We are waiting for Akshay Kothari, head of LinkedIn India, at LinkedIn’s new Bengaluru office that’s spread across two vast floors. Like at most new-age tech firms, this office is colourful and quirky, with murals and slogans everywhere, and a wall made entirely of coloured pencils. It also boasts of massage chairs, a music room, a play area, and a chocolate fountain that’s still on my mind when I ask Kothari what 2016 has been like. “It’s a little bit of a homecoming,” he says.
He had left India 12 years ago, and all his trips back so far were as a visitor. This time, it was different. Kothari tells me that it was in January 2016, when he had just moved to Bengaluru, that he decided to check how LinkedIn worked on his phone. It didn’t load, so he tried accessing the site again; several times, in fact. “The site wouldn’t load half the time,” he says, still a little incredulous. “This is not even in a tier II or tier III town; it’s Bengaluru! It dawned on me that there we were in the Mountain View office [LinkedIn’s headquarters in California], figuring out which animation should come in and how it should move around to create the greatest user experience; and here in India the site wasn’t even loading!”
This, I learn, was the backstory of LinkedIn Lite. Kothari wanted to reduce the site load time by 85%, which meant each page had to be scaled down from a few megabytes to about 100 kb. “For me, the bar was Google search. I would switch to 2G and see if Google gives search results, and how long that took, and then I compared that with Lite,” says Kothari. It was not just Google that he looked at, but also Facebook and Flipkart, which already had lighter versions of their sites.
But what took LinkedIn so long to figure out India needed Lite? Low connectivity isn’t a recent problem. Kothari doesn’t evade the question, like I half-expect him to. “When you are a big company like LinkedIn, you come up with 20 different things you want do in a quarter, but realise you can do only 12. Sometimes the eight that get cut end up being things that are internationally [relevant].”
In many of his blog posts, and even in the course of our conversation, Kothari talks of how his time at Stanford’s Institute of Design changed the way he looked at technology. (While doing his master’s in electrical engineering, he signed up for a class run by the design school.) I ask if he can encapsulate his learnings from the design school, and he says there’s one word that covers it all: “Empathy”.
Elaborating on that, he tells me about one of his first projects at design school: to develop a product that helps people eat ramen or noodles better. With his teammates, Kothari says he spent the next three days staring at people eating noodles at restaurants and talking to customers buying ramen at the Japanese supermarket.
“We quickly realised that people had pretty deep opinions about ramen. Some liked it soupy, some liked it less soupy, some liked when the noodles were long, some ate it on the go, some ate it as fine dinner. There were a lot of insights coming through, just because we had paused to observe,” he says.
Before the week ended, Kothari had built prototypes to improve the ramen-eating experience. One of them was a thick straw that let people slurp the soup and noodles simultaneously. “It didn’t work as well as we thought it would, but it taught me the importance of prototyping,” Kothari says.
The ramen experience transformed Kothari. Like many geeks, he says, he too used to fiddle with codes, tweaking or creating products purely out of academic interest. The focus on empathy that he learnt at design school made him start thinking of the user and creating products designed to improve user experience.
Today, he says, he wouldn’t start a new project without first having spoken to the target group, culling insights, having a point of view and building a prototype. So the product teams at LinkedIn don’t have weeks of meetings to figure if they want to build a product. Instead, they sit with the designers and hack together a prototype, which helps them decide if they should pursue the project. “The value of empathy and bias towards action is something I picked up at that class at Stanford,” says Kothari.
Then came Pulse. It was a project that was part of his course, but ended up as a successful startup in its own right. The techie became an entrepreneur.
Pulse proved to be a huge success, and within three years, it was snapped up by LinkedIn. Kothari joined the LinkedIn team, initially to help integrate Pulse with LinkedIn, and later to develop new products. By 2015, the Pulse integration was complete, making LinkedIn not just a network for recruitment, but also a professional publishing platform.
“I hadn’t taken a break in a long time, and I had promised my wife that I was going to take a year off and we’d finally get our honeymoon,” he says. The idea was to spend that year in India. He told LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner his plan, expecting to be let off easily. Instead, Weiner told him he could definitely go to India—and run LinkedIn there. And the honeymoon? Still not happened.
Kothari is frank about his progress in the company, saying Weiner took a big gamble giving him this role. On paper, he’s hardly the best candidate, with an entrepreneurial and product background, and little managerial experience. And he was barely 30 when the offer was made.
“The charter was always product. But I remember Jeff telling me that if I do my job well, LinkedIn India will be like a startup within LinkedIn. So we don’t have to operate as one of 10,000 people at LinkedIn, or now 100,000 at Microsoft,” says Kothari (LinkedIn was acquired by Microsoft in late 2016). “We have to think like a team of six, disrupting on our way to meet our goals.”
Like a startup it may be, but with over 39 million users, India is LinkedIn’s second-largest market and has been among the fastest growing since it set up shop in December 2009. Although the company grew multifold in its first six years, some of its stated objectives were still to take off. By 2014, LinkedIn India had identified the need to attract students. But nothing, it appeared, had brought them to the fold. Until Kothari walked in.
His first move of note in his new role was to cobble together a team of engineers, web developers, designers, and marketers and travel with them across four cities, non-metros all: Nashik, Meerut, Durgapur, and Davangere.
“I hadn’t been in India for 12 years and I felt as if I didn’t know much of the target segment we’re going after. So part of the trip was me wanting to learn,” he says.
The other reason was the realisation that LinkedIn’s growth in India wasn’t going to come from people with 4G connections or broadband. LinkedIn, like Google and Facebook, would have to roll up its sleeves and find its next customers—students in small towns, a segment largely not understood by the LinkedIn team.
For two weeks, Kothari and his team interacted with people they wanted to design products for. The results of this India yatra: three distinct products. Lite, Placements.com, and a Starter Pack. Fresh from the trip, Kothari had overseen a number of minor tweaks to the product: content specific to India, improved job recommendations, a faster sign-up process, and standardising data among others. But these three new products were to solve problems that couldn’t be addressed by tweaking LinkedIn.
Placements.com lets students take a standardised test based on which they are matched to prospective jobs. “India is a unique market with a massive over-supply problem,” says Kothari, explaining why Placements.com came about. If a company is looking for an entry-level software engineer and puts that up on LinkedIn, chances are that company will be inundated with 100,000 applications. And there’s no way of evaluating these applications because even a GPA system won’t work. Therefore, standardised tests.
Kothari says Placements.com serves to create a level playing field and democratise job opportunities; “if you were at IIT and I’m at a relatively unknown college, it doesn’t matter because we’re both going to take this standardised test and whoever does well, gets an interview.”
In two months, 250,000 students took the tests, sending 2 million job applications. In about 10 weeks, 37 companies, with thousands of job openings, looked at the data, shortlisted candidates, and interviewed them. “The first job offers were made last month,” Kothari says.
He’s clearly passionate about this segment. When I ask what he’s done apart from work, he says: “I did this amazing trip on my own, flew into Kolkata, drove to IIT Kharagpur, drove to XLRI Jamshedpur, drove to Ranchi, spent a few hours there...That fuels me for the next few months. It allowed me to interact with the students at these institutes, to get an idea of the job trends, what’s hot, what’s not. So this year, startup funding has slowed down, startups are avoiding campuses. In fact, students are going back to banking and consulting jobs. Last year, it was all startups.”
Then there’s the move to attract businesses: LinkedIn Starter Pack—a highly discounted trial package for small and medium businesses. “Until recently, all of our premium offerings—recruitment, marketing, sales, and learning—were focussed on the big enterprises—not just from the pricing perspective, but also from a product perspective. It works when you have a team of 10 people in each function,” Kothari says.
“We can now see the appetite of people buying this, how actively they use this product, and if it is really helping them do what they want. All of this is going to guide us next year  as we make deeper inroads into the [area of] small and medium businesses.”
What’s also helping Kothari is the room he’s being allowed from headquarters. Weiner seems to have a larger plan for Kothari and LinkedIn India. After his India role was made public, Kothari shared a blog with Weiner about his plans for India before it was published.
“Jeff looked through it and said all was good till he reached the end, when he said: ‘You write that you’re building products for India. I don’t think we discussed that. I thought you’re going to build products in India that will start with India but can be taken on and applied to the rest of the world. Your goal is not just fixing India; you can start with that, but a lot of things that you start there should be applicable around the world.’”
No surprises then that Kothari’s plan for 2017 is to take the three products global. He believes Placements can work well in Southeast Asian countries, while Lite can be used around the world, including some parts of the U.S.
“Step 1 is to ramp to India, and as early as the first quarter of 2017, our goal is to take it to other English-speaking countries and even the U.S. If there is a lack of connectivity, we can always gracefully degrade to the Lite experience.”
In September 2016, Weiner visited India and besides launching the three products, spent an hour with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Kothari says that for at least half an hour, Modi spoke about the necessity of creating a platform for the blue-collar workforce.
“We started with the knowledge workers because we felt that was the more organised sector, also the more lucrative sector. But there’s no other way to grow, we have to go into this [blue-collar] segment,” he says, adding that a Goldman Sachs report has pegged the number of urban blue-collar workers in India at 100 million.
Kothari and his team have already begun talking to companies to understand their need for such skills.
He’s even begun spending time with the government to figure the best way to make LinkedIn meaningfully accessible to this segment. He tells me that LinkedIn has been talking to the NSDC (National Skill Development Corporation) on the kind of skilling programmes they are running. “They’ve invited us to some of their skilling centres which we will visit in the next few weeks.”
Kothari then adds that one big insight is that the blue- and white-collar worlds are getting increasingly blurry. An Uber driver today, he says, could be earning more than some entry-level engineers, while a person with a desk job could earn way less than some delivery boys.
“So how can you call that desk job a white-collar job, and the delivery boy a blue-collar worker? We’ve one crazy thought: Maybe we don’t need to distinguish like that and find a completely new way to address this gap,” he says. “Our goal has always been to include all sorts of jobs. So, in 2017, my hope is that we’ll at least start something in that space.”