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Diary of a Strategic Initiatives Principal : Saransh Pahwa speaks his mind

How it all began…

How I got into Zapr is a story in itself. I was working in business consulting with Bain and Co. We used to work with other companies to strategize and solve business challenges faced by them. An HR consultant from Zapr called me and I signed up for the interviews, only for interview practice. My original plan was to move into a strategy role in the development sector. But, the interview process at Zapr turned me around and got me to re-evaluate my priorities. I got a lot of positive vibes from everyone I spoke to. Also, everyone I spoke to were really smart and quite accomplished. After doing some research, I understood that Zapr was building some really cool tech in the media industry. So, I put my development sector plans on hold, and decided to go with my gut. In hindsight, it was one of the best decisions of my life.

 

First project…

My work has really changed over the years. That’s what I like about strategy. In my first 6 months, the primary mandate was to create custom narratives and collateral to support the revenue team in selling. We used to tailor our offerings to every client at that time, as opposed to our relatively standardized approach now. For each client, we used to ideate how our products could help them and weave a story that was simple and on-point. Apart from creating PPTs, a lot of my work was with the data insights team - gathering the facts and validating the feasibility of ideas that we wanted to propose.

However, by the end of year 1, I had worked on a bunch of other things too. I supported several data partnership discussions with key smart device players in India, along with fund-raising discussions. I wrote the first white paper for Zapr around the theme - ‘Saving over 15% ad-spends on TV by optimizing TV plans’. I started working as a part of the smart devices initiative, as a project manager and an anchor for all things business. Our goal was to identify key opportunities in the connected devices space and build technology for the most attractive ones, as a future expansion lever for our core business. I also started working on the patent effort at Zapr - identifying ideas and working with lawyers and inventors to file them the right way.

 

Dealing with the rush...

I am a bit of a planning fanatic and that helps me deal with the rush, to a certain extent. I like to maintain a document that contains all the long-term work that I have and then a list of goals that need to be achieved in the short term. I plan my work around the short-term goals, usually at the beginning of the week. This gives me a feeling of being in control and helps me stay calm throughout the process. This also helps prevent any slippages from happening. Unfortunately, when the times get extremely busy, planning doesn’t help that much. In those super rushed times, all you have to do is accept it and hustle. I have become increasingly good at that, along with being comfortable with uncertainty.

Challenges around work...

Work and mandate can change pretty fast, learn to adapt - A startup must keep on pivoting until it finds that one idea that has the maximum potential of becoming big. Zapr is no exception to this rule. Due to this, your work, the people you work with, and your responsibilities can change pretty fast (sometimes, they may be loosely defined). You have to make peace with it and work on the next goal with more determination.

Prioritizing work that is important, and not urgent - When you work in a cross-functional role, you will end up getting work from all directions. And you end up spending time on the most urgent tasks. When this happens, it becomes hard to take a step back and focus on the most important tasks. And usually, the most important ones (for you and your product) won’t have any deadlines around them. E.g. staying up to date with features your competition is bringing or how technology is growing. There won’t be a deadline for this task. But it will yield a lot of value in the long run as compared to creating a neat document about a feature (not that it’s not important). You have to find the time for such things and execute them yourself, knowing that, no one is going to check on you, you are accountable to yourself.


What excites me about the job...


Diversity of work keeps me on my toes and keep things exciting - different projects, different types of work (project management, product management, new opportunity discovery and estimation, cost, sales strategy, liasoning with research and engineering teams - the list is endless)

The learning curve - you’ll need to learn some finance-related stuff, some VC-related stuff, engineering and research, along with generalist skills like communication and leadership. Both, in terms of skills and subject matter, you get a 360-degree exposure.

It’s super important work and you have a lot of influence - strategy teams facilitate key decisions made - you have high visibility. I enjoy that.

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Breakthroughs...

Yes, I have been part of many breakthroughs at Zapr. My role, however, has been mostly around opportunity identification, creating early POV on product (value proposition, v0 features) and business fundamentals (market fitment, unit economics), and helping teams collaborate. The real innovation and hard work has come from the teams who have built and sold these products in the market. So, the credit for these breakthroughs goes entirely to them.

To name a few breakthroughs, in smart devices, we have been able to build new ways of content identification - OCR based, Image based, Hardware based. Almost 2 years back, we were trying to build a machine learning driven media plan optimizer that would save crores of rupees on TV advertising for brands. Our data insights team picked up the project where we left it, integrated it into existing projects and helped Zapr turn profitable.

Currently, I am working in the speech tech initiatives team. We are building speech technology and AI-driven products that can help contact centers in improving agent productivity, optimizing customer experience and automating repeated conversations. In the last 2 years, we have built a good v1 of the product and completed several successful pilots with some early customers in India.

 

What I like about Zapr...

How Zapr treats its employees and how employees treat each other is what makes Zapr stand out for me. Culture is everything. The company values you as an individual and rewards you adequately for your work. The employees are focused, smart, and are willing to work together to solve some large problems. The company doesn't look at you as ‘human resource’. It looks at you as humans. That makes all the difference. And they pay a lot of attention to culture fit during hiring. This ensures that people who come on board have similar values. This makes working here a treat!

Also, there is a lot of grit to be seen in Zapr’s founders and employees. It’s like we don’t want to accept anything less than our dreams. And we are willing to put in the effort to achieve our dreams. In 4 years, I have seen countless examples of how Zapr has been striving to become bigger. We have changed directions, worked hard on building new technology, tried innovative GTMs and much more. We have seen many setbacks. But with each setback, we have come back stronger. This attitude of leaving no stone unturned, which is critical to a startup solving such hard problems, is really special about Zapr.

 

Pandemic's impact...

It taught me that life is unpredictable. Don’t over-analyze your life, find meaning in what you do, do things you enjoy, be there for people who matter to you and don’t forget to take a step back and relax. It also taught me the importance of taking care of your mental health. One must actively take steps to ensure their mental well-being. Because, it directly impacts your personal and professional life. It allows you to focus on things that matter the most and has a positive impact on your physical health. 

The pandemic has also reinforced the value of the office environment, getting ready everyday, having a disciplined routine etc. I have realized that working from home may sound more practical, but it is no fun. Especially, if you’re working on challenging things, it is a big deterrent - brainstorming becomes really hard, watercooler ideas are out of the picture and the fun of collaborating and building together is no more.


Favorite memories...

Oh, there are so many!
- Spending days (and nights :p) locked up in the war-room for the media plan optimization initiative!
- Countless Friday night parties, full of deep discussions, dance and karaoke!
- Working from the playzone in the morning, in fresh sunlight, away from people - it has a very relaxing feel to it.
- So many trips with friends from Zapr (special mention for the last offsite in Sri Lanka)

 

Learn more about our culture here: https://www.zapr.in/culture/

Zapr Media Labs
Zapr Media Labs
Latest resources on TV Advertising, Cross-media Marketing and Consumer Research.

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