A veteran of the tech industry, Ravi Garikipati joined Bangladeshi ticketing and ride sharing company Shohoz in April.
Formerly the CTO for e-commerce giant Flipkart, Garikapati joined Shohoz as a director and after, what he says, ‘much deliberation’.
As Shohoz continues to grow in Bangladesh, Garikipati’s inclusion will certainly inject a sense of ambition for reaching new heights.
Fintech spoke with Ravi Garikipati to know more about the role he will play in the company and his perspectives on different subjects regarding the business and the tech industry in general.
Tell us about your time at Flipkart and the role you played there.
Obviously I have been very fortunate to have been a part of the Flipkart journey. I was there for four years.
I started my journey at Flipkart in 2015. When I first joined them, my role was to basically help the founders Sachin and Binny initiating new business initiatives. While we had a robust e-commerce platform, we also wanted to get into some octagonal business lines such as financial services, we called it Flipkart Fintech and advertising.
We had tens of millions of active customers and a robust seller-driven market base and we actually wanted to monetize that through advertising. So I had done that for one year, initiating new business initiatives.
Then a year later there was a real need and a leadership vacuum, providing leadership on technology and engineering. So, I took on the CTO and head of engineering role and essentially focused on data-led technology disruption and invested into a big data platform. I put together a data scientist team and defined few higher order problem statements, whether it is personalization, recommendation or supply chain optimization, these are the broader problems in e-commerce. So that’s essentially what I focused on.
What is your assessment of the situation in Bangladesh regarding availability of reliable data?
So that has been my advice with the leadership team here, you know we have been saying these things that data is the new oil and so on. But you know we need to get our heads around and really understand what it takes to bring the power of data to the fore.
This means you need to make a lot of upfront investments and also getting your data platform in place; industrial data, instrument data, whenever you have the touch-point with the customer don’t leave any signal out, and have it figured out in terms of data completeness and correctness. Otherwise it will be garbage in, garbage out.
So I think you need to make a lot of plumbing and upfront investments before you start to reap the benefits of data. Just because you have a few data centers, it just doesn’t happen. Having that mindset is one thing and making those investments is another.
Secondly, you also have to be fortunate enough to have an app or a value proposition that reaches few tens of millions, that’s when you have a real, big asset. I started with a company like Shohoz which has a vision to be a Super App and a ubiquitous platform for everything digital. They could have the opportunity to put together few tens of millions of loyal customers and if you could get hold of that data, you can do amazing things to further benefit the customer.
Talk about your involvement with Shohoz, what brings you to Bangladesh and what role you will be playing in the company?
The idea of me coming to Shohoz as a board member is something that I deliberated. There are a few things and I was looking at the juncture in my career, having been in this industry for about 30 years, I built couple of startups in the Bay area of Silicon Valley, I lived there for about 15 years. I understand what it takes to build an internet new-age company at that scale and then I thought I brought some other experiences to the fore.
I joined Flipkart and helped that company scale up as well. So then I looked at other GOs where I could contribute my experience and help the entrepreneurs and the ecosystem to thrive. You know it is no surprise when you look at South-East Asia, countries like Indonesia and Bangladesh, the economies are growing at a steady rate and the population is big enough to make a huge impact, and then you also have a young demographic dividend factor. So, those are some other things that scored heavily in the favor of my wanting to come here and Shohoz has the vision of wanting to be a ubiquitous digital platform and a Super App.
You obviously have the expertise for technological side of things. So in terms of building up or updating its technology, taking it to another level, what would be your role in that particular area?
So obviously it takes two, three areas where I think I would like to mentor and coach the leadership team wherever they require my help. You know it is one thing to take something from zero to one, I think in a highly competitive environment you should be able to quickly put something out in the market and get some validation if the feature is working well.
Once you have the product market fit, so to do it at scale it requires a different skill and mindset. So, I think I would sit with the team and help them understand some of the challenges to scale and the investment they need to make to make this platform resilient.
Secondly, to help them adjust themselves to data-led disruption that we talked about and the kind of investments that we need to make. So, I will be working closely with them in making that a reality.
The third point is basically, you know this is more about delivering the superior customer experience. What is learnt in an internet driven economy, the obsession around customer is of paramount importance. You are kind of disseminating all these other things, the brokers, the agencies and all that stuff. In a manufacturing industry there are five, six layers and you are far removed from the customer, you never have a first-hand view.
In a digital economy, that’s a travesty if you bring a bunch of layers in between and you know you don’t have the director over the customer in terms of what’s working and what’s not. So, that is the power of digital internet, new age companies. So you know I want to highlight the point of customer obsession or customer centricity and that is another area where I want to sort of work with the team.
MFS is quite big in Bangladesh. What are your thoughts on this and how important is it in regards to Shohoz wanting to be a super app?
It is an enabling factor. If you look at India; you know digitization is a big drive from the government as well, heading towards the cash-less society, so to speak. It is not an overnight phenomena but the government came up with the new autonomous body called NPCI, National Payments Corporation of India and now we have an alternate payment mechanism outside of wallets and credit cards and so on and so forth.
So, now you no longer have to create this intermediate wallet, you can actually have a Whatsapp like app and that’s getting connected to a bank and then money can transfer seamlessly. And then micro-finances and bigger banks are providing micro banking services, just this government in the recent past has done enough to have close to about a quarter billion new bank accounts for the rural population.
So, all these initiatives will now sort of have a paradigm shift towards more digital payments. That will land itself well into some other digital services including financial inclusion, lending, access to credit. When all these happen,the propensity to take on some new digital services, whether it is e-commerce, ride-sharing or some other services we are not even sure what, will be a lot higher.
So these are some other thrust factors that you contribute to these new age digital companies, we see that happening in neighboring countries like India and it is only a question of when, not the question of if. It is taking other economies X years or Y years is what we need to do and what is that the government can do, what is that entrepreneurial ecosystem can do to accelerate that.
In terms of scalability how big do you think a company like Shohoz can grow in this market and can it be as big as Flipkart?
I am not going to quantify with an absolute number but I do believe it can grow and be a potentially largest digital company coming out of Bangladesh. Absolutely, Shohoz has the potential and it is taking on the right opportunity so to speak by having a grandeur vision of being a Super App which I call the ubiquitous digital platform for various services.
I think it definitely has the opportunity; it is all about having other things in place, access to talent, access to capital I am not talking much these days.
South Asia is the right market for investors from outside to come and invest due to the sheer size of the market. Besides, you need to focus on other things like access to human capital, right talent, building that ecosystem, symbiotic relation with other players and then strong mentorship. You know other countris have done it, we can learn from them, we don’t have to take the same missteps or make the same mistakes, we can learn from other’s experiences. So if you sort of bring all these things into play, I have no doubt that you are looking at an entirely different economy.
Right now Shohoz has the ticketing service, and then ride-sharing. Where it needs to go and what needs to happen for it to grow into the Super App?
They have the foundation of online ticketing system that’s been in place and done extremely well. Ride-sharing is you know for a country like Bangladesh, and especially for Dhaka and few other similar cities, I think transportation is going to be a huge challenge so addressing that is very ‘here and now’ relevant problem, not a problem that we are creating, it exists today.
And then of course you know the octagonal to that is food delivery. May be payment is another thing we want to do to sort of capitalize on this whole thing. Shohoz is doing a damn good job in terms of offering high quality service. And then you can keep adding more for the platform to be more sticky, right?
I haven’t had a deeper conversation with the leadership thing here but if I were there I would focus on these for the next foreseeable future and attain leadership status in these categories. One other point, while we do all these stuff, one natural area Shohoz like platform can do is financial inclusion. We have the supply side, whether it is the riders and we have the demand side from the consumers and as we bring in more services we can actually help them in financing.
What are your thoughts on the startup scene in Bangladesh? One of the problems is the lack of a VC ecosystem. That’s funding. But there are other structural issue. So, the question is that do you think the so called startup boom could end up being an incremental progress as opposed to getting to a really ‘booming’ stage?
I hear what you are saying. I think for the most part it is true. But I think things are going to change, you know I have seen something similar happening in India as well may be 15 years ago.
What needs to happen basically, there needs to be some sort of body or forum that actually curates the creative platform where startups can come together and showcase their wares. And there should be some sort of filtering and then invite some of those marquee VCs and show them, it is almost like
a show-and-tell kind of an event and say here are the high-quality deals by entrepreneurs.
You know back in the good old days, I remember distinctly the incubation, accelerator programs, the curating startup ideas, putting demos in the way, inviting VCs and getting them to understand the exciting stuff and the opportunities. I think those things need to happen as well, that’s one and they see one or two success stories how they made it big and suddenly VCs will stand up and take note.
I think Bangladesh should be there, they may not having their offices here and the physical presence, but I am sure they are having their telescope zoomed in and looking at this market sitting in other parts of the world.
So, I am actually not that concerned about access to capital, it will happen. Where the ecosystem needs to step up is the things that you said, the Telcos are doing what they suppose to be doing but how we educate is probably more important. Are we working closely with the government to help them see where we can take Bangladesh in terms of the new economy and shape the right policies to enable that? Are we working with the academia and creating the right talent pool?
For a country like Bangladesh which has a population of 160 million, you got to be able to provide that talent to few tens of startups, right? So I keep telling them, looking beyond Bangladesh should be your last resort. Only after you have tried every other option, don’t jump the gun and say let me look for talent outside. Fortunately, in the last 10 years, access to capital has not been a challenge in this part of the world.
You started your career in 1988. You have really been in the thick of it in terms of how the whole technology industry grew. Could you talk about what you think are the key moments that changed how the tech companies became the new Goldman Sachs in a way in terms of how big they are and what would be the next paradigm shift in technology? Obviously people are looking at IoT and particularly how 5G will enable IoT and how that will change. Will it be felt in real life very soon?
30 years is too long a time to go back and reflect. I won’t probably cover every single ‘ah-ha’ moment that I came across but I think speaking like a technologist now, I worked at IBM when they had these massive monolithic mainframes. I think the real breakthrough is internet, I would say from the mid 90s to early 2000, the internet phenomena has completely changed the landscape and the kind of innovations that came to the fore and touched the customer and provided the disruptive value not incremental value.
Then the next thing I would confidently say is the cloud, things move from internet to this whole cloud infrastructure. And I keep telling the startups that back in the 90s, to have a startup and to have a product that has a decent interaction and to go to industry and to be able to say that I have something marketable was unthinkable unless I had a hundred angel investors writing big cheques. Because you had to buy these expensive hardware, find a data center and use the software with no open source thing. You had to buy highly expensive enterprise software. You would need a few millions to start, but now if a smart young engineer and an entrepreneur have an idea, you have cloud infrastructure, you pay-as-you-go, you have the open source software and that has actually opened up a lot of doors for entrepreneurs. So that’s the major technology disruption.
When you think about projections and calculate them, do you think about the rate of growth and concrete pictures? What is the vision here, how fast Shohoz is going to grow?
I think quite honestly it can grow as fast as we can execute. It is the execution challenger opportunity, the market is right and again focus equals to reality, look at those two-three business lines. You are going to see, obviously the baseline is small now but I see phenomenal growth over the next four-five years. I can’t put numbers at this point because it is only function of how well you execute, it is not about we having to create the market, in some scenarios you have to create the market, the market opportunity is there, you don’t have to create, you just have to execute smartly and give value to the customer. You can do it as fast as you can execute.
What role do you think disruptive technology like big data will play in Bangladesh particularly? As I understand there is no structured use of big data to customize products and advanced use like that. Is it going to be important?
It is not even the question if big data will play a role. It will play a humongous role but the reason why you are not able to see it because of the reasons I talked about earlier. A lot of people are playing with data but how pristine is the data?
That’s what makes data ineffective. So, I am helping the team to understand that and put that stuff in place. It could be personalization, you are a ride-sharing app user and I am too, to assume that you and I have the same behaviour and provide the same kind of service or treatment is not right. That’s not how a merchant in a neighborhood who knows you and me very well behaves. He doesn’t treat us the same way.
You have to have a deep understanding of each cohort, what works for you may not work for me and what you like may not be my liking. So, can you actually do the personalized experience at scale? You can only do through data.
Secondly, many of us are speaking about price and other things, you know when there is a supply-demand mismatch, having a dynamic pricing is a very important thing. So that’s a huge approach for the team and doing it dynamically, not based on hindsight in understanding, but in real time.
If you are doing multiple services on a platform, you want to be a Super App. Doing it in a meaningless way can come across as noise to the customer, he will get annoyed.
Fraud would be another challenge in this digital economy because I am not seeing you personally; I don’t have a touch-and-feel.
Ultimately, big data needs to be used and used soon. It has to be an integral part of our innovation and disruption.