Home >Companies >People >SAIF Partners bets on Alok Goel’s Internet expertise, luck
Alok Goel, a former Google engineer and product manager, was one of the first executives who returned to work in India’s start-up business from California, the nerve centre of technology-related activity. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint
Alok Goel, a former Google engineer and product manager, was one of the first executives who returned to work in India’s start-up business from California, the nerve centre of technology-related activity. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint

SAIF Partners bets on Alok Goel’s Internet expertise, luck

The venture capital firm expects its new MD to bring tech know-how and timing to thrive in the e-commerce space

New Delhi/Bengaluru: In a business that is generally short of successful exits, Alok Goel seems to have the Midas touch. And SAIF Partners is betting Goel will bring that combination of technological expertise, timing, and most crucially, luck, to his new role as managing director and partner at the venture capital firm.

Before joining SAIF Partners, Goel held senior roles at online bus ticket-booking firm redBus and the online mobile recharge firm FreeCharge, both of which were acquired for record sums.

“He brings a wealth of experience in business strategy, product, marketing, operations as well as P&L (profit and loss) management. Having built and scaled successful Internet companies, his experience will be very vital to our firm," said Ravi Adusumalli, managing partner, SAIF Partners.

Goel, a former Google Inc. engineer and product manager, was one of the first executives who returned to work in India’s start-up business from Silicon Valley. He left a lucrative job as a product manager in Google’s display advertising business to head products at redBus three years ago.

Much before he became a sought-after product expert, the Delhi College of Engineering graduate learnt what to avoid in consumer technology products the hard way. In 2002, he was working at IT services firm HCL Technologies Ltd on a product which never saw the light of day.

“I happened to work on the first product to come out of HCL. It was a failure because of the (company’s) DNA. That’s when I realized that the decision we were making were like an IT services firm. We needed product decisions to be made with the consumer in mind. We were making products keeping engineers in mind," said Goel.

Goel left for Adobe Systems Inc. where he was a computer scientist for three years. He then enrolled for an MBA from the Indian School of Business (ISB), Hyderabad, in 2006. He was elected as the president of the institute’s student body. As president, he realized Google didn’t come to ISB for placements. For an ambitious product specialist, placements without Google were unthinkable.

Goel established contact with Google and convinced the company to recruit from ISB. He was one of the 19 graduates from the school hired by the company.

At Google, Goel rose fast, and in a company filled with product specialists, made his mark. He headed products and search for Google’s India arm and then moved to the company’s headquarters in Mountain View, California, as a senior product manager in its display ads business.

While he was in US, Indian start-ups began to catch the fancy of investors (though they soon became increasingly parsimonious for two years starting in 2012). After two years in Silicon Valley, Goel was tempted to return to India.

His friend and former Google colleague, Manu Rekhi of Inventus Capital, suggested that Goel look at redBus, backed by Inventus.

After rejecting the offers from other start-ups, including Flipkart, Goel joined redBus as chief product officer in June 2012.

Goel, along with other experience managers, including Bharat Singh of GE Capital India, was recruited by redBus as part of a long-term plan to take the company public.

While in redBus, Goel played a key role in launching the company’s mobile app, which helped drive sales. Goel was promoted to chief operating officer in April 2013, just two months before redBus was acquired by Naspers Ltd, a South Africa-based media firm, in a then record deal of $135 million. Goel had taken a significant pay cut to join redBus in return for stock options that were almost entirely worthless when redBus sold out.

Still, he was treated well after the acquisition. He was given a large salary hike, lucrative Naspers options and promised a bonus. Goel declined to talk about redBus.

Even though redBus’s acquisition was a personal disappointment for Goel, the company offered him an ideal entry into the Indian start-up world.

Soon after the Naspers deal, he joined FreeCharge as CEO. There too he launched the company’s mobile app, which helped FreeCharge get closer to market leader Paytm in mobile recharge transactions.

Just when Goel was pushing the company into online advertising, FreeCharge caught the fancy of online marketplace Snapdeal, which was flush with funds after raising $627 million from Japan’s SoftBank Group Corp.

FreeCharge’s large customer base of 20 million was hard to ignore. Snapdeal was betting it could convert many of these customers into buyers of other goods and that the presence of a large, and seemingly ready customer base would lower its cost of customer acquisition.

In two months, a deal was stitched together, and in April, the companies announced the merger. Though they didn’t disclose financial terms, people familiar with the matter said FreeCharge was valued at $450 million, the biggest start-up deal ever in India.

Goel said he ensured that the deal was handled differently from the redBus one.

“When I joined FreeCharge, one of the first few things I did was to build ESOP (employee stock ownership plan) plan for the company. I wrote, designed and rolled it out. Everyone in the company had ESOPs in FreeCharge, from the office boy to the senior employees."

Goel left FreeCharge after its acquisition by Snapdeal in April.

In his new role, Goel will help SAIF Partners make early-stage investments.

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