In search of the next ‘50 Shades of Grey’, a self-publishing startup has the perfect success script
A personal quest for content in Indian languages soon transformed into a mission for the founders of this self-publishing platform to provide accessibility with affordability.
Name of Founder (s): Prashant, Rahul Ranjan, Sankaranaryanan Devarajan, Sahradayi Modi, and Ranjeet Pratap Singh
Investors Details & Amount raised: $1 million plus (excluding the undisclosed Series-A round)
Within hours of making its debut on Hong Kong Stock Exchange, the shares of a Chinese technology startup surged 100% over its issue price of HK$55 per share. This is one of the biggest tech IPOs the world has seen this year. What inimitable technology, you must be wondering, are these guys peddling?
The startup, China Literature is an online publishing platform. There is no disruptive technology; just some people engaging in one of the world's oldest trade on an online platform.
China Literature's blockbuster IPO has left many zapped who never thought an online publishing platform could invite strong financial interest from common public. However, the cofounder of Pratilipi is not surprised.
Pratilipi, literally meaning a copy, is a self-publishing platform which brings together the authors and readers of Indian languages.
"Profitability is easy in our context because the cost of acquiring content is almost nil for an e-publishing platform," explains Pratilipi, cofounder, Ranjeet Pratap Singh.
But, it is not profitability or even monetisation, which Singh and his other cofounders -- Prashant, Rahul Ranjan, Sankaranaryanan Devarajan, and Sahradayi Modi - are chasing right now. The mission is to bridge the wide gap between authors who write in Indian languages and those who wish to read that content.
Starting from a thin base of 150 authors in September 2014, Pratilipi now is the preferred platform of thousands of authors.
"Cumulatively, over 125,000 content pieces have been published on Pratilipi by 16,000 plus writers in eight Indian languages, while this content has been read over 60 million times," shares Singh.
About 20% of the content available on Pratilipi is in Hindi, the other languages have approximately 15% each.
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A personal quest
It started out as a personal search for published content in Hindi for Singh and when that search yielded nothing, the avid reader turned an entrepreneur. "I have been a voracious reader since my childhood. I used to read a lot of Hindi content in my youth, but as I grew up I realized that getting access to Hindi content was very difficult. Offline bookstores could only carry a limited amount of books. At the same time, I wanted to do something challenging. All this lead to Pratilipi," says Singh.
While many entrepreneurs spend months researching and seeking proof of concept before launching their businesses, Singh launched Pratilipi a month after he moved to Bengaluru in August 2014.
"We decided to launch very quickly and learn from the market itself about the requirements," shares Singh.
The app (available only on Android) enjoys one of the highest ratings on the Play Store - 4.8/5; with 83% of users giving it the Pratilipi app a 5-star rating. The app platform has far outstripped the website with 98% of consumption and 65% of publication happening on mobile.
Not just users, the platform's traction has not gone unnoticed by investors as well.
After bootstrapping the startup with personal savings and borrowings, the company joined the Times Internet Accelerator program TLabs in March 2015. In February 2016, the founders received $1 million from Nexus Venture Partners and others. Very recently, it raised an undisclosed Series-A round.
A challenging hike
It has not been easy, but that is what Singh came looking for. "It was the classic chicken-egg problem. Without a good reader base it was very difficult to convince authors to come and without a variety of content, it was difficult to grow our customer base," shares Singh.
Singh recalls how out of the 400-500 authors the founders have approached only over 150 authors agreed to give the platform a try. "Some even told us that their personal blogs had more readers than our platform. 10,000 readers did sound like a huge number, at that time," adds Singh.
The company started with publishing Hindi content available in the public domain to attract readers, but three years later, 99.5% of the content published on the platform is self-published.
"We follow two key metrics for tracking growth - time spent by readers on a particular content and quantity of content published in a month. For any UGC (user-generated content) platform, the demand is easier to solve than supply. Demand grows exponentially while supply is hard to grow. For the first couple of years, while our demand was growing at 25% on a monthly basis, supply was at 3-5%. The pivotal tipping point happened to us 10 months back and now both sides are growing at 15 on average," says Singh.
The team currently depends on its users for flagging any copyright violations, but Singh says the team is in the midst of developing a tool which will enable the team to take down plagiarized content proactively.
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First mission, then monetisation
Focussed on making Pratilipi the preferred platform for both authors and readers, the founders know monetization will come, but later.
"We have no plan to monetize the platform in the near future. But, we do have some hypothesis of generating revenue, which we will explore when the time comes," informs Singh.
There are two sources of revenue generation that Singh thinks may be tapped in the future: One, making a very small percentage of quality content paid for readers and sharing royalty, and second is to explore the content licensing business.
"Bestsellers like 50 Shades of Grey and The Martian were both self-published before they were turned into movies. If I can have 500 million readers on my platform and am able to predict the next Harry Potter or 50 Shades of Grey, it would be a great source of money. Harry Potter is now a $18 billion franchise. So, we will look at a combination of these two streams of revenue," says Singh.
Singh is sure of that the model will work when the time comes to monetize the platform and this confidence comes on the basis of reader surveys which the team conducts on a regular basis.
"Last time we did this survey, around 84% of our readers said they would be happy to pay if we gave them curated content. Chances are that out of these 84%, 4% would pay. So, 4% of a large number is a large enough sum," says Singh.
No one left behind
The primary objective of the startup, insists Singh, is to make content available, accessible, and affordable. "Our long-term aim is to remove any barrier for anyone who wishes to access any kind of information or knowledge. We are planning to invest a significant amount of both money and bandwidth in creating partnerships in order to install screens in areas where mobile proliferation has not reached. Another area will also be to invest in developing an audio platform," informs Singh.
Singh says he wants to leave no one stranded for content. Himself a voracious reader (he claims he reads approximately 120 books in a year); Singh believes it is what you read that you become. And, with Pratilipi he and his cofounders want to ensure that everyone gets the opportunity to make that choice for themselves.
Disclaimer - TLabs is a part of Times Internet, the parent company of EconomicTimes.com.
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