As a student with an aptitude for language and literature, Mahendra Sharma was one among the thousands in India who studied computer engineering under peer pressure. But what sets Sharma apart is that he not only returned to his passion a few years later, but also put his computer engineering qualification to use.
“In school, I was passionate about language, literature, and culture. But I had to study computer engineering. In 2013, after I had spent nearly 14 years first in learning computer engineering and later in a job, I thought it was high time I did something about my original passion. With a bit of study and networking with writers, I identified a gap between technology and literature,” Sharma said.
With his friend, ex-employer and now partner Nilesh Shah, Sharma worked to build a model through which authors could publish their own work. In February 2015, Sharma and Shah launched Matrubharti Technologies Pvt. Ltd, which works as a dual platform: authors can use it to publish their work, and readers can access it through mobile apps.
Since 2015, the Ahmedabad-based company has helped more than 2,000 writers publish 5,000 ebooks. The ebooks have been downloaded 850,000 times by around 60,000 readers.
The company was a winner in the culture and tourism category at the mBillionth Awards 2016 organized by the Digital Empowerment Foundation.
Matrubharti publishes in six languages and aspires to do so in 21. “Our monthly screen view count is 10 million and we have 60,000 verified readers registered with us. On a daily basis, we are serving over 200,000 ad impressions on our app for the readers. For authors there is a separate app where more than 2,400 writers login, upload their content for publishing and see their ebook download statistics on a day- to-day basis,” said Sharma.
It helped that Sharma and Shah, who has a master’s degree in computer science from Stevens Institute of Technology, New Jersey, had already co-founded a company called Nichetech (NicheTech Computer Solutions Pvt.Ltd) in 2010. “NicheTech is an IT outsourcing company providing website design and mobile app development. Initially it provided technical help to the team of programmers to develop Matrubharti,” Sharma said.
The promoters self-funded Matrubharti for the first 15 months, boot-strapped with advertisement revenue from current and past apps. In June, it got funding from Viridian Capital.
The journey has been quite challenging. Sharma and Shah began in 2013 with small language-focused mobile apps serving language keyboards and small content apps. “This was before the two Matrubharti apps were launched. Since we were passionate about languages, we created free apps for language writing keyboards, and they were released under the NicheTech account,” he said.
Before it was named Matrubharti, the platform had rolled out 60 apps in nine months, which reached 6 million readers across the world in 18 months. But Sharma and Shah soon realized the limitations of the model. “It was not scalable and was criticized by industry experts because the technology was dependent on Google tools and operations were dependent on manual actions,” Shah said.
“What came as an eye-opener was Nasscom 10K start-up forum where many of our mentors suggested we have something scalable with less manual interaction with the system,” recalled Shah. So they designed a self-publishing platform for writers and a content delivery app for readers which eventually became Matrubharti.
The Matrubharti team initially targeted readers above 50 years of age but soon realised that this demographic was not ready to shift to ebook reading.
“Then we started targeting the age group of 18-40 and growth was much faster than before, as this group was already reading electronic content, so adoption of ebooks was not new to them,” Sharma said.
Content selection was another challenge: classic best-selling literature found few takers among the younger readers. Also, initially Matrubharti published full-length novels that users found difficult to store in smaller devices with limited memory. So, the company began publishing episodic novels.
Other key challenges at the conceptual stage were how to make publishing of ebooks easy for authors, how to secure the ebooks (digital rights management) so that illegal copy or sharing does not happen, how to engage the readers on a day-to-day basis (as “reading is not as exciting as gaming”) and how to protect the interests of readers and writers, both in terms of innovation and authenticity.
“We will open the platform to editors, translators and cover page designers in the next quarters so that collaboration can happen in digital publishing and great literature is produced. We aim to connect with 3,000 new writers of some more languages to complete the total language presence of Matrubharti to 10 languages before the end of 2016,” Sharma said.
Mint has a strategic partnership with Digital Empowerment Foundation, which hosts the Manthan and mBillionth awards.