The mobile connect

The mobile connect

Chronicling Vijay Shekhar Sharma’s journey at One97 Communications

S.MEERA

VIJAY SHEKHAR SHARMA, CEO, ONE97 COMMUNICATIONS

Over the last few years, the very definition of what ‘mobile services’ could mean has gone through multiple transitions. The reason simply has been the explosion of technological advances from the simple, voice-only mobile phone to smart phones and now, tablets.

The mobile phone as a computing device presented an opportunity for several entrepreneurs to build business models around services offered on the phone. One such company that has launched a series of products and services taking advantage of the telecom revolution is One97 Communications (One97), a company that was founded by Vijay Shekhar Sharma in the year 2000.

Over the last 13 years, the company has grown at breakneck pace and today offers services across three verticals – consumer, enterprise and network. On the consumer side, the company offers all kinds of mobile content – entertainment (music, sports, voice chats with celebrities and so on), information and mobile commerce. On the enterprise side, One97’s focus is on assisting firms with implementing their mobile marketing plans through various offerings including mobile coupons, SMS-based marketing, setting mobile payments, among other options. The third focus is on working with telecom companies helping them with reaching higher ARPU (average revenue per user) numbers by up-selling and cross-selling to them using consumer analytics.

The startup phase

Sharma’s first Internet venture was not One97 but a search engine called Indiasite.net, which he set up while pursuing a Bachelors degree at the Delhi College of Engineering in the mid-90s. “After college, I took up some brief assignments including one at Lotus Interworks. Through these days, I was working towards my dream and once I saved enough money, I quit my job and went ahead to start up One97,” he explains.

To begin with, Sharma’s savings served as the seed capital and took him through the company’s formative stages, followed by help from family and an independent investor. One97 raised its first round of funding as late as 2007. “I feared that taking somebody else’s money came with its set of caveats and that it would limit what I could or could not do with my own company,” he admits.

So far, the company has raised three rounds of funds – around US $ 10 million from SAIF Partners and California-based Silicon Valley Bank in Series A; around US $ 25 million from SAIF and SVB India in Series B; and $ US 10 million in Series C from Intel Capital and SAP Ventures.

The first round enabled the company to offer a broad range of integrated services across voice and data platforms to global telecom companies, enterprise and retail customers. The second and third rounds enabled the company to expand through acquisitions, incubating mobile startups and introducing new offerings that could potentially disrupt the telecom landscape in the country. It has also expanded its reach to Asia and Africa, hired aggressively and invested in in-house research and development.

In the initial years, the company faced a greater challenge in finding the right people than in developing technology. “I was lucky to find support from good people along the way, and some of them are still with us today,” says Sharma, emphasizing the importance to being smart and lucky in finding the right people. Today, One97 has close to 1,100 employees spread across nine countries. This has happened in just over a decade, which Sharma feels indicates a sharp surge in its growth curve. “A company is worth the company it keeps,” he adds, tongue-in-cheek.

In addition to people, Sharma often emphasises on the continuous focus on research at One97. “Our huge in-house technology team is constantly exploring quicker, better and secure ways of enhancing the technologies we have,” he says.

For technologies the company cannot incubate within, One97 acquires or funds companies through its investment arm, One97 Mobility Fund (OMF) which it runs in partnership with VC firm SAIF Partners. The US $100 million fund is focused on investing at the seed and early stage in companies focused on building mobile-first businesses in areas such as payments, mCommerce, content aggregation etc. The average deal size ranges from US $ 500,000 to US $ 5 million and till date the fund’s portfolio includes companies like Paytm, a company that offers mobile recharge services, Ciqual, a company focused on garnering customer insights for mobile operators across the world and The MobileGames, that publishes mobiles games for the South East Asian market. Overall, the fund’s portfolio includes 12 companies.

At a broader level, OMF’s primary focus is to continuously grow the overall mobile ecosystem. One97 does not invest in these companies to eventually take operational control; in fact the objective is quite the opposite – encourage new and young businesses to add value to the mobile sector.

On the consumer side

Word-of-mouth and references have been the strong points in growing the customer base for One97 on the direct-to-consumer side. “All we invest in – be it One97 or our portfolio – is on constant improvement in our product, its design, user experience and then, customers shower their love,” says Sharma. Additionally, he believes the company’s USP lies in speed of delivery and quality. “We follow an OPEX-based business model, where customers pay on a pay-per-use basis. We also have a strong direct sales team,” he adds.

One97’s range of services include mobile advertising, payment, voice-based data, video-based content, storefront, applications, mCoupons for delivering redemption points, QR codes to promote opt-in and improve mobile sales promotions, among others. “For some of our services, we acquire and/or aggregate content, while for others we create the content, in-house. So content is certainly our responsibility,” says Sharma.

As a link between the consumer and the provider, One97 also pays attention to customer analytics to ensure service delivery is in line with consumer preferences. With its direct-to-consumer initiatives, One97 becomes both the provider and the facilitator, and this is one of the growth areas for the company. So far, One97’s journey has seen it transition from being an information service provider to becoming a value added services (VAS) company, moving on to becoming a telecom applications company to currently, becoming a prominent mobile-Internet company.

Riding the global wave

One97 has a presence in nine countries including Bangladesh, Nigeria, Dubai, Kenya, Singapore, U.S., Tanzania, Rwanda and Afghanistan. In the future, it is looking at expanding in emerging markets as well as neighbouring markets, with a focus on Africa, MENA (Middle East and North Africa), Europe and Asia.

“This year is an important year as mobile Internet is reaching its influx point. We believe that two important opportunities will mature for us in our business – one is mobile advertising and the other is mobile payments,” points out Sharma. One97 will launch a mobile advertising network, which addresses Indian publishers and advertisers, and expand into South Asia with this service. The company is also launching a mobile wallet product from Paytm. “We believe that we will be able to make a year-on-year growth of 100 per cent in these two segments,” concludes an optimistic Sharma.


SNAPSHOT

One97 Communications

Founder: Vijay Shekhar Sharma, CEO

Investors: SAIF and SVB India; Intel Capital; SAP Ventures

Core focus: mobile-related product and service offerings across three verticals – consumer, enterprise and telecom companies


Concept in brief: 

As Internet and communication technology evolve quickly, organisations are also able to find new consumer needs they can address. For Vijay Shekhar Sharma, the greatest need of consumers is to not just stay connected, but also have relevant content delivered to their mobile phones. Through One97 Communications, set up in 2000, Sharma has been able to fulfil his dream of integrating content and technology to become a link between service providers and consumers by not only offering the technology platform, but also becoming a content provider. One97 Mobility Fund in partnership with SAIF Partners invests in mobile-focused seed and growth stage companies with the goal of growing the overall mobile ecosystem across the world.