For Rediff boss, early success meant ignoring sceptics, self-learning tools
When he launched Rediff on the NeT, the internet was barely five months old in the country, and had a total of about 18,000 users.Updated: Aug 17, 2020 16:46 IST
Ajit Balakrishnan, the advertising and tech entrepreneur who set up India’s first web portal in 1995, still writes code (for fun and practice) every morning. “It comes intuitively to me,” he says.
When he launched Rediff on the NeT, the internet was barely five months old in the country, and had a total of about 18,000 users.
Balakrishnan, then 47, had spent the previous 22 years in advertising, having co-founded the successful ad agency Rediffusion in 1973. In 1987, he also helped set up PSI Data Systems, which manufactured some of the first computers made in India.
Given his unique experience, he says, he could see a wonderful world was about to dawn.
“I told my partners in the other two companies to take care of business, I was going after the internet,” Balakrishnan says. “At that time, some financial bigwigs would catch me at conferences and tell me, don’t make a fool of yourself with this ‘internet’ business.”
For a year before the launch, Balakrishnan, now 72, worked alone out of a 600-sq-ft office at Fort, Mumbai. He tapped into the programming knowledge he had acquired two decades earlier, working on IBM mainframes as a student at the Indian Institute of Management-Calcutta (IIM-C). “No one in India knew HTML, so I learnt it myself,” he says.
Rediff introduced Indians to the wonderful possibilities of the internet. It was the first Indian news portal; in subsequent years it introduced email and messenger services, a search engine, and e-commerce (it sold mainly electronics and computer peripherals). Apart from their news vertical, Rediff’s core business today is the enterprise email service called rediffMailPro, with 27,000 clients on the roster.
“The key challenge then was that India had very few active internet users,” Balakrishnan says. “The second mega challenge was that the tech was fast evolving. Finding computer science students who knew state-of-the-art programming was hard. But we hired kids from IIT-B (Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay) and other top engineering colleges and trained them, and this was soon resolved.”
In the first round, he hired five people, who’ve since gone on to found their own ventures.
Three years in, with 30 employees, rediffMail was servicing half of India’s million users. The company would soon after get its first venture capitalist investors, and list on Nasdaq in 2000.
Today, there are over half a billion internet users in India. If companies have managed to continue to function, do business, get their products out and keep supply chain intact through the lockdown, it is because of the wide-ranging internet tools that allow employees to perform most functions from home.
But Balakrishnan has some misgivings about the directions in which things are headed. “There is a sort of ideology in the tech world called shareholder wealth maximisation, where everyone thinks the purpose of business is not to provide a service to the people, but to charge as much as possible,” he says.
He is also concerned that Internet business models have become too dependent on advertising. He finds it heartening, he says, that advertising as a method of financing websites is disappearing, as the world moves towards subscription-based models. “And India needs at least one e-mail service that is Indian.”
No prizes for guessing what he is pitching.