Speed Dial for Growth : V.S.S. Mani

Speed Dial for Growth

V.S.S. Mani, Founder & CEO, JustDial, on IT's pivotal role in battling one of the local search giant's largest challenges.

V.S.S. Mani,Founder and CEO, JustDial

V.S.S. Mani

Founder and CEO, JustDial

Timing. V.S.S. Mani, founder and CEO, JustDial, seems to be in constant battle with it. Take for instance his failed attempt to start JustDial in the early 90’s. It was a great idea whose time hadn’t come. It didn’t get much easier the second time around, says Mani. But if Mani’s timing was too early in the 1990s, today, he’s constantly racing against time. If JustDial was a story of pure doggedness, today it’s all about reaction time. Shrinking time-to-market, he says, is one of the largest problems of the industry. It’s a mind game and you always need to try to come up with something better.” Fortunately, this time around, Mani isn’t on his own. IT, he says, has his back.

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Interview Questions

Full Interview with V.S.S. Mani

CIO: JustDial's unique business model has been very successful in India. How has IT contributed?
V.S.S. Mani:

IT has helped us turnaround dynamic business needs in considerably short spans of time or time-to-market. Being a consumer-centric business, the requirements and the challenges we face are multi-fold; it’s like playing chess with over a million people at the same time. It’s a mind game and you always need to try to come up with something better. Even with dynamic needs, we have been able to stay ahead because we are on an in-house built Open-source platform. For us, being able to adapt to changes, improving search accuracy based on user feedback, and incorporating new search logic have been some of the biggest gains from IT.
IT has also been able to streamline all corporate processes, end-to-end, from marketing to finance. This, in itself, is an important step because for an organization like ours, there is a lot of subjectivity involved. That’s because our offerings or what we sell don’t relate to a physical, tangible product. So, without a proper process in the backend, it would be almost impossible to achieve regulated process flow.

CIO: Can you take us through the story behind JustDial?
V.S.S. Mani:

After failing in the first attempt that lasted barely two-and-a-half years, JustDial continued to remain a dream and obsession from 1992-96. The idea would not crystallize due to a lack of financial resources and the right ecosystem. But finally, JustDial was started in a small 300 sq.ft. garage office in 1996.
It's been a wonderful journey from a three-member start up to a 4,500-member corporation. Revenues grew from Rs 85 lakh in March 1997 to Rs 200 crore in March 2011; from one city to covering almost every city and town in India. We have grown from a few thousand users to 57 million unique users. Our daily average user strength is above 6 lakh today and our Web usage is neck-to-neck with the
voice service. When we started, only a handful of people believed in us, but we had the last laugh.

CIO: What are the biggest challenges in your industry?
V.S.S. Mani:

 In terms of challenges, reducing the time-to-market is an extremely crucial issue for the players within the industry. Besides, in our industry, it is not possible to rely on tried-and-tested formulas.
We just have to give several factors due weightage and make sure that as a trend evolves we understand it and react to it. That's why I feel that time-to-respond is a decisive element.

CIO: Has IT helped you stay ahead of competition?
V.S.S. Mani:

 Certainly. We have been able to scale up seamlessly because of IT. It has been one of the key factors of our growth. We grew from a small team to 4,500. That wouldn’t have been possible without everyone in the setup being tied to the umbilical cord of IT.
The sheer task of standardizing processes across such a volatile workforce would have been a daunting task without IT. IT has also helped in price modeling and discovering ways to make profits.
Because of our open architecture, we were able to introduce best practices from various fields and add value to our search process. This approach allowed us to extract more information and give refined search results to our end users.

CIO: Can you highlight some of your key IT initiatives?
V.S.S. Mani:

 IT is the backbone of our entire setup. Nothing in the organization—barring some ancillary activities like HR and regulatory finance—can function without IT.
We do a lot of regression-oriented data analysis which helps us clean data which in turn makes the entire search process learning-oriented. We don’t try to formulate rules; rules formulate themselves based
on usage.
Also, Open Source helped us extract better performance from search systems and applications. It has also freed us from vendor lock-in, and enabled the organization to choose hardware platforms that deliver flexibility and high performance.

CIO: What, in your opinion, is the role of a CIO?
V.S.S. Mani:

 The position of CIOs in organizations like ours is challenging and daunting due to the myriad business and technical responsibilities assigned to them. They are responsible for ensuring that their firm’s IT investments are continually aligned with their strategic business objectives, while also planning and maintaining an IT infrastructure that will meet their firm’s current and future needs.
I’d say that for a services-based organization, the value of an enterprise lies in the knowledge of the individuals delivering those services. They are also the ones standing on the profit generation pedestal.

CIO: What do you think of technologies like cloud computing, social media and BI?
V.S.S. Mani:

We are interested and excited about all these emerging technologies but we always believe in being judicious when it comes to their application. We use cloud computing only for internal development because ours is a very transaction-oriented system and cloud is not the best way to take it forth. 
Social media and business intelligence are definitely important. We are focusing a lot on user reviews and ratings. In fact,  today, JustDial has more user reviews and ratings than all other websites put together in India. And to make it better we are also incorporating features like ‘Tag Your Friend’ whereby before visiting a place, for example,  users can actually see how their friends rate that place and accordingly take a decision. So we are bringing the user community’s contribution or social contribution to this aspect.
At JustDial, we do not believe in blindly following trends. We ensure that we understand how it fits into our scheme of things and how it best serves our requirements. We don’t do something simply because it’s trendy, we take up only those initiatives that best help us serve the needs of our target.

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