Rajan Anandan, moonshot man

The head of Google in India and South-East Asia knows that at Google, every improvement has to be 10x. Now, he is trying to bring a billion Indians online


Rajan Anandan. Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Rajan Anandan. Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Trust Rajan Anandan, vice-president and managing director of Google, South-East Asia and India, not to own a television set. “For the last nine years, we haven’t had a television at home,” he says. “But then, who uses TV? Everything is online. Our entertainment tends to be Internet-driven.”

However, the real reason Anandan, 48, got rid of his TV set was because as a one-year-old, his daughter Maya would gravitate towards the idiot box. That worried his wife, Radhika, immensely, and the couple decided to discard it.

Maya, now 10, is learning how to code. Anandan swears that coding hasn’t been forced upon the little girl. The idea came from her mathematics teacher, who believes that learning to program is the best way to learn math. “But it is exciting for me,” he says with a wide grin.

As a child, Anandan was academically inclined. “I would be studying all night in fourth grade while my brother would be out there playing sports,” he recalls, sitting in a small meeting room at Google India’s office in Gurgaon, adjacent to Delhi. A can of diet Coke is on the table. “I had a bit of an academic gene, but I missed the sports gene,” he says.

If you look at the slim, agile man talking animatedly, you wouldn’t buy this. Anandan doesn’t look a day more than 40. He is vivacious, articulate, down to earth and so full of energy that his colleagues find it difficult to keep up with him. He has steered Google India for more than five years and introduced a clutch of exciting products and services.

Mention sports and his eyes light up with childhood memories. He grew up in Colombo in a household where sports and adventure were a way of life. A Sri Lankan Tamil, Anandan’s father, V.S. Kumar Anandan, was a swimming champion, best known for crossing the Palk Strait that separates Sri Lanka and India. He was obsessed with breaking world records in sports.

On New Year’s Eve, when most families would plan dinner parties, the Anandans would try to break records in swimming, treading on water, cycling or standing on one leg. “It was fun then; it sounds exhausting now,” Anandan says. When he was 7, Anandan’s father promised to get him a bicycle if he completed 100 push-ups. “Of course, I did not get the bike,” he says, chuckling. “I am fundamentally not athletic.”

At the age of 17, he left Colombo to join the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US for his bachelor’s degree in science. He also holds a master’s degree in science from Stanford University. What he remembers distinctly about MIT is working 40 hours a week to earn some money. He worked at a cafeteria and a museum, and even tested new tennis rackets for their structure and weave.

Anandan joined Google in early 2011 to lead the company’s business in India. Before that, he was in different leadership roles at Microsoft, Dell and McKinsey & Co. His last job before joining Google was as managing director of Microsoft India.

The experience of working with stalwarts such as Michael Dell, Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer, and Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin has been gratifying. All of them have traits in common, says Anandan. For a start, all of them were focused on building great companies in the long term.

“Even though Steve (Ballmer) didn’t start Microsoft, he was with Bill Gates throughout the journey. Effectively, he operated like the founder-CEO,” says Anandan. “Michael (Dell) taught me never to give up. From him, I also learnt execution...how do you execute at scale. Whereas with Larry (Page), it was how to leverage technology to solve huge new problems, be it search, Android, YouTube or driverless cars.”

"In parenthesis: A foodie who digs Sri Lankan and Kerala cuisine, Rajan Anandan says he is an ice-cream “junkie” who is trying to wean himself off the addiction. He is also a lover of art. “I may not understand it, but I appreciate art.” Together with his wife, who is an art collector, he frequents art fairs, art events and galleries, and spends time with artists. “She’s the one who has an eye for art, but I appreciate and enjoy it. Once a year, we go to one of the big biennales in Europe. I have been meaning to go to China for a while with Radhika for the Beijing art fair. We are always present at the Kerala (Kochi) biennale.”"

He also imbibed Page’s famous moonshot thinking, which asks people to imagine the unimaginable. At Google, an improvement of 10-20% doesn’t get you anywhere. It has to be 10x, says Anandan.

In India, Google’s immediate mission is to bring a billion Indians online. Currently, there are 350 million Internet users in the country. The company is working on the Railways’ free high-speed Wi-Fi project, which intends to cover 400 stations, many of them in remote parts. Anandan is equally proud of Google’s Internet Saathi initiative, which aims to bring rural women online. Of India’s 350 million internet users, only 100 million are from rural areas. Of these 100 million, only 10 million are women. Internet Saathi sends women out on bicycles, armed with a smartphone and a tablet, to let women in villages experience the different apps. The aim is to reach 300,000 villages.

Google has also built products that can run on the country’s patchy network. “We’re reinventing products for India,” Anandan says, referring to YouTube Offline, which allows users to pick videos when they are online, load them and then watch them offline over the next 48 hours. There is no buffering and no cost, as the content now actually sits on the user’s phone. The service, which has been hugely successful, has been replicated in 77 countries.

Another goal for Google India is to get more small businesses online. Of the 51 million small and medium-size businesses in India, only one million have their own websites. Google’s aim is to get 20 million businesses online by 2018. “Whether it is a restaurant or your neighbourhood barber shop, you should be able to find it online,” says Anandan.

A major skilling initiative to produce two million Android-trained and certified developers over three years is also under way. “This is pretty bold. We want to go from 50,000 developers to two million,” he says.

To achieve these goals and more, Anandan works 15-18 hours a day—fortunately, he doesn’t require much sleep, he says. In the time he has left, he mentors the companies he has invested in—and there are a number of them, both in India and Sri Lanka. In Sri Lanka, he set up Blue Ocean Ventures, a venture capital firm, with a close friend “to develop the start-up ecosystem there”. The founders of the start-ups he’s funding are free to call him at any time, and he expects the same of them. “If I call them at 12.30 at night and if they don’t take my call, they are either sleeping or partying. And if that is true, that company isn’t going to be built. If you are going to build a company, you are going to have to work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for the next 10 years. I’m always on. I am never off. Who switches off these days?”

To keep connected, he uses an LG Nexus 5X smartphone, a tablet at home and a laptop at work. “I use Twitter a lot. I am on Facebook, but don’t use it. I follow my wife and daughter on Instagram. I use this app called Sapience Buddy that tracks your mobile life and how much time you are spending on the phone and with each app,” he says.

So what’s his nationality, considering he was born in Sri Lanka and has spent his entire working life in the US and in India? “I am a Sri Lankan, obviously. But I am very passionate about India and the US,” he says. He has been living in India for 11 years now, he is married to an Indian, and his daughter was born here. “I have dated Radhika since I was 18. When both sides (India and Sri Lanka) play cricket, it is fun regardless of the outcome. I cheer for both sides.”

What about life after Google? “Why should there be ‘after Google’?” he asks. “I have been here only five-and-a-half years. I am having a great time here. We have a great team, a great culture and the incredible mandate to bring a billion Indians online.”

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