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Snapdeal is adopting a 'string of pearls' product strategy: Anand Chandrasekaran

6 Jul, 2015

It has been over three weeks since Anand Chandrasekaran came on board the country's leading e-commerce marketplace Snapdeal. Just before taking over the chief product officer's role, Chandrasekaran had exuded confidence that Snapdeal would be a continuation of his entrepreneurial journey.

"I cannot think of something more entrepreneurial than this. Usually the choice is between doing something on your own and joining a big company. My appointment at Snapdeal a great example of both choices coming together," Chandrasekaran, who was with Bharti Airtel in a similar role for 13-months prior to joining Snapdeal, had said then.

Before joining Bharti Airtel, Chandrasekaran was senior director with internet giant Yahoo in California, US. Prior to Yahoo, he was director of product at Openwave. In 2001, Chandrasekaran had co-founded Aeroprise, said to be the world's most widely deployed mobility solution for IT service management.

Chandrasekaran, who moved base to India from the US last year, is also an active angel investor. He has backed Audeze, Instalively and two other tech startups in the US and India.

Chandrasekaran has already started deploying some common Silicon Valley product testing techniques at Snapdeal. Recently, all the company' staffers were told to stop what they were working on and test a yet-to-be launched product from the lens of a customer. The exercise threw up over 1,000 suggestions/feedback that were then addressed by Snapdeal's technology team.

In a chat with, Chandrasekaran sheds more light on his experience thus far with Snapdeal and talks about the company's future plans on the products front. Edited excerpts.

What are your initial impressions of Snapdeal?

When I joined Snapdeal, my first impression was that this had to be the most entrepreneurial company in the country. I continue to strongly believe so. Rohit Bansal and Kunal Bahl (Snapdeal co-founders) have built a unique culture in the company. They have fantastically adapted to the myriad changes that have come along the way. So, adapting to change is one of the core values of the company and that helps Snapdeal in wading through difficult transitions. In terms of my own team, there is a huge commitment to build the best digital commerce platform in the country. You cannot do this without having the best team. Over the past few months, we have been strengthening our tech team, which currently stands in excess of 1,000. Though majority of our folks are based in Delhi/NCR, we also have a strong development shop in Bangalore. In the next few weeks, we will publicly unveil some of the stuff that our Bangalore team has been working on.

Could you help us understand why an e-commerce marketplace needs to focus more on tech products? 

Our biggest driver today is the ambition of having one million sellers onboard Snapdeal. You cannot achieve this without a word-class tech platform. Different sellers would have different tech needs. While some would be selling online for the first time others could have been doing this for a while and so they would require more sophisticated tools.

So, what we need is a very flexible and customisable platform that lends itself to everything from discovery to transaction to logistics to analytics. This is a large problem and every piece has to be powered by tech for better scalability. If we wish to have one million sellers on board then our emphasis on products is paramount.

Snapdeal has made a series of buyouts including Freecharge and LetsGoMo Labs. One of the challenges for the chief product officer would be to harmonise different tech platforms into the Snapdeal ecosystem...

Most of our new acquisitions—be it  Freecharge, Exclusively, RupeePower or others—have their own value proposition. Hence, we are implementing what is called the string of pearls theory. So each product we have is a pearl in itself. The idea is to string them together so that the entire portfolio becomes more compelling for our users. We strongly believe that one cannot have a monolithic application which tries to solve each user problem within a single app. When users are on a mobility adoption curve, they would prefer separate products to solve immediate problems.

Is it safe to assume that upcoming tech products from the Snapdeal stable will be more tuned into the company's mobile strategy? 

When I was at Yahoo, there was a time when it was common to have different managers for desktop and the mobile version. Even then it was clear that there would be little delineation in the future. We have to ensure that the platform supports the needs of majority of our users. Our sense is that a good chunk of users still prefer either mobile or desktop. There might come a time when mobile becomes a platform of choice but we are not there yet. Till then, our focus would be to support users across platforms of their preference.

Snapdeal co-founders have been taking about some of the challenges in getting the right fit when it comes to tech talent. There is also a plan to hire engineers who have worked in Silicon Valley before. How does that pan out?

As you know, I have worked on a dozen products as part of my previous role with Bharti Airtel. Almost 99 per cent of the talent that I worked with there were based and trained in India. It was really a phenomenal experience. What I also found is that sometimes the teams end up making some mistakes for the first time. So, the idea is to get senior folks from the Valley, people who are mentors, who have been there and done that, so the same mistakes are not repeated. When a new generation of companies gets created, you want to leverage the learnings from the previous generation so that you don't have to reinvent the wheel. From that perspective, there is a fantastic opportunity to collaborate. Some of the best data scientists and engineers from foreign countries realise that India is at the cusp of this huge smartphone revolution and business models in India would be different. So, while there is a push to get these folks from the Valley, there is also an equal amount of pull for them to come here and be part of this incredible opportunity.

What is the tech hiring outlook for Snapdeal?

I do not have exact numbers but I think that our publicly stated target is to double the tech team. Tech is the biggest area of hiring right now. If someone is the best-in-breed product engineer or designer, he/she should seriously consider working at Snapdeal. I would like to classify tech problems into three categories. The first category is problems that have been dealt with before and we just need to do them excellently. The second kind of problem is those that have never been addressed in India before but has been solved in some part of the world. Third and the most exciting category is problems which have neither been solved overseas nor in India. The opportunities presented by all three problem categories are attracting a lot of talent.

How does Snapdeal's product pipeline look like? Will we see new products in different categories or will there only be incremental adjustments to the existing ones?

What I have come to realise is that people emphasise too much on bright shiny objects without doing the basics well. I think we will do the basics well and continue to invest in existing products to make them world-class in our user's eyes. Some of these changes could be termed as haircut releases. You do not issue a press release when you get your hair cut. However, people looking at you know that you have had your hair trimmed. Similarly, our haircut releases will make the existing products more appealing and better. Without getting into too many details, I can also say that Snapdeal will get into brand new categories over the coming months. We believe that e-commerce will be adopted by different people in different ways and we have discovered major industry problems that can be solved. This will be a completely new experience for those who are not part of e-commerce the way it is today. It will be a new offering for both buyers and sellers.

Recently everyone at Snapdeal briefly stopped what they were working on to test out a product…

You are right. We are doing a big launch this week and we ensured that the entire company stopped what they were doing for 24 hours to test out the product and give their feedback. Employees came up over 1,000 tiny issues that were then resolved by our tech team. How can you trouble your users if you cannot trouble your employees with the product first? Through this exercise we learned that different things matter for different buyers and sellers. People who shop for home furnishing will have a different feedback about something vis-a-vis people who shop for fashion and electronics. Such tests keep us close to users and help us understand how their tastes are evolving. It was the first time that we did something like this at Snapdeal.

What were the biggest takeaways from this exercise? Could you articulate one or two bugs that really stood out?

The biggest takeaway was to make the product more stable. Imagine the user's frustration if he is in the middle of purchasing something and the app crashes. We have been able to increase the page loads of the Snapdeal's desktop version by 25 per cent (over the last few weeks) and the 24-hour effort helped on that front. We managed to get the crash rate of our mobile app to under one per cent. Mobile apps have an average industry crash rate of four per cent across platforms and devices.