It’s two weeks before LinkedIn chief executive officer Jeff Weiner’s visit to Bengaluru. Product teams at the professional networking company’s new office in the city are logging in coffee and Red Bull-powered long hours ahead of releasing three major products for India. The company is in race mode.
Akshay Kothari, seated in a conference room at the farthest end of LinkedIn’s 220,000 sq ft office, shows no signs of being under stress.
With over 750 employees in three offices and 37 million members in India, LinkedIn is already among the biggest internet companies here. Social media leader Facebook has over 100 million users and search giant Google has over $600 million (March 2015) in revenues from India. As all three prepare for the next phase of growth in the world’s fastest growing major economy, LinkedIn has bet on Kothari, who at 30 is perhaps the only millennial CEO of a company its size in India. It needed someone entrepreneurial with the energy and emotional maturity to handle a reasonable-sized operation and Kothari is its pointsman.
Name: Akshay Kothari. Age: 30. Stripes: BS, Electrical Engineering, Purdue, and MS, Electrical Engineering. Claim to fame: sold his startup — Pulse, a company founded while still in university — to LinkedIn for $90 million when he was 27.
Just a few minutes into the conversation, it becomes clear why the world’s largest professional networking company has entrusted its second largest and fastest growing market to a 30 year old.
Among corporate honchos in India, Kothari — part design guy, part entrepreneur and part product guy — is unusual. That he is younger than his peers (they were in their teens when he was still a toddler) makes it even more so. Rajan Anandan, who leads Google India is 48 years old. Umang Bedi of Facebook India is 39. Amit Agarwal, Jeff Bezos’s go-to guys for all things India at Amazon is 42. Anant Maheshwari, who took over as head of Microsoft India earlier this month, is a 40-something.
Among corporate honchos in India, Kothari — part design guy, part entrepreneur and part product guy — is unusual.
It has been only 10 months for Kothari at the job but he has kickstarted LinkedIn’s product engine. The three new products — LinkedIn Lite, Placements and starter pack — launched during Weiner’s Bengaluru visit have all been made in India. This meant putting partnerships in place, working with the engineering team to build the products, and taking care of all details that go into a launch. The three products were built ground up from India in just 12 weeks. Linkedin Lite was built by a team six engineers, which, says Kothari, showcased Bengaluru talent to rest of LinkedIn globally.
Linkedin India was mostly a sales office when it first entered the market in 2009. In late 2011, the company started building a research and development team which mostly focused on infrastructure, spam detection, and relevance of search. It is only this year, the company decided to build products in India in a decision that bucks the trend. Most multinationals do core product development closer to their headquarters (read: the backstory of how Youtube Go was built) and get lower value work like monitoring and testing done from centres in India.
“India is mostly a sales territory and a backend engineering office supporting headquarters. Sometimes mature, end-of-lifecycle, or non core products may be transferred here,” says Amit Ranjan, the co-founder of Slideshare which was acquired by LinkedIn in 2012 (read: what Ranjan is up to these days — building Digilocker ground up).
The three new products Kothari helmed are critical for LinkedIn, which has a stated mission to “connect the world’s professionals to make them more productive and successful”. LinkedIn Lite helps the company reach deeper into India’s job market, mostly smaller cities and towns where data connectivity is poor. Placements helps students apply for jobs and the starter pack helps LinkedIn tap millions of small and medium businesses in India. All three are large opportunities that can help the company grow its presence in the country.
Weiner has high hopes from India, home to nearly 6.8 crore graduates, according to the 2011 census. Nearly a million people are expected to hit working age every month for the next 18 years in India. They will all need jobs and Weiner would like nothing better than LinkedIn being their platform of choice. It’s something that Kothari is passionate about, too. “I want to enable every college student in india to be able to access any jobs in India regardless of the college they went to,” he says.
Kothari’s smarts with building products played an important role in the tape out of the new products in good time, his boss feels. “It is so important to have someone like Akshay in place as the country manager because he has that product vision and capability,” Weiner told reporters during his visit. Unsaid was: a product vision and capability honed in Silicon Valley.
In 2010, veteran journalist Kara Swisher described Kothari and his co-founder at Pulse, a news aggregator, Ankit Gupta as “sweet-natured, slightly naive, energetic and very product focused”.
The second of three sons born into a family of businessmen, Kothari, who is quick with his smile, had a creative bent right from his early days. “He is extremely creative. Even before Pulse, he used to present things in a creative way,” says Amit Baid, a New York investor and entrepreneur, who is married to Kothari’s cousin. On his LinkedIn profile Kothari describes having “fun at Institute of Design (aka d.school)” at Stanford University as one of the highlights when he was there.
Kothari’s family traces their roots to Churu in Rajasthan. He studied at St Xavier’s Loyola Hall in Ahmedabad until Class 12 before following his elder brother Pranav Kothari’s footsteps to study in the US. Purdue was all about studies, mostly because his parents were paying for it. At the end of the four year course (2003 to 2007), Kothari topped the class.
In 2007, he worked at as an investment analyst at a venture capital firm on Sand Hill Road, 10 minutes away from Stanford. This is where fabled venture capitalists have their offices. It was a year when elections were approaching and the noise against the US outsourcing technology jobs to Indian workers was getting louder. That year, the number of applications for the H1B visa had piled up at a record speed and the US government had decided to use a lottery system to grant visa.
“Stanford was essentially my backup plan,” says Kothari. The idea was to stay on and study in the US if the visa didn’t work out. That turned out to be a lucky decision. His H1B did not work out and he continued on a student visa. Read: An Open Letter to the President: Why We Need Immigration Reform. While the financial crisis hit the markets hard in 2008, Kothari was cocooned in the safety of Silicon Valley’s most prestigious academic institution. “Everything around me was just crashing so it was a blessing in disguise,” he says.
Stanford was essentially my backup plan: Kothari.
Slowly, he started gravitating towards design and computer science and away from circuits and signal processing. It is common practice for students at Stanford to pick courses across disciplines. Kothari took courses in design and computer science along with electrical engineering.
Stanford changed his life. “I look at my life as pre Stanford and post Stanford,” he says, always ready with a quick smile. Indeed, after a series of failed attempts towards the end of his course, he launched a startup that made him rich and famous.
It was the design school at Stanford that really honed Kothari’s product skills. “The first class at the design bootcamp was to redesign how people eat Ramen noodles,” he recalls. They spent hours watching people eat noodles. “Most good products start with user empathy,” he says. Until then, he’d look at technology and see how it could be applied. But now, he’d started thinking of problems that could be solved with technology. “It really changed the way I think about things.”
Nothing is overnight
Pulse was not an overnight success. Before Pulse, Kothari had launched five other class projects — hoping to make companies out of them. All of them failed. In 2009, he launched Zaptext, a way for people to quickly respond to messages by clicking on pre-typed messages. When that didn’t go as planned, he launched Zenmail, a voice based in-car e-mail system. That didn’t work either.
The best part of the experience was that they made mistakes — for instance, too many founders and pivoting too often. “Lot of that was very helpful in building Pulse,” says Kothari. “All the stuff we did wrong was so helpful.”
Pulse was founded in May 2010. Ankit Gupta, a graduate from IIT-Bombay and Kothari had taken lots of classes together and knew each other well by now. “He is still my best friend and mentor in some sense,” says Kothari. Pulse was their final shot at entrepreneurship, before they went on to take up jobs at Facebook and Microsoft.
Only a few days later, Silicon Valley’s most influential man was going to talk about their app and things would never be the same again.
Pulse was hacked together in six weeks and launched on the app store on May 12, 2010. At the time, Kothari and Gupta were only 26 and 25 years old respectively. “We got 120 downloads on the first day. Which was way above our expectations,” he says. The iPad had just been launched a month ago and there were only a few apps made for them. Even then, it was a huge surprise for the duo when Apple co-founder Steve Jobs talked about their app at his keynote address. He called Pulse a “wonderful RSS reader,” as he talked about the latest apps on the iPad.
That week, the company made $120,000 selling the app for $3.99 a download. “That was our seed round in some ways. It became less of a class project and more of a company,” says Kothari. The company went on to raise $10 million in Series A funding in 2011. It grew over the next three years to 30 million users and 28 employees, adding nearly a million users per employee.
“The company was at a crossroads where it could have raised Series B or gotten acquired,” said Kothari. They decided to do the deal with LinkedIn, which happened in four days including a weekend. Pulse was now part of LinkedIn. Kothari joined LinkedIn as a product manager in April 2013 and worked in that position for more than two-and-a-half years running what was the Pulse team. By then, he was clear he wanted to get back to general management.
As it happened, Nishant Rao, the country manager for LinkedIn India, had quit in October 2015 to join Freshdesk, a startup backed by Google Capital and other marquee investors. LinkedIn needed someone in India. When Kothari heard of the opportunity to do general management, build products for India, and move back to India, he took up the job.
“India is one of very few strategic markets and among the fastest growing markets for LinkedIn,” says Kothari. It is hard for internet companies to ignore India’s growth. India is expected to have over 370 million internet users by now (not many of them meaningfully connected to the internet) and is the fastest growing smartphone market in the world.
“The thing that works for him is that everyone thinks of him as an entrepreneur first at LinkedIn,” his Pulse co-founder Gupta tells me over the phone from San Francisco. Gupta has known Kothari for more than eight years now. “When you are working on 10 different things across sales, products and engineering, your strength as an entrepreneur shows,” says Gupta.
Still, for Kothari, it won’t be easy. First, the proof of the pudding lies in how the marketplace reacts to what LinkedIn is putting out. The Indian market not only has a new breed of HR startups helping companies hire but also is very competitive at entry level hiring market. The success with the new products will decide how his first few years are assessed at LinkedIn. Poor data connectivity, multiplicity of languages, and the cost sensitive nature of the market will be additional hurdles in LinkedIn’s and Kothari’s paths.
Gautam Ghosh, one of the earliest users of LinkedIn in India (worldwide membership # 18770, on LinkedIn since 2003) and an HR Consultant, says one of the biggest challenges LinkedIn will have is to break the perception that it is an expensive job board. “If they have to expand to the Marwadi business world, they have to show real value. Most of traditional Indian firms haven’t really sourced people online. Teaching them is also a steep learning curve,” he says.
If they have to expand to the Marwadi business world, they have to show real value.
VC-funded startups, among the biggest customers of LinkedIn, have also started turning to homegrown companies like Belong and Jombay that address the same market with differentiators, adds Ghosh. Jombay, for instance, has an assessment layer built into it.
But the other big challenge is the acquisition of LinkedIn by Microsoft in June this year. Microsoft has said that LinkedIn will run as an independent operation but corporate history has enough examples of even the best intentions in similar acquisitions going terribly wrong. A Microsoft old timer brings a sound perspective to Kothari and LinkedIn India’s situation.
“The problem is that mostly the mentality is that product management is done in the headquarters and code is done in India. They have to realise that not all smart people are at the headquarters,” says Ravi Venkatesan, former Microsoft India chairman, who currently chairs Bank of Baroda, pointing out the examples of Amazon and GE that have done local innovation. “Typically Microsoft doesn’t believe in local innovation. But they’ve promised to leave LinkedIn alone. So let’s hope they do that.” Kothari will be hoping so, too.
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Update (5 Oct 2016, 7.30 am, IST): An earlier version of this article said that Pulse made $30,000 in the week Jobs mentioned the app at his keynote whereas Pulse sold 30,000 downloads to make $120,000. The error has been corrected.