Paras Chopra, Chairman Wingify on inverted passion, hiring and transition from CEO to Chairman

Paras Chopra, Founder & Chairman, Wingify chats with Amit Somani , Managing Partner, Prime Venture Partners.

Paras Chopra, Founder & Chairman - Wingify - With a background in machine learning, Paras started Wingify in early 2009 to enable businesses design and deploy great customer experiences for their websites and apps. He’s a gold medalist from Delhi College of Engineering and has been featured twice in the Forbes 30 under 30 list - India and Asia.

Listen to the podcast to learn about

2:30 - When an engineer decided to learn about marketing

7:30 - Why passion is required & what’s tricky about it

7:45 - Find your idea by discovering what other people are passionate about

16:00 - Why hiring is one of the the most underrated skill that an entrepreneur needs to develop

19:15 - ‘Hire to solve specific business problems not to impress people’

22:30 - ‘Don’t lower your standards but give people space to make mistakes to grow’

26:00 - How writing helps Paras to think clearly

Books recommended by Paras:

Read the full transcript below

Amit Somani 0:22

Good day, everyone. This is Amit Somani from Prime Venture Partners. I’m delighted to have with me today Paras Chopra, Founder and Chairman of Wingify. Welcome to the show, Paras.

Paras Chopra 0:35

Thanks, Amit. Glad to be here.

Amit Somani 0:38

Paras, I remember meeting you about 10, maybe 11 years ago back in Gurgaon, when you were just about starting Wingify. And I actually remember being a user of the product, you know, Visual Website Optimizer at MakeMyTrip. So I’d love for you to start with a little bit of the starting up story. You know, because I know you had a mental model of how you thought of starting up, perhaps how you found the idea. And as we go along, we’ll explore how you recommend people go about finding interesting ideas to work on. So why don’t you tell us the story of Wingify as well as a little bit about your early journey?

Paras Chopra 1:12

Sure. So this actually goes back to quite a long back. It’s a typical story, when there is a new computer at home, some people get hooked to games, others, like me, get hooked to programming. And that’s what I did for a long period of time. I got a computer when I was 11, or 12. And throughout my high school, I coded and programmed a lot. And by the virtue of that, you know, I also got exposed to the startup ecosystem in Silicon Valley, through books like Founders at Work. So as I read more and more about that, I realized that people or founders of Google and Yahoo, just using their laptops and coding, they were able to create really big companies. And at that point of time, the notion of big companies was all about its factories and steel and Tatas and Birlas and so on. So this notion of anyone with a laptop can make a company really struck quite close to my heart. And after that, in my college, I tried to do a number of startups creating different projects, here and there. But, none of them really worked. And, as I started reflecting on why my startup projects were not working, the realization was that I was an engineer building a lot of stuff, but not doing a good job in getting users and customers onto it. So that was my push to learn more about marketing. And finally, as I started learning more about marketing, I fell in love with the subject. And I thought for my fourth startup attempt, let me create something to do with marketing. And broadly, that’s where I started and Visual Website Optimizer like you’re saying, that was one of the first visual AV testing tools which let you optimize your landing pages and websites. And, my initial goal was very humble because this was the fourth time I was trying something. And this time, I just wanted to make an equivalent amount of money as I was getting in my salary, which was 50,000 rupees back then. So my sense was that, if I get this amount of money, I’m good. And I would have proven to myself that I can be an entrepreneur.

Amit Somani 3:26

Absolutely. The other interesting thing I recollect and and this is obviously now a little bit of folklore through your last 10 years, is that you wanted to kind of bootstrap it. So you took this notion of earning your own salary, and then that of the next set of engineers and so forth. So can you talk about both the not just the historical choice of sort of bootstrapping, but as you look at it now, 10 years later, would you kind of still do it again, what was really good about it? What were things that perhaps if you had been open to taking capital, what would have been different if anything?

Paras Chopra 3:57

Sure, I think the benefit of this 10 year hindsight and experience, I would say, this differentiation between bootstrap and venture capital, I think that’s a false differentiation. Ultimately, if you go back to the core reason of why you’re doing a startup, why you’re building something new, I think that ultimately, is for most entrepreneurs related to this joy of creating something, and less to do with the money or financial upside that comes with it. So I think this question between bootstrap and VC blows out of proportion if an entrepreneur or startup community in general is motivated more by the status that comes with say, raising x amount of money or with the eventual financial upside that comes with small chance of making a really big company, which is actually what VC startups are all about, but if you are motivated by building interesting things, then whether to take funding or not funding is really contingent on the question that the such funding can really help you in achieving your goal of building something. For me, I was a programmer and I was building things by myself. So I never was able to give a good answer to myself on why I would need funding because I would create stuff, I would build my own website. I would take demos, I would write articles, I was doing everything by my own, and I was enjoying it a lot. So whenever a VC would approach me and say, Hey, take this money, I honestly didn’t know what I would do with the money? Because I was already having a lot of fun doing what I was doing.

Amit Somani 5:40

Sounds great. Let me delve a little bit into still the early journey of picking new ideas and also the title of your blog, Inverted Passion. Maybe for our listeners, you can talk a little bit about what Inverted Passion is. I know that Paul Graham from Y Combinator, he has this famous thing saying, build something that people wantbut I’d love to know what inverted passion means to you. And how do you recommend people pick interesting ideas to work on?

Paras Chopra 6:06

Sure. So like you said, the blog is invertedpassion.com. And I started it during my sabbatical, wherein I reflected upon my 10 years of journey as an entrepreneur. And throughout that journey, VW obviously worked out and it grew our company to where it is today. But there were many other product attempts that I was involved with, which didn’t work out. So I wanted to reflect deeply on why some of the things I’ve worked on worked while others didn’t, and actually concretize that understanding rather than just having that very vague gut feeling, and as I reflected more, I realized that one of the major issues that many entrepreneurs I interacted with, and especially that was true for me in variety of contexts was this whole thing about passion. It’s a very tricky thing. I believe passion is really like an edge of the sword, which is, it can go both ways. It’s definitely required to do anything interesting. But a lot of time, passion leads us to building things that only the builder really wants. And that was certainly my own experience when I was building initial things. So the whole point of Inverted Passion and what I recommend entrepreneurs now on getting good ideas, I mean, instead of becoming passionate about an idea, and spending your weeks and months into building it, one should be passionate about discovering what other people are passionate about. And I know it sounds complicated, but the idea is really simple. That rather than falling in love with a particular idea and spending a lot of time because that comes with tons of cognitive biases, and you will discover too late that nobody else wants. So rather one should be passionate about this meta level of activity, which is finding what other people are passionate about. If other people are passionate about xyz and you’re able to provide a really great solution for that xyz, then you’re done. And that’s what it’s called Inverted Passion that you need to, you know, invert your passion towards just discovering what others are passionate about, and not what you are passionate about.

Amit Somani 8:16

Yeah. So that that sounds great. And I saw this infographic from your blog, which says, In addition to these two conditions, what are you capable of and what are others passionate about, also do a little bit of homework on what the world is not working on? Therefore, in fact, even at Prime Ventures, we believe in this notion of sort of blue ocean or whitespace or whatever. So how do you do that?. And I would even argue that Visual Website Optimizer, while from a visual sense was novel and different, but AB testing had been around for donkey years. Right. So how do you figure out what the world is not working on? It seems like everybody’s working on everything.

Paras Chopra 8:53

Yeah, setting one key thing to understand is that human drives and human wants they do not change or change very, very slowly. I think people were AB testing even before computers came along in a variety of different contexts and people were sending sales communication even before the emails were invented, and so on. So these basic drives of humans that also manifest in basic drives of businesses and b2b context, I think they change very, very slowly, or they change not at all, What changes is solutions to them and approaches to them. And you’re right in the observation that for example, AB testing was there for a long time. But why Visual Website Optimizer succeeded was because it actually improved approach to AB testing in a considerable way. And, when I say considerable way the solutions can obviously be optimized in a variety of dimensions, say, cost as a dimension, efficiency as a dimension, ease of use as a dimension. So an entrepreneur who’s working on a problem which is most likely a lot of other entrepreneurs are also working on. But, if that entrepreneur’s solution is say 2X, or 3X better than anything else out there, the entrepreneur can rest assured that the solution will catch a good amount of attention. In fact, I do believe that this whole thing about my solution is unique or I don’t have competitors, that many entrepreneurs like to sort of push out as a positive is actually a negative. If there is no competition, this can very well mean that the problem you’re solving for doesn’t exist or is not a high priority. So absolutely see the presence of competition as a very positive signal. But of course, getting and delivering like a me-too solution doesn’t cut it. You have to have your solution good in some dimension as compared to a previous solution. And again, the comparison and when we talk about competition, usually it’s not just a very obvious competition. For example, think about when Flipkart started their thing in India, you could argue that they were one of the first e-commerce folks and they had no competition. But you have to understand from the customer’s perspective that their competition was not ecommerce, the competition was people going to stores and buying stuff, because the problem that they were solving was for people buying stuff. And the solution was e-commerce, which was new in India. And it was significantly better than going out traveling for half an hour to a shop and buying. So just because they innovated on the solution and made it 2X-3X better as compared to their existing alternative which was offline buying. They were able to succeed a lot. But the second and third competitors that came along, the reference point for customers was then Flipkart and not going out. So they had to improve in some other dimension. And many of them were not able to, and that’s why they didn’t succeed.

Amit Somani 11:52

We also talk about, again, talking from a buying point of view about you need to be 10X better and it could be in any one dimension. It’s not like there is nobody that exists. You could have a differentiated product, like you said, you could have a differentiated business model, you could have a differentiated go to market strategy, maybe more organic acquisition, whatever, but in some way, you need to, have differentiation and eventually sort of, hopefully some defensibility as well. So switching gears Paras, let’s talk about building the company and building of the team. I was very excited to explore that. So can you talk about maybe not just the early hiring, but somewhere along the mid of the journey and as we get to now, the last few years, you’ve been Chairman, just a building of the team and managing that from being an engineer, product turned entrepreneur.

Paras Chopra 12:42

So it’s been 10 years since I started the company and early years, say in the first five years for me, learning how to be a manager, how to be an entrepreneur, how to be a leader, how to be a CEO, all at once. There’s obviously no course or University that prepares you to build a company. So I’ve made many mistakes along the way. But at the same time, I think I’ve had the privilege of not working extensively in the so-called corporate world. So I think I’ve worked for one and a half years or so before starting Wingify. And that’s where a lot of decisions that we ended up taking in Wingify, we did them from first principles, rather than just borrowing the best practices from outside. And that’s why for a long time, for example, we didn’t have things like dress code, office timings, we didn’t have fixed leaves, people could come in, whenever they feel like, not working, they could just say, I don’t like to work and so on. So a lot of things were innovated from first principles that way, as far as hiring is concerned, I think hiring is one of the in fact probably it’s the most underrated skill that an entrepreneur needs to develop. Initial hiring is always from one’s network, maybe college or maybe ex-companies, or maybe people you generally know. But after that initial pool has been plucked, then you come to the real deal of hiring people that do not come from any references, but they are cold emails or applications on your portal. And judging, then is really difficult at least it was for me very difficult because I came from that engineering mindset where you have a conversation and you take what people are saying on face value. And if you do that, you’ll end up making a lot of mistakes because people put up their best face forward in an interview. So made my fair share of mistakes, but slowly and gradually, you know, over the last 10 years, then have realized how important hiring is. And right now, the way we hire is really to imagine. And that’s how I’ll also recommend if I can go back in time to myself rather than hiring for roles and labels, for example, hiring for a marketing head is very ambiguous. And entrepreneurs do it because they see a lot of other startups hire for these roles be it VP Marketing, be it Marketing Head, or be it even you know HR or recruitment, all these are labels, so instead of hiring for these labels, you need to hire for specific skill sets that are going to bring a substantial amount of change in the business in next 12 to 18 months. What this means is that you need to understand your business so well, that you can visualize that this person, just like an idealistic person, right now, if they join and they do a really great job, my business will go from x to y. So what’s needed in that x to y, whether you call such a person VP of sales, whether you call it sales strategist, or whether you call just ninja or anything else doesn’t really matter, so interviewing for those skills that take you from x to y is much more important than hiring for the label. And that’s how you know, I’ve built the company, wherein we’ve always hired depending on what gaps in the company are, rather than just hiring for abstract titles, and then figuring out where to fit in those titles.

Amit Somani 16:17

Paras can you talk about a couple of specifics, obviously, no names or whatever, but just the kind of mistakes just from the learning and education point of view that that one has made? And more importantly, the process that you have used to get better? Yes, let’s say even if I’m clear that I’m hiring for a certain set of skill gaps or needs in the organization, how do you go about it? Has anything changed there in your learning as you’ve gone along?

Paras Chopra 16:40

Yes, significantly, and I’ll obviously not take names but just take an example. And again, it’s a hypothetical example. But take this whole idea of hiring like a marketing head for the company. Now, when you push out a JD or like a role of Marketing Head, maybe you put out on some hiring portals, maybe you get a consultant to help you with or maybe you sort of circulate it on different portals. So if you do that you’ll get all sorts of profiles with their own interpretation of what a marketing head is. And I believe that companies are so highly sort of contextual, that what works in one company doesn’t necessarily work in another company at all. So when we had put out for example, you know, marketing head profile, we got applications from very impressive profiles, people who have done really big things at very impressive companies, but then it loses all the context in terms of whether they did it themselves or not even something as simple as if your company is selling a product at $10 per month, but you get CV from someone from for example, Pepsi, you know, it might sound very impressive, but the context is so different that the person will not be successful in the company, and it’s not the person’s fault, it’s not the company’s fault. It’s just a very big misfit. So what we do right now is, A- we focus very much on making sure our hiring is as personalized to the company as possible. And then by that, I mean, instead of just taking an open ended interview and focusing on the person’s past, we focus on a real world problem that Wingify has right now, which the person would be expected to solve if the person joins us. So, we spend like a day or two with the person brainstorming on a current problem and see what quality of responses do we get from that person. So, we heavily sort of discount the experience in favor of problem solving on a current problem that Wingify has. And similarly, even within that, we do not focus a lot on things which we feel are trainable. So a lot of context can be trained but many of the things for example, on first principles thinking or a person’s reliance on analytics and data and so on, cannot be trained for. So focusing also on things that cannot be trained for this something we’ve been doing now, which we weren’t doing earlier. I think the nutshell is that it’s easy to get starstruck by really great profiles. But the objective of hiring is not to hire impressive people, the objective of hiring is to solve specific problems in your business. And that requires a great deal of personalization in the interview process.

Amit Somani 19:29

Just one quick follow up on that. So let’s say you have a certain set of skills gap, need gap requirements in the company now, and you said you look for a 12 to 18 month kind of horizon. But you know, many of these people you need them to be around for, you know, four or five, maybe even 10 years right later. How do you look for long term sort of fitment as well as scalability of the individual.

Paras Chopra 19:50

I think we expect people to grow as well. And it’s a fair expectation because we all have finite lives. So you cannot hire someone who’s guaranteed to be really good for the rest of their life. But we do feel if someone comes along and they help grow the company in next, like one and a half to three years after that, you know, if their paths are not super aligned with us, or they are not able to scale to our expectations, or we are not able to scale to their expectation, I think it’s totally fine to sort of part ways, then. But I don’t think you can hire with an expectation that someone would stick with you for 10 years. It’s improbable and it’s also okay, if you do your next 18 months job really, really well. I think that’s a really good outcome.

Amit Somani 20:36

Great. So let’s switch gears again and talk about becoming a leader becoming a CEO and the most interesting one, which is transitioning from a CEO to a Chairman, right, which will involve some amount of letting go, especially in your case, since you’re the first person to start this company. So can you talk a little bit about that whole leadership journey and that entrepreneurship journey, when you build this scale this, become the CEO run it like you said, hiring people, building products to now, taking a slight step back. I don’t say that you’re not doing anything. But maybe also you can talk about what the chairman role entails as far as you’re concerned.

Paras Chopra 21:10

Sure. So I think it’s a continuous process of letting go. And it’s not like one fine day you wake up and say, Now I need to let go. Now I need to delegate. I think delegate is also a tricky word, you can delegate but still be hyper obsessed about a variety of different things. So I think it’s partly nature. Where in my nature is about new things. And my nature is about learning and exploring. And that’s why my working style from day one had been if for the someone else who can do job as well as I do, or maybe even better, I would just let go and let those people do the job. If someone is contemplating growing as a leader, they have to start sort of A- trusting people a little bit more than what you’d usually do. I think what we do when we interact with other people is we have this mental model of really high standards, what we don’t realize is that we ourselves have made a ton of mistakes, getting to the stage where we have those high standards and a good mental model. It’s a very tricky balance of making sure that you do not lower your standards, you keep your standards high. But at the same time, you also have empathy for other people to have that space to make mistakes and grow and come to that level. So it does take time. But if that happens again and again, you know, you will realize that a lot of people who work with you eventually start doing the job better than you. And at that stage, you get more and more bandwidth to do new and new things. So at least for me, you know, my job as an entrepreneur is always to do new and new things. And that’s why I continuously keep on giving more and more things for people and the team around me to do and that has culminated to me becoming a chairman from the CEO. And but I think that cannot happen unless you’ve had a significant history of leaders who have scaled up. And who are doing job as good, if not better, as you’ve been doing. And as a chairman right now, I think my focus is to really get involved in areas where I can specifically make a difference. So these days, I’m involved in Machine Learning and Marketing, and a couple of other areas, of course, around Corporate Governance and all those things are there, but specifically, even functionally, I have now privilege and bandwidth to really intervene at specific pin points, and do a great job there rather than making sure everything is working, okay. Because for that, you know, you have your CEO and the leadership team.

Amit Somani 23:52

Very insightful Paras. So I have a question, which is that, there is a proactive sort of, you know, building trust, building leaders, letting go. And there could even be unfortunately a reactive one where you are not scaling up, but it is not sort of very obvious to you, or maybe you have attachment. And you sort of cling on to it and not being able to let go. So what is a good framework for doing a self assessment as you go along? The other board members, advisors, maybe your co founders, how do you figure out that Hey, Paras you’re not cutting it in element x, as opposed to I see this other person and they are great at marketing, so you should just let go and give them marketing.

Paras Chopra 24:30

So for that, I think getting a coach helps. I did work with a coach, and the coach doesn’t tell you anything that you don’t know. But we are usually so much stuck in our own thoughts, that sometimes it’s hard to see the obvious. And I think the obvious truth for a lot of us is that there are certain things that we enjoy in life doing and certain other things that we don’t enjoy doing. So for me, it was a matter of reflecting on what I enjoyed the most, and what I actually did well, the most, and making sure I continuously am focusing there and not around things, which you usually associate with doing just for status or just for power and so on. So for me doing, say a startup was never about external glamour and so on. So it was very easy for me to say that, hey, you know, the reason I’m doing this is for creating new things. And if, as a CEO, I’m not getting bandwidth to create new things, I should probably not be a CEO. And that’s, frankly, the mental model I use. So I would recommend all entrepreneurs to do an introspection, a very honest introspection on what they do well, and what they don’t do well, and just continue to focus on what they do well, while delegating a lot of other things.

Amit Somani 25:50

Thanks Paras, I know you write prolifically and I write a bit as well and anyone who writes I know will read a lot. So as we kind of wrap up here, love to know little bit about your you know why you write any thoughts on that, and maybe a few books off your reading list now, or books that have had a profound impact on you in the last three, four years.

Paras Chopra 26:11

I mean, I write because I think writing is thinking, otherwise, you know, thoughts are so structured and haphazard, that it’s hard to really go deep into having an insight or even having good thoughts, per se. So, writing for me is really having long conversations with myself because you have thoughts out there on a paper or a document, you can read them and see some of the thoughts are stupid, and some of the thoughts are not stupid. Without writing, it’s just like a mush of everything your brain comes up with with no filtration at all. So I find writing very much aligned to helping me think and in fact, I don’t differentiate between these two activities at all. As far as books are concerned, it’s a long list and I don’t know where to start if it comes to probably startups. This book by Peter Thiel called Zero to One had a big impact on me, in terms of helping me build good mental models. When it comes to Science, probably a book like The Selfish Gene, again, helped me look at the world in an entirely different way. And of course, my first science book and the one I’ve read eight, nine times is The Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking. It’s absolutely a gem of a book.

Amit Somani 27:28

All three of those are absolutely wonderful recommendations and will ask you for a link for some other book recommendations from your blog or otherwise, post this. So thank you so much Paras. This has been really interesting, lots of interesting insights from building companies, leaders, letting go and so forth. Thank you for being on the Prime Venture Partners podcast. Really great to have you here.

Paras Chopra 27:49

Thanks Amit. Thanks for having me.

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