The year was 2006. I had just moved to India, post CashEdge, a fintech company, in an era when fintech was yet to become a buzzword that it is today. I was enjoying my newly found freedom from office routine and working on my golf handicap.
Just when I was contemplating hanging my boots, came that unexpected call from Times Group to join their leadership team in the digital space.
“6 weeks. Let me try it for 6 weeks.” That was the thought that went through my mind as I entered the building of Times of India for the first time. How could a Silicon Valley returned career technologist and entrepreneur have any meaningful impact in a 170-year-old revered media company?
I had no answers then. It was one of those moments in life when there is no compass to help you find your direction. But it wasn’t the first time that I found myself at such crossroads.
My Fascination For Technology
I have always been fascinated with technology. I spent the first five years of my career launching indigenous missiles Agni, Prithvi, Trishul, Nag, Akash, at the Defence Research and Development Organization getting an unforgettable opportunity to work with the late Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam in his integrated missile development programme (IGMDP).
Like any young engineer, my quest for knowledge took me back to school to pursue higher education in the US. I felt drawn back to my first love, Computer Science. Post my Masters, I entered the yet untested world of Artificial Intelligence. Yes, in those days AI (neural networks, genetic algorithms, adaptive fuzzy logic) was hot even when the data wasn’t as BIG as it is today, before AI lost steam to the first generation of internet companies in the 90s – Think Yahoo, eBay, Netscape. After a series of entrepreneurial roles at Neural Applications Corporation, the road forked again.
This time to the startup world in fintech in Silicon Valley, in a company called Cashedge, aiming to disrupt traditional payments and wealth management products using the Internet. I saw how technological applications could drive transformation at scale, once you figure out the product market fit.
Transformation had become my new learning challenge by then. It was fun to work in a startup and build a transformation story, but could I apply the same challenge to a company of the history and stature of The Times of India?
Looking back, I remember the steep learning curve that I went through in those early days. I had no background in media. And, I realised that my entrepreneurial and technology background would be of little help if I could not understand the culture, ambition, and the values that the Times Group stood for – a fact I am grateful for as I complete 10 years now.
My journey so far at Times Internet can be categorised into two distinct phases:
The First Five Years At Times Internet: Building A Startup Culture
The pre-2012 years were all about building the digital extension of TimesGroup. Times Internet was the digital arm of the company, reaching out to the new digital consumer of India, across their favourite channels – be it news, sports, entertainment, fashion or food. It was a new initiative none of us knew what the end state could look like. It was also the time when I met with a young man, Satyan Gajwani – a Stanford educated, focused, 24×7 always ON millennial who was determined to take Times Internet to scale new heights and become one of the defining companies in the India internet evolution.
Satyan became CEO and I transitioned from CTO to COO. The idea was to change the DNA of the company, to be more entrepreneurial, more audacious with a hunger to achieve goals. In short, a digital tech company than a pure-play media company. With decentralisation and a preference for execution, the digital properties became independent decision-making units.
We also set up TLabs, an early-stage mentor-driven accelerator, that brought in a lot of fresh, entrepreneurial blood. The stories that we started telling each other then, became the culture we wanted to develop for our company.
Colombia: Using Tech To Push Forward Sales
During 2012-2016, I was vesting with an additional responsibility to lead and transform sales. While, I had worn many hats in the past, I had no prior experience in running direct sales. So I relied on the first principles and fell back on my core strength, technology.
And, that push towards technology in 2012/13 became the backbone for our home-grown IP-led technology innovation – Colombia. Colombia has now evolved into a world class, full stack AI led massively scalable adtech platform, and right at the centre of our platform strategy.
The platform has helped with understanding and breaking down digital media and its audience at scale. It is a giant flywheel with audience and data at scale. With machine learning and other smart learning algorithms, it keeps getting better with more data, more audience and more targeting.
With our comprehensive TIL platform (Colombia and more), we have started looking at multifold growth in engagement and monetisation per user. With our larger and established properties already profitable, it is now time to look at breakeven at TIL level even for our growth businesses and early stage bets and drive profitability at scale. We aim to break even next year, and our FY’21 target is to reach $1.25 Bn in net revenues, operating at a 30% EBITDA margin.
The Digital Road Ahead For Times Internet
Audience and media IP/technology needs to be competitive in scale and performance to global platforms. For any publisher or platform, all audience interactions must be captured, analysed and put into audience buckets across demographics, intent, and behavior. The platform must always learn and improve with every new audience, every new piece of data and every targeting.
With changing attention span and interests of a user, it is imperative that content feeds become personalised and adaptive to user’s interests. For branded and large publishers we must continue to improve and have differentiated and trusted high quality content. This content must be holistic and trustworthy, consistently. The next generation is going to consume content both on and off platform, wherever they are, and convenience/discoverability will be key.
In the next three-four years, the next set of Internet/mobile audience will come from Indic languages and relatively lower cost Android phones. All publishers and platforms must have their products and services ready to meet that set of demand.
At Times Internet, we will continue to inform, entertain, and engage our customers and strive to build services which exceeds their expectations.