Thursday, April 15, 2010

Local entrepreneur makes a global call

The owner of an all-India virtual directory service plans to expand to every major English-speaking country in two years
In March this year, a Tamilian from Kolkata, who claims he grew up in an India that was “anti-capitalist and anti-growth”, expanded his Rs 500 crore-plus search engine business, Just Dial, to the world’s capitalist heartland, the US.
He’s not planning to merely leverage low-cost India to maximise revenues from a standard offshore back-office model. For now, Just Dial’s US operations will be handled out of India, where the company employs about 4,000 people. “We soon plan to hire up to 1,000 people in the US, mostly in under-employed, rural areas,” says 42 year-old Venkatachalam Sthanu Subra Mani.
The days to come will see Just Dial expanding to Canada, UK, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Hong Kong to fulfil Mani’s target of being present in all major English-speaking countries in the next two years. The company also intends to leverage the brand and know-how for an international franchise.
Fourteen-year-old Just Dial is a directory service that provides information on basically any entity that has a telephone existence — restaurants, plumbing services, shopping malls, colleges and so on.
In India, Just Dial receives over 240,000 calls everyday and hosts over 200,000 visitors to its website. It caters to over 2 million users across 240 cities in the country. Its revenue model involves a nominal fee to those who list but is free to consumers.
Users need to dial a helpline number and explain to an operator what service they are looking for (this service is free in the US but customers in India need to pay for outgoing calls). Text and email alerts are then sent to users listing the four best options.
In some cases, the Just Dial executive patches through an instant call between the user and the service provider. Although this service is common to both the US and India markets, the US features have been tweaked. Americans can avail of unlimited free call connect to businesses and instant search on movies and events anywhere in America.
“The American service also has a facility that allows establishments to bid and compete with each other to offer the user the best deal. This is our way of ensuring that the customer is king,” says Mani.
Unlike in India, the US already has multiple ways of accessing business listings. So why is he entering such a competitive market? “The market in the US is more evolved and mature. In India, you may need a large sales force on the ground to get local businesses and services providers to sign up and get listed. In developed economies it is easier to accomplish this because there are middle-level players who act as aggregators,” he says.
He has also drawn up new services such as Just Dial Genie, a personal assistant that will enable consumers round-the-clock service for a monthly or annual fee. Genie will allow instant call connect to any business establishment, reminder services and the like.
The company is currently fighting a case in the Delhi High Court against Infomedia 18 Ltd, which allegedly copied and hosted Just Dial’s database, its single biggest asset. The high court has put an injunction against the site, but with the final verdict awaited, neither Mani nor his team want to comment on this dispute.
When Mani started his career in Delhi as a salesman with city-based United Database — a business directory service — he would watch people leafing through heavy books and lots of fine print to get at that one small but important piece of information. Why not offer a similar service on the phone, he thought.
“In 1994, a telephone connection costed Rs 15,000 so I could afford only three lines. I waited for a year to start the company, dreaming of numbers and millions of people using my service,” Mani recalls.
In 1996, he heard that the Kandivali Exchange in Mumbai was coming out with its 888 series. “I presented my business plan to the general manager, he liked it and the dream number of 888-8888 was mine.”
The business, which has now attracted venture capital from Hong Kong’s SAIF Partners, US-based Tiger Global and Sequoia Capital, started with borrowed furniture, rented computers and a small office where employees had to play musical chairs.
Today, Just Dial’s headquarters in Mumbai measures 20,000 square feet, and the company owns 1,25,000 square feet across India. How did he grow so quickly? By following this business philosophy: “Stay put, never give up and maintain fiscal discipline”.
Considering his early ventures involved selling a wrist watch to a relative for Rs 10 and organising a movie show with a colour television and a rented video (there were more people than tickets), Mani’s certainly proved his self-made entrepreneurial adage right.

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