you need to keep your eyes and ears open for opportunities that might not have come to you if you had done things as you had planned.
Can you give us a hint about what those new products will be?
It will be best explained when it comes out, but on an abstract level, at the moment Pulse is a very personal and passive consumption experience, and we're hoping to connect Pulse users to each other, and build discussions around news stories. Exactly what those interactions will be will be released in the next few months.
How have your expectations for Pulse changed?
When we first started, we had small dreams, which was to see a couple hundred people use this app, and to make some money. But now, it's become this amazing platform that over 3 million people are using, and our dreams have gotten bigger. Can we take it to tens of millions of people using the product? From a product perspective, we are only just beginning. There is so much more we can do to improve news consumption that goes beyond design and user interface. We'll have new products released this year, and I'm excited about it.
How would you define success for Pulse?
If I ever feel like, "Oh this product is done, it succeeded," then it means I'm bored with it and I want to do something else. My thinking is I'm always trying to think of ways to improve the product. Even personally, I feel like if everyday I'm not learning new things then there's something wrong.
Tell us about those mistakes that you had to face when you started the class.
In some ways, if you're not committing mistakes, then you're not trying that hard. We wanted to try to push the boundary a little bit and take bold steps. Along the way, we made our fair share of mistakes in terms of interaction or something we thought would be an interesting feature but ended up not being one. In the culture of our company is the idea that instead of developing the ideas in your head and building it, let the consumer vote. If we end up making a mistake, we are quick to rectify it. In general, I don't think there's any other place that I know of that embraces failure as well as Silicon Valley does. I've heard a lot of venture capitalists are more interested and get more excited if someone fails, and where else in world would people embrace that? It's cool to actually fail; it's fine to. If you gave it a shot and failed and tried to start a company, people take it as a positive-at least that person went for it. And that's why so much good stuff happens here. You don't fear failure and you're not suppressing the ideas you have just because this area allows you to think big and dream in some ways.
Did you already have the idea when you started the class?
Ankit [Gupta] and I had completed our requirements at Stanford and we had a fun last quarter and we were resisting taking up corporate jobs. Both of us are really into the news space. We had seen a couple of trends and we were mostly looking at news consumption and realising that people are reading their news on their phone and now, on their tablets. And there is not a single news source that people go to; there are multiple sources. In general, we thought the whole idea of consuming news was very broken and that was the gist of the idea before we went into the class. The first week of class is when the iPad got released. We decided that would be our first product, an iPad app. We started testing it at cafes nearby. Ankit would code up the app while I would go out with an iPad and test it with people around me. We would give the iPad to a person and have them play with the app, and look over their shoulder to see what they easily understood, and what they were having trouble with. We changed the product 10 to 15 times based on reactions from users. We came a long way from where it started by watching users closely. Along the way, we made a lot of mistakes also. These mistakes get corrected when you go out and test it.
How did Pulse News come about?
It came out of a class called "Launch Pad." At Stanford, there are a lot of entrepreneur classes from MBA to the Design School. The most unique aspect of the class is that we didn't spend time writing business plans or pitches. The intentional bias was toward action. You came in with your team and the only requirement was that you launch a product before you finish the class. We were working in a compressed time frame of 11 weeks.