Gautam Sinha, the CEO of Times Internet Limited (TIL) — the digital arm of the Times Group — is a legacy in himself. He has been leading TIL, which owns and operates more than 39 digital products and caters to more than 250 Mn monthly users, for over 10 years now. Over the course of his leadership, he has become indistinguishable from the company’s legacy.
Gautam’s association with the Times Group is not the only distinctive feature of his long list of achievements. He started his career as a scientist at the Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO), then moved to the US where he worked on technologies like artificial intelligence, which were in a nascent stage then. He returned to India in 2007 to join the TIL as its first ever CTO.
Having donned the role of a scientist, an engineer, an entrepreneur, an angel investor, and above all, a visionary leader, he has transformed TIL into the massive digital platform it is today by solidifying the technology stack at the company and by bringing the different digital products of TIL on a single platform. He also decentralised all the business operations of TIL so they could operate independently.
In the 17th episode of Ask Me Anything, hosted by Inc42, we talked to the man who is in charge of keeping the wheel of Times Group’s legacy of success turning.
We had a rapid fire round with Gautam before moving on to the questions. Here they are:
Q. The technology company that you admire the most outside of TIL?
A. Apple and Amazon will always be number one on my list.
Q. Who do you think is the most visionary entrepreneur of our time?
A. My personal favourite has been Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk is very close.
Q. Your best angel investment so far?
A. I was the first investor in Delhivery, back in 2011-12. The team has made me look good from that perspective and it’s a phenomenal team. And the company that they have built is remarkable.
Q. Which book are you currently reading?
A. ‘Skin in the Game’
Q. Let’s say Times Internet isn’t there tomorrow and you have to start again from the scratch, which industry would you venture into?
A. I will focus more on the social aspect. I would love to do more socially relevant work, maybe even agriculture.
Q. Who do you consider the biggest competitor of Times Internet?
A. I have never been able to answer this question.
Q. The toughest business decision you’ve had to make?
A. I take a few tough decisions every day. One of the policies that we have adopted is that every business of ours has to be in the first or second position in the first five years. And, if we are not able to achieve this, then we are a fast-fail. So, you have to pivot or you have to move on to something else. When you look at the competition, we have a lot of people who are competitive and are very smart, aggressive, and reasonably funded. We have to work hard, run fast, develop team spirit and humility.
Q. A lot of people look up to you, whom do you look up to?
A. Jeff Bezos
Q. What’s the most crucial skill for the success of an entrepreneur?
A. Perseverance, skill, (being in) the right domain, (being a) good listener, and loads of luck.
Gautam Sinha Reminisces About Dr Kalam And Talks Of Shaping TIL’s Culture
Inc42: So Gautam, let’s start at the beginning of your career when you had just graduated from BITS, Mesra and joined the DRDO. For the first five years, you were launching missiles at the DRDO and then you had the rare opportunity to work with Dr Abdul Kalam himself. This must have been a great experience. Do you have any particular memory or learnings from working with Dr Kalam?
Gautam Sinha: When I graduated back in 1986, I had a degree in computer science and, for the first time because of Dr Kalam, the DRDO started visiting campuses. I was lucky to be selected when Dr Kalam came to our campus.
Working with Dr Kalam, you had to observe a lot of things. In fact, a lot of the things that I do today are what I had observed him doing. Let me articulate some of them. He was a strong believer in the youth. He actually liked spending a lot of time with younger people and we were 22 or 23 years old back then. He would come down from the office and sit on the stairs and you could discuss any topic with him. That experience was extremely enriching for me and my colleagues. It has stayed with us all our lives.
He was also a strong proponent of sports.
A lot of people look up to him as a scientist but he was very interested in soccer. So, he always said that scientists should play bridge and everyone else should play soccer.
The third aspect of Dr Kalam is that we always had an imagery of him as a scientist but there is no better manager than him. There was no better listener then he was. These are the some of the aspects that I can share about Dr Kalam.
Inc42: Looking at your past journey, we’ve learnt that you’re very passionate about shaping the culture of the companies you work with and about building high-performance teams, and that’s one of your main agendas at Times Internet. For a small startup, where there are 10-50 employees, it’s relatively easier to lead a change in the culture, but how do you do it when you have over 10,000 employees? Take us through that process, if you will?
Gautam Sinha: What the company needed five-six years ago was a cultural transformation. So, I became passionate about that and that became my task for the next five-six years. If anyone has to take a cultural transformation, the first thing he should realise is that there is a 95% chance of failure. So, you have to be very careful and methodical and have a plan for five to six years to gradually take a company of this size for a cultural transformation step by step.
And you start taking the steps with the people in the organisation and then you visualise what culture you would like to have five years from now. Your first transformation starts with the kind of people you want to have in the company. Over a period of time, people start to help you to work in a condensed time frame. So, the people who had joined five-six years ago who had faith in the vision of the culture starts accelerating the process and progress in the fourth or fifth year become much faster than the progress in the first or second year. So, people slowly adhere to the process and you cannot have a process that people do not adhere to.
Gautam Sinha On Times Internet
Inc42: The platform strategy you follow at Times Internet seems to be a bit similar to the Ecosystem strategy that we see with companies like Paytm, Amazon or Zoho for example, where all these companies are building multiple complementary products for the consumers and tying them together with a unified experience. Do you think your Platform Strategy and the Ecosystem strategy are any different? And how do you think startups can leverage this strategy? If at all.
Gautam Sinha: So, let me start with the difference, platform strategy is essentially inside the company. The ecosystem that you talk about starts with the government and the policies that they make, the investors, the partners and the company. The ecosystem extends to much beyond of what you are.
If you have the right people in the ecosystem, your chances of success are much higher.
In terms of investment, we have very good partner relations. These are what will help us grow as we move forward. But internally, we have our own platform strategy which talks about how we will integrate the 35 + Digital brands. Startups should not get trapped in the ecosystem. They are components of the ecosystem and they should benefit from the ecosystem. Ultimately, they will contribute to the ecosystem as well.
But the founding fact of the startup should not be that ‘I want to create an ecosystem’. That comes much later and that comes with success and time.
Inc42: Are you ultimately looking to absorb them under the Times Internet Group?
Gautam Sinha: Actually what we have done religiously is that since 2011, we gave TLabs a very independent identity. We never tried to merge TLabs into the Times Internet as an ecosystem. We gave flexibility to businesses within TLabs. They grow on their own to have the right partners in the ecosystem. We’re just enablers to them. There are companies that joined Times Internet but that’s about 5-6% of the companies.
Inc42 Last year when you completed 10 years at Times Internet, you wrote a blog post, narrating your journey of the last decade and I noticed that you mentioned that by next year which means in 2018, Times Internet as a group would be profitable. Would you like to share how is the progress on that so far?
Gautam Sinha: When you look at the 35 and above brands that we run, we have a lot of brands which are mature. These are brands which have been present for the last seven years like The Economic Times, MagicBricks, The Times of India, etc. Then we have a lot of brands which are in the growth stage and also a lot of brands which are in the early stage.
So, for the mature brands, I know that profitability is there. Every year, these companies keep moving in terms of their progress so the early stage can move to the growth stage and the growth stage can move to the mature stage.
We will probably have a hundred brands in the next for four-five years. So, we will always have businesses which are in the growth stage and in early stage but those companies will not be profitable. The only ones which will be profitable are the ones which are in the mature stage. Our objective is to move more companies through the funnel and move the growth stage companies to become mature stage companies. This is when companies will start becoming profitable as an entity.
But the growth stage companies are the ones which take bigger investments. So, when the early stage companies move towards the growth stage, that is when we invest. Now, it remains largely to be seen whether these investments will be of any result. But if we pull out of this business then we will have positive results. I want Times Internet to be a company that will act an anchor for several brands and I want it to continue beyond my lifetime.
And while we are talking about growing 100 brands in the next couple of years, we have also acquired about 13 companies in the last couple of years. We will continue to be aggressive and will continue to build and buy.
Inc42: What is TIL’s biggest success story?
Gautam Sinha: We’re still on a journey. We’re not considering ourselves to be successful yet. While most of our brands have taken no. 1 position in their respective genres, there’s a lot of work to be done. We want to be an ‘anchor company’ – one of the companies – which shapes and defines how internet-based services get consumed and delivered in India. All our mature brands have reached phenomenal success levels. They’re in no.1 across categories by a margin. But, the work – even for them – is cut out because the opportunity that India presents is multifold for all of us. And, I stick to that.
Inc42: What is the impact of subscription economy in print vs digital in ToI? How is Times Internet generating revenue based on subscriptions? Can you give tips to increase subscription with respect to non-news websites, other than quality?
Gautam Sinha: We have few businesses which have actively entered into subscription; Gaana is one of them. Recently, we launched ET Prime, from news and business news. In food, we have Gourmet Passport and Quirk. We will be launching more and more products within the subscription category.
Subscription to us works great both at the individual level and bundle level. With the number of businesses that we have, we are in a very good position to create a compelling bundle for our users in India so that they can buy one subscription from Times Internet and they can consume all the properties at a high discount price, at a great value. We are betting on subscriptions as a strategy, and are going aggressively after that.
Today, we have about 600K subscribers and is growing rapidly. About the average ticket size, these are across multiple businesses. Upto INR 1K per annum would be a good size. With ET Prime, the numbers are going to move North a bit.
Inc42: Digital Media industry is a cut-throat business. How does TIL plan to survive as competition continues to intensify?
Gautam Sinha: I wish I knew the answer, but I will tell you what we are trying to do.
If you look at the Digital Media industry, especially in India, the only defence ability you have are quality and scale. I mention scale because, unlike other mediums, the Internet doesn’t have any boundary.
There is competition from across the globe, which may not come directly but from various angles. Going back, I think of creating compelling propositions for advertisers, end-users – in terms of quality of the content and achieving the size and scale. When people, companies with size and scale come, you must be there with the same level of size and scale that you can satisfy them – whether they are advertisers, partners, marketers, end-users who are consuming your product.
Gautam Sinha On Artificial Intelligence
Inc42: You’re a strong proponent of artificial intelligence (AI) and you worked on it at a time when many people did not even know what AI is. Tell us how do you see AI impacting the media world in the near future.
Gautam Sinha: I think there was a wave of artificial intelligence in the early 90s and many people don’t realise that. Subjects like genetic algorithms started to pick traction then. What was missing at that point was that the computational and storage costs were not supported. So, those studies during the wave did not reach a certain traction compared to what we are experiencing today in the second wave.
I am a proponent of efficiency. I am a proponent of automation. And AI fits extremely well in driving efficiency. AI can pick up things that are repetitive in nature and it can help you in things where you need an extra hand. Over the media industry, it has a direct and an indirect impact.
So, if you look at what is going to change by 2025, we’re not even aware about 80% of the jobs that will exist in 2030. That’s a phenomenal change that we have to adapt to. So, we will require skills that are much more advanced, with more learning, more creative and cognitive, intelligent, and emotional skills, which can’t be replicated just by machines.
Let’s take the example of autonomous vehicles. This is possible in the next seven to eight years. The economic impact of this is just going to be phenomenal. All that you know is that you are going to be taken from one place to another without a hassle. All your entertainment or your news will start in the car and you’re without any stress. There will be less road rage and all kinds of ancillary incidents can be avoided with the coming of this technology.
All these radical changes are going to impact the way we live and think. Media is going to be extremely personalised not just in terms of the content that gets delivered, but also in terms of the format in which it gets delivered. So, whether it is video or text, you would want media to adapt to the conditions of its audience.
There will be a lot of efficiency in the backend as well, in terms of the production of content and the tools that are used in the production of various formats of contents. The media industry has to be ready for this, primarily digital media. It has to innovate and make sure that it gets the right amount of attention.
Personalisation is something which is very important for Times Internet and we have this ad networking tool called Colombia which we have been building for the last four years. Over the last one-and-a-half years, we have focussed on the process of personalisation and how content gets consumed and delivered is where we are strong.
Gautam Sinha On Investments And Entrepreneurship
Inc42: You’re an active angel investor as well, give us an understanding of what kind of companies you look to invest in?
Gautam Sinha: I look for entrepreneurs who have perseverance and a keen sense of doing business. Any business will have its ups and downs. An entrepreneur must have a good listening skill because he or she needs to drive a lot of support from the ecosystem. As we discussed earlier, we can’t benefit from the ecosystem if we’re not good listeners. So, you should always listen to the mentors in the industry. If I see perseverance in a person, then I say that the chance of this person being successful is reasonably high. My investments have been done for Times Internet. So, I primarily look at consumer-facing industries. My personal favourite is SaaS. Most of my investments have been on the consumer side in India.
Inc42: What do you think about reality TV shows like Shark Tank and how much value do you think they add to startups?
Gautam Sinha: Shark Tank has picked up a lot of traction in the last couple of years because of the kind of ecosystem that is prevalent in the US. There is a lot of innovation in the high school stage as well there, and people like to be entrepreneurs. More often than not, young entrepreneurs can create things that are disproportionate because of the intellectual property that is involved.
So, those innovations are supportive of an ecosystem which is prevalent in a developed economy. The Indian economy has not reached a stage. So in India, the innovation is in terms of tech and it is not happening in other verticals. But in the US, Shark Tank is largely about non-tech, which is where innovation is happening over there, whether it be food or style or any other element. I think Shark Tank is entertaining and it has attracted a lot of people to entrepreneurship. But will that ultimately cultivate a large startup ecosystem in India is something that needs to be seen because I have my doubts as of today.
Gautam Sinha On The Impact Of Personalisation And Building Brands
Inc42: What do you think about the negative effects of personalisation as increasing personalisation might create individual perspectives. How will it impact the society?
Gautam Sinha: Any responsible company needs to be aware of this. For us, we have internal processes that makes sure that no personal information (PI) is stored anywhere in the network. We had started this compliance even before the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) became a ‘term’. We need to be sure that any PI doesn’t get abused within Times Internet, at least not on my watch.
Back in 2008-2009, there was a major discussion on whether we should store credit card numbers or not. From a business perspective, it is easy to say that you want to store credit card information because it makes things easy. But, we took a conscious decision that we don’t want to store any financial information. With the kind of responsibility required with that level of information, you have to really step up to make sure you guard the information if you are taking it from the end users.
Second, you give users the flexibility — which is also in line with the GDPR — to choose what they store and what they don’t want to store. Once you give them this flexibility, it’s the users who control the level of personalisation they want. Every business should comply with that. We are a great proponent of fair practices, transparency, and we will be happy to share all this information with anyone. As a responsible company in the Indian ecosystem, we will be truthful to our end users as to what we store. When we store any information, we put a lot of effort in ensuring the safety and security of the information, including internal handling.
Inc42: What role does Tencent play in Gaana? What are you doing with the money that they have invested in Gaana?
Gautam Sinha: I will answer the first part as the second question is quite strategic. I think Tencent today is one of the most respected companies globally. For us to look up to them and learn from them is an experience. Tencent has created a music business that is in excess of $10 Bn in China itself, and globally its enterprise value is greater than that of Facebook.
We need to look up to a partnership like that and realise how they have built the business they have in China, and we need to learn from what they have done to develop that ecosystem around music, the innovations they have carried out, the partnerships they have made, the strategies they have followed, etc. Tencent has been a great partner even in a very short time. And, we’re really looking forward to a larger business with Gaana and that particular partnership. How we plan to spend is a bit strategic in nature, but we will spend it wisely to delight our customers.
Inc42: Can Dineout take on Zomato? Is it too reliant on offers or discounts?
Gautam Sinha: I think the way foodtech has evolved, there are various segments within it.
Today, Dineout and Zomato are playing on two different sub-verticals within foodtech. This is not to say that one cannot enter another and vice-versa. From Dineout perspective, we need to be aggressive towards growth in the segments that we are operating. There’s a huge market opportunity. Look for partners across the foodtech ecosystem where you can make 1+1 to 3, and deliver the best value to the user. I do see a consolidation in the space as we move forward and it will come in various shapes and sizes. Five years is a lot of time in an Internet Age for anyone to do anything.
Inc42: Can Gaana really take on Jio-Saavn, Amazon, Apple and Spotify? What is it’s gameplan?
Gautam Sinha: We certainly hope so. Gaana, over the few years, has gained significant velocity much larger than anyone else. Today, we are at 65 Mn active users and the growth has been very rapid for the time. When we started it in 2011-2012, we wanted it to be a household name; and we are reaching there, or at least in the next two to three years, we will become that a household name in terms of services that we want to discover.
Look at all the names that you have mentioned. Each of them has pros and cons, they have some competitive edge which they bring to the table. Amazon, a global company with a lot of fundamentally good processes; Spotify, with the traction that they have received globally and the products that they have are really a role-model for everyone else. Where we are trying to differentiate is, do we understand India better than everyone else?
Understanding the diversity of India, understanding the infrastructure of India, understanding the paying power of India, creating a proposition as to what Indians want, is where we think we will come out very strongly.
Gautam Sinha On The Walmart-Flipkart Deal And Business Matters
Inc42: Tell us what you think of Walmart acquiring a majority stake at Flipkart?
Gautam Sinha: I just see it a change of labels from Flipkart to Walmart. Nothing fundamentally changes for us as an ecosystem. It does raise questions for the country at large as to what does it mean to Indian entrepreneurial ecosystem, and what is the life that they are looking at.
Inc42: Why haven’t Indian startups managed to achieve global success? What do they need to do?
Gautam Sinha: I think it’s going to happen. It is unreasonable to expect that within a short tenure of the ecosystem, you’ll start to have breakaway companies. But, the ecosystem is right to generate and evolve. We started with certain disadvantages. We were largely a service economy where we never thought or created something big.
While the world was thinking that this is the tech-backend, they were not really about original product creation. We were doing something which was given to us; coding and giving it back. Once you start with that disadvantage, to convert into original thinking, a new product, ideas and creation – which is not necessarily a MeToo – will take some certain time. But, I do see a lot of very young entrepreneurs having the right set of head and who are thinking that way. So, give it another 5 to 10 years and we will see a lot more of this trying-to-break-out from the Indian ecosystem than that which has happened in the past.
Inc42: How do we estimate the value of an online news media with the traffic it is receiving? What metrics should we focus on to increase the value of the digital news website?
Gautam Sinha: I think the proxy that one should always use is ‘engagement’. It’s not necessary the UVs or even any other metric, but if you’re able to engage a user, if the user comes back to you on a regular basis, and if the user is loyal to you – you’d typically get a good metric as to how to value your business. It’s not just for media, I think any digital product needs to look at these criterias. If you’re not getting retention and loyal users to your brand and content, then there is something fundamentally wrong in the value creation. But if you’re sure that you have a loyal set of users, you’ll create a sustainable business – even if the numbers are small.
Inc42: What is the biggest challenge that TIL is facing today?
Gautam Sinha: TIL is continuing to learn. I will never say that we have learnt all the lessons. India is continuously evolving in terms of the work structure. We are continuously evolving in terms of the level of delegation we do to an individual business. We’re continuously trying to learn from the best practices and see what gets applied to Times Internet Ltd. It’s a massive listening and learning exercise that we are going through than a lot of critical thinking that goes on top of it – that out of 100 ideas, these are the three or four that I want to try out. This is the right time to try out.
We have a great set of leaders within the company, and for us, it’s the team that makes the difference. Everybody is aligned in that vision which we want to create to become an anchor company in the Indian ecosystem – just like the BAT of China; Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple of US. We want to be one of them as it shapes up in India.
Inc42: When you say that the team is important, how do you hire the best talent?
Gautam Sinha: There are three properties that we started looking for (this is back to the question when we talked about how people are fundamental to the transformation). Back in 2011-12, we had a rule that we want entrepreneurs in the system. We want all of our businesses to be run by entrepreneurs: that was the fundamental distinction.
Today, 80% to 90% of our businesses is run by people who have done a business before, who have had their skin in the game, who understand the value of creating something large, who are hungry, passionate about the vision – that’s the starting point for us.
First entrepreneurs, second the product and technology as background, and third – we wanted the younger generation to come and run the company. As an example, in 2011 our average age* would have been 34 years at the enterprise level, today it would be 29 years at a TIL level.
We have consciously tried to keep the age slightly younger both in terms of the leadership, positions and the people who work for the company – those were the criteria for us to get the best talent. The basic belief is you get competent people in the company; they are very self-secure, they know they are good. They have their networks, they will bring great people to the company, and then you have processes to support them that they can have the best people they want to bring into the company.
Times Internet Ltd is not one culture. Every company has their own culture and we thrive in that. If any of our brands want to run out of a garage, we’re happy to let them do that. We want them to develop their own culture, their leaders to shape their vision and culture of what they are trying to build. The ownership levels of the leaders are extremely high who are actually building that company. Figuring out all these things as to how do you run multiple companies within the company, empowering them to an innate level and allowing them to have a culture while co-existing with the larger ecosystem – these are all very challenging problems to address and solve at a group level.
Inc42: Isn’t there any sort of backlash when there are different cultures in the company? Have you seen any team error or disadvantage for having this?
Gautam Sinha: Actually No. Each company is allowed to have their own culture. The culture typically takes shape around the leader who is running that entity. At a vertical level (verticals like Gaana, Times of India, Dineout), their culture will get shape by the leaders who are running the company. So, there’s no conflict between the verticals because they have an entire team to run. The conflicts happen between some of the horizontal functions that we have. The verticals would always want more autonomy; they want to shape their own culture.
Over the last five years, we have moved most of the horizontals into the vertical; saying that, we don’t want any conflict of culture. If you want to have a culture that you think is the best way to run the company, it will empower you and the team to be successful. We don’t take decision or control at the central level; we are there to help our businesses. The belief is that every other business in the ecosystem can help another business within our ecosystem.
Inc42: Online video platforms, such as YouTube, are arguably the #1 medium for creators today. How is Times Internet going to get the next gen of creators?
Gautam Sinha: YouTube started as a UGC. So the basic premise that they had was user-generated content which empowers, enables a lot of individuals as well as institutional creations. For us, we started with curated or branded properties (Times of India, Economic Times) where there is a notion of UGC in terms of blogs, but the large part of the content is created by the teams which are in-house.
Going forward, we know that the UGC is a way for us to grow. With various businesses, especially on the entertainment side, we’re looking at experimenting with UGC as a component which allows for better monetisation. Certainly, the scale of YouTube is very difficult for anyone to compete with – the kind of traffic and the kind of engagement that they provide. But if you look at many other platforms like Musical.ly, they are coming out as a compelling platform – even in the Indian ecosystem, in verticals that make sense. Our goal is to look at a certain vertical and empower users to create content. Within a next year or so, we will see a lot of UGC coming out from our platforms which we have done in the past.