Success in one business does not automatically lead to success on the Net.

By N. Shatrujeet, afaqs!, NA | January 01, 2000
Arun Katiyar

Arun Katiyar

Vice-president, content & services, indya.com

In a career spanning two decades, Arun Katiyar spent 18 years with the India Today Group. Which is why his resignation from the post of COO, India Today Group Online, surprised many. One of the early movers onto the Internet, Katiyar today is executive vice-president, content & services, indya.com. In an interview with N. Shatrujeet of agencyfaqs!, Katiyar discusses the Internet revolution in India, the dynamics of the dotcom business and the task ahead.

Edited Excerpts


You have ended a long association with India Today Group Online (ITGO) in favour of Microland. What made you take this decision? What is your role in indya.com? What are the main challenges that greet you at indya.com?

Over the years I have done lots of things, diverse in nature. I have begun with ideas and have taken them to their logical maturity. I think indya.com presents me with that opportunity again. I believe that indya.com has a sound business philosophy, great management and some wonderful ideas. And it has an opportunity today - to build a position of leadership in the Internet space. As executive vice-president, content & services, at indya.com, I am responsible for the management and creation of original content, adding to its width and depth to enable everyday usefulness, while ensuring an indya.com user continues to have a compelling experience.

"The Internet is a 24x7 phenomena, which never sleeps, while print has a very strong committed cycle. Deadlines like these have a strong tendency of creating a bio-rhythm in you,
whereas the Internet destroys all that."

You are one of the early movers as far as the Internet in India is concerned. What made you gravitate towards the Internet? Did you foresee this boom or was your tryst with the Net purely by default?

Yes, I was one of the early movers onto the Internet, but it was more by default than anything else. Mr. Aroon Purie, CEO of the Living Media Group, requested me to handle the Internet operations for the Group, which were non-existent at that time, that is, March 1997. At that time, we began with a team of four and built it up to the current strength of about 60, when I left. I always wanted to exploit the potential of the Internet to its fullest and create a revolutionary product. At indya.com I intend to do just that while creating content to provide compelling user experiences.

When you started out, there was no precedent to go by. How did you find your way around?

In many ways, I was lucky that there were no precedents. I like to work in situations where there are no guidelines, no rules to hamper your thinking and creativity, and where you set the rules and the guidelines. That is also precisely the challenge: to create the business and everything around it from scratch. Once I had established what I intended to, it was time for me to move on and seek other challenges. The Internet is here to stay and make an impact, so I chose to work at indya.com.

"The dotcom market is inflated and this is due to the fact that
it is easy to set-up a business on the Internet. The Internet
is a good place to launch an idea but it's the most
difficult place to sustain it."

You are credited with giving shape and direction to ITGO. How did the job fall into your hands? What were the challenges you faced putting ITGO's operations in place?

I really cannot take credit for giving shape and direction to India Today Group Online. I may have led it, but we had lots of people in the team who were equally dedicated to take it where it is today. My brief was quite simple - to see what we can do with the Internet, which was quite open-ended. I was open to the challenge and the job 'fell into my hands'. My father, at one time, used to head a company called OCS (Overseas Communications Services) which he turned into what is today Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited (VSNL). So, in some ways, the Internet is natural to me. The biggest challenge at the time wasn't in understanding the Internet. It was selling the idea to highly talented editors and managers within the group. They were reluctant to move in this direction because they were comfortable in their silos. Also, finding the right talent to work on the Net was quite difficult. Print and television journalists didn't want to work with us and designers couldn't understand the limitations of the Net. Today, everything has changed.

You too began life in print before moving to the Internet. What are the basic differences between the two? How have you managed reconciling the two?

I started my career by working for CMIE (Center for Monitoring the Indian Economy) where I worked on some economic research. I got into the print media by accident and stayed for 15 enjoyable years. But, the Internet is definitely the more exciting medium right now. The Internet is a 24x7 phenomena, which never sleeps, while print has a very strong committed cycle, be it a daily, a weekly, a monthly and so on. Deadlines like these have a strong tendency of creating a bio-rhythm in you, whereas the Internet destroys all that. The Internet is about new rules, there's no pattern, no rhythm. It's just you and your ideas and it all depends on how quickly you can move, change and adapt them.

"We have allowed the government to run our lives for far too
long. I think the Internet is one of the few instances
where we have tried to break out of this restriction."

Many big publishing houses have been slow in reacting to the Internet. How do you rate their chances of survival and growth vis--vis the early movers?

This is a point of view and not strictly true. I mean, would you consider it fair if someone said that online companies have been slow to adopt brick and mortar? It cuts both ways.

You have witnessed the evolution of the Internet in India since its embryonic stages. How has India responded to the Internet revolution? What are the most significant factors that have propelled the growth of the Internet in India? Inversely, which are the factors that have restricted the growth of the Internet?

If I take the larger picture, I think India has responded extremely well to the Internet revolution. If I may say so, it has actually led that revolution, not from within the country, but, perhaps, Indians from around the world have been critical in every stage except in the initial idea. The growth of the Internet in India has actually been propelled by the fact that India needs to move into the 21st century very quickly and very efficiently. Poised to grow more than 15 times in the next four years, the Indian Internet space is all set to witness explosive growth in terms of users of the Internet. I think it is the single biggest reason why infrastructure is growing at a rapid pace and people are taking to the Internet in some way or the other. The factors that have restricted the growth of Internet are the bureaucracy and the government. We have allowed the government to run our lives for far too long. I think the Internet is one of the few instances where we have tried to break out of this restriction, and that's good news for us and for everybody in the Internet business.

"I believe that indya.com has a sound business philosophy,
great management and some wonderful ideas. And it has an opportunity today - to build a position of leadership
in the Internet space."

How has the Internet scenario changed in India since the time you first came in contact with the Net? And what direction do you see it taking over the next one year?

The Internet in India is still in a nascent stage, but it can be a great leveler, in bridging the gap, which exists. Opportunities are being created for expanding Internet-enabled services into people's daily lives. Current trends indicate that markets like India will drive the growth impetus for the Internet in the millennium. Consider the potential that exists for India to emerge as the prime mover of the new economy. India will be a market of multiple-usership, that is, many people per access point. This will be spurred via cable TV, mobile phones, cyber cafes and the growing penetration of PCs. Going forward, indya.com is finding ways to bring everyday usefulness to its consumers from all access points.

"The biggest challenge at the time wasn't in understanding the Internet. It was selling the idea to highly talented editors and managers within the group. They were reluctant to move in this direction because they were comfortable in their silos."

Agreed, the Internet is one of the hottest things around. But what about forces such as poor infrastructure, legislation etc that constrict its growth? Is enough being done to clear such obstacles? What, in your opinion, needs to be done to speed up the process?

First of all, building robust and forward-thinking infrastructure for the Internet itself is difficult. Just imagine if we had moved ahead with lightening pace and replaced all the copper wires with whatever is necessary, only to discover that it was actually the optical fibers that we needed, and again, after making the change, we realize that actually it was the wireless technology that we needed. So, it's just as well that things are happening not that fast. We are finding our feet, and that's more important than rapid progress, because once we do that, we learn to run. The Internet imparts the way we learn, live, transact and behave, and it is and will be a way of life.

Detractors insist the dotcom bubble is about to burst. Yet, new web sites are launched everyday with much optimism, fanfare and funding. Do you agree that the dotcom market is grossly inflated? If so, how can these new sites sustain themselves?

The dotcom market is inflated and this is due to the fact that it is easy to set-up a business on the Internet. The Internet is a good place to launch an idea but it's the most difficult place to sustain it. It is likely those businesses, which are not built to support a growing revenue curve, may not survive. However, sites which are built on the principles of consumer focus, compelling consumer experience and consistently growing revenue, will certainly outpace others.

"However, sites which are built on the principles of consumer focus, compelling consumer experience and consistently
growing revenue, will certainly outpace others."

In the dotcom business, accountability has suddenly assumed a lot of importance. With venture capitalists insisting on sound business models and profits remaining elusive, what recourse do web sites have?

Venture capitalists who didn't look at sound business models and sensible business plans are to be squarely blamed for this. It's definitely not a question that has suddenly assumed importance. It was always important, but people never paid attention to it. Even the media went overboard with it. I guess the media is as much responsible for the hype created around the phenomena. The Internet is about new rules. Success in one business does not automatically lead to success on the Net. Brands and businesses that have a vision and the scale to build for leadership, managerial talent to fulfill those dreams and the technological and marketing ability to make the consumer experience most compelling will definitely more than survive.

Some believe that web sites that cater to niche segments will fare better than broad-based sites. Others insist that portals that offer a wide variety of services to a broad spectrum of surfers will emerge the winners. What is your opinion?

I think there is space for both - niche as well as the broad-based segment. People want both the smaller as well as the bigger things, and I, therefore, think that both will survive. However, horizontal portals like indya.com are gateways to the world. They attract high traffic and provide everyday usefulness and have the potential to grow and be profitable!