Mumbai-based Just Dial Pvt. Ltd. (Just Dial), a localised search service, is our own desi version of the garage-to-corporate story, in the truest sense. It was founded in 1996 with a capital of Rs.50,000 in a rented garage, with borrowed furniture and five employees. Today, the company employs a 4,000 strong work force in 240 cities and has more than 1,35,000 paid advertisers and 25 million users. It clocked a turnover of Rs. 134 crore in March 2010, registering a 40 per cent increase in year-on-year growth. It has received three rounds of funding since 2006 and is planning a public issue next year. It launched its US operations in April 2010, and plans to expand into all major English-speaking countries over the years. As of March 2010, Just Dial had unused cash of US $46 million that it raised from several private equity firms. However, things weren’t always this rosy.
“Worldwide small advertisers behave similarly. As we have taken care of all the needs of a small advertiser in India, this model will just have to be replicated”
Backed by belief
“In the early stages, the challenges were multifold. The biggest challenge was capital. You need to make a capital investment when it comes to buying equipment or things like hardware or software,” says V.S.S. Mani, founder and managing director, Just Dial. Apart from executing the idea, marketing and attracting quality talent were among the company’s other challenges.
Being a non-funded startup, the company adopted the practical approach of taking in those who were ready to join the company – fresh graduates and even those pursuing graduation. “Aligning our goals with that of our employees and providing incentives based on productivity prompted our early-stage employees to get their friends and relatives to work for Just Dial,” reminisces Mani.
Due to paucity of funds, marketing was primarily done through product demonstrations made to prospective customers. A motivated sales force and aggressive pricing helped Just Dial get a foothold in the market. “On the other hand, for our customers, it turned out to be a low risk and high return proposition,” explains Mani. He attributes the company’s success to a passionate belief in the idea, single-minded focus, constant innovation and improvements, leveraging technology and fair management practices.
The 1998 telecom boom too contributed to its growth and with improvement in technology and delivery mechanism, the company launched its services on the Internet, WAP and SMS by 2007. And recognition came Just Dial’s way when it was awarded the Red Hat Innovation Award at the 2010 Red Hat Summit and JBoss World event in July 2010
While the growth of Just Dial may read like a fairy tale, it has been despite tough competition. Google, today, has become synonymous with search, and local classifieds are growing by the minute. As Mani says, “There is a lot of value for small businesses in our model. People are going to pick up the phone and dial when they want to place an order or give business to someone.”
Also, buyers are given multiple options for a product or service they are looking for, a reverse auction, as they say. The advertiser gets a call from a customer who has already decided on buying the product or the service. The advertiser only needs to handle it right to clinch the deal.
For this model to be successful, data accuracy is critical. “We have perhaps one of the largest numbers of employees employed throughout the country to constantly call up and validate data. That is the best way to validate data,” explains Mani. Besides, the popularity of the service encourages businesses to call up and correct their own information, or visit Just Dial’s website and edit their information. “People who start new businesses, call up and enlist themselves with us for free. So, that is definitely an edge over any new player who gets into this space,” says a confident Mani. He believes that it is a combination of efforts from the Just Dial team, the users and businesses themselves that have ensured a reasonably high-quality, accurate and relevant data.
But, such data also needs protection. Mani says, “In this era of the Internet, data hacking is always a threat. This is something that you have to live with.” He also believes that despite superior technology to protect data, the right legal system is important to take action against hackers.
The consistent quality Just Dial offers across the country and the quick response to calls are aspects Mani takes pride in. He attributes the efficiency displayed to the years of work, research, development and training. “We have our own technology, our processes in place by which we are very confident that with the given skill-set, we will be able to deliver in any market.” As for people, almost 80 per cent of the management team has been with the company for 10 to 12 years. And Just Dial has given them an opportunity to grow in this time span.
Crossing the border
The company has raised three rounds of strategic investments: Rs 50 crore from Hong Kong-based SAIF partners; Rs 40 crore from California-based venture fund Sequoia Capital and Rs 77 crore from New York-based Hedge Fund Tiger Global. The funds will be used for expansion in terms of inorganic growth. “We are looking at a public issue next year. It will also give some kind of liquidity for existing investors,” says Mani.
Just Dial services is already available in the U.S. “The financial success in India, the ability to raise capital and the mature markets, where the market size is huge, made us look at it as a great opportunity,” he explains. Also, self-reliance being high in the West, any search medium would be successful, whether it is on the voice, Internet or mobile phones.
With speed, accuracy, quality content, and directions (map) already built into the website, it is as good as ready for international markets. Richer content in the form of pictures, videos and actual websites in the U.S. are likely to come up in the near future. “Worldwide small advertisers behave similarly. As we have taken care of all the needs of a small advertiser in India, this model will just have to be replicated,” adds Mani.
However, India, with its high-growth opportunities, will continue to be an area of focus and the usage of Just Dial is expected to grow at 50 per cent in the next three to four years. Some of its plans for the Indian market include new verticals in the local search space to offer a richer experience for the user. Just Dial has also introduced a premium service called Just Dial Genie, a personal assistant that will enable consumers to avail round-the-clock services for a monthly fee. Genie will allow instant call connect to any business establishment, reminder services and the likes.
“We are focusing a lot on user reviews and ratings as well. We are also incorporating features like ‘tag your friend’ whereby before visiting a place or business; you can actually see how your friends rate that place and accordingly take a decision,” he adds.
The power of Just Dial is in its simplicity, and that will never go out of fashion. Though the basic premise of Just Dial is that it succeeded because there is no alternate source of information, Mani feels that as the idea is powerful it can succeed in any part of the globe. “Even if the society is very advanced, nothing can beat the simplicity of just picking up your phone, dialling a number and getting whatever you want within seconds,” he reasons.
Just Dial’s success story has been one of creativity and nimbleness. Mani is proud that it is an indigenous and innovative model, created from local needs. If it succeeds internationally, it will be a case of local going global, with its roots in India – making the company and our country proud.