Girish Ramdas, Founder of Magzter, on the Global Digital Publishing Landscape

Girish Ramdas is a multipreneur, if you would agree. Serial entrepreneurs hop from one business to another and they run one business at a time but Girish runs multiple businesses at a time. Hailing from Chennai, in Tamil Nadu, nothing seems to stop this dynamic thinking entrepreneur. Once the entrepreneurial bug bites you, it’s difficult to stay put for a long time. You take the plunge without thinking too much. Opportunities find him rather than him going after them. How else a digital entrepreneur now would have ventured into poultry business to start with? Or dabbled with an entertainment-based venture while in college? Partnering with Venky’s Chicken was the first real business for Girish in 1996 when he was just out of college. Talking about it, he says, “We took loans from a bank to fund the business and in fact became one of the largest aggregators in the poultry business in Tamil Nadu. That business was very cash-intensive and was not part of my core competence in technology as an Engineer, hence we decided to opt out of it by leasing it to another Hatchery operator and we continue to earn lease income. In addition, the land on which the hatchery stood currently is worth several millions so I’m a happy man!”

Just out of this poultry business, Girish launched Dot Com Infoway, a software services company, in 2000 which currently has a team of more than 200 software developers. His tryst with the entertainment industry that started in his college days stayed. So he went on to start a cinema portal. In his own words, “alongside (the poultry business), I also started Galatta.com, a movie portal which is the largest portal in the world for South Indian movies. From a simple entertainment site, Galatta.com has vertically expanded into several sectors like movie content aggregation and distribution, entertainment event management, print media and mobile media.”

When the iPhone was launched in India in 2009, another opportunity beckoned upon him. Girish recounts: “We created the first magazine app for Galatta and this one was probably the first in Asia. In 2010, we launched Asia’s first magazine app on iPad for Galatta. As a software and media company, we were wondering how we could maintain the interest and traction with only one app, and that’s where the idea for Magzter came about.”

Magzter is a digital magazine store and newsstand that allows any publisher in the world to sign-up and publish their magazines to a global audience. The magazine is ready and published on the platform almost instantly, and the publisher and Magzter work on a revenue share. The revenue share works this way, according to Girish: “It’s a 50-50. Apple takes 30%; Android and web payment gateway and processing take around 10%. So whatever remains, we share 50-50 with the publisher. In physical world, most magazines lose money on circulation and sales due to the increasing cost of printing and distribution. They earn via advertisements usually, but on Magzter, publishers start earning from the first copy they sell.”

Magzter operates out of New York with an Indian subsidiary in Chennai. Sales team extends from New York to London to Singapore. Apart from this, Netherlands and Germany also have a sales presence. The team count is 45, out of which 35 are based out of Chennai.

You can now read more than 600 magazines on Magzter, and their market is global. Among the categories, Entertainment (e.g. Filmfare) and news (e.g. India Today) are the ones that are doing very well. Girish personally is excited about the fact that India Today signed up first. He goes on to add, “Globally, Dennis Publishing is also great. They developed this concept of Magbook.” Of the future he says, “The bigger magazines are a bit sceptical since we are a startup but once we convince some of the bigger ones, the others will adopt and this will happen very soon.”

The success of a digital shelf for magazines in India hinges on several factors. The challenges, in Girish’s words, are more to do with the trends but he is confident of the future: “Currently, India is a very print heavy market. The problem is smart device penetration is in its infancy, but this is not the case in other parts of the world where there is huge shift to digital and smart device based content consumption. In India, an average person doesn’t have the access. Even the Akash tablet intended to bridge the gap and it hasn’t happened till now but in the coming 18 months, we expect to see tablets in the INR 5,000 range and this will greatly improve the situation. iPad prices will come down as well and I believe it to be the best device currently for reading magazines. With magazine, 90-95% are still print but the change to digital is happening very fast. That’s why we’ve been able to get 3 million users so quickly.” Out of the 3 million, 1.5 million users are from Asia and publishers hail from India, Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Philippines, US, and UK. Magzter is also expanding into a multilingual platform. Girish adds, “We have just released an updated version of the Magzter app in 14 languages and all technology is being developed in-house.”

Marketing through Facebook was most positive. Girish says, “A lot has happened organically but a key factor is our app discoverability. We have a technology which puts us very high (in app search, not web search). Even if you’re looking for Filmfare, we’re there in the top 3 results. App discoverability is very high.” Social recommendation is also becoming popular. On social marketing, he adds, “We have social sharing of magazine pages as well. There again Magzter gets visibility. We’re leveraging users and discoverability to market Magzter. We’re using digital media in a big way which is pretty obvious. Publishers have also started promoting their magazine availability on Magzter, which adds to our promotions and discoverability.”

On growth, Girish explains: “We’ve kept in mind the publishers while building Magzter in terms of self uploading, providing analytics and feedback. We’ve got publishers to come on board because of this. And readers want to read these magazines and so it mutually grows.” Investors have also played a big role in Magzter’s growth. Girish points out, “Apart from financial side, our investors understand our business. They’ll be able to help in terms of hiring, identifying the gaps that we’re not being able to see. They give a third party perspective. If we’re running a 100 metre race, we run just looking at the finish line but maybe we’re not wearing the shoes. They can advise us here.”

Of the industry trends and the digital world, Girish gives us a few pointers. “Localization is a big gap. In e-reader market, Amazon is the leader and is mainly only in US and UK and Amazon is mainly books. There is a huge gap in terms of local vernacular content. There are lots of books and content that are not available easily. It can be made more accessible.” Content aggregators like Magzter are the future in Girish’s view: “Aggregators are very important. For example, if you’re selling a shirt independently, you’ll have to look for buyers single-handedly but if you do it in a mall where the buyers are already coming, you are better off. Hence, aggregation is important. And we’re value added aggregators with a host of benefits to publishers including enabling new technologies, adding interactive content and even providing live sales reporting which is unheard of hitherto”

Focus, passion and ethics are key to Girish’s success. He ruefully says, “Right from the poultry business to where we are now, we’ve been cheated multiple times. One should not be naïve about this but we have our focus on doing the right thing, it is very important to us. Going global, most people don’t believe that Indians can deliver and hence we’ve stuck to our ethics and commitment to prove this wrong.”

Girish’s another passion is rifle shooting, which he has to give up because of pressures of academics and business. But the junior record, which he created in 1994, still remains unbroken. In business, he seems to be shooting in the right direction.

Note: The post was originally on Kalaari Capital‘s website. For more about Magzter, click here.