IT's a Propeller Towards Fast Growth

Satya Prabhakar, President and CEO, Sulekha.com, is re-inventing some parts of the business on the back of new technologies.

Debarati Roy Jul 02nd 2012

Since it launched, just under 10 years ago, Sulekha has come a long way. Part of its success is its ability to move with the times and tweak its offering. And it's doing that again: Where it offered listed services, it is now a service provider, allowing customers to search for something they need and leading them to the best deal; think of it as a Google-Justdial hybrid.Prabhakar shares how Sulekha is leveraging emerging platforms like social media, mobility and the cloud to reach out to more customer segments.

What have the last 10 years been like and what changes are underway at Sulekha?

It's been interesting, challenging, exciting, and highly rewarding. Rewarding, not just from a financial perspective, but also because Sulekha is lubricating the wheels of commerce in India and creating exciting, new transactional spaces, and entirely new business opportunities for SMBs and other users.
We've shifted from focusing on social media content to one that is equally driven by local commerce transactions (classifieds integrated with local search and events), and from corporate brand advertising to one that now derives equal revenues from SMB response advertising.
Over the last three years, we have invested heavily in growing our reach within the user and SMB communities. Today, Sulekha gets 20-million-plus unique visits a month, serves over 100 million page views, over 300 million media elements, and services 32,000-plus SMB customers. Simultaneously, we have expanded our sales network by opening branches in the 10 biggest cities and recruiting an online-savvy sales force. This was needed as the SMB community needs to be explained the unparalleled benefits of online advertising.
Aided by outstanding technology, product development, and content management, Sulekha's revenues have grown at a CAGR of nearly 50 percent over the last eight years. We do this by investing heavily in technology, processes, and people, which together, cultivate powerful transactional loops.

Managing any business is like swimming upstream; you have to be stronger than the current you are facing

Isn’t that different from what you started out to do?

Sulekha.com started as a platform to connect Indians. Initially, this connection was made through an expression of ideas and opinions. But we soon realized the connection need not only be restricted to sharing ideas but also to trade products and services. We noticed that there was a new type of customer, the SMB, which for all practical purposes, is infinitely large, but was neglected till that point, and presented a huge potential for growth. That realization also has value for the enterprise, because the market attaches more value to solutions that are headache pills than vitamin pills; combating specific problems rather than providing add-on's or good-to-have products.

Managing any business is like swimming upstream; you have to be stronger than the current you are facing

How did you face the challenges of the new focus areas?

The mortality rate of new businesses everywhere is very high. We increase our odds of success-put more precisely, reduce the odds of failure-by following sound management practices, being flexible and having optimal resources.
Odds and problems will persist no matter which part of the world you are in, doing whatever you choose to do. I believe it is more important to have resolve than ambition because the former is scarce and expensive and the latter is plentiful and cheap. We are fortunate to have attracted a set of investors and colleagues who have a high amount of ambition and the resolve to achieve it.

Does IT help you meet your company's goals?

Sulekha's core mission is to enable Indian consumers and businesses to interact and transact through our local commerce and social media services. Our products and services foster both interactions and transactions. Sulekha is highly dynamic and interactive, with millions of users interacting and generating tens of millions of pieces of content.
IT helps us consolidate and realize the goal of service delivery in real-time as Sulekha is focused on online and mobile media, both of which-unlike print, TV, or radio-are media which are highly technology-dependent. Sulekha's services require sophisticated and real-time data matching, interaction management, and spam-filtering technologies to manage the thousands of users posting ads every day. Also, all of our 12 offices demand effective and efficient coordination of sales and support personnel to provide timely access to each other and to our customers.
To pull off all of this in real-time-because the medium demands that-and to do it scalably-because our user and customer volumes are growing exponentially-requires heavy investment and trust in IT. Without IT, Sulekha cannot succeed. Pure and simple.

What does IT do for the business?

IT enables Sulekha.com to automate processes, enhance user experience, and reduce manual intervention. Also, Sulekha has a search technology that continuously learns from user behavior. Another key thing that we have done using technology is to gather user requirements upfront in several categories so that users can get calls directly from relevant SME customers in their city. Technology also helps keep our site free of spam and unwanted users who send pieces of junk communication to thousands of our free and
paid advertisers.
Our automated tech infrastructure includes sophisticated calling engines that call more than 1 million businesses each month to ensure that the data on the site is accurate. Our cutting-edge crawler helps us aggregate content in specific verticals from all sorts of relevant users. This helps us to keep our pages up-to-date with information sought at the city level or by vertical. We also use Microsoft Business Intelligence services extensively to assimilate and facilitate information management.
Scalable technology platforms have been the key for Sulekha to launch new services or enhance its current set of services. Technology plays a pivotal role in key areas like our consumer-facing web technology. We have also developed an in-house system which handles sales leads and tele-calling. The back office enables pre-sales support tools and post-sales-order processing and CRM modules. IT helps us generate business reports, dashboards and analytics which we also extend out to our customers in a cost-effective way. For example, we not only generate leads and responses to SMEs, we are also able to provide them online tools to manage the leads-and generate nifty reports.

Who is your major competitor and how does IT help fend them off?

Print classifieds are the largest source of advertising-for both users and SMEs who want to transact locally in a city. Besides this, we also see other forms of competition like print yellow pages, local newspapers, and voice information services.
Since, we primarily use the Internet and mobile Internet as a means of acquiring users, we utilize the inherent advantages of the Internet-accountability, traceability and efficient ROI-to counter competition.

Are you an early adopter of technology and does it help you stay competitive?

Our business model requires that we keep innovating constantly. We integrated a social graph platform (Facebook, Twitter) within eight weeks of the technology's announcement. Today, our Facebook page has over 28,700 members.
A lot of our traffic is driven by the younger generation, which is also quite active on social media portals like Facebook and Twitter. We analyzed this shift in consumer touch points and used it to tweak our business model and increase our customer base.
While others are still speculating about cloud services, we have been able to understand what is available and adopt it to our needs. We are using cloud technologies efficiently to complement various platforms. For example, our media serving and large data backups are done using the cloud. It also helps us adopt a scalable model to handle sudden surges in website traffic during the festive season.
We are also excited about Microsoft Dynamics CRM 2011 and SharePoint 2010 as our sales processes have also evolved and standardized over time. We are developing the next version of our sales support, CRM, and business intelligence tools based on SharePoint and Microsoft Dynamics CRM. These will be rolled out in the next quarter.

What plans do you have to leverage mobility to expand your business?

All our products and services are mobile Internet ready. Today, we have comprehensively integrated SMS into all our products. Our tech infrastructure closely integrates with the mobile world. We have a fairly popular mobile portal for our local services and we are also developing applications for various smartphone platforms. Though the penetration of smartphones is comparatively low in India, we expect this to grow significantly in 2011.
We are also planning to increase our focus on providing core voice services that are partially automated, so that users can, for example, use a phone to post free ads on Sulekha.com at anytime of the day.

How have you structured the IT team to most align with the business?

Early on, we realized that IT is critical to the success of the business and invested in having a strong in-house team. This enables the technology team to directly interact with business heads and the operations team and get hands-on feedback. We also set up a core group that focuses on understanding and implementing the latest in the technology space.  
We are also in direct contact with platform development teams at Microsoft, Google, and others, to understand where they see technology evolving over the next one or two years.
A continuously engaged technology and product development team is the key for any online business to maintain its edge. Chennai has been the breeding ground for several online businesses like BharatMatrimony and Sify and houses MNC back-end operations for leading online businesses like eBay, Amazon and Paypal. Being based out of Chennai has given us the unique advantage of being able to continuously recruit and train engineers who have had experience in such firms.

You are a serious blogger. Do collaboration platforms have a role to play at Sulekha?

Collaboration certainly plays a key role in technology and product development. Developing a Web product requires several people with different skillsets to work together. We use tools like MS Office Communicator, Shared Documents in One Note 2010, SharePoint 2010 to maintain a shared notebook of discussions, ideas, and articles so that the team can share and discuss in an unstructured format.

Your business depends heavily on IT. What do you expect from your CIO?

Our CIO and his team of engineers and product development people are the lynchpins behind Sulekha.com's past successes and will propel us towards fast growth in the future. With the arrival of 3G, cheaper and better smartphones, faster Internet access across tier-II cities, I would like our CIO to ensure that mobile Internet constitutes a significant part of users utilizing Sulekha.com's services. Our priority also lies in ensuring that new services and product enhancements take place even faster and that internal systems move to standardized platforms to minimize cost of maintenance.