Chetan Kulkarni’s story, according to his social script till the year 2008, is as follows. After completing engineering from NIT Suratkal, he worked at Philips, and then got an MBA from IIM Lucknow. After IIM, he worked at Trilogy. The seed to startup was sown at Trilogy. From there, Chetan and his friends (now partners), Vikram and Gourav, never looked back. Today, their venture, Vizury, is changing the way digital CRM and ad-tech businesses are run. In the process, they have created a solid presence in markets across the globe.
In a conversation with YourStory, Chetan shares the Vizury journey so far. This simple yet compelling narrative will show you how persistence and determination play a big part in the success of any venture, and how Vizury is building a case for the powerful ‘made in India product’ story.
The Vizury story as told by Chetan Kulkarni.
From employee to entrepreneurship
Trilogy had a concept called Trilogy University. Here new employees would build new products and pitch it for the market to the CEO. The CEO would fund some of them and take them to the market. I happened to participate in a couple of these Trilogy University programs and that's where I got introduced to the concept of conceptualizing and building something new.
I met my partners, Vikram and Gaurav, at Trilogy, where we were lunch buddies. We wanted to do something more meaningful, so in 2008, we quit our jobs without any business plan. All we had was an idea. I still remember, we drew a triangle with Data, Technology and Marketing at the three corners, and we knew we had to do something at the intersection of these three. So, we were in the lab phase without any clients, without any money from investors for about nine months. We were trying to build something, and would take it to the market (for validation and input from a few people). Working on the feedback we would tweak it. At the end of it, we hit upon, what I believe, is a big insight.
When you look at all the data sources available out there on the internet in terms of being able to predict consumer behaviour, the data with the advertisers and marketers about the users is the most powerful one.
This very simple, yet powerful insight drives Vizury even now, and which companies like Google and Facebook have subsequently adopted.
In the startup world it's better to be lucky than to be right, and we were lucky in some sense to cross the line with that insight, and we built our prototype. We pitched to multiple funds. A partner at one of the funds took a liking for us. He said, “Great guys, great problem, but unfortunately, no traction as of now.”
And this is when a few friends chipped in. Four or five of my friends actually stepped forward and said we are willing to support your idea now that you’ve come up with something. Eight guys gave about 150 thousand dollars.
We pitched to Naukri, Yatra, Cleartrip, and HDFC Bank in a span of about three to six months. Everybody lapped up the product. And that's when Vizury's journey essentially began.
Vizury, a digital CRM company
Visualize this scenario. You walk into a car showroom and the salesman comes running over to you. He asks a few questions about the car you own, whether the new car you are interested in is for city driving or highway driving; if you are looking for a petrol or diesel driven car. He will also ask you about your neighbourhood, and your family size. All this gathered data goes into his database. You then take a test drive and ask a few questions, and you go home.
This data is then used in striking a marketing conversation with you; you may get a Diwali gift or you get a phone call sometimes, or if there is a discount promotion you get a sms saying, ‘hey, there is this offer going on this car right now.’ So the CRM industry has been a multi-billion dollar industry in the offline world for a long time.
What we believe is if you look at the customer research process of a given product or service as well as the buying process, a lot of it is moving online. The way the consumers are behaving online, the amount of data that is getting generated, and the way you can actually engage the customer in the online world (not the offline world like giving a call) is very different. We believe there is this whole new category that is opening up, called digital CRM, which is about how you -
1.Engage with the customer and capture a lot of data about her behavior in the online world.
2. Build behavioral profiles using the big data system at the backend, and
3. Have marketing conversations with the user using the digital world through display advertising, video advertising, email advertising, and mobile advertising, on a one-on-one basis like you do in the offline world.
Differentiator in the market
Vizury profiles about 400 million users globally every month. Let me explain this with an example. I have to run a CRM program for a company. What I do is, I integrate with their systems, website, product system, pricing system, and their discount system. All the data essentially comes to me right in my big data system. So this is like integration with their website, app, pricing engine, and product feed. I mean all the systems they have with their CRM database, all the data essentially comes to Vizury. We then run our algorithms that we have developed on top of this data.
We are an analytics company, we are an intelligence company and we are also a performance marketing company. We use the data signals to buy media on behalf of the company. And then once the users convert after clicking on those ads, we get paid. So the company pays us maybe 10 to 15 dollars per transaction that we drive for them and all the work that we do is free, which includes all the data gathering, profile building, creatives, and the fine tuning that we do to the algorithms for them. What we get paid is for transactions that we drive for them. So in some way Google is cost per click, we are cost per transaction.
Our business model is a big differentiator for us. And we set the bar really high for some of the others to follow. In some markets (without taking names), other active companies have tried to build what we have, but one of the places where the client pushes back is by telling them, ‘look at those guys, they get paid only for results, whereas you are asking me for budgets.’ It is not apples to apples. We create some sort of barrier using our business model.
At present, Vizury has 250 employees and 600+ customers globally with names like Ebay, Amazon and Wal-Mart. The company also has presence in Australia, Japan, Korea, China, Jakarta, Dubai, Sao Paulo and Mexico City.
When we started, companies were reluctant to part with some of their data. But over the years, we have done two things: one, we built a strong credibility in the market in terms of the way we capture the data and what we use it for. Two, in the last five years, exchange of data, and its integration have become much easier using some of the new technologies that have come up. It was certainly a big challenge five years back when we started, but it isn’t any longer.
We are trying to expand in two directions. Direction one for us is new geographies. If you look at the five hundred billion dollar e-commerce industry in China or let’s say the 120 billion dollar e-commerce industry in Japan, we have just scratched the surface in terms of how many clients we have. As I go back to the digital CRM vision that we have, I think we have just taken out two or three bites off it in terms of what we executed upon. So, coming up with new products around data and creating more value for the clients that we have using the data inclusion activities is the second place where we will start ploughing forward.
I believe in the next five to 10 years, the CRM industry globally can be disrupted and made many times better than what it is right now. Just being able to participate in that process, and get Vizury to make a dent is what keeps me going.
YourStory spoke to Parag Dhol from Inventus Capital (one of the early investors in Vizury) on what are some of the key things that differentiate the company. Parag replied, “The founding team's clarity of thinking; second level management (never compromised on hiring, irrespective of how much the person ‘cost’ or the amount of money in the company bank account); and choice of markets. In essence, a deep desire to create a Silicon Valley style high-tech company out of Bangalore is what differentiates them from the rest in this space.”
On the reasons behind funding Vizury in the early days, Parag says, “The founders had talked to us shortly after they moved out of Trilogy (in 2008). It was too early for us then. We liked the team and kept in touch with them. When they were raising Series A (early 2010), Chetan reached out to us.”
Some of the things that Parag and his team at Inventus Capital liked about them were:
- A well-balanced founding team that had a history of working together.
- They had persisted (raised an angel round) and got to an initial set of online travel agent (OTA)/e-commerce customers in India.
- They had one customer in China and wanted to expand there.
According to Parag, “Our understanding of the business was very basic then. However, we were sure that re-targeting should be a certain percentage of an online marketer’s arsenal.”
On the digital CRM market, Parag says, “The best-of-breed point solutions (e.g. retargeting) vs. a consolidated platform is an age-old (software) debate. However, look at it from a marketer's perspective, things are a bit too complex (multiple channels - display, search, email, social; multiple devices - web, mobile) for her to monitor and control. My thinking (and it is limited) is that it will all come together. If you look at the acquisitions that Oracle, Salesforce and Adobe have made in this space, the biggies are betting on a platform approach. Vizury is headed down the platform path as well -- as a small company obviously prioritizing what goes into the platform and in what order.”
Video interview with Chetan Kulkarni :