Business Models

Episode 05: Painting a blank canvas with Ajith Mohan, Facebook

Sid Talwar
14th January 2022

With 300MM+ Monthly Active Users, and 28MM+ paid subscribers accounting for over 30% of Disney's entire customer base, Hotstar is arguably the most popular OTT platform in India, and that too by a margin. In this episode with Ajit Mohan, we dive deep into Hotstar's meteoric rise, starting right from ideation to building it into what it is today, and learn from Ajit's experiences of building a massively successful company, ground up.

Podcast notes. On this episode, we cover:

enlightenedAjith's journey making it to Facebook India

enlightenedLaunching Hotstar

enlightenedHiring for the right team and product managers

enlightenedContent, Content, Content and differentiation 

enlightenedAdvice to founders



I think you probably have one of the most unique resumes i've ever seen. You've been a consultant, you've been a journalist. You went from there to becoming a media executive. You then became a founder of, dare i say, a company that changed the face of media in india forever and from there you went to become the head of facebook india. What unites all of this? It seems very disparate at a very high level, but i'm sure there's a thread that kind of brings a theme out in some way.


I’ve never thought about it that way, but when I reflected back, i do feel like i did a lot of meandering and this is something that i've told my teams here at facebook that at every point it started off as can the next experience and journey be interesting and can i learn things from it?

“ when you are open to that meandering, you end up with a bunch of stuff ”

and invariably the dots do connect, but only looking backward. i don't think there was a conscious attempt to go through a bunch of experiences with deterministic objectives. I think you and i have known each other for a while and i suspect you would find that credible. just to give a couple of examples, i do think it does help to kind of do that bit of a meandering and the experience invariably shows up in ways that you can't always predict. i remember when i was starting hotstar, i was quite influenced by the work that i had done in media in the US six or seven years before that because when i was with mckinsey in the media practice, a lot of our work was happening. When the world was transitioning into a more digital world, hulu was starting. i think youtube had just started and i have an interesting story. i don't think i've told you without naming clients.

Sometime in 2006, i worked a bunch of time with a client in the US where the big thing that we were trying to solve for was how do you manufacture the right dvds and get it distributed to the right walmart stores for the christmas season.. we were a media company. Frankly, the whole home dvd business was extraordinarily profitable. and their big challenge was that they used to miss out on a lot of demand because they were not predicting the demand of the right titles of movies and getting into the right stores. and a year later in 2007, that probably was the least interesting question for most media companies in 2012, working for star, i think i was quite conscious that what may be extremely entrenched business models can change quite dramatically in a very short period of time. i did work in urban policy when i came back to india in 2008 and 2009, and in some ways that stands out as quite different from most work that i had done. and yet now, looking back, i think if i look at a lot of my work in facebook, which has meant having a point of view on navigating many of the conversations around designing new rules of the internet, i do think i benefit from the work that i did more than twelve years ago. so i think it's been a lot of meandering which didn't have a goal or an objective. but invariably you realize that those experiences help you connect the dots. and i think that's been the case for me.


That's actually really interesting and i think what really hit me right now while you were saying it, is how much the experience of realizing the efforts you put in 2006 were short lived, kind of helped you think through how to kind of create a beginning for hotstar. and i think one of the things that we love talking about on these podcasts is the idea of ideation. and i really wanted to dive in that with you anyway on ideation in general. and you've kind of given me that opening right now. so just to set the mark here, you joined star in about 2012 right around 2012, and a couple of years, two or three years later, you launch hotstar while you're there. what i'd love to hear, and please give us as much detail as you're able or willing to provide us with the process of to make something like this happen.

Was there a whiteboard in the beginning?

You sitting in a conference room with a marker. i know that you were the only person and i don't even know if it was called hotstar at that time. but at hotstar - what did the blank state look like?

What was your canvas?

If you were to launch another one, another OTTw platform tomorrow. what would the sequence look like today?

If could just walk us through building this in the very beginning, that would be really interesting.

Launching Hotstar


It's interesting because it wasn't a blank canvas. I'll explain why. So in 2012, i mean, the first year , my role was leading the ceo's office, leading uday shanker's office, and largely driving strategy on a bunch of stuff, including what was then the beginning of stars for into sports. i joined a couple of months after star had won the rights to indian cricket in march or april of 2012. so a lot of conversations were about sports and cricket. and very soon after when fox bought the joint venture from espn for asia and star sort of ran with all of the sports rights and the business that espn star sports was running for the region as a whole. and i remember my first set of conversations with largely like when anyone joins a new company, you would go and meet all of the businesses. and i come back and sitting across him on the sofa and he was like, so what do you think? I remember kind of telling him my observations about star purely coming in as an outsider who largely had worked in media only for clients. frankly, that was my real first job outside of consulting at that point. and one of the things that i remember telling him was that the big missing piece seems to be in digital. star had experimented with digital for quite a bit, including the murdochs, if you remember the history at some point had new scorpion, myspace in india. there were a bunch of acquisitions done, i think, going back even as early as 2007 or 2008. and yet i was quite conscious of the history of media in the US, especially youtube and hulu. and for me, i kind of called out that I didn't think there was a purposeful sort of digital business. and we had that conversation. and then for the next year, my mind and my effort and the team were focused on a bunch of other things. but then sometime towards the end of 2012, we ended up with a bunch of sports rights, including the Indian crickets that started bid for and many of which were inherited from the acquisition of the joint venture with espn star sports, we kind of hit upon this we had all of this

“  i surfaced this idea of we should start experimenting with the sports streaming servicethis was in 2012 when the world looked quite different - it was pre-jio, even 3g wasn't in place, data was quite expensive and the idea was - is there an opportunity for us to build a premium paid sports streaming service?”

and we kind of put it together as a project, actually worked with an external partner, pulled a bunch of young folks from inside star and launched a service called in december 2012 for people who are into cricket and remember with the india pakistan series, i remember that purely as a beta service and within the first few minutes it crashed because there was so much but that's a different story but that was the starting point so in many ways, there was a big precursor to hotstar, which was and of course, because of the success of hotstar I think the story of has gotte relegated into the background quite a bit. but the interesting part was that between december 2012 and january of 2015, when hotstar was launched, i actually now look back and say, we got this amazing opportunity to have this massive experimental canvas, probably with not a lot at stake, because no one was paying attention there wasn't a lot of expectation. and what that allowed us to do, i think, was two years of trying out many things and answer your question about sort of, what does that timeline look like? we launched it as a fully paid service in June of 2013, and we ran that for a few months and we used to have thousands of subscribers , i think at some point we crossed 100,000 subscribers on it was all live and it was all paid for and i remember a conversation with james and uday but wait, you have to know the context -  So murdochs were known for a militant belief in subscription and with all the hard work to create premium content it was understood that within the murdoch shop, there would never be content that would be given away for free and therefore a few months into running, it was a year after the beta launch i think we were looking at these subscriber numbers, and we were quite happy about it because 100,000 in 2013 for a paid service looked fabulous so there were 100,000 at that time that were paying for they were not recurring subscribers. i mean, they would come in for there were all kinds of packages, but people were paying, not millions.

and i remember james saying “ why don't we just open this up for free? “

and there was silence in the room because he had a history, like rupert himself, of being extraordinarily militant about not giving any content for free but it was also clear that if we were to fundamentally change the space, we had to do something different.

so we actually in 2014, if you remember, bought the rights to ipl as a one off from time's internet at that point, which had the rights, and we opened it up as a five minute delayed ipl stream, which was for free on and the numbers just exploded and i think that was sort of the point at which we had the confidence that there was something big happening here. we were onto something big, and it gave us the confidence to build what turned out to be hotstar i remember, and i feel like I remember the first version of hot star, but the user experience was miles apart. you're sitting there and you're saying, okay, i've got this! we're going to give it away for free we've got the rights as well


why is it not star sports? why are we not on star sports right now? like, why is it hot star? how did that thinking take place?


yeah, it's such a great question by the way, this is one of the questions that created probably the most amount of enormous debates and I would say intellectual fights in the company for a period of almost two years, because there was a time when hotstar had launched in 2015 had done quite well by then, and we continue to run the services in parallel for quite a while and i think you're right i think in some ways when we launched hotstar, the experience was actually quite good and probably ahead of hotstar we had seen a lot of success with it, and of course, it was a specialized service.

i think it came down to this

“  i believe we made an extremely wise choice. the choice to do away with and bet all of it on hot star was built on the assumption that it made sense to focus on building one great product rather than building multiple products. and we understood that a lot of this was going to be about our ability to build a great product”


which meant our ability to attract great product and engineering talent in india, again, the world today looks so different from 2013 - 14we recognize that that was going to be a limited resource the funny part is engineering talent continues to be a constraint for companies around the world and therefore it made sense to have focus i think there was a second interesting one which was a bit more nuanced and kind of drove some of the debates in the company a lot of the wisdom at that point was that people came in on the back of affinity to different television channels and therefore, you can understand that for many stakeholders inside star who had built amazing businesses in entertainment and movies and by that time, increasingly in sports, it was very logical to assume that the digital business should be organized around channels because that was the entry point for consumers on television it was working really well and the counter point of view that some of us advocated for was that in the digital world, it obviously brands mattered obviously the content mattered and we discovered pretty quickly that a show that did really well on stop loss did really well online as well and that continued to be the case for hotstar and there was a reason for it, right?

i mean, consumers had huge affinity for these shows, and therefore it mattered a lot but the counter argument was that for consumers, once they came in, it was the quality of the experience that we were able to build, and that while the hook may have come on the back of a big cricket match or a great standout show on star, plus the longevity and the stickiness of these consumers staying on hotstar and spending a lot of time on hotstar fundamentally relied on how we were able to surface other shows and other movies and other sporting events for those users, and therefore to fragment it as we had a sport service or to fragment it on an organizing principle that was based on channels just was not the right translation to the digital world and i think it turned out to be the right bet. i think by aggregating hotstar as a combination of content across channels and across content, across categories, i think we were able to build a service that appealed to a large number of people, while, of course, raising the bar on the product, that you had to have an experience that surfaced content and allowed people to come into  hotstar on the back of a hook, but ended up that they were discovering other things and the uber learning here said for probably many of your portfolio companies as well as many of the listeners, is that very often the debate inside companies and this can be true in companies large and small, is that you can be so influenced by your historical and legacy success and frankly, those arguments can be very credible, especially at a time when the history of it is very clear but the future of it is unknown at that point. but sometimes you just have to break away from that legacy you have to walk away from it to build something new for the new world that is emerging.

Team, Product talent and content


How do you think about building an organization around you you've got a lot of legacy people from star sports, i guess from an engineering and product standpoint but now you've got to build this company, right? how do you start thinking about org structure and quite honestly, who's your first hire? like what's the first go to person that you need to fill? and then from there on, what are the most important hires you think about in this?


yeah, i think it took us a while to get it right and one of the choices and what you were alluding to as well, sort of the first version of hotstar and how it evolved we had made the choice to rely on an external partner to build that first version of hotstar and i think we realized pretty quickly and especially on the back of the early success that we saw that if we were to build a real consumer tech company, we had to drive product and engineering ourselves. so in some ways, i think we made the classic mistake that i think many traditional companies make in terms of assuming that the technology part is something that you can leave to an outsider to fix for you and in some ways, i think it reflected the thinking eight, nine years ago but i thought we did a good job in recognizing that this dependent on us getting product and engineeringthat even though we were a media company, we were sitting inside a media company, we were going to be successful or we were going to fail based on our ability to fundamentally drive product and engineering a lot more than content and of course, we benefited from the fact fact that we had access to this amazing portfolio of content i think that made the choice easier so i actually spent, i think, close to a year and a half hiring what i think turned out to be one of the most consequential things as the head of product, varun narang, someone who then ended up leading product and engineering from then a couple of months ago, someone who had been a part of hulu's founding team, i had huge respect for what hulu had done. i think they were definitely one of the pioneers in streaming and remarkable given that it was started by a few media companies working together and i remember making an effort to get varun in 2014, even before hotstar it took almost a year and a half to convince him. he was definitely, in my mind, one of the most consequential hires and recognized our shift in terms of from being yet another media company trying to do something to i think what was the essence of recognizing that we were going to be a consumer tech company? and i think from then on, i think we were able to, in my mind build a fairly diverse team set. and i think it goes to the heart of your question, i suspect, which is how do you build a team and what are the kinds of things to look out for by the way, it's interesting said that even today a disproportionate amount of time of the facebook leadership starting with mark himself, goes to thinking about how do we hire the best product managers and engineers in the world of course, in all of this i think we are talking about tech companies and consumer companies, but i guess the generalized learning is it could be product in any industry or category but if anything in tech, i think that has become even more important than five and ten years ago and it's pretty clear that it'll continue to be the most consequential thing when you look at hiring because everything starts from there all the differentiation, every part of what makes what you're building magical will come out of your ability to have great pms and engineers i would say beyond that, i do think for anyone, whether that's a first time entrepreneur or people looking to build scale and frankly, if i look at the team that i have around me at hotstar today in india, or if i look at he people around mark or even the team that i built at hotstar, i do think two or three things matter.

  1.  Extreme on openness - i'm sure you see that in many of your portfolio companies as well and companies that you look at when you're thinking about whether to invest or not one of the things that i have come to realize is that there are a lot of great people in the world and they check box on great problem solving they bring in a lot of experience they've been tested but i do think one of the markers for great leaders and invariably great teams is how agile and open are you? and i've realized that people who are militantly open, who don't come with the assumption that they have cracked the answer tend to be the people that will help you sort of chart new frontiers.
  2. Decision making -   There are lots and lots of ventures that have great people, but they get stuck when it comes to evaluating the inevitable fork on the road. right at any stage, whether it's a smaller or large company, you will be confronted with making hard choices and what i've realized is that many companies and many teams just are not able to make a choice they either get paralyzed in the complexity of the choices or they find it difficult to change their course and all of it comes from fundamentally having people who are open and that openness and agility, i think allows you to help make decisions and not making decisions invariably for early stage ventures in my mind tends to be one of the biggest risks.
  3. Diversity - I think we are all conditioned to hire people like us, and i now have the deep belief based on learning of what has worked or not work, it never works. i think it absolutely makes sense to look for people who are not like you and the last one i would call out say is aggression of ambition. I think you never go wrong when you hire people who have a very strong sense of the kind of impact that they want to have in the world. what was the most difficult role that you found for yourself?


what was the most difficult role to hire for in the beginning?


I think it was varun's role as the head of product and engineering because in many ways it reflected a fundamental shift at hot star in terms of how we were thinking about the future and as you can imagine, it also meant that you had to recognize that you were bringing in a leader and you were trying to build a bunch of capabilities that frankly, at that point i didn't have. i think, you know, this said, i think the challenge in companies when you're the founder or you're even in the early cohort of employees who came up with the idea who were driving the a ffordable the product or scaling up is the minute you get success people attribute all kinds of magical powers to you, right? they start assuming that you are the best person in the room to take a call. and i think the hardest thing at that time is to recognize what you're good at and what you may not be good at. and in this case, i think it was recognizing tha tit wasn't just about what i wasn't good at, but it was also about that this person had to help me fundamentally build a very different company, a very different set of capabilities within the confines of what was an extraordinarily successful legacy media company. as a founder and as a leader, i would still have to give direction to the product, but i didn't have to pretend that i'm the product manager.


I think there's some background here i just want to kind of put out because i don't think the need is fully understood of what you are trying to accomplish and whether you are trying to accomplish. i think you have to have some idea of the need for something from a product standpoint that could very possibly explode and it shouldn't break down and crash like star sports did on the day of the launch that you mentioned earlier, because i think you broke hot star broke all kinds of records - 1 million downloads within like some five or six days of launch and by the 10th or 12th day, it was at 2 million downloads


“ The funny part is, despite all of what we learned from over almost two years, hotstar crashed on its very first test, which was the india // Pakistan match of the world cup in australia in 2015 it was two weeks after launch but this was sort of our first big moment. i mean, we had done a soft launch and we were kind of test driving it but for all practical purposes, this was day one this was launch day, and we crashed and you can imagine the not so fun phone calls that i had to take from, of course, my leaders in the company, as well as a reasonable amount of abuse from consumers as well”


 It was the india-pakistan match. Right i mean, if there was one thing wrong, it was that!  but i think we had learned the lesson, but i don't think we had learned it enough and of course, as you mentioned, i think the demand was sort of beyond the wildest assumptions that we had and of course, the other part is the ecosystem as well.

In the early 2015, probably on that one match, we were generating cdn capacity and demand that was several times more than what india had seen in total peak demand so even partners had to go through that moment to realize that something fundamental was changing here and they had to now build capacity for india that they had assumed would come five or ten years from that point so one way to look at it is these were such big transition points that there was no way to predict it but i think to the point that you were highlighting, I think it came down to in the context of a media company, to recognize that this was a different monster. it's not that big cricket matches have huge demand on television as well  but given cable and satellite technology, you didn't really have to solve for 100 million different from 1 million so i think we were learning some of these on the fly, and unfortunately, there were a few crashes that we had to go through to recognize what is truly important and what we had to build. and i think it again came down to recognizing that while content was important, whether we were successful or not, dependent on how much we were getting product and technology, right?



The basic idea of hot star is fairly straightforward, and i think the way you describe it actually makes it sound even more simple than that but you're building a new ott platform from scratch in a country that's never experienced anything like that. and the challenges of doing that are huge. i wanted to kind of understand, as you were sitting there, perhaps with members of the team saying, okay, what do we need to make sure we get right on this product? there's a lot we can be doing, but there's something very basic we need to get right let's just make sure we have that going on. how did you think of that early product roadmap for yourself?


yeah, it's such an interesting question, and your questions are also sort of triggering me to think about those early days. here's something that i think you'll find interesting - when we were starting to build a product in 2014, leading up to the launch in 2015, i think there were three things that we were kind of really focused on from a product point of view.

  1. Low quality video stream: How do we make video to stream on low bandwidth environments and low quality phones. Imagine the world in 2014 and here's an interesting anecdote. I think we spend an extraordinary amount of time thinking about it and figuring out how to make hot star work on asha phones - these were the nokia sort of entry level phones, which were kind of smartphones - really affordable and at that time, it had a significant share of the market we wanted to make sure that once we launched the service, it was accessible to everyone we didn't make the choice that it's okay if we start with the service that just worked for the very top end and there was a mindset that i think was inherited from star, which is that we had to solve for mass audiences and i do think we benefited from inheriting that mindset but by the time so that was one the s
  2. Lack of experience in of we knew that in the case of cricket or sports, we had to solve for massive concurrency but massive was defined as somewhere between 5000 and a million and you have to remember, i've forgotten the numbers now, but this was at a time when most people around the world, including people from the tech world, were telling us that there is no way there's going to be demand for live sports, which is more than 200, 300, $400,000. So we thought we were being extremely ambitious by setting the milestone well above that but we benefited from the challenges that w had for those two years before hotstar loan so that was the second thing.
  3. Disproportionate volume : We were trying to solve for was given that a disproportionate volume of our content was long running television shows with hundreds of episodes we were trying to figure out and that was quite different from netflix. right. which were the only two other benchmarks at that point. the top five shows at that point on the star network would be at least 500 episodes, many of them a lot more than that so we had to fundamentally think through a challenge that we didn't see anyone else had solved and obviously wasn't a challenge. On cable and satellite broadcast, how do you organize this content in an intuitive, elegant manner on a small mobile screen, which is what most people would have now.

The interesting part on this is and it gives you a sense of how quickly things change and again, goes back to the idea of agility for the team as a whole, but particularly for people who drive the product the mobile phone space changed so much between when we started designing hotstar and by the time we launched, our phones became almost we ended up spending a lot of time on a problem that by the time we launched because of the explosion of cheaper smartphones and the emergence of a whole generation of india brands, if you remember, there was a lot more smartphone ownership, and asha became a lot less consequential. So it was a problem we spend a lot of time on that turned out to be completely not material for us once we launched concurrency continued to be something that was important for a long time. and i think hot star today can serve more than 25 million concurrent viewers on cricket, maybe a larger number, which is dramatic. right. but very different from the world five or six years ago and then this whole how do we organize long running tv episodes also turned out to be not that important because we realized that people largely were catching up on recent episodes so i think it just gives you do you mean how


You would organize older episodes so they could be found easier? Is that what you were trying to


From a product point of view, think about sort of the user navigation about it and at that point we didn't know. Right and we were therefore solving for all kinds of use cases, including, hey, there will be people who will want to watch a show from the first episode and go through all of the episodes before catching up there may be a bunch of people who just want to watch the latest episodes there may be others who may want to catch different tracks in the media world, sort of stories go on track - so maybe they want to go back and watch a track that they were really invested in - so it raises the question of how do you organize this content from a user navigation point of view that solve for all of these use cases? because we didn't know at that point how it will play out because there was nothing that we could look towards that said, oh, this problem has been cracked.

Here are two or three examples -

  1. A lot of times you end up investing a lot of time before launching the product in solving problems that turn out to be completely immaterial once the product is live in the market
  2. In some ways you have to be super agile - you cannot invested in some of the things that you thought were important to solve for.
  3. I think in the tech world this is deeply understood, but i'm not sure whether it is practiced as much as you really have to experiment, but you also have to let the experiment play out.

I think there's so much everyone now knows that the value of testing and a b test. but i'm not sure whether newer ventures and newer technology companies frame the experiments and then let the experiments play out with enough time and energy behind it to actually pick up the learnings, but nothing more important than that. i think the nature of consumer tech means that we have this amazing opportunity to actually not just keep drawing on the canvas. we can actually put it out and learn. But i think it's also important to frame those experiments and let them play out so that we can actually get the right learnings


Is there an experiment that you did, that you also let play out that if you hadn't experiment with or haven't let play out, it would have changed the course of hot star in your mind.


I think the biggest one was keeping hot star free and it goes back to the story that i was saying about where the assumption that all of us had was that we were going to drive a subscription service and it started with and that shift and the success that we saw gave us the conviction to build hot star as a free service that i think was quite different from the conventional wisdom in the media world at that point. and i still believe that that probably was a non intuitive answer that we stayed with for a very long time. The interesting part too is that today as hotstar and disney, hotstar plus has pivoted to more of a subscription service, i actually think it is that massive equity and scale that was built with hot star as a free service that even allowed the pivotal subscription. so i would think if there was one experiment which had a lot of angst, a lot of debate in the company was we went back to the drawing board every three, four and five months and said, is this still the right thing to do? are we undermining a traditional business? i think staying with it, staying with what was a big strategic choice to allow the service to be free, especially said at a time when data was extraordinarily expensive. Right this was all hotspot was alive for a couple of years before geo launched its 4G service and completely changed the landscape of access to affordable mobile broadband in india. and sticking with what was a big strategic choice, i think was the right thing. and i think a lot of kudos to james and ode and the leaders for having the willingness to potentially cannibalize the legacy business with the choice to retain hot star as a free service. 

But i think that was one of the biggest experiments we did that turned out to be the right one. one of the biggest issues that we find from a hiring perspective, what is the right background of someone in product? so i completely agree with you on engineering. talent is hard to come by because they need to have a certain kind of education and exposure and experience, but it's quite clear what they need that experience, exposure and education in the problem is very few people have that and so there's a lack of that talent when it comes to product. there's no shortage of people that call themselves product managers or have worked in product, but it's very difficult, especially for founders that are starting off to know.


Hiring for the right product manager


When i'm looking for someone, what should i be looking for? because title of the previous job education isn't like a shortcut in product when you're hiring. have you seen that working with varun and coming up with a team for the product side of this, especially whether you are building for the scale that you eventually got, you are still building for some massive scale. You knew the cricket world cup was coming up in australia months after you would launch. You knew that star sports had legacy subscribers or just users of the platform.

How did you think about recruiting the right people?

Where did you go to find them?

What channels did you use?

Did you go to campuses to

Recruit certain kinds of thinkers?

Did you go to other companies?

How did you think through this?


  1. Diversity:  In the profile of successful pms in facebook, product leaders and facebook as well and yet if i think through sort of my learning at hot star and what i'm seeing here, i do think there is some commonality, and i'll come back to addressing the question of hiring and recruiting - there's some pattern here invariably they're great problem solvers. right. I've seen a lot of product managers who have a computer science background, some who don't and yet the consistent themes seem to be people who are good problem solvers - so you will see journalists and people who worked in strategy consulting roles coming in and doing really well.
  2. Eliminating Friction: people who can think through the process of eliminating friction, and you can pick that up. and so much about building a product is thinking through how do you reduce the friction? how do you make it elegant?
  3. Tough decisions: Can this person make tough trade offs and choices? and that's the one big thing that i've learned in the product context. it's invariably not about not knowing what to do. you invariably have so many choices as you think about evolving the product, the heart of it. the most successful product managers seem to able to do fewer things and find mechanisms to prioritize the few things to do rather than going after many things that seem attractive and i'm sure you've been in conversations, you will never be short of ideas and especially at early stages of ventures, the teams will be throwing multiple ideas at you you'll never be short of ideas.

I think it's about how do you distill it and have the courage to focus on a few things and these seem to be sort of the patterns that i've seen in terms of the product wall and people have been successful in it in terms of recruiting and hiring.


“ I have to say the world in India today looks quite different from what it did six years ago or eight years ago. I think because of the extraordinary explosion of entrepreneurial activity in India, they just are now there's a deeper bench of product managers and designers than was the case maybe even four years ago ”


so i do think i remember in 20, 12, 13, there was a sort of a narrative that, look, it's easy to hire engineers in india, but a lot more difficult to hire product managers and designers. I don't think that is true then, but it's definitely not true now from a hiring point of view. actually, if i look at the first set of product managers, the ones who transition from to hot star, many of them were new to the role. many of them are transitioned from other generalist roles, and yet they turned out to be some of the best PMS in hot star. So we definitely leveraged on sort of that benefit of having that service that we ran for three years. the other thing is we were fairly aggressive about recruiting. and of course, i don't know whether you remember we even went down a fairly non-traditional path of using very visible, very above the line marketing to hire for hotstar.


One of the big things that you mentioned earlier when you were thinking about content was saying, look, i'm going to bring people in through sports, but then i want them to start digesting other kinds of content on this platform and not have to go back to their traditional way of consuming that content on television and i think one of the things that we say a lot about hot star is it's the go to case study on changing user behavior. and in fact, the interesting part for us is that as much as it was perhaps a no brainer to say, all right, i've got the cricket world cup going on you can now watch it anywhere you are.


I remember you had a commercial saying that any of your lights go off don't worry, you don't need electricity to watch the match. Rou're changing your massive user behavior. Change has to take place not only for that sporting event, but for you digesting all of this other content on there and you're trying to hook people to now digesting a whole lot more content than they would normally because they've got the platform on them all the time as you think about content and what would work, what would not how you would choose what content to show should you have original content versus having this library of content that's already available to you? will the library of content then take you to original content as a stepping stone, just like sports was a stepping stone for that other content? how did you see that? and how did your thinking evolve over time, especially going way back? and our lives have evolved over time over this time as well.

How did you think of content and the importance of making sure you weren't, let's say, a one trick pony in sports specifically?


I don't think we've talked about it enough said, but there was always a big delta between sort of the narrative of cricket being super important for hot star and the reality of the diversity of content consumption that happened on hot star right from day one. and this was one of our betsy, we knew that there was massive appetite for consumption of television shows across languages across the country. i think sports is probably always a bit more sexy from a narrative point of view than soaps. but the reality is that we were aware that when you look at the numbers on television and when we looked at some of the consumption that we had seen of star shows on other platforms, it was very clear that there was massive affinity. and one of the bets of hot star was and you know this, i think there was an assumption that, hey, no one is going to watch legacy television shows on a new medium like a mobile or a large screen tv. W

We didn't believe that and of course, i think in some ways it made sense for us not to believe it because we had such a massive portfolio of content that were daily episodic television shows. but we also genuinely had faith because we had seen the data, we knew the numbers so the better hot star was always that it was going to one of the primary vehicles for consumption and engagement and affinity was the large portfolio of content that the star network had, and the star channels were leaders in almost every state so that was a bet that we had made and right off the bat, we saw that people were coming in to catch up on television episodes but we also knew that the spiking so interestingly, if you look at all of our star's consumption over a longish period of time, i've forgotten the number now, but

“ i think it was only 15 or 20% were sports and cricket 80% was everything else, which is quite different from what turned out to be a quite popular narrative about hot stuff being only about cricket but what we did know, was that cricket offered these big spiky moments, and you saw that in the concurrency, there were numbers that not just india, but the world hadn't seen before that ”


But the strategic goal that we had to have was that when people came for cricket through the product as well as through the communication in match, we had to introduce them to other things that they could be interested in. and again, going back to the idea of relying on data, we knew from data that there was a massive overlap of audiences across categories, that it wasn't that there was this male sports viewer, a male cricket viewer who wasn't interested in television shows the data always told us that women watched a lot of sports, men watched a lot of television, and there were massive overlaps between television shows and sports and movies. So i think following the data allowed us to make the right choices. and it was both about relying on marketing because you had these massive number of people who are coming to watch cricket, and we just had to tell them. but a lot of it was about the product, and I think we didn't get it right on day one but i think we evolved quite a bit over time in terms of the recommendation engine and being able to understand patterns of behavior and as we knew more about people who were coming and the other one was the point that you made about original content and two big things to call out here, I think, because there was a lot of belief that we actually had a portfolio of content in the traditional tv shows that were quite important. I think we had the wisdom to stay away from at that point, investing a lot of money in original content, although that was the big story.

I remember every time we spoke to a journalist, even in 2015, it will be like, oh, when are you commissioning an original show? because the dominant narrative, the dominant story people told each other, was that finally you needed to have originals for people to watch a streaming platform. we just didn't believe it's it i do think there were two learnings there.

  1. It’s always important to not get too carried away by the big popular narratives and stories that may be floating around. I think it's best to discover the answer for yourself based on the data that you're seeing.
  2. Idea of economics - one of the reasons why we didn't go for originals at that point was not just that we thought that we had a pretty compelling portfolio of content, but we didn't think that the investment model behind originals was going to work without having a thriving subscription business, which hotstar today has.

and you see now the investment in originals and that's the other big call out. right. i think for new ventures, you can always have an economic model in the short term where you need capital, there can be a gap but i think it's quite important that at least you need to know beyond sort of the short and medium term. do you have a path to an economic model that is actually sustainable? and in this case, i think we made the wise choice of delaying the investments in originals and focusing the investment on product and tech until it got to scale and an economic model that justified it.


That's really interesting and it's really interesting that how that's buttressed other ways of now starting to generate content on your own and, of course, the massive library from disney, et cetera. so that's very helpful.

If you have to give one quick piece of advice to everyone and most of whom are working at a startup or starting a startup or running a startup, just based on your exposure and experience as a founder, as a human being, what would you say?



I think that there are so many exciting frontiers out there. i think you know, it from the exciting entrepreneurs that you're talking to. jump in and so long as you're open, there's such a massive canvas to have impact.