After spending 18 years in the corporate world, one failed startup and two pivots to the business model of his latest venture — POKKT’s Founder and CEO Rohit Sharma has finally found his comfort zone.
After working for over 12 years in the Internet/digital entertainment industry, Sharma said goodbye to corporate life when he quit as the CEO (Digital Business) of Reliance Entertainment.
He then went on to start Pokkt, one of the most successful video mobile advertising platforms, in 2012. Pokkt (pronounced as pocket) is a platform for game developers to monetise their traffic in India and Southeast Asia. Pokkt does this by rewarding the user for clicking and watching the ads appearing in the video games they play.
Backed by VCs like Jafco Asia, SingTel Innov8, Jungle Ventures and most recently Singapore’s Segnel Ventures, Pokkt has offices in Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Bangkok, Singapore and Jakarta.
In a candid chat with e27, Sharma shares his journey from being the top honcho at Reliance to facing failures as an entrepreneur.
Here are the edited excerpts:
Tell me a little about how Pokkt has evolved
We started with a product which was very different from what it is today. We pivoted it twice since starting. In our first model, we were a platform where we enabled [an] e-commerce transaction of coupons where users could get the coupons in return for an activity they do for an advertiser. So, we were a coupon site funded by advertisers. That model, however, didn’t work and we quickly pivoted.
Our second pivot happened when we were an offer-wall business, which followed a very similar model. We would integrate with gaming and mobile apps, and in return for installing the app, you could get something in the app or the game.
So, while the basic model is the same, what is working for us in our current business model is the rewarded video apps. Here, we integrate our technology with game developers, and the user gets gratification for watching the video ad.
Do you see a third pivot coming?
As a startup, it might be too early to say that, but it looks like we won’t have to pivot again as the current business model has worked well for us. Our first phase was getting the technology right and in the second phase, we went after getting all the major apps in India, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines and Malaysia, and getting all our integrations done so that we have inventory and supply.
And we are now scaling up our advertising revenue side. Today, in India and Southeast Asia, we are an established brand for game developers, marketers and agencies. Now, we plan to scale up.
How has it been — from working with Reliance to owning a startup?
It has been very tough — a lot of highs and lows, mainly lows — but I love it. I think I regret not being an entrepreneur earlier.
Right after Reliance, I launched a toy e-commerce portal WopShop which failed. This was a bootstrapped venture. We lost all the money and we shut down the business in six months. We came back again and launched Pokkt. There is a lot of learning and unlearning. A startup teaches you to always stay humble, to always be on your toes and I think it’s such an exciting journey.
What is the biggest challenge that you’ve had to face as an entrepreneur?
The biggest challenge is to build a team because you don’t have anyone backing you, to say that I’m a large corporate. My past experience has been both an advantage and disadvantage.
When you are a large company like Reliance, hiring is never an issue. One of the biggest challenges for a startup is to attract good talent and to give them the drive and motivation. The other big challenge has been thinking of a big idea, failing, pivoting, and re-inventing it. It takes an entrepreneur through a lot of emotional stress also, but I think that the learning is that you have to be at it. If you are persistent, you will finally crack it.
The other big challenge has been thinking of a big idea, failing, pivoting, and re-inventing it. It takes an entrepreneur through a lot of emotional stress also, but I think that the learning is that you have to be at it. If you are persistent, you will finally crack it.
When do you think you should have started the entrepreneurial journey?
Given that I’m an entrepreneur now, I think I should have been an entrepreneur from day one, because I’ve lost 18 years of my life working in a corporate environment. Having said that, those years also had their own learning and strengths. I wish I had been doing this forever.
You think had you started earlier, the time would have been right?
Even when I started in 2012, the startup ecosystem was not so conducive. Things have changed drastically in the last three-four years. Even before that, being an entrepreneur and failing and getting money was such a big taboo. I guess I can now say that it’s good to be an entrepreneur because the whole ecosystem is favourable again.
After your first failed venture, what made you start another venture?
When we failed and shut down, the whole ecosystem was such that failure wasn’t a taboo; people around us said it’s okay to fail. I think it was too early for us to give up; it was just six months into our entrepreneurial journey. I think it was some bit of maturity from our previous work experience and our background that helped us get to our feet.
How do you view the startup space now? We can see a lot of churn now
Churn is a part of the growth. If X number of companies start, some percentage will have to close because everyone will not succeed. But I think the next 10 years are the golden years of the startup ecosystem as everyone wants to become an entrepreneur.
I don’t think people are getting disheartened in any way about companies shutting down. At the same time, it is only making it more competitive. The opportunity for entrepreneurs and startups is humongous. I don’t think a couple of companies shutting down or failure is a taboo anymore.
Do you see a lot of innovation or are there a lot of me too’s these days?
Till two years ago, I think there wasn’t any innovation and there were a lot of me too’s. Now a lot of startups are trying to bring innovation into existing business models through technology. Everyone cannot continue to bring new ideas and new businesses, but innovation also comes by running a traditional business in a better way through technology.
Innovation is not only that I have thought of a kickass idea that no one else thought of, but it could also be doing the same thing differently.
How much money have you raised so far? Is there a need for more funding?
We have raised around US$9 million. As of now, we are pretty sorted for the next 18-24 months and our revenue is scaling month-on-month. Unless we think of expanding to some other market beyond [our existing ones], or we think of launching some new product, then we’ll see.
Adtech companies, unlike e-commerce, don’t require that much money. There is more of working capital requirement in our kind of set-up; if you get to a certain scale then it’s not an issue.
Are there any plans for inorganic growth?
Right now no, because we have built the organisation where it is completely ready for scale and we have made huge in-roads into the Southeast Asian markets. We would rather now hire more people in our sales and business development and scale up the business. I don’t think growth will happen through acquisition, but by expanding our teams.
Is the business at a breakeven point? Has it broken even yet?
We have not broken even, but given the way the business is growing, we are not far from breaking even in the next couple of quarters. In the last six-eight months, we re-invested a lot into our technology and expanding our sales team, but our business is not very revenue negative. Now, most of our investment is done. Our tech team, sales team, and products are in place. I don’t think we will have to disproportionately invest now.
How do you view competition?
Right now, I don’t think anyone else is doing this business, focussed only on game developers. There are three or four very large players like AdColony and Supersonic Ads in the US who have platforms similar to us, but in this region, we are kind of the leading player.
Would you want to expand to other areas apart from gaming apps?
I think we are pretty comfortable in the games zone. If you look at the mobile ecosystem and the way the data is growing, gaming apps are really growing fast and their consumption is really big. So I think at least for the next couple of quarters, we have to be happy with the gaming ecosystem, it’s pretty big. If you look at our model, it fits the best with gaming apps. In the next 12 months, we really want to scale up our revenue side and engagement with the brands.
Any more countries you are looking to expand into?
We are getting some interest from the Middle East. And because we are a big player in Indonesia and Vietnam, some interest is also coming from China, but right now I don’t think we will get into those markets. For the next two quarters, we will concentrate on building our existing markets.