On any given day on Facebook, friends buy each other drinks, poke or spank one another, have food fights, or turn someone into a vampire.
From MySpace to orkut, you can share a level of virtual interaction with your contacts that was unheard of a few years ago. The kidnapping and murder of Mumbai teenager Adnan Patrawala, who was lured by his killers through a social networking site, has sparked off a debate on these sites. But the idea of virtual networking has caught on in India. And over a dozen social networking sites (SNS) are currently vying to draw Net savvy youngsters away from orkut, the wildly popular site operated by Internet major Google Inc. These sites are all shooting for a larger share of clicks in a community of users estimated to be 10 million strong—just over a fifth of that number are active participants, though. The latest to join the fray is Reliance Entertainment’s BigAdda.
SNS entrepreneurs aim to build a critical mass of users in the age group of 18-35, the kind of people advertisers look for. For instance, Fropper.com, in business since 2003, has brands such as Levi’s, Airtel and Garnier advertising on the site. But to reach that stage, sites need to register at least one million users.
By March 2008, 53 million Indians will be using the Internet, according to a study by The Internet and Mobile Association of India. More than 35 million of these will be active users, people whom this young bunch of spunky Internet entrepreneurs are desperately looking to chat up on their sites.
VIVEK PAHWA, 26
Started: October 2006
The one year he spent acquiring a management diploma from the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad saw Vivek Pahwa, a mechanical engineer, turn to the Internet. About 10 months ago, he logged on to the social networking space by floating DesiMartini.com.
Second venture: Vivek Pahwa (left) feels the SNS space is now ready for a consolidation
It was a time when the buzz around Web 2.0 applications, which focus on interactions between users on an online site, was quickly gaining ground in India. Fee-based online services, such as marriage portals and job sites, had grown into mature businesses; the next new thing was definitely social networking.
Pahwa feels the SNS space is now ready for a wave of consolidation. “A million users is the minimum base that a social networking site must have to be able to earn revenues,” says Pahwa. DesiMartini, with about 300,000 registered users and about eight million page views a month, is definitely a work-in-progress.
In June this year, Pahwa beefed up his Internet services by launching a second business, SecondShaadi.com, a portal for those looking to remarry. It has a direct fee-based model. Like other social networking sites, DesiMartini must rely on advertisements and value-added services to earn revenues—a challenge all India-based social networking sites face.
Orkut has an estimated seven million users in India and although it offers a plain vanilla networking service, it has a pull factor other Indian sites envy. “Orkut is a traditional service; we have added on a host of user-generated features such as blogging, photo sharing, video uploads, and chatting,” says Pahwa. The site has more than 20 active blogs and claims over 100 photo uploads a day. But what Indian users like the most is the chat facility, with a new message coming in every few seconds at the DesiMartini chat room. “Social barriers that stopped Indians from sharing their thoughts and personal information online are fast disappearing. This was unthinkable even two years ago,” says Pahwa.
His eight-month stint in steering discussion forums and moderating interactions on DesiMartini has given him an interesting view of the way Indians socialize today. “It is not just dating that people are logging on to social networking sites for. More traffic is generated by people wanting to discuss views and opinions, and to meet new people.” As technology helps dissolve distances between people, online networking will clearly attract more traffic. “This is a business that requires scale, and instead of spending more money to acquire new users, social networking sites will soon consolidate existing user bases,” says Pahwa, predicting a wave of acquisitions in the sector.
KAVITA IYER, 34
Started: August 2006
When Kavita Iyer raised $7 million (about Rs29 crore) in venture capital funding for her social networking site, minglebox, in May, she was the envy of India’s Internet fraternity. Minglebox is the only Indian social networking site that has raised venture capital till now, a fact that has made it the first among equals. The investor, Sequoia Capital, has a history of picking hot new Internet start-ups. The firm’s US portfolio includes such heavyweights as Yahoo!, Google Inc. and YouTube.
Striking it rich: (from left) Minglebox co-founders Kavita Iyer, Sanjay Aggarwal and Sushma Abburi
A site that focuses on college students, minglebox was unveiled in the middle of 2006 and hosts communities from India’s top-ranking educational institutions. Minglebox claims it has over a million registered users, most of whom spend half an hour on the site on every visit. A statistic which, Iyer says, places her site above peers which report an average time per user of 20 minutes.
Iyer and her founder partners, 34-year-old Sushma Abburi and Sanjay Aggarwal, 35, have always swapped ideas, from the days when they were batchmates at IIT Delhi. Their camaraderie paid off when, at the height of the start-up wave in 2006, they pooled resources to go online with minglebox. “Indian consumers were looking for new services on the Internet, and social networking as a product was right in the sweet spot,” says Iyer.
As a young recruit to the elite TAS, formerly known as Tata Administrative Services, Iyer had worked on launch campaigns during her stint at Titan Industries Ltd. Brief stints at ICICI Bank and Wipro Technologies helped her gain an understanding of consumer needs and the use of technology to address them. But with minglebox, she has had to rely more on blue-sky ideas than on the tried and tested formulas of the pre-Internet age.
For instance, “scraps” on a social networking site are messages that users send each other. But if you are in the middle of a group chat and want a message to be scrambled, so that only one particular member can view it, minglebox can do it for you. It’s the equivalent of a private conversation between two people, even as they chat with the group at large.
“It is an innovation customers demanded, as a way of protecting privacy,” says Iyer, who feels Indians are more confident today about expressing themselves online than ever before.
Minglebox has had its share of objectionable content, and inbuilt filters take care of the worst. “But having communities regulate behaviour is as effective online as it is offline,” says Iyer. As communities on minglebox function on an invitation-only basis, any member who steps out of bounds is easily shown up.
Apart from privacy issues, Iyer spends most of her time on product development. Recently, minglebox offered youngsters entering college an interesting service—the Freshers Q&A—where they could lob questions on ragging, cranky professors or bunking at seniors or alumni, who then offered answers. “You have to listen to the customer; there is just no other way to run this business,” says Iyer, rueing the impact it has had on her work-life balance.
After an 11-hour shift at the office, the action moves to Iyer’s home, where she attends to her family—husband Sandeep and two-year-old daughter Dhaani. After 9pm, once the little one is tucked in, it’s back to the computer, as Iyer logs on for founders meetings or just customer tracking. “People think it is glamorous to be an entrepreneur,” she laughs wryly.
PRERNA GUPTA, 24
Started: October 2006
To call her a high achiever would be a cliché. But a look at her résumé leaves one with little doubt that 24-year-old Prerna Gupta is indeed one of them. After graduating in the top 5% of her class at Stanford University in 2004, Gupta spent a year as a management consultant at the Monitor Group. She followed that up with a stint as an associate at Summit Venture Partners, a top-ranked venture capital firm in Silicon Valley.
Taking a gamble: For Prerna Gupta the lure of the fastest growing Internet population in the world was too strong to resist
It was a career already on the fast-track when she traded it all to turn into an entrepreneur. Along with co-founder Parag Chordia, Gupta travelled to India to set up yaari.com, a social networking site that went live in October 2006. However, it took the duo over a year to do its homework on what exactly Indians were looking for. They ran an alpha version of yaari from September 2005 to collect user feedback before launching the full-fledged commercial site.
“Indian youth are social animals and love to flirt,” says Gupta, an insight she claims helped Chordia and her design a platform where users could flirt and interact with each other in a safe and fun environment. Yaari.com offers users the option of keeping their profiles private, and also blocking any unwanted contact. When they floated the idea of a social networking site in India, they were greeted with scepticism—social networking was seen as a passing fad even in the US. “Indians don’t use the Internet. They won’t put up their pictures online. Your service is free, how will you make money? were some of the questions lobbed at us,” says Gupta.
But for the duo, who came of age in the heady era of consumer Internet growth, the lure of the fastest growing Internet population in the world was too strong to resist. Her parents lived in the US and Gupta had grown up in Oklahoma. But she was a frequent visitor to India, and had picked up Indian music and dance, interests she pursued while at Stanford.
Chordia, who has a PhD in computer science and music, is also a trained sarod player who helped launch online start-ups in the US such as IndusLive, an Indian music website, and Bol records, a desi record label. Taking time off from his full-time teaching job at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Chordia worked with Gupta to build the yaari site, which integrates mobile with Internet services. Gupta believes Yaari Mobile, an SMS alert service, sets yaari.com apart from its peers.
“I hate being bossed around. I like creating my own things and working on them. So it was a natural decision to turn into an entrepreneur,” she says—independence she hopes to preserve for as long as possible by running yaari.com as a self-funded outfit with support from a small circle of angel investors.
VISHNU INDHURI, 29
Business head, Bharatstudent.com
Started: March 2007
This guy crashed the party, upsetting the slow and steady pace that other networking sites in India had adopted. Launched in March 2007, Bharatstudent.com has had an explosive beginning, registering 1.4 million users in 10 weeks and emerging the top-ranked Indian SNS on Alexa, the Web information company that offers a daily ranking of the most popular Internet sites.
Nothing to unlearn: Vishnu Indhuri (with the laptop) and his team in Hyderabad
A native of Vijayawada, a city in Andhra Pradesh, Vishnu Vardhan Indhuri studied computer science at the Illinois Institute of Technology in the US. His first job was with Northgate Technologies, an Internet advertising firm that has its headquarters in Hyderabad. “I have no work experience apart from the Internet space. I feel this has helped me, as I have nothing to unlearn,” says Indhuri, who was handpicked by Northgate Technologies to build its social media business.
In less than 60 days, Indhuri and his eight-member business development team came out with a unique model for the social networking space that was built around hiring “campus reporters” (reps) from college campuses in India and abroad. The only brief was that the students had to be of Indian origin.
As interns hired for three months, these campus reps are paid a monthly stipend of Rs4,000 and earn incentives for every lead they generate for the site.
“We just went after the student’s need to be a hero on campus and have money in his pockets,” says Indhuri. Unlike other sites that focus on socializing, Indhuri feels today’s youth are more focused; they want recognition and want to earn good money.
The aggressive no–holds barred marketing push had its downsides. “We had cases of objectionable content being used to draw in new users through the month of May,” he says.
Site managers trawled through the Internet for a clean-up campaign and new user registrations declined through the month, before they regrouped to hire a fresh set of campus reps from June. “We aim to make students part of the management of our site,” says Indhuri.
Later this year, he plans to launch a new campaign, a contest to choose a student as chief executive of Bharatstudent.com, to run the social media site for three months, while Indhuri steps aside.
“This is a business for young people, and I want to see what innovations a student CEO will come up with,” he says.
A media buff, Indhuri also runs a TV production company with his wife Brinda. The couple begins each day poring over market research data on Bharatstudent.com generated internally as well as data drawn from Google Search and Alexa.
“User generated content is the future of the media business, it is a space that Northgate Technologies is very focused on,” says Indhuri, who describes himself as an “intrapreneur”, a person who builds a new business for a corporate employer.
“There is no way a self-funded entrepreneur could have built Bharatstudent.com in the time span that we did it; it takes an average burn rate of Rs1 crore a month to run an Internet business, you cannot do it without financial backing,” he says.
Kalyan Manyam, 29
Started: June 2007
Users: Data Unavailable
In a world that worships youth, Kalyan Manyam is happy to be the contrarian. Indyarocks, the social networking site that went live in the last week of June, does not allow anyone below the age of 15 to register, and includes members aged 60.
Age does matter: Kalyan Manyam’s Indyarocks does not allow anyone below the age of 15 to register
The site also keeps an eye on kids up to 18 years old, making sure they are not the target of harassment. “We don’t want to be another orkut; that is not the space we are looking at,” says Manyam. Along with co-founder Vishnu Vardhan, a medical doctor based in Silicon Valley, Manyam is looking to build an online platform where Indians can engage in social, political and cultural debate in addition to socializing as they would in the offline world.
“It’s not just kids who are on SNS sites; the target age group these days is 20 to 35 years. These are the people who are articulate, opinionated and have money to spend,” says Manyam. Within a month of its launch, Indyarocks had roped in social reformers such as Jayaprakash Narayan of the Lok Satta party to blog on the site.
And in a bid to move away from the purely advertisement-driven revenue model followed by other SNS, Indyarocks enables job postings, but with a social reform element. Companies such as the GMR Infrastructure Group and Heritage Foods are picking up blue-collar workers through listings on Indyarocks by NGO groups that source workers from rural areas.
Manyam aims to build a social tool that can keep users connected while on the move. Integrating mobile with Net content has helped the site throw up services such as the free two-way SMS scrap, which allows a user to send a message, at no cost, to friends online that reaches their Indyarocks accounts and is also displayed on the mobile phone.
“Technology enables greater freedom of expression and that is what Indyarocks is aiming to tap,” says Manyam, who trained in information systems at the Eastern Michigan University in the US.
His first entrepreneurial venture was a tele-medicine start-up, Innova Health Systems, he co-founded with Vardhan in 2000, much before second generation Internet services took shape. Next in line on Indyarocks is localized content with features in regional languages.
NAVIN MITTAL, 33
Business head, Fropper.com
Started: April 2003
He was the first off the block in drawing users on to the Indian social networking space by launching Fropper.com in April 2003.
Early entrant: Fropper’s Navin Mittal says it’s all about having a good business model
Back then, the site mimicked the traditional look sported by older social networking sites such as orkut. It was a place where users logged on to make new friends and chat. But, as new-look Indian social networking sites innovate furiously in a bid to retain the attention of restless youngsters, Fropper has had to learn new tricks, too.
“Being comfortable with English is not a requirement to be on a social networking site. Regional language blogs will soon appear on Fropper,” says Mittal. He claims the site has about 2.4 million registered members and racks up 20–30 million page views per month. Going desi in a bid to draw in users from smaller towns and cities is the next stage of growth charted out by Mittal.
“Our USP is the citizen of India. Fropper is all about understanding Indian users and developing offerings for them,” says Mittal, who feels Indians are conservative by nature, and moderation of user groups to weed out abuse, spam and pornographic content is crucial.
Fropper has also benefited by being part of the People Group that has built successful Internet services such as shaadi.com, a matrimony portal that raised venture capital funding from Sequoia Capital. The site has focused on attracting big-ticket advertising and also earns subscription revenue from users who list their profiles on the relationships section. “We do not believe in burning money, there has to be a business model in place,” says Mittal, who spends close to 12 hours a day on the computer tracking user behaviour.
Earlier, it was email and chats that Indians logged online for but today, it is a lot more participatory, with users seeking out communities they can be a part of. “Earlier, one chatted with a person to get to know them, now you can read their blogs, listen to them discuss various topics. It improves a relationship,” says Mittal.