“I started working with the BBC when I was 21. This was back in 2011 when discovery and recommendation websites were still in their nascent stages in India,” begins Suchita Salwan, founder of local discovery and recommendation platform Little Black Book or LBB, as it is ubiquitously known.
“I was salaried, like many millennials my age and I had no big liabilities and I wanted to explore the city I had lived in all my life, Delhi – see what it had to offer in terms of culture, entertainment, and dining. And guess what? We only had Just Dial and Zomato – and my options were severely limited when it came to Friday night out plans,” she adds.
Suchita is one among the 64% of millennials dotting India’s urban landscape by 2021 who, unlike their predecessors, study hard, work hard and want to party harder. They have a good spending capacity on account of being part of a well paid working class or having turned entrepreneurs and making sizable incomes.
This crowd wants to look beyond information – provided by JustDial for numbers of local businesses and go-to places, Zomato for restaurant reservations and BookMyShow for entertainment regarding the latest films, plays and other events taking place in Delhi – and zero in on specific events and exciting, undiscovered places that are the pride of every urban area and which are as yet, not on anyone’s radar. In other words, places that are cool and awesome enough to spend an evening with friends.
From A Tumblr Blog To A Recommendation Platform For 15 Lakh Unique Users
“I started blogging about the city. An exploration, really,” Suchita says. “There were so many discoveries to be made about places to eat, cafes, restaurants, and little outlets for shopping that I normally wouldn’t find on an information portal – from Hauz Khas to Sarojini Nagar to Janpath – it was a combination of places and things that I found awesome,” she adds.
LBB began life as a Tumblr blog (now defunct) in 2011 and Suchita describes it as a sort of ‘Pinterest of Local Discovery.’ The way she puts it – the blog had 10,000 users in Delhi itself by 2013. They were users interacting on social media such as Facebook and Twitter, sharing their love for all things Delhi. In addition, they were making their own recommendations, turning it into a community of enthusiasts and influencers intent on finding all the ‘cool’ things their city had to offer.
“I think what caught the user’s attention was that they were bored by everything – the same shows, the same restaurants, the same shopping places in Khan Market. Through LBB, they were able to discover so many hidden gems in the FMCG sector. Additionally, small businesses have blossomed in the city and have found a platform on LBB,” she says.
“Basically, I ended up realising that LBB became a platform that amazes and excites you – much like when you stumble across a really great Pinterest board which is colourful, intuitive, and informative all at the same time,” Suchita adds.
And it was this idea that led to her quitting her day job in 2013 and pursuing her passion and business full time.
The Search For A Co-founder
“We spent the first two years just figuring out PMF,” shares Suchita. “Who our users are, where are they situated, what kind of money are they spending on what activities – be it shopping, entertainment, and eating. Our target audience emerged as primarily millennials, much like myself,” she adds.
According to Suchita, the team was bootstrapped for the initial months with four core members and five interns. “Two of the team were on content, one was on sales and one on events. We also had five interns who were rotated in various positions as and when required and did a little bit of everything,” she reminisces.
She also shares that the growth that occurred during this period was 100% organic. “Our scale kind of skyrocketed as we went from 10K users to 100K users. People were actually gravitating towards the site on their own steam and making recommendation using the hashtag #ifoundawesome.”
This fit perfectly with the idea that Suchita had when she’d begun the blog. It was a space that encouraged people to share experiences, tap into the very psyche of the city they lived in and come up with unique and out-of-the-box ideas for social gatherings.
“It was time to take LBB to the next level and branch out into app-building. But I was clueless about technology, had no idea on how to go about achieving this scale of product,” Suchita confesses with a laugh.
It was around this time that the LBB team had crossed paths with Dhruv Mathur – a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University and co-founder of FBPay. “We had worked with Dhruv and his team before and I realised that Dhruv would be a natural fit for LBB. So he came on board with two of his team members and we had ourselves a co-founder and CTO,” she shares.
“Ten Best Things To Do In Your City” And So Much More
LBB’s components can be classified into two broad-based categories.
Local – Geographically restricted to a particular area or locality within a city catering across interests related to food, shopping, culture and entertainment.
Recommendation – which basically taps into the network of users and influencers on the platform who share ideas/listicles in the form of things they find ‘cool.’
The platform is made up of image-and text-based articles and video-based stories. Alongside, listicles are a key part of the content that LBB puts out.
“All our content is curated in-house,” shares Suchita. The content team is made up of 10-12 members who work with a network of 1,000 members across the three cities that LBB is present in and the most popular content makes its way into the ‘I Found Awesome’ category which is also a trending hashtag.
But the journey to create this content and have it instantly connect to users on a massive scale was not easy. Talking about some of the challenges Suchita faced, she says, “Initially, it was about getting people to wrap their head around what exactly a discovery and recommendation platform was about. Was it a blog, did it have any value, what did it give readers – getting readers to trust us was the first hurdle we faced.”
“We aren’t a me-too startup, we didn’t operate in ecommerce or offer any tangible product so users took time to come around. In fact, for the first two years no one got it, even though we were showing a good amount of traction,” she adds.
Finding the right team too was a challenge that the LBB team faced and which was solved when Dhruv Mathur and his tech team came onboard. But then, with a combination of grit and fortitude, everything fell into place and the team discovered a model that was able to quickly scale.
So, the scale happened on two fronts.
Tapping into the vein of a mobile-first India, empowered by almost 250 Mn smartphone users LBB launched its app across all major platforms in March 2016, after spending months in development. The app is easy-to-use, intuitive and adaptable to the major regions the user is from.
The app was first launched for Delhi, where LBB’s biggest draw is, but has also been introduced in the cities of Mumbai and Bengaluru where it was launched as recently as August and September 2015, respectively.
“We waited two years. Worked hard and made the model work seamlessly across cities, and effort was reflected in the ease with which we launched into two major cities within weeks of each other,” shares Suchita.
The wait seems to have paid off as, claims Suchita. The website and app now have a combined 100K daily users now, as opposed to 100K users per month. She also says that at any given time there are about 12,000 things to do in Mumbai, Bengaluru, and Delhi on the platform.
And about 70%-75% of this growth has been purely organic, with just about 25%-30% of advertising being done on Facebook and Google to keep the machine running.
Millennials – A Marketer’s Wet Dream, LBB’s Most-Common User
With conversation moving towards numbers, Suchita ventures into the business model that the platform runs on – after all, the goal of all businesses is to monetise its product. In LBB’s case, this product is monetised through advertising and partnerships.
Brands, local and multinational have tied up with the platform to find and hook that most elusive of animals – millennials.
“Our audience is ideally a marketer’s wet dream. The typical millennial has not much liability or responsibilities, so basically they are earning money to spend. They are high-intent users. They do not come onto LBB to ‘browse’ or ‘get entertained,’ their intent is to buy, to eat, to shop, to go for that event at CP in Delhi or Colaba in Mumbai,” she says.
While LBB claims to do its bit by supporting the discovery of smaller businesses in niche areas, larger brands across the board who want to engage and connect with a digitally-obsessed audience advertise on the platform in the form of campaigns, ads and much more. Some of these brand names are the largest in the FMCG sector including Reebok, Pepsi, Airbnb, Coke, Samsung, HTC to name just a few.
“We have supported over 500 brands – both local and multinational since LBB began operating,” shares Suchita.
These are the kind of numbers that could probably be attributed for the whopping 600% of growth that the startup claims to have achieved in 2015-2016. While Suchita says the overall M-o-M is a modest 20%, she does share that June 2016-September 2016 saw almost double the amount of growth across product, leads, and revenue.
Of Having Fun, Funds, And The Future
Despite being a content data network, LBB has never hurt for cash having raised ample funding through the years.
It raised $165K in Seed funding from Rajan Anandan, Sachin Bhatia of Outbox ventures and few other angels in May 2015. And almost a year later, raised a Pre-Series A round of $1.2 Mn from IDG Ventures India and IAN. “We were actually only in the market for about $500K at the time when IDG and IAN came onboard with more than double that amount. And now we have more money than anticipated which is such a first-world problem,” she shares with a laugh.
The investment has certainly helped fend off competition from big-budget names such as BookMyShow, Zomato, Sulekha, and JustDial who also play in the information-recommendation wheelhouse.
“To be very honest, the consumers are not spoilt for choice when it comes to knowing what is popular and cool in their cities. We, ourselves, can see that when we think of booking movie tickets – we instantly open a BookMyShow or scroll through Zomato when looking for nearby restaurants,” Suchita says. “What LBB is looking for is the consumer mind space. That’s where our real competition lies.”
Elaborating further on this, she adds, “Our consumer’s attention span is miniscule. Retaining that and focussing it on LBB is where the real challenge lies. I mean, we would like every user to just basically open the LBB app and find what they want first through there, instead of going to a Zomato or a BookMyShow. With 130 Mn millennials in sight, we really want to get our India expansion story straight.”
The explosion of millennials across cultures and countries is also the reason why Suchita is fairly confident that the problem LBB is solving is global and applicable to any city with a thriving, urban population. Which is why, according to her, the startup will be focussing on getting its ‘India story’ straight over six to eight months and then expanding in the next phase.
“Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Dubai, Beijing. These are some of the places we are looking at. And why not, right?” she laughingly concludes.
Millennials are the prime consumer for every digital marketer out there – they are tech-savvy, informed with the latest trends, and very active on social media. However, they are highly unpredictable, in that marketers are still trying to decipher what works and doesn’t work with them. In such a case, having a platform that works on the twin purposes of “serendipity” and “exploration,” is ideal to tap into the minds and wallets of the millennial consumer. It provides them a chance to be cool and different, two things they value a lot.
Additionally, the global e-discovery market is expected to reach $14 Bn at a CAGR of 15% by 2020. All things considered, platforms like LBB, Zomato and their ilk have a decent chance of taking home the largest, most profitable share of the sector’s pie. But with Zomato running into operational problems globally, will LBB be able to beat consumer ennui, achieve a sustainable business model that scales globally without losing out on its intrinsic ‘cool’ factor? That is something that remains to be seen.