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Ajit Mohan: Momentum man

The president for the Asia-Pacific region at Snap Inc. talks about the power of Augmented Reality, media and technology, learning from once-in-a-generation leaders, and his love for tennis

Ajit Mohan is president at Snap Inc.—the company behind the popular visual messaging app Snapchat—where he leads the Asia-Pacific region and also a member of the executive leadership team.
Ajit Mohan is president at Snap Inc.—the company behind the popular visual messaging app Snapchat—where he leads the Asia-Pacific region and also a member of the executive leadership team. (Illustration by Priya Kurian)

Ajit Mohan is excited about what’s in store for him. The 48-year-old is a little more than four months into his new role as president at Snap Inc.—the company behind the popular visual messaging app Snapchat—where he leads the Asia-Pacific region and is also a member of the executive leadership team.

Having worked at Meta, where he was vice-president and managing director for India from 2019-22, and Hotstar, as its founding CEO, Mohan says he has joined a company that has momentum on its side: “In India, in the Asia-Pacific, as well as around the world,” he adds.

The momentum Mohan is talking about is certainly backed by numbers. India is one of the biggest markets for Snapchat. Globally, the platform has over 750 million monthly active users (MAUs). India accounts for 200 million of those. According to company data, more than 120 million Indian “Snapchatters” watch content across Stories and Spotlight on the app, which are a particular rage among the 13-34 age group. Some of the app’s biggest and most interesting features, which leverage Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Augmented Reality (AR) technology, have also been rolled out in the Indian market.

Mohan’s journey from Kochi, Kerala, to Delhi and now Singapore, where he is based, reflects his fascination with the media and technology space. Interestingly, he has also done stints with NGOs, working on childhood and gender issues.

When we met in central Delhi, at the Lalit Hotel, a few weeks ago, he set aside his blazer, comfortable in a pair of blue denims and a white shirt. “I am in the middle of packing boxes,” he says, as he settles down and catches his breath after making his way from Gurugram, Haryana. “Singapore is not new for me. I lived there for a decade while I did my college.” His very first flight was to Singapore in 1993, to join the Nanyang Technological University to study computer engineering. “We don’t use that term any more but it was a culture shock for me.”

Born in Kochi, Mohan grew up in a small company township. His father, who served in the Indian Air Force, had retired and taken up a job with the public sector undertaking Fertilisers and Chemicals Travancore. Mohan says he “didn’t live the Air Force life” but certainly had an interesting childhood. “What that (living in a company township) meant was you went to a school that was run by the company. Your classmates in school were the ones that you played cricket with in the evenings. The parents all knew each other. Invariably, they would be colleagues at work. The teachers knew the parents. So, anything that happened in school, before you got home, had already been relayed to your parents,” he recalls. “It was a very different world.”

Mohan holds an MBA in finance from the Wharton School, US. He studied economics and foreign policy alongside that course. The early years of his career, starting 1997, saw him spend time in Singapore, the US, Indonesia and Malaysia, working mostly in private sector roles. But media and communications, he says, remained a consistent theme. “I remember there was a particular moment, in my first or second year in undergrad, when I read this book, Three Blind Mice by Ken Auletta, on the news industry in the US and the competition between NBC, ABC and CBS. And I was just fascinated by the industry.”

He returned to India in 2008, after 15 years. “I came back with the McKinsey Global Institute, the economics think tank of (the consulting firm) McKinsey, to do work around urbanisation.” His work involved studying how people could access affordable housing and transportation. After leaving McKinsey in 2010, he worked for different non-profits in Delhi and Bihar. He returned to the private sector in 2012, joining Star India to work with Uday Shankar. This eventually led him to Hotstar, which was launched in 2015.

At Hotstar, he became, as a Mint feature from 2018 notes, “the biggest web entertainment CEO in town”. “I think Hotstar was really about building a challenger company in an extremely thriving, established incumbent media company,” says Mohan, referring to Star India. “It was a startup, in the sense that you were building the technology when it was not mature. We were building a category (OTT and streaming) in India that did not exist at that point.... Everyone was buying a mobile, spending time on it and yet, high quality entertainment was not available on mobile. We solved that.”

Mohan says his Facebook and Meta stint had some similarities with Hotstar. “Fundamentally, a lot of work that we did was to help a global company understand what it meant to operate and thrive in India, and to recognise that meant solving for India, including being compliant with local law,” he adds. “I think that shift happened in the company in the four years that I was there.”

At Snap, particularly with Snapchat, he faces a different challenge. This is a platform that already has a strong following in India, especially among the younger generation. How does one build on that? “It has been zero to 200 million in a very short period of time,” he adds. “If 200 million people have embraced it, then in my mind that means 500 or 600 or 800 million people can embrace it. Especially because of the emphasis on privacy.” Mohan believes people are starting to understand the original idea around which Evan Spiegel and Bobby Murphy, co-founders at Snap, built Snapchat—an antidote to social media and public viral content, designed around one-to-one private messaging amongst people who already had a relationship in the real world. “That’s the proposition that they stayed with over the last decade, through the many changes that we have seen in the world of technology,” Mohan adds.

While Snapchat rolled out its MyAI chatbot, which is powered by ChatGPT, to users in India last month, Mohan sees massive potential for AR in the country. According to the company, Snapchat users in India dabble with the app’s AR lenses over 50 billion times every month. Moreover, Snap’s AR creator community in the country, an active user of Lens Studio, a free desktop application designed to help artists, designers and developers build AR experiences, grew by 60% in 2022.

One of the tasks now, says Mohan, is to “build a business around the success that we have already had”. This involves working with brands and enterprises to explore the capabilities of AR and help them understand “the role that we can play in connecting the dots with a community that is thriving on Snapchat”. In March, for instance, Snap introduced its AR Enterprise Services, for businesses to integrate its AR technology suite into their own apps, websites and physical locations. “We are trying to make it easy for people and brands to try on things: look at the camera and try on glasses or clothes or shoes. A lot of brands are trying that. But equally, we are also saying, let’s make it easier for brands to bring the technology to their own destinations,” he explains. “There is absolutely no reason why that can’t be a compelling proposition in India. It’s valuable everywhere. But it’s likely to be of particular value in India.” According to a recent survey by Shiprocket, the e-commerce logistics and courier aggregator, India’s e-commerce industry is set to surpass the US and become the second largest globally by 2034.

Mohan says integrations could also go a long way in reducing wastage in the e-commerce shipping model, where a user is often sending back an item that didn’t fit or didn’t look like they thought it would. “The interesting question for me is: Can we play a role in helping India become an AR factory for the world? This is a country with one of the largest developer communities in the world.”

When he’s not busy shuttling between cities, Mohan loves to play and follow tennis. His first memory of watching anything on television, growing up, is the 1982 Wimbledon final between Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe.

In fact, when we met, he said he had been planning to attend the recent French Open. But his favourite player was not amongst the ranks at Roland Garros this year. “I am a big (Rafael) Nadal fan.... I am so disappointed that he pulled out,” says Mohan. “But it’s funny. I feel like every friend of mine is a (Roger) Federer fan and I have always liked Nadal.”

The love for sports has rubbed off on his elder son Vir, 9, who is a big Lionel Messi fan. “It’s all gone out of control after last year’s World Cup.... He’s always dribbling the ball and has broken things around the house.” His younger son, Yash, 4, meanwhile, is fascinated with sharks. “Not cricket, not football, not tennis, not whales. It’s just sharks.”

Mohan is also a lover of great art. Does he collect art? I ask. “I do. I mean, whatever I can afford,” he responds, jokingly.

Of late, Mohan has been travelling quite a bit. In the four months he has been at Snap, he has been to Singapore, the US and Australia. The long-haul flights have given him plenty of time to look back on his life and career. “I was just reflecting that I have been very privileged to have been in the room with a lot of great leaders. Whether it’s James Murdoch, Rupert (Murdoch), Uday Shankar, Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg. Or now, Evan Spiegel and Bobby (Murphy at Snap),” says Mohan. He describes them as “once-in-a-generation” leaders.

“I have been very privileged... listening to them, learning from them, sometimes winning arguments with them. One of the questions for me is: How do I bring that learning to others? How can I make sure that the luck and progress I have had can be an amplifier for younger people who are in the early stages in their careers, trying to start a company or crack an idea. How do I translate that and be helpful to others? That’s more in my consciousness now than it was five years ago.”

Also read: Peyush Bansal of Lenskart has a vision for change

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