How Google is priming its Next Billion ambition in India — and the backstory of why the search giant is in such a tough place

Jayadevan PK October 25, 2017 18 min

It’s not a coincidence that many of the product managers who worked on the board preparation team have been very successful at Google. For example, Sundar Pichai ran the team for Jonathan for several years and now heads up the company’s Android, Chrome and Apps product areas. Caesar Sengupta partnered with Sundar on the board slides and now runs the Chromebooks team for him.

— From footnote no. 148 in How Google Works, the book by Eric Schmidt, Jonathan Rosenberg and Alan Eagle, published in 2014

Schmidt, the executive chairman of Alphabet Inc., the parent of Google, and his co-authors are talking about Google’s ‘noses in, fingers out’ board meetings. Unlike in other companies where the marketing, communications and legal teams were responsible for what to present, Rosenberg, who led products for Google for the longest, ran the presentations.

He picked from his best to prepare the slides. Sundar and Caesar were part of the team.

The presentations were evidently brilliant hands-on training for the two. One runs Google and the other leads something called the Next Billion Users Initiative, primed and focused in India, the world’s second-largest Internet market by users — and, arguably, the last single major growth market in the world for a few decades.

This story is about the Next Billion Users Initiative and how Google’s ambitions in India have suddenly grown, in Google terms, you could say 10X.

Large tech companies from Silicon Valley often suffer from acute tunnel vision – seeing the world’s problems in a narrow, unidimensional way. Google has had its own challenges in India, too. With Pichai, who was born in Madurai and earned his spurs in Kharagpur, at the helm of the search giant and co-slide maker Sengupta heading up Google’s Next Billion Users Initiative, will Google be able to deliver blockbuster products this time?

FactorDaily spoke to half a dozen Googlers, current and former, and seasoned multinational veterans to find out. Most of the Googlers offered honesty in return for anonymity.

***

Google CEO Sundar Pichai on a visit to has alma mater IIT-Kharagpur in January 2017. Source: Google.

In the last two years or so, Google has launched many India-first products. Some notable ones are Tez, a payments app which has already notched up 5 million downloads; YouTube offline and YouTube Go, the video streaming site’s attempt to reach data starved Indians; and RailWire, that offers free Wi-Fi at Indian railway stations. The company has also localised its global products by adding local language support to Search, Maps, Android and AdWords. It also recently rolled out voice input for local language search and other AI-powered local language features. These products, while India-first, aren’t necessarily India-only. Google has been taking them to other markets such as Indonesia, Nigeria and Philippines.

That’s quite the change. As recently as 2014, India was not quite on the Google products radar – having dropped off after a courageous yet poorly thought out local effort that began 13 years ago. Product leaders had returned to Google’s Mountain View headquarters after often-confusing stints in India, a bunch of products had been shut down or were in a limbo waiting for blessings from management, and the plan to build products for India was floundering.

Google made brave assertions to the contrary. “Don’t feel sorry for us, we are doing just fine,” a visiting Eric Schmidt, then Google’s chairman, said in an interview. “We will find ways to monetise a large audience. If you have a billion Indians, you can make money.” Still, his worldview had more China dominated. China (where Google had to shut its operations in 2010) finds mention in How Google Works over two dozen times; India hardly any.

But something changed in 2014.

To understand what changed, one has to rewind quite a bit and tell the story from the beginning — back to 2004 when the flat world theory and the outsource-to-save-costs phenomenon was in vogue. Google, true to its DNA, took a contrarian stance. For Google, it wasn’t about creating an offshore centre to save costs but about creating global products by engineers living in India. To that end, Google picked some of its best engineers with an Indian background.

The job of setting up the centre fell upon four Googlers: Krishna Bharat, Lalitesh Katragadda, Vibhu Mittal, and Shiva Shivakumar. Bharat had launched successful products like Google News. His next project was going to be Google Finance. After doing a recce in October 2003, Bharat and Katragadda moved to Bengaluru (then Bangalore) to set up the company’s research and development centre. Mittal and Shivakumar decided to stay back in California.

“It was a team of heavy hitters. Because the larger centres weren’t known to have such impact,” recalls a former Google engineer. The company employed 150 to 200 engineers in Bengaluru and had some of the best engineers working on products.

How heavy was the heavy hitting? Google Finance, Google Transliteration, Mapmaker, and several innovations that aren’t quite visible to the user were conceived and launched from India.

Clockwise: Krishna Bharat, Lalitesh Katragadda, Vibhu Mittal and Shiva Shivakumar.

Muthian Sivathanu, a senior engineer, contributed to building Google’s search infrastructure which his colleagues reckon have had an impact worth “billions of dollars”. Ramanathan V Guha launched an advertising product which was considered “wildly successful” within Google. Guha went on to become a Google Fellow, a prestigious and coveted title at the search company.

“There was freedom to build and launch products globally,” recalls the engineer quoted above without name.

This first phase of Google’s product journey in India didn’t last long – barely two-three years. For Google’s upper management, it didn’t quite make sense for “very significant products” to be housed out of India, according to former Googlers.

In 2007, Google Finance was moved out of the country to New York City under Katie Jacobs Stanton, who went on to serve in US President Barack Obama’s administration and then companies such as Twitter. It could be argued that New York City, the world’s top financial centre, was the rightful home for Google Finance but the decision left a bitter taste in Google Bengaluru.

And then there was Orkut. In 2008, Google stunned Bengaluru Googlers when it announced that it was moving the Orkut India team led by Manu Rekhi to Brazil. The team was being consolidated and Google+, a parallel effort which ultimately failed would become Google’s social media play. Several employees chose to move to Brazil.

As Steven Levy points out in his book In The Plex, Orkut was the number one Google service in India, ahead of even search and Gmail. Marissa Mayer, who was a top Google executive at the time, admitted that if Orkut had been a bigger priority at Google, the company might have had more success with it in the United States and other countries, Levy writes.

Orkut also faced many legal challenges in India. Because it was an influential platform, Google was sued for “allowing a hate campaign against India”, accused of facilitating crime, and so on. Orkut, which had intense competition from MySpace first and then Facebook, died slowly and was finally shuttered in September 2014 as Google Plus became the dominant social media effort at Google.

SMS Channels, a group messaging service was closed down sometime in 2012. This was shut mostly because the world was moving towards instant messaging over the internet and an SMS based product wasn’t something that excited Google. Other projects such as Google Music never took off because it wasn’t worth the trouble. Music licences tend to be expensive in India and prone to litigations. (T-Series, one of the biggest record companies in India, had already taken Google to court over copyright issues.)

Many Googlers, originally employed by Google US, had also come to India on deputation. Faced with the choice of regularising their job at Google India that seemed at sea or heading back, many packed their bags to fly back westwards. This included those who worked on Search, the company’s cash cow.

“It was like the writing was on the wall,” says the engineer cited above. If you had to move ahead in your career, you had to be closer to the headquarters. Moving within Google is easy. There’s an unwritten rule at Google that if you’ve been at the company for over 18 months, you can move freely within the organisation as long as there’s a manager to receive you. Only a vice president-level executive could block such a transfer.

For a while after, Google in India was about growing its business and enterprise sales. Rajan Anandan, who became the managing director for Google India in 2011, grew the business steadily. Last year, Google booked Rs 5,904 crore in revenue, helped along by e-commerce companies and apps spending on acquiring customers. The year 2017 will be the year Google will top $1 billion in revenues — a dream for long of Anandan and Google India.

Google’s India Revenues have steadily grown in the last few years.

Google, to be sure, hadn’t completely given up on emerging markets like India. So it ran something it called the “Emerging Markets Initiative” led by Nelson Mattos, who had been with Google since 2007 after a stint at IBM. Between 2009 and 2014, Katragadda and Patrick Leung led an engineering team of about 100 people – split about equally in Bengaluru and Paris. The team’s mission was to make sure Google’s products reach 6 billion people. That is, bring the hitherto unconnected masses into Google’s fold.

This team was disbanded in 2014. With the head of the emerging markets program sitting in Paris, it was difficult to empathise with the Indian market, some felt. Moreover, India was still not a big enough market for Google’s top leaders to take notice. Several ideas from the emerging markets team, such as taking YouTube offline, were later absorbed into the Next Billion effort.

Google’s Mapmaker, a “rogue project” to begin with, was among the last of the projects built out of India. Google Maps in India barely had any information in its early days – it was mostly highways and waterbodies. Today, it has every nook and cranny of the country mapped out thanks to crowdsourcing and a large part of the credit goes to Mapmaker. The tool, a cheap and efficient way of mapping, was launched in nearly 200 countries including the US by Google. But crowdsourcing had its downsides. There were obscene edits and spam. Google stopped actively developing Mapmaker sometime in 2015 and retired the tool in March 2017. It was replaced by Google’s Local Guides program. While Mapmaker, a standalone tool, could be used to edit the map itself, Local Guides is used by Google mostly to crowdsource reviews, share photos, answer questions and edit listings from within Google Maps.

In March 2014, Katragadda quit Google. He was one of the last senior engineers sitting in an emerging market focused on emerging markets. The sentiment among many Google India leaders at the time was if the company was serious about its mission to connect 6 billion people, it had to do better.

Just localising products wasn’t going to get Google 6 billion eyeballs. By now, the emerging markets story had started picking up. Folks in Silicon Valley had begun to notice that companies like Flipkart and Ola were now worth billions of dollars. Other US internet companies such as Facebook, Twitter, and Amazon had seen rapid adoption in India. Phone makers Samsung, Xiaomi, and Oppo were starting to see a massive uptick in sales and mobile data connectivity was improving.

Many Googlers who quit the company have gone on to work on Aadhaar, India’s massive biometric identity project and subsequently the India Stack, a set of APIs that connect the government’s digital assets, banking infrastructure and people digitally. Some others founded companies and joined venture capital firms. What Google lost, India gained.

Pichai was made aware of the yawning product-market gap at Google India (and, indeed, all emerging markets). He chartered Caesar Sengupta, who had grown up in an east Delhi neighbourhood, for the Next Billion Users Initiative. Under lead product manager Sengupta, people in the know say Google is making a much bigger effort this time around. Too big to fail, almost.

The base of the pyramid question

Ravi Venkatesan, Chairman of the Board at Bank of Baroda and former Microsoft India Chairman. Photo: Rajesh Subramanian| FactorDaily

The new products Google has launched in India are useful. But are they enough? Will Google be able to repeat the success of Chrome and Android with a product for the next billion people?

“No global company can succeed in India unless its straddles the pyramid,” says Ravi Venkatesan, the author of Conquering Chaos: Win In India, Win Everywhere, which deals in depth with global companies trying to innovate in India.

“Our pyramid is very wide based: a large middle class and a small affluent class. Typically, the mistake global companies make is that they offer the same products they offer in the world with the same business models and pricing. That’s fine at the top of the pyramid but the really successful companies like the Hyundai or the Unilever, they’ve straddled the entire pyramid,” says Venkatesan, who was earlier the Chairman of Microsoft in India. For multinational companies to win, you not only need local products and local business models but also a very local mindset. This is where it becomes difficult for global companies, he points out.

“I’m not blaming any one company, but collectively, we aren’t building enough products to truly empower the next. Ola spends millions in engineering every month, but if it was building a product for the next billion people, it would barely raise a million cumulatively. Building a product for the next billion users is far more challenging than building for you and me. One has to ask, where are the big products?,” says Katragadda.

***

In Bengaluru’s Oberoi Hotel, Caesar Sengupta is speaking to the press. It was has been 20 hours since Google launched payments app Tez, one of its most ambitious products yet here. Between early glitches, phone calls with the team, and a flight to Bengaluru, Sengupta hasn’t slept much.

“Now starts the real work,” says Sengupta, who graduated from Delhi College of Engineering and went on to do his master’s at Stanford and an MBA at Wharton. Indeed, building a product is one thing. But getting it to the hands of millions of people and having it work well is quite another.

I ask him about Google’s earlier failed attempts at building products for India and how products and engineers were shifted out of the country. He declines to comment. “I can’t comment on that…That’s an interesting theory,” is all he would say. A Google spokesperson said, “We have distributed engineering teams, our teams around the world work on building products with inputs and development support from our product and engineering teams in India.”

We get to the big question: What’s Google’s strategy to reach the next billion users? Sengupta’s playbook for the initiative, gleaned from his conversations with Pichai, Anandan and many visits to India, is simple: first, look at Google’s existing products and localise them. Second, find a set of big problems in a market such as access and payments and address them.

Caesar Sengupta, Vice President of Product Management at Google leads the company’s Next Billion Users initiative.

While Tez is Google’s attempt to address the booming digital payments market in India, the company’s RailWire project looks at solving the “access” problem. By December 2016, Google had covered 100 Indian railway stations. Nearly 10 million people pass through these stations every day and that nearly 15,000 people are connected to the internet for the first time every day using the free WiFi, the company estimates. Google also plans to roll out public Wi-Fi across the country through partners. For instance, in partnership with Larsen & Toubro and RailTel, Google is taking high-speed public Wi-Fi to the Pune Smart City Project.

Going by Google’s past record, it shouldn’t surprise anyone if there are glitches and critics. But this time around, things are likely to be different. Five things play to Sengupta’s advantage: a just-do-it fiat from headquarters, an exploding number of internet users in India, years he clocked in Sundar’s team, the way technology has progressed, and a tech-savvy central government here.

Unlike its previous avatars, the Next Billion Users Initiative has a clear mandate and buy-in right from the top. Senior Google executives including Pichai have increased their visits to India and participated in what Google calls “immersions”. This is how Google executives learn more about the markets they operate in. Last year, John Giannandrea who heads search at the company was in Delhi, Sengupta points out. Bradley Horowitz, who heads Google Photos, was in India in September.

Insiders say there are hundreds of engineers from different product teams working on the Next Billion UsersInitiative now. Google has hired back Peeyush Ranjan, an ex-Googler who had left the company to become Flipkart’s Chief Technology Officer, as VP Engineering at the Next Billion Users Initiative. It even made its maiden acquisition in the country by buying a startup called Halli Labs.

“They are considering India as a major test ground for new experiments. That’s because adoption will be faster here, people are willing to experiment, and they can implement it in other regions,” says Sunil Rao, Partner, Business Services at Lightspeed India Partners Advisors. Rao was earlier country head – strategic partner development at Google India.

Often, early projects at Google India have been shot down because the “market wasn’t ready”. At Mountain View, 200 million monthly active internet users was the magic number that was bandied about. Until 2009, World Bank estimates that India had only 5% internet penetration – equivalent to just around 50 million people.

Source: World Bank

It was only around 2013 India’s internet base crossed 200 million.

Recent events have dramatically changed the market. With the launch of services by Reliance Jio last September and widespread 4G roll out along with improving broadband infrastructure, internet penetration has grown. As per estimates, there are now over 450 million internet users in India, although not many of them are heavy internet users.

“From every angle, we now have about 250 million monthly active internet users. That’s a meaningfully large audience that’s hungry for more than just messaging, news and such. Give them new unique things to do that you couldn’t do before,” says Amit Somani, Managing Partner, Prime Venture Partners. Somani was earlier Group Product Manager at Google, Asia-Pacific focussing on Consumer, Mobile and Ads.

With first-time internet users coming into the fold in millions, the opportunity for Google to ride the wave is massive.

Sengupta, 41, understands this well. “Our user growth will happen in countries like India, Indonesia, Brazil, Nigeria. These users are going to be different from our existing users and to build great products, we have to figure out how to understand these users and optimise our experiences around them,” he says. Sengupta has a star track record in his 11 years at Google with work on Google Toolbar, Desktop, and Chrome OS in Pichai’s team.

“Google should also make it easy for new apps to more discoverable at little to no cost. This will bring more people online. As Larry Page used to say, if more users come on the internet, Google would do well,” he adds.

At Google, new projects need ‘blessings’ of top executives. This way, projects get the resources they need. Otherwise, they end up being “rogue projects” and people running such projects had to scrape resources together from other projects. With Caesar’s mandate being clear, resources are easier to put together. The comfort with Pichai and the CEO’s confidence will be important in the long term.

“With Caesar coming in, there’s a very good integration between the global and local teams,” says Rao. Caesar works closely with Anandan, the Google India MD, and his team to understand the market better.

Rajan Anand, Google’s vice-president for Southeast Asia and India, with Pankaj Mishra, CEO, FactorDaily, in Outliers
Google’s Rajan Anandan believes the internet will transform a billion lives. Click to listen to this podcast.

Advances in technology have also made it easier for Google to localise and develop projects. Indic language fonts are now available. Google’s machine learning algorithms are now capable of translating to many Indian languages and systems like the Unified Payments Interface make it easier to build solutions around.

The government has also been a lot more receptive to ideas, according to one Googler who worked closely on the RailWire program. The idea of giving free WiFi at railway stations was presented to the Indian Railways once several years ago but it was shot down. This time around, when Google made the pitch to former railways minister Suresh Prabhu, the plan got almost instant acceptance. So much so, that the team making the pitch committed to the investment without second thoughts — even before it got internal approvals. RailWire was announced during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the US in September 2015.

With all these factors playing out, Google seems to be in time for the party. But it won’t be an easy market to own, simply because world domination plans are being hatched at Amazon and Facebook as well.

“They’re trying to do the right thing. The question is, will they stay with it,” asks Venkatesan. The Indian market has in the past tested the patience of global companies and will do so with the search giant, too. Yet, this time Google may be close to finding what it has been searching for over a dozen years.

 


Disclosure: FactorDaily is owned by SourceCode Media, which counts Accel Partners, Blume Ventures and Vijay Shekhar Sharma among its investors. Accel Partners is an early investor in Flipkart. Vijay Shekhar Sharma is the founder of Paytm. None of FactorDaily’s investors have any influence on its reporting about India’s technology and startup ecosystem.