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We should be more careful with acqui-hires: Flipkart's Punit Soni

These are interesting times for the country's largest e-tailer Flipkart.

It was broadly expected that Flipkart would junk its web presence and go mobile-only for transactions by September. While the company continues to showcase its mobile-first approach, all indications are that the app-only strategy has been put on the backburner for the time being.

Meanwhile, the Bangalore-based Flipkart continues to improve the mobile shopping experience through initiatives such as 'Ping,' a recently launched feature that allows users to share product images and chat while shopping on mobile.

Flipkart has been strengthening its upper deck. At the same time, it continues to see senior level exits. This week reported the departure of Ravi Vora (CEO of Flipkart's strategic brands group), Appiterate co-founder Tanuj Mendiratta and AdlQuity founder Anurag Dud (both firms were acquired by Flipkart earlier this year) from the company.

"Acqui-hires should be done more thoughtfully… if people leave within a few months after being acqui-hired then that's not a good thing," Flipkart's chief product officer Punit Soni said in a recent interaction.

Soni, a new addition to Flipkart's leadership team, was a senior product management executive at Google and Motorola earlier. In his previous roles, Soni was involved in the development of products such as Google News, Google Books, Google Plus, Google Mobile, Moto X, Moto G and Moto E.

Soni is also an angel investor; he has made a personal investment in payment gateway company RazorPay.

Speaking to on the sidelines of a recent media conference, Soni shared his perspective on acquisitions, team building and other aspects. Edited excerpts…

There's been a lot of talk about Flipkart and its supposed plan to kill the desktop version in favour of mobile-only usage…What timeline are we are looking at?

I can't tell you because I don't know myself. There is no specific timeline for it.

Flipkart has seen a spate of senior exits in the recent past. The CEOs of Appiterate and AdIQuity, firms that were acqui-hired recently, quit within six months…Is that a matter of concern?

I think acqui-hires should be done more thoughtfully. We should figure out if there is a strategic synergy when we acqui-hire. The Indian startup ecosystem is very hot right now, so there is actually reason for people to believe that they can join someplace easily…. We need to ensure that we build an ecosystem that allows people's entrepreneurial instincts to flourish. Products like Ping were developed by a bunch of engineers who believed that this is the direction they wanted to go in. If you have the freedom to build cool stuff that you want to build, you will stay. It's good for us, as we have to be entrepreneurial, agile and on the edge all the time. A lot of companies will randomly acquire companies and many executives who come on board through this route may not be really interested in continuing with the acquirer. I would not be interested in acqui-hires like that. I would closely look at the motive of people who would come on board before cutting such deals.

So, would you term the acquisitions of Appiterate and AdIQuity as mistakes that could have been avoided?

I do not want to comment on specific acqui-hires. All I can say is that if people leave within a few months after being acqui-hired, then that's not a good thing. It's definitely not something to be proud of. I would not want that to repeat

So, will there be a change in Flipkart's overall gameplan towards acquisitions going forward?

We are always on the lookout for strong companies to partner with. We do strategic acquisitions and acqui-hires. In terms of our product strategy, we are a deeply home-grown company. Most of our infrastructure is built in-house. One of the big thing that I noticed after coming back from US was how much of Flipkart's infrastructure was built internally, right from machine learning to data models. It's not the kind of thing that companies in India have built before.

What are the gaps in Flipkart's product portfolio that could be filled through inorganic growth activity?

Strategic gaps? Perhaps there are some, but not many. For infrastructure we are always scouting for talent. Infrastructure, big data, machine learning, mobile development, front end and back end – that's our focus. So, if you see a bunch of people doing cool stuff but do not want their startup anymore, let me know and we will acquire.

In terms of hiring per se, will Flipkart go for big-ticket names?

We are seeing an increasing influx of talent from all over the world now. I recently announced the appointment of Eric Lange (a Yahoo veteran) as vice president of product management. We have a pipeline of really amazing people from all over the world who will join us. Probably in the next few weeks, I'll make a couple of announcements. We are eyeing the best global talent. These are both Indians and non-Indians. A fundamental shift is that non-Indians are showing keen interest. And nothing makes a company more global than this. I think the trend also speaks volumes about the maturity of the country's startup ecosystem.

How has the hiring process changed at Flipkart?

I am very opportunistic that way. If I find talented people, I create a role for them. Sometimes, I have a role and then I go after people. People are hired for a plan. However, if there are six VPs, four senior VPs and three directors at a senior level, then you are doing it wrong. You have to ask what your strategy is, find where the gaps are and then go out and get the best talent.