Monday, November 16, 2015

Interview with Google’s Gopi Kallayil

Google’s Chief Evangelist for Brand Marketing, Gopi Kallayil’s life story has been one of self-actualization of the highest degree. That the tech giant that he works for, Google, is one of the finest examples for self-actualization in the business world, is perhaps no coincidence. Seasonal Magazine recently caught up with Gopi Kallayil, for an exclusive interview in which he speaks about the three largest tech trends that are shaping the world, the myth of first mover advantage in tech business, about Google’s seemingly lunatic but visionary initiatives for the future, why net neutrality will remain, the need for mindfulness in business, the necessity for supreme fitness to achieve high in life, and about his passion for self-actualization which is one of the central themes in his latest book, ‘The Internet to the Inner-Net.” 

“One of the huge imbalances in life is the disparity between your daily existence, with its routines and habits, and the dream you have within yourself of some extraordinarily satisfying way of living,” wrote Dr. Wayne Dyer who unfortunately passed away recently.

Dr. Dyer was undoubtedly one of the most effective contemporary evangelists for self-actualization, a higher ideal defined by legendary psychologists like Kurt Goldstein, Carl Rogers, and Abraham Maslow in the 20thcentury, but which was always there since time immemorial in the teachings of almost all the spiritual Greats, though in a hidden way.

Maslow defines self-actualization as “the desire for self-fulfillment, namely the tendency of the individual to become actualized in what he is potentially. In other words, the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming.”

Gopi Kallayil has also been a champion of self-actualization, since his childhood. Otherwise, there is no reason why this guy from simple roots – a simple rural village in Kerala – would end up as Google’s Chief Evangelist for Brand Marketing, overseeing the internet behemoth’s accounts with the world’s top 250 brands.

Gopi has put Chittlancherry, his native village in global focus more than once, thanks to his masterful speeches at various TED conferences over the years. Only one other son of Chittlancherry comes even close to this fame, it being none other than noted writer and former Indian minister Shashi Tharoor.

Nearly 30 kms away from the nearest city, Palakkad, this village is noted for its paddy fields and unadulterated agrarian life. As Gopi has joked in one of his TED talks, he was a child prodigy as he could memorize the entire telephone directory of Chittlancherry – the fun being that there were only three landline numbers in the village, each of two digits!

That a boy coming from such a background could come to command the marketing of tech empires like Android to AdWords, speaks of only one fact – self-actualization.

A good student always, Gopi took his Bachelors in Electronics Engineering from NIT, Trichy; and his two MBAs from IIM Kolkata and The Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League institution. Gopi began his career in India, then moved on to Hong Kong, and then to the US. Prior to joining Google, he had worked in McKinsey and in two VC-funded startups in Silicon Valley.

 It has been 9 years since Gopi joined Google, and in one way it is a perfect match for both, as Google has been the quintessential underdog for much of its 17-year existence, starting out only in 1998, and rapidly self-actualizing to be the second-most valuable company in the world, and arguably the most influential firm across the globe.

After his BE, Gopi desired to go abroad for postgraduation, but opted out as he was not willing to indebt his parents.  He worked for Uptron for a year before opting for his IIM MBA, which landed him a job at Hutchinson in Hong Kong. He left India with around $20 in his pocket, and by the time he left for USA to pursue the dream MBA from Wharton, he had $7000 dollars in his wallet. Long way to come for someone whose parents had never attended college.

The story of Google has many parallels. For a company that started from an investor’s cheque for just hundred thousand dollars in 1998, Google has come a long way, churning out an average net profit of $40 million or Rs. 264 crore per day! All the while self-actualizing and proving critics wrong with incumbent-beating products like Google Search, Gmail, Android, & Chrome.

Gopi’s career in Google has also been on a soaring curve, leading marketing teams for core products that make money for the tech giant like AdWords and AdSense, before becoming the Chief Evangelist for Brand Marketing.

An excellent writer and orator, Gopi Kallayil has pushed self-actualization to its limits on all fronts, running triathlons and marathons, teaching yoga, hosting TV shows, and by climbing Kilimanjaro and exploring Antarctica.

That is why a first ever book by Gopi Kallayil titled, ‘The Internet to the Inner-Net’, is destined to make waves, because this is not a book by a self-actualization theorist, but by a practitioner. Will he end up taking on the mantle of late Dr. Wayne Dyer?

Seasonal Magazine caught up with Gopi Kallayil on the sidelines of a recent entrepreneurial  convention, to get his views on a wide range of topics:    

Can you brief us about 3 broad tech trends that you think will shape the world in the coming years? Is it Internet of Things, is it Automation, is it 3D Printing, or something else?

I think the greatest tech trend of the near future remains (points to his Android) the smartphone adoption. If you have noticed, early this month, the number of mobile devices in the world surpassed the number of humans – 7.20 billion against 7.19 billion. But that is, of course, not because every human has acquired a mobile device. There are multiple devices for many users, multiple phones, multiple SIMs, and machine-to-machine mobile devices in that figure of 7.20 billion. Yet, I believe that surpassing the number of humans is truly an inflection point for mobile devices. Now, I will tell you why the best is yet to come. The number of unique mobile users is still only around half of the world population. So, imagine what will happen when the next 1 billion or 2 billion people get a mobile device. It is going to transform entire economies across the globe. That is why I regard the rapid adoption of mobile devices as the greatest trend out there, which has still not played out fully.

And what would you regard as the second most important tech trend?

The second trend, according to me, is also something very much connected to the mobile revolution, and that is the internet adoption on mobile devices. Economies of scale is making prices tumble, and today a high-performance smartphone is within the reach of many. The cost of internet access, including that of mobile broadband access like 3G or LTE is coming down significantly, and that has resulted in millions of new internet users experiencing the net for the first time on their smartphones or tablets, rather than the PCs or laptops. Many companies including Google are exploring various strategies to bring down internet access cost further, or make it even free, and I believe that in the near future itself internet will be ubiquitous and free across the world. This is going to transform almost every sphere including commerce, banking, governance, professional work, education, everything. So that is another huge trend that is nicely shaping up now.

And what would be the third most important trend, according to you?

I think it is definitely cloud computing. Not only data, but the applications, the middleware, the operating systems, the storage, everything would eventually migrate to the cloud. It is already happening. The future is not distant when even any rare piece of data or an old song could be pulled up anywhere from the cloud, without you being aware of the exact source or the protocols in getting it. And these three trends that I mentioned – mobile devices, ubiquitous internet access, & cloud computing – are very synergistic and they will feed each other in their adoption and use in all kinds of new applications.

We understand that your job now involves counseling Google’s high-value clients on brand-building using digital marketing. Can you brief us a bit more about this role?

I lead the work that Google does with the world’s top 250 brands. They are very powerful brands, very experienced brands in marketing communications, and know what all to do in conventional media like print and television. But web or digital or smartphones being a new sphere, we work with them to show how they can leverage the web, search, video, apps, and so on. I lead that work, and for that meet up with the top leaders of these brands across the world.

How do you view India’s stand on net neutrality? And Google’s role in the net neutrality debate?

I can’t comment much on India’s position on the net neutrality front, as I am not updated on that. But on a global scale, our view is that net neutrality is here to stay, and we would fight for it any day. The problem with a few telecom or internet companies today is that they think they can ring-fence a part of the internet for themselves for superior influence or profits. But that is a grossly mistaken view that won’t be allowed to succeed by the internet community as well as companies like Google. Such ring-fencing is akin to if some wealthy guys would have thought that they could monopolize electricity distribution 50 or 100 years back. It is just not possible. Just like electricity is a resource that is distributed democratically, so will remain the internet as a public resource.

How do you feel about the early mover advantage in the tech world? Don’t you think the story of Google Plus against Facebook, or Windows Mobile against Android, and many such examples reveal that fact?

I think the early mover advantage is overhyped. There are many examples for it by Google itself. When Google started work on Chrome, its web browser, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer had a dominant market share of 90% or more. Only lunatics could consider developing a new web browser against IE, and that too to give away for free. But Larry Page and Sergey Brin were quite confident that Google could develop a far better browser. Within just a few years after its launch in 2008, Chrome had rapidly become the dominant browser across the world. Similar is the case with Android phones. When it was launched in 2007, Google was happy that its adoption was in tens of thousands of phones every week. But the only problem was that Nokia was selling 1.2 million phones a day. Four phones out of every ten phones sold worldwide were of Nokia. But see the situation now. Android is the dominant smartphone platform today, and I would say that in the history of technology, nothing else has been so rapidly and passionately adopted as Android. In fact, I can keep on telling more examples like Gmail, and even Google itself, which was not the first search engine or the fifteenth, but the 17th search engine to hit the market in 1998, five years after the first search engine appeared in 1993. So, where is the early mover advantage? It is the product that matters more than such advantages that are often hyped up in the market.

Well explained, but can I do a follow-up question then? Do you think that if Google+ is more compelling, that too can succeed against competition?

Yes, why not. But please also understand that no company, Google or not, can be at the very top in everything it does. Google+ is also not an exact competitor to other social networks. It is a synergistic product to the core Google services and an enhancement to the Google experience for the users.

You say you have time only for five broad things in life, and no time for movies or networking. Can you explain?

I never said that! (Laughs heartily). Did I ever say that to you? Some journalists extrapolated my comment to mean that. I do have time to watch a movie or network with peers, if I desire so. But having said that, let me admit that my house doesn’t have a TV. I had a connection, of course, but when it was left unused for around four years, I decided to cut it. The point I am making when I say that I have time only for five things in life is this – if you want to find enough time to do five things effectively, you need to cut at least 50 other things from your life.

You have written a book that has attracted reasonable attention - ‘The Internet to the Inner-net’. Can you tell us what got you into writing?

Well, it is not like I always wanted to write a book, and finally I did it. There were several factors, some of them purely coincidental. I have a friend with psychic powers and she was the one to predict that I would land a book deal with a major publisher within a certain period of time. She thought my ideas on self-actualization resonated with Dr. Wayne Dyer. And the actual book deal happened after one of my TED talks, when two persons from a publishing house approached me for writing a book. And the wonderful coincidence was that they from Hay House, which used to be the publisher of Dr. Dyer.

You are an avid fitness enthusiast. How important is physical fitness for your job and your personal happiness?

I would place fitness as very important on both fronts, especially on the career front. I hold a demanding job in that I have to travel intercontinental a lot. There will be jet lag, fatigue, and that kind of issues. Being fit helps me to a great extent in managing such issues. Besides that, after such long travel, I often have to work with top clients in finding solutions for their digital branding challenges. If I am not extremely fit as I am, mental performance would suffer.

What kind of fitness regimen do you follow?

Mainly I do a lot of yoga, and I also teach yoga whenever I can. Then I do interval training, a bit of running, and every six months or so I do a triathlon. I run half-marathons whenever there is an opportunity, and I have also completed a full marathon. And fitness is not just the training part, it is also what you eat. If you take today, I could have defaulted to the hotel’s buffet for breakfast, but I don’t yield to such shortcuts easily. Instead I skip that rich food, and carefully choose what I eat. That is also very important for being fit.

You have written that, I've seen the future of the world, and it is Dubai. Why do you say so?

Yes, that was the theme of one of my articles. I say that because no other place in the world has so beautifully and seamlessly integrated the diverse cultures and backgrounds of its inhabitants. Most of them are not from Dubai or any of the Emirates, but drawn from across the world. It is a cultural melting pot and is fascinating to experience. 

You are a proponent of following mindfulness in business or professional lives. Can you explain its importance?

It is all about what you can control. If you observe yourself, what happened three days back may be good or bad or as per your expectations or not, but you can’t do much about it. Similarly, you can’t predict what will happen three days from now, whether an anticipated development external to you can happen or not or happen according to your wish or not. So, what we have got is only the present, today, this hour, these minutes, or now. Mindfulness is all about that. Business being the most challenging affair, nowhere else is the requirement for mindfulness or a constant state of alertness more evident.

Can you explain about your significant philanthropic activities? What excites you there?

First of all, I don’t do a lot of philanthropy as you say. But in whatever little way I contribute, my focus is whether I can bring up those whom I try to help to their full potential. They may be kids, or they may be adults, or they may be patients, but my focus is this – whether my work can get them to their true potential. Any work along those lines excites me.

How important has been your Indian or Keralite roots to your success?

I would say it has been very important, as it has played the most critical role in shaping me and guiding me, as it is the basic value system from which I draw inspiration.

How do you view the competitiveness and longevity of tech companies in the coming years?

In the rather short history of corporate world, it is said that very few companies have survived 100 years, so far. As the decades pass by, that age is steadily coming down, to 50 years or even less. My prediction now is that it would be difficult for many companies to even stay relevant and in business for more than just two decades. The pace of technological change is that fast, you have to be a smart adapter to remain buoyant. That is precisely why, we have so many seemingly lunatic projects in Google like the driverless car, or internet access on hot air balloons. You have to keep innovating in diverse fields to stay relevant.

Does your work have any overlapping areas with Alphabet, which has become Google’s parent recently?

Not on a day-to-day basis, but sometimes opportunities crop up. I can cite at least three recent examples, one has been a large telecom company, one Honda, and the other a large pharmaceutical brand. In all these case, I was talking with them for the core Google services, but they wanted more as they know that Alphabet is doing pioneering work in networks, driverless cars, or pharma research systems. So, I do connect such clients to our Alphabet divisions.