8 Lessons on Startups I Learned While Interning

It was a session by Amit Gupta, Co-Founder and VP @ InMobi. I wasn't invited to the session, but I wasn't going to miss a (free!) talk by a co-founder of InMobi, a company I've come to truly admire. I had to barge in the small room some minutes after the session started, only to find that there was no chair for me. I plopped down on the floor and looked up to a slide about MKhoj.


That's the name they came up with after heated discussions, reflecting what their idea was all about- something about an SMS-activated search engine for the Indian masses. Whatever the details, an idea that, honestly, I would have scoffed at had I heard it from one of the?entrepreneurial?students at my college. To show how humble their beginnings were, the next slide showed the flat in Mumbai that served as their first office, and the naked, hairy stomach of a co-founder (who I won't name) sleeping on a mattress with no sheet. Amit then showed the slide that got them funding from the Mumbai Angels- a garbled mess of cloud and arrow clipart ostensibly explaining the concept of MKhoj. Then came a screenshot of the MKhoj home page, containing one spelling error (there were about a dozen words on the page) and no design sensibility. I smiled because, ironically enough, I had done pixel-wise dissections of the web pages, slides and posters I did during internship. They abandoned the MKhoj idea roughly a month after they got funding for it, and started on mobile advertising. Amit went low on the details after this point, outlining instead their guiding philosophy as they grew their startup to the behemoth it is today. He did tell us why they abandoned the name Mkhoj- foreigners had no idea what it meant, pronounced it as muh-khoj and collapsed into a fit of laughter. InMobi, with references to India and Mobile, seemed like a much better choice.

The 10x Philosophy

He called it 10x, but urged us to generally think big in everything we did. That was the crux of their belief early on- THINK BIG! They apparently wanted to do something meaningful and global even in those days, which isn't an easy thing to believe in! InMobi hired people who possibly commanded twice the market rate for their job description but add ten times the value of an average Joe. He also mentioned that they like startup guys who failed- it means that they have at least some common sense and a get-it-done attitude.

The Indian Advantage

InMobi went against conventional rationale and expanded into markets like Indonesia (they own that market now) and China (even after what happened with Google). USA, Europe and Japan soon followed, although I suspect not as easily as Amit made it out to be. He then explained why Indians have a unique but underrated advantage- only an Indian could adapt so easily to both East and West, relating not only to the Japanese virtues of humility and protocol but also to the American virtues of straight talk and no bullshit.

The SoftBank Story

"If you don't know who the Chairman of SoftBank is, imagine the Mukesh Ambani of Japan," he told in response to a question. The first time I heard of InMobi was when they got a cool $200 million in funding- but how was the nice, round number decided? They had arranged a meeting with SoftBank and were wondering what sum wouldn't be triflingly small to ask the great man. A hundred million dollars? And just like that, they had two hundred million dollars to their name a few days later.

Lesson [8]- The One Untold

"I try to buy stock in businesses that are so wonderful that an idiot can run them"- Warren Buffet. The mobile screen is comparatively tiny, but mobile devices are smart, highly targetable and more interactive than any other major medium. There are smart companies that are coming up with great innovations like a publisher-level real-time bidding for ad spaces, and there are dumb companies running lead-gen scams (I'm looking at you, ScamVille). What allows them to exist is the tremendous market opportunity. It's been hypothesized that the idiots will die and the biggies will swallow the little fish. That is happening to some extent, but who knows what the future holds- a few years ago anything but an Admob market was unthinkable, but that has changed in quite a glorious fashion.


[1]: Don't laugh at others' ideas. Given time and belief, some of them will stumble on to bigger things and you'll be a complete idiot then. [2]: You don't have to be good at everything. Selling matters more. [3]: You can hire people very good at doing things you're not good at, as long as you take a risk first. After selling comes marketing. As hard as I find it to believe, after marketing comes the cool engineering. [4]: People invest in people, and not ideas. Don't be afraid to pivot if it makes sense. [5]: Think BIG! [6]: Think global, because you're an Indian! [7]: Be crazy. [8]: Keep a lookout for a wonderful market.