“History touches everybody in different ways and there is this deep connection that Indians have with its history even though they don’t know about it,” says eminent journalist and founder of digital media Live History India (LHI), Mini Menon.
It is this connect which drew Mini Menon to history after a successful 18-year-old career in journalism to start her new digital media venture along with co-founder Akshay Chavan recently.
For the duo, Live History brings together their interest in history, media, and technology. Mini believes that, in India, there is no one platform that brings together the best minds or the best works in history. Even though a lot of great work has already been done in India through traditional mediums such as academic journals, research papers etc.
What LHI attempts to do is get together the greatest history minds on this platform to showcase stories that make up the rich history of India. The idea is to build a repository of research-based stories with India’s finest authors and historians. No other digital medium has attempted this so far.
The duo believes that even though one might not have studied history, it’s everywhere and by using innovative digital programmes and creating conversations, it can be brought alive to reach every Indian. In short, LHI aims to help every Indian lover rediscover history. And there are solid reasons behind this line of reasoning.
Says Mini Menon, “We work with the finest minds to revive the best works on history and all this leads to a public awareness programme, that actually helps us restore our heritage. Because we are losing it rapidly. And it is because of lack of awareness and the lack of a need to protect it, that we are at the stage we are.”
Live History India, which officially went live on May 15 2017, is backed by prominent industry stalwarts and mentors such as Ganesh Natarajan, former CEO of Zensar Technologies and Chairman of Nasscom Foundation, and Cyrus Guzder, former promoter of AFL which was acquired by FedEx in 2011. Prior to this, the founders launched the digital media platform on social media in January this year. According to the founders, LHI’s Facebook page managed to garner 500,000 likes cumulatively on individual posts in the first three months. Till date, LHI has done more than in-house 170 stories on various facets of Indian history.
Live History India: The Founders’ Journey
Mini says, “Both Akshay and I are passionate about history. I studied history and set out to become an archaeologist which I never managed to do. Akshay was a closet historian pushed into technology – the story of every Indian. So we went both our ways despite our interest in history.”
For Mini, the foray into LHI comes after a very exciting and successful broadcast career in political and financial journalism. In 2013, she also wrote a book on post-liberalisation business history. Even in business, history was what excited Mini Menon most – the evolution of companies and enterprises.
This excitement inevitably led her closer to her actual interest, history, in 2015 – when she took a break from her Executive Editor gig at Bloomberg to research her next book. During the research, she also chanced upon a weekend course on art history in Mumbai.
As it turned out, it was not a weekender course but a one-year programme. Says Mini enthusiastically, “When I got down to it, I loved it so much, I realised I did not want to do anything else. It’s where I met Akshay and so we spent one year talking about history. It’s then we decided – why not use our passion and experience to create Live History India?”
That same passion was Akshay’s calling too. After completing his IT management course from Lancaster Business School, he spent a decade working in digital marketing. But he had always been a history buff since school, gobbling up every new book on history. He was also aching to get back to something he loved.
“At that time, I was also running a blog on the princely states of India and it was quite successful. I was very interested in telling unseen stories. When we joined the course and I met Mini, I felt it was an opportunity to create something bigger, going beyond the individual and creating a larger movement. And that’s what we are trying to do with Live History India – make a difference.”
To illustrate this, she cites the example of Europe – where every nook and corner is steeped in history and is such a big engine of economic growth because of tourism. On the other hand, though India has over 5,000 years of history, people hardly know the nuances of different periods and eras and their historical, cultural, and social significance.
“So someone has to curate it and make it exciting and engaging,” she adds definitively.
And that’s where LHI’s vision lies – to bring the stories that make India alive for everyone. By connecting it in a fun and engaging way – to attract the attention of the average Indian content consumer.
Live History India: Targeting Everyone, From Expats To Enthusiasts
For LHI, the paucity of content is hardly an issue. Stories are very easy to choose from, at any point of time, given the multiple lifetimes of history works in India. For this purpose, the startup has brought on board historians of specific time periods, specialities, and regions, given that Indian history is also very layered and diverse.
Mini reveals that these are people who have done a whole body of work in a particular area and they are specialists. LHI is very particular about its content – it is not bringing together bloggers. It has academicians, historians who are recognised authorities on the areas or subjects they are dealing with. For instance, the platform has Pushkar Sohoni on board, who recently wrote a piece about Nizam Shah of Deccan Sultanate. Pushkar is an expert on the Central Indian Sultanates. So, while history research has been done for years but there hasn’t been a platform which has brought it to a wider audience by making it relevant to them. Because a lot of it is lost in academic circles.
So, besides being paid, historians also get access to a platform which will reach a global audience.
LHI has a selection of history stories in different categories. These are textual Snapshot History stories which showcase history in short. Then there is the Cover Story – where the digital media platform works with its contributors and publishes long form pieces. The Blast from the Past section has curated history trivia from the past. History Trails is geared towards the explorers – people who want to go out of their homes and see places.
Photo Essays, such as one on the old capitals of India, encapsulate history through pictures. Videos are covered under the heading LHI Videos.
Mini opines, “Living history is what gets a lot of people who are uninterested in history back to it.”
As per Mini, this audience can be divided into five major buckets – the first one being the expats who believe that LHI is a great way of introducing India to their children. In the second bucket, are the collectors who are majorly CEO, investment bankers, and such who are big collectors of art. The next is the backpacking crowd, the fourth is the retirees with a lot of reading time on their hands, and the fifth is, of course, the regular universe of history lovers.
Mini believes that as they introduce more categories, it will create more concentric circles of engagement. “That’s how we want to widen it. I think we will be clutter-breakers because people want good quality stuff.”
And this belief is rightly seconded by the growing user base of Live History India.
Live History India: Monetising On A Vibrant Digital Media Platform, Story By Story
Ever since the platform launched on social media it has registered more than 100,000 page views already. On the anvil are plans to go into a multilingual format, to touch people across the country, though Mini would not comment when. Also, there are plans to introduce the history of sports and automobiles.
The duo plan to keep the website free while focussing on other ways of monetisation than through subscribers.
The digital media platform is now looking to monetise in three different ways. First is the traditional advertising model like all other digital media platforms, which includes banner advertising, social media advertising et all. Secondly, it is working on a bunch of tent pole properties and series for which it is getting a lot of advertiser interest. These would be co-created series on different aspects of Indian history such as textiles, food, etc.
The third avenue would be working with state governments and various agencies and institutions to take a deep dive into history and look at it in scale. In this regard, in December 2017, the platform will be piloting a large project which could its major avenue of expansion. Mini did not disclose much about the project.
However, one thing is clear – the duo wants to scale it into a vibrant digital media platform. Says Mini, “It was the time we created an Indian platform where we talk about for India in India and not wait for an international channel to tell us about our history.”
Meanwhile, both Mini and Akshay agree that they are keen to get investors with a certain skill set; those who are ready to build out what they hope will be one of India’s biggest digital offerings in the next couple of years. For instance, Cyrus Guzder himself is a trained archaeologist from Cambridge University.
She reveals, “We had not gone to investors when we launched in January. They saw us on Facebook and came to us saying that we love what you do. We love history and can we be part of it? Pretty much all of our investors came that way. So, for the investors we have got on board, we have been more conscious about the strategic value than the money they brought along. And that’s why we did not go to any seed fund.”
Similarly, LHI’s advisory panel has also been chosen with great care. It includes Shyam Benegal – one of India’s most noted directors and screenwriters, Anil Dharker – Founder and Director of the Mumbai International Literary Festival, Wajahat Habibullah, and Malvika Singh among others.
Reveals Mini, “We all know Shyam Benegal has a phenomenal body of work. Similarly, Anil Dharker brings insight into literature. Wajahat Habibullah was a history professor before he became a bureaucrat. And Malvika Singh is working closely with the Rajasthan government in restoring museums.”
With these strategic investors and advisors, a core team of eight people, and a support team comprising top 50 top historians and authors as contributors – which brings the total number to 75, the digital media platform aims to bring alive Indian history, one story at a time. Mini Menon expects this number to grow to 200-300 people in the coming two years.
And there is a reason behind it.
Serving An Underserved Audience Through Live History India
Both Mini and Akshay believe that when it comes to competition from existing historical sources – be it academia, broadcast and print media, or the ubiquitous Internet – the space is vast enough and there is a place for everybody. To top it all, they believe Indian audiences are under-served.
Another reason they feel confident is that they are using a collaborative approach. Says Mini, “We believe this has to be a movement and we are only facilitators of this movement. We have always called Live History India a digital media platform and not a website because we believe we need to get the best minds together. Together, we need to make this into a movement where every Indian, irrespective of the language he/she speaks, has access to the best works of Indian history which helps them understand themselves better through their past. So, it’s that engagement and appreciation that we are focussing on.”
She further goes on to add that it has received a very positive response to the collaborative efforts of various museums, institutions, and multiple agencies that get what they are doing. This is not about keeping knowledge to a handful of people.
So, while there may be TV channels like Epic which are also offering content based on history, as well as credible academic sources and not-so-credible online sources such as Wikipedia, Mini believes that their path is different and unique. She says, “After a career in broadcast media, digital media really is emancipating for a product like this because you have no geographical boundaries and you can reach out to people who are interested in this area. And you have a shelf life of forever for every piece you do.”
But going further from the stories, the digital media platform, LHI, would also want to pilot art restoration as well as being the champion for anyone who is doing anything to protect India’s vast legacy.
Says Mini, “This is a space that needs all the positive encouragement it can get. In this line, even before we commenced our first project, we collaborated with a local Mumbai University-led project for college kids interested in understanding the history of Bombay metropolitan region. So, this is what we stand for – to make history relevant and anyone who is doing anything to make history relevant, we would love to support them.”
The Indian audience has been spoilt for choice as far as digital media platforms are concerned. With growing Internet penetration and increasing smartphone usage, the number of such mediums will increase further. Live History India is a very niche platform which has its work cut out for itself – making history engaging for Indians who do not know much about it. In this regard, focussing on history is both an advantage and disadvantage.
Advantage, because although there is competition, and there are no reliable sources. One of the biggest online repositories of knowledge is Wikipedia, which is open sourced and not properly updated most of the times. Plus, the other prominent web platforms are either foreign-based or focussed on one particular subject/era. However, Live History India has kept all the doors open, in terms of content.
Even more, competition comes from TV channels such as Epic or National Geographic (which have history-based content in colloquial languages). But with no geographical boundaries limiting the digital medium, the platform does have a chance to carve out a bigger niche and draw out a bigger crowd. Going forward, if the team could also leverage AR/VR (augmented reality/virtual reality) to take a further deep dive into history, it would be a huge step in engaging a saturated audience.
The only challenge is making the content engaging enough to attract Indians to a subject like history. Which has long been considered the domain of historians, academicians, and researchers and not the average content consumer. LHI needs to scale on three fronts – quality content, the number of users/pageviews, as well as successfully monetise an admittedly niche vertical. How it will do so, in a digital world overflowing with content, will be interesting to see.