Anirban Roy Choudhury
Interviews

"India is as competitive a market as it gets": Satyan Gajwani, Times Internet

In an exclusive interview with afaqs!, the vice chairman of Times Internet Ltd shares the story behind the story.

Last year, in a unique move for non-listed companies, Times Internet Ltd (TIL) released an annual report sharing its income details. If the move itself was unprecedented, the numbers came as a surprise for many in the industry.

The digital arm of media conglomerate Bennett, Coleman and Company Ltd revealed that it ended FY19 (April 1, 2018 to March 31, 2019) with a staggering Rs 1,359 crore in revenue. According to the presentation, it was a 40 per cent growth compared to FY18 (April 2017 to March 2018).

"While we are a private company, we have many internal and external stakeholders, and publishing this builds understanding, alignment and accountability to our goals," wrote Satyan Gajwani, vice chairman of TIL.

In FY20 (April 2019 to March 2020), TIL revenues grew to Rs 1,625 crore. Advertising revenue grew by 22 per cent. Times Prime and its underlying products' subscribers grew by 62 per cent to cross the two million mark.

Gajwani defines TIL as the "largest Indian digital consumer platform". Its media assets span news (The Times of India and The Economic Times), sports (Cricbuzz), lifestyle (Indiatimes), music (Gaana), and video (MX Player). Enablement platforms serve users across personal finance (ETMoney), real estate (Magicbricks), education (Gradeup), and food (Dineout). It has a bundled subscription offering, TimesPrime.

TIL employs 6,000 people, and at the helm of it is Gajwani, who is often credited for building the empire brick by brick. One of the boldest 'building' moves was the Rs 1,000 crore acquisition of local video playing app MX Player. Today, Gajwani claims it to be the largest premium OTT platform, over Hotstar and ZEE5.

Gajwani, who has been with TIL since 2012 and before that, with its parent since 2008, ends the report on an ambitious note, "Our aspiration is to reach one billion Indians, and become a $1 billion (around Rs 7,300 crore) revenue company by 2025.

In an exclusive interview with afaqs!, Gajwani shares the story behind the story.

Edited excerpts:

When you have a bird's-eye view of the 2020 numbers and compare it with 2019, which are the areas where TIL has exceeded expectations?

We’ve done well in expanding the newer parts of our businesses. On the media front, our entertainment assets (Gaana and MX Player) have really shone, reaching leadership positions in large market opportunities. On the transactions side, our growth has also been very strong, with 75 per cent growth in revenues.

"Our subscription products are strong, but a little scattered right now"
Satyan Gajwani

And, which are the areas where the numbers could have been better?

Our subscription products are strong, but a little scattered right now. Despite that, we’ve scaled to cross two million subscribers, which is solid. We can do better as we clean up the value propositions and make the user (subscriber) experience seamless across products. We’re early in that journey, but will prioritise it more in the year ahead.

MX TakaTak and Gaana HotShots are already seeing 'hundreds of millions of daily streams', what is your vision for these apps? Would you like them to be independent brands, or is the plan to have them as bundled offerings?

These products are less than two months old, but have seen traction beyond our expectations. We’re still learning more about how consumers engage with them. But we are very positive, given the engagement and retention levels the products are seeing. It is too early to have any determined strategy. Both are seeing strong traction and will likely evolve further in the coming months.

Fintech contributes 22.4 per cent to TIL's revenue. Is edutech the missing link in this digital conglomerate, especially when, as a category, edutech is garnering a lot of attention in India? What is your planning when it comes to learning apps?

Actually, our edutech platform Gradeup has scaled up very well, growing over 4x year over year. It offers a very high quality live test prep solution for postgraduate exams. It is part of our ‘transactions’ set of businesses, and has grown substantially in the last six months. We see Gradeup being a major driver of our revenue growth over the next few years.

TIL Report 2020
TIL Report 2020

What is an ideal revenue mix, and where do you see the biggest growth opportunity?

We don’t really optimise for relative share, as much as each product doing the best it can for its market segments. Our entertainment vertical is relatively newer and so, it’s less monetised. There’s room to grow there. There’s also headroom for substantial growth as far as our news businesses go.

MX Player, as you mentioned, is the fastest growing platform in TIL. Is it also the venture you spend the most on, and how far are you from breaking even?

MX Player is two years old, and yet has become the largest premium OTT in India. We have consciously optimised for market share... We’re still very early in the transition to digital entertainment, and I would expect continued investment from our side before optimising for profitability.

"We’re early in learning what our subscriber profiles will end up looking" like.
Satyan Gajwani

'Queen' and 'Ashram' are both large-scale productions. There was a lot of debate in India and many opined that you need a subscription-driven platform to support productions mounted at such a scale. Are there enough advertising opportunities available to make such shows rake in profits?

We’ve definitely bucked the trend by going for free access versus paid for MX Player. Today, MX Player reaches as many people daily as a leading GEC channel…The scale of consumption is so large on a free basis, which most OTTs don’t have, that we can make the economics of premium productions work in a way that no other OTT really can. That being said, given the high hit rate of our big original shows, we’d like to invest more into it. In the long run, a mix of subscription and advertising is important.

"We think gaming is a very natural extension of entertainment media, and we will look to do more."
Satyan Gajwani

You mentioned there are over two million subscribers across Times Prime and its underlying products. What's your view of India’s subscription market? Is paying for access to content still a top of the pyramid, metro-centric concept? How do you see the pool of subscribers growing? Where will they come from and what would get them to pay?

We’re early in learning what our subscriber profiles will end up looking like. We were seeing some interesting early conclusions, though. There are broadly two reasons on why people subscribe: (1) for value, and (2) for aspiration.

On the value front, India is as competitive a market as it gets… Consumers want more for less, and will constantly check to make sure their investment is ROI-positive. Fortunately, for the top audiences of India, Times Prime is a no-brainer, given how much you get for the price. And as we look towards larger audience pools, we’ll experiment with different price points and lighter mixes.

On the aspiration front, we want to think of TimesPrime more like a membership than a service. Being a Times Prime member unlocks high quality media experiences, but also life experiences, whether it is events, restaurants, early or preferred access, etc. We think this element of our proposition is as important as the value side, and is part of our long-term vision of serving our top customers.

Source TIL Report 2020
Source TIL Report 2020

Gaming, during COVID lockdowns, garnered a lot of attention, both in terms of engagement and revenue. Apart from an offering within MX Player, where does TIL stand on gaming? Are you looking for acquisition of new games, or publishers?

We incubated an early asset called Qureka, which offers casual trivia gaming. It was our fastest growing product last year, growing 8x year over year. In general, we’re staying away from the rummy/poker/card games categories… While they are lucrative, they aren’t in line with our organisation values. So, we’ve focused on spaces that are both wholesome and engaging. We think gaming is a very natural extension of entertainment media, and we will look to do more.

TIL's growth ratio when it comes to English versus regional audiences is 1:4. What is driving this growth in regional language content consumption?

We’re pretty well penetrated in English digital markets, but new user growth is coming from audiences, who are still new to mobile phones and digital experiences, and are mostly from non-English speaking markets.

We recently added 14 languages to the Times of India app, which is a huge change for us. But we’re now excited about our potential to expand our regional news footprint, not just with Indic-language brands like Navbharat Times, Maharashtra Times, etc., but also with the Times of India being built for all of India.

Do you see technology matching this growth in regional content consumption? Web publishers still face problems in both creating content in local Indian languages and then monetising it. What is necessary to facilitate this growth further?

Advertising will always lag consumption, but it should catch up. And the scale of consumption is large enough that it will have to reach there. I do think it’s harder to build for non-English first experiences, because user habits, UI patterns, etc., don’t necessarily follow global norms, where there are a lot of examples to learn from. But that’s also the opportunity and the space where we can be a little more creative locally.