[Interview] Infibeam’s Vishal Mehta- “Paper as a technology is Super Awesome”

[Here is a brief conversation with Vishal Mehta, founder of Infibeam. Within 2.5 years of the launch, Infibeam has come a long way – from being an automotive lead generation platform to selling eBook readers.].

What is Infibeam? Infibeam started as an ecommerce company (auto portal), and is now into several things.

The best way to describe Infibeam is that we want to be one of the most customer centric companies for retail in India. We have two different business models. One is the consumer business where we ship the products to customers. Currently we have 33 product categories and we continue to focus on books and media part of the business – we continue to grow this part of the business.

Second business model is technology infrastructure business. We don’t sell technology, we don’t license it. We offer it as a service. In that, you can think of certain services that we have done with retailers – recent one being NDTVShopping.com (its powered by Infibeam) and with other big retailers like HiDesign, Prestige, we host shopping site for CCD etc.Vishal_Mehta_Infibeam

If you think of Digital, it is currently run out of our infrastructure business. When devices become platform in itself, we want to be there.

Where do you place devices like Pi and Phi?

Going back to my earlier comment, devices are solution and a platform in itself. There were times when devices were not providing complete solution, but devices (like Pi) now today offer complete solution. It’s a retail product, and just a different evolution of that product into a digital format.

As a result of devices becoming solutions and platforms, we want to be there.

When you think of a physical book and you can deliver the book to a consumer where cos in west have done it pretty well for so many years that in past half a decade, so many cool technologies have come up where digital revolution is starting to pick up much sooner than expected.

I am rewinding back to 10 years ago when it was hard to foresee that books will go digital. We want to bring such devices to consuming Indians and focus on local feature sets as well.

For PI, you are creating a market for eBook readers. Market is still not there – there are other problems to crack in ecommerce space. Why PI?

Surprisingly, While ebooks have been around for so many years it was not conducive for people to read on PCs. Its only recently that adoption has been huge owing to technology innovation. An example being electronic Ink – come to think of it, it gives you a paper like feel.

So if you thought of eBooks several years ago, before such tech was out (ebook were out as early as late 90s), the problem was nobody wanted to read, because Paper as a technology is super awesome. Its too hard to outbook a book. If you think of it, you realize that convergence in such technology has brought similar kind of experience to a reading on paper. People have started adopting such devices.

When you think of this whole opportunity space, there are books that will take a long time for consumer to get international books in India, owing to latency in the time you place an order to time you receive. As a result, you make all those books available to them in less than 60 seconds to consumers to read, which in itself is a huge opportunity.

The second space is local content – when you think of delivery mechanism for such local content, I will submit to you that moving so many bits in analog format to a consumer in B2C framework is prohibitively expensive as a percentage of selling price of that product. Hence, in a digital format such content can be delivered at a much more sophisticated model/cost and bypass other challenges in terms of infrastructure/delivery etc; makes business model reasonably attractive for consumers as well as companies.

We generally think of longer timeframe – that’s the only way you can take on bigger opportunities and challenges.  We want the business to give immeditate dividends to customers (and not company), and the company will see dividends in 3-5 year timeframe.

How many PI Devices have you sold so far?

We have sold a few thousand devices and done pretty well in terms of getting the device out in the hands of the consumers. Most of these were sold via the site.

Why restrict the sales channel to Infibeam’s website only? And not via offline stores?

There is quite a bit of education involved in selling such devices. Its quite new in India and what we think is currently, we are of course selling online. We will ofcourse look at other physical channels and hopefully in a month or so, you will get to such these devices in store.

What’s the strategy behind phi?

We continue to build feature sets and build offering to both publishers and customers. Contrary to what you mentioned earlier, publishers are willing to experiment with eBooks as you don’t have to worry about print, take care of inventory, distribution etc.

We earlier launched a platform called Indigi that enables authors and publishers to submit their content directly. We essentially right manage such content for them.

Imagine the world where the book that is read the most is the best seller – and not the book that is sold the most! Imagine a world where you can sell by chapter!

It’s a paradigm shift for first time authors to experiment and come to pricing based on exerpiemnts. We feel that there are models coming out which we never expected – and we continue to work on newer ways to distribute such content.

Volume of Transactions?

We closed last year at Rs. 30 Crores and expect to cross 100 crores this year.

Have you raised funding?

We haven’t had any external rounds yet (friends and families) and we will lookout for growth capital this year. If you look at it, we have found lot of light in the room and now we have found laser focus in certain areas as well. As a result, we need to work towards making those areas bigger and will have capital requirements.