Tired of hearing complaints about Delhi being a boring city, Suchita Salwan, founder and CEO of Little Black Book (LBB) decided to take things in her hands. She combined her penchant for actively exploring new places in Delhi with the confidence that came with her stint at BBC to start a recommendation platform that has quickly become the go-to place for curated discovery of a city’s culture for millennials. Little Black Book (LBB) or Suchita’s labour of love as an entrepreneur is now active in sevent cities across India and plans to expand further.
While LBB started as a tumblr blog or a sort of ‘Pinterest of Local Discovery,’ it is now a robust recommendation platform with over 2 Mn monthly users and over 30,000 local businesses across the country who have benefitted from it. LBB’s growth still today continues to be 80%-85% organically.
Suchita has crafted the LBB community in a strategic way by turning a Tumblr blog to go-to recommendation platform for millennnials for which she has received many accolades like The Young Business Women Award at CNBC Young Turks Conclave 2017 and Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia 2016.
In her first AMA with Inc42, Suchita Salwan spills the beans on how she built this information-recommendation wheelhouse for millennials not just to give them information but also encourage them to share it!
Hiring The Right Hustlers
Inc42: What do you look for in candidates while hiring at LBB? How do you build your team?
Suchita Salwan: We have core values that we have defined for ourselves at Little Black Book. Anyone we hire has to match those core values. They are ‘hustle,’ ‘be an owner not a renter,’ ‘stay curious’ and ‘share your greatness.’ So when something is worth celebrating, don’t take the credit yourselves, share it with your colleagues. As you scale as a startup, your hiring decisions become a lot tougher, as you scale in terms of a user base. Now a lot of our hiring is based on relevant experience and on the question if this person has taken this sort of challenge before.
However senior or junior we may define the hire, they have to adhere to the core values. And this is the hardest thing I have learnt. You might hire the brightest bulb but they might turn out to be a tubelight if they are not inspired by the same stream of thought that you as a company are inspired by. Even the engineers at LBB love to go out and explore. All of us, in general, are people who love exploring cities and are passionate about local businesses and discovering unique places and events.
Inc42: Mention some effective ways that LBB used to retain their employees.
Suchita Salwan: For LBB, one of the ways has been personal and professional growth. We are one of the few companies where one-on-ones happens every one to three months. So employees have an opportunity to sit down with either me or Dhruv (co-founder) or with senior members to address new challenges that are coming your way. At the end of the day, if you want people to stay with you, you need to value them. And your value for them needs to show through you supporting them, no matter what personal or professional challenges they are going through. Doing that is half the battle won.
LBB: Growth, Challenges, Glory
Inc42: How did you grow your audience among millennials?
Suchita Salwan: Millennials are actually the hardest to impress and I can happily say this as I am a millennial as well! We have the smallest retention span on this planet. At LBB, we pride ourselves on two data points. One is retention, so we have been able to retain our audience in an unparalleled way as compared to other technology media platforms by always keeping the focus on what their problem is. No matter what you are interested in, you can find recommendations for it on LBB, say for instance Yak cheese! So we have grown with our audience, and their interests.
We are very cognisant of the fact that millennials just don’t eat and drink, they do a lot with their time and money. We as a platform enable brands to give millennials access to information they can use every day. That has helped us to stay relevant to millennials.
Inc42: What were the biggest initial hurdles to building your business and how did you overcome them?
Suchita Salwan: I think for us the biggest issue was pretty much what any entrepreneur faces. How do you get the right people to join you? How do you inspire the right calibre of people to become a part of what you do? Solving for hiring is a lifelong process. As you scale, the kind of people you need to work with also needs to evolve over a period of time.
The second challenge was that I come from a non-technical background and, fortunately, I was lucky enough to find a co-founder who joined us two and a half years ago to head product and growth for LBB. Dhruv Mathur happens to be an engineer, has a degree in Information Systems, and has gone to one of the best colleges in the world (Carnegie Mellon University). Until bringing him on board, a lot of the technical issues were also being addressed by me. In the middle, I also had to learn how to code which is interesting and fun but you want to work with people who have a complementary skill. And can help you grow that complementary skill.
The third big challenge was putting the product together. Our product came together only late last year when we opened the platform and when we enabled everyone to share their recommendations through LBB. That was a game changer for us because the amount of information we see coming through our systems on a daily basis is insane.
So, I learnt that an entrepreneur needs to be dedicated to the problem he/she wants to solve. Your solution to it might change over a period of time, your product may evolve as you get consumer insights. However, what you need to be married to is not the solution but the problem that you want to solve.
Inc42: What is LBB’s revenue model? Are there other sources of revenue apart from advertising?
Suchita Salwan: So, currently, our revenue model is based on ads. How that works is similar to tech media enterprises like Facebook, Google, Instagram. In your LBB feeds, you will see promoted posts. However, promoted posts make for less than 5% of what you see and consume on LBB. So every day you have over 200 new recommendations to choose from across LBB. In a month, you easily have about 3K-5K recommendations to choose from. We have had the fortune of supporting some of the largest as well as smallest of brands on LBB. Be it the small studio of a yoga teacher or a local restaurant or Amazon or Jet Privilege, all have promoted themselves on LBB.
Going forward, you will see a lot of closer connects in between the funnel that we have created with LBB which is information with intent to do transaction. So currently LBB sits in the purview of helping you find relevant information and capturing your intent. Going forward, you will be able to acquire the products, places, services, or events much more quickly than you do now.
Inc42: How easy/difficult was it, raising funding as a woman entrepreneur?
Suchita Salwan: I have a bit of a buffer as my co-founder is male and has a tech background. So we haven’t had challenges as such and we have been able to raise $1.56 Mn (INR10 Cr) from the likes of Rajan Anandan, Sachin Bhatia, IAN, and IDG Ventures among others. The ecosystem goes through its highs and lows and the past one and half years have been particularly challenging as far as fund raising is concerned. Fortunately, our growth, not only from a consumer perspective but also from a product and revenue perspective, has been remarkable. And we have been lucky to be backed by some of the country’s best investors.
Inc42: At what stage, should a startup seek funding –at the idea stage or when the product is ready?
Suchita Salwan: The success of you as an entrepreneur should not be dictated by funding. Funding is the means to an end, it is not the end itself. It would be great if as an ecosystem we change the dialogue from how much money you have raised and which VCs have funded you? What value you as an entrepreneur are creating? Those are more important questions to answer as compared to when one should think of raising funding.
However, in my context, we raised money two and half years after I quit my job with BBC to work on LBB full time. So, we were bootstrapped for two years before we pitched to our first set of investors. The reason it took me two years was because I was 23 ( a millennial myself) and, honestly, I had no real ambition to become an entrepreneur. Fortunately, I stumbled upon a career that solved a problem I am deeply, wholly passionate about. As an entrepreneur, one should only go and raise money when you are 2,000% sure that you are happily dedicating a significant portion of your life towards the product you are creating. Starting up gives you great high, but only raise money when you feel that come hail, snow, sunshine, I am going to see this through.
How LBB Hacked Digital Marketing To Target Millennials
Inc42: How did you go ahead with your digital marketing strategy?
Suchita Salwan: Dhruv leads the growth for our digital marketing strategy. I think the key is in keeping it simple. Especially when you are an early-stage startup, you can’t own every single platform. You can’t be the king of Instagram or the king of SEO or Twitter.
Figuring out what platforms work for you and using those to your advantage makes a lot more than sense than trying to do everything and making a hot mess out of it.
So, for instance, Twitter for LBB is great for brand presence but it is a very small percentage of the traffic that we get. SEO for instance has been absolutely the best way for us to acquire organic traffic. Facebook, for instance, is a great way to ensure relevance and engagement with your audience. Figure out that platform which enables you to drive maximum consumer love and own that platform. Don’t fall for the traps which digital media has to offer.
Inc42: Content marketing depends largely on SEO. Until recently, long tail keywords and keyword planning were believed to be the fastest way of building organic traffic. What kind of SEO strategy is LBB following?
Suchita Salwan: Fortunately for us, LBB does not lie in the short tail for SEO but in the medium-to-long tail of SEO. It basically means that you don’t come to LBB to find the most popular places that you already know about. You come to LBB to answer questions that you may not have easy answers to. From something as simple as top five stores in Lajpat Nagar to a great place to eat in Karol Bagh. These usually make up the medium-to-long tail of searches as far as Google is concerned. A key part of SEO is to define the proposition you want to drive home to your consumers. At LBB, our strategy is not to play in the territory other people are really good at because that’s a losing battle. There is no point wasting resources on owning topics that others excel in. Make sure the SEO is an extension of the value proposition your company has.
Inc42: Were you confident about transforming LBB from a community to business?
Suchita Salwan: At the end of the day, if you are solving a problem which actually affects the lives of enough people, monetising is usually not difficult. We don’t look at monetising as outside of what our value proposition is. If it is genuinely helping new businesses attract new local consumers, then we should be able to capture the value we create. At the end of the day, that’s what a business model is – a way for you to capture value you create. So as long as you creating it, capturing it won’t be a problem.
For LBB the next course of action is planning to really own India’s market from both a local business perspective and consumer perspective.
“We want to make sure that we reach out to urban millennial audiences that exist across India. And also solve pain points across the local interests they may have be it picking up a new skill or discovering a new restaurant. So we want to be the de-facto choice for millennials in our country to make local discoveries.”
Suchita believes that LBB is solving a problem that any millennial might face, so next year, it will branch out to regions in APAC. LBB is in seven markets right now, but expects to be in at least 20 additional markets by the end of next year including some international markets as well.
In conclusion, Suchita cautioned that while social media is a double-edged sword, the experience really keeps one hooked on. So, the key is to do something which helps one stand out for millennials from all the noise in the social media. While it is important to have a social media presence, the metric of success for an entrepreneur should be if people are actually coming to your product? So more than relying on marketing hacks, for LBB and Suchita, what’s more important is making sure that one’s product is really strong.