Sujit Jain, founder of Netsurf Communications, is a product tech entrepreneur who went on to find his moorings in direct selling. He became a social entrepreneur by focusing on rural and semiurban markets. When his Internet product hit a roadblock in 2001 because of the dotcom bubble, he stayed on course to move into selling products to rural and semiurban market. He is now betting on selling mobile apps using the direct selling model and has gone beyond India to reach out to the emerging markets in Africa. He shares his journey with Venkatesh Krishnamoorthy, chief evangelist of YourStory.in.
Starting up and changing course
Actually I started Netsurf Communications way back in 2000. We started as a web services company to innovate by offering products rather than offer services. When we completed the product and started marketing it, there were many dotcoms around. But in a matter of six months to a year, the downward spiral started around April 2001 and it turned out to be a dotcom bubble. Then when this happened, we started thinking about several models to survive in business.
I got interested in direct selling through companies like Amway, Tupperware, and Indian brands like Modicare. We just thought how it would be good to use this channel and use customers as your brand ambassadors and build business through word of mouth, thereby saving costs. This led me to direct selling and look at a different business model.
e-political is part of Nagarik Mobile Solutions that we offer. Social media is the way to connect to the market and to people in general. In our country mobile is the "second stream." After television, people have graduated to mobile without touching the PC. We have developed several mobile components as developing countries are the hotbeds of mobile. How to use mobile to connect to the masses? Our idea is different. We want to engage political parties on a long-term basis. We have not met with success in the mobile arena as such and also in e-political. Our solution is not just for elections but for the entire gamut of activities in the political party. Political parties can engage the population on an ongoing basis through our offering. It would be better to connect to your audience right away if elections are five years away and then when elections are around the corner, go and ask for votes. Even people from a couple of other countries are interested in this solution. It is using Internet and mobile to connect with the audience over the long term.
Biotech agriculture-based products for rural and semiurban population
Everybody talks about organic products today. Since independence, we have been talking about this sector and using fertilizers and pesticides is all we know about farming. They are averse to any other solution. Organic products may not give you instant results.
We tied up with a company called Ajay Biotech in 2004. Rather than using products with pesticides and fertilizers, we wanted to create complementary products, which will lead to non-use of chemicals.
We want to use the direct selling model to reach the customer directly. The person using the product can recommend it to his or her friends. So we have developed a unique range of products such as biofertilizers, plant growth boosters, and emulsifiers. These are 100% natural and organic products. Our products are certified by the organic certifying body nationally. We will help people reduce the use of chemicals and pesticides. Direct selling is an ideal platform as people who know its benefits can tell others also. It is the ideal way to promote organic products. Health care product for bridging a deficit in vegetarian food
The same goes for health care. A majority of Indians are vegetarians. This means that a vegetarian diet is deficient in proteins as also other minerals and vitamins that are available in a nonvegetarian diet. A recent study said that heart attacks occur due to lack of Vitamin B12. Its deficiency also leads to lot of cardiac problems. Even nonvegetarian Indian population is short of proteins. We thought of creating a product to satisfy this need. It is a unique product and uses soya protein isolates for the first time in the world, proteins and minerals, and aloe vera. Aloe vera is a great antioxidant and is known for its health benefits. We provide you with a multivitamin product that satisfies the need.
Selling the products
People can order our products online and get it delivered at their homes. We also have outlets promoted by our franchisees. Here people can have a touch and feel effect of the product. We have 75 franchisees and plan to expand over a period of two years.
Researching on the product needs
We engage agencies and perform research on a continuous basis. We also do clinical trials on a sample.
We have just started with eyewear in lifestyle segment. This is a necessary and luxury product. We have combined both and come out with Shades eyewear. We have roped in Sunil Shetty as our brand ambassador. It is an international brand with aspirational value. We will extend it to sunglasses and other segments eventually.
Right now, mobile is a tough channel for us to reach the customer. We will use direct selling to target mobile apps customers. There are lot of utility applications that people are interested in. Either they don't know where to go or if they find one, it is costly. So we want to give world class applications at affordable Indian price.
We have a call tracker app that neutralizes background noise as you speak on a call. We also have a call record application and a do not disturb application. This is an application where you can blacklist numbers from which you do not want to receive calls. You can just use your mobile to receive these apps without going to your operator. We too have a data backup application where you can back up data on your mobile phone. We will keep adding more applications.
Stretching outside India
Our mobile offerings have started only a couple of months back and we have had a decent response from customers. Mobile apps has helped us go international. We have been approached for direct selling in three to four countries for mobile apps. Countries such as South Africa, Nigeria, Columbia, and Peru are interested in our offerings. These are emerging markets and are very exciting. Combination of attractive apps and selling strategy are our strengths and so only we are able to sell in these markets.
In the next three months, we will be entering South Africa, Columbia, and Peru for direct selling mobile apps. Even our direct selling of organic products will be mobile-based in the next one year. We will be launching a mobile portal where our distributors can get all information under one roof. They can use the mobile platform to do business anytime in India.
Biggest benefit when we started
Netsurf is a privately held company and not funded by anyone. For marketing our web-based product that we developed, we used direct selling channel. That turned out to be our strength when we started offering organic products through direct selling. We were able to create a robust direct selling platform as we had software knowledge. It was a transparent platform where people can see how their network was growing, their accounts.
We could say it is a click-based direct selling company. For our mobile offerings also, we use our software knowledge to differentiate our offerings.
Entering a new domain
Direct selling was a competitive market when we entered it in 2001. I had no experience of direct selling before. That helped me a lot because it is always good to start on a clean slate always. Your approach is fresh and you are neutral. You tend to study the market impartially and create a unique business model, which will help the consumers. We evaluated several business models practiced in the industry and chose the appropriate one.
People challenges on migrating to a new domain
Initially we had people from software background. People believed in our model and joined us. It took us three to four years and now we have restructured the team. We have people from all across domains like marketing, direct selling, software. We are lucky to have people who believe in our model and the industry and churn is negligible.
Selling in rural and semiurban markets
People in these areas make their decisions on touch and feel. They also don't purchase and store. They buy goods when they need it. So we chose the franchisee shoppie model. These shoppies create a touch and feel factor. We continuously train our franchisees. We also use the online model. So we have a two-pronged strategy. Now a lot of people use mobile Internet to place orders. They place the order and pick up the deliveries from the nearby shoppie.
Technology adoption in rural and semiurban markets
They are very adaptive of mobile compared to Internet. They change mobiles much faster than the urban population. Urban consumers don't have disposable time. Rural and semiurban people use mobile to spend their disposable time. I call this the second stream for India. This makes mobile segment very exciting for our direct selling.
Social entrepreneurs and how they should approach the bottom of the pyramid
We can call ourselves profit-making social entrepreneurs. You have to identify the pain point and come up with a solution to cater to rural and semiurban markets. You have to reach out to them and talk to them in the language they can understand. I had been to around 200 villages and towns for the first two years. You have to listen to their aspirations.
Profit or not-for-profit?
Not-for-profit companies need not make profit themselves but have to be beneficial to someone. But I feel this is purely individualistic of the entrepreneur concerned. If you are not-for-profit product maker, at least the distribution channel has to make profits although you will not make profits.
People leaving their lucrative careers to be social entrepreneur
It is very heartening. India is the next economy. India is where the next market is. If you become a social entrepreneur, you share your knowledge and success with people of the land where you grew up. So you give something back to your country. It is very nice to see lot of people taking this route. There is a lot of satisfaction in doing this.
Emerging opportunities for social entrepreneurship
Waste management could be one. My idea is breaking a big problem into smaller ones and taking them to the end customer. We are also looking at entering waste management business. There are lot of opportunities. Alternate sources of power is another interesting area.
Books and blogs
I read a lot of blogs and read only Jeffery Archer kind of stuff in books. I read blogs about Internet entrepreneurs, social entrepreneurs, political analysts, etc. I spend three hours a day collecting information on various topics. Internet is a rich source of information. I read autobiographies and books like Tipping Point. Business stories excite me. Autobiography of JRD Tata is a favorite of mine.
For entrepreneurs: Just do it!
It's great to be an entrepreneur. It's now or never. It is better to take that risk rather than living in that thought of doing something and not doing it.