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Today: Instant karma

After two failed ventures, VSS Mani struck lucky with his hugely successful Just Dial phone service, which gives this acutely time-strapped metropolis instant information, reports Pratik Ghosh. Special: Small Ideas, Big changes
By Pratik Ghosh | Hindustan Times, Mumbai
UPDATED ON JUL 16, 2008 03:08 AM IST

Vidyut Shukla was six months old in Mumbai when his friend in Jaipur called him, requesting him to send a birthday cake to his friend's fiancée, who also stays in Mumbai. Shukla was clueless: he was new to the city. That's when his colleague asked him to call Just Dial. In 30 minutes, Shukla had not only placed the order for a cake, but also arranged to send it across to the birthday girl on D-day. Since then, Just Dial has been Shukla's trusted guide, easing his life in this vast, sometimes bewildering metropolis.

Idea

What exactly is Just Dial? If you are looking for information on, well, almost anything - ranging from a neighbourhood drugstore to the best kebab corner in town, simply dial 6999-9999 from any of 240 cities and towns in India. The response is almost immediate. The service is round the clock: 24x7, 365 days a year. In Mumbai, you can also dial 2888-8888.

For VSS Mani, 35, the company's founder and managing director, the idea was very simple. He intended to make Just Dial a telephonic search engine that would have the names and telephone numbers of all commercial enterprises of the cities where the service functions. All this data has been collected over time and organised.

Just Dial connects the seeker to the sought. While the caller gets information absolutely free, the establishments from which the caller buys products and services has to pay a fee to Just Dial. That's how Just Dial generates revenue. For instance, a caller from Mumbai can get information about a florist in Bangalore.

Its database is divided into sponsored clients and non-sponsored clients. In the list of names that is provided to a caller, the names of sponsored clients feature in the top positions. Mani charges money from a sponsored company when the caller places an order with the establishment.

The idea of launching a telephonic service struck Mani in 1988 when he was working in Delhi for a yellow pages company. He was chatting up a client about the prospect of trading information, when it flashed across his mind. His logic was simple: "Unlike in the West, Indians are always banking on friends, relatives and neighbours for information in their everyday life. Why not launch a service to cater to this need?" asked the Jamshedpur-born Tamilian.

For Mumbaikars, absorbed in the pursuit of money, travelling great distances on suburban trains to make a livelihood, and always running short of time, such a service turned out to be almost tailor-made to their requirements. Information was virtually on their fingertips, and there was hardly any effort involved.

Business

Post-1991, after the dawn of liberalisation, India experienced a new beginning. As the economy opened up and lifestyles changed, the need for information became acute.

That was the time Mani came to Mumbai - in 1996. Above all, he realised that if Just Dial had to become popular, then its number should be such that people could remember it easily. As luck favoured him, the
Kandivli exchange gave him a series of 8s.

But even before getting the magic number, Mani began acquiring the names and telephone numbers of small and medium-sized companies through a small team of data collectors. He also had a team of telemarketing executives to validate that data. There were also a lot of raw data readily available. All these names and numbers were stored in a computer.

"Initially, I had convinced some establishments to be my sponsored clients on payment of a flat fee," said Mani. As time went by, the number of sponsored clients multiplied. Then that model gave way to a premium fee where the sponsored clients paid a sum according to the category of their products and services.

That model, too, was changed to introduce lead-based payments, where a client paid according to the number of customers he got through Just Dial.

Now Just Dial draws from a database of two million establishments - of which 60,000 are sponsored - to feed information to callers.

The success of Just Dial is also an example of why it is important constantly to upgrade services and explore new mediums. Just Dial's website justdial.com, which was re-launched in March last year, now registers more than 72,000 hits every day. Information is also sent via SMS and WAP (wireless applicaton protocol) in an effort to be customer friendly, which means that Just Dial sends out one lakh SMSs every day to its mobile-toting callers and 6,000 messages through WAP. To manage the ever-burgeoning database, Just Dial has a team of R&D professionals.

"From the start, three things worked in our favour," said Mani. "First, we kept the price low for our sponsored clients, namely we charged a very low flat fee. Second, though we couldn't pay our staff well at that time, we evolved a performance-based incentive scheme to keep morale high. Third, callers were happy as their calls were promptly responded to. Simply put, it was a win-win situation for all."

Today, this pan-Indian service receives 1.4 lakh calls every day from 240 cities and towns. Mumbai alone contributes to nearly one-third of the total number of callers. Eight call centres spread across the country handle the mad rush for information.

Success

Just Dial has an annual turnover of Rs 85 crore, and the company's valuation stands at a whopping Rs 500 crore. The company's all-India staff strength is 3,000. Just Dial's 20,000-square-feet office in Malad (W) accommodates nearly 700-odd employees. All this is a result of one man's vision and perseverance.

But Just Dial began in a 300-square-feet shop in Malad. Before this, in 1989, Mani launched ASK ME in Delhi with two partners. The service was on the lines of Just Dial, and then spread its tentacles to other Indian cities. It was supposed to be the next link in the chain on information dissemination that began with the telephone directory and then graduated to yellow pages. However, this unique business operation died a premature death. In hindsight, Mani realised that he had been a little too ahead of his times. Not many people were using the telephone, even in the metros.

He walked out of ASK ME owing to a difference of opinion with his partners, but not before parting with his shares. He gave up his shares to the partner who had invested in the business. He had also launched a wedding planner in Delhi, but here too the story was the same. Not one to give up, he launched Just Dial in 1996, and the rest is history.

Future

Mani's dream is to make Just Dial as omnipotent as Google. He has been thinking global for some time. The two major search engines, Google and Yahoo, have already approached him for partnership, but Mani had the good sense to politely decline the offers.

"A merger with them would have resulted in Just Dial losing its distinct identity in the Indian market," said Mani.
However, he has said yes to two US-based investors over the past two years, one a private equity fund and another a hedge fund. "The world of local search will intensify in the coming years," said Mani.

He is now eyeing the US and Canadian markets for setting up something similar to Just Dial in those countries. By July-end, he proposes to have a pilot-run of his project with a US company, and the Canada venture will follow after that. Mani did not wish to divulge more about these ventures.

On his journey to success, Mani has met with many failures but he says his family, especially his wife, has been a great support. "My family has suffered a lot of hardships with me. They have been a constant source of inspiration," he said.

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