Online digital entertainment channel The Viral Fever’s (TVF’s) first original show, Rowdies 9—a spoof of the realty show MTV Roadies—was released in February 2012. It went on to become the first original video to go viral. The company’s other original web series, Pitchers and Permanent Roommates, are big hits too. TVF commands a subscriber base of 1.5 million and counting.
In this interview with business strategist Rajesh Srivastava, Arunabh Kumar, founder and creative experiment officer of TVF, talks about what compelled him to start out on his own, content as their USP which attracts viewers, talent and investors alike, how he views competition from the big boys, and the need to “keep doing one scary thing every three months” to remain “cool”. Edited excerpts:
When you went to MTV with your youth-centric content and MTV shut the door on you, were you determined to disrupt the television industry?
The desire was stronger to prove myself right than prove others wrong. There was no design in disrupting the industry. It all began with a very simple, naive observation: whenever I used to meet all these young people—my friends, college kids—I used to do a small research, asking them what is your last television memory and the two answers I used to get was sports and news. The entire generation had stopped watching fiction programme on TV. So, I decided to invest in original content. I thought that [the market] was underserved and I liked doing it.
What is your differentiator vis-a-vis other branded content in the market?
The differentiation lies in the kind of product that you put out. We had zero dollars for marketing. The only thing that we could do was make a product, hope people like it and they are able to see that differentiation. That is an outcome of half a decade of work now. There was a lens view of looking at the kind of content I wanted to watch. That is how I started creating and that lens view became the USP and the differentiation and the personality of TVF, but I think we just stuck to being honest about our lives, our stories and that honesty in trying to create is what people appreciate. It resonates. That is something which is consistent in our work.
You create content for the digital world and you put it out there, but the digital world is a wild jungle. Content gets lost. What did you do so that your content did not get lost in this jungle?
If you take the entire online ecosystem in this country, it is divided into pre-Rowdies era and post-Rowdies era. When we made Rowdies that was the first original video for YouTube which went viral. It completely travelled on merit of content and it still does.
What is your strategy to get customers to speak good things about you?
We did not have even one rupee to market it, so there was no question of having some communication campaign or PR. I am sure if I had money, I would have tried to do it. The only thing that was our vehicle to market ourselves was our content, our product. This is a leaf I take from most of the German companies. Their products are their brand ambassadors. A BMW stands for its own product. This is a great insight. They would rather put one dollar more into what you make.
Your content is created not by you alone but by the people who are with TVF. How do you select people?
It started in a very organic way, there was no method in the madness. It is the same thing. It is the same algorithm. We want to make certain things and we attract people who want to share that or sometimes people walk into our office these days who want to make something and we like it and we want to support that. There is no third or fourth way that you can sort of put a process to this. There is an inherent nature of TVF which most of people who want to work with us understand. You know, how you will say that I want to write a film for Sanjay Leela Bhansali because I love Devdas, and there will be writers and actors who want to work in an Anurag Kashyap film or a Dibakar Banerjee film or a Balki film saying that I like their kind of art.
So the idea is that okay guys you know this is us. We just lay ourselves bare and you have seen our work. I do not select them, they select us.
Was there a strategy in making your office not a workplace but a fun place? Does it lead to increase in creativity?
No, I have a very counter-intuitive opinion on this. I don’t think that offices have become fun or become cooler because of colourful beanbags. That is the worst thing that Google did. Everybody is having a very colourful office and everybody thinks that it is a great culture. It is not. Culture is not defined by beanbags in any office.
Every one of us here love our job and we want to excel at it. We do not feel that if we will be having fun and we will be smoking up, we will be getting great ideas. That is the worst kind of thing that has happened in the creative industry. The ways of working have been misconstrued and defined very wrongly. When somebody walks into this office and says that writing is my passion, then I do not really need to make my place fun to make you passionate about your passion. In fact, the litmus test should be that I should be throwing you into one cave and still you would be writing because it is your passion. We would rather have people who would anyway know that what is fun for them is doing the work that they love. We do not really need to have colourful beanbags.
Your subscriber base is 1.5 million and counting. It has attracted competitors. Yash Raj Films (YRF) has also entered into the domain in which you operate. Does the entry of these big boys bother you?
No. Competition is a good thing. It keeps you always on your toes. The big guys getting excited about the thing that we started and they now aspire and try and you know all of them have our shows and our names in their PPTs—I think that is a great thing to be proud of. I mean, to come out of nowhere and all a bunch of small-towners, and we created something which the big guys believe in. That is actually a reward for us, not really something that we see as competition because when a YRF, when an Eros, a Star, a Viacom—when all these guys think that whatever these guys are doing is right, that is the best pat on the back you can get.
To be very honest, there is no scope for competition in show business because agar do acchi film lagi hain to main dono dekhunga (if there are two good films, I’ll watch both). Agar 10 acche videos bane hain to main 10 dekhunga (If there are 10 good videos, I’ll watch all 10.) So I think, at least in our context, it does not really make a difference.
At heart you are creative and you want to take risk. But investors are risk averse. They want a bottom line. How do you manage this conflict?
I think there is no conflict. For us being creative does not mean that you do not do the maths. That is the first thing that we teach that you have to do the maths behind any piece of content and creativity that you do. It is part of TVF culture. We are very, very cognizant of the maths all the time. Forget about investors or external parties, we ourselves always keep ourselves at a pressure that okay are we able to do things in the right way? Are we not just making shit out of our own whims and fancies? We never do that. I think nobody can be more cautious about those things than the people who are working in TVF, right from Bangalore to Delhi and in Bombay. All of us know that we are doing something towards an end. It is not being done because we are creative at heart and we can walk away saying that this is not my problem. It does not work like that.
New Age companies actually hand over their brands to their customers… Is TVF also handing over its brand to so that they own it and say it is my brand?
I think you are right. There are lot of evangelist in our community. There are these guys who will write 6,000 words of comment when they do not like something on TVF. If they are taking so much pain to tell us what has gone with one of our videos that means that they are no longer just loyalists or fans, they are evangelists, they are champions of TVF and that community does not really come with money. I think one of the best things and also the worst thing about digital is it is very brutal. You cannot throw money at a problem. You cannot buy loyalty because you give them discounts. In content it does not work at all because you are not even giving, nobody is paying for that, so I think that is something which I believe that even if you give me 100 million dollars today, tomorrow I cannot increase the community. It is an outcome of four years or awesome work which people have gone on to love and one inch by one inch, one person by person we have actually converted them and have made them into TVF evangelist. To have a family of almost 3-5 million extended TVF family fans, it is a priceless thing. The biggest of companies cannot walk in and say that one day we will have 3 billion people caring for us. It does not work like that.
What you did to television industry, you disrupted it and we had a discussion on how you did it. The question is, what you did to the television industry, somebody is going to do it to you. The formula for the 21st century is, before someone else comes and disrupts you, you have to disrupt yourself. So what are you doing to disrupt TVF?
This is a very, very interesting question which sort of defines the journey of any company. We were also discussing that we need to keep disrupting ourselves and I think there cannot be a sacrosanct old guard in all things. There is always some semblance of direction, then you follow it and then you maybe change the direction.
I wrote some 5-7 rules when Rowdies became viral and I felt TVF can sort of try and move a little bit away from its branded content servicing business and get into original content online. At that time I remember I wrote 7 rules and one of the rules was that we should be doing one scary thing every three months and if we are not doing it, then we are not really moving into that direction.
There are times when we are scared of putting it out but we do it because if we do not do it then yes, I think when expectations increase and when you are a big brand, then you definitely become slightly more careful. You become more cautious, but the motto is lights, camera, experiments and experiments fail and succeed but you get unpredictable result only when you experiment.
I feel that if we are able to imbibe disruption as a habit, that is something which will see us through.
To be honest it has happened as well. We had started with comedy. We were known only for laughs. When we launched TVF drama in 2014 September, we were actually scared that people will say what are you doing, making drama, trying to make us cry and we thought if we get one million views in all five episodes of Permanent Roomate, the first web series, we will open a bottle of champagne. It got 15 million. So those are the small moments of internal scare that we get. It should become a habit or something otherwise happens.
If content is king in TVF, what is the strategy to make sure that the content that you create is relevant and resonates with people?
I think what you just said is actually what we do as our jobs. I tell everyone that this is our job and that is why I want to be here for 30 years doing this because this is the exact same job that most of us are going to have. What is it that we should do, which people will like—figuring that out, doing that and doing an output of that is what our jobs are all about.
The question therefore is how do you figure it out so consistently? It is like Sachin Tendulkar batting.
To begin with, I think it comes with a lot of practice. I think we have the most practice. So practice definitely is like 90% of the contributor. The other 10% would be instinct and all of us—130 of us today—are privileged in some sense that we have that instinct and we all follow that instinct very strongly.
What did you do to make TVF into a cool brand?
I will go back to the example of what do you do to create a community of Harley-Davidson, what do you do to make a community of BMW? You know about the community of Apple or Xiaomi. You make great products. There is no shortcut to that and you just have fun with it. I might have been actually sounding very boring till now, but we actually have fun with content and the product and that is something which resonates with them (the audience). They are fans of the stuff that we do and that has led them to consider us cool. You have to be nimble, you have to keep redefining yourself. You have to surprise yourself and if you keep surprising yourself, then I think the cool quotient remains.
To some extent, if you really look at it, if ever I could write a thesis on the whole definition of cool, coolness is nothing but anything that has shocked and given shock and awe to people, and that when it starts to get accepted becomes cool. When it becomes slightly mainstream, it stops being cool. So if you look at this, there is a very fine between the birth of coolness, something cool and the death of something cool.
A very good line comes to my mind from Dark Knight which says, “Either you die and become a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become a villain.” I think that is what you need to keep in mind—anything, any product, any stuff will be cooler yesterday, will not be cooler tomorrow. That is the key to it.
Rajesh Srivastava is a corporate consultant, entrepreneur and academic
This abridged interview is part of a new series on entrepreneurs who are dismantling the old rules of business. Play the unabridged interview on www.foundingfuel.com.