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Satyan Gajwani: Times Group's Digital Navigator

Samir Jainís son-in-law is the CEO of Times Internet. Now comes the hard part

Published: Nov 21, 2012 06:22:46 AM IST
Updated: Nov 21, 2012 05:59:32 PM IST
Satyan Gajwani: Times Group's Digital Navigator
Image: Amit Verma

Name: Satyan Gajwani
Profile: CEO, Times Internet Ltd. (TIL)
Education: Masters, Management Science & Engineering, Stanford.
How He Is Changing the Way the Company Works
Change TIL from one big monolith to a collective of digital startups with independent CEOs, while he will behave not as a CEO but more like a chairman of 10 companies.

The task is one worthy of a hero: make Times Internet Ltd. (TIL) the most profitable and dominant online company this side of the Suez. Though TIL has revenues of approximately Rs 320 crore, it isn’t very profitable. It has been left behind, picked clean by various start-ups such as Flipkart, Makemytrip and Naukri.com. And the Hercules who has been given this task is a very young man indeed.

Satyan Gajwani is just 27, and if he does what Samir Jain (vice chairman of the Times Group), expects him to, then get ready to make place for Gajwani in the pantheon.

Gajwani isn’t some hero-under-oath brought in to do a modern-day Twelve Labours. He is Samir Jain’s son-in-law (he’s married to Trishla Jain) and the person who the plush set expects will inherit the Jain’s more than Rs 5,000-crore media empire, Bennett Coleman and Company Limited (BCCL).

Unlike many of the sons- and daughters-in-law in the Olympian realms of India’s wealthiest, Gajwani is not to the manner born. What’s more, he and Ms Jain chose each other, dating while they were students in the USA.

Gajwani’s father, an engineer, moved to the US in the 1960s, worked at various places before setting up his own security systems company. Satyan, the youngest in the family, grew up in Miami, majored in mathematical and computational science at Stanford, then did a Master’s in management science and engineering. That’s a Bachelor’s and a Master’s in four years; he’s certainly no slow learner. It was in this last year of Stanford that his life took a turn: he met Trishla. “I didn’t know anything about her family. We dated through college. We both moved to New York, she was doing other work at NYC.”

Samir Jain told them that if they were serious, Satyan and Trishla should move to India and start working there. Gajwani had been in the relationship for just a year, had been to India only a couple of times as a visitor, and had just started work on the equities trading desk at Lehman Brothers.

He told Jain that when he was ready, he would think about the marriage, but India wasn’t in his immediate future. “I said I want at least two more years in the US before I decide.”

Now Samir Jain is a very powerful man but even he couldn’t have planned what happened next.

The financial world blew up and took Lehman down. In India, BCCL had a month where it witnessed a revenue decline, possibly for the first time in 175 years.

Jain told Gajwani that he really should think about coming to India. “He said a lot of strategic decisions are going to be made in next six months that may have long term impact, so you should be part of them.” Gajwani quit his job and moved to India.

“Fortunately Trishla’s dad was very progressive, both in terms of intellect and culturally. He was convinced that we would have been married anyways. He said, you are already my son for all practical purposes. So I moved here as her boyfriend, not as a fiancé, and even worked in the Times group as her boyfriend and lived with them in Delhi for six months. And then when I was comfortable, we got engaged, and a year-and-a-half later, we got married.” (That was in early 2011.)

The Jain empire needed new blood. Vineet Jain does not have children and Trishla, Samir Jain’s only child, seems to have no desire to get involved with the operations of BCCL. Once it had become clear that Trishla had chosen Satyan, it was almost a foregone conclusion that he would have to get involved in the business.

For the first year-and-a-half, Gajwani  did stints across print, radio, TV to understand what worked and what didn’t.

After Dinesh Wadhawan left, Gajwani was involved in identifying and appointing Rishi Khiani as TIL’s new CEO.  Then when Khiani decided to move on and turn entrepreneur, Gajwani felt he was ready to take on the mantle himself.

The company needs a shake-up, he says, one that a professional CEO couldn’t administer.

“I have the autonomy to make a big change in our culture and processes. It’s partially because I am part of the family.”

He was clear that he had very little to add to the print or television businesses; Samir Jain and Vineet Jain know those like the backs of their hands. Besides, these were stable businesses, with professionals in charge; they had made BCCL great, but they were its past, not its future.

The new horizon was digital, a space Gajwani understands well: “I grew up as a computer nerd, I programmed and hacked as a kid. So it was a skill useful for this role.” And at Stanford, half his friends started internet companies.

Satyan Gajwani: Times Group's Digital Navigator
Image: Amit Verma
Gajwani is also sure that TIL must be quick, and hungry

That Gajwani has come into TIL at the top, as CEO, has had many people saying his success was not earned.

That includes his own father. “My dad says you should work your way up a company, slog it out for five years first, so he’s like, you’ve just got put in this position so soon,” he admits with candour rare in people who have had designations handed to them on a platter.

Being the son-in-law gets in his way sometimes. People don’t say ‘no’ to him. “In India there is an hierarchical perception: They will agree because I am the boss. That is not what I want, my intention is to stimulate debate.”

And his American upbringing can be a problem too. He has realised that being very honest and upfront can be construed as bluntness. Not everyone is ready to take direct feedback, especially if it’s critical.

So he is learning to be aware of sensibilities and hierarchy, but he will push the limits.

“I’m planning to break these office walls and have just cubicles. Our New TIL building won’t have glass cabins. Culturally we will be more egalitarian, more flat.”

At the moment digital is a very small revenue stream for the Times group, but it is also a place where he can stand out. “Digital media is different from other media,” Gajwani says. “Most media companies suck at it.”

Perhaps, he says, traditional media is simply not equipped to understand the technology and, therefore, interactivity; they are more tuned to build one way media. Content enriches a digital product, making it compelling and valuable, but if you don’t think product and technology, then it is unlikely that the business will scale. Secondly, most traditional media outfits have just tried way too many things. Times Internet had 50 businesses at one point of time: Wine.indiatimes.com, a talent management agency, even a travel site, to name just three. It was India’s largest travel site till 2006, but then came Makemytrip. “The reason why a Flipkart or a Makemytrip became what they are is because of their approach. Once they became as big as Indiatimes Travel they did not look for breakeven. They said let’s spend more. They invested further and got bigger.” That’s the paradox of the Internet businesses: Easy to launch but very expensive to establish leadership. That’s why most traditional media companies end up underfunding the ventures they seed.

He is trying to make sure that TIL approaches these situations differently. For new businesses, money will be raised externally, at their growth capital stage. His big bets are Gaana.com, Boxtv , Timesdeal, Timescity, and Indiatimes Shopping.  “Times Internet is not going to raise that money, but BoxTV or Gaana will be raising it if they are able to, and are good enough businesses.” This way, these businesses will not remain underfunded. And when they get the money, it will be a proof that there is value in the business because someone else believes in it and puts in their money. Which will ensure independent oversight and accountability.

Gajwani is also sure that TIL must be quick, and hungry. “If a newspaper is competing against another newspaper, which is equally slow and bureaucratic, then it’s ok. But in the digital business I am competing against two people in a garage, who aren’t going to sleep. You need entrepreneurs, not professionals. Big media companies attract more professionals than entrepreneurs.”

It’s the reason why he spends a lot of time on recruitment: “Overall I spend 50 percent of my time in recruitment these days.” Keeping the company nimble is a priority.  There is a clear decision to keep the average age of the company low. There is also a renewed focus on product and technology, more than content. That reflects in the hiring pattern which is now from engineering colleges—more specifically from the IITs—rather than media companies.

It’s also why the break-up of Times Internet into smaller companies is vital. “My major goal is to break up Times Internet, the concept of one giant monolithic company doesn’t work. Spiritually, what we are trying to get to is to be a collective of start-ups rather than one big internet company. In a way,” he says, “I am a chairman of 10 companies, not CEO of one company anymore.”

Gajwani believes that the reason BCCL has never raised external capital yet and is still a billion-dollar business is because of innovation. “Invitation pricing, Mastermind, Private treaties: They are all innovations.” Samir Jain’s excitement has come more from innovation than the regular route of doing what others have done. And he likens his Times Deal recent strategy of going free to consumers to what Samir Jain did 20 years ago. “He said lets disrupt the market and give newspapers for one rupee. It’s exactly the same we are doing now on Times Deal. I am saying let me throw away profits and see if I can get big business.”

Gajwani’s clock is ticking though. Trishla is now carrying their baby and in a few months, they’ll be parents.  “So I have got four more months of being able to work very hard and then life goes normal.” He does not want to ‘outsource’ parenting: “I am excited to have kids, but if it’s too much to handle then I can just give them to Samir Uncle” he says with a chuckle.

He’s frank and open about how he got to where he is, but he’s also clear that it’s up to him now. To a recent question on the networking site Quora, which asked how he’d become TIL’s CEO at 27, he said, “Yep, this is true. I am married to Trishla Jain, daughter of Samir Jain. And I’m 100 percent sure that has had a significant impact as to why I’m CEO of Times Internet today. That being said, I would expect that I’ll be measured more by what Times Internet is able to accomplish over the next few years, rather than where I am today.”


Disclaimer: Forbes India is published by Network18 which competes with BCCL.  

(This story appears in the 02 November, 2012 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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  • Manoj Golani

    Success at such young age may take you ahead of all mountains. All the best.

    on Aug 4, 2015
  • Angad Bhatia

    Bob Dylan, i.e. - \" For the \'TIMES\' they, they are a-changin\' \" Super excited to witness such enthusiasm.......

    on Nov 23, 2012
  • Angad Bhatia

    Dylan may be appropriately quoted here, for this awe inspiring, real-life story. Wonderfully put Deepak Ajwani

    on Nov 23, 2012