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Vishal Gondal: The game is afoot

  • The founder of GOQii talks to Mint about gaming healthcare, empowering the consumer with data, investing smartly and getting that headstand right
  • Gondal says early stage investing is like talent scouting—90% of the onus is on the team building the business, 10% is on the idea

Vishal Gondal.
Vishal Gondal. (Jayachandran/Mint)

Vishal Gondal shares one element of philosophy with the late Apple boss Steve Jobs—of avoiding insignificant decisions. The founder and CEO of health-tech company GOQii can mostly be seen in a red T-shirt and red shoes without laces (because he can’t be bothered to tie them) so that he doesn’t have to figure what to wear every morning.

It’s therefore easy to spot him at the Sofitel Mumbai BKC (Bandra-Kurla Complex), which does not have too many people that afternoon sporting Onitsuka Tiger red shoes. The hotel’s French Bistro Artisan is closed for a private party, which leads us to the Pondicherry Café right in the middle of the afternoon buffet, amid loud chatter and clanging plates.

The man, often labelled as the “father of Indian gaming", frequently and proudly unlocks his phone to show me some feature or the other of GOQii. This is a tech-enabled healthcare platform that integrates tools for real-time personalized coaching, e-commerce, check-ups, and a cash programme where healthy behaviour is rewarded with discounts. Gondal believes his firm could become India’s largest consumer healthcare company in five years, up from its current 3.5 million subscribers to a projected 10 million this year and 100 million in the next three years.

If there is any reason to believe Gondal’s predictions, it comes from the list of marquee investors GOQii has, including New Enterprise Associates, Megadelta, DSG Consumer Partners, Galaxy Digital, Denlow Investment Trust, Edelweiss, Cheetah Mobile, GWC, Ratan Tata and Vijay Shekhar Sharma (of Paytm). Actor Akshay Kumar came on board earlier this year, and Japanese healthcare investor Mitsui & Co. put in undisclosed Series B funding last year.

The 43-year-old does not dwell on the details of investments and finances, instead focusing on the “broken" healthcare system in the country. He believes that this is because the incentives for a healthy lifestyle are not aligned in the present system and a preventive model like theirs is the solution. He slams tech companies that encourage users to watch videos or order food online because he believes these encourage unhealthy consumption.

The third-year college dropout from R.A. Podar College of Commerce & Economics in Mumbai—who once played volleyball at the state level—started making video games at a young age because his father got him a computer early on. They were a “typical" middle-class business family in Mumbai’s Chembur—Gondal never left the central suburb, which is where he lives and works. He started a computer training institute, when still in his teens, in the early 1990s. “I made a game where you could shoot at Coke cans, and I took it to Pepsi. This was during the peak of the cola war. They paid me 5 lakh—my first customers. That’s how the idea of gaming started," remembers the bespectacled Gondal, who talks rapidly, candidly and minus any trappings of corporate diplomacy.

His game I Love India, created during the Kargil war, became popular—these were still the early days of the internet and the PC. He was in his Chembur office wearing shorts when two investment bankers in suits walked in, attracting attention as they went past the vegetable markets of the crowded locality. They wanted to get him venture capital, which he had never heard of, and his father had warned him against taking loans. “They said it’s a loan that you don’t have to return," Gondal says, grinning. “They said they would take a percentage at the end. In the first three meetings, in two months, we had 3.5 crore committed by two VCs. After that dotcom phat gaya (collapsed)."

Gondal’s “father of Indian gaming" sobriquet is a throwback to the company he founded in 1999, Indiagames, which became one of the earliest Indian firms in the online and mobile gaming sector. Indiagames was sold for a reported $100 million (around 708.5 crore now) in 2012 after The Walt Disney Company acquired UTV Software Communications, which held a stake in the company with Gondal.

He says the story of GOQii begins here because the years of entrepreneurship, eating junk and having aerated drinks made him three times his original size. He needed to do something about it.

What does a person do with $100 million? “You get a wealth adviser," he says, smiling. “Someone funded me when I was 21 and I better return it to the universe." He has invested in 15-20 companies, ranging from 25 lakh to 23 crore, depending on the company.

Early stage investing, he says, is like talent scouting—90% of the onus is on the team building the business, 10% is on the idea. He likes to see persistence from people chasing investments. “The problem is that people take ‘no’ as a ‘no’. According to me, ‘no’ is ‘not now’, could be ‘yes’ later. About 500 people pitch to an investor every month—cold messaging on social media is the stupidest thing you can do."

“For a lot of entrepreneurs, the ‘why’ is important—why are you doing this business? If people say I read a report or my uncle told me, that’s a big red flag. Because the moment you see failure, you will fold your hands and abandon ship. People who succeed are those who don’t have a Plan B."

The GOQii app, launched in 2014, is a busy platform, with live classes, health quizzes, personalized coaching and social networking built in. Almost every activity leads to the e-commerce section—revenue for the company comes from subscriptions for the advanced levels, and e-commerce. Gondal says GOQii is an example of “gaming for good". Pokemon GO is the biggest health app because it made more people walk than any other, he says.

He takes out his phone to show me data about his lunch and how it adds cash points, which can be redeemed to get discounts on their e-commerce platform. “We have ‘gamified’ the whole health shopping experience where you have to earn your discount. This is a gaming company, I say jokingly, but we are also a behaviour modification company," he adds. “If a consumer is empowered with data, knows what is good or bad, they can make the right decision."

A meditation class starts on the app, with about 6,000 people online. The coach tells subscribers, “Namaste bhej sakte hain(you can send greetings). Namaste everyone." Gondal urges me to take a 4-minute health quiz along with 14,000 people who seem to be online, which could lead to points, rewards, bags, wearables, etc. I don’t do well in it, but don’t embarrass myself either.

His vision was to create a global company—the reason why GOQii is registered in Palo Alto, US, and will launch in Japan, Malaysia and Singapore soon. Their team is about 130-strong, apart from external experts like coaches and doctors.

“My goal is to get anybody who wants to be healthy on my platform. We will do three things: Guide through coaching, motivate with wearables and gaming, and empower with rewards. Finally, we are building to provide health and life insurance at lower prices." The idea is that people using GOQii will have recorded data on how healthy they are, in turn bringing down insurance premiums.

“Our biggest competitor," he says in complete seriousness, “is laziness".

Gondal starts his mornings early with meditation, feeling particularly chuffed about his latest streak of 520 non-stop days of meditating, which is recorded, of course, through an app on the phone. He wants to improve his headstand and handstand statistics—the former currently at 90 seconds without support and the latter at 5 seconds. He says he doesn’t use a laptop and finds emails cumbersome because he wants to limit communication.

He has eliminated decisions at breakfast by just having a bulletproof coffee—with unsalted butter and MCT (medium-chain triglycerides) oil. He has logged everything he has eaten in the last four years and gets a blood test every three months.

The trekking enthusiast, who has been to the Everest Base Camp, has never held a salaried position in life—except for one year with Disney India during the transition—and his learning in leadership and entrepreneurship came from sport. “It’s the only thing which teaches you to fail," says the father of two teenage boys.

“You learn life skills in sport—collaboration, learning to deal with humiliating defeats, and still going back to it. The culture today is about winning and coming first. But when these children go to the real world and start losing, which happens in business, they don’t know how to deal with it."

He believes gamers are at the cutting edge of all tech ideation—the best product ideas emerge in gaming or pornography, where innovation happens before flowing into the mainstream.

Gondal’s approach has always been that “when people say an idea is crazy, I think I am on the right track".


Style statement

Guilt-free luxury, like his Toms’ glasses, because a part of the price paid goes to charity

One big regret

Not investing in Oyo Rooms. “I sat on the fence. By then the train had left the station."

Last book read

‘Trillion Dollar Coach: The Leadership Handbook Of Silicon Valley’s Bill Campbell’ by Eric Schmidt, Jonathan Rosenberg and Alan Eagle

Current favourite gadget

Muse meditation headband

Favourite current video game

‘FIFA 2020’

Arun Janardhan is a Mumbai-based journalist who covers sports, business leaders and lifestyle.

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