As a founding member of Google’s mobile ads product, Surojit Chatterjee’s impact on Google’s business, on mobile advertising, on how we shop, has been almost immeasurable.
Following his return to Google after nearly two years at Flipkart as SVP and Head of Product, Surojit talks to Winter Circle about his lasting legacy on Indian e-commerce, what’s next for mobile at Google and asks the human questions of technology.
What was your experience like at Flipkart?
Surojit Chatterjee: I joined Flipkart because India was a ‘mobile-first’ country, which means hundreds of millions of internet users are using mobile phones as their first internet device.
What excited and interested me was mobile commerce in India, as almost 80% of e-commerce in the country is done through mobile phones. For me, leading the product team at Flipkart was a great learning experience. While there, I went through probably some of the most difficult times in the company’s history. In early 2016, there was a lot of negative press, as well as frequent management changes. We had to rapidly cut costs, shedding almost 20% of our workforce.
During those tough times, we managed to keep the product and engineering teams really focused on execution, rebuilding our entire infrastructure to support more scale and growth. By the end of 2016, the company had turned a corner. I learned a lot about leadership in difficult times, about making very tough decisions and about dealing with internal turmoil and external competitors. In spite of all of that, we built a great product and a great platform, so I felt good about that.
Why did you decide to return to Google?
Surojit Chatterjee: In the end, my home is in California – that’s where my family and I have lived for the past 20 years. I think e-commerce in India faces a lot of economic challenges, and it needs to focus more on operational excellence than on core-product innovation.
The experience inside Google often mimics that of an entrepreneur – the power of the idea has to carry you through…
When Google approached me to come back to start a few new projects where I would be making heavy use of technologies like machine learning, I felt the timing was right. I love the innovation and the ecosystem in the Bay Area, which is more concentrated on the product innovation side than on the operational side.
Which products have you most enjoyed working on and which products do you think have had the most lasting effect on the industry?
Surojit Chatterjee: Let me talk about two products – one at Google and one at Flipkart.
In 2014, I led Google’s launch of the first product in the advertising industry that could demonstrate the impact of online advertising on offline activity like store visits. A lot of companies had tried to do the same but in a very limited fashion and not at scale. Using Google’s scale, this product fundamentally changed mobile advertising.
The modern consumer journey has become more complex – it’s not just online or offline, it’s a mix of both. Using only aggregated, anonymous data from users who turn on their location history, we could combine data from physical stores with data from online shopping and locations. For the first time, we could do this in a way that actually informs business decisions.
This is probably one of the biggest applications for big data and machine learning at Google. In the last three years, we have measured over five billion store visits. It was a product that made a change and a leap in the industry and I think we’ve moved the entire mobile industry forward with it.
And at Flipkart?
Surojit Chatterjee: One product that was near and dear to my heart at Flipkart was based around a big challenge in India – affordability. Affordability is an issue because GDP per capita is growing rapidly but still at a lower level than other countries.
One of the things we looked at was how to offer products to people in India where they can pay monthly. This is a big challenge in a country like India where credit card membership is low and 99% of people don’t have a credit history. How do you offer credit to a large number of people and how do you make the economics work in such an environment?
We created a number of programmes where we would ship the product and customers would pay us monthly rather than paying the entire amount upfront, which was a big challenge for a lot of users. This was a huge shift. iPhones are very aspirational devices in India and more than 50% of iPhones on Flipkart were bought through this programme.
Back in the Bay Area, what challenges are you facing in innovation and in staying ahead in a company as big and influential as Google?
Surojit Chatterjee: I think a company like Google, which is large and cutting edge, has a lot of talented and smart people. Everyone is coming up with big ideas and sometimes it can be very difficult to have your voice heard.
My experience within Google, and that’s why I chose to come back, is if the idea is really good and you are willing to stand behind it, to persevere, be patient and keep pushing through, then there’s a very good chance you’ll get enough people to rally behind you.
When you launch a product, the amount of impact you have and the amount of people you touch is really large and that’s the advantage of the Google platform. The experience inside Google often mimics that of an entrepreneur – the power of the idea has to carry you through – not your title or how many people report to you. If the idea is right, you start getting traction. Automatically, you get more resources and soon, you see the idea start to grow.
You can’t speak about what you’re currently working on, but could you give a view, from a personal standpoint, on what you’re excited about in your industry and what trends you’re seeing?
Surojit Chatterjee: I’m really excited about the future of mobile commerce and how new platforms, like AI-based assistance and augmented reality, will change the way people do commerce.
Google is heavily invested in AI – our CEO talks about Google as an ‘AI-first’ company now. I think AI will solve a lot of day-to-day problems, big and small, going forward. It will make life better for hundreds of millions of people. I also think, particularly in the advertising industry, that omni-channel marketing is a huge trend and marketers really need to understand how to do omni-channel marketing well.
Do you think Google have had to reshape their approach to innovation because of mobile and, as you said, the democratisation of mobile use in countries like India?
Surojit Chatterjee: Google has adopted a mobile-first strategy for several years now. This means for all the features we build, we keep mobile users in mind, along with the constraints and benefits of operating in mobile.
When technology becomes part of your life, it slowly starts disappearing.
One thing with mobile is it’s not just another device, it has actually become part of our lives. There are stats that show people keep their mobile phones within three of four feet of their bodies almost all the time.
Mobile will evolve to a point where the technology gets more and more embedded into our lives. People already wear, for example, fitness trackers that are almost a part of their bodies – they wear them all the time to track their sleep and their activities. There are systems and devices like Google Home where you can speak to what’s essentially a computer to control everything from the light to the temperature of your home, to play music or to ask it questions. When technology becomes part of your life, it slowly starts disappearing. It’s no longer that big, heavy computer sitting in your office. It has blended into everything.
How do you feel when it comes to relating technology back to being a human and do the ‘human’ questions come into your job when you’re developing products?
Surojit Chatterjee: That’s a great question. I think in the end, you can only create great products if you can truly empathise with other humans and with your users. As hard as it may sound, you genuinely need to connect with another person and particularly, with your customers on a level where you can deeply understand their problems and empathise with them. From there, you can build the right technology.
Every week at Flipkart, I had a customer forum, where we would bring our customers to the office. At Google, I try to meet with customers every week – that’s just one aspect of building a product.
In my personal life, I try to take time away from technology. I turn off the phone or the laptop and spend time with family and my kids. That’s very important. With all this technology around us, sometimes we forget the relationships we have with other humans. Those relationships have been there much longer than technology – they’ve existed for hundreds of thousands of years. We definitely have to keep that in mind as we are becoming detached from reality, detached from human emotions and connections.
You’re very involved in supporting startups as an angel investor. What makes you invest in these companies and what draws you to certain opportunities over others?
Surojit Chatterjee: I get very excited when I meet with entrepreneurs who have great passion and big ambition – those are some of the best moments of my week. I mostly invest in areas that I’m interested in but do not work in myself. I can always start by reading books on a subject but I think when you have skin in the game, when you’ve put money in, you learn a lot more. I research that area, I spend time with entrepreneurs, mostly advising but also learning from them. That’s what inspires me.
I think some of these companies, if they do well, have a huge impact. As an angel investor, you’re not looking for returns very quickly – your time horizon is very long (7-10 years or more). It means they’re very risky investments, but I’m really looking for ideas that have the potential to have huge impact.
That’s what’s interesting to me – ways that technology can make life better for hundreds of millions of people.
Surojit Chatterjee is a Winter Circle member and Head of Product, Google Shopping at Google.