Punit Soni, ex Chief Product Officer of Flipkart and current CEO of healthtech startup Robin, is someone who has traversed with equal ease both the Indian and the Silicon Valley startup ecosystem. An engineering graduate from NIT-Kurukshetra, with masters degree in Engineering from the University of Wyoming and an MBA from Wharton, he was working with Google before Flipkart roped him as the Product Head. At Flipkart, he helped build the largest marketplace in India and was instrumental in launching innovative mobile products like shopping messaging app Ping, Image search, Flipkart Lite and more.
Punit left Flipkart to take a deep dive in the difficult yet vast healthtech space with his startup Robin, which is building AI solutions for healthcare. Robin intends to reinvent healthcare using cutting edge machine learning and conversational voice. It is his strong product focus that has attracted Marc Benioff (CEO of Salesforce); Chamath Palihapitiya, founder and chief of Silicon Valley-based venture capital firm Social Capital along with some of the leading investors in the US to back it in its testing phase.
In this latest Facebook Live AMA with Inc42, Punit speaks about his mantra on developing cutting-edge, scalable tech products and his foray into the healthtech space with Robin.
Here are the key takeaways from the interaction:
Decoding Product Development And Robin
Inc42: You have been into product development in innovation-driven product companies like Google and Flipkart. How does the product development process differ in these companies and what are some of the skills startups should pick from these giants?
Punit Soni: It’s very hard to compare what we get in Google compared to what we try to do in a startup. It’s been a long time since I launched a startup, so personally it’s a very fresh and new experience for me. In Google, you assume a lot of things – you are talking about a billion active users there. If you build a product there with only a million active users most people come and console you saying, “I hope you can build a better product next time”.
So the scale at which Google operates is very different and even the kind of infrastructure that’s available is very different. But the philosophy is not. The question that I ask everybody irrespective of whether they are a product manager at Google or starting on their own is, what problem are you really solving? You should be able to articulate that. If you know what problem you are solving, for whom you are solving, and if you have a thesis that you can test and iterate on, then you have a shot at building something. So I care less about how much money you have raised or who you have raised it from or even the fact that you may have early revenue. What I care about is whether you have problem statement that you are completely convinced about. Do you believe that you have a solution or at least a thesis for a solution? These are the early principles that companies like Google embrace and most startups should look at that.
Inc42: Are you trying to build Robin into a company which will touch tens of millions of lives. Does it subscribe to that philosophy where 1 Mn active users means nothing?
Punit Soni: I think that the greatest tech company ever built is going to be built in healthcare. It is going to be bigger than Google, Amazon or Facebook. I don’t know if Robin will be that company – there is a 0.001% chance that we might be that. But I know that I have to be part of a startup where such a shot, however small is possible. Healthcare is 20% of the US’s GDP. It’s also double digit percentage of the world GDP. I think the number is something like an annual spend of $3 Tn in the US and about $10 Tn in the world. That’s larger than ecommerce, social networking or search.
The amount of data created, the amount of money spent, and the perpetuity in which money is spent make healthcare probably the richest space where the greatest company in technology can be built. So that’s fundamentally the reason why we ventured into this space. Now who is going to do it, when is it going to happen – now or 10 years from now, I don’t know. But if we are successful in our mission, then over a period ( years or decades), we might change health as a health stack. The high level of vision behind the company is to reimagine health stack using machine learning and voice. And move it away from the crap software of the 90s which most of it is running on.
Inc42: There are lot of product startups that are coming up in India right now. One of the top concerns is to find good team. So from your experience, what do you look for in building a product team and how do you think it should be structured in the initial stages?
Punit Soni: It all depends on what problem you are solving. 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. So one of the first people I hired is someone who has actually done sales in goto market in three healthcare systems/tech companies over the last 15 years. It was pretty obvious to me that I needed someone who is a clinician because they will understand how the product can work more than just a product guy can. I hired an MD from Stanford who has been a trauma surgeon for six years as my head of product.
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 goto market, I needed speech recognition but design, so I got the guy who ran speech recognition in Apple. And then I needed someone who understood enterprise systems very well. And that’s why I got my CTO who ran enterprise infrastructure in SalesForce. So you can build a team once you have identified what skill sets you need and what problem you are solving, and what you have. If you go about it that structure, the best people are going to come and work for you.
Inc42: With your new startup Robin, you are using AI to disrupt the healthtech industry. How do you think will AI play a role in healthtech in future, especially in a country like India where the basics are not ready? Do you think the market is ready for these futuristic technologies?
Punit Soni: Oh, there is no other option. I don’t think it matters if the market is ready or not. It is going to happen. The question is in what timelines it is going to happen. India actually is very ready. There are large swathes of the country that have leapfrogged in digitisation owing to India Stack and Aadhaar, which means there is an identification protocol for the company. Some of the better health systems are creating a lot of data per person as a patient comes in. and then there is genius in terms of the talent here in terms of AI, Machine Learning.
It’s just a matter of time that this is going to happen – not only in healthcare but transportation. I think there’s no concept of saying I am building an AI/ML company. It’s kind of like saying that I am building a C++ company. Every single company that you know is going to be fundamentally altered by Machine Learning. Everyone will be influenced.
Inc42: How do you go from MVP to Mainstream Product? How do you decide that ‘this’ moment was the one when you should now start pushing the product into mainstream?
Punit Soni: It’s interesting because that’s kind of where Robin is. We have validated that our MVP might work; now we are trying to figure out actually how to build it to the next level/scale of a real working product that can operate on its own. I think the best way to do that is through your customers. If you have an MVP, you must have deployed it somewhere. If you have deployed it somewhere, then there must be a lot of people actually using it. I would probably sit very close to them and listen to them.
And I would prioritise my product features based on what I am hearing from the field combined with obviously my vision. And then I would make sure that I go from a pilot stage to a place where they can actually use it at a larger scale to a place where they perhaps want to write you a small cheque to finally a place where you have shot at recurring revenue. And all of this depends on whether you are able to listen carefully to the customer and be able to do things you need to do.
Punit’s Take On India, Healthtech, And Silicon Valley
Inc42: What is the goal behind your latest visit to India?
Punit Soni: When I left, I had said that I would do one or two things – either I will build a product that will actually be deployed in India or I will build a team that will be part of that. I guess I am trying to see exactly where things are in healthcare in India. I am trying to meet different teams who have actually worked in this space. I am also trying to see the expertise of people, and I am trying to expose myself to the better healthcare trends and technologies that are emerging in the country.
I really don’t have any goal, think of it as a fact finding mission. I am just learning. It may be six months to a year before I actually do anything tangible in the country. But you can’t do that unless you walk around and talk to people.
Inc42: You have an experience of working in both – in the Indian startup ecosystem and that of Silicon Valley. You are familiar with the intricacies of product development process in both regions. What do you think is a basic difference in the mindset of people in the two regions?
Punit Soni: I think the Indian startup ecosystem is the most exciting startup ecosystem in the world right now because of its people. It’s because of you guys. I think it has the largest concentration of young people in the world trying to build companies on their own. It’s going to 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 the league of Google is going to come out of India. And it will happen in the next few years. So I think that fundamentally the potential of India is way bigger than almost any place in the world.
What Valley has is a degree of sophistication around it that is unparalleled. I wanted to start a company, I went and spent six months honing the thesis. Once I had a thesis, I probably met the best investors you can ever find in this space. In a matter of two hikes, we decided how we are going to kick this company off. And then everything starts falling in place. The lawyers know exactly what they need to do, the goto market folks know exactly what they have to do, and my engineers are from Google and Salesforce. You are able to get the absolute best network of people to start attacking the problem. I have doctors who are MDs from the best medical universities in the world working in the team.
It’s very hard anywhere in the world to put together a team from Google, best medical universities in the world, even Apple, and best venture capitalists together to do this. So what valley does is that it gives you within a radius of 40 square miles the smartest people from every category in the world. And loads of them not just one or two. That’s something that will take some time to replicate anywhere, let alone India. So that’s probably the most fundamental difference between India and the Valley.
Inc42: In one of your interviews you had said that “The problems I want to solve are easier to find in US.” Can you throw some light on it?
Punit Soni: I actually meant something slightly different. I said it will be easier for me to solve them in US. That’s because most of my network is there. Most of the talent that I want to attract is there. There are interesting problems to solve in India too, but making a startup work is hard. And when you are part of a startup, it’s hard enough that you have to find a problem, then you have to attract a team. After that you have to raise money, and then you have to put it all together. You want to do it from a position of strength.
And for me, to be in the Valley and do a startup is a position of strength. If I was in India, I am sure I would be able to attract capital and a team, but it would still not be as easy as to attract some of the best people in the world as it is in the Valley. If luck has it and my product is successful, I am sure it will be in India too.
Inc42: You have managed a huge team of 400. What was the most difficult decision you ever had to take?
Punit Soni: I think there were more people. In Motorola, there were a few hundred people too. I think the most difficult decision you take is when you decide that you want to streamline your team. In Motorola, there was a time when I had 250 people in my team and I had to cut them down to 30. So basically there was a period of two weeks where I was going room to room, personally letting go of people. That sucks. It was pretty hard.
So I would say that the most difficult personal experience was actually having to let go of people. Some of them were extraordinary but we just did not have the space for them. As probably with anything in life, that’s the hardest thing to do in a professional setup.
Inc42: What is the difference between the role of a CPO in a big organisation Vs a young startup?
Punit Soni: In a big organisation, the Head Of Product’s job is to be the voice of the consumer. The Head of Product brings in idealism to the table about the vision and what the organisation wants to build. That’s sometime untainted by the tactical and real pressures of sales and what we need to do to keep moving the company immediately. The Product Head also spends time being the glue that joins or marries the sales and the design engineering with each other. In many ways, you are a tactician, a diplomat, an idealist – so it’s a pretty hard role to have especially in a large company.
I would say in a small startup, for 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. But 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.
Inc42: What do you think about the way tech products are developed in India? What Indian products do you admire?
Punit Soni: I would say there is increasing maturity in terms of product development. The role of Product Head did not exist a few years ago. People actually didn’t understand what it meant. And it doesn’t mean you do whatever the founder or the CEO tells you to do. It actually means you have a very strong point of view, you are the voice of the consumer, and you are the one who is actually going to really figure out how to put everything together.
I think that it’s happening slowly and steadily. The CEOs and founders in the country still have the tendency to be very hierarchical and push through what they think really needs to be done. But slowly and steadily as more and more companies become successful, we will have the right kind of role models that will help people realise that relatively autonomous setup is much better for product development than a hierarchical setup. So that’s one of the things that I will like to see happen more of in the country. It definitely happens a lot in the Valley.
I love Zomato a lot. I think it’s really cool. They have done an incredible job and it’s a beautiful consumer experience. It’s world class. It actually adds a lot of value and they have now the network effect. It’s fascinating! The other day it showed up in Las Altos (California) of all places. Also I think Vijay Shekhar Sharma is doing some incredible work with Paytm. He’s a hustler – I love the way he operates. He is a true entrepreneur. Probably the greatest companies in India will be in enterprise space. They will not be in necessarily pure consumer tech. And so when happens, Zoho and the others you talk about are the ones to look out to out of India.
Inc42: What were your key learnings at Flipkart and do they help you in your entrepreneurial journey today?
Punit Soni: I think Flipkart is a mammoth company. It’s not really a startup by any account whatsoever. It has almost 10K-15K people. They have massive infusions of cash and the way they operate and the problems that they have to solve are very different from what have to be solved when you are a small startup. It’s very hard to translate the leanings. But the one thing that I will say is that there are few people I know who are bigger hustlers than Sachin and Binny 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 will get through it. That’s the biggest lesson one can learn out of Flipkart. Any company that’s successful, let alone at the scale of Flipkart, is a miracle because 99% of startups die. So what you have is an order of miracles that’s almost unbelievable in Flipkart and I think everyone should appreciate it.
For someone who’s building a startup of their own, the first thing one needs to figure out is which general space one wants to enter. So if one is starting a healthcare startup, one should spend four to six months in a large scale healthtech system. Here Punit cites his instance where he spent six months in a large healthcare system on the East Coast in the US. He says, “I would shadow doctors each day. I would have lunch with the nurses; I would go for drinks with the CMOs and CIOs. I would basically breathe and live the life of a healthcare system from a patient perspective, from a doctor’s perspective and from an administrator’s perspective. And when you do all of that, you come up with a variety of theses. These are the problems that I see and these are the issues I want to attack. And then you try to come up with solutions for them. Lastly, you talk to these people to know if it will work.”
He reveals that some of the best ideas he got were thrown out of the window because the nurses would disapprove of them saying, “Not only will I never use it but I will make sure that no one uses it!”
Hence the best advice from Punit Soni is to go and immerse oneself in the life of the consumer 24X7. The more one listens to the people who move the needle in that stack, the higher chances are that one will find a real problem and nothing matters more in startup than finding a real problem. While Punit believes that healthtech is a hard place because most people won’t use healthcare products unless they are sick. But with Robin, he is aiming to make a dent in the tough healthtech sector by focusing on a cutting edge tech product that could churn out one of the biggest tech companies in times to come.