Badri Sanjeevi, Mauj Mobile: “The next killer mobile VAS application can come from any service provider & not just the operator.”

Badri SanjeeviWe live in a world where mobile phones have become more of a limb than a gadget. It is at the centre of our digital worlds and increasingly, it is becoming the gateway of choice for our information and entertainment needs. Under such circumstances, we at YourStory.in have been tracking various apps, platforms and providers in this space and to understand the distribution perspective, we got talking to Badri Sanjeevi, the COO of Mauj Mobile.

Mauj Mobile is a part of People Group, which owns interactive websites such as Shaadi.com, Fropper.com, Makaan.com and Astrolife.com. The company is funded by Sequoia Capital and Intel Capital. Mauj provides mobile internet platforms and content distribution services to Indian and international telcos and media companies. It is widely regarded as the pioneer of mobile internet inIndia.  Mobango, a subsidiary of Mauj Mobile, is one of the world’s largest independent mobile applications stores.

In this freewheeling chat with YourStory.in, Badri talks about the app economy, the social nature of app stores, the 3G rollout, mobile VAS offerings, the native app v/s mobile web conundrum and other key issues. Read on to find out more.

Tell us about Mauj Mobile & Mobango. What are the trends that have spurred your growth?

To put it simply, we’re a direct-to-consumer mobile internet company. Today, we don’t do voice, CRBT (caller ringback tones), voice radio, etc. When Mauj Mobile was set up in 2005, the GPRS user base was zero. The screen sizes were really small. We saw CRBTs taking off and we did that for a while. But things have changed and the GPRS penetration is much higher now. Also, consumers aren’t entirely operator dependent anymore. They go to app stores. Mobango, a subsidiary of Mauj Mobile, is one of the world’s largest independent mobile applications stores and has over 1.5 million applications, games and UGC content available globally. And we offer free downloads.

The money comes in through mobile advertising and we have rich volumes. For instance, Mobango has a global customer base having served over 800 million downloads globally already withIndiacontributing to 30 per cent of downloads.  Mobango pioneered the PPD (Pay Per Download) business model where developers can promote their applications on the store and generate thousands of downloads.

We also have premium content enabled. The platform is designed to act as a free and paid destination and we offer consumers the choice. We take care of the content delivery and billing mechanisms. We don’t do managed services. The People Group understands this business very well.

What are your thoughts on the 3G rollout and adoption? You’ve been vocal about betting big on 3G. How has it panned out so far and where do you see this going ahead?

People GroupWell, till date, the 3G rollout has been disappointing. The 3G network coverage is very patchy and the plans, too expensive. That’s a massive hurdle to adoption. But what we are happy about is the fact that there is intense competition. So, to stay ahead, the best services have to be provided. Over the next 4-6 quarters, we look at ourselves becoming a 3G-powered company with 100 million to 300 million 3G users. But as of now, much hasn’t been done for consumers and businesses on 3G.

But one thing that I’m confident about is that it will be faster than GSM adoption. And what it means is that you need a scalable platform for data users. About 5% of the subscriber base uses data services currently. That’ll explode in the next two years. Existing services will have to scale very well.

We look at 3G making today’s services better. It will expand reach and make the product experience richer. I don’t see it offering a 50x improvement in performance. Maybe, a 3x to 5x improvement is a more reasonable expectation. Hence, there is no need to launch 10 products for 3G immediately. Also, 3G is not equal to unlimited video downloads. Existing services will, however, do much better, be it wallpapers, themes, ringtones, etc.

The entire VAS industry is going through a state of flux. Elements like CRBT which used to rule the roost are giving way to more evolved VAS products. What’s the biggest shift, according to you?

Gone are the days when the operator was the pipe-provider, the service provider AND the billing provider. The truth is, the next killer VAS application like CRBT or SMS can come from any service provider. For example, take the Facebook mobile application in India. There are more than 25 crore people on Facebook from India. 1.5 – 2 crore of them already use it on the mobile. And Facebook’s already more than 5 times larger than the nearest popular service.

Or you can even look at Mobango. We do more than 10 lakh downloads a day. Compare that with the action happening on Vodafone Live. We are 3-5 times larger. The shift really is that fact that the services need not come from the operators’ stable anymore. Operators have to enable the revolution and some of them are already doing it.

What are the opportunities that you see for Indian startups in the mobile/VAS arena? What is the size of the total available market for apps?

MobangiMobile’s become way too big today. Particularly interesting for us are applications for consumer use. I’m talking about things like health & fitness apps, a Bloomberg app, mail clients, work schedulers, etc. Apps are spawning much-needed innovation. In this space, you can be the app owner, developer or distributor. We fall under the third category. There are a lot of interesting startups in the development space and there’s a lot of scope for them.

The app market is worth about Rs.400 – 450 crores today in India. These are operator timelines. Games sales, app sales and advertising are the major revenue streams. Games continue to dominate, with their contribution to revenue adding up to 90%. 2% comes in through apps and 7-10% comes in through advertising. Ad revenues are growing fastest, among the streams of revenue.

You acquired Mobango at around the same time last year. How has that worked out in terms of extending capabilities? Also, are you looking at more acquisitions?

The Mobango acquisition has worked out great. It’s doing very well and as mentioned earlier during this chat, we’re doing more than 10 lakh downloads a day. It was doing well before Android came in and now, it’s doing even better. Android’s definitely a huge focus area for us. We’re strengthening the platform keeping that in mind.

Today, our differentiators are completely free downloads and being the single-window destination for mobile content, be it pictures, themes, wallpapers, tones, apps, etc. And we’ll always be free. At this point, I don’t think we’d be looking at any more acquisitions immediately. We wanted a robust content delivery platform and Mobango saved us the 1.5 years time it would’ve taken for us to develop it ourselves.

What’d be interesting for Mauj is a great video capability. Or a mobile advertising shell within Mauj. Currently, partnerships are working well for us. But in the long term, we are looking at building it ourselves.

You’ve been funded by Sequoia Capital & Intel Capital. Apart from the monetary piece, how have your investors added value? And are you planning to raise more capital in the immediate future?

Every step of the way, whenever our business model pivoted, Sequoia and Intel Capital have stood by us and guided us. Even when we looked at Mobango, they helped us out with the acquisition process and the price. And to be honest, we’re well-funded. We’re strong believers in the fact that capital is not a differentiator. Engaging products are. And thankfully, we don’t need another 200 crores to do that. So, I don’t think we’ll be raising funds anytime soon.

Is more diversification likely for People Group? What does the roadmap look like?

Diversification comes at a cost. We’ve got Shaadi.com, Makaan.com and Mauj Mobile. We’re not going to set up a jobs portal or an e-commerce platform to simply ride the wave. We’re quite busy defending our market position with Shaadi and Makaan also addresses a large market. We’re good where we are.

There’s a booming app economy picking up here. How does Mauj Mobile plan to harness this? What platforms are you betting on?

We live in interesting times. Nokia is moving to Microsoft’s systems. Android releases updates, all the time. BlackBerry is struggling to figure it out. We’re platform and operator-agnostic. Being independent gives us that advantage. All the platforms are being served. Staying relevant to customers and great apps on the store front are our focus areas.

Also, if you look at it, Mobango’s the first social app store in the world. There are 6 million people registered on Mobango. You can make friends and follow people there. The days of 100 social networks addressing specific interests are over. Facebook and Twitter have changed all that. They’ve become common platforms, serving people across interest sets. API-based integration is on with these networks. Facebook Connect is also something we’re working on.

Let’s round this off with your views on the native apps v/s mobile web, with reference to HTML5.

It’s still early days for HTML5. Also, one has to bear in mind that applications are likely to be much heavier on HTML5. So, 3G and smartphones will become prerequisites. So, to us, it seems like a niche proposition right now, Windows, on the other hand, is showing great promise on the mobile front. And besides, today apps are simply icons on your phone. At the end of it, what’ll matter is whether the customer enjoys the experience. That will continue to dictate choice of platform.

We at YourStory.in are going to be following the app scene closely in the days to come. It’s an exciting space, with developers, distributors and device manufacturers all trying to figure out affiliations and partnerships that make sense in the long term. And we’re going to be bringing you updates as and when the action unfolds.

To know more about Mauj Mobile, check out http://www.mauj.com/. Also, do check out http://in.mobango.com/. You can share with us your thoughts and views on this story by writing to us at feedback@yourstory.in.

Sriram Mohan | YourStory | 11th September 2011 | Bangalore