He's Battling Google and Facebook — And Is Worth Billions
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because your mobile is telling you what to do and buy, and you might not even know it.
By Sanjena Sathian
Startup founders love their origin mythologies — the war wounds, the near-bankruptcy, all the people who said NO! Naveen Tewari’s story has all of the above: dwindling finances, numerous meetings with venture capitalists who gave him the “sorry, but ….” His tale ends in a particularly juicy punchline, though — to the tune of some $2 billion.
That’s the value of 38-year-old Tewari’s company, Bangalore-based InMobi, which lurks under the radar for everyday consumers but is in fact one of four heavyweights powering the world of mobile advertising, says NYU Stern Business School professor Anindya Ghose. The other three? Apple, Facebook and Google. “Inspiring,” Ghose says of InMobi’s numbers. The company is a mobile ad network, which means it helps people who want to sell ads reach people surfing the web on their phones, who might buy stuff from those ads. It’s backed by top Silicon Valley investors like Sherpalo Ventures and Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield and Byers; Tewari got zero dollars from Indian VCs, whom he describes as risk-averse.
He’s analytical, but his dream is big.
It’s fitting that at least one player in this mobile biz is headquartered in India, not just because the country’s home to some of the finest technology universities in the world (the Indian Institutes of Technology, of which all four of InMobi’s founders are alums) but because, here, as in much of the developing world, Internet on cell phones hugely outpaces laptop or broadband surfing. The nation of some 1.3 billion will have more users online — around 400 million — than the U.S. by the end of the year, according to the Internet and Mobile Association of India. Around 75 percent of those people will use their phones, not computers.
But Tewari’s gunning for more than just the Indian market. That’s clear in everything from his talking points to the office — which feels more like the perky playgrounds of San Francisco startups than the heads-down work vibe of most companies here. (We’re sitting in a themed conference room full of vintage cameras called “Selfie.”) “There’s nothing Indian about the company,” he says. He has sweet eyes and wears a Lacoste T-shirt and casual sneakers. And his company’s trying to put a cute, friendly face on the business. Last summer, the company launched a product called Miip, an avatar of a monkey that developers can plonk into an app to chat to you occasionally, suggesting you buy this or that. Tewari tells me InMobi plans to roll out even more of those “ad discovery” products this year, although he’s mum on details.
Don’t be too harsh on the naysayers of the overall business model, though: Tewari and Co. were anything but a sure bet in the beginning. Working against them? The haziness of the market at the time — it was 2007 when the team first conceived of an SMS search engine company — smart phones were brand-spankin’ new and Thomas Friedman had just written The World Is Flat a few years before.
Tewari’s connections earned him first meetings, but no follow-ups. Down to $500 in hand, the founders decided their last shot was to get Tewari back on a plane to the U.S., where he might find the dough. With no way to pay for the flight, they found a high-end travel agent who booked for big companies and allowed 60 days of credit. Tewari flew first class from Mumbai to San Francisco next to Bollywood stars and crashed at a friend’s place in hopes of a yes. When it came — from top investor Ram Shriram — Tewari, so used to rejection by then, recalls that he almost asked, “Why?”
In those days, says co-founder and CTO Mohit Saxena, the founders set a standard of being “quite brutal and honest” with one another. They’re a level-headed bunch, engineers, practical. And yet, when Saxena, who had a good job at Virgin Mobile, ran into Tewari in the Bay Area — where Tewari was cycling through a series of gigs at unsuccessful startups that folded after a few months — and got to talking about starting a company, Saxena moved his family back to India in seven days. He describes Tewari in similar terms: “He’s analytical, but his dream is big.”
Tewari, who’s now in the U.S. every six weeks or so, comes from a long line of IIT professors (his grandmother was the first female math prof) and grew up around the university — his wife is of the same stock. But he doesn’t describe his childhood as elite or worldly. Tewari landed a competitive job at McKinsey& Co. right out of college but had “never heard of them” before. He saw that he’d gotten the second-round interview just after basketball practice with buddies and sauntered on over in his sweaty attire. He would have gone on to grad school but for the fact that McKinsey chose to recruit at the IITs for the first time that year.
Today, InMobi comes up as the kind of company Google might buy, though Google declined to comment. “It would be good for Google,” Ghose says, adding that InMobi is “a bit away” from being true competition for Google or Facebook. For InMobi to wear the big-kid shoes in its own right, Ghose figures it’d want to ace the data game, getting access to really “fine-grained” data about user preference. Which is kind of, “on paper,” he says, a different product from Miip the monkey. Then again, he adds, if the monkey’s doing its job, it’ll get to know you and your habits very, very well.