13 min read

Evolution of a unicorn startup and managing high performance engineering

This is the transcript of the talk by Mohit Saxena presented at Git Commit Show 2020.

About the speaker
Mohit Saxena founded InMobi, which is a unicorn now(billion dollar valuation). In this masterclass, Mohit takes us through journey of how a startup evolves into an unicorn from different perspectives such as engineering, hiring, focus areas, etc. With this wisdom, you'll be able to make better decision about engineering architecture and plan for whats' coming next.


So what I'm going to do basically at this one of time is going to share a framework that I used basically while I was building the Moby. Look, my fundamental belief is that every startup has the potential to become a unicorn. Some for some people, it is part of sheer luck and they reach there quite early. For some people, try everything and sometimes, it takes a little bit more time but what I have realized is that almost every company has made it to that level. There is a certain level of framework or orchestration, how you design your path, your future. It is applicable over there and what I am going to share is a very simple very basic thought process that you can apply to anything while you are building your organization. How you are hiring and how you are even thinking of designing your system. I will try to make it as simple as possible. Take a look at it and feel free to ask me any question and anything that you would like to ask. So let me just take it to the front screen and I hope you all can see it. You know one of my favorite role models in our own Rocket man Abdul Kalam and I remember this framework I created in his memory the day he died. The thing is basically why his contribution to me, the most important defining moment for our country and myself, was that considering all the problems that we have or challenges that we have in India that this guy always inspired the generation. He was not only responsible for basically making us nuclear power. He was able to give us you know rockets and he was our own missile man. Someone you know who added honor to the president post in the country. So what I want, I'm showing over here is the journey office. The orbit requires three phases and all three phases are very critical. So as you can see the first phase over here is liftoff. I think the most important part of any journey. I don't know whether you are aware of the stats but failed to lift off what does that mean is what that means is VG and for some reason, it just didn't take off. You thought that you know this will be the product that people will jump onto it or something that will just fly off in the market somehow it just didn't work you know. So this is one of the most important. Let me just go back yeah this is one of the most important stages for any startup if you are the lucky one and you had a successful liftoff which means I see you have already made 90% of the journey and maybe the most important part is next most important part after the lifts office at any escape velocity. Whenever a rocket or whenever this is launched once you are up in the air what you need to do is basically, you need to gain enough traction so that you can go out of gravity and this is possible for every startup as well. There will be market forces where there will be disruption, there will be competition. They'll be incumbent on how do you basically move fast and you have first moving advantage or fast-moving at what your advantage starting up so that you can scale that gravity and inertia state where you have made it. You are part of the coveted whatever you want to call a successful startup unique to a club or anything where you have a sustaining business and it will all depend on how you can continue to disrupt your known wait and execute on the path that you have. What do I mean by these stages and then I'll walk you through them. So if you see over here essentially there are four fundamental components and talking which is the most important part of the journey. Somewhere my internet is a little shaky, so what is needed to take your startup off the ground? What is the liftoff ability that I am talking about and how do I structure it in a few very simple understandable words? So the first thing which is very important for a start-up is fungibility. Why I am calling fungibility is important because I don't know. Believe me or not, no matter what you have on your power plant and what you have been talking to an investor or your co-founders your plan is bound to change even in the first three weeks, a few weeks, two weeks, three weeks, one month. This thing is true for everyone right from Instagram to Snapchat to Facebook or even to movies to Flipkart. You all could start selling something and eventually, you will realize that something that is not taking off in the market or there is not enough demand you have to constantly keep on tweaking your plan. So you have to figure out how you make everything fungible within the company from its people to its structure to its engineering and nothing should come in your way. For example, when Minwoo's movie started, we were SMSing. Based on our SMS based game platform within six and seven months, we realized that it's not taking off anybody, is willing to pay for us and we were able to turn around the entire company in 21 days from our business products engineering execution operation to convert ourselves into mobile advertising. How is that possible leads me to the next point which is iteration you have to constantly keep doing things. If you are not changing things every day you are not moving fast enough and if you are not moving fast enough you will get crushed either by incumbent competition or remember every time that you are not working another startup must be working in your area and you are bound to be buried under there that leads to the second related point fail fast and move on, to be an honest lot of people worry about failures. In my opinion, this is the most celebrated or this should be the most celebrated object in any company whether you are a start-up B company or in. Come back because they are our biggest mentor or learning agent that you will find in your story. If you are not failing enough which means you're not making enough calls and you are not applying Orthodox thinking or what would have happened if you had done a versus me. So this is what leads to iteration and this is what it leads to results which brings me to the last point of the list of stages constant progress as I start up the object driven or the result was driven culture is quite important everything that you are doing should lead to a conclusion and conclusion, in my opinion, could very well be failure itself because then it allows you to leave two things and focus on the third object. So if you have all these three fundamental thought processes early in the game, I'm pretty sure that you will be able to weather the liftoff stage and you'll be able to go to the next stage.

I'm planning to do things in my company. So let's say I will just take a hiring consideration having reached the consideration I talked about fungibility. So if you see my first point it's very important too far to find a hustler early in the game you don't need rocket science as you because right now, you don't know which direction you are going to me and if you don't know what direction you are going to be, it's better to have people who can just manual. First, who can go into any direction where the company is taking them. So for me, the hustlers are quite important in the early stage of the company and every startup should find them a jack of all trades. These are the people who are not dependent on technology who are not dependent on the environment. If I have to relate to that in the movie, the first set of coding that we did was all in .net because  I mean we had the engineers who knew it very well and it helped us to develop really fast but as soon as you know we grew up to a certain stage we realized that we will not be able to scale completely on this stack and we needed something very different and we didn't have to hire new engineers our engineers were good enough to switch to Perl Python Java. So if you hire the hustler, if you hire the fundamental people they would come along and they will be able to turn the tide or they will be able to go in any direction you want. The third point sets a higher power for firsts you just cannot do random hiring you just cannot hire for any aesthetic or academic purpose. You have to figure out I need to go from point A to point B and if I need to go from point A to point B, this is what my goal is going to be and everybody who is part of the company has to be aligned into those thoughts and they need to make constant progress. The fourth point is your top 10 or surah or rather first end engineers are very important. I have not seen any company make it to the top who have made wrong hiring while hiring their first 10 people. I cannot emphasize more on it. The company is all about people and people are all about companies so you're unique in that C is the top or is the initial 10 engineers who are responsible for giving that company that shape. So founders have to take that responsibility on their own. I consider this team an extended founding team because nobody else can connect and that's how this hiding needs to be done and that leads to my next point. If you are going to find these 10 people and if you are going to call them an extended forming team, make sure you are not hiring them for money because if you are hiring them for money that's a transactional deal, and possibly these people will leave you if things are not right. So who you are hiring, you are hiring people who believe in your purpose and if you believe in your purpose they will stick around with you and will make sure that this company takes off last but not least I do not believe in that. Hiring is only the job of HR. Hiring is only the job of certain people to be honest if you are a start-up and you are on lift off the page. I doubted that you will have enough money to even have a dedicated HR person, so for me, the biggest magnet in the biggest recruitment person in the company has to be founders but they are the ones who hold the vision they are the ones who understand what they are doing and it's their job to sell that idea to the people that they are going to have. So these are some very initial tenets that I think you should apply while you are building the initial team and if you do it. I can vouch for it that 90% of the time it just works. Coming to the next point most of you I think I am assuming here will be part of the technology team or you could be the office of the CTO or you will be a CTO founder or even an earlier forming engineer. How do you apply the same principle to what I was telling you about the four things that I apply to hire in the system and design category consideration? The first thing design for simplicity as I told you guys in the early days the startup can change the direction you cannot go into a very fancy model you cannot go into a very fancy architect where you design itself will become your problem build something so simple to change as modular as possible you don't need to be rocket science at this point of time as I told you to scale problem complexity problem data problem all that can be solved later on in the game. There is enough fine detail that what is needed at this point is how maneuverable your ship is so simplicity is the core object if your design and architecture consideration use common tips. I have seen people choosing very fancy technology and then they end up in a situation where it is hard to even find their genius. There is a talent war out there. What you want to do is you want to build something using the tech which is so common that you will be able to get this engineer anywhere in the world. You should get it in a day or so if you do something very fancy unless you are in a domain where you are designing chips or you're designing something. We're subject matter expertise is quite important.

I find this for how the most common pitfall where you're the selection of technology will become your problem so keep it simple keep keep the tech that is quite abundant and very easy to find the talent and the right price so basically this will help you to scale faster at least in the early days speed overindulgence same thing you know there is no such thing as perfect solution lot of engineers I know have the fascination of doing the perfect job or writing the perfect code in my opinion there is no place for that in early days in the game this stable code and this possible goal I believe is the basic requirement that every genius should understand but beyond that the speed is quite important how fast you launch the product how soon. The product is quite important and I think you all have heard the famous Mark Zuckerberg quote move fast filled things. So I mean that is literally what it means and and it really helps because things are quite related to point one and point two, I made very easy maintainable design. Any engineer who joins you on day one should be able to understand how the stack is. how you have model eyes your code and he should be able to find his place in the whole equation very quickly if you make it very fancy. If you make it very complex the boot up time for these guys could be incredibly hard and you don't want that kind of at least a problem as a founder as a leader as an engineering team member is your job to anticipate problems in advance. The best help you can do to your company in early days is figure out where things will break because look you are making choices you are doing things simple you're doing things with common tech but it's very important to have the awareness that where you need you have taken some or you have cut some corners so that you are ready for that last but not least every standard should rely on beg borrow and frugal. I'm not using a steel word because I don't believe in that but be as frugal as possible and beg anything that you can find for free borrow anything that you can find for free whether it's AWS credit, do not hesitate because all these things matter and it helps saves money save time and these are the things that will help your company to go to the next level. So if you apply these thought processes not only in tech even in your business organizational structure or architecture diagram everything. I'm pretty sure that you know you will be able to cross the lift off stage for your startup now coming to the stage two as I told you this is about defying the inertia define the gravity and attaining escape against your competition against your incumbent so what are the four things that I believe should be the part of your structured framework so user experience is the key. We live in a very different world. Every company that is successful today has simplified the user experience or built something that is so you need to use it for anyone, even a two-year-old even a three-year-old can basically play with it, use it. So if you are in v2c b2c domain you cannot survive without it but even if you are in bebe user experience is paramount and make sure you know that is part of your life and your thought process this is also the time when you start to build skills and depth because you know now you will be meeting or you know you'll be competing with some big guns out there so if you are not if you are not demonstrates demonstrating right skills and right depth possibly you are going to be part of roadkill so you cannot afford to have that so all the ten debt that you will be generating on stage two this is the state or this is the time that you will start cleaning up for that so that leads to the Third Point foundation for future you know in this stage you may be a hundred people company sixty people company 50 people company but you have to start setting up your system system architecture design and even organization where you should be able to scale it 2,000 people. If you get to that state last but not least is a strong notion of value everywhere you need to be very clear what value you are generating everyone needs to know what my role over here is and how I'm helping company to win this battle so once you have the value associated to everything that you do that question should be asked in every design winning in every system we have the architecture or even in organizational level what I am doing that will basically generate value for the company so that motion needs to come over there. Amazon is one of the company that has basically really imbibed it and they have really shown to the world if everything is that's what we had associated to a value I mean there is no reason why will you why you will not succeed so same thing I will help you to walk through and apply the same guidelines into taking two big problem. Every startup phase one is highly hiring consideration. So as I said the first thing that you are going to do is you are going to build that you know that what are the places where you let the depth be, what are the areas you will be heading on by stage two you will have a full clarity where your company is heading. So you start to basically build those complementary forces around it you start to build people who can help you solve those problems second is a very related objective enhance the skills offer your existing team upgrade your team make them ready for the next stage these are the hustler who are with you from day one and what you need to do is now you need to quickly skill them and you have a quickly retrain them to the demand of the company for future. I think if you do that basically it's much much better than and you know the cost of refilling and upgrading your team is simply 20% off as compared to getting the person from outside. So in my opinion very effective tool people actually don't spend much time on it but I think it could be something very important for you same thing the third point never change set ambitious goals or foster go foster growth.