By Mikhil Innani, Director – Product at hotstar.
(Earlier, Mikhil headed product at CouponDunia until its acquisition and co-founded PharmEasy, a startup in the healthcare delivery space.)
Post the sale of CouponDunia to Times Internet, I decided to move and seek a new challenge. Having a family business dabbling in real estate, I moved to Housing.com to learn more about this space. I had a brief stint here of about 3 months before starting PharmEasy.
One would think (hindsight is perfect)that those 3 months were crazy and I was daft to join Housing. Well, the answer is yes and no. Yes, the 3 months were crazy but my stint at Housing was hugely important. Why? It taught me everything NOT to do when I did my own startup. Let’s go over the list:
Complacency and arrogance
There was a Steve Jobs complex at Housing. Just by the fact that they were at Housing, everyone thought they had made it to the highest echelons of startup land. Maybe the chip on their shoulder came from working in the “hottest startup in the country” (whatever that means) but most likely it came from the founders attitude themselves. Conversations of acquiring other companies was water cooler talk and competitors were looked at like trolls who lived in the sewers.
Huge salaries and massive funding gave an air of invincibility
The salaries paid to employees, including yours truly, were off the roof. They were conservatively 25–30% higher than the market. Famously, the design department had freshers hired for 18 LPA. This led to mercenaries joining the company rather than missionaries.
When the apple watch was launched there was a google sheet passed across the team to enter the watch you wanted. Housing was planning to gift an apple watch (any variant apart from the gold) for every employee in the company. That’s 300+ odd apple watches which is conservatively $500 a pop (most people were going for the highest $1000 variant) and about $150,000 total.
Next came the office space. Not satisfied with their current office being one of the best startup offices around, Housing had leased out an eye-watering 1.5 lac sq ft office in Powai. The plan was to make an office space which would leave Google’s offices looking pale. It was to be the landmark for offices around the world.
All this was fuelled by a 100 million dollar round led by Softbank. The founders felt untouchable and invincible. Unfortunately, as time proved, it’s a team full of missionaries with execution excellence and capital efficiency which is invincible. Not just capital.
Raise ambition, raise funding, lose focus
I was brought on board to build a product around hyperlocal services. Imagine taskbob (now shut) or urbanclap primarily for housing related services like cleaning, plumbing, painting, pest control etc. Within a couple of weeks of joining it was evident their primary product for renting and buying properties had huge gaps. These gaps meant the number of users actually renting or buying houses through housing was abysmal. Instead of focusing on fixing their primary use case there were products being built for hyperlocal services, online rent agreements, finding roommates etc to name a few. A startup is all about focus. You need to do few things well before even thinking about other things.
Speed and framework of execution
The curse of ambition destroyed the speed of execution at Housing. Due to the sheer number of projects going on, most projects would be stuck with product managers and designers with little to no engineers. This led to many products being aimlessly worked on, without any engineers to actually code it up. Projects having engineers, had so few, that they were endlessly delayed. To add insult to injury, the concept of minimal viable product (MVP) did not exist at Housing. They felt we were the apple of India and could not launch anything other than the “perfect complete product”. The framework of lean startup, quick launches and data-driven iterations was absent. This paralysed the entire organisation and killed the only super power a startup has, speed.
Work ethic and discipline
There were no official work timings at housing. On my first day, I was told by the HR to come in by 12. Yes, 12. That served as a warning for things to come. The product manager reporting into me used to come to office by 2–3pm. When folks were pulled up on these god awful habits, the answer would be that its the “culture” and it’s about getting work done rather than focusing on the timings. Well, call me old fashioned but this looked like a recipe for disaster. People abused this privilege to the point where collaboration in the company was a challenge. Each team decided what their timings were and most initiatives took multiple emails to kickstart.
Marketing without product market fit
It’s no secret that Housing had the biggest marketing campaign conducted by any startup in recent memory. Millions of dollars were spent to get users to the Housing platform. Naively, this was done without achieving product market fit. Bluntly, the product was a mess. The funnels for all products including rent and buy looked horrible. There was nobody monitoring and working to improve these funnels. Everyone was fighting over resources to build the next shiny feature without bothering about the existing platform. To add insult to injury, Housing had undergone a last minute redesign in anticipation of the marketing campaign. This resulted in a buggy and highly unstable platform awaiting users channelled in through millions of dollars of marketing.
Vision and execution
This is what it boils down to. Housing had a beautiful vision. Rahul, for all his shenanigans, hypnotised the best of folks with sky-high ambitions. In one of the all hands meetings, he rallied his troops that Housing would be the first company to set up whole new smart cities in India and houses on Mars. Yes! Mars. He barked to set up the website mars.housing.com with a coming soon label to indicate his seriousness. Such was the mesmerising nature of his speech it left people galvanised to go on and achieve that mission. This was stunning to witness.
Hell, that’s how investors ponied up hundreds of millions of dollars into Housing!
Unfortunately, Housing failed to execute. It failed to go from a small 10–20 member passionate startup to a company which has 200+ employees with millions of dollars in the bank and 100 of ideas to execute.
And like the old saying goes, ideas without execution are worthless. Everyone’s got them.