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India is seeing an explosion of smartphones’ installed base (chart below). This is leading to a burst in data consumption – Airtel’s mobile data consumption doubled in Q3, FY14 vs. Q3, FY13 and data revenue has become a quarter of the company’s total revenue. We are  starting to get onto the early part of the S-curve in terms of mobile-data growth.

Cumulative base of smartphones in India

Smartphones in India

(Source: Gartner, Industry)

Online transactions businesses like OTAs (MMT, Cleartrip, Yatra) are nearing 40% of their users on mobile and ecommerce companies (Flipkart, Snapdeal) are seeing 20-30% transactions from mobile. This trend will continue as smartphones will have deeper penetration than computers in India and for many people a smartphone will be their first and only connected device. Also being a personal device, a smartphone is more accessible than a computer even for users who have both.

This smartphone base will lead to creation of opportunities across sectors and an interesting one is in local businesses. Globally, Lightspeed has invested in companies like Sidecar (transportation), Grubhub (food), Styleseat (beauty stylist) which are betting on transferring demand generated online to local services fulfilled offline. We believe this trend will be led by mobile (smartphones) in India.

The current leader in connecting demand online to service providers offline in India is JustDial – mobile data traffic on JustDial is now more than 22% of total traffic, up from 12% in FY13 and 5% in FY12, and this will likely inflect more sharply with increasing smartphone penetration. Since JustDial is a horizontal and doesn’t provide a category specific experience it may be hard for JustDial to do more than generate leads for local businesses. JustDial is valued at around $1.8B and that points to an opportunity for vertical specific platforms that can provide a better value proposition to consumers and local businesses by leveraging smartphones.

The smartphone as a medium has the potential to provide a disruptive value proposition by taking an interested lead a few steps further and converting it into an informed and highly qualified potential customer (or even a transaction). Given access to rich content, fine location and direct calling at the moment of consumer need, a smartphone is uniquely positioned to provide a category specific experience that is not possible on a phone (non-smartphone) or a computer. We are already seeing this happen in verticals like transportation (Ola, Uber, TaxiForSure) and food (Zomato). More verticals where there is an unmet consumer need and an opportunity to leverage smartphone capabilities are healthcare, break-fix and education/vocation.

Entrepreneurs in this space need to keep the following elements in mind:

Consumer side:

  • Design the business to be mobile-first: Have a responsive mobile design or an app. The good news is that 90% of new smartphone sales in India are presently Android (unlikely to change anytime soon), so a majority of the market can be covered by focusing on Android.
  • Create a consumer experience specialized for the category: Take users as close as possible to the offline transaction.  For example, the difference between looking for a restaurant on Zomato vs JustDial is substantial. Another great experience is to see an Uber cab move towards oneself once one books it in their app.
  • Create consumer side entry barriers: Once the platform has early traction, elements like an active community, crowd sourced reviews/information can help retain leadership. Pagalguy and Team-bhp are two strong Indian communities and have grown despite popular belief that Indians do not like to contribute user-generated content online.

Merchant side:

  • Provide incremental revenue opportunity to merchants: Local businesses in India are most excited to embrace technology if it helps acquire new customers (they are much slower in adopting technology to boost productivity). Instrument RoI measurement early on and make it a core part of the merchant pitch. For example, Zomato had very early on embraced cloud telephony to track calls generated from their website or mobile apps to show impact to their merchants; this continues to be a core part of their merchant offering.
  • Have a mobile offering on the merchant side: It is very interesting to see how savvy even small merchants are about using apps like Whatsapp. Most merchants have (or will have) smartphones and are comfortable using them. Give them a mobile console to connect with your platform. For example, a lead management app for a real estate broker could be a great way to not only increase his productivity but also to get him to share his data with the platform.  Unlike merchant interfaces in the West which are computer-centric, merchant interfaces in India need to be mobile-centric. Nowfloats is doing this.
  • Entrench deeply inside merchants through technology: If businesses in the category are already using technology for their processes, then find a way to connect into their technology. This could be a massive differentiator on both consumer experience as well as the entry barrier. For example, one could plug into the CRM of a dentist, restaurant, play-school, builder, car-dealer etc. Bookmyshow is a great example of how plugging into the multiplexes helped create a great consumer and merchant experience.
  • Managing salesforce/productivity: If the monthly cost of non-founder sales team after initial training is 50% of the monthly revenue collected by them, it shows the inherent quality of the business. For example, Infoedge’s and JustDial’s people cost are ~35% and ~50% of their respective revenues (Source: respective public filings). For Infoedge and Justdial, people costs include corporate, technology and other staff so the ratio of salesforce cost to revenue is likely to be meaningfully lower. If this equation is working, then the next challenge is to recruit, train and retain at scale – most such businesses would need thousands of feet-on-street to reach scale (JustDial’s salesforce is around 4000 and Infoedge’s is more than 2000). There are interesting ways to juice salesforce productivity E.g. Justdial equips it’s salesforce with devices to enhance and track productivity and qualifies a sale over the phone before sending an feet-on-street agent.

A key challenge for businesses in this space is around the point above on balancing the cost of monetization vs. the revenue collected. While it is partially solvable through being a market leading brand for that category,  strong execution and using some of the concepts outlined above, but a big part of this balance is also anchored in the category itself. It is important to be in a category where the customers are more valuable (because of ticket sizes, category margins, frequency of purchase, etc), in order to achieve this balance.

We would love to hear your thoughts around other ways in which the growing smartphone base can disrupt (or not?) demand generation for local businesses.

india_rupee

I think there is a lot of potential and hope, especially now, for founders to start online (only) services businesses. Indian consumers seem to be opening up to paying for online B2C services, where purchase and most fulfillment is online. This trend is a natural outcome of India’s increasing online population (>125M now) and familiarity with online as a channel (20M bought online in last 12 months, 7M of which were non-travel). Barring a few exceptions noted below, this space has historically been challenging but I hope to see that changing in future.

Successful examples of existing online services in India include matrimony (Shaadi and Bharat Matrimony) and also aggregators across categories like travel (rail, air, bus), movies and mobile phone recharge. While the aggregator segment has been more successful because of direct linkage to offline services, it is relatively less interesting (and more capital intensive) because of low absolute margin per transaction and dependence on offline delivery for scaling versus a service which is purely digital in nature.

Subject to a large potential paying consumer base being available, pure online services are fundamentally very attractive to entrepreneurs and investors because of:

  • High capital efficiency (high gross margins).
  • Become disproportionately valuable (given B2C/branded nature).
  • Ability to grow quickly, since they are not constrained by offline buildout (not applicable everywhere).

Here are a few examples below in categories where we are anecdotaly seeing early growth in new online consumer services:

  • Financial Services: Previously, the web was used primarily for lead generation.  Now, certain types of insurance (Auto, Life, Travel) that are delivered end-to-end online are gaining traction.

It is still early days for these trends – but I hope that the growth continues. If you know of other online categories or businesses which are getting traction, I would love to learn about them – please add to the comments section below.

PS: While mobile operator value-added services (MVAS) is a great example of online services, in my opinion, these services have not really been B2C.  As a result, I am not including MVAS in the list above.  My list also does not include businesses which collect revenue from offline vendors (e.g. Zomato) or have large offline delivery responsibility (e.g. goods ecommerce).

Lightspeed-backed Dhingana‘s Swapnil Shinde participated in a panel on mobile entertainment organized by VCCircle in July 2012, along with Salman Hussain of Vuclip, B Vamshi Reddy of Apalya and Vivek Paul of Sony Music. Here’s the video!

[Published in Yourstory.in]

There are two levels to this question:

a) Is there value in vernacular content?

b) Is there value in online vernacular content?

(My thoughts below the image)

(Source: Newshunt)

a) The first one is a clear YES, which wasn’t the case a few years back. In 2007, English publication readers constituted 10% of total print media readership, but garnered 60% of the total print ad-pie. Today, English still constitutes 10% of readers, but its share of the ad-pie has come down to 40%. In the same period Hindi grew from 20% to 30% of the ad-pie. To put things in perspective, the print-ad pie is ~$1B today, so Hindi print alone is at $300M of ad-revenue and growing at 17-18% annually. More data in a recent article in FE.

According to media buyers’ estimates, during 2007-09, the ad rate commanded by English newspapers was roughly 10x that of non-English dailies. This rate has contracted to about 8x and is further expected to come down to 5x or 4x in the next three years.

The above is also the driver for investments and growth in Hindi print. E.g. Blackstone’s investment in Jagran and Nalanda’s investment in DB Corp.

b) Value in online vernacular content is not showing in terms of monetization yet. Online advertising is gaining traction but it is mostly English today. However, it is encouraging that vernacular is building up readership – Dainik Bhaskar recently announced 200M monthly pageviews. Advertising spend on any media tends to inflect after reach (readership) crosses a threshold, and the signs for online vernacular are in the right direction.

Thus the answer to the question in the title of this post is “Yes, it seems so”, but it won’t be clear for some more time. Of course, when the answer is obvious to everyone, the opportunity no longer exists.

Takeaways for entrepreneurs:

- There is an opportunity in vernacular: Online vernacular readership is increasing and will increase faster as internet and mobile-data access continue to penetrate deeper beyond the English-speaking population.

- Monetization will take longer: Be prepared to keep a lid on the costs while the market shapes up. Good news is that the online ad-ecosystem is in place for English and given will bring $$$ to vernacular if there is an arbitrage opportunity in pricing.

- Local plays an important role in vernacular: 60%+ of ad-revenues  in vernacular-print come from regional sources (regional fmcg brands, education institutes, local government, etc). The content too has a very local taste – print publications customize their content every 25 kms to fit into local dialects and preferences. So keep localization in mind in terms of content and as well as monetization.

- Think mobile: With cost of devices and access continuously falling, mobile might be the primary channel for accessing vernacular content in India, unlike English.

- Define your space: Large offline publications will always be faster and cost efficient in building content. You need to define your space but still be meaningful to a large enough population.

- Think out of the box, especially if you are looking to raise venture funds. Content production is a linear businesses. Can there be a platform play where the effort/cost of building content is not directly proportional to content monetization?

- Finally, keep an eye on vernacular even if you run an online transaction business (like ecommerce). If vernacular audience is valuable to an advertiser (online or offline), it is likely valuable to you as well, so don’t close your doors on them by having an English-only website. The “access” value proposition of ecommerce is also more suited to the non-metros of India, which constitute ~50% of the orders today.

Please add your thoughts in the comments section.

Our colleague Dev has posted on his Nextwala blog regarding his search for a utility app for local news aggregation. The article was also published on VCCircle.

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