Unacademy: To Create Iconic Products, Set Iconic Goals
Episode 04Visit Moonshot Series Page
- How crucial pivots define the trajectory of the company (6:08)
- Deciding early to be great, not good, and aligning the team to that goal (11:27)
- Have enough runway to create a culture of experimentation (13:40)
- Build or acquire autonomous teams to drive product innovation (18:19)
- Create iconic products by setting iconic goals (22:20)
- Build a strong brand as a long term moat (29:07)
- Improving your game through continuous learning and growth (31:48)
- Be relentless in the quest for mentors (41:09)
- Managing relationships with your board (47:16)
- How confrontation can build trust and transparency (54:14)
Dewi: Unacademy, which started off as a YouTube channel, is now one of India’s largest edtech companies. The startup, which is on a mission to democratize access to quality and affordable education in India, has helped over 10,000 educators reach more than 50 million learners since it was founded in 2015. Unacademy’s subscriber base has grown by more than five times in the last year alone.
On this episode of Moonshot, Gaurav Munjal, Co-Founder and CEO of Unacademy, talks with Shailendra Singh, Managing Director at Sequoia India, about building and scaling iconic products, creating a culture of experimentation, and how the DNA of a startup’s founders can impact its trajectory.
The conversation took place during an AMA at Surge – our rapid scale-up program for early-stage startups.
Shailendra: Thank you, Gaurav, again for coming back. At every cohort, he has been there to share his journey and learnings. His sessions tend to get the wildest ratings, mostly the highest. So, his radical candour is very infectious, at least for folks like myself. I think we can introduce him in these last two and a half years, Unacademy has done really well. I do not know how many hundred million Gaurav has raised. Probably a billion dollars or at least $700 to $800 million, easily. And, the company has gotten to triple digit million [dollars] revenues. It’s one of the two largest two EdTech companies in India, I think Gaurav has personally grown a lot in the last four, five years. Gaurav, we will keep it super free-flowing and interactive. Thank you for taking the time again. And, let me ask you, what are the things you would like to talk about first? Because you’ve come to enough Surge sessions, you’ve talked about brands, distribution hacks, traction channels, some of your personal productivity hacks, how you deal with mentors, how you deal with the board, how you deal with shareholders. Some of those have been loved by the prior Surge cohorts. So, I have a list of topics that you and I briefly discussed on WhatsApp but any specific topic that is top of mind for you that we should get started on?
Gaurav: So, I think my top favourite topics are essentially how do teams do high growth, and how does blitzscaling happen, and [what happens] if you keep that as the top of the priority. In one of the sessions of The Guild, by Mike [Moritz] where we talked about a lot of stuff related to culture with him, we asked a lot of questions, but essentially, he said that winning is the culture. So, I think this is something that we have been able to retain at Unacademy. Yes, other things are important, but the most important thing is that you are winning. Whatever your north star metrics are, those are being achieved. Whatever your targets are – and essentially, doing things differently from a product point of view and from the marketing point of view. Because essentially, your startup will just boil down to you building the right products and doing great marketing around it, and how do you build iconic products and how do you do great marketing. Personally, I think a lot of people in the room will go through their own journey. It’s like an emotional rollercoaster ride. For example, there was a phase in Unacademy’s journey where I was rejected by 18 investors when I was trying to raise a Series D round. And how do you still keep going and not give up?
How crucial pivots define the trajectory of the company
Shailendra: Gaurav actually, this is great. We will come to brand and products and how to do blitzscaling, but before that I think for everybody’s benefit, it would be helpful if you want to give any life story. How did Unacademy start? How did you stumble on this? What were the first few years like? I think that sets up a very nice context. So, maybe you want to share your life history prior to Unacademy, and also the start and the first one or two years of Unacademy.
Gaurav: Essentially what we are is because of the DNA of the founders. The founders, Hemesh, Roman and I, come from a very strong content and product background. For example, both Hemesh and I started coding at a very early age and started building products, not just coding, because that was expected of you in your school curriculum. And then Roman and I started being content creators very early and started understanding platforms like Quora and YouTube, even before Unacademy officially started as a private limited. And this is when we were doing other things in life. So, I just think that, you know, we come from very diverse backgrounds.
For example, the first time I met Hemesh was when I started the company FlatChat and he was the first engineer. And, one thing I liked about him is that I was interviewing him for the engineering role and he was still in his college. I sent him a train ticket to Mumbai, and he took the train the very next day and came on board.
Similarly, with Roman, he quit the coveted civil services job to startup. Now a lot of people are doing it, but then, it was unheard of. And it is not like he’d spent a couple of years there, it was just within the first 12 to 18 months that he quit. So, I think we have been fairly lucky and privileged with the kind of team members who have been a part of this journey. I think, more than the decisions we got right, I like to believe that there are certain things that we did not do.
For example, I remember it was day 30 or day 40, we had launched a tests platform – where we put tests for UPSC and tests for SSC, etc. – and this is like day 40 of starting the company. And the test platform starts doing INR 1 lakh a day in revenue. But one interesting thing I was observing was that our mission always was to build this YouTube for education. And suddenly everybody’s talking about selling tests. And one day, we decide internally that we are going to shut this down, even though it’s doing very well. This is 2015. And over the years, we took a lot of calls like these, and one of them stemmed from our brainstorming session at Leela.
I think over the years, the things we’ve said no to, or the pivots that we did define us more than the things we did. We would have been a very different ‘selling tests content company’ if we would not have taken that call. It is fairly crucial that we said no to certain things and we believed in a vision and a direction.
There were times we could have sold our content in [a] pen drive. Roman’s UPSC videos were fairly popular, so we could have sold those videos in a pen drive, just like how other EdTech players were doing, and made a lot of money. But I think we were very grateful to have investors like Sequoia on board, because for the first three-four years, we were not monetising. And we had this vision that we will monetise once we have a platform and we will monetise in a different way, and not just through field sales. We still don’t do field sales. It’s 2021 and every EdTech company in this country does. So, when I look back, it’s not the things that we did right. It’s those butterfly effect moments where we took certain calls which changed our trajectory.
Deciding early to be great, not good, and aligning the team to that goal
Shailendra: Gaurav, I think your pivots are quite distinctive in how bold they were. You want to talk about the mindset? How do you have the mindset to take bold bets? How do you do it? How do you personally do it? Like now it’s easy, you have a lot of resources to do it but even when you did not have the resources, you were able to garner the support of your board and shareholders and do very bold things in the early years. When you did not have so much revenue, you did not have $500 to $600 million on the balance sheet.
Gaurav: Two things for that. One is a leadership skill that I teach my team and I would like to tell everyone else. And the other thing is, everyone here will need to decide what game they are playing. Early on, we decided that we will play the high-risk, high-reward game. We do not want to be a profitable, hundred-million-dollar company. We do not want to play… and, I am not saying it’s a small game, but at that time, we wanted a different game. We thought that the game that we wanted to play, and this is in 2015 and it became a self-fulfilling prophecy, that we have to be a unicorn. We just said, we will play the consumer game. We will play the funding game. We will play the growth game. Once you have that, this is it. Other than that, it’s failure. Either we want to be really successful and really highly valued or we just want to fail.
So, once we got that clarity in the very first year – and anybody who would ask me that in 2015 or 2016, I would just say, “That is not the game we are playing.” I think that made things very easy. When founders are confused about what game they want to play – if they want to play the bootstrap game. Bhavin is one of our board members, he just recently raised his first round of funding, but since the age of 18 to now, he’s 40, he is playing the bootstrap game and he is doing a great job at it. But he knew his game well, and whatever principles he had, he was following them. For us, it became very clear that we want to play the high-risk, high-reward game and we don’t want to get stuck in the ‘small game syndrome’. And this is the leadership culture that most leaders will inculcate at Unacademy also.
Once we decide the goal, for example, if we have to do a pivot, then the question is not about – who will give us pain? What will a particular investor say? Who will say that? Then the question is just about “let’s strategize’ and align everyone”. So, most people look at the effort that it takes to align everyone and sometimes give up there. We just sit on the drawing board, and say, “This is what we have to do. This is the outcome, we have decided this. Now just let’s figure out a way to align the board. Let’s figure out a way to align the team members, etc.”
So, because we don’t have the effort minimization framework but a regret minimization framework, and we just ask ourselves, “Will we regret doing this?” For example, if I would not have pivoted to the subscription model, I would have always regretted not knowing what would have happened. And that’s why we did it. So, these are the two things, knowing what game you play and just internalising that. Because if you are confused whether you want to play this game or that game, then it’s going to be a tough journey because then the decisions will not be so easy. In fact, our pivots were not so difficult because the question was, “Where we want to go? Will this help us get there faster or will that?” And that is how the decisions became easy.
The decision was not about being good, the decision was always that either Unacademy will be great, or it will be an utter failure. We will not be a ‘good company’, either it has to be a great company or it has to be a failure.
Have enough runway to create a culture of experimentation
Shailendra: Actually, it’s very interesting. First, you were very clear that you wanted to build a great company. Second, you also did something very unusual. I remember all our chats when you said “I want four years of runway”. So, you were taking this high-risk, high-beta approach but you had covered yourself by having a very, very long runway at each point in time.
So, the conversation goes, something like this, I would tell Gaurav, “You’ve raised the last rounds, all of that money is still in the bank and the prior round is also in the bank. Why are you raising more?” And Gaurav would always say, “Because I want four years of runway”. So, I was like, “Look, no company has four years of runway. And you also want four years of runway of a much higher burn level than you have currently, so like, isn’t this too much money?” He would always say, “No, I want four years of runway, because I want the license to try many things.” You want to double click on that, Gaurav? Out of all the founders I have worked with, on one hand you’ve had the duality of crazy ambition, on the other hand, you’ve also played the safest, on the amount of runway you have kept, which is amazing. It’s a powerful duality. You want to double click on that?
Gaurav: While we all are building our businesses, we are going to have days where we are extremely anxious. One of the things we’ve always optimised for is that, “You can’t do many pivots or you can’t do so many experiments and you can’t live in this chaos if you have the sword of money running out hanging over your head.” So, if you have to do something very different, for example, I don’t think I could have innovated with 18 months of runway. Because then, I would be forced to continue to work on what’s already working, instead of trying something new.
Because when the runway is less.. because every experiment will take six months to tell you whether it’s successful or not. And if you have 18 months of runway and you start doing an experiment, now you have just 12 months of runway. I think I gave up my equity for peace of mind. I am proud of that trade-off. I will continue doing it all my life, because I think money is secondary, you will earn a lot of it. But if the company is successful, all of us will make money. And Bhavin told me one thing very interesting – that above $100 million the value of money is uh.. it’s diminishing returns. So again, going back to the time when having this company succeed was more valuable for us than our personal wealth, and these decisions became easy. It’s not that we were playing safe. It’s just that, to do so many experiments, we had to have that peace of mind that after six months, or if this experiment fails…we spoke about two pivots that were successful, apart from that we must have done eight or ten pivots that were not successful.
But having that runway gave us that peace of mind and clarity that “Ok, no problem, now you can try once more or you can try differently,” or something like that. So I think 60% to 70%, it was just this peace of mind which let us experiment and innovate, because we like to think that we have sort of like an ‘Invention DNA’ at Unacademy. Even if we want to do better content, we will ask ourselves, “How would we do it completely differently than how others are doing it?” Even if you have to run a Twitter handle, or even if you have to do an ad, we will ask ourselves, “How can we do it differently?” Because experimentation and invention are so glued in the DNA, that if you have that sword hanging over your head of money running out I don’t think we could have ever executed this thing. And then it’s always about, “Oh, this is working. Let us just keep doubling down on it,” whether or not in a 10-year journey, it’s the right thing to do.
Build or acquire autonomous teams to drive product innovation
Shailendra: Gaurav, well, I know the answer but for the benefit of the group, you want to talk about some of the resource allocation you do now? With the new projects, with acqui-hires, with how you are innovating now as a large company? Because, I think it’s still relevant to many of the founders. How do you launch a second or the third product?
So, first you had pivots that were company-defining pivots, right,the core model. Now you had lately new product launches, which are additional adjacent markets and so on, so forth. So, now you are evolving to more [of a] platform strategy with more products. So, you already have ‘product one’ that works, and now that you have scaled it, how do you internally do resource? How do those teams run? Do they have their own budgets? Share a little bit about how you are doing this. Several folks here are post PMF (product-market fit). They will be able to scale their ‘product one’ quite clearly from the early traction, and they will think about the second and the third product.
Gaurav: So, we did a lot of experiments on this. We failed a bit. So, if there is a 70% to 80% overlap to your core business, then I think it’s the core team that should pick up that product. For example, Unacademy is taking a very different approach now where we will launch multi-categories across categories, like test prep, global test prep, K-12 etc. And that also involves a lot of work and we like to believe that it’s almost like reinventing the product and you will have multiple approaches.
If that is the case then that should be the core business. But if you want to do something completely different, or let us say the overlap is 20% to 30%… what we are doing with Relevel and Graphy – Relevel wants to disrupt the whole college experience and also help people get placements and then Graphy wants to be a SaaS product. Most of you must have read Clayton Christensen’s books – Innovator’s Dilemma, Competing Against Luck. He is a very strong proponent of how you should have independent and autonomous teams. And then there is another book called Loonshots. Make a team of five to ten people, give them the budget. Don’t give them targets for the first few months, until they hit PMF. Just let them continue to experiment. Once they continue to experiment, figure out a way on how you will integrate it. Because if you are doing new projects as a part of your core team, your core team’s priority will always be what’s bringing in revenue. So, they will always be pressured that “These are the targets that we have to achieve, or this is what our annual operating plan looks like, and we have to hit the goals of next quarter,” or something like that.
But if you have a 10-member team – and this is highlighted in this book, Loonshots, very clearly, and we did this with Graphy and Relevel – and they don’t have the pressure of numbers yet, until they hit PMF or TMF. So, I like to call ‘product market fit’ and ‘traction market fit’, I think both are equally important, though we talk less about traction-market fit. Once they hit that, then you can start giving them numbers, etc. And, one of the things that has worked very well at Unacademy is – we literally now even have a formula today. I have never shared this publicly, but I am hoping that it will be fine. Early-stage companies that didn’t hit PMF and are not going anywhere, but founders have a lot of hunger, we have done several of those acquisitions for let’s say $5 million, $10 million, $15 million. And now we can afford to buy them. This is not a strategy that will work for you at this stage. It might work for you, let’s say when you are valued at $500 million to $600 million. According to some of the things I’ve heard, some of you are going to be valued that way in the next 60 days. So, you can do these small acquisitions. The team hunger is important. And their engineering capabilities and marketing capabilities are important. Give them a couple of million dollars or a couple of crores and let them do those experiments. What also helps is.. that if you are doing this, it also helps in your core business because you get a lot of insights.
For example, just like a venture capitalist gets lots of insights because they see the macro play of a lot of startups…and don’t do it unless your core business is making a lot of money and is healthy… so, once you do that, I think it’s going to help you a lot. And eventually there comes a point where your core business is just growing by let’s say 50% year-on-year or 60% year-on-year. That’s the time when these ‘zero to one’ experiments would have come at a stage where they will bring the next level of growth. If you know that your core business is going to stall in two years, start doing something else today, because it will take two years for the other project to be relevant.
Create iconic products by setting iconic goals
Shailendra: Yeah, very helpful. Gaurav, do you want to share a little bit about how you set iconic goals for yourself and for the company? What’s the process you follow? How do you share it with people? How do you share it with the board members? You do a lot more blue sky thinking, planning several years out, and you do it quite transparently. Do you want to share that?
Gaurav: It’s very important what the founders and leadership of Unacademy think about startups. For us, it’s almost like a mission. It’s not just about making money. Money is secondary. What we truly believe in is that we can change the world for the better through our products. When that happens, and once you take that vision, which you truly believe in and align everyone else to that vision… for example, one of the iconic goals that we have is that degrees are going to be irrelevant, or we have to make degrees irrelevant because 97% of colleges do not teach well and do not provide you placements. The core job of college is to help you get a job, whether or not people talk about it, or whether or not people accept it.
There are very few people who study something for the sake of studying something. But most people go to a college knowing that after four years, this is what the placement will be. But colleges have not innovated. Just like Tesla is disrupting cars with oil, I think there will be a time, there will be a product, there will be an online education product, which will essentially disrupt colleges, which can say that in 18 months, you can learn the best computer engineering and you can even get a job. And once you set iconic goals like that for yourself, and people know that this is very interesting stuff, I think what it does is it aligns the team to the goal, but what it really does is it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. I wake up every day knowing what my five or 10-year goal is. And this is what happens with the founders and the leaders, because when I’m interviewing a leader, when I’m interviewing an SVP level person or a CXO level person, and when we talk about this goal, they get excited. Because it’s not just about test prep, it’s not just about K-12, it’s not just about doing sales. Innovation is something that is a science and in 2021, it is definitely a science. For example, Apple does it in a very interesting way. Apple says we are going to build the best consumer products, best hardware consumer products in the world. And they have this internal process that every year, they have to launch new products at an event. It essentially forces everyone to innovate – what are you going to launch at the next event? Now, maybe some events are poor. Some events don’t have great products, but every two or three years, or every four years, they will come up with something iconic.
Even after the iPhone, Airpods and Apple watches are two products that have been fairly successful and fairly good. What iconic goals essentially do is – I personally believe that if you don’t think about doing iconic stuff, you will never do it, because there are easier ways to make money.
There are so many inefficiencies in the world that if you don’t think about how to build iconic products, you can easily make money through normal ways. For example, in 2016 and 2017, with Roman’s content, and we had five, six more teachers, we could have sold their content in an SD card with the sales team of 2,000 members.
And in probably, in 2018, we would have reached a $50 million annual revenue run rate, which we did very late, which we did probably 18 months after that. Because we were very clear that we will take a long time, but we will solve the problem in an iconic way through an iconic product which will be significantly better.
And then the subscription product today has 700,000 paid users, and we believe that it is significantly better than selling content on an SD card. We set iconic goals for ourselves because – we are fairly lucky, we have some of the best investors in the world, we have a great team that can build iconic products. It’s sort of our fiduciary responsibility to humanity. It might sound like crazy stuff, but I actually believe in that.. I mean, very, very few companies make good products. So, if you can make great products and make the world better, and make products that you are yourself going to use, I think that is a mission. And, if you do not plan for that mission, you are not going to do that. That is why we set iconic goals and we align the team to achieve it, we align our investors, etc. So, iconic goals also help a lot. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, it helps you think harder on how you cannot just make money, but innovate a lot. And third, it aligns everyone.
Shailendra: You talk about this obsession with products. You are also very obsessed with having great brands, especially for consumer internet companies. It’s very relevant. Do you want to double click on how you guys think about product and brand, both?
Gaurav: I think what most people do not realize is that if you are playing the game for five or 10 years, your strongest moats will be your brand and product. Your traction channel, for example, what we did to acquire our first 10,000 users versus what we did to acquire from 10,000 to 1 lakh users, versus what we did to acquire from 1 lakh to 1 million users are different traction channels.
Initially it was us making videos on YouTube. Then it was something else. Then it was performance marketing. You will have various traction channels, but essentially if you are able to build an iconic brand, in the long run, that becomes a moat. If people associate your category with your product, and that will not happen if you have not created a brand. If you want to buy a phone today, you will think about two or three brands. If you want to buy shoes today, you will think about two or three brands. You have to carefully create content and then distribute content either through your own channels or through other platforms, like TV. Essentially brand building is about creating content that resonates with the user and helps them think about your product, when they think about the need of your category or of the market.
If I want to learn online, or if I want to crack an exam, we want to be the first brand that comes into the head of our consumers, we want to be the most aspirational brand. For example, before raising Series B, we had a brand book.
Build a strong brand as a long term moat
Shailendra: Correct! Actually, at the first board meeting I ever went to, Gaurav showcased a brand book. And I was like, “Woah, you have a brand book?! You are a young company!” And a physical brand book. And, everybody was stunned that this little, young company has a brand book.
Gaurav: I think a brand can be a very awesome long-term moat. I think what Zomato has done in India is very aspirational. What Nike has done, what Apple has done; very aspirational brands. Hotstar is creating a phenomenal brand in India. Hotstar is doing a better job than Netflix in India. I think brand is a solid moat. But because these are very long-term moats and these are not going to help you in the next three to six months, you need an alignment from your board members, from your team members, from your co-founders, from everyone, that we are playing the long game. Trust me, the best, best growth lever – the most phenomenal growth lever – is to make a product that is significantly better than anything else out there. If your product is 10X better than anything else out there, if you have invented something, if you are a category creator, it essentially gives you two to three years of… It’s been two and a half years since we launched the subscription product. I was hoping a lot of people should copy that product because this is the way to go about it. People are not good at copying stuff, unless you have a really strong founder you are competing with. So, every time you invent something, you get at least 24 months of headway.
Shailendra: So, you were not a product guy. You are self-taught on all these things. Talk about how you read so many books. How do you learn so fast and how did you learn all this stuff? Because you are an engineer. You did software engineering earlier, and then you started Unacademy by launching coding videos yourself, right, on YouTube. Most guys who launch coding videos don’t talk about brands the way you do. So, talk about the shift, and how have you learnt these ideas on product and brand. Talk about your journey of learning and self-improvement.
Improving your game through continuous learning and growth
Gaurav: The real answer is I’m addicted to this game. I want Unacademy to be the best consumer internet company there ever is. We want to build the best products and not just in education. And it’s this relentlessness and a pursuit that we have to win. This is the DNA we have in our co-founders; this is the DNA we have in our leadership team. We have to be the greatest ever, we have to build things in the way they were never built, and I think we get a kick when we do something very, very different.
If you want to do stuff that’s fairly different and fairly unique… if you are consuming content from your normal resources, like, you will follow the five founders that everyone else follows in the country or in the world, or you will follow five books that everyone reads, or you will watch the five videos that everyone sees, then you will be very conventional in your thinking. But when you start to discover the internet as the sort of learning platform it can be… for example, there is a 1996 Andy Grove talk about strategic inflection points. It’s on YouTube, it’s free. It has just 22,000 views, and Andy Grove built one of the most iconic companies ever. He built Intel, he invented OKRs but we talk a lot about OKRs because one venture capitalist wrote a book about it. But there is a lot of other content also. I think if you are relentless in your pursuit to learn a lot about this game, like how did the best players of this game… I mean, who are we kidding? This is a game. If we can talk about basketball players, or cricket players in a game, and they will study how a batsman used to bat 30 years ago, then why should we not study how Andy Grove used to do management? Or how he used to do one-on-ones? Or how he used to do goal planning?
There is a Frank Slootman talk. It’s a podcast. It has just 10,000 views on YouTube. And again, it’s one of the best pieces of content I have ever seen. And most people here, and I am not even asking you because I know the answer, most people here would not have seen these talks. Jack Dorsey, 2013 talk, Y Combinator – best piece of content.
And once you see this stuff, you resonate with that a lot, and the mind opens up. That’s when you start discovering that there are 500 ways to play the game in a way that nobody has ever played. And I think, after a point it becomes addictive. First two-three times you do it, you force yourself to do it, but then you start having fun in it. Because nobody else is doing it, because you learn things that nobody else is learning and your game becomes better, then you want to do more of it. So, it becomes sort of like a virtuous cycle.
Shailendra: Thank you for sharing! I think you have learnt a lot from the Internet. I am also amazed at how many books you have read and found time to read. I do not know how many founders here find time to read books, but you read a lot of books, even now.
Gaurav: Now it’s YouTube videos, podcasts, books. I have a productivity team and I have a reading guy in that team. So sometimes, he will just summarize the book in 10 pages for me. And I will just read those 10 pages. So, I think I have made processes around that.
Shailendra: Actually, one time you had shown us your Notion and how you do personal productivity, which is very, very crazy. But you referred to this personal productivity team. Do you want to double click?
Gaurav: I was a micromanager in 2016, 2017, and then Shailendra gave me some feedback, and I stopped doing that. I’ve stopped doing that till the time people are achieving their targets. If they are not achieving their targets, then I will double down on what went wrong because you have to find the root cause of why the targets were not achieved. Every single time I double down on why certain targets were not achieved, I find a glaring gap. They don’t have great productivity systems. They don’t have any tools that they use to be productive. This is sometimes at VP level. This is sometimes at SVP level. This is sometimes at the founder level.
I was not productive until four or five years ago. And today, when you have let’s say a person who runs a team of a hundred people come to you and say that the targets were not achieved, I usually have a list of 10, 15 questions that I go by. What were your productivity systems? Can you tell me what was the planning that was done? Can you tell me how the goals were disseminated to your teams? Can you tell me if you gave any deadlines? What time do you wake up? What time do you sleep?
Then I do a proper root cause analysis and try to understand the person on how they run their productivity systems. And I am most of the time disappointed because these are silly errors. For example, the biggest silly errors… and Keith [Rabois], who was the CEO of Square, also talks about a lot in one of his iconic videos, is the concept of, he says the most important tasks, I call it needle moving initiatives.
Every Sunday, all my leaders make a list of 10 needle moving things that they have to do in the week. If you don’t plan this, and if you do the work that comes to you, the output will be very little. You can read the blog post in detail, but the summary of that is people do very little needle moving work. I will give you an example.
I was in London a few weeks ago with some of my friends and my co-founders. And first day we had planned literally everything, that these are the five places we will go etc. Phenomenal 9/10 day. Next day, we were just like let’s just play it by ear and I think it was a 2/10 day because we went to a shitty bar. It was a poor day. So, going back to the needle moving framework; you will not pick the most difficult and the most impactful tasks unless you plan for it and set a deadline for it. You can be 10X more productive than you are in your day, just by building basic systems. Every Sunday, write a list of 10 needle moving things you will do. There is this concept called the Ivy Lee Productivity [method]. Read about that concept. It was invented by someone called Ivy Lee. Otherwise on Tuesday, you don’t have a list of the needle moving things you have to do, so you will do your normal cadences and somebody will come into your room, you will have a discussion.
You will think you are busy, but busy does not mean outcomes. And trust me, you can do 10X more than what you currently do, just become more disciplined, just become more smart about planning your weeks, planning your days. I will give you one real example. I was really bad at cracking these JEE and IIT exams and all that, but Roman was really good at it. And this is like two, three years after he had cracked, and I am at my engineering college and he’s in a medical college. I am in a shitty engineering college, he’s in the best medical college, and we meet. And then I ask – because I had not achieved anything by then – so the only metric that I knew how to judge a person on was what college they went to. And I asked him, and the first thing he said is, “You could not crack the exam because you did not study mnemonics”. And then he said, “First you need to learn how to learn”. And that gave me an insight. If somebody would have told me in 11th standard, I would have probably gone to a better college than the current one I am in.
Similarly, if you spend a lot of time on how to execute and how to operate. There is a mindblowing talk by Keith [Rabois], the CEO of Square earlier and now he is the partner at Founders Fund. He has worked very closely with Peter Thiel. Amazing operator. One hour talk by him on how to operate- life changing. So, once you start learning this, you will see that in those 10 to 12 hours a day or 12 to 14 hours a day that you work, you are 5X or 6X more productive.
Be relentless in the quest for mentors
Shailendra: Gaurav, I want people to hear about how crazily relentless you are. How did you build a relationship with Deepi? Can you actually give that story to people, and with some others? One time Gaurav showed me a screenshot. Where there’s a famous unicorn founder in India and Gaurav had basically pinged him. No response. Two-three months later pinged him, no response. It’s like a one-way chat. I saw screenshots of a one-way conversation where Gaurav was pinging this person and that person was not responding. Of course, now that person respects Gaurav like crazy he will gladly take the chance to speak with Gaurav. I was like, “Wow, this is incredibly relentless.” And then Gaurav, you shared your philosophy that you don’t take rejection badly. You do not take it personally. You are not egoistic about it. Do you want to share about your relentless philosophy in going and getting talent, going and getting mentors, people who have gotten associated with Unacademy?
Gaurav: So early on, what I believed is – when I met Shailendra for the first time, the things he spoke about in 2017 was very, very different from what most investors talk about. That is why internally we were very relentless to get Shailendra on board, whatever it takes. We were pursuing him and we were pinging each other on Twitter. Because just like everywhere else, and in startups also, and in human beings also and leaders also, there are certain leaders who have this immense knowledge arbitrage. But there are, let’s say, the top five or top 5% of people, entrepreneurs, investors, leaders and players who have this immense knowledge arbitrage. They have figured out some rules of the game that most others are struggling to figure out. Bhavin was a person… and I used to work in his company…and I used to see that he comes from a very humble, middle-class background, and the way he built a $300 million company, Directi, and then eventually a billion-dollar company called Media.net. He would talk about these books, etc. And every time, even if I would have a 10-minute interaction with him, it would just feel like he knows something about this game that I don’t. And I have not found that content in any books, etc. It was essentially the pursuit of that content… that, you know, you have figured out certain things, you know certain things.
For example, I wrote to Deepinder [Goyal] four to five mails back in 2014, 2015, but he did not reply. This is something that we laugh about now, I was just telling him this last month. He said, “Why do you want to meet? Please continue with your work.” This was his reply to one of the mails. And I didn’t stop. And then I was in Delhi and I wrote him another mail, but he said, “I will meet you on your next Delhi trip for 15 minutes.” So I reached Bangalore and I wrote to him that I am traveling this weekend only – I was not traveling and I was planning to travel for him.
He gave me exactly 15 minutes. He came and he called me to the office at 8 AM. That’s when Zomato starts working. He came, he was distracted with 10 other things. In those 15 minutes, he spoke about a lot of things. I don’t remember some of those, but the thing I remember which changed our game was, he said, “Grow 1% every day. That’s the only thing that matters.”
Now, looking at his office, or what Zomato had achieved then… if you get something like that advice from that person, the arbitrage of that knowledge and that content is huge in the head of a 25-year-old founder who has not built anything yet. Essentially, these mentors or the people, let’s call them the best players of the game. For example, whether it’s Girish, whether it’s Bhavin, whether it’s Deepinder, whether it’s Ritesh, whether it’s anyone, even Byju. These are people who have cracked something in the game that a founder who has just started or just raised Series A, can learn a lot from. And because they have internalized it, even a half an hour conversation with them, will bring that up. Now, because Deepinder had internalized this whole growth thing, even in that 15 minutes, he ended up telling me about growth. And that’s such a beautiful thing. I mean, it might save you six months, 12 months, 24 months. And that’s why, who cares about rejection? If you have to be the best player in the world, or if you have to build the best company in the world, you will get rejections left, right and center. It happens to everyone, deal with it. And get up and go to the next pitch or try getting the next meeting – and that’s how we look at rejection. That’s how we mostly end up getting unrejected.
Shailendra: By the way, I don’t think you guys appreciate this enough, but Kalyan [Krishnamurthy] is very close to Gaurav. I don’t think Kalyan mentors many founders, or at least has not been this closely involved. I don’t think Sujeet [Kumar] has been this closely involved. But at least three top founders, what you’d call the best players of the game, have been closely involved with Unacademy’s journey. And, maybe more like Kunal Shah and Deepinder have been closely involved.
Gaurav: Five founders and the best investor. I am extremely privileged… you are on our board because you are almost like a co-founder to us. And, most of the things that have been impactful in our journey, I have learned from you. And I know you are modest, and you don’t like to hear these things, but it’s the truth. I mean, you are also one of the best players of the game.
Managing relationships with your board
Shailendra: No, thank you. I learn from founders, by the way. It’s like vice versa… because I was not born with any knowledge, but thank you. So, talk a little bit about how you do board management now. Thankfully you have reduced your amount of updates on WhatsApp on daily metrics and all that, but especially in the early years, you were overcommunicating a lot, you had WhatsApp groups. Talk a little bit about that, because I think what you did is very unusual.
By the way, Gaurav has not done very many formal board meetings. He does not do them as much as other people do, but he actually overcompensates by having a lot more casual conversation with his board and shareholders compared to a normal founder. So, on the inside Unacademy is ultra-transparent with what’s going on in the company. I would say much more than a normal company. Even though there is less formal engagement on boards. Gaurav, also you now have different WhatsApp groups for different people, so, share about that also, how the company has grown.
Gaurav: I will be super transparent about this answer. I will also tell the selfish reason why I had started it and then I will also tell why I continue doing it. Essentially, I figured out that one of the interesting ways to raise money is to have a lot of mindshare of many investors. So when they think about any company to invest in, they think about you. So I created a broadcast list of 100 investors. It’s like content, because we understand content. Content is about consistency. At 8 o’clock a video has to be uploaded on your YouTube channel. On Monday. So every Monday you have to send an episode. So I thought.. every communication is content, basically.
Every communication that you do you are creating that text content, and people will read that as content. I just thought that, you know, it’s an interesting way. You know, why not , why not create like a show for these hundred investors, and they get excited. It’s like you get excited about entertainment, these people get excited about the growth in numbers and we are growing massively. One thing that interestingly started happening was everyone was talking about us. You’ve got top of the mind recall. It’s like how you build a brand, because you are sharing that content. But one interesting thing that happened was my relationship with my board or the advice that I was getting. So, I started for that reason and it helped me in a lot of fundraises.
For example, if Shah Rukh Khan is doing a new movie, you will see him in all the YouTube channels and all the TV shows promoting his movie. So, three months before the fundraise, I would just go all in with every single WhatsApp group. I think this is what we did. Eventually, I ended up building a great relationship with my board and I started getting a lot of advice and the next fundraise would be sorted. So, you build relationships with people who would invest in the next round. I think this is very valuable, it helps in fundraise. You just build a culture of transparency. If numbers are not growing, you are transparent about it. That’s fine. And then you build these, uh, what’s the word – people who cheer for you. Like, you build these people who cheer for you. Let’s say there is an investor X and because that investor X is seeing your metrics every week and then somebody (yeah, champions is the word!) – and then somebody would meet them and ask them what’s the company that’s doing well. Because you have cracked brand and content, the first name that will come is Unacademy.
Obviously you have to perform for that, you have to ensure that, you know, you have to make a good movie for the movie to sell. So just like that, your numbers need to grow for you to have top of the mind recall, but it’s also product and marketing. Let’s say your product is that your numbers are growing, and you want to sell that product to investors. But then marketing is that you are talking about that growing number to a series of investors. And I have internalized it so much today that, you know, now it’s like a habit; there are 10 people I will tell, “This is what we did in the month.” Sometimes it has also backfired also, being so openly transparent. But mostly the pros outweigh the cons. Internally let’s say there are 100 people who know every single metric in the company. Again, it has backfired because our competitors get easy access to our metrics, but it’s fine. I think the pros outweigh the cons. We have built great relationships with the board. I am super transparent.
I will give you one [piece of] advice about investor management. It’s the only advice that you need. First, figure out what your working style is. Write it down on a piece of paper: this is my working style. For example, if you like a collaborative approach with the investors, if you would like to talk to them every week, write that. If you want a different approach, write that. Now, whatever your approach is, do a good job of communicating that. In our Series B round, this is not Sequoia, this is one other investor who we were talking to, I just told them on the face that I’ll meet you once a quarter, please do not ping me apart from that. And, I was not trying to be rude. I was just doing expectation setting.
Sameer [Brij Verma] from Nexus tells me that of all the companies he works with, he is the most hands-off with Unacademy. So, he is a very hands-on investor in every company, but he is hands-off with Unacademy because that’s the way I like it. Investors will not mind if you are transparent with them. Now, Shailendra, I might ping every three days because that’s something I want. I like to ping and take advice from him every two or three days. This way, they know what you want, what’s your best working style. So, I think my board has given me immense freedom in return I give them transparency and results. I give them transparency and results, they don’t bother me with the small stuff, when there is a need, they help me and I change parts or fix whatever is wrong. So, figure out what works for you, communicate it to the board and trust them. Like most people are good, trust them that they will follow that. And if somebody is not following that, then you can ping me on WhatsApp and I will tell you what to do.
Shailendra: By the way, this is profound and powerful advice. To be clear about your style with yourself first, and then be clear about how much engagement you are expecting from investors. Gaurav set very clear ground rules with them saying that, “Look, if you want to talk to my management team, you need to give me a heads-up first, for example; if you have a data request, you first come to me.” So, I think you set some good ground rules.. Which again, they will honour and play by the ground rules. But I think most founders don’t have the maturity to feel confident enough to set the ground rules with the board and investors. Like Gaurav said, if you are up front and communicate transparently and say, “Look this is how I expect to work with you guys”, and it may not be the same with everyone, you can choose to work closely with some, you can choose to work more hands-off with others.
How confrontation can build trust and transparency
Gaurav: Yeah. It’s also one of the skills that internally we talk about. Whatever happens, we as founders have the responsibility and this applies to top leadership. My leadership is also there. So again, an advice for them. Like personal productivity is a massive thing [and] if you fix it you can certainly be 5X, 10X more productive, confrontation… most people avoid confrontation. As founders and leaders, you can’t avoid confrontation. So, you have to become good at taking confrontations head-on.
Shailendra: Yeah, okay. What you just said is deeply profound. Double-click on this please for everybody’s benefit. And I think people who will be more confrontational, you are at risk of being misunderstood. So, people might, for a period of time, especially think you are arrogant or you are pushing back, or you are being too direct and so on and so forth.
But what Gaurav just said is when you run a company, when you are a leader, people will want things from you. People will want things from you for their own agenda because they want something from your company. It could be investment gains, it could be a lower valuation, it could be a higher economic package in your leadership team. But you have to do what’s right for the company. Actually, the more direct you can be about exactly what you want to do. What Gaurav is calling confrontation, I would also say, another way to say it, call truth-seeking. Sometimes truth-seeking can be confrontational versus it is sometimes easier to just throw an issue under the rug and not be confrontational or not be truth-seeking.
Gaurav, I don’t know if you want to double click on this. But within Sequoia we call this the ‘Get Real’ culture. So, our internal updates are called, Get Real, they’re not called updates because we do not want people to be selling. We want people to be real. Real means you say what’s good. You say what’s not working, and you are not drinking the Kool-Aid. So, I think… we call it the ‘Get Real’ culture, and Gaurav is referring to it… Like I said, this is a very profound thing. But Gaurav, if you want to double-click an example or two of when you were confrontational – initially it caused friction, but later on it built trust? Because people respect transparency, right, they know exactly what they get.
Gaurav: Yeah, I think, what also happens is that on Day One you have to build that trust. For example, today, if I am a little more confrontational or if I am saying personal productivity works, it’s also because Unacademy is a $3.44 billion organization. So, you have to build this trust early on with your team. There are many people in 2017-2018 who would not be very fond of our culture because what we are today, we were like that even then. It was a very candid, open Netflix-like culture, where radical candor is respected. In early days, radical candor is not appreciated as much as it is appreciated in the late stages. So, by confrontation what I mean is that every time you suppress a feeling, every time… let’s say you wanted to give a feedback to your co-founder or you wanted to give a feedback to your CFO or you wanted to give a feedback to your Vice-President, or you wanted to give a feedback to your Board member.
I have had immense confrontations with my board members where we have had debates at 1 am in the night. Don’t suppress that. Just figure out the right way to communicate that. Because by not telling the truth, you are doing them a disservice. Let’s say there is an employee in your team. You are not happy with his or her work, but the employee has been around for three years and you do not want to hurt the employee because you know, he or she was there from Day One. But you don’t like their work and you are avoiding confrontation because so far you have never given them feedback. But so far there was no need to give feedback. But you are doing them a disservice essentially. Because if you don’t give them feedback, they won’t have a chance to improve and you will anyway have to fire the person in one year. So, why not figure out what communication works for that person? Essentially all leadership is about – what you are feeling, the other person understands that.
Let’s say in my head, the issue is a 9/10 issue. I have a leader who I will just write a slack message saying, “I am not happy. This is not how it should have been done.” The other leader would suddenly have a 9/10 response that, “Oh, this is a 9/10 issue”, but most leaders are not like that. Some other leaders, you might have to have a half an hour chat for you to make them realise that it’s a 9/10 issue. Because if you just tell them on a message, they might think it’s a 2/10 issue. Essentially you, as a leader, want your reportees to be on the same page.
And every person is different. So, the confrontation style is not just about that it’s a debate or you are shouting at each other. No. It’s about what works for the other person. A slack message works for a few of my team members. For others, a half an hour conversation works. For somebody else a more heated debate works. It’s what works for them. But you have to drill down to the point that “Hey, this is a 9/10 issue”, or “Hey, you know what you are and where you have to be, there is a strong arbitrage.” If you don’t confront and fix this, you are doing them a disservice because you will eventually fire them if they are not good. Because as founders, you will continue to evolve, and you will evolve faster than your team. That’s why it’s important to confront. That’s why it’s important to give feedback. And that’s why it’s important to communicate it the right way. That what’s a 9/10 in your head should be 9/10 in their head.
Shailendra: Yeah, again, very good advice Gaurav. I will just give a nuance on this. At Sequoia, we call this truth-seeking, where we try to have this intellectually honest viewpoint of the world. And sometimes it’s not as pleasing, but we feel if there’s enough internal trust that it’s in the greater good, it’s in the good of the organization, we are all trying to do the right thing, then it gives you the license to be more truth-seeking. So, I think trust is a big enabler for having this sort of culture.
Thank you, Gaurav. Phenomenal session! Lots of massive nuggets.
Gaurav: Thanks a lot for inviting me. I think this also helps us, me and the leadership, in documenting our learnings because otherwise we never open up about these things.
Shailendra: Yeah, thank you. And not just for this Surge session, but for every cohort you come and very generously share learnings, experiences, and hacks. I also know some people have copied your strategies in other EdTech companies too, which wasn’t always ideal, but you are still willing to remain open and keep sharing. So, thank you. Really, really appreciate it.
Gaurav: Thanks a lot everyone.