[Note: This article is part of The Junction Series. ScoopWhoop’s Rishi Pritam Mukherjee will be speaking at “The Junction” in Jaipur in January 2017. Deep dive into viral content, writing for Indian millennials and more with him. Learn more about The Junction here!]
It is said that creative people make bad businessmen.
Probably because, when it comes to creativity, one uses the left side of the brain (signifying creativity, passion, and impulse). On the other hand, to be a cutthroat, successful business owner one has to utilise facets such as logic, analysis and rationale, all of which are associated with the right brain. And the twain shall never go together.
Or, so it is said.
What the naysayers didn’t count on, were an intrepid troupe of six people – six creative people who worked in advertising and their vision to make content that was cool, interesting, and relatable to the Indian millennial.
Meet Sattvik Mishra creative personality, ex-adman, and one of the six co-founders of ScoopWhoop, one of the digital platforms that puts out funny, kitschy, and relevant pop culture-related content. The other five in the cohort are Suparn Pandey, Rishi Pratim Mukherjee, Sriparna Tikekar, Debarshi Banerjee, and Saransh Singh.
“Five of us went to the same college – IIMC – and graduated in 2008-2009,” he begins. “But Rishi, Sriparna, and I were proper batch mates doing advertising. And then, after college, Rishi and I joined Webchutney, I as a lowly copywriter and Rishi in client servicing. Sriparna was at McCann Erickson where she was also a copywriter. We worked on a bunch of campaigns for brands such as Microsoft, Bacardi and its sister brand Aristoff, Coke, GSK (Glaxo Smith Kline), Airtel etc. I even got bumped up to Creative Director over the next few years. But our heart was not in it. We were bored of doing traditional advertising,” he adds.
It was also around this time that the group of friends, all largely creative and largely doing well in their respective jobs did what all millennials in India were doing. Got hooked on, properly, to Western pop culture. “We would go through all these sites in the US that had viral content such as Diply.com or Huffington Post or even a Buzzfeed. And we realised that this same culture was being replicated here in India,” he shares.
“All our publications around that time, apart from those in mainstream media, were American in nature, talking about their TV shows, their problems, and their issues. And the pop culture that did exist in India was US-focussed. So we decided to do something about it.”
ScoopWhoop: Origin Story
“I vividly remember, but it was the long Independence Day weekend of 2013. August 14, to be exact. We were all hanging out with each other in someone’s apartment, drinking, having fun when we thought, seriously that we should do this – start a website and post Indian pop culture content. Of course, we were all pretty buzzed so I suppose that was a point in our favour as we embarked on this crazy idea,” says Sattvik with a chuckle.
The website was duly created, but then when it came to naming the property, a lot of discussion took place. “We were pretty fried by then, I will admit. We’d written a couple articles and were just discussing names. Shortlisted about 20 of them. And were researching on terms related to news Someone, I cannot exactly remember who, suggested ‘scoop’ which stands for catchy stories, and ‘whoop’ which means to kick ass,” he shares.
“We are all Indians, right? And in Indian parlance, we also say roti-shoti, yahaan-wahaan. Words rhyme. So since our content was also true-blue Indian in nature we decided to go with the rhyming ScoopWhoop and registered the site,” he adds.
According to Sattvik, the second article posted on the site – If Game of Thrones were made in India, which Bollywood actor would star in it – went viral. And the story did not end there.
“We couldn’t believe it ourselves but within two months we hit 5 Mn unique users. We worked at our day jobs, Rishi and me at WebChutney and wrote content at night. And we were in complete stealth mode for the first few months,” shares Sattvik.
“But the best proof of concept we got was when we walked into office one day, and all our colleagues were glued onto the site and were sharing the posts and talking about it in general. And that was when we started thinking, ‘Ok, this is real. People like this. We can actually work on it.’ And no one in office even knew it was us.”
The way Sattvik puts it is that the ad agency’s CEO Sidharth Rao came to know about the duo’s extracurricular activities and called them in for a meeting. “We were so sure this was not going to go well, but surprisingly, Siddharth was highly supportive of our venture. He even went so far as to say that we should quit our jobs and do this full-time.”
And, Siddharth put his money where his mouth was, by becoming an angel investor in the nascent company, according to Sattvik.
“That was when we convinced Sriparna and the others too to join us, took up a small farmhouse in Delhi in December 2013 and officially launched operations on ScoopWhoop by incorporating it,” he adds.
“We Spent The First Year Learning How Content Works”
According to Sattvik, Siddharth was joined in the Seed round (undisclosed) by Haresh Chawla and Manish Vij. “It created a runway of about six-eight months for us. And two things happened in the intervening period – brands started taking notice of us and approached us for advertising and investors showed interest in us. All of which further established proof of concept,” says Sattvik.
As per Sattvik, the team of six went up to 11 between January 2014 and September 2014. “We spent these months just learning about how publishing works. We were all content people at heart, and needed to learn about the business from scratch, which was a great learning curve for us,” he adds.
He also talks about a supposed acquisition offer from a leading Internet firm in September 2014 which they were very excited about, but ultimately did not accept it.
It was in the first year itself, or near to it, that Bharti Softbank provided the biggest boost to the media startup and invested $1.5 Mn in a Pre-Series A round, acquiring about 36% stake in the company for the same. This funding was also one of the reasons why the sellout didn’t take place.
“By the time we finished understanding how media works and who our target audience is and all of that, we crystalised on the vision for the company – to build a profitable media company for young Indians. We had built a sizeable team of 30 by then and realised that to become a large scale publisher with legitimacy, we needed to separate the content we were doing into news and entertainment,” says Sattvik.
That was when the company changed focus and pivoted to its existing model of being a platform that does entertainment, news, video (short and long-form) content.
Delineating Content: Because ‘Only X Can Write For X’
“We take the news desk team very seriously,” says Sattvik. “With the funding we got, our first task was to expand on our USP – content and hire the right people for the job. This included hiring for both news and the more entertaining side of the platform.” As per Sattvik, at the moment, the content team at ScoopWhoop stands at 90 – with about 25 members at the news desk and 65 working in the creative section. The total team strength is 150, all of whom operate out of the same farmhouse in Delhi as when the company started.
The creative team does stories and research-based stories on food, travel, and pop culture-centric events. One of the most popular forms of posts is listicles.
The news team puts out timely, relevant news items pertaining to social, political and sports events in the country but with a different objective to target the relevant audience. “Maybe because we did not come with a journalism background, but for us, news is democratic. Legacy publishers like TOI, DNA, Hindu used to dictate what news would go where. But we believe that news and its consumption is also highly subjective,” he opines. He gives a very basic instance – A 20-year-old might be interested in Kim Kardashian’s latest wardrobe selfie, a 25-year-old would want to know where the coolest vacation spots are, while a 30-year-old will want to know how demonetisation is affecting him.
“In other words, publishers should not dictate content, including news. And the other side of the coin is, X can only write for X.” When prompted to elaborate on the rather mathematical statement he says,
“We cater to a vast demographic and produce content specific to all of them. A 40-year-old cannot write for a 20 year TG and vice versa. So we have a diverse mix of writers who write the way their audience can read, assimilate, engage, and absorb,” he says.
Armed with these learnings and insights, ScoopWhoop launched two new verticals – Gazabpost (a Hindi language imprint) and Vagabomb (catered towards Indian millennial women) in February and March 2015, respectively. And then, as Sattvik puts it, “We spent the next six months building up the editorial team.’
According to the co-founder, the platform also hit 20 Mn unique users, up from 8 Mn users in February 2015.
“Video Is Our Main Focus”
Sattvik and the team at Scoopwhoop then ventured into the realm of videos with ScoopWhoop Talkies, both short form and non-fiction and a web series called ‘Baked’ – a series centred around three friends in a Delhi engineering college and their catering business, their capers, their love life and, of course, marijuana – which resonated with its target audience. “We have had a lot of brand interest in the company with Pepsico, PNG, Paytm, Myntra, Nestle etc. coming onboard. In fact, Baked is sponsored by Maggi,” shares Sattvik.
But the company doesn’t just do creatively satisfying, slightly risqué videos on socially relevant or trending topics, it does hardcore investigative pieces too. “We do news segments that are 3 minutes to 4 minutes long, on current affairs. We also do documentaries where in we investigate deeper stories that affect and impact the country.”
He names ‘Chase’ – a documentary on the stone pelting incidents in Kashmir, where the team was embedded in Kashmir for over six months filming the footage till they got enough material to make a holistic film. He also mentions a story that the team did on manhole scavengers in Mumbai, a hard, thankless job.
“We try covering both ends of the spectrum – entertainment as well as news. Because we believe that any publisher that does not take video seriously in the near future is going to suffer the consequences,” he says.
Of Sales Targets And Acquisitions
“In 2016, we decided to focus on the business side of the company,” says Sattvik. “So far, all of our sales generation had been entirely inbound. We did not invest, per se, in a sales team.” According to Saatvik, ScoopWhoop generates revenue in two ways – 20% through display advertising and 80% through native format advertising.
While Sattvik is reluctant to talk profitability and share actual revenue figures, he does say, “Revenues have doubled in the last two months.”
The company also raised a Series A round of $4 Mn led by Kalaari Capital. “We used that money for expanding our sales team and fine-tuning our tech. Expanded a lot more into video from a team of four to an inhouse 40,” he says.
It was for this reason that the company decided to acquire Touchfone Technologies for an undisclosed sum, which runs StrmEasy, a streaming platform with a low bandwidth and usage tech so it can be accessed by users with slow connectivity.
“We had been in conversation with the founders at Touchfone for three-four months, but the relationship was that of a vendor-client. But we were very impressed with their technology as it was forward-thinking and made us realise that the next group of users who will come onto ScoopWhoop would be from Tier II towns where Internet penetration and connectivity is still an issue that needs to be solved at scale. So we needed a platform now, instead of building one in-house which would have taken us close to a year, that would accomplish a few tasks for us,” he says.
When prompted to talk about the tasks he says, “We had hit 20 Mn unique users quite fast and based on our content alone. But the idea was to turn the 20 Mn into 100 Mn users across devices. For that we need to build out our tech so we could distribute our content on all platforms – be it a phone, a laptop, or a tablet.”
“Historically, all of our advertising has been about buzz creation,” he adds. “Brands approach us and we create content for them that will allow them to engage with our audience in a meaningful way. Now, we want to take this a step further with our acquisition.”
According to Sattvik, Strmeasy has a built-in analytics dashboard that allows brands to configure the kind of audience it wants to target for a particular messaging campaign – with regards to demographic, geography etc. “And plus, we really loved the team at Touchfone. The founders come with immense experience in building and running teams and developing cutting edge tech, which we feel we need at the moment. So we spoke to our Board and convinced them to think about an M&A,” he shares.
Talking Numbers And The Competition
“Our video views for November 2016 rated a total of 150 Mn, of which the news division contributed about 30 Mn – 40 Mn. Last year, we were nowhere close to these kinds of numbers and we didn’t have the bandwidth to get here till we raised the Series A,” he says.
He also shares that the company rakes in 33 Mn unique users per month – in total across Vagabomb, Gazabpost, Scoopwhoop on all platforms. Monthly engagement of content across Facebook, Instagram, Twitter in November 2016 totalled 300 Mn, claims Sattvik.
With the acquisition of StrmEasy, the team’s intent is to originate and bring back the video views to ScoopWhoop’s platform itself – instead of relying on social networking platforms. “At the heart of ScoopWhoop, our expertise has always been content. But we know that going forward it is going to take a combination of data analytics + data science + content to make it to the top,” he says, with touching candour.
ScoopWhoop is right in assuming the mantle of looking forward in order to scale. For while new age media may be a relatively new field to have emerged in the Indian publishing landscape; it is filled with assured, established players such as Quint, Scroll, Storypick, MissMalini, POPxo, Little Black Book, TVF, Buzzfeed India, and Huffington Post India who are all after the same target audience – the new age Indian Millennial.
But Sattvik has a slanted opinion on those the team considers competition. “The digital publisher landscape is a relatively new animal in India. Also, the top spots are still occupied by legacy publishers such as TOI, NDTV who generate about 60 Mn unique users a month. We are already halfway there,” he states. “With the kind of numbers we’re pulling, to consider a Quint, Scroll or Storypick who only pull about 1 Mn-7 Mn unique users is not exactly fair. So, we consider the legacy publishers to be our real competition.”
He also adds that the situation in the US is more complex and cutthroat as the ceiling to break through is a cool 150 Mn unique users. “With our technology and the way our content is being shared and consumed by the audience, we are very proud of where we are at the moment. So we do not consider ourselves an entertainment media company as much as a publisher.”
He does add that it is ‘not a winner takes all’ kind of scenario. “But there are only five-six seats at the table and we do believe we have a good chance of bagging one,” he says.
The Road Ahead
“Well, as always, we are focussing on content. Mostly video. Fiction is a very crowded space and so we would like to pay attention to non-fiction pieces. Because, right now, the content that is available, honestly sucks and it is a space ripe for disruption.” He adds that the team is working on launching 7-10 shows in the non-fiction genre across categories such as travel, food, and entertainment.
Distribution, as earlier mentioned, is also another core focus for ScoopWhoop.
“We don’t care where people consume our content, as long as they do! We are completely platform-agnostic. The idea is to take those 300 Mn views and turn it into 1 Bn views in the next six months and take our unique users in India to 50 Mn,” he ends, chuckling.
For a company that started off on a drunken weekend between friends, the plan may seem audacious, but the road ahead also seems doable.
As Sattvik rightly points out, with the advent of Reliance Jio and the proliferation of smartphones across the nation, network connectivity is the big game changer. This automatically points to the fact that video content is going to play a big part in how publishers (legacy as well as newer entrants) try and gain the attention of their target audience – millennials, who have shorter attention spans and are always looking for better, cooler, more ways to occupy their time and spend their incomes.
ScoopWhoop – with a carefully curated content strategy that is uniquely Indian in its ethos while remaining true to the global Indian’s sensibilities – does seem to have grasped the complexity of the market and is looking to leverage its USP via cutting edge tech and acquisitions. But with its compatriots such as MissMalini, FilterCopy, Scroll, Quint and others quickly catching up in terms of popularity and jostling for a piece of the market pie, will it be able to reach its goal of acquiring 50 Mn unique users by next year, that remains to be seen.