The social differentiator
Head Office normally confines itself to an occupant’s C-suite but new-age technology czars invariably dispense with territorial boundaries. So I am not surprised to find Kavin Bharti Mittal standing away from his desk, with his laptop in his hand, wearing jeans and a T-shirt, chatting with a colleague, partitioned only by a white picket fence. “We encourage people to go into meeting rooms if we are having a discussion, but the culture is so free-flowing that sometimes it doesn’t happen and we don’t want to stop that,” says Mittal.
Mittal, 29, is the founder and chief executive officer (CEO) of Hike Messenger, one of India’s newest digital unicorns (valued at over $1 billion, or around Rs6,800 crore). In August, Hike announced that it had raised $175 million at a valuation of over $1 billion.
The white picket fence is one of the many playful design features that animate the sprawling 35,000 sq. ft Hike workplace in Delhi’s latest business hub, the Aerocity. Themed meeting rooms, with names such as Lords of the Rings, are theatrical in form, and dramatic in design. AstroTurf-lined faux garden patches and high-backed sofas are just a few work-settings in the office where Hike employees can lose themselves to the world.
“I really believe in a creative set-up. Some of the best work gets done in a non-formal kind of setting. If you are in cubes and boxes, you end up building the dullest products in the world,” says Mittal, adding, “Our goal was never to build a fancy office. We wanted to build an office where people get their own private space and there was enough space to collaborate and talk about ideas. It just turned out to be pretty funky.”
Design and humour
An evolved design sensibility presides at Mittal’s white, open-plan desk. A large Apple iMac monitor rests on a sculpted wooden stand, with room to store cables below the monitor, as well as a sweeping groove to neatly store gadgets like mobile phones in front of it. “I like my monitor being high, plus it gives me room to keep my stuff as well. When my phone’s charging, it goes over here,” he says, pointing to the groove.
Next to the computer is a statue of Mittal and his father (Sunil Bharti Mittal), given to them on a business trip to China a few years ago. “It doesn’t look much like him but looks like a much better version of me, so I kept it,” he laughs. Further down the table, a selection of 3D-printed superhero statues (Hulk Hiker and Superhiker, for example) adds humour. Adapted from Hike’s popular collection of digital stickers, the statues are trophies given to employees to recognize good work.
Decorative pieces of wall (or desk, in this case) art provide curated advice: “Collect moments, not things” says one. “Inhale, exhale” says another, in keeping with Mittal’s regular meditation practice. “This one is a personal favourite,” says Mittal, pointing to a framed piece that says “24/7 hustle”. “I bought a bunch of these pieces for myself and the team from (Delhi-based design company) Letternote. I really like their fonts and typography. They’re doing some stationery for us too,” he says.
The only paper on the desk consists mainly of a few books that Mittal received as gifts, and a stack of printed copies of the company’s 11-point code of conduct, “to hand out to people if they’re not paying attention”, Mittal explains. The mix of eclectic objects reveals a sense of aesthetics, liveliness and originality.
Despite its unicorn status, Hike is something of a mystery to even seasoned technology investors, who know little of its product, user base and business model. For the uninitiated, like me, Hike offers features such as local language content, easy access to news and more ways to connect with friends, compared to plain-vanilla messaging apps such as WhatsApp.
“It became clear to us a year-and-a-half ago that we don’t actually compete with WhatsApp, because the apps are fundamentally very different. People use Hike with their five-six close friends and that’s what Hike is very useful for. And if you look at all the stuff that you can do on Hike, like stickers and so on and so forth, your social media experience is already far richer than a simple SMS. And our aim is to provide that space to people where they can be themselves with their friends. The goal is very simple—we have to get to a point where people aged between 15-24 are obsessed with the application. Are we there yet? No. But we will be there next year,” says Mittal.
Building a design-led culture
Mittal speaks with the confidence of the start-up holy trinity: he’s youthful, his business is scalable and well-funded. “There is nobody else in the country like us today. We are the only pure tech product company in this country,” he says.
Hike’s capacity to deliver is harder to assess. The company claims it has over 100 million users, although it does not state how many are active. Despite cross-checking with a range of different forums (since I am outside its core demographic), I could not locate more than a handful of Hike users, which is odd, given its purported reach.
Yet, what is unambiguous is that Mittal is relying on product differentiation as a driver of value creation. And to my mind, Mittal is trying to achieve that differentiation by building a design-led culture—this is apparent through both the design of his workplace, and through our conversation (see “The CEO’s view”).
Design and innovation can be a winner-takes-all game. There are few guarantees on success, but equally, there is no doubt that Mittal is emulating other Silicon Valley based technology firms, all of which now have design at the heart of their businesses, alongside the traditional engineering roles that have always been important for technology companies. Perhaps, it is this approach that has resonated with Hike’s investors.
Aparna Piramal Raje meets heads of organizations every month to investigate the connections between their workspace design and working styles. She is the author of Working Out Of The Box: 40 Stories Of Leading CEOs, a compilation of Head Office columns, published as part of the Mint Business Series.
The CEO’s view
On building a product-led tech culture
A lot of culture comes down to not just what I want as a founder and CEO of the company, but what conversations people have in the company. That defines the DNA of the company itself. And all the conversations in the company are literally about product design.
On workplace design
We prefer cross-functional teams sitting together. Engineering, QA (quality assurance), design, product managers, tech lead product team, all sit together. And that helps a lot, because you can start asking questions side by side and move very fast.
On failure and experimentation
You have to build that environment where failure is accepted, celebrated in many ways, because once you know what doesn’t work, eventually you get to a point where you know what works. And how do you get to know what does not work, without having an impact on the consumers? That’s key.