CEO, Times Internet
You never know where life will take you. In the case of Gautam Sinha, the journey has been especially circuitous. After his engineering, he worked for five years as a scientist on India's missile programme in Balasore, Orissa with the Defence Research & Development Organisation.
Computer science drew him to the US in 1993 where he spent 24 years, most of them in the Silicon Valley area. He returned for personal reasons to India in 2007 when he joined Times Internet as Chief Technology Officer (CTO). Now CEO, Sinha is one of the key people who oversaw the transformation of Times Internet from 'a traditional media company to a product/technology company'.
Why was this necessary and how did the company go about it? That was the subject of the conversation between Sinha and Sreekant Khandekar at the recently concluded web publishing conference, Digipub World. Khandekar is the curator of Digipub World and a co-founder of afaqs!
Khandekar: You'd lived in America for more than 20 years. You were in software. So, here you were in India as the CTO of a large media company. What was your first impression?
Sinha: The Times Internet I joined was largely the offshoot of a print organisation. The company didn't know what to do with a CTO. But the Times has always been very progressive; they always think 10 years ahead. So they knew that getting a CTO in was something they needed to do even if they were not sure why.
My first impression was that I wouldn't last more than three months - and it has been ten years since then!
Khandekar: Why did you feel you wouldn't last?
Sinha: There was a cultural element to it. I had been groomed professionally in Silicon Valley. And to think that I could come and contribute to an Indian company with roots that went back 178 years seemed far-fetched.
Khandekar: I'd have thought you'd be more comfortable joining a large American company with a strong presence in India.
Sinha: I have always wanted to be close to strategy. When you work for an American company in India, you are as far from strategy as you can be. You don't want to be the country head of a company where decisions are being taken in the West.
Khandekar: Could you tell me briefly about the clusters that make up Times Internet? It's quite confusing.
Sinha: First, there is the news cluster: The Times of India, Navbharat Times, Maharashtra Times and about eight regional language products. The news cluster touches about 130 million monthly actives (active users).
Then we have the business news cluster: The Economic Times, Business Insider and so on.
The entertainment cluster consists of Gaana, Willow and the video products, all of which together touch about 50 million monthly actives.
Then there's personal finance: ET Money, which we entered about two years ago.
And lastly we have the utilities as a cluster where we have grown to a healthy 20 million actives over the last two years.
So, we have a large aggregation of users where we inform, engage and entertain many million people on a daily basis.
Khandekar: What was it that persuaded the management in 2012 that Times Internet needed to be 'media plus'?
Sinha: In 2010, Satyan Gajwani joined the group. But when we talk of the transformation at Times Internet this didn't involve just one or two people. It involved 25 people at senior levels.
While we were already a big aggregator, the biggest challenge for any organisation is monetisation. Google and Facebook were already there. It was clear where monetisation would shift as time went by.
In print, there is the notion of a doorstep where the news is delivered to you. But in online the doorstep could be your own portal or the social networks. It could be anywhere. How do you get discovered? That was always a challenge.
Khandekar: You are dominant as a media group. Did you ever seriously look at pay as an option for the news sites?
Sinha: Today, we have about half a million paid subscribers. We could do better but half a million is still not bad. This would be mostly on Gaana.
On the traditional news sites, freemium is one way to go. But journalists want their articles to be distributed as broadly as possible. We are looking at putting articles behind a paywall for a week or two and then making it open. This is under active consideration.
Khandekar: Let's return to 2012 when the transformation at Times Internet began. What did you decide the problem was?
Sinha: The threat then was the same as it is now: it was about monetisation. How do you monetise at scale? Why are you earning in hundreds of crores of rupees when you could be earning in thousands of crores?
We started by evaluating our strengths. We realised that we touched more than 60 per cent of the internet population. We continue to do that. But were we monetising at the level at which, say, a WeChat or Line is monetising in the US?
The other realisation was that all of us are vulnerable to the global forces which are young, smart, reasonably well funded together with great technology stack. You have to be able to compete with them.
We realised that we had to scale the business as much as we could.
And while it is called a digital transformation, the 'digital' part was a small element in the change. It was primarily cultural. It changed the way we thought about the organisational structure.
Today, we have 37 brands and across them we touch more than 270 million monthly actives. That is at least comparable to Facebook in India, if not larger.
If you have 37 brands with an ambition to go up to 100 brands, how do you run a company like that? The answer: you have to go for extreme decentralisation. The only way I can run the companies is if I don't run any of the companies. That was the basic philosophy.
So, we empowered all the businesses.
Khandekar: Were you looking for a certain kind of person as business head for each?
Sinha: To compete on a global scale we needed people who were hungry, young and very ambitious. They would not be afraid of taking on audacious targets. We wanted entrepreneurs to run all these businesses.
Khandekar: What exactly do you mean by 'entrepreneur' when you are talking of a manager?
Sinha: Someone who has run and built a business before.
Khandekar: Is that a pre-requisite?
Sinha: It is one of the criteria we look for. About 80 per cent of the business heads have that kind of background. But we are open to anyone who wants to build something big and is hungry enough.
Khandekar: What to your mind is the essential difference between a media company and a product company?
Sinha: If you look at a product company, the focus of the product is: can you get the user back again and again? For a media company, the content is the product.
Khandekar: I must disagree. Media companies get people back far more often than do, say, ecommerce companies. That is why Amazon created Prime Video.
Sinha: From a media company's perspective we saw that advantage: that it is easy to get an audience. But we wanted to monetise it better than anyone else. And that's where the product notion came in. That is where we began developing Times Internet as a platform.
For example, on a day when India is playing a cricket match, it is easy to get heavy traffic on our site, Cricbuzz. But if you can use technology to move that audience to half a dozen other businesses, you are creating a value that nobody else can. At a platform level, hopefully you will be able to make a profit.
Khandekar: Looking back, which bits of the change were hardest?
Sinha: Transformation is always about the people. It's less about digital or about technology. It requires you to have clarity about where and how you are going and how to carry the team along.
In fact, when we began in 2012, we had a five-year plan but for the first nearly three years, we didn't ever use the word 'transformation'. Satyan was a great CEO from 2012-16. He got a different perspective, a different energy to Times Internet. That helped us change the culture.
The moment you use the word 'change', the internal anxiety level increases. If the anxiety level rises, the chance of success declines.
If you want to change, you have to take the teams along. You have to align the teams to that vision and gradually move things brick by brick until you meet your goal.