Legend has it that when entrepreneur Raj Koneru, the founder of Intelligroup Inc., was rebuffed in his attempt to buy a stake in Ajit Balakrishnan’s Rediff.com in the early days of the Internet in India, he turned to the next person who could build a rival to Rediff, right from scratch. His choice: B.G. Mahesh.
Thus was born Indiainfo.com, a news website headed by the eponymous founder of Mahesh.com—a website popular in the 1990s.
Just a year after it was founded, Indiainfo.com shot into the limelight when Morgan Stanley acquired a 7.6% stake in the company for $11.6 million in 2000. However, a few months later, the dotcom bubble burst and Indiainfo was among the worst hit. The firm slashed costs and chugged along for six years or so.
But Mahesh wasn’t done with the Internet. In 2006, he started another content site, OneIndia, with a focus on providing local-language content.
In 2010, Netcore Solutions bought OneIndia for an undisclosed sum.
Despite his struggles, the 48-year-old remains an optimist, awaiting what he calls an impending boom for local language sites once 4G services are rolled out.
In an interview, Mahesh spoke about the online content business, his experiences in the dotcom era and his views on the ongoing startup boom. Edited excerpts:
What’s your take on the start-up boom and how does it compare with the dotcom’s?
What’s happening is good because people can dream big and some of the things that entrepreneurs are working on are changing the lives of everyday people in a big way. So, you should ignore valuations for now.
The work that people like Ravi Gururaj and Sharad Sharma are doing is really good. It’s very, very helpful for young entrepreneurs and the entire ecosystem, because we need help with policymaking.
When we started, the entire thing was new; so, it was very difficult to find a mentor or a guide.
Now, there’s a pool of fantastic mentors available. There’s an entire ecosystem that has been built. And there are also some older start-up founders, who are happy to guide younger people. They’re not afraid to share their experiences and their wealth, considering they’re investors in some start-ups.
What some of the established founders can share about their mistakes, failures, lessons, etc., is very valuable. What happened to us during the dotcom time was the first wave of the Internet. There was no historical data or lessons available.
The Internet community has moved on. A majority of the entrepreneurs today were in school or college when the first wave happened. That time is now forgotten because this current wave is much bigger than that. This is a great time to be a youngster out of college.
What are some of the lessons that you learnt from your dotcom experience that would be helpful for current entrepreneurs?
One is that you need external board members to advise you.
Whether you follow their advice is a different matter, but it opens up possibilities and your perspective on things. Another important lesson is that you have to stay grounded, personally, and a majority of the e-commerce guys seem to be.
How did you manage the downturn?
We were very open about the fact that we had to right-size. We were spanked by the media because we were (cutting costs and jobs). But we had to pay salaries, taxes.
How do you avoid being bloated or spending too much?
See, if you’re not bullish and not taking risks when you have the money, it’s very hard to impress markets. At that time, everyone was bullish because they wanted to list on Nasdaq. Now, everyone is bullish because they want to raise their next round of funding.
It’s not like there are no checks and balances from investors. So, taking risk and being bullish on hiring and spending is part of the business.
For instance, everyone has placed a bet that mobile is going to be the big thing over the next few years. So, everyone is building their business accordingly. But if the bet doesn’t take off after two years, then you have to change course. That’s it. But if you don’t plan in advance and take bets, then when the boom is actually happening, it’ll be too late for you.
How do you rate the current set of entrepreneurs?
Definitely, the DNA and thinking has changed. Entrepreneurs are a lot more confident these days. The ecosystem has changed drastically.
Is there more acceptance of failure?
Well, I’m still here!
It really depends on what you do after the failure. If you’re applying the lessons of your experiences and you’re not afraid to try out new things, then yes (people would be willing to give you another chance).
How did you deal with your failure?
For the first few years, even at OneIndia, it was very difficult. It is only now that the Indian language space is being recognized. We were the ones who brought this in the digital space. No one else was willing to take the risk. It’s been paying for us over the past three years.
What I learnt was cash management. From day one over here, we haven’t spent foolishly. We have weekly sales calls, quarterly reviews, and things like that, that keep everyone on their toes. Whereas we started Indiainfo in August 1999 and a year later, the party was over. So, it was too short a span and things were moving quickly.
How is content consumption evolving?
These days, there’s a lot of content available and people don’t have the time to go through so much. So what we’ve done to differentiate ourselves is summarizing. We launched our app a few months ago, which is available in English and many Indian languages. Over the past few years, content has also moved a lot towards youth. One fundamental change is that we have to be providing content that people want rather than saying that I’m just going to write what I want and people should read that. I think the very long form of articles is in danger. The depth of knowledge that people have these days is very shallow.
Which are the growth areas in content?
English-language consumption seems to have reached a saturation point. If I’m growing at 1-2%, that’s nothing. We’re looking at growth of 100-200% and that is going to come from local languages.
And the long form of articles in the digital world has a shorter life span than in print. And people who read local languages are interested in a variety of things. We have sections such as travel, lifestyle, tech reviews. I don’t know why the Internet ecosystem has assumed that people in tier II and III cities are not interested in reading a review of a BMW, for instance.
Some of these people, like rich farmers, have the money. Lifestyle is a big category. How to look good, how to lose weight, etc.—these are things people want to read about across India.
Once 4G kicks in, the sector that is expected to benefit most are the language portals. And I’m not complaining. Life will be really good.