I love chaos, and it is where I thrive, says Vishal Gondal
The start-up guy on why he sold Indiagames and founded Goqii, whose model he says will help people stay fit
Mumbai: For over a decade, Vishal Gondal was best known as the founder and chief executive officer (CEO) of Indiagames, which he sold to Walt Disney Co. in 2011 for $100 million. Gondal, however, is a man of many parts. He has invested in about 45 companies till date through his Sweat and Blood Venture Group, but remains an entrepreneur at heart. As founder and CEO of California-headquartered Goqii Inc., a company that makes a wearable fitness band, Gondal believes his start-up is different from competitors because it aims to help users change their lifestyles with a combination of wearable technology and fitness coaches. Goqii even has the backing of investors from varied backgrounds like Amit Singhal, senior vice-president and software engineer at Google Inc., and Bollywood actor Madhuri Dixit-Nene. In a recent interview, Gondal explains why he sold Indiagames to Disney, and why he believes his Goqii model will help people stay fit. Edited excerpts:
You earned the sobriquet of the King of Indian gaming. Tell us about this shift from gaming to wearables.
Gaming was a childhood passion. I used to programme games on my ZX Spectrum (an 8-bit personal home computer released in the UK in 1982 by Sinclair Research Ltd). Then I moved on the PC XT (an IBM PC that came with a hard drive), and since there were no training schools at that time, I learnt gaming pretty much on my own. This was my hobby, and luckily my hobby became a business. I started making games for corporates. There was this game, for instance, that I developed for Pepsi, where gamers had to shoot at Coke cans. And in no time we were able to raise seed funding for our start-up way back in 1999, during the dot-com boom. We launched Indiagames officially in 1999, but as things turned out, the dot-com bubble burst in 2000 and we, too, were one of those companies that almost ran out of cash. Luckily for us, we bet the last Rs.10-20 lakh that was left on mobile gaming. This was in 2001 when people were wondering who would use a mobile phone since both incoming and outgoing calls cost Rs.8-16 per minute. Yet we went ahead, had a lot of fun in making games. The rest is history. Indiagames become a market leader and in 2012, as you know, we sold the company to Disney.
You started developing games at the age of 13, and even made a game around the Kargil war. How do you feel about it today?
Yes. I developed a game called I love India. Today when people get excited about something, they put it on Facebook or Twitter. Those times were different. So here I was a gamer and I was upset, and the only way I could express myself was by creating a game. Hence, I created the game and put it online. I was about 21 then. But even today, I’m glad that a lot of people remember that game. About 100,000 people downloaded it. That was a huge number in those days, and I was featured by BBC and CNN too. I even got some email threats from a terrorist group. It was this game that led to the creation of Indiagames. The idea was that there are people who are excited about gaming related to India, which was the entire idea of Indiagames.
So what made you sell Indiagames?
Had it been left to me, I would not have sold it. But Indiagames had investors, employees and a whole lot of other people, and Disney came and offered us a very good deal. But more important than that, Disney is a creative company. They know how to handle creative products and services, and clearly I felt that Disney can take Indiagames to the next level, which is what is happening.
But you remained the managing director of the company even after Disney acquired Indigames. How did that stint pan out for you?
I’m a start-up guy. Disney is a large company, so it is great if you are going to be a manager or a player in a larger set-up. My whole approach is very entrepreneurial. I get excited by new ideas, which is clearly why I moved out of there. I’m much better at doing new things from scratch. I love chaos, and it is where I thrive. And that place was not chaotic. It was organized, structured and everything was smooth, which I didn’t like.
But to scale up things, you have to have a semblance of structure.
I’m not saying that you do not need a structure. But a large company will have a very different structure from a 20-man team company.
How did you come up with the idea of the wearable Goqii?
I’ve been actively angel investing in companies too. So there was no reason for me to necessarily start a company. I could have simply funded any company. But the reason I decided to do Goqii was that I believe I have found a very unique way of helping people change their lifestyle. I went through the same challenge. I was a national volleyball player in school, but in my gaming days, I used to have only pizzas and Pepsis, and I had become a volleyball myself—almost had reached about 120 kilos. It was then that I decided to take things in my own hands. I bought all fitness bands and fitness apps. I used them for a few weeks and then I chucked them away because nothing helped. My biggest problem was that I used to travel a lot—10-15 days a month—which meant outside food and no exercise that made matters worse. Then I met a coach who began asking me for my data—what I do and how I do it, etc.—and the interaction used to happen over SMS and WhatsApp.
To cut a long story short, since then, I have done eight half marathons, three ultras, and losing more weight. More importantly, I was able to successfully make a change in my lifestyle. That did not happen with technology, but with a marriage of technology and a human. And since I had seen and used all these other products (referring to fitness bands), I realized that the users were missing the human connect. I think it is a very Western way of thinking—that of competing, and having winners and losers. They (other fitness band makers) want to create algorithms for everything. They don’t want to create a platform to bridge human and data.
At Goqii, we really thought of integrating the coach (with the fitness band). The other insight is that people don’t do things always for prizes or money. People will also do things when the cause is bigger than them. Hence, for Goqii, karma (action or work) is a very big thing. As you walk, you generate Karma points that you donate to charity. The East is all about everyone winning, what I call social collaboration. Apart from the body, we focus on the mind, on de-stressing, and on getting better sleep. But the mind is not complete without the soul. So only when these three things come together (mind, body and soul), that you become the force, which is why we have #BeTheForce on our cards.
But I must insist that I have not moved away from gaming in the sense that we use all the techniques that gaming uses, to get users addicted to drink more water, do more exercise, eat more green vegetables—it’s about rewarding you, motivating you, giving you points; taking you from one level to another— all gaming concepts. Our users are, in fact, called players and not users.
But the fact remains that Goqii competes with similar products like the Nike FuelBand, Fitbit, Jawbone, Google Fit and Samsung Gear Fit internationally, and Bengaluru-based GetActive. What’s the differentiator?
We are not in the wearable band business. We are in the business of helping people get fit and changing their lives. Soon Goqii will be opening up its platform to other bands, which means that you can use any band. In turn, we will use the band of your preference to connect you to good karma and a good coach, which will ultimately help you reach your life’s goal.
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