Projjal Ghatak: Stanford GSB Experience, Uber War Stories & Founder Safety Nets - E127

· Start-up,Singapore,Founder,South Asia,Podcast Episodes English

You go through these experiences in life where you come out better and you learn from them and you move forward. But again, I think being brave or being courageous is also one where if you have the privilege to, you can. I think many people would be more brave if they had the confidence or the ability to, but often can’t. I really value this ability to be courageous and be able to go against what might be the popular perspective, but being contrarian in a productive way versus be a contrarian for the sake of being contrarian. And I think the world definitely needs more people to be brave and sort of make moves that are brave and courageous that make the world better.- Projjal Ghatak

Projjal Ghatak is the CEO & Co-Founder of OnLoop, a pre-launch VC-backed seed stage SaaS start-up in a new category called Collaborative Team Development (CTD) to reinvent how individuals and teams of knowledge workers develop in a new hybrid future.

Prior to founding OnLoop in 2020, Projjal spent three and a half years at Uber in a variety of roles including leading Strategy for Business Development globally, leading Strategy for the APAC rides business, and GM of the Philippines rides business. A lot of his personal pain as a leader in high-growth, high-functioning orgs led to the founding of OnLoop.

Projjal has also spent time in finance raising debt and equity from New York hedge funds for an industrials conglomerate, in strategy consulting in South East Asia, and in early stage companies in Latin America.

He has an MBA from the Stanford University Graduate School of Business, and a Bachelor of Science in Information Systems and a Bachelor of Business Management from the Singapore Management University.

Jeremy Au: (00:30)
Hey, Projjal, so excited to have you on the show.

Projjal Ghatak: (00:32)
Hey, Jeremy, thank you for having me.

Jeremy Au: (00:34)
Well, it’s been a blast having that dinner conversation with you and I just couldn’t wait to just have you on the show and just share some parts of it, but also go deeper into some of the things that you hinted to me. I think our curiosity will lead us to some interesting places.

Projjal Ghatak: (00:49)
I’m excited as well.

Jeremy Au: (00:50)
Yeah, so you’ve been amazing founder as well as an executive at Uber and Stanford MBA. I would love to hear, how would you introduce yourself professionally?

Projjal Ghatak: (01:01)
Yeah, so you know today I’m CEO and co-founder of ABC backed startup called OnLoop. We’re still pre-launch. We’re focused on helping teams reinvent how they develop in a new hybrid world, but I’ve spent now most of my career post business school in and around tech and so I spent a few years at Uber, as you mentioned, and see myself staying in tech for the rest of my life as a founder and a little bit of Angel investing here and there. But I really enjoy operating and we’ll…we’ll see what this journey goes. I think tech operator is probably the best way to define it.

Jeremy Au: (01:35)
Yeah, that…it’s selling yourself a little short on this one. Obviously, we’ve got to go back to the beginning. We talked a little bit about this and we shared about kind of like a big part of your formative experience was really your university days. Could you share with us about why?

Projjal Ghatak: (01:49)
Sure, I grew up in India and my accent’s a little bit messy now with all the moving around the world. Spent my childhood in India and realized growing up that the Indian education system, despite its rigor, didn’t actually lead to a very all rounded experience. And so, as I saw it in my classmates think about going abroad for college, that definitely came up as something that I wanted to consider. My family didn’t actually have the means or the excitement about me moving to the US or the UK, which was a top destination for most Indian high school students going to college and so I sort of discovered Singapore as an option on my own. And as I researched it, it felt like a win-win in many cases. My parents were happy about the fact that it was much closer to home and drug free and a much more sort of regimented country than the USA, UK and how college was portrayed in those countries. And I was also lucky enough to get a full scholarship to come out to SMU, which is where I eventually went and so from that perspective. In hindsight, although it wasn’t necessarily the most common destination for a lot of Indian high school students, I really benefited from it and my time in Singapore, I definitely consider extremely formative and set me up for success for the rest of my life in a very big way, and I think that the biggest piece was just getting used to figuring everything out on your own so you know at 17, I came out here and my dad dropped me off for a couple of weeks and left and he was sort of you’re on your own and you and everything sort of picks up from there and as you sort of go about living day-to-day life, entirely self-directed, I think it teaches you a lot of things that is different if you’re under a system or under a life that is more controlled by others, so you know, we can dig into specific pieces if you want to go into it, but I think this notion of starting my life as a professional on my own in a foreign country at 17 was something that I’ve definitely benefited from, as I thought about the rest of my career.

Jeremy Au: (03:53)
Yeah, that’s such a big transition, being someone new to, obviously, the university system in terms of education, but also new to the geography. What was that transition like from South Asia to Southeast Asia?

Projjal Ghatak: (04:06)
Yeah, I mean, that’s the best way I could describe it when I so when I moved to Singapore my first hostel room was a $300 per month room. It had it had a bunk bed so there were two of us in the room and the size of their room was smaller than the size of my bathroom in India. I grew up in Calcutta which is a large city in India but, obviously, when you come to a place like Singapore, space is much more of a premium and so walking into that that first room was definitely a bit of a bit of a change and it’s a moment as you settle into life, you realize that you don’t actually need all that much, right, and we didn’t really actually spend that much time in our rooms either. And so, I think and One of the things that I remember distinctly feeling that you don’t actually need that much or that much space or that much resource to live a life that is full and meaningful and get stuff done. And so, I think that was definitely something I deeply remember. I think, the second, for those who’ve been to India and Calcutta in specific. I mean there’s chaos rampant everywhere and then you then you move to a place like Singapore where you don’t see a speck of dirt anywhere. And frankly that was that was eye opening and, in many ways, it was special to feel that this is a place I now live in. I think part of what motivated this, also, my dad grew up in Switzerland and moved to India when he was 15 and he often complained about India and how backwards it was growing up. And so, I think this notion of there is a better world out there that is just run better. It was something that came up a lot in childhood and it was eye opening to see a city like Singapore that was just so well run and everything worked beautifully. So, I would say that change in the amount of space I had and just the overall level of functionality of a city and how different Calcutta and Singapore was were the first two things that really stood out.

Jeremy Au: (06:06)
Wow. There you are and you’re doing well in school. You go out and you leave, and you start your first set of jobs, pretty much as a consultant, so, what was that like?

Projjal Ghatak: (06:19)
Yeah, I mean you know I will say that one of the things about Singapore as a college experience is that it’s less international versus the sort of working environment is. So, the college for me was spending a lot of time with other sort of Indian international school children because we were all in this same hostels together and we spend a lot of time together. Most of my Singaporean friends went back home, right? So, as a college experience, it was less globalized and less international than I would have liked. But when I joined Accenture’s strategy practice in Singapore, we grew that practice very quickly over the course of two years and we had 32 folks from 14 nationalities it really felt like a melting pot of people from everywhere and all walks of life and if I think about what really made me fall in love with Singapore as a country and a place I call home today, it’s just the sheer diversity of folks in a professional setting and also being a consultant meant sort of spending time in Jakarta, in Manila, in KL, in Delhi and Bombay and working with the largest companies in the region and really thinking about how to bring the region forward. And I think I’m very glad that I started my career in strategy consulting in Southeast Asia ‘cause I think it gave me a foundation of both global colleagues, many of which I’m still very much in touch with as well as exposure to the region through a lens that was able to give a bird’s eye view very very quickly and over the course of consulting, I spent a year in the Philippines, I spent a year in Malaysia, I spent a few months in India and so, really, was able to get to know the region a lot better and really look back fondly on my strategy consulting days in Southeast Asia.

Jeremy Au: (08:12)
So, we’re going to continue rest of this chronology, but one thing that often happens is that a lot of undergrads are thinking to themselves - Should I just go straight to being a founder like Projjal now is, or, should I become a consultant at X Company right? Accenture Bain, BCG, Deloitte or like some Consumer-Packaged Goods company. So, just a quick aside what was your thinking about why you decided to work at Accenture and on retrospect? I mean, it sounds like you’re very positive about it, but what do you think about that hunger for lots of undergrads these days to just skip all this fluff, this management strategy?

Projjal Ghatak: (08:46)
It’s a very good question and let me peel the onion in a few ways. I think, firstly, for me, and actually we can talk about this later, but my life trajectory shifted quite a bit at 25 when I realized that I was brought up to be more risk averse than I was intrinsically and that drove a change, but in many ways, coming out of college was about getting a good job and that’s what I was told that you should do after college. I had done an internship at Merryl Lynch Technology in my junior year and that was the other sort of option that was on the table and between the two, Accenture Strategy Consulting made more sense. So, and, obviously, this is back in in back in 2008 and the notion of being a founder in Southeast Asia out of college was very much not something that really existed. So, I think from that perspective very much South Asian upbringing of do well in school, get good grades, get a good job, get promoted every couple of years and move forward. Now, I think I got especially lucky falling into a practice at Accenture that was in a period of hyper growth then led me to play much more of a leadership position from a cultural standpoint and development standpoint for that practice. Right from the time that I was a first-year analyst and that is in many ways contributed to how I’ve thought about my career too. But, to go back to your specific question about what do I think about being a founder right after college? I will say that being a founder, period, is not something people should take lightly as a decision and I don’t necessarily think that a lot of folks coming out of college necessarily have the right insight and the right ability to really build a company from scratch. Ideas come to people all the time and that can come when you’re 18 or you’re 80. There’s no difference there, but I think if you have a great idea, very quickly, being a founder goes from building something to building a company, and I think company building is a specific skill set that not a lot of folks have coming out of college. In fact, we’ve seen this with a lot of global founders who founded companies very young then, along the way, they brought in people like Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg as an example to go build that company. And so, I don’t think there’s a hard and fast rule around it. For me, I didn’t think I had the safety net or the idea or the cultural inclination to go start a company right after college. I would say that in most cases, I wouldn’t recommend people to start a company right after college, but life’s not black and white and it’s very circumstantial to what drives people to have decisions in various parts in life and there are many examples of successful companies that have been started by founders and in their early 20s. But it was an interesting steer to the story.

Jeremy Au: (11:37)
Yeah, so very much you’re on a pro job after undergrad story. So, there you are and you make the decision to do those four years at Accenture, and then you decided to an MBA at Stanford. So, what was driving that decision? Because some people, myself included, knew that it was time for a change. And some people use it to explore themselves, some people knew where they wanted to go, some people knew they want to do a startup, so they want to do through an MBA. So, what was that rationale for you from your perspective?

Projjal Ghatak: (12:09)
Yeah, no, again, here is a very distinct memory and a very distinct moment as many consultants do, they do the Monday - Thursdays and Monday - Fridays some consulting firms do Monday – Thursdays and where you come back home on Thursdays. At Accenture, we do Monday - Fridays so we used to come back home on Fridays and I remember coming back from Manila one Friday night and just being exhausted and realizing that I spent a lot of time at work, but it wasn’t clear to me really who and how and what impact I really had, and I think it got to a point where I felt like I had learned a lot and had a set of experiences that were fantastic and could have gone down that path. But this desire to go deeper in terms of my impact was very palpable and at that point I had also spent the entirety of my life in Asia. I remember being in college and going back to India to talk to prospective students and talking about how Singapore’s a great destination for undergrad. I would eventually go to the US for my MBA and I will say that when I was younger, it was very much about an MBA. I think, as I spend a few years in strategy consulting and did undergrad business too, it stopped being about an MBA but more about were there schools that would take who I was and really amplified to take that forward and just based on my life experiences to that point, it felt like Harvard and Stanford were two schools that would really help me find out things about myself and give me access to a set of knowledge and people that would be truly differentiated and growing up in Asia, Harvard was the absolute dream, so I actually applied to HBS first and got rejected, which would then eventually lead me to apply to Stanford and, surprisingly, getting in. I still think it’s an admission mistake, but I think there was this notion of wanting to get closer to driving impact and really understanding what an operator feels like is what drove that decision to think about getting out of consulting. If I hadn’t got into Harvard or Stanford, I think I would have found other ways to get more involved in all these tech companies, companies in Southeast Asia and to figure that out, and I always tell people that there is no one formula for success and careers are very much meandering roads where you have a sample size of one and every point you have to take the data that you have in terms of what’s the right decision in front of you and just take it and in most cases you will end up okay and for me I was just lucky enough to get into Stanford and that ended up being the next move after consulting in Southeast Asia.

Jeremy Au: (14:45)
Yeah, you made the right choice. I mean, Stanford is great, more selective than HBS for those who don’t know. So yeah, you went to the better school, I guess. What did you learn at Stanford? Because it’s a brand. When people think of the word Stanford, they’re thinking like California, surfers, internet, Silicon Valley, computers, founders conquering the world. So, what was it like going to the GSB program and what did you take away when you were there?

Projjal Ghatak: (15:13)
Yeah, I’ll talk about how the experience transformed me, but just to give people a sense, I had actually never been West of Minnesota ever in my life, so I’ve never been to the campus. I never spent time in California, so I actually knew very little about what being there and living there would be like and, actually, I decided to drive cross country with a couple of my prospective business group class mates right before school and so we drove from New York to Palo Alto through the South, which was actually one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. And, frankly, my first six months were tough. It felt like a lot of culture shock. I had no idea what tailgating was in the rest of the world. Football gets played with feet, not with hands, and college football is a big part of culture in in any in any university, and I also was very determined that going to a US business school or going to Stanford meant that I wanted to come out with a set of experiences and friends that were truly global and not really settle in to comfort zone or hang out with the kids from Asia or the management consultants. And so, I decided I would put myself into the deep end and that meant immersing myself in experiences and kind of all people that I didn’t have a lot in common with, and that meant that for the first few months I didn’t necessarily have a lot of super close friendships and also not done a lot of the pre MBA trips around Columbia and New York and, you know, the things that people do and then the other thing about Stanford is that unlike HBS, and a few of the other top schools, there isn’t a very rigorous curriculum in the first year at HBS, for instance, Jeremy, you know more than I do. Where you go through a very rigorous experience with 90 of your classmates for the whole first year a section of the GSB is only for the first semester and you have a lot more free time really to think about how you shape your life. And, frankly, I didn’t really go to Business School being like this is exactly what I want out of it and so the first six months was it was a lot of like wadding the waters and figuring out what I wanted and how I spend my time and then a couple of sort of school trips, one to Ecuador that I clearly remember that was truly transformational in forming a set of relationships and having sort of conversations with classmates that sort of went deeper and then everything sort of flowed from there, but if I think about my Stanford experience, I can point to three or four things that I believe would truly transformation. I think the first is just the kind of relationships you form with people who are all high achieving, but in very, very different ways. And I think Reed Hastings talks about talent density in his book No Rules Rules, and I think a lot of the top business schools just have a talent density of people that is deeply humbling but also deeply enriching in many ways. And those relationships are obviously compressed intensely into a two-year period. But then, continue through the rest of your life and as I think about OnLoop today, there’s hallmarks of GSB all over it in terms of co-founders and the cap table and all the customers, etc. So that’s one.
The second, and this is very specific to Stanford, and I know we chatted about this on WhatsApp the other week, is that it’s a school that’s really focused on developing you as a leader and one of the hallmark questions of the school is - Why should someone follow you if you become a leader? I think that’s a very, very important question to ask, and the school’s other sort of philosophy is that people following you as a leader is also dependent on them feeling a connection with you and building a vulnerable connection with you and a lot of time is spent on helping each individual in the program really figure out who they are. Really figure out what their core insecurities are, really. Figure out why they exist and what needs to happen to get past that for each individual to transform into an amazing leader. And so, it’s much more of a leadership school than a business school and leadership is an important skill in every aspect of life, be it personally or professionally, and I think that could be the second thing I think the most important one and we can dig into it if it’s helpful.
And then the third is, yes, I think the brand and I think the selectiveness of the program. Rightly or wrongly, does carry weight and coming out of it. I’ve definitely felt more doors open for me because I have a GSB MBA whereas I might have been the exact same person, but without that credential. I think people might have opened fewer doors and so from that perspective there is definitely a Halo effect and something that I have benefited from and both of my post Business School opportunities have come through other GSD alumni. Again, much like Singapore as an institution that I’m extremely grateful for, for starting off my life at 17, I think Stanford GSB is another institution that I’m also very grateful for, propelling me at 25.

Jeremy Au: (20:19)
Amazing. So, out of the three things between deeper relationships with talent density, developing as a leader, and obviously, brand, helping open doors, could you share a bit more about why talent density is so key to the GSB experience, to the MBA experience, and implicitly talk about also other companies experience as well, so let’s talk about that what. So, what’s so good about talent density? Isn’t a great person someone you can just reach out to anyway, on your own? What’s so special about putting them all in the same room or course at the same time?
Projjal Ghatak: (20:55)
Yeah, I think a big hallmark of the MBA experience is people taking out two years of their lives in sort of their mid to late 20s in most cases to really accelerate their own development. So, when you’re working day to day, you’re in one of two zones. They’re in a performance zone where you’re getting stuff done. Or you’re in a development zone where you’re getting better. Think about the MBA program as two years 100% of the time in the development zone. So that is a very large investment of time ‘cause then if you if you do the math, there’s about a half million-dollar opportunity cost to that program. What a high talent density does is, in terms of your own iterations as a person, professionally and personally, those iterations just getting massively accelerated and you are able to sort of experientially live through many different experiences with a group of people to really develop not just yourself as a person, but also your world view on things and what really matters, and I think that is amplified by that talent density. I think any experience where a group of people spend two years together will be enriching, but for me, I was blessed with having a group of people that I respected and looked up to and learned a lot from. And having those two years in a high-pressure cauldron was deeply impactful to my development.
Jeremy Au: (22:17)
Yeah, I like what you said about the parallel experiences because they’re all learning at the same time, so you’re not just learning from your own experience but from other people as well. So that’s true at the MBA level, and you also hinting at how it applies to the company level. So why is it important? I mean, it sounds a bit rhetorical, I know, when I say that way, but you don’t normally describe companies as talent density I think we normally describe companies as “no assholes” and “please boss, please hire a colleague or team mate who is not an asshole and is actually competent”, but we don’t necessarily flip it the other way around and say what the talent density of a company is. So, why is that important in the company level, which is a bit different from the academic level?
Projjal Ghatak: (22:57)
No, I think it’s more and more recent it’s coming out that the best organizations are learning organizations and that is even more so true for startups or high growth organizations; any organization that’s doing something that’s different. And that means that for individuals, for teams, for organisations to think about how you constantly reinvent yourself, both as a person as well as collaboratively with others is a deep part of, I would say, the right culture in a company as well as what keeps companies ahead and, obviously, we can debate Netflix culture and there are many sides to it and that’s where the talent density comes from, but I think invention is difficult, coming up with something new is difficult, and as I think about organizations, when you’re trying to do something new, talent density and a culture of learning and development is deeply, deeply important. In fact, I think about my experiences, post the GSB, I think my orientation became much more about how do we take a group of people and then utilize their abilities in the best cohesive way to move a company forward and the way I thought about teams and organizations fundamentally changed as a result of that experience, I think. Also changed the way I thought about what work is right, and I think that work for a very long time, for people, has been something you do to get paid to live the rest of your life. I’ve been lucky to never had a job in my life that has felt that way and I hope to keep it that way and for me that’s really about enjoying the people you work with and move forward. Now, to your point about no assholes. That goes back to the collaborative angle ‘cause there are organizations that are full of individual brilliant jerks who are all very capable in their own right and might have very high talent density. But if they cannot develop in a collaborative way that will not take the full system forward and there will be a ton of movement and a ton of noise, but not, naturally, a ton of progress. I would say high talent density with the right collaborative environment drives the largest amount of progress through sort of motion and activity that is targeted in a common direction, and it felt like a different tangent to the question, but that’s where my head went when you asked me that.

Jeremy Au: (25:25)
Yeah, and what’s interesting is that, you know, after GSB, you joined Uber, which has, all of what you just mentioned, I think everybody recognizes Uber as a place of really hungry people, really talented folks and also in, at least, the eyes of the press, contentious history in terms of culture and dynamics. So, how do you think about that? How do you think Uber fits in your experience there as a strategy planning manager as a country GM as a strategy and planning leader and executive, how do you feel like Uber kinda like matched against what you just shared in terms of a learning organization?

Projjal Ghatak: (26:05)
I did spend a couple of years in finance in a very different experience and we don’t necessarily talk about it before I sort of ended up moving back to Singapore in 2016 and joining Uber. I also won’t go deep into what gets written in the press because I think we all know that everything in the press can be taken with a pinch of salt. But I deeply enjoyed my Uber experience, a lot of people will say this is that as a group of individuals who are really driven to take a mission forward, there have been very few companies have been able to do that as successfully as Uber had. Travis, for all of his strengths and weaknesses, was definitely an inspirational leader that was able to really take a group of people towards a mission and that was a mission that led to a safer, more reliable, more affordable ride for the world’s population in the backdrop of archaic transportation unions and taxi unions in the world and that’s a mission that energized a lot of people, it attracted a lot of top talent, and sort of created a cauldron that made people move fast. I do a culture talk about the sort of evolution of Uber and going from where it was in 2016 to where it was in 2020, and, definitely, there were side effects of that sort of moving fast, hyper growth, high performance culture, but it was a place where you had to be a deeply learning organization to be able to stay ahead in the midst of strong regulatory, strong competitive, strong sort of investor expectation. That sort of you had to input into how you ran the business and most of my experience at Uber was in Southeast Asia in a time when there was deep competition with both Grab and Gojek and that meant that the competitive intensity was extremely high in a sort of regulatory hodgepodge of markets, and you had to stay extremely agile, double you market share and grow and take the business forward, and in many ways, for me, Uber was a deep continuation of a lot of my experience at business school. Not surprisingly, there’s a lot of GSB-ers at Uber. I was hired to Uber by someone from the GSB back on my ground who ran Uber in the region at the time, and I built a lot of really, really close relationships during my time at Uber that continue today in my leadership team on my cap table and, again, very much felt like an institution where we were together in service of something that was bigger than you, just as a person. And from that perspective, I think it was and still is a very special place.

Jeremy Au: (28:43)
So, here’s where you share about Uber being somewhere that you enjoyed and appreciated the culture and the learning rate. And, of course, I guess the question that happens as a result for any listener is well, why then did Uber lose to Grab and Gojek from the perspective, right? Is like if Uber is such a great learning organization and learning organizations are stronger competitors. Then why is it that Grab and Gojek are winners? So, tell us more about how to think about that from your perspective.

Projjal Ghatak: (29:13)
Yeah no. It’s a great question and, again, goes back to how the press writes headlines and sort of what really attracts attention. But the facts are that and again I wasn’t part of this decision. This decision was made by Uber HQ at the time of the merger with Grab. I was the GM of the Philippines and that was a very interesting day and a sad day for many of us in many ways, but the reality is that Uber was a ride hailing company and was building a ride hailing business followed by a food delivery business. But by nature, of Southeast Asia’s majority, or lack thereof from a digital e-commerce, internet commerce perspective. What Grab and Gojek were building was an extremely valuable set of digital transactions on top of which a lot of other businesses could be built. Primarily, a payments business and a fintech business. And that meant a very different fund-raising story and also investor appetite to think about how much is the right amount of burn to acquire a customer or acquire a ride or acquire a transaction versus the sort of strategy that Uber was pursuing, and so, for us, in Southeast Asia, we were sort of consistently getting outspent by competition. And although we were able to compete and we were able to make some moves to continue to compete, I think when people look at the businesses, they just made more sense together versus individually given the strategies off of each business as well as the direction that the companies were taking and as a result, Uber made a decision and in March of 2018 to merge its business in Southeast Asia with grab, which in hindsight has been an extremely profitable investment decision for Uber as a company. I won’t go into the specifics, but a lot of it is public where as Grab goes public that would be a 10X investment return in terms of the investment Uber made in the region to what that stake today is worth and at the time we had all valiantly competed and a lot of folks actually went over to Grab and have had very successful careers at Grab too. After their time at Uber and mergers are difficult in their own ways, but I don’t think it’s about who won or who lost. I think businesses sort of compete and often decide that to take a different path as to what economically makes sense for shareholders. And that’s just that Uber took in the region, and I think a decision that was the right decision at the time, if I would say.

Jeremy Au: (31:53)
Yeah, interesting. So, there you are, you keep going at Uber and the acquisition goes through. Then, more than land on your two feet, you know, you continue building up the executive role at Uber. So, what was that like, continuing after this transaction because you see the departure of quite a few teammates of yours and now you’re tackling global and APAC issues, what was that feeling like?

Projjal Ghatak: (32:19)
Yeah, it very much felt like transitioning into a bigger company and that goal eventually led to me leading Uber. But like I got into a role that meant reshaping how Uber did partnerships globally. It was with the same leaders I had worked with in the region prior, so that remained consistent, but from a scope perspective, change to a global scale, change to more of a partnership and BD orientation versus operational orientation meant that I started spending most of my time outside of Singapore although I was based here and I was on a plane most of the time, which we relived recently as I tried to compile my last five years travel history for my Singapore citizenship application and you know was a time that I really enjoyed but it was much more about taking a big organization forward versus the sort of day-to-day operations and I remember a moment when I was at a GSB, perspective applicants event and this young lady walked up to me and said all this talk about GSB being this transformative experience, but prior to GSB, you were at Accenture which was a large corporate and now, eight years down the line, you’re at Uber which is a large corporate so what’s really changed and what really was the transformation? And so, and I think that was also in many ways a reminder that, you know, Uber had gone from 9000 to 27,000 people when I was there, and had kinda gone public and become very different company and so my roles post-merger with much more big company, organizational direction and strategy and metrics focus. I really enjoyed that experience too, but I think it definitely moved me further away from really being a day-to-day operator.

Jeremy Au: (34:08)
So, there you are at Uber and you’re looking at this from an executive level and, on some level, you’re thinking to yourself that you want to become a founder. So, what was that like?

Projjal Ghatak: (34:18)
Yeah, ‘cause Uber was also, you know, a very all-encompassing place and during my time there, my life was pretty much entirely Uber. I knew that the next career move was going to be one that I wanted to be more thoughtful about versus necessarily just jumping on the next thing that felt exciting and so, I left Uber at September of 2019 and gave myself six months to really figure out what was next and wanted to keep quite an open mind about it. To be honest, it was never about I’m going to go be a founder and I actually think that one of the things that I don’t particularly like is people being like. I want to go be a founder. I think people should go be a founder if they find something that they deeply care about, that they want to solve and they have a particular insight that is different that gives them a fair shot at going and solving that problem because I think being an early stage founder as, you know, Jeremy, is one of the hardest jobs in the world and takes a ton of grit and ability to deal with adversity, and in my experience, unless you deeply care about what you’re going after and the team that you build around you, that that can be tough. And so what really led me to becoming a founder and then sort of going full time on my company On Loop in Q2 of 2020 is that I just had a lot of personal pain as a leader and as a leader of high performing teams and sort of spread out over a lot of places where I didn’t feel that the tools that I was given as a leader to develop my teams were anywhere as close to the tools were to getting work done and as we saw tools like Zoom and Slack and Asana really bring the workplace into the 21st century. Unfortunately, the tools to develop teams are very much still in the 1990s and are largely systems of record and I could talk about this for hours, but I felt it was a gap there and what would be the right experience of teams in developing themselves using the right technologies versus what was available to me and I really approached being a founder with a set of problems that I wanted to go and solve versus necessarily a solution or an idea that I was crazy about, and I think that used to be the way companies got built 20 or 30 years ago. I think with the abundance of capital, it’s much easier to do that, to start a company, although it’s still very hard and I think often founders sort of approach things from - Here’s an idea, I’m going to build it. For me, it was very much a problem I deeply cared about and a theme that’s been consistent in my life on how do you really unleash the full potential of every individual? As we’ve spoken about my time at the GSB and other places, and I really wanted to go tackle that and understand what that felt like.

Jeremy Au: (37:16)
That makes a lot of sense because every company obviously wants to get work done but on some deeper level, they know that they have to help the team become better in order for that work to be done. So, you know, short term greedy, long term greedy, and long term greedy means developing people. I guess the question is why do you care about this problem, right? Before this, you know, obviously, you’ve been executive, you’ve been a strategy person. What was there that brought you to this point where you said this is a problem that you love because being a founder sucks, so you better love the problem. So, why do you love the problem of bringing out the best in people?

Projjal Ghatak: (37:51)
Yeah, I don’t know if I can exactly answer the why. I think what I can answer with deep conviction. It has been the case for a very long time and so Stanford has a flagship actually called ‘what matters most to you and why’. And I wrote these essays back in 2011 and what I wrote was that what matters most to me is the pursuit and success…a pursuit of success and happiness of myself and those around me and in many ways if I think about meaning in life for me professionally, it’s really about feeling motivated that I’m working towards something bigger or something better, which is how I define the pursuit of success and happiness. When I was at Accenture, I was given people developer of the year as a first year analyst, which is typically given to folks who are senior managers or partners. But, it’s this notion of I will be more successful if I help others be successful is something that has existed in me from a very young age. I used to learn computer science. In high school, by inviting my friends over and teaching them computer science, and I genuinely enjoy teaching people. I generally enjoy trying to help others be better and so in some ways I don’t know if I could have predicted this that I would have today been building a company to help individuals and teams be better. But if I think about all the things I’ve written about, and spoke about, I think I think people and developing people has been a very large mainstay of how I’ve thought about even business impact and taking teams forward. And so, I’m just lucky that today I get to work on that problem that deeply care about, and this is something else that I like talking about the folks is that being a founder is also a huge financial challenge. It takes a few years of taking below market salaries and burning through sort of a lot of your own savings to go build that, and I didn’t actually think that I was in the right place in life to really go take that back and go take that risk prior to this. And I think if I felt that I could, I might have taken it all in. But this was the first time in my life that I felt that I could really sort of double down and really take that risk on working on what I really cared about while maintaining a lifestyle and sort of living a life that I enjoy and you’ve obviously met my partner Ali and I like talking about this too that she has a great job at Facebook and I’m a Facebook dependent and that, in many ways, also enables me to be a founder and I think that often the fact that being a founder is a privilege does not get spoken about and because I felt like I had that privilege, I’m now able to go focus on this problem that I deeply care about, and if I had the privilege earlier and I might have done earlier, but this is the earliest I got to it, and I’m still looking forward to working for another 40 years. So, there’s a long way ahead.

Jeremy Au: (40:51)
So, you’re talking about something interesting, right, which is the gap between reality and the image of the founder. Talk about the salaries, the decisions you had to make, what would you say are the common myths or misconceptions about being a founder in Southeast Asia? You know, like Singapore, Indonesia, wherever it is.

Projjal Ghatak: (41:11)
Yeah, I think people hear about founders once they’ve got to some level of success. People never really hear much about founders who never get to anywhere that is meaningful. And so, I think that there is a glorification of the job and sort of being CEO/Founder of a growing tech company as this thing to aspire to but I think people should consider sort of their life reality very carefully before making that decision. So, I think if I have to say what is a myth, I think the myth that it's a fantastic career choice is definitely a myth and I think there are career choices that are much more probabilistically weighted, likely more successful than being a startup founder in the same way that people should have a lot of money before they invest a lot in Bitcoin, I think you need some sort of a safety net before you decide to be a startup founder, or else, you know, things might go badly. And so, I think investing in crypto is probably a good analogy of thinking about being a startup founder and you kind of need a little bit of light foundation before you make that leap.

Jeremy Au: (42:22)
Well, who knows what the price gyrations of the crypto market will be when this podcast finally comes out, so, the point, of course, is that I laugh because we’re both founders and we both encourage people to take a good hard look about whether you actually love the problem because the founder is a tough job, that’s one, and also, like you said, I still remember my MBA entrepreneurship professors sharp slice of saying, hey look, we did a study where we should look at the probability adjusted actual earnings or founders versus professional, and obviously, founders have that some of them do really, really well and everyone else does not so great. And then, nett, nett, that’s below of what you do at a normal post MBA job, which was an interesting thing to watch and see.

Projjal Ghatak: (43:09)
No, totally, I see friends sort of getting their swimming pools ready in their Mansions in Woodside and Artherton. And, you know, I’m definitely not living that lifestyle today so the sacrifice and the sort of ups and downs are worth it, if you really care. And what I tell people is if you deeply, deeply care about a problem and you believe that you have the ability to assemble a great team, you have the ability to raise capital, you have the ability to deliver on the insights that you have. It is the most fulfilling thing in the world and the last year, for me, professionally, has been the most fulfilling professional year of my life despite its challenges. But, I cannot underscore how lucky I am and how big a privilege that is.

Jeremy Au: (43:54)
Yeah, wow, thank you for that. So, wrapping up here, could you share with us times when you had to be brave?

Projjal Ghatak: (44:02)
Yeah, I mean I, you know, I read that question and the first memory that came up was being a few months actually into my job at Uber and realizing that a lot of companies in the region, Indonesia was the most important thing that everybody spoke about. That the most money went into that was the P0 for every project that people did. But we, as a company, had an interesting dynamic in Indonesia where there’s a 3-way competition with Grab and Gojek, whereas in the rest of the region it was a two way competition with Grab and for both Grab and Gojek, Indonesia was also the crown jewel. I actually spend time on preparing a proposal that that we eventually ended up presenting to the CEO to reallocate a lot of our investment in the region away from Indonesia to other sort of countries in the region, ‘cause we would just get more of a market share left for every dollar we spent in a bunch of other markets which, at that time, was a fairly controversial decision internally as well as what we’re used to call a big bold bet and definitely did not make my GM of Indonesia very happy either. But, in hindsight, it ended up being a really good decision for us because it led to a much higher overall market share in the region had we not made that decision otherwise, and so I think bravery for me is going against the grain where there are pretty big consequences to the decision that you make and for me, I was still really new to the company and it felt like a big move. But, the more time I spent looking at the numbers, it just didn’t make sense, and so it required me to sort of build this case for us to make a pretty confident decision. So, that was the first example that comes up. The other one that comes up more personally is making a decision to spend my summer of business school in Guatemala, and I found a startup called Blue Kite in a space which was remittances and cross border payments that I was deeply interested in, but Guatemala was also an extremely unsafe place to live in and actually had a situation on my second day there, which luckily ended up okay, but could have ended up very badly. You go through these experiences in life where you come out better and you learn from them and you move forward. But again, I think being brave or being courageous is also one where if you have the privilege to, you can. I think many people would be more brave if they had the confidence or the ability to, but often can’t. So those are the two situations that come up for me, but I think I really value this ability to be courageous and be able to go against what might be the popular perspective, but being contrarian in a productive way versus be a contrarian for the sake of being contrarian. And I think the world definitely needs more people to be brave and sort of make moves that are brave and courageous that make the world better.

Jeremy Au: (47:05)
Aww, thanks so much for sharing that. So, wrapping things up here, I’d love to summarize the three big themes I took away from this conversation. The first was, thank you so much for being real about your transition from India to Singapore, but also from Singapore to Southeast Asia and then to the world via the US and then beyond, as well. So, we thank you for just being frank about the personal and professional dynamics about what it was to be a student and a professional. The culture shock and the learnings that you take away as someone who’s learning the system, but also, as someone who is looking to do well and excel and I thought that was a really nice part about you building out those roots, but also building out the understanding of various cultures.
The second part I also really enjoyed was actually the whole dynamic around some of the conversations we had around the insider view of the Uber versus Grab versus Gojek three-way fight, WWE style and I love what you said is like. Hey, you know, I think there’s one way we can look at it from the outside. And here’s a way that we can look at it from a more financial and strategic perspective and I really like that dynamic because I think definitely over the medium to long term. I think the economics of those things have become more apparent than the externalities, and you know, human sides that were more apparent in the short term of those transitions, and I also really loved what you shared about your bravery moment in terms of articulating the strategic push and pivot away from Indonesia, a 3 way fight, to more two way fights and I think all this is great advice because you and I both know there’s so many verticals now where some equivalent fight is happening right now, some of them are a couple of domestic champions versus market launcher/dynamic, so it’s been interesting to see that happening, and I’m sure this conversation would be very relevant for people in terms of how they think about that process.
And the third thing, of course, I really enjoyed was this deeper, frank and some dark humour around being a founder about how it’s not what it’s cracked up to be, and it touched upon in different ways how wise is it to be a student founder what are the things you need to learn and get ready, what are the true economic outcomes, but also the risks, both financially and lifestyle wise? And I thought it was interesting because like you said earlier, we have the blessings and the privilege. I think that’s what you said. Of being where we are in terms of our education, our resources, our networks, and we still think it’s hard and we still think it’s very hot. And so, I think you being raw and real about that is just really the most I think no BS take on what actually means to be a founder beyond all the vain, glorious coverage that can happen out there.

Projjal Ghatak: (49:48)
Thank you, thank you for that and I can only share my sample size of one and if my sample size of one can help others, I’m happy to share all day.

Jeremy Au: (49:57)
Thank you so much, Projjal, for coming on the show.