[Guest article by Sahil Bajaj, founder at PhoneCurry, a web service that helps Indian consumers decide which phone to buy]
I left my job as a business consultant, in February last year (about 2 years after graduating from engineering school), to focus full time on development of PhoneCurry.com – a project that I had started working on part-time while still in my job, and had beta-tested a bit within my friend circle. By February of last year I was fairly confident that this was something that would work, and so I left my job, to do my ‘startup’ – something that I had wanted to do since college days.
No one in my family has even been remotely associated with business, so I had no ‘mentor’ to start with. Just the passion to create a great product. The first few months were basically development to polish the site. The first employee was hired, 3 months later, in May. I had savings of about Rs. 5 lakh from my job that I was planning to put into PhoneCurry, and hoping that it would have self-sustainable revenue by the time my funds got exhausted. Just a vague, instinctive target. No deep analysis to back it up. Like I said, I don’t analyse too much, I just trust my instincts. The instinct turned out to be more or less right.
In July last year, we were covered by Pluggd.in for the first time– that was an especially happy day for us, this being our first major coverage. From then on, it has been a roller-coaster, and I thought it would be nice to go over the highlights with all you guys, and share my learning, and maybe take some feedback as we figure out the path ahead.
Achievements (that have made me proud)
So, first, what I would consider the achievements. In brief,
1. We now get over 1 million page views. This is something that we have achieved with almost nil ad expenditure, and entirely on great word-of-mouth and good SEO.
2. Our users love us, and swear by us (http://www.phonecurry.com/testimonials.php?page=1).
3. We have gotten positive coverage in many major media outlets since, including HT, Economic Times, and Indian Express.( http://www.phonecurry.com/media.php?page=1)
4. We recently started TabletCurry.com to cover tablets. Next in line, tentatively, would be CameraCurry and LaptopCurry. We want to cover all major consumer electronics that tend to get researched online. And we want to establish the Curry brands as the top online opinion makers in these domains.
5. We also started dedicated mobile (WAP) sites for PhoneCurry and TabletCurry, to give users quick access to phone and tablet prices, ratings etc. on their mobiles.
Lessons Along the Way
Next, the learning:
1. Monetizing via ads is tough, and materializes well only at a large scale – Everyone told me this. But I wanted to discover it for myself. And I did. The big companies are generally only interested when you reach a giant scale. To reach a giant scale, you need to advertise a bit yourself. For that you need money. And if you don’t have too big a fund yourself, you need to get in investors. Even though investors were interested in us from the beginning, I myself was reluctant and wanted to bootstrap this venture through and through (This is not the case now, and we are now actively considering getting investors on board). Mind you, we still got a big advertiser on board (Samsung), but that took some amount of selling. On the whole, the ad model works at a large scale, and often to get to that scale, you need the initial investment support, before the company becomes self-sustainable.
2. Thinking with a clear head helps – It’s a roller coaster ride, as any entrepreneur will tell you. There are ups and downs. Sometimes you will feel great about things, sometimes you will feel like shit. My learning in this has been to keep a clear, steady head. Now days I have matured enough to neither get too excited with positive developments, nor too down with negative ones. I just keep things in perspective. If the site goes down for a day for instance, I know that things will get sorted out, and in the bigger scheme of things, how many of our monthly visitors, will we really loose anyway, with a day of outage? An insignificant percentage. This larger perspective is important.
3. You miss being around people. Especially if you bootstrap and start small. And also happen to be a sole founder. – The roller coaster is even more so, if you sit on it alone (as the lone founder). Like I said, I have a tendency to act quickly, implement quickly, without much analysis. As soon as I got the idea for PhoneCurry and decided to implement it, I started immediately working on it. I did not spend much time or effort in finding a suitable co-founder. And that has made by journey much tougher. In my next startup, if I do one, I think I will put in more of an effort to make a team of co-founders before starting. Dealing with everything becomes so much easier if you do it with others, if there is shared responsibility.
The other thing of course is, even if you do have co-founder(s) and employees, many internet startups still tend to have small teams, so in any case you will have daily interactions with only a limited number of people (unlike say working in a bigger firm). This is one negative side of an internet startup (at least during its initial phase), that I really realized only after actually coming across it.
4. What keeps one going is appreciation– I think the one thing that has kept me going through this roller coaster has been the amazing user feedback we have received on PhoneCurry, and continue to receive every day. When you see people falling so deeply in love with something you created, it’s a great boost. And in the end, it’s often the one single thing that keeps you going through tough times.
5. All said and done, it’s exciting ! – It’s difficult to appreciate something when you have it. You get too caught up in ‘life’. What I realize is that working in a startup affords me great amount of freedom to implement my ideas, to create something great from scratch, to experiment, to fail, and to experiment again! It’s the same joy that one gets as a child when working on a science project, or a painting, or creating music. The simple joy of creation!
What Lies Ahead
What challenges do we face going ahead? Here are the important ones. Would especially love feedback from PI readers on these points.
1. Evolving Monetization Models –The trickiest part of an internet business based on providing information. How do you monetize information, which is assumed to be a free commodity on the internet? Going on first principles, there are 3 broad ways that we are looking at:
– Charge the section you are benefiting the most – i.e. the users. Go for a freemium model, make some features paid, and keep a low lifetime subscription fee.
– Charge companies for access to consumers and information.
– Access to consumers would basically mean access via ads. This is the default mode that we are already on.
– Companies can be charged for access to the aggregate user data that we collect. Which features do people search for to arrive at their purchase decision, which are the trending phones/brands, which phones are getting compared etc.
– Our database of phone specs, as well as subjective opinion around phones (pros and cons), can also be monetized by providing more detailed access to it to businesses that need the info, via a subscription model.
– E-Commerce. Apart from just guiding people about which gadget to buy, also finally sell it to them. And provide a value-add along with that. How about free technical service (over email/phone) for a year – you know to help you with transferring contacts, installing apps on your new phone, and such? Also developing the e-com infra yourself is tricky, so how about using the infra of existing e-com companies and providing a joint service? An idea that we are actively exploring.
2. Improving the site interface – I think while our interface is pretty good in terms of usability and simplicity, but it requires quite a bit of work on making it look beautiful. That can be pretty much blamed on not having a designer on board. But we have to get one now, it’s long overdue.
3. Growing much quicker through Search Engine Marketing (SEM) – We have experimented enough with SEM through some small budgets to realize that it can be done pretty cheaply (as low as Rs. 0.5/click), if you really know what you are doing i.e. if you can get high relevancy scores for your landing pages, and hence high click-through. So once we are sufficiently funded through our own revenues and/or external investment, we plan to spend most of the marketing money in cheap, effective SEM. In about a year and half we have grown to 2 million page views per month. In the next year, we want to grow to 10-20 million. I think that will put us in a pretty powerful position with respect to advertisers.
Let me know what you guys think!