From the chief product officer of Flipkart to revolutionising the healthcare space with Suki, Punit Soni has been a major hustler in India’s and Silicon Valley’s startup ecosystems.
His success story as an entrepreneur hit yet another milestone when Suki recently a raised $20 Mn funding led by Venrock, First Round, Social Capital, individual Googlers, and other angels including Nat Turner of Flatiron Health and Marc Benioff (CEO of Salesforce).
With Suki, Punit Soni is building an artificial intelligence (AI) product which intends to reinvent healthcare using cutting-edge machine learning and conversational voice.
It’s a digital assistant that helps doctors take care of their patients better by offloading most of their administrative and overtime work, assisting them at the clinical end.
From Flipster to entrepreneur, Soni’s product understanding remains unmatched. With several product startups coming up in India right now, one of the top concerns of a startup founder is to find a good team.
So, when we hosted Punit Soni on Inc42 Facebook Live AMA, we sought to understand from him that what he looks for while building a product team and how he thinks it should be structured in the initial stages of a startup.
Soni believes it all depends on what problem you are solving.
He explained, “I am solving a problem in healthcare. I have no experience in healthcare whatsoever. I have never worked in the space. It took me five to six months to even understand the basic language of healthcare. It was very obvious to me that I will be able to figure out how to build a product but I will not be able to understand how to go to the market.”
Therefore, one of the first people Punit Soni hired was someone who has actually done sales in go-to-market in three healthcare systems/tech companies over the last 15 years. He hired an MD from Stanford who has been a trauma surgeon for six years as his head of product.
Soni emphasised that it was pretty obvious to him that he needed someone who was a clinician because they would understand how the product can work better than someone who’s just worked on product.
He further elaborates, “So you have to ask yourself what your problem is. Then you have to identify the vacuum in your skill set for that. In my case, I needed go-to-market, I needed speech recognition but design as well, so I got the guy who ran speech recognition in Apple. And then I needed someone who understood enterprise systems very well. That’s why I got my CTO who ran enterprise infrastructure in SalesForce.”
Punit Soni believes that you can build a team once you have identified what skill sets you need and what problem you are solving and what you have.
He further explained that if you go about it in this manner, the best people are going to come and work for you.
But a product company needs a chief product officer. How different is this role is in a big organisation vs a young startup?
Soni explained that in a big organisation, the head of product’s job is to be the voice of the consumer.
“The head of product brings idealism to the table about the vision and what the organisation wants to build. Sometimes, that is untainted by the tactical and real pressures of sales and what we need to do to keep moving the company. The product head is also the glue that joins or marries the sales and the design engineering with each other,” he adds.
So, the chief product officer, in many ways, is a tactician, a diplomat, an idealist — a pretty difficult role to address, especially in a large company.
But, Punit Soni believes that in a small startup, for the most part, there should be no chief product officer.
“The founder or the CEO is the chief product officer. I actually got a product head because I am building something in healthcare and I needed a person who had spent a lot of time as a doctor in health systems. And no matter what I do, I just don’t have the expertise to put myself in the shoes of clinicians,” he elaborates.
Therefore, Soni believes unless that’s the situation you are in, there is no real need for a chief product officer in a startup. You are just wasting money.