There's a big company backing but hacker sort of culture at BSB: Kavin Bharti Mittal

29 Aug, 2012

Kavin Bharti Mittal, one of the twin sons of Bharti group chief Sunil Bharti Mittal, had his first business stint with his own startup AppSpark, founded when he was in Imperial College, London. The 24-year-old, who interned at Formula One team McLaren Racing and Google besides Goldman Sachs, is now head of strategy and product development at Bharti SoftBank (BSB), a mobile internet joint venture with Japan's SoftBank. With three projects already announced (location-based check-in service Hoppr, P2P messaging app Hike and the proposed mobile portal in the works, partnering Yahoo Japan), Mittal chirped in his first free-wheeling media interview with Techcircle.in "We love to build stuff." He talked about entrepreneurship versus working at a large corporate set-up, takeaways from his first startup, white spaces within mobile internet, entrepreneurial ecosystem in India and what's next on cards from BSB. Here are the edited excerpts.

Your first entrepreneurial venture was AppSpark in the UK. What happened to the apps you developed?

I chose to shut AppSpark and head back to India because it was becoming difficult to manage two projects. I decided to focus on BSB. We had a 5-member team at AppSpark and we built two apps – a movie ticketing platform for smartphones called Movies Now which was closed after half-a-million downloads or so and the other one was Foodster. We shelved Movies Now as the Indian market is not yet ready for that kind of app. In India, 190 million phones were shipped last year of which only 10 million were smartphones. We think this number will double in the next couple of years and that is when we hope and plan to bring back Movies Now. Foodster was a location-based recommendation for food, which is now essentially Hoppr (under BSB through Y2CF).

Coming to BSB, would it be fair to describe it as an investment-cum-incubation-cum-operational firm?

Well, yes, I think so. The model sort of evolved to become a hands-on incubator. Still, we never really started out like that. What we love doing at BSB is building stuff. But we realised soon enough that we had many ideas but could only start with 3-4. So we go around building teams and we have a build-partner-acquire strategy. For example, we are building the entire product as far as Hike goes; we are partnering with gaming and new media verticals and we have partnered/acquired for our product Hoppr.

The biggest problem in India (in mobile internet) is that the data uptake has been very low. And one of the major reasons could be there's not a lot of local content for people. So we are looking at how to make a product that tackles it and thus build a very local product for consumers.

One misconception that people have about BSB is that we have a $100 million fund, which is not true. We fund our startups year by year. Each startup has funding for a year and then we re-evaluate whether the company is hitting its targets. Based on that, we re-fund the company. That is the model we are going to follow in the foreseeable future as well.

Which are the segments that you find most exciting?

There are a lot of white spaces. India is the first economy in the world that will have over half-a-billion users accessing the internet on mobile devices. We see opportunities in areas like infrastructure, cloud computing, online billing and many other such white spaces.

The first project from BSB-funded Y2CF Digital was a location-based deal site called Musstbuy. Isn't it too late in the game? When will Hoppr come out of beta and what kind of traction is there?

Musstbuy is now Hoppr. We acquired Y2CF and we are now rebranding Musstbuy as Hoppr. People see Hoppr as a daily deal site, but there is a lot more to it. The idea behind Hoppr is that there are around 600 million people who are using mobile phones and who are always connected to a network via voice, SMS or the internet. So how do we help these people find things they are looking for and on the merchant side, how do we make people walk into their shops? Those are the two problems we are looking to solve with Hoppr. Deals are a very small part of it. We want to educate users about check-ins that lead to coupons and recommendations. Step one is coupons and deals but step two is recommendations.

We have seen some phenomenal traction for Hoppr and we are witnessing some double digit growth every month. The biggest challenge in India is that location data is not readily available. So we are working very closely with operators for that. Also, even in beta, we are seeing a lot of usage. However, Hoppr and Hike (the chat app) will be in beta mode for at least a couple of months more although we wouldn't like to put any timeline. About numbers, we are keeping very quiet but it would be high six figures.

Could you elaborate on the partnership with Yahoo Japan for a mobile internet portal for India?

That is the new media vertical and a perfect example of partnership. Although there was a lot of scepticism around for bringing Yahoo back, we feel the Indian market is where the US was in 1995-96 and China was in 2003-04. So there is scope in the market to do mobile-first Yahoo differently. Also, unlike Yahoo Inc., Yahoo Japan is a totally different entity. Yahoo Japan did a phenomenal job with Softbank and we are going to do something similar. In this partnership, we are working very closely with Airtel to revamp Airtel Live – this is one of the projects. We are also looking at working with other operators for their 'live' portals.

Does BSB's involvement with Bharti as a group affect the business for carrier-agnostic ventures?

Absolutely not. BSB is a completely separate company from Airtel. Airtel treats us as a third party company. There is absolute transparency in all our dealings.

You could have built BSB within the ecosystem of Bharti Airtel. What made you build a business from ground up rather than joining the family flagship like your brother?

I feel BSB fits in as one of the verticals in the Bharti Group. It is a part of the family business. I personally feel that for Bharti to be relevant 5-10 years from now, we need something like a BSB. My kick comes from starting something new and my brother has spent some time in Africa learning the business which is his passion. I think this is very much a part of the lineage – telecom and internet go hand in hand. Yes, we could have built it within Bharti Airtel, but the way telcos work today, it is a very different culture and something like BSB needs its own setup. There is a massive culture difference. I feel that if BSB was sitting inside Airtel today, it would not be a success; it wouldn't even have a chance.

Finally, how was your experience working with the Japanese in BSB?The sort of jugaad culture of India plus the great discipline that the Japanese bring in work really well in BSB. At BSB, there's a sort of big company backing but a hacker sort of culture.

(Edited by Sanghamitra Mandal)