Mumbai: The conference room has walls of glass through which he can see busy directory operators, but V.S.S. Mani’s eyes are focused elsewhere, on some far-away point, as he speaks of the visions he used to have. Back before he founded directory service firm Just Dial Private Ltd, Mani would only have to close his eyes and he would see numbers—not bank balances or account numbers, but phone numbers. “I used to just dream numbers, easy numbers, like 2222 or 8888,” he says. Just Dial’s own number is easy too: 39999999 (across the country). Mani says that there should not be a single person who needs to call Just Dial, but cannot remember the number.
This week, though, Mani is likely thinking of a different number: $18.5 million (Rs77 crore). That’s the amount US hedge fund Tiger Global invested on the weekend in Just Dial (including $1 million, or Rs4 crore) from the company’s first investor). Mani plans to use the money to expand and grow, even to the United States. Tiger is the second investor in the company. Last October, Hong Kong-based SAIF Partners wooed Mani. The story goes that one of the fund’s partners in India wanted information, called Just Dial for help, and thought the company would make a good investment—and then put $12 million (Rs50 crore) in his company.
Mani was born in Jamshedpur, raised in Kolkata, and was studying to be a chartered accountant when the need to go out and earn a living pushed him into a sales job in New Delhi with a directory firm that was selling listings in the yellow pages, then a relatively new concept in India. That was in 1987 and it was while working with that company that he got the “idea of starting a service where people could dial in and receive information 24X7 on any product or service.” A few years later, Mani started a company that did just that, but the great Indian telecom boom was still a few years away. “We were ahead of our time,” he says. Back then “people would apply for a telephone connection and wait for 10 years.” The business wasn’t doing all he wanted it to, and he sold out. The idea of starting a directory service, though, didn’t go away, and so, Mani landed in Mumbai, India’s commercial capital, in the early 1990s with Rs50,000. He didn’t use the money to launch a directory service, though. He needed more money for that, and the financial strength to wait for the investment to deliver a return. His first venture was a matrimonial magazine, a guide of sorts to planning a wedding, that was distributed by a couple of dailies to people placing matrimonial ads in their newspapers. It was a small business, but it was profitable. “The Rs50,000 had produced a surplus (after two years), and so there was enough money to go and apply for telephone lines,” Mani says. And then he began to cultivate Just Dial from 1996, two years after he founded the company.
The original investment has now grown into a company valued at $125 million (Rs521 crore) with a revenue in excess of Rs110 crore. Today, Just Dial receives almost 100,000 calls a day (or 36 million calls a year); it has a directory of two million establishments across 40 Indian cities. Some callers are entrepreneurs looking for suppliers or distributors. Others are customers shopping for a product or service—such as a housewife in New Delhi looking for caterers for a party (Just Dial offers an option where it takes down the email of the person and mails him or her a list of establishments offering the product or service). And still others call when they need a number in a hurry. Devottam Sengupta, a Mumbai-based lawyer, says he calls Just Dial when he is out on the road and has forgotten to make a dinner reservation at the restaurant of his choice.
The company has several variants of this service, one is online at www.justdial.com. (Mani claims that the site, which launched in the middle of March, gets over 200,000 page views a day). From May there will also be an SMS (message on mobile phones) service. Just Dial started off with a flat-fee for all establishments it listed and then moved to an advertising-led business model where it charged up to a 3000% premium for featured positions. Last year, Mani moved to a pay-per-lead model that he admits was inspired by Google Inc. Of the two million entries in Just Dial’s database, Mani adds, 60,000 are sponsored— much of the company’s revenue, he says, comes from these and advertisements.
Just Dial’s headquarters is a 20,000 sq. ft office in Mumbai’s Malad (West) area. The company employs 2,650 people across 11 offices. Madhu Nair, a senior executive at Just Dial, has worked with Mani for 11 years. “You won’t know who is the boss and who is the worker,” Nair says. The office has a cafe where most employees eat, and a training room. When the company started off it was a 25 sq. ft office in Mumbai’s Nariman Point area, Mani says. At last count, Just Dial’s offices occupied around 80,000 sq. ft across India.
“When we met with him (Mani), we became very excited very quickly. We almost immediately signed a letter of intent,” says Ravi Adusumalli, general partner at SAIF. “We were very impressed in what he was able to do in building his business on an organic basis without capital in the company.” SAIF has invested $300 million (Rs1,251 crore) of its $2 billion (Rs8,340 crore) pie in India over the last five years.
“He is hitting the sweet spot right now,” adds Adusumalli talking over the phone from the US, where he is based despite his frequent travel toIndia.
Mani thinks it can be sweeter. This fall, Just Dial will enter the US market. Americans will be able to call 1-800-JUST-DIAL and ask for pizza at 42nd street in Manhattan or a plumber in San Jose. The company’s roll-out in the US will reverse the order of its roll-out in India: Internet, then wireless, then phone. And it will start with greater New York and then spread west.
“For Indian entrepreneurs who have gone through all odds in this country, where everything works against business,” the US market is a happy contrast, Mani says. It took him three months to get an SMS code in India. He got one in 30 minutes in the US, on the Internet. Mani also speaks of leveraging India’s low cost model for the US operations.
“There was a time when we went to a bank to borrow a few thousand bucks and nobody looked at us, now it’s a time that people are coming to us,” Mani says. “It is a good feeling. But now it’s also a bigger responsibility because investors should get their value also. For an entrepreneur, this is a big ego thing. At least for me.”
Sixty in Sixty is a special series that we plan to run through 2007, the 60th anniversary of India’s independence. We will introduce you to sixty Indians—both here and abroad—who are not rich or famous. These are people who are making quiet, but important, contributions without seeking headlines, to help make India and, in some cases, the world a better place. We also welcome your suggestions on people whom you think should be profiled in this series. Please send your suggestions by email to firstname.lastname@example.org