InMobi, the global mobile advertising platform that became India’s leading startup unicorn, turned profitable last year. The company derives 75% of its revenue from the Chinese and US markets. InMobi’s founder Naveen Tewari speaks to The Passage founder Hu Jianlong about the company’s China plans -- including opening a research centre and starting operations across China.
Following are edited excerpts:
Q: Tell me about your childhood.
A: I was born at IIT-Kanpur, where my grandmother was a professor of mathematics right from when it was set up. In fact, she was the first woman professor across all IITs. My father followed in her footsteps and became a professor there too. I was born on the campus and grew up there, surrounded by academics. It was a very interesting environment.
Almost all my family members are academics… There was a lot of pressure on me to get into academics, because that's the only thing you saw as a child. Not doing that is something my grandmother still holds against me. She fundamentally believes that the maximum impact one can bring about in a lifetime is through education, because that creates a significantly higher amount of influence and change in society.
Q: Why did you make such a different choice?
A: In the early 2000s, as an undergraduate -- which is when you start making choices -- I could see the world changing… I wanted to be part of that changing India. So I chose not to join academics, not that there's any guarantee that I would have succeeded in academics, which is very difficult.
Q: When did you get this kind of motivation to be a part of changing India?
A: After business school, I didn't take up a job, but tried to start a few companies. After a few failed attempts, InMobi happened. I think we've been lucky to have and build InMobi and it's doing quite well.
Q: What did you learn from your failed initiatives, and did it help when you started InMobi?
A: There are two things to learn from failures -- how to keep walking into fog without knowing where you're going to end up, and to build that determination to keep going and keep trying. I think it's very important to fail, because it makes you really strong to deal with things later on in life. You don't worry about things too much.
Q: Why online advertising?
A: In India, when I started a decade ago, this industry was very weak. I didn't know whether US and Europe would really take to the mobile revolution, but I knew that developing countries would, because an average person in India, Asia and Africa couldn't afford a PC. So a mobile revolution will take off here, and so will the advertising market. That is the reason to start this off in India. But very soon, we realized that this revolution was no more just in India, but was happening everywhere. So we went global after that.
Q: When did you shift your focus to China and other markets?
A: We started moving outside India within 6-9 months. It was one of those decisions when we were just 15 people. We realized we have to build this company in a global way because it's not going to be successful only in India. We made that decision in the very first year.
We first launched in Southeast Asia, then in Middle East, then Africa, then Europe. We also launched in Japan, Korea, then China. And last, the US.
Q: So China and US are the biggest markets for InMobi?
A: Yes, China and US put together make 75% of our business now.
Q: The Chinese market is quite harsh to foreign companies. What’s your take?
A: I think it's not very harsh for US companies. It's a very welcoming market for Asian companies too.
Q: Why this difference?
A: I don't know. I think it's just that we are equally welcoming to Chinese companies. Maybe we are okay with Chinese companies coming to India, so they are okay with us. Chinese firms usually regard US firms as major rivals. At least at this stage, they don't take other competitors very seriously.
Q: What's the biggest challenge for InMobi in the last few years in China?
A: In China, we're growing very well. It's a big market, we have a very large presence in Beijing and Shanghai. I think we can do a lot more business and need to be present in more markets. If you have to be in China, you can succeed only if you're Chinese and do business like a Chinese company. So I've got to think like Chinese.
Q: When did you realize you have to work this way?
A: After one year of operations in 2012, nothing succeeded. That's when we realized that maybe we were not doing it right. We had sent a lot of people from India who were trying to do business there. That didn't work. So we said, let's change everything. We're going to be a Chinese company, literally, like a Chinese company, and took off. Just like Xiaomi and Manu Jain.
Q: So what's InMobi's plan in China?
A: We want to be the largest advertising platform and system in China. We want to have our own product and engineering built in China. We want to work with all the companies there and take them globally with us. We have big plans and are going to invest a lot of money in China.
Q: What is InMobi's strength compared to local players?
A: We are a technology powerhouse, we believe fundamentally in technology. No one can compete with us on technology. Second, we've focused on local Chinese business which is not something others focused on. So we've built a much bigger business in China.
Q: Do you have any research centre in China?
A: Not yet. But we are opening a big one in Beijing.
Q: InMobi is the only unicorn firm in the online advertising sector. Why?
A: I think it again boils down to core technology. In the advertising space, we are the only global player. Every other player is either in the US or China or India. Second, we have invested a lot. We are not just focused on gaming advertising or video advertising or retargeting. We cut across all kinds of advertising and have become a single stop shop for any CMO. And because we have truly invested in hard core technology.
Q: Any comment on rumours that Google is going to acquire InMobi?
A: No comment.
Q: You ditched MIIP in India. Why?
A: It didn't take off in India but is doing very well in China. I think it's more the readiness of the market and advertisers, they are far more ready to take up MIIP than in India.
Q: Can you give a broader perspective between the startup ecosystem in China and India? Chinese firms like Tencent and Alibaba are entering the Indian market. Your take?
A: The Indian startup ecosystem is about 10 years or maybe 20 years behind China. There is a lot to be learnt from the Chinese ecosystem. The fact that Chinese companies come to India and participate, is great for the ecosystem to grow. The level of interest being shown in India is great. The cross-collaboration between China and India is far easier and there are a lot of similarities between the two. I think though we don't speak the same language, our entrepreneurs are very alike.
The pace at which a Chinese entrepreneur makes decisions and moves, I don't think anyone else moves that fast. I love the fact that Chinese entrepreneurs build partnerships very quickly, on the move and they want to grow.
Q: What can Chinese enterprise learn from its Indian counterpart?
A: I think Indian entrepreneurs do a very good job, much better than others, of globalization. We are much better at it maybe because of language, we are also a lot more open and because India is not that big a market, we have to go outside. So we are naturally good. I think we also do a very good job of technology, not all technologies, but at least in advertising on the technology side, which is us.
Q: Which sectors do you think will boom in the coming years in India?
A: I think artificial intelligence is clearly a big space. It's going to change everything -- offline commerce, education, healthcare... Blockchain is another sector which will be changing things, and you don't need to be in any other part of the world.