Ashwini Gangal

“We compete with entrepreneurs”: Gautam Sinha, Times Internet

At our recently concluded web publishing conference Digipub World, Sreekant Khandekar, curator of the event and co-founder of afaqs!, interviewed Gautam Sinha, CEO, Times Internet, about the recent transformation at the digital arm of The Times of India Group – from a digital news publisher to a digital consumer platform.

As per a 2019 report released by the company, Times Internet ended FY19 with Rs. 1,359 crore in revenue, 40 per cent growth over FY18.

Today, Times Internet employs over 5,400 people, and comprises individual brands like TOI, ET, Cricbuzz, Gaana, MX Player, Dineout, Indiatimes and MensXP, among others.

Edited excerpts.

Khandekar: When you look back to the time you came to the Times in 2007, were are the big phases, discoveries and changes that stand out along the way?

Sinha: When I came in 2007, I was CTO; I came to drive the technology aspect of the group. In 2009, we built the first private cloud. If you want to differentiate in technology, you have to build everything in-house; you can't outsource your core.

Late in 2009, Satyan (Gajwani, presently vice-chairman, Times Internet) joined the group. With him, we started building a vision for what Times Internet could be 10 years from then. It was evident to us that the success of Bennett (181 year old parent company of the Times Group) in the past was not going to guarantee success in the future. That's when the building blocks of the transformation (of Times Internet) were laid.

We thought about what we should do to be relevant and add value to the audience we serve, say, 50 years hence. Around 2011, we asked ourselves: How can we be larger than what we were initially conceptualised for? While we've been blessed with a strong parent, how do we compete and monetise in the digital world? How can we become more than 'the digital arm of a print media company' and be the future of the group?

Khandekar: How did you identify the areas to focus on?

Sinha: We looked at the four core verticals of media: news, which was and is very important, music, for which internet and mobile penetration has become important, sports, which we built up with our acquired properties Willow and Cricbuzz – in fact, in 2011, we started expanding into both organic and inorganic growth, something that hadn't happened before – and lastly, video, something we started couple of years back with MX.

Khandekar: You must digress for a minute and talk about the MX Player story...

Sinha: In 2016-17, we acquired MX, a video player. Over the last year or so, we've converted it into an OTT streaming platform. MX was built by one engineer in South Korea, Dr. Kim, as a video player and was then acquired by the Chinese in 2016. But the Chinese didn't know how to use and monetise the product... it was always used by Indians, because it works well on low end devices and low internet speed. When the daily active usage of the product crossed 70 million, we said, 'This is a product we need to own...'

Khandekar: Right, now going back...

Sinha: So while we're fairly strong in the four verticals (news, sports, music and video), the core problem for us was – how to continue to increase the ARPU (average revenue per unique user) across the network? The numbers are large (450 million month active users). Ultimately, it's about monetising that kind of traffic.

In 2011, the only goalpost was reach; by 2014, we realised we needed to measure loyalty. That's how the metric of daily and month active users came in, across the company. Time spent became important in subsequent years.

Sreekant Khandekar with Gautam Sinha
Sreekant Khandekar with Gautam Sinha
Digipub World 2019

Khandekar: What were the big steps involved in taking a traditional media company and turning it into what it is today?

Sinha: In 2011, when we realised we had to change ourselves, we saw that competition outside is young, hungry, talented, and reasonably well funded. If we stayed with a modest growth of 20-25 per cent, we'd cease to exist. So we realised the need to partner with the outside world and create a culture of growth inside...

Watch the full session here

Khandekar: … so you had to change, organisationally. What did that involve? And how did you do it across so many units?

Sinha: There's no secret sauce. There are some best practices. In digital, we felt we had to compete with the entrepreneurs. So at the leadership level, we started bringing in entrepreneurs – that is, people who were entrepreneurs, previously – to run our businesses. They had the audacity to set big growth targets. Today, around 85-90 of our businesses are run by entrepreneurs with a strong product and tech background.

The problem here was – how does one retain entrepreneurs? They need a lot of freedom. Every company within Times Internet has its own culture, driven by the respective leader.

Everyone has the opportunity to go work out of a garage, colour their walls purple... many of our brands work out of different (physical) buildings. That's what entrepreneurs want.

Khandekar: What is your view on pay?

Sinha: Two-three years ago we started experimenting a lot with subscription, as a revenue source for most if our media businesses. Gaana has a subscription channel, we launched ET Prime, we moved into Times Prime (Gaana, Swiggy, Uber). Being a large player, we have the responsibility of shaping subscription as a revenue source for the industry.

"Being a large player, we have the responsibility of shaping subscription as a revenue source for the industry."
Gautam Sinha

In India subscription is hard to push. It's about the threshold after which the bundle becomes attractive enough. And media is harder to push than something a bit more tangible.

Khandekar: Lastly, when you look at what other publishers in India are trying, what would you like to say to them – especially on the monetisation front?

Sinha: Everyone is playing to their strengths. And that's the right thing to do. Copying someone else doesn't work.

Chasing reach is no longer important. Changing loyalty is. Try and own the user in whatever category you're in... that'll help you monetise way more than any ad banner can.

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