First, a brief about this inspiring individual we feel honored to have interviewed.
He has been named a Top NRI Achiever of 2005 by HindustanTimes, one of India's oldest and respectable newspaper which by the way was inaugurated by Mahatma Gandhi; was instrumental in establishing online presence for leading brands such as Gap, Banana Republic and Old Navy; headed a team at eBay and set a strong foundation which contributed to its excellent growth; more recently was a Product Lead at Google, responsible for the launch of several excellent products like Google Notebook, Google Custom Search, Accessible Search, Search Personalization etc., in addition to others.
Tagged as Google's Best Product Manager, the often used phrase to describe him in several circles especially in Silicon Valley, he very recently has been given the task to head the monetization efforts at Google's $1.6 billion acquisition - YouTube.com
Shashi Seth is a true source of inspiration. Get inspired ...
1. From being named a top NRI achiever of 2005 by HindustanTimes to being labeled as the best product manager at Google and more recently accepting a key position at YouTube working on monetization, you are an undisputed epitome of success. What is your secret? Could you please walk us down the path to your success?
I really did not plot out a path for my career. I have simply taken each role as a learning and growth opportunity. I have have been rather fortunate in that the right opportunities have presented themselves and have furthered my career. However, I can assure you that this is not by design.
I came to USA to pursue a post-graduate education in Computer Science at the University of Miami in 1988. I had recently completed a Masters in Computer Application (MCA) from the University of Pune.
In 1989, I took an offer to go work for NASA Langley Research Center where I was involved in avionics research and building flight simulators. In 1995, I started MediaMagic, a consulting firm focused on Internet and e-commerce solutions. This was a really exciting time as the Internet industry was just taking off and lots of interesting developments were taking place - Netscape had gone public, Amazon.com was launched and search engines were popping up.
In 1998 I took an offer to move to California and work for Gap where I helped launch Gap's online sites - Gap.com, BananaRepublic.com and OldNavy.com. In 2001, a friend and I started Conxo - a startup focused on wireless applications in niche verticals like construction, healthcare, etc. However the investment climate was so bad that we could not raise a second round of funding and had to close it down in 2002.
At this point I accepted an offer to work for eBay and head their platform efforts, build out their APIs, build a developer community, and make these a part of eBay's growth strategy. The efforts of my team set the foundation for bringing in a significant portion of eBay's traffic and revenues - it was quite an exciting time. In 2004, I moved to the product strategy organization within eBay and helped eBay formulate strategies for both the short and long term.
In 2005, I moved to Google as Product Lead for Google Search, focusing my team's efforts on Search Personalization and User Generated Content. We have launched many exciting products in this space in the past 2 years, including Google Notebook, Google Custom Search, and Accessible Search among many others.
In 2005 Hindustan Times named me NRI achiever of the year - I was very happy and honored to receive this award, yet found it to be a very humbling experience. Just recently, I joined YouTube to be part of the team that is responsible for Monetization. I think it is an amazing opportunity.
2. Which role of yours was most challenging and why? Your job at Gap, Conexo, MediaMagic, NASA, eBay, Google/YouTube?
I have to say that every role has been challenging, yet exciting. Each role acts as a platform that provides me with the experience and background to be able to take on the next role. Each role has been at a different point of my career, and no two are the same in terms of the challenges, and the opportunities.
3. How to get started as a Product Manager -- i.e., what kind of qualification(s) or experience is required to get the job of a product manager? What does it take to be the best product manager?
Product Managers (PM) are the equivalent of General Managers for a product or product line. They have the responsibility for managing the product through it's entire lifecycle from a business perspective. Product Managers help come up with the right ideas, define business requirements, coordinate across business boundaries to build and launch the product, provide the care and feeding to grow the product, manage internal and external communications, etc.
There are two kinds of Product Managers: Technical PMs and Business PMs. Technical PMs will have a background in Computer Science or other engineering discipline, while Business PMs will have an MBA degree. Given the technical nature of the job, many companies in Silicon valley prefer Technical PMs.
However outside of this, almost all good product managers will have a deep passion for the space, are highly analytical people who have excellent problem solving skills, have good communication skills, can operate strategically and tactically as required, and are strong leaders.
The recent comments in the press about me being the best PM at Google is flattering, however, I can assure you that Google has a ton of talented and strong Product Managers.
4. From your vast experience in the industry what are some of the common mistakes made by startups? Also, what is it that takes for a startup to succeed?
The three most common mistakes I have seen are:
i. Not starting with the strongest idea. The question that every startup must ask itself is: what is the problem that this idea is trying to solve? Very often there is no problem to solve or the startup is addressing a problem that is not top of mind for the users.
ii. Not building the best team possible. Any company is only as good as the people that it employs, and this is even more true for a startup. Often due to time pressures and a lack of patience, sub-optimal personnel (not qualified, not the right culture fit, attitude, etc.) are hired and nothing can be worse than not having the right team in place to execute against the strong idea that the team started with.
iii. Not being able to execute. Sometimes this is just a lack of experience, other times startups stretch themselves too thin and start focusing on too many opportunities. Even worse is when the founding team spends their entire team raising money, taking focus away from building the product.
Avoiding these pitfalls is essential for the success of a startup. The only one that I did not mention above is Timing. Many companies fail because either they are too early or too late to market. Timing is everything in this business.
5. What is your take on startups going for VC investments early on? What are some of the things an entrepreneur should consider before seeking funding? Is there a rule of thumb for startups to follow?
There is no rule of thumb or a one-size-fits-all strategy for startups raising money early on. In most cases though, it distracts from the task at hand. I firmly believe that successful startups put in the sweat equity early on, build a working prototype (and sometimes a fully functional product), and sometimes even attracting a healthy user base, before going to raise cash.
The classical mistake that many entrepreneurs make is raising cash too early, which is not only a distraction, but is not healthy from a financial perspective because the founders tend to give up too much equity for small amounts of cash due to low valuations. Look around and see that the most successful startups never went looking for the money - the money found the startups.
6. What do you think about the increasing number of startups in India? Any advice you'd like to share from your valuable and extensive experience?
I am very pleased to see the number of startups increasing in India, although it's still a very small number.
Around 2003 I wrote a blog which bemoaned how India was not living up to it's true potential by spending all their energy into outsourcing alone. One of the points that I made there was that outsourcing has this particular problem of becoming victimized by your own success. As India becomes more successful, and a true middle class is created, the salaries will go up, and soon outsourcing will become unattractive. However, product based startups do not have this problem. In fact, both are necessary, and can exist wonderfully. Successful startups will create new products, which will require new support paradigms, and will continue to fuel India's outsourcing economy as well.
There is a lot of wealth sitting idle in India. I would encourage some of these folks to get into angel financing and encourage startups. Look at a city like Mumbai: how hard would it be raise Rs 1 Crore ($250,000) in that city? All we need is awareness. Maybe somebody will start the equivalent of Garage.com in India, which can become the training ground for budding young entrepreneurs, and also become the platform for getting angels involved in seeding these startups. If any of your readers wants to take this on, I would be happy to help.
7. On a personal front, who is your role model? Also, which websites/magazines do you visit/read often?
My role models are the folks who are helping make the world a better place, whether it is stamping out poverty, helping poor children, eradicating disease and hunger. They are the people who deserve all the credit and do not get it. This is precisely the reason that I was very happy to see Muhammad Yunus win the Nobel Peace Prize for his pioneering work in micro-credit. I am very excited to see Pierre Omidyar, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and Bill & Melinda Gates put their wealth to use for furthering these causes.
I read the printed versions of Fortune magazine and Newsweek on a regular basis. On the web, I find that my journey for information usually starts with Google News, jumping off to a variety of news sources all over the world. I find this the easiest way for me to keep in touch with things I am passionate about: technology, movies, cricket, tennis, stocks, etc. Of course, with my new role, I am spending more and more time on YouTube.com.
8. Our final question, one thing or person that you admire the most?
Undoubtedly my Mother! She has been an amazing source of inspiration. She is passionate about reading, has amazing inner strength and the ability to deal with adversity, and has humility, perseverance, and patience in abundance. Much of who I am today is because of her.
9. What is the question you would like to answer and still nobody asked you?
An interesting question is "Growing up, did you ever imagine you would be playing the interesting roles that you currently play?"
The answer to that one is simple. No way! As a kid I dreamt a lot - and dreamt big - especially about things I wanted to do. When I got involved with something, I was passionate about it all the way.
For example I was a voracious reader (again, taking after my mom's habits) and would spend days reading books, novels, Readers Digests......whatever I could lay my hands on. There wasn't much television until I was in 9th grade, so my imagination had to be pushed really hard. That imaginative and innovative mind helps me a lot in my work even today. I was not passionate about engineering (so never appeared for any of the engineering exams like IIT etc.), but I was passionate about Tennis, and so played Tennis for 6-7 hours every day and became pretty good at it.
I did know that I wanted to go abroad, and my friends and family knew that someday I would, but I surely did not know what I would be doing. Computer Science was introduced to me by a dear friend of mine who has since passed away, but these were the days (1985) when people would ask: "So, what kind of job are you going to get once you graduate from Computer Science?" Well, I did not know the right answer in those days either. It definitely was interesting and full of possibilities, but little did I know what an interesting career I would embark upon back then. As Confucius said "may you live in interesting time."
That was all from an humble Shashi Seth. Success is not new to him, yet we wish him continued success. He has done India proud.