Kushal Sanghvi
Guest Article

Ajit Balakrishnan: India’s ‘Internet genius’

Our guest author talks about the ‘wave rider’ who recently turned 75.

Last week, hundreds of Rediff.com employees went down the memory lane, as we celebrated the 75 birthday of our founder and ‘Internet genius’ Ajit Balakrishnan on July 22. It was special for many of us ex-employees. We literally started our Internet journey working along with him.

In fact, for many of us who worked closely in his core team back in 1998, didn’t honestly know what we had got ourselves into, except knowing one thing that ‘Sir Ajit’ needed no introduction; he was the co-founder of Rediffusion, one of the smarter advertising agencies in India then, working with iconic brands like Eveready, Citibank, Taj Hotels, to name a few.

Many of today’s generation of digital-first students and people in their first digital jobs, may not have heard of Rediff.com. But it’s worth Googling up to know what Sir had created for the country as well as the world.

Ajit Balakrishnan: India’s ‘Internet genius’

He had this vision of setting up a ‘portal’ in the mid-90s. One would often come to the website to read news. It was far ahead of print media companies that were just flirting with the Internet then. The stories that appeared on print, would then be replicated on the website too.

Almost every large corporate/multinational in the country then wanted to get themselves the ‘dot.com’ address/URL. And, it was Rediff that created some of the biggest websites then, when terms like UI/UX weren’t even coined.

Sir was always thinking five steps ahead. And while he decided to move away from the website creation business later, he did launch ‘Chat Rooms’, a messenger service, and, of course, the lightning fast email ‘Rediffmail’. All this was much before social media came into existence.

Ajit Balakrishnan: India’s ‘Internet genius’

Many people today go to various e-commerce websites to shop for their needs. But he was the one who saw the shopping on the Internet wave coming to the country. In 1999, Amazon was just selling books. It was Sir who came up with the first marketplace platform that sold various products - socks, plants, accessories, gold jewellery, etc. - in 1999.

From creating communities of interest, forums, dating, matrimonial blogs, to being one of the first ones to understand the wave of the mobile phones, he launched various services on his platform.

Many of us ‘Rediffites’ remember Sir telling us of how the world is moving from search to pictures, videos and more. Being the adman that he also was, he literally created the wave of Internet advertising when the world didn’t know the term CPM (cost per impression). Many of us remember him coming to meetings with some of the country’s biggest CEOs, explaining what this medium is going to do for them.

Digital advertising wasn’t even 0.5% of the overall media spends then. He saw the digital advertising wave coming in much before anyone in the country, and created opportunities for brands to leverage on his platform.

From creating display banners to getting into the CPL strategy or immersive ways of using creative video assets, he was always ahead of the curve. Many of us became friends with CMOs and brand owners back then, teaching them the little nuances of digital advertising, etc.

Ajit Balakrishnan: India’s ‘Internet genius’

Over the last many years, almost every company/brand has advertised on what he built. He was one of those visionaries that listed his company on the New York-based NASDAQ stock market. He made heads turn in the US, and suitors like Google, Microsoft and more came knocking on his door.

Many people think of him as a ‘tech genius’. But what’s worth knowing is that Sir holds a Bachelor’s degree in Science from the University of Kerala and a postgraduate diploma in management, with an MBA from the prestigious Indian Institute of Management Calcutta. He continues to be involved in various capacities with IIMs, although IIM-C will always hold a special place in his heart.

Some of us ex-Rediffites gathered to celebrate the milestone 75 birthday of this ‘wave rider’, who’s made a ‘lasting impression’ on so many. Rediff has given opportunities to many entrepreneurs/startups, something that may not be true for any other Indian Internet company.

Like many of my Rediff colleagues, I probably wouldn’t have been anything at all in this digital ecosystem, had it not been for Sir. He continues to be an inspiration for not just us, but hundreds of students, who’re now using social media and more.

He was our AI tool back then. One didn’t need to knock on his door to meet him. Some of his closest team members, including the admin staff, are all still working with him.

For those curious to know more about him, a copy of ‘Wave Rider’ that he penned for Macmillan Publishers, is worth picking up.

To Sir, with love…

The guest author is India and SEA head, CitrusAd.

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