Tech Talkies

[Tech Talkies] Ajey Mehta, HMD Nokia India: “We want to deliver a Pixel-like experience across all price points”

The formal jacket fits Ajey Mehta. Even though the mercury is in the high thirties in Delhi, there is not a hint of sweat on the man as he sits facing us in the coffee shop.

Dressing formally is something that most people do for special events, and you can see that what they choose to wear is not something they would have normally chosen. But with the tall, slim HMD Mobile India’s vice-president and country head, the jacket seems right at home. And rather remarkably, it does not make him appear too formal or stand-offish either. He might take his time warming up to a subject and might not have the effortless charm of a Manu Jain, but the man in charge of bringing Nokia smartphones back to India has an aura of his own. He will not distort reality with charisma, but will in all probability work out what works best to suit a particular type of reality.

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And do it. Without too much fuss. It is almost as if when the Lord was making Ajey Mehta, he decided to replace charismatic eloquence with elegant efficiency.

Not that he has any problems waxing eloquent about the Nokia 8. His voice almost purrs as he holds up a copper model of the flagship (yes, we asked him for a review unit – he says it will come soon!). “You could probably teach me on what all the Nokia 8 has,” he starts off, smiling at us, and then goes right ahead and ignores this compliment. “It is a forty stage process that it has gone through. There is anodizing, machining and finishing of the product. It is made out of single block of aluminum and is great to hold. It has Zeiss optics, a dual camera, Nokia Ozo spacial audio 360 degrees. So the whole multimedia experience is fantastic. And pure up to date secure Android.

Of course, it is just a matter of time before he launches both front and rear cameras simultaneously to give us a sample of the (in)famous ‘Bothie.’ “I have been using it with my kids. So, here is my colleague and you and on the same screen. You can do video also. And it is a one touch upload, and you can live stream it also. With one touch” he jabs the air to emphasize the point. “That is interesting, and the camera is fantastic and the sound also. And the way it sits in hand. It beautifully sits in the pocket. It is slim. The overall experience has been fantastic with this. I have been using it not for too long, of course. But I’m very happy with it.

He sees us smiling at his enthusiasm, and concludes: “So it is a beautiful looking phone and it got the features that can make it a very successful device.

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Why then did he stay back in India and not attend its international launch (some of our colleagues did go there). Pat comes the reply, “I have to talk to people like you here. So I couldn’t be there,” followed by laughter. It is not the loud shout of laughter that one hears from some CEOs but more of a smile with a slight vocal effect. It goes with the jacket.

A ‘humbling reception’ complete with supply headaches

So how has the reception been to the return of Nokia in India, we ask. Mehta hesitates – a hesitation that does NOT go with the jacket. And then, even though he chooses his words carefully (we suspect he always does), he speaks in the lowest tones of our meeting. They are the words of a man who has been actually moved.

The reception has been overwhelming,” he starts, and then pauses again as if searching for a word, and then finds it. “Humbling,” he says. “The reception has been humbling. Yes, there were some areas where we were caught a little unprepared on some levels. So the 3310 demand went absolutely through the roof. That (phone) is being asked for by everybody. Including the youngest of kids, to the millennials and the oldest of fans.” He smiles and continues, “So it is truly a people’s brand.

But what of complaints that for all the demand, people have not been able to get phones. Mehta concedes the point and does so with surprising honesty. Many senior personnel would have perhaps talked about being overwhelmed by the demand, but Mehta simply apologizes.

Yes, I admit our supply has just not been able to keep pace with the demand when it comes to the 3310, but things will get better now. If you go to retail outlets, you will get the same feedback, that these people do not give us the stock. So the demand has outstripped our supply,” he says. “It will get better. I think people have been a little disappointed that they did not get the product and I have been apologizing profusely for that because we have not been able to meet the demand but now we are ramping up and that should get better with time.

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He does see the silver lining in the problem, though. “While it is not a good thing to not supply to the demand, it is not a bad problem to have. It is a good problem to have,” he points out. “We need to gear up for that. At least it is something that I can control. We need to ramp up the manufacturing and send the Product to the market. So to that extent, the response had been excellent. We have had one million registrations for Nokia 6 as you know on Amazon. So the response has been very humbling.

Must it make him happy? Mehta smiles and replies, “One of my colleagues asked me ‘how do you feel?’ I said I feel happy that the response is humbling but I also feel very responsible that I have to get it right. Because otherwise, I will have a whole bunch of dissatisfied consumers which is not good.

A very different Nokia, but with the same values

Supply problems, of course, would have been unthinkable in the heyday of Nokia, a time when the brand commanded a massive market share and was omnipresent. So much so that in some part of India, the word ‘Nokia’ was synonymous with ‘cellphone.’ A far cry from the present day.

Which of course brings us to the topic of the company behind the new Nokia. How different is the new Nokia from the old one? Mehta shakes his head as if to get to grips with the level of change he has seen (he has been with the company since 2005), and then explains. “So we are a start up. We are a Finnish start up,” he pauses and then goes on. “That means we don’t have the large corporation, organization that Nokia had when I joined it back in 2005. From an organization stand of point, that is one of the biggest differences.

Of course, trust him to find the silver lining in this too. “And this is also probably one of the most energizing factors for me,” he says. “Because it is about building this business from scratch. So, as I can define the people, the building, the office, getting the office, moving into a new office. For me, it is very energizing.

So just how big is Nokia right now in terms of people? Mehta smiles wryly. “So, I don’t normally share numbers but definitely much smaller than what we were then,” that slightly vocal smile/laugh comes into play, and he continues. “But we have all the functions. We are a very lean organization to start with, and we do have plans of growing, once the business starts to grow. That’s one of the biggest differences.

It might be a relatively more modest setup, but Mehta is quick to point out that some things have not changed. And they have very little to do with capital or personnel. The man is speaking of values. And not those defined in numerical terms.

But as far as Nokia is concerned, the values of Nokia remain the same,” he stresses, tapping the table in front of us, the vibration transmitting small concentric circles into the cups of coffee placed on it. “So that whole reliability, trust, transparency, authenticity, honesty… those basic values remain the same.

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Of course, managing a new business with values from another time is not exactly easy peasy apple squeezie, and he realizes that. “How we build Nokia going forward will be very different from how we built it in the past because the market has moved on, the consumers are a lot more evolved,” he says. “You have millennials who are a lot more demanding. So we cannot build Nokia the way we built it ten years ago. We need to build Nokia in a new way, but we need to stay true to the values of Nokia.

Not an easy task. And he knows it.

From Windows to Android…’you just look ahead’

Many feel that the turning point in the fortunes of Nokia came in 2011 when the company rather surprisingly teamed up with Microsoft and ditched its own Symbian OS in favor of that company’s Windows Phone 7. It was a move that initially seemed to pay dividends with low-priced devices like the Lumia 520 taking on and beating Android in the sub-Rs 10,000 segment, but then just seemed to go wrong on many levels. Microsoft even took over Nokia for a short while before exiting it. Mehta has been right through it all and was even the one who launched the Lumia 930 in India under the Microsoft banner. So did he feel that moving to Windows Phone had been a mistake for the Finnish giant?

He ponders the question. And his answer is a diplomatic one (oh yes, it SO goes with that jacket):
See, in this industry you just look ahead. At that point of time, it was a decision that was definitely correct,” he says. “If things had worked out, we could have been really very very big, and it could have been a whole new ecosystem. At that point and time I believe, it was the right decision that we took but then retrospective vision is always 20-20 in this industry.

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Ironically that was also a time when everyone was expecting Nokia to come out with an Android phone (it did, albeit with a tweaked version of Android, and with limited success). Six years down the line, the brand is betting on stock Android. Mehta smiles at the irony of it when we point it out, but is quick with his rationale for the choice of OS.

I think this is probably the best time to get in with the pure Android story because Android as an operating system has also evolved and the kind of quality that they have been delivering today is really really fantastic,” he says. “That is why we chose to go with pure Android because we wanted to give the latest, greatest and the most up to date version of Android. We want to be the most reliable, the cleanest, and the simplest experience to the consumer. And that’s exactly what we are going for.

As of now, we are going with pure Android, we are going with Google Services. We have no plans to customize it because one of our strategies is to deliver the secure, pure, up to date experience of Android. We want to deliver a Pixel-like experience across all price points. Yes, some of our competitors have said that they will go with pure Android, but I am not sure how much they have been able to live up to it. But for us, our primary strategy is Pure Android.

But with stock Android often comes the responsibility of regular updates and that is a department in which many – even the mighty Motorola, which has done more than any brand to make stock Android mainstream – have stumbled. How does Nokia expect to do better here?

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Mehta is optimistic when it comes to regular Android updates. “So, we will be updating phones as and when the Android updates come,” he says confidently. “We have a very thin skin over Android as you know – only the Nokia tunes and Nokia jingles. We will have a team that will make sure that we update it Android as and when the updates come. All our phones come with Android N, and they will all move to android O when android O is available.” He pauses and taps the table once again for emphasis. “ALL our phones, including the 3. I think, 0.4/0.5 percent of Android phones are on the latest version of Android (0.2 percent in fact as of September). And I think about 5 percent was on 7. The rest 95 percent of the phones are on six and below. Our phones will always be on the latest version of Android.

Pure Android…with four distinguishing “pillars”

The fact, however, is that while stock Android would have been a big deal a few years ago (ironically the time when everyone was clamoring for a Nokia Android device), it now is no longer a unique proposition. There are a number of devices that come with stock Android from the likes of Moto, BlackBerry, Lenovo and now even Xiaomi. How then does Mehta expect Nokia’s devices to stand out?

It is clearly a question he has either been asked often or has pondered a lot, for his answer is detailed. “So we actually thought a lot about this. We spent the bulk of our time thinking through how do we differentiate in this sea of undifferentiated devices,” he pauses for effect and then continues. “And we found three pillars.” He thinks for a while and then corrects himself. “Actually four.

He proceeds to tick them off on his long, elegant fingers.

The first one is design and quality. So, we had these consumer immersion sessions across more than 12 countries in the world where we take feedback from the consumers, including India. India is one of the biggest markets, and we got feedback from the consumers of what they want in a phone, what kind of design works for them, we share with them the mock-up design and so on and so forth. And then in keeping with the Finnish heritage, we design our phones based on that. So design is very very critical part of what we do and the consumer. It starts with the consumer.

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Then we talk about the quality. So quality in terms of the material and quality in terms of the manufacturing process. As you know, the 6000 series Aluminium is the genesis of all these devices, is the starting point of all these devices. And we want to make sure that we make extremely strong and extremely reliable products. So design and quality is our first pillar which is very very important to us.

Next is the real-life experience. What we are saying is that we want to provide technology with a purpose. It is not about having 2 GB or 3 GB or 4 GB or 6 GB of RAM. It is about what the phone can do for you. So the Nokia 6, for example, delivers an immersive entertainment experience. It comes with a polarised screen so you can see it in bright light, and it also has Dolby Atmos speakers to deliver that experience. Similarly, for Nokia 8, we have tied up with Zeiss for a superior imaging experience, we have the Ozo spatial 360 audio, for the multimedia experience. So it is about the experience. It is not about the technology or hardware itself. So real life experience for us is the second pillar.

And then the third pillar is pure Android because we said, that we want to differentiate by not differentiating. There are different interfaces for Android. We said we want to go with pure largely because we want to deliver the best from the house of Google in terms of secure, pure and up to date Android to the consumer.

He pauses to draw breath and then holds up the fourth finger, with only the thumb remaining tucked into the palm of his hand. It is almost as if he has saved the best pillar for last.

The fourth of course is the values of Nokia,” he says. “The way in which not only do we deal with consumers but the way we deal with our retailers, our ecosystem partners, our trade partners, our distributors. We want to be true to the values of Nokia.

But having pillars is one thing. Building on them is quite another.

“People are aware of us, have experienced us and they know we stand for something”

He may have to rebuild Nokia in India. But Mehta feels it is not a task that he has to do from scratch, thanks to the immense, almost cult-like, popularity the brand enjoyed in India. “We were pleasantly surprised to find that awareness levels were 99 percent. Preference and consideration also way up there,” he explains. “And that’s why when many people ask me ‘oh my God, the other competitors are spending so much money, and so much on marketing,’ this that, the other, I just point out that we don’t need to do a lot of that.

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Because people are aware of us, people have experienced us. And we have 80 thousand retailers who have built on us. Earlier it was 120 thousand who were built on the back of Nokia. That helps. So we do not have to get into that level of consumer marketing spend as the others have to because people are aware of us, they have experienced us, and they know we stand for something. We just need to make sure that we are true to that. What keeps me up at night is how do I deliver on the expectations from the market, and that’s what we have to do over the next months and years.

Challenges, channels and millennials

For all the brand awareness and goodwill, Mehta knows the road ahead is full of challenges, as the market is a very different one from the one Nokia bossed a decade ago.

One of the challenges that we have ahead of us is making Nokia cool amongst the millennials,” he says. “We need people resonating with the brand. While the results have been positive, and we are heading in that direction, we cannot afford to take our eyes off that aspect of Nokia. Secondly, we need to make sure that, our retail presence is good because right now there is a clutter of brands and promoters out there. Lots of money is being spent at the point of sales. We can’t afford that kind of spends. We rely quite heavily on our relationships and our proposition and the product that we are bringing into the market. So that we have to do through offline retail.

Then, of course, we need to make sure that our product portfolio delivers. We need to make sure that we are following it up with all our offers, for example, Care. We have opened Care outlets in over 300 towns over the last six months. We also have pick up and drop off in 100 other towns. We also have an app on the phone. When you fire up the app, the app actually recognizes your phone, whether you are in warranty or not, and asks you questions about the problems on the phone. It does a little bit of troubleshooting right there. And if you are not able to solve the problem there, it directs you to the nearest Nokia Care center, and we have over 370 of them in India.

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The mention of retail brings up the question of online vs. offline. At a time when many brands are trying to keep their feet in both online as well as traditional retail, which is Nokia’s best bet?

So the way I see it, in the long term, ideally, I would like to take my phones and put them across all channels,” Mehta says and then continues with a slightly rueful smile as if reminding us that HMD is a start up. “But currently, I don’t have the share and scale to be able to manage that kind of an operation. So I have to optimize within my means and maximize my reach. We will be in all the channels where our target millennial consumer is sitting or visiting and then depending on the product and the specs and the price of the device, we will determine whether we want to go online or offline based on the analytics we have on the channel. So we chose to go online with the Nokia 6 which is a very strong proposition because we realized that bulk of the consumers who would be interested in Nokia 6 is online. Nokia 5 on the other hand, is a phone with a very nice touch and feel, it is very pocketable, and it is beautiful, and people have got to pick it up and fall in love with it. Therefore, offline because you can’t do that online. So what we are delivering to the consumer will determine the channel we go with.

Personally speaking…Pink Floyd and all that

He has been with Nokia since 2005. Was he always in technology and if not, how did he end up there? Mehta laughs and raises his eyebrows as he remembers, “How did I get into technology? I joined Nokia in 2005 January. I was in FMCGs before that,” he recalls with a smile. “I was with ITC for many years, and then with Coca-Cola for a couple of years. So I was there until 2005 with ITC and Coke.

His background is pretty technological, though. “I am an engineer by qualification. My graduation is in engineering. I am from IIT Madras,” Mehta tells us. “So I did my undergrad there.” But then, things took a rather un-tech turn. “I realized very fast that I was not cut out to be a hardcore engineer,” he smiles. “So I went for management after that.” But management did not kill his interest in technology. “I was always a little interested in technology,” he confesses. “Nokia offered me a job, I joined it. And I figured this would really change the world, this whole thing. I was quite attracted to it. I was associated with a global brand.

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Considering what a roller coaster ride it has been, was it the right decision? Mehta has no doubt.

I think it is the best decision I took,” he says. “I have got a daughter who is now in college and has seen eleven schools thanks to Nokia. They have moved me every few years. I have got a son who is grade eleven he has seen seven schools. He has also been moved around. My wife who is still there with me has also enjoyed it. It has been an interesting experience. I am very thankful to the brand for it. It has been a wonderful time. An absolutely wonderful time.

But it has been a turbulent time too; we point out. How has he seen Nokia change in a decade or more?

Like I said, I think the biggest difference is that it was a very large corporation, Nokia. It was a massive global company of 30-40 billion US Dollars, etc., etc.” Mehta says. “It was a big corporation.” He snaps back to the present, with almost brutal bluntness: “Now we are exposed to the elements. We are on our own. It is a start up.

Not that it scares him. “For me, it is a great way to leverage my 20 plus years of experience and leave a legacy. Build something. Rather being the part of the ship, it is good to build the ship sometimes,” he says and then goes back to the earlier question. “That’s what I think was the difference then. Then I had just hopped on, climbed onto a ship and rode with it. Now I think, I am in a lifeboat, building a ship.” He smiles. “But that ship is building fast. That ship is building really really fast. So, for me, it has been really energizing. I am working 24 x 7 because I just love it so much. I just love it.

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And what does he do when he is not working? The answer is a quick one.

Well, when I am not working, I enjoy being with the family. I love traveling. So we just went to Ladakh,” he says. “I enjoy traveling. I enjoy reading. I am not an avid reader like I have seen people, but I enjoy reading management, business, leadership journals. I enjoy music. So travel and music would be my top two with family.

Any particular music tastes? Well, the man is very open in this department. “Anything,” he says, spreading his arms wide. “Including my kids’ crazy rap nonsense that they listen to. I enjoy that. And I listen to a lot of classic rock, soft rock. From the eighties, the nineties and the seventies. I like Pink Floyd, Eric Clapton, The Grateful Dead… it is a whole list. I can keep going.

My Nokia favorites – remember the 9500?

He has been with Nokia for ages. Which has been his favorite Nokia phone? Mehta shakes his head to collect his thoughts and begins a tad predictably, with the device in his hand. “To be honest, it is the 8,” he says, holding up the device. “For the experience in the current lot. And I’m very serious about it. And I have seen them all, right? It is unfair to compare today’s phones with the phones of ten years ago, but if I say from an overall experience, touch and feel, the fluidity of the operating system, it has to be the 8. I would clearly say it. And I have had a couple of them. The experience of this is really really good. When I had gone to Leh on a holiday, I would just take the phone out of the car and click. Unbelievable quality. Unbelievable.

He sees us waiting for more. And with a smile switches off from the present and goes back into a golden past. “If I go back to the old vintage phones, which was my best,” he hums under his breath and then continues. “I love the Communicators. For Communicators, the largest market in the world was Indonesia because it was a fashion phone in Indonesia. The 9500 was a fashion statement and was bought by the Indonesian women. It was amazing. It was a massive aberration but that’s what it was. In the older set, I guess that sticks. And the N 97 mini. I used for a long time. I really liked that phone. It was very nice and pocketable.

Finnish, “Never Finished” – the spirit of Sisu

A golden (if often troublesome past) and a very challenging present. What can we expect from Nokia in the coming days? Mehta clearly has his priorities sorted. “You can expect a lot more exciting devices coming to market,” he says. “You can expect Nokia as a brand to really root itself in the ethos of this country. As it was in the past. You can expect Nokia to be a brand that is going to be around forever. Products are all renditions of something. It is the brand that lasts. So we will do what it takes to ensure that Nokia is back with values that it stood for. Which are reliability, honesty, humility.

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And then as we are finishing, Mehta’s voice changes. It is no longer the voice of a person heading a company on a challenging task. It is low, gentle and yet very determined.

It is the voice of a warrior going to war. One more time.

A lot of Nokia is actually the way the Finnish are. That is one of the things that has really kept me going despite all the ups and downs. We were a big ship I told you, and then we ended up on a raft, almost being drowned, but I just stayed on. I just enjoyed it.” He pauses, then continues, his voice still intense. “Something about the brand always told me that it will be back.

In Finnish, there is this term is called Sisu. I don’t know if you have heard of it but you can Google it later. Sisu means perseverance. Nokia is all about Sisu. It is all about resilience. It is all about perseverance. It is all about persistence and it is all about coming back because Nokia has been close to disappearing two or three times in its hundred-and-fifty-two years of history. A couple of times it almost disappeared and it has reappeared and come out even stronger. I think this is one of the resurgences that we see.

He finishes and looks at us. And although a smile is playing across his lips, you can see steel in his eyes. The spirit of Sisu, which Wikipedia tells us is “a compound of bravado and bravery, of ferocity and tenacity, of the ability to keep fighting after most people would have quit, and to fight with the will to win….”

He is an engineer. A manager. A leader. Some would say even a leader of a lost cause.

But in his deepest heart, he is a warrior, albeit a corporate one.

Which is why perhaps…

The formal jacket fits Ajey Mehta.