"We Wanted To Build A Company That Married Great Technology With Great Art"
In the quest of building a company that marry great technology with great art back home, two techies and media professionals Sameer Pitalwalla and Venkat Prasad decided to leave their well settled MNC Job and an occupation with the aim of starting their entrepreneurial journey in the space of digital Media, research and marketing services in 2013.
Since then the duo has launched their network of channels on internet under the company name Culture Machine. Thus focusing on the next phase of growth with producing regional contents for tier II and III cities audiences Sameer Pitalwalla, CEO and Co-Founder, Culture Machine Media Pvt. Ltd. briefed Entreprenuer.com about the future strategy of the company while narrating the striding entrepreneurial journey of him and his Co-Founder Venkat Prasad.
What inspired you to start a digital media, research and marketing services company?
I was always in media and aspired to build a digital media company that marry great technology with great art. I started my carrier in building computers, understanding how they work and reviewing them. While working with Disney India and UTV I realised that it is powered through mostly television, production and movies and the digital was just one of its flag pole. But in the real world there is nothing called digital instead the whole bunch of businesses are in digital. The company was run as a traditional media company governed by rules, regulations and economic mindsets and they wanted me to be succeeded in the same traditional media space. So it was a sort of DNA misfit for me and caused to be one of the reasons why I stopped creating content in traditional media.
While working with YouTube Venkat had a deep understanding of media and technology he knew the core fundamental of code of infrastructure so for us it was the understanding of overall space with the sort of these two complementary skills.
How the journey began for Culture Machine?
The journey began when I met Venkat through common friend in California and shared the same vision. We eventually left our occupations to start Culture Machine in July 2013 with four people including me and Venkat in our living rooms and today could build a company where we employ about 245 people. Our core vision was to basically know what contents to create and create the great contents at scale. Today we have about eight media channels on YouTube and we have a core technology platform which allows us to scale that out.
How difficult it was for both of you to leave a settled MNC job and start a venture back home?
It was a much harder decision for Venkat to leave a job as there was an element of financial security that needed. But he also felt the need to go beyond what he was already doing. I didn't have a job at all in US. In my entire carrier I never really run a business but always built the digital media businesses. In Times Group and UTV I built that things ground up while earning my bread and butter. Building the business is not like you have a secure job and guaranteed salary it's like you don't know what will happen three months from now.
What was your family reaction and how did you fund the business?
They were wondering why I didn't do it sooner. My dad is an entrepreneur who runs the business for 25 years so I was perfectly familiar with the stomach needed in order to do something like this. Venkat's family was not as positive as mine.
What was the investment initially?
Initially we both invested about Rs 15 lakh for each from our savings which lasted for about eight months before starting the venture and four to five months after we started. Zodius was the first one who funded us $3.5 mn through series A and after that Tiger Global Management with Zodius Capital and Times Internet funded us $17.5 mn.
How your business is divided into contents for audiences and brands?
Media business is two sided, market and the customer is in the middle and that is why it is called Media. It's a medium around which you get to the audiences and you sell to advertisers. Our business is not different than other media houses. Our focus is always to win with the audiences, build great communities and great brands around it and the advertisers will follow.
How do you differentiate yourself from large the corporates like Hotstar?
I don't think they offer as much content as we do but they do it in the same manner that we do. They have essentially invested in the content for TV infrastructure and our content is for online infrastructure.
What will be your expansion plans ahead?
We will also invest in core things that is contents and tech. Religion is going to play a big part ahead hence we will focus on producing the spiritual contents as well as we will look at certain brands which will reflect the culture of India and the belief system to make sure that we become the part of daily habit whether its entertainment, religion, sports, news or music.
Do you think that the next phase of growth coming in from the tier II and III cities?
The next phase of growth is all coming in through regional contents in tier II and III cities. With the rise of tier II and III cities there will be around 300-400 mn people coming online. Of those majority will be the male and after three two to four years the ratio will change. These 300-400 mn people will constitute roughly 50 percent of the total internet users in India which means that the sheer consumption in tier II and III cities is going to drive the growth. I do think that the regional contents will only be the important growth driver as oppose to the current state of affairs where it is more of urban.
How 4G penetration will bridge the gap of geographies?
The 4G penetration will further help in creating innovation, creating culture and creating conversations which are local to the tier II and III markets. It will bridge the gap not just with the tier I cities but with the world of audiences in those markets.
Is online evolving as an alternate platform to TV?
I think the brands have realised that all people have smartphones and they spend at least 90 minutes a day on Facebook, spending 2-3 hrs a month minimum on YouTube then these brands doesn't have to be sold as that is reality. Ad spends from CMOs to agencies is swallowing in the brands mindset. We work with pretty much every major brands like from Uniliver to P&G to Reckitt Benckiser to Tata. All our channels have grown tremendously.
What are the constraints from the regulation part?
There is no regulation right now. There are no guidelines, surveillance to merit and tracking of the content from the govt side. I do think that one need to protect the freedom of speech and it should be the responsible freedom of speech. Also I do think that the digital media contents should be self-regulated and not the way television is regulated today.