A journalist. A radio jockey. And an amateur blogger. And nine years later, one of the media influencers of our time and generation.
When Malini Agarwal began her eponymous blog way back in 2008, it was on the advice of a friend. “When you’re a gossip columnist for a major newspaper like Mid-Day, you develop a network of Bollywood celebrities and much more,” begins Malini’s husband Nowshad Rizwanullah. “Add in the radio gig at Radio One and she had access to the right of kind of people, events, and parties etc. What she didn’t have was the column inches to write about all the goings on that she was invited to be a part of.”
Blogging was not the only passion Malini discovered at that point of time. “She was, I would say, one of the early adopters of social media in India. I left to pursue my education at Harvard Business School around the same time Malini started the blog and in fact, she even got a decent Twitter following way back then,” he adds.
And then something interesting happened. According to Nowshad, the blog was hitting approximately 3K monthly views by 2009. “But that’s not the interesting part. It was the amount of comments that she used to get. They were insane. Friends would comment, friends of friends would come onto the page and engage with her.”
And the blogger discovered something crucial, something that still is the backbone of the business she has founded – MissMalini. The US had a Huffington Post, PopSugar, and other such digital platforms where millennials could talk and engage with each other in a meaningful way. India had no such place where they could get in on the action – be it Bollywood or lifestyle or entertainment. “There was no real voice in the media at the time representing young, Indian millennials. Nothing from our age group talking to our age group,” he says.
This was a watershed moment for team MM.
From A Blog To An Inc – Making Of A Business
“Malini parlayed the blogging gig into a position with Channel V where she became the Head of Digital Content somewhere in 2009. But, the truth is, she was hooked onto writing. As were the readers. So she would work at the day job and then blog at night,” he reminisces.
Nowshad shares that when he came back from finishing his MBA degree, he took up a position in investment firm Nomura. “Our schedule was crazy. I worked days and she worked nights at a red carpet event or movie premiere and then we would spend what little time we had figuring out what to put on the blog. And then we had advertiser interest in our blog,” he adds.
Native format advertising, that which MissMalini and others of its ilk are known for today, was a very different animal back then – nascent and just entering the digital domain. Where brands were slowly realising that consumers did not want to be advertised to, but talked to. There were no rules and definitely no one front leader when it came to market share.
“When we got advertiser interest, we realised we were onto something here. That this didn’t just have to be a blog about Insider Bollywood for readers. It could be an actual business. And as a business, it was too much for just one person to handle,” he says.
Mike Melli (Chief Revenue Officer) was a friend of a friend who was in India collaborating on the Snoop Dogg-Singh is King campaign, when the duo approached him to help out with sales and he was enthusiastic about the idea so he came onboard. “At around the same time, we also realised that the Indian public was not just interested in Bollywood, per se. It bled onto other aspects of tinsel town – they wanted to know who was wearing what, what trends were cool, and where the coolest people went to hang out,” he adds. In other words, fashion and lifestyle.
But the MissMalini team knew to test out the product before making a decision. So it was almost a full year later that “they took the plunge” in Nowshad’s words and incorporated the company – MissMalini Publishing Private Limited. “At the time, we were still a team of 4-5 people. And were looking to get some seed money – to generate revenue in order to grow the blog. This was around October 2011.”
Sonny Caberwal, who is also a key advisor and investor in MM came on board with Google Asia and India Head Rajan Anandan, Steven Lurie, Sid Talwar who is a Partner at Lightbox Ventures among others, and the company secured seed and angel funding in March 2012 – becoming as Nowshad puts it, “a proper business.”
What Happened Next
“The next few years were basically about figuring out what we are,” says Nowshad. When prompted to elaborate he states, “With the first bit of money we got, we did what everyone does, went on a hiring spree – bloggers for both Bollywood and fashion content. And we finally decided to revamp the website, which, till that point had been designed by Malini learning WordPress and figuring out how to customise it by going to various WordPress forums and asking for help. It was a one-person show in the truest sense of the word.”
The website revamp was outsourced via Elance to another small outfit in Goa as the team had no expertise in tech – a big hurdle for any tech-based company. The way Nowshad puts it, the outsourced team optimised the site, cleaned up the junk and made it presentable. “But it was Kunal Anand, who went on to found Kulture Shop, who is a friend of Mike’s who came up with the first original design for MM,” he recounts. “The truth is, it took us a full year to just get these tech specs right. Coming from a purely content, and management driven domain, this was a challenge for us, while hitting numbers wasn’t.”
According to Nowshad, the site was doing 150K in unique visitors on average, at that point of time, and advertiser interest did not wane.
Another key moment that decided the path of MM was the decision to not re-brand the company, a common occurrence in startups when trying to establish PMF and after receiving initial funding.
“Most businesses are tied to a brand and not a single person. But we sat down and analysed what MissMalini means and what would happen if we did build the business around her. And we realised that in the domains of social media and content marketing, having a single voice, a single identity worked. MissMalini loves Bollywood, she fiercely grooves to Arijit Singh but at the same time, is at home in any other global arena. She is a modern millennial woman who crosses boundaries with ease – Indian and international. And she had to be one personality, representative of a larger audience by lending her voice and authority to the brand, while at the same creating a business that could run on its own.”
The Scoop That Changed It All
As per Nowshad, 2013-2014, were not “very exciting years” in terms of storytelling. Although, the team did explode onto the scene with the Ranbir Kapoor-Katrina Kaif secret trip in Ibiza. A scoop that they happened to come by, quite by accident. “A friend of mine from undergraduate days, spotted these two celebrities together and sent Malini a picture saying, do you know these people? They look familiar. And that was that.” The reason the scoop worked was because it legitimised MissMalini as the ultimate insider, the first source for entertainment and lifestyle gossip. And in a 24-hour news and social media cycle, achieving first-mover status sealed the deal.
“We started building the business in earnest from then on – scale being our focus. Scale in terms of traffic, content, and advertisers,” shares Nowshad. “With Mike’s expertise in leveraging both entertainment and marketing, we were probably the first company in India to fully provide native format advertising to brands – something we still do till today.”
The company had its fair share of troubles around this time – one of the major ones was the Google penalties incurred herein. “Before SEO update ‘Panda’ was introduced by Google, digital publishers could just copy paste the same content over and over again, to increase the number of pages, both from their site and others’ – and game the existing ‘search’ system in their favour. Once Panda was initiated to weed out fraudulent websites, this became a near impossibility and we were unfortunately caught in the crossfire of another website using our content on their site and by the site structural issues that ended up creating duplicate content within the MM site.”
Nowshad reveals that the site took a 40% hit on traffic for this alleged infraction. “And it took us about six-eight months to recover from this blow.” This was the reason, according to Nowshad, that the unique visitors’ traffic graph was skewed, showing only a jump to 600K in March 2013 and then 800K in March 2014.
But as he stresses, the team’s first USP and focus has always been quality content – be it Bollywood, lifestyle or covering the latest red carpet event.
“Our branding strategy is always sensitive and respectful of our readers. We know they come to us for our content and we honour that. So, in the early days, we decided to do a lot of co-branding – be it as a lifestyle partner, blogging partner etc. And ensured that the money raised didn’t run out while staying true to the ethos of Malini.”
MissMalini was part of several social media campaigns and events for major brands and this carefully thought out strategy of balancing between offering consumable content that the audience enjoys versus what will induce them to click on the ‘buy’ button was what led to the company becoming profitable by the end of 2014 – with both ends of the business, the blog and social media doing reasonably well.
Working Backwards – From Digital to TV To Radio
“Our business strategy is simple – we want to create amazing content for Indian millennials, distribute this content on every single platform that our audience is on and lastly, monetise the brand smartly,” says Nowshad. They do this by allowing a certain percentage of branded content on the platform, with the criteria being that it should be ‘seamless, non-invasive’ and brands that the team believes in.
And as of today, the team can claim production houses, TV channels, FMCG brands and more on its client roster.
“For instance, we do not endorse skin lightening creams, as it is something we are completely against. And, never say never, but we don’t see ourselves working with a cement company,” he shares with a smile.
It is with this particular ideology, that of talking to their audience across platforms, that Malini entered traditional domains such as TV and radio programming. “When we first thought of launching a TV show, we again looked for homegrown content that would appeal to the Indian millennial, and in the era of saas-bahu serials and reality TV shows, the niche vacuum was ripe for being filled. And it was a bit simple, the initial idea – why not have a camera crew follow our content creators around while they went to a film premiere or hung out at Fashion Week?” he confesses.
The idea, simple though it may be, generated sponsors of its own – Myntra, Maybelline and BBlunt and the show ‘MissMalini’s World’ and was launched on TLC. The first season had 13 episodes, and the second one in 2015, following a similar format, called Vero Moda, Saavn, and HTC as brand sponsors.
“In traditional production houses, it is the media buying agencies that find sponsors once the show creators create commissioned content. But because of how ubiquitous MM had become by the time, we entered the space, we had our brands come on board when we asked them to and do the needful for us, in essence becoming both production house and media buyer for the channel.”
Around September 2015, Zoom TV too approached the team, with a
rebranding proposition. “We did 26 two-three minute vignettes on fashion, lifestyle and celebrities for the channel and that was our second major TV show,” he adds. Malini also diversified into radio with a show on Saavn in September 2016, and has the same format –a crew follows and breaks down the initial content creators while they cover events and people for the website.
Creating Content For Indian Millennials Across Platforms
For a company that was primarily and still is largely online, the lateral decision to move to TV needs explaining.
He defends the move by saying, “India is a very unique pop culture. Both because of the large reach TV has even now, in terms of media share. But the Indian TV audience has evolved now as millennials have become hipper, cooler and their thinking has evolved faster than they did in the US. Their expectations are changing and evolving so fast it is hard to keep up with them. So we realised that while digital certainly is where the future is, the real opportunity lies in capturing Indian millennials on the content ecosystem, and that, in India, includes TV.”
On the day we interviewed Nowshad, the ad campaign for Inside Access! With MissMalini debuted on VH1, its third and biggest TV show ever. The show premiered on December 2, 2016. “This show was specifically commissioned by the channel and is one of their two flagship shows for next year,” he says. “But the real proof of concept happened for us with our branding – two of our former sponsors, Maybelline and HTC agreed to come on board with us again.”
Perhaps this is also why the company has not gone on to raise afollow-onn round of funding, as was speculated in earlier news reports.
“We were excited about TV for two years and with brands trusting us not just on social media or the website, we wanted to prove the MM use case on new platforms. It took us this long to establish PMF, establish client relationships and lastly, figure out what is the sweet spot that works with our audience.”
As Nowshad puts it, when it began the team had to approach celebrities and brands to partner with them and now the partnership is mutual as requests for content now flows both ways. “Firstly, because they have now realised that Malini is the gateway to the Indian millennial, their intended TG, and secondly, because we do not just claim to provide a 360-degree reach to our brands. We are one of the few non-legacy businesses to do so.”
Nowshad mentions the use case of a TVC (television commercial) that the company has done for Imagica – the amusement park outside of Mumbai. “Video is the next big focus for us. So we upped our video game and went the mainline route. Let’s see how it pays out,” he says.
The Road Ahead – Diversification, Expansion, Innovation
Malini has a substantial user base now, with Nowshad claiming 4 Mn unique visitors in March 2016. But it faces competition from both legacy advertisers in the business as well as from new players such as Filter Copy, POPxo, Little Black Book, Buzzfeed India, ScoopWhoop, and TVF. All of whom are trying to serve content to the millennials the way they want to be served, and who have an established niche in which they operate from. Little Black Book, Scoopwhoop, and TVF are homegrown players with a war chest of their own to operate from, while Buzzfeed comes with US brand and backing.
So, how does it plan on staying ahead of the curve?
“Our competition is with ourselves and how we entertain the audience,” says Nowshad. “Innovation is hard, because the needs of the audience are constantly evolving, and it’s a huge ask to keep up with them. For the rest, we are a multi-platform, a new media network for Indian millennials and there is enough room at the table for us all,” he opines.
But the company is not ready to rest on its laurels just yet. It has recently launched Bohostar – a shopping section (in beta mode) on the platform where one can create celebrity looks, global fashion trends and more at discounted prices, led by MissMalini’s Chief Strategy Officer and MD, Bohostar, Sujal Shah.
Sujal was an early investor in the company and involved in the initial heavy lifting in the first days of managing the startup. “Bohostar is his vision and execution, start to finish,” says Nowshard, regarding the new launch.
The company’s future plans include revamping the website for a third time, and expanding the categories within which it operates – Bollywood, TV, Fashion, Beauty and Lifestyle. “We are also testing out our Hindi and regional language capabilities to include Tier II and Tier III cities now. And then, there is TV and video, where we are looking to expand our capabilities,” he ends with a modest smile.
For a team that began with a self-hosted blog nine years ago, the future is full of possibilities.
The publishing industry is extremely fragmented. It is also undergoing a drastic revolution, wherein the audience – which was previously the consumer of content – now becoming a stakeholder in the social conversation. Partly, this is because of the penetration of the Internet, smartphones and the advent of social media in every part of a content consumer’s life.
But the main reason, content is changing is because the mindset of the audience has evolved. Too quickly. It is one of the key factors for the emergence and establishment of content-generation platforms such as MissMalini, Arre, POPxo, ScoopWhoop and more. It has, so far, been able to break out of the pack by spreading content and branding across media, digital as well as mainstream.
Its lean business model and proving use cases before achieving scale have held it in good stead. But with more funded startups investing in tech and scale, will it be able to maintain its unique position in the new age media publishing sphere remains to be seen.
[Note: This article is part of The Junction Series. MissMalini’s Malini Agarwal will be speaking at “The Junction” in Jaipur in January 2017. Deep dive into media, entertainment and the new age of publishing with her. Learn more about The Junction here!]