Thiagarajan Rajagopalan, VP of Product in India, joined Navan in May 2023, when Navan acquired his company Tripeur to expand its footprint in India. The agreement marked the fifth acquisition for the Navan Group in two years, following purchases in the UK, Germany, Sweden, and Spain.
Thiagarajan, who goes by ‘Thia,’ founded Tripeur in December 2015 and spearheaded the digital transformation of the Indian travel market — the world’s seventh-largest.
Notably, India leads the world in per capita mobile data consumption, making it essential to prioritize mobile-centric solutions to the dynamic demands of Indian consumers.
In this fascinating conversation, we learn about Thiagarajan’s unique perspective that led to Tripeur, why he joined forces with Navan, and the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity he offers Indian engineers today.
Navan: Why did you start Tripeur?
Thiagarajan: It came from years of problems in my previous jobs. I used to work for Motorola in the United States, and business travel was relatively easy compared to anything I had used in India. I would book my tickets, and my manager would approve the purchase. I didn’t have to deal with any travel agents.
I then moved back to India with Motorola, and there was zero automation when booking business travel. It was always a painful process. I dealt with agents who would get things wrong or ignore my preferences. I thought that only Motorola dealt with this problem in India, but then I moved to Qualcomm, and it was the same thing — agents, manual bookings, and mistakes.
Corporate travel was backward in India, and I saw the opportunity to make a difference, so I jumped in and started Tripeur.
Navan: How would you describe the transformation of the business travel market in India over the past decade as technology has become more integrated?
Thiagarajan: There’s been a couple of, let’s say, revolutions in India that have transformed the whole industry in the last seven or eight years.
The first is the proliferation of smartphones. As a result, people are much more comfortable doing things online. The Internet penetration in India was very low ten years ago, but it’s grown exponentially since then. Today, almost everybody has Internet access, at least from a mobile phone.
The second factor is data usage rates. Data cost has plummeted in India. It’s now cents per megabyte or gigabyte. Nobody worries about data rates anymore. The combination of these two factors has driven digital transactions.
The third factor was COVID-19. Before that, people could walk into their office and ask the agent to book a ticket for them. Nobody understood why they would need automation or to book a flight themselves when someone could do it for them.
With COVID-19, everybody worked from home and suddenly realized they had to do things independently. And companies found they could not offer the same old offline services. Everything had to go online, including travel bookings. COVID-19 was a positive event in that sense.
Today, of course, automation is the name of the game. When we launched Tripeur, we were ahead of the curve, and people didn’t grasp our product for the first few years. As these factors shifted, people wanted to use and understand the product.
Navan: You had a vision that was ahead of its time. What motivated the decision to merge with Navan, and how do you see this acquisition benefiting both parties?
Thiagarajan: We always had global ambitions. The plan was to start in India and spread globally. Navan started around the same time; no tech player dominated the world in corporate travel when we started. Navan and Tripeur had similar ambitions, but there was slower adoption in India due to the factors we discussed. Hence, the overall growth was much slower than we anticipated or wanted.
We then focused our international expansion on markets like Southeast Asia and the Middle East, which is when Navan approached us. Navan has a global platform and customer base, so it made sense to join forces instead of compete. When we met with the team, it became evident that we’d work with fantastic people with a great vision and strong execution.
It was the right decision to merge rather than compete. It was a no-brainer at the end of the day.
Navan: Your role now is officially VP of Product in India. What are you focused on in this new role?
Thiagarajan: I have learned quite a bit about the Indian corporate travel market over the last eight years. We know what works, what customers want, what gaps need to be filled, what role tech plays, and much more. Navan is a global platform with a few gaps in the Indian market. I bring all the knowledge I’ve gained in the last several years running Tripeur from a product perspective and incorporate that into Navan to make it attractive and functional for the Indian market.
It’s exhilarating because it’s the start of corporate travel 2.0 in India. I’m bringing the entire Navan platform to India with an Indian flavor.
Navan: What roles are you looking to fill as you build the India team for Navan?
Thiagarajan: We have a small in-house team in India, so we’re hiring to create a more robust engineering team in Navan’s language (Java). I’ll then focus on building more specialized teams for flights, hotels, admin, payments, and expenses to cater to the Indian market and work on different elements of the Navan platform.
It’ll be a large team in the long run, but initially, I’m looking for the following:
Team members should feel comfortable disagreeing with how things are done. I want people who can find something wrong with existing processes and products and be brave enough to correct them.
Navan: What are your aspirations for the culture at Navan in India, and how can you make sure it’s specific to India while still aligning with Navan’s global vision and culture?
Thiagarajan: The culture I have in mind aligns with how Navan operates. India is an ambitious market in a hurry to catch up with the Western world; therefore, we offer a unique opportunity to engineers with that mindset. They can build products at Navan that are used globally, and collaborate with a global engineering team currently spread across the U.S., Europe, and Israel. Indian engineering talent can build global products with a worldwide team.
If you want to build global products in a growing market alongside talented engineers around the world, Navan is for you.
Students from the top institutes in India — like the India Institute of Technology, National Institute of Technology, or Birla Institute of Technology and Science, Pilani — who have a strong desire to make a difference in the global technology world have the opportunity to work alongside top-notch talent.
Navan: The business travel market is growing in India. What’s your vision when you look ahead? How will the Tripeur-Navan merger push the corporate travel industry forward? What will corporate travel look like in five or ten years?
Thiagarajan: First, if you look at the Indian market, Navan’s technology is ahead of what’s available in the market today. If you look at the Indian market for corporate travel, the kind of available products are very India-centric, which is restrictive.
Navan brings advanced, forward-looking capabilities to the market, and the Navan Expense product is ahead of its time. We have an excellent opportunity to capture the market because of the quality of Navan’s products. Once we bring the Indian element to it, we have a perfect opportunity to capture the market and ultimately become the de facto leader. Navan will potently combine the local market’s needs with cutting-edge technology.
The second thing, which is even more interesting, is that while we are building all these things to bridge the gap in India, what we create for India will also be helpful for the rest of the world. So, some of the capabilities we are building also apply to the rest of the world.
One example: low-cost carrier connectors, which Navan did not historically concentrate on because the United States and Europe are primarily GDS-centric markets. But these connectors will help in other growing markets with similar needs in Southeast Asia and Africa.
In fact, we are adding essential elements like these to the Navan tech stack for the global market. Not only will they make Navan a leader in India, but India will also spark product changes that make Navan more attractive and functional in the rest of the world.
Navan is actively hiring engineers in India and worldwide. See available positions at Navan.