When India’s largest e-commerce player Flipkart made Silicon Valley-based former top Google executive, Punit Soni , it gave a clear indication of how the company was sharpening its product strategy. In April, after a short stint of just over a year, Mr. Soni has quit Flipkart and is moving back to Silicon Valley. In an interaction with Pradeesh Chandran, the former Chief Product officer, Flipkart, said if the online retailer can execute its strategy well then it has an edge over its rivals. Edited excerpts:
When you decided to move to India and join Flipkart, what were your thoughts?
I have been in Google for eight years and have worked on different things, platforms and learned a lot from there. Google probably taught me a lot more than I gave it.
In Silicon Valley we all closely watch Indian start-up ecosystem and all are excited about the kind of work happening in India.
I felt that the there might be something for me to contribute in terms of helping and making great Indian companies. When I decided to move to India I thought I would get to participate in building a great Indian product company. I wanted to learn from India as it a different ecosystem.
So did you learn? Was the experience good or bad?
The learning can never be bad, learning is always good. Whenever you get something to learn out of experience, you end up actually becoming better. The observations I have had about the Indian industry are the following: It has a largest contingent of young entrepreneurs trying to build companies. The second thing is that there are so many problems to solve. If you decide to solve it you will find a way for it. There is lack of role models in terms of great product companies. Because of that, there is also a lack of understanding in today’s entrepreneur on how to run large tech companies. It is not yet matured here, but things will become better.
Did the maturity, or lack of it, impact your work at Flipkart?
That is hard to say. There are two aspects to it. Do people who come from outside understand what it takes to build things in India? It is different set of people, it is a culturally different place. For a person, like me who spent all my time in the Bay Area, can’t just walk-in and pretend that I can add value here.
The second part is that the Indian ecosystem has to ask itself: “Why is that people are coming from all over the world but almost nobody seems to actually stay? I think that introspection is needed from both sides. I think my understanding on how sophisticated and mature the Indian ecosystem was probably a little bit higher than reality.
The Indian ecosystem’s ability to absorb talent from other places might be lower than it is believed to be. It is not the right time. I can see other people also exiting around me. So, it is not just me.
There are reports that you were the person behind the app-only strategy of Flipkart. What is your take on it?
The idea of Flipkart going app only has no connection with me. A section of the Indian press does not do enough research. I joined Flipkart in February 2015. The first media report of Flipkart going app-only came way before I joined the company. There are Indian media articles in October and December 2014 where the leadership in Flipkart was quoted as saying that they should go for app-only. I have consistently said that mobile-only is a mindset and not a channel strategy. In fact, it was in my time I got the mobile site and desktop version back. I am not that powerful that I step into a company and completely change the strategy overnight.
You have seen Indian e-commerce as an insider and outsider. What are your views?
I think the Indian e-commerce market opportunity is the largest in the world, second only to China. It will definitely overtake the U.S. Another thing is that only one and a half per cent of commerce is e-commerce. The company which will figure out how to offer good price and quality will succeed. Today, Flipkart is in the number one position and Amazon is also ramping up. If Flipkart can execute well and focus on real problems then it can take a shot at the top spot. If Flipkart doesn’t, then you know who will win.
What is your future plan?
I am going back to the Bay Area. I will be shuttling between the U.S. and India. I really care about India and I want to help Indian companies. With my help, hopefully one of them will become a great product company. I am trying to attend more start-up events so that I can find something interesting that I also want to do and invest in them. The best way to create the change in the world is to be the change.