As a chronicler of Indian stories with the serendipitous timing of being around when Startup India as well as Digital India took the stage, a bucket-list worthy item for my career was meeting someone who has been around long enough to still capitalise the ‘I’ in ‘internet'. Little did I know that I would get the chance to interview not just any such puritan, but arguably the ring master, perched at the helm of this revolution in India. I say this because I still vividly remember that summer when the classic phrase ‘shut up’ in my third standard classroom banter turned into the deliciously contextual ‘mouthshut.com!’ (Not to mention that '.com' turned into an epidemical suffix that inflicted itself on every other word, for comic effect.) To think we munchkins weren’t even consumers of the internet – heck, our parents were barely there yet! So, how was it that we were witnessing something that marketers spend decades to achieve on much more conventional products – that is, making a brand a “household name.” Defying the namesake of his own company and spilling the beans is the very inventor of growth tactics as ‘hack-y’ as they come, Faisal Farooqui, Founder, Mouthshut.com.
Faisal grew up in a typical Indian middle-class household. His father, who owned bakeries in Mumbai, was not dissuaded by his modest background, and placed a premium on Faisal’s education. He went to school in India and pursued a Bachelor’s degree in Information Systems and Finance from Binghamton University - State University of New York. His eldest brother, who is a paediatric surgeon in North Carolina, encouraged him to pursue an idea that was erupting in Faisal’s mind, as he noticed how the internet was sending him informed patients.
Like many a desi on an American campus, academic excellence was his priority. He became the highest paid recruit amongst his graduating class, and worked in the telecoms consulting practice of American Management Systems in Virginia for some time. “But the desire to pursue an internet company was so strong that I realised it was now or never,” Faisal says. He returned to India to venture out on his own.
The ‘aha’ moment happened while he was taking a magazine-writing class at Binghamton University. “I was convinced about the power of feedback and how it could transform brands and consumers alike.” It was only after he returned to India that he saw through the dream of MouthShut.com. “India was a seller’s market. Consumers had no option but to accept the products that were being offered to them. There was no platform then for a consumer to express his views. That’s what motivated me – to get consumers to write reviews on what they like or dislike.”
Bubble or nothing
This was right around the time of dotcom bust – so what made him take that leap of faith? “A boom or a bust does not faze an entrepreneur – my belief in my idea was of prime importance. The internet was happening in India and I decided to take the plane,” Faisal quips.
Being unfazed by the harsh realities and hostilities of the market he was taking on was one thing, but taking cognisance of the challenges the current status quo will send his way, was just as crucial. “Setting up a dotcom company when the bubble burst was the initial challenge. In 2000, I laid the foundation of MouthShut.com. Those days, there was no name, no logo, no office infrastructure, nothing, just an idea of a platform for user feedback. There was no 'startup ecosystem',” he adds.
Task one was finding an engineer who saw what he saw. “That first employee was able to visualise the concept I painted for him. In a few months, after putting a great team together, we were live with the website,” Faisal says.
The market was at an all-time low and Internet startups were falling like dominoes because many of them had raised money and squandered it on a huge marketing binge. “We experimented with a marketing strategy which was cost-effective and had a better reach.”This strategy was precisely the way in which pretty much every Mumbaikar went from first stumbling upon, to wondering about, to pursuing that curiosity, to cracking the mystery and finally coming to love that website with that cheeky name. This phenomenon is what it truly means, to become a ‘household’ name. “In 2001, we painted the backs of autorickshaws with the MouthShut.com logo in Mumbai and when the concept tasted success, it was rolled out to other cities as well,” Faisal explains.
The Stone Age of social networking
What he was tasked with next is turning the pessimistic ‘the net is dark and full of errors’ image of the interweb, to a more accepting ‘the net is sharp, and full of bearers (of responsibility).’ So, come 2001, MouthShut.com introduced the concept of Dial-the-CEO, where they started taking direct feedback from their users. “I personally took calls from hundreds of MouthShut.com users every month. Inspired by its success, many of our alliance partners also adopted the same mode. We felt most CEOs interact directly with their investors, employees, vendors but ignore the customers. Dial-the-CEO programme enabled direct conversation with the customers.” This concept, which they pioneered in 2001, has now become popular with direct twitter and Facebook interactions between CEOs and customers.
Social networking was an evolving concept back then. “We were looking at a shift from Editor-Wall-Reader model to an open system deep-rooted in conversations between authors, people and peers. To get people accustomed to the concept of internet communities, we rolled out contests for writing reviews.”
Late 2001, they released the WAP version of MouthShut to make the site mobile-friendly even before the advent of the smartphone.
In December 2007, prolific blogger Pradeep Chopra’s Apple Macbook kept malfunctioning. The Apple service centre in Delhi didn’t service his laptop for 15 days, but a review on MouthShut.com escalated up to the Head of Apple India. Pradeep was promptly given a new machine. Makemytrip once refunded the whole booking amount to a consumer who was at the receiving end of poor customer support from the company, when she posted her grievance on MouthShut.
Up and up
The recognition of MouthShut.com's efforts came in 2006, when they were adjudged the Best Youth Website in India (Manthan Award).
In 2010, the company upped its game and started corporate blogging and the concept of verified reviews. “This reduced the turnaround time in resolving consumer complaints, and helped us nip the problem of fake reviews in the bud.” They cracked down on 4100 fake profiles for a variety of clandestine activities in one of their most extensive operations.
March 11, 2010, MouthShut received another accolade in the form of Best Portal of the Year Award-Gold at the India Digital Media Awards.
Once a pioneer, always a pioneer
Did you think Zomato and Burrp were here first with the food reviews? Mouthshut was there even before, with their ‘I Ate Here’ Awards that recognised the best restaurants in India based on user feedback and reviews.
In 2011, they launched Dealface.com, a deal-based project within MouthShut.com. “We changed paper-based coupons to SMS-based ones – and became the first website to offer SMS coupons,” Faisal adds.
They also overcame a labyrinth of regulations and laws. “When the draconian Section 66A posed a threat to consumers’ freedom of expression, we filed a petition in the Supreme Court, April 19, 2013. Finally after much argument, and lengthy hearings, on March 23, 2015, Supreme Court struck down the contentious clause.”
As feature phones evolved into smartphones, Mouthshut was quick to adapt and develop a mobile version, which was released in 2014. “Though late to join the app brigade, we released the app for both the Android and iOS platforms simultaneously in 2014,” says Faisal.
Back to business school
Today, MouthShut.com is the largest consumer review portal with a catalogue of almost a million products/services. Two reviews are posted every minute, claims Faisal. About 300,000 users log into the website every day and 5,0000 are active on the app. “We witness 200,000 new visitors monthly,” Faisal adds.
They are now revamping the website to develop MouthShut into an ultimate user destination platform from product discovery to feedback and resolution.
In retrospect, Faisal reiterates the fundamentals of being a good business: “Customer is king. Pamper him. Spend more money on building a great customer-centric organisation – our rickshaw advertisements struck a chord with the masses. That’s how people knew a site like MouthShut.com existed. Divert some marketing and ad budget to customer service.”
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