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The engineer who moonlighted as a Bollywood buff: How Nandini Shenoy built Pinkvilla

Binjal Shah
posted on 27th January 2017
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It’s one thing to stay optimistic about the dotcom world after its bust in the early 2000s, and quite another to place your bets on not one but two internet companies immediately after. It’s one thing to enter an uncharted territory in the webspace with an absolutely new idea, but entirely different to float that startup while being halfway across the world. Then again, it’s one thing to be a Bollywood buff but a lot more uncommon to have Nandini Shenoy’s level of fanaticism for B-town!

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Nandini Shenoy, Founder, Pinkvilla

Since when does it have to be one or the other?

Raised in a family of talented engineers in Mangalore, Nandini did her schooling in the city and went on to pursue engineering from the National Institute of Technology, Karnataka (NITK). She then moved to the US for a Master's in ECE from Rutgers University. In 2004, she landed a job as a software engineer at Microsoft, Redmond.

But the Shenoys were all leading dual lives, for they moonlighted as Bollywood fanatics. Nandini grew up on a diet of Bollywood movies and was always curious about the industry and the stars. “Reading Stardust and Filmfare was my hobby in childhood. This probably was the starting point of it all,” she recounts.

She loved her work at Microsoft, but when the idea for Pinkvilla struck her in 2007, she was convinced she could use her expertise in software to nurture her passion. Back in 2007, there weren’t any Bollywood websites, she notes. And being in the US made matters worse, as access to Bollywood magazines and channels was limited.

I thought, why not use my expertise in software engineering to build a website on Bollywood, my passion since childhood? I found my true calling

Best of both worlds

Pinkvilla was conceptualised as a platform to connect Bollywood enthusiasts across the world, and so she built a site where any user could register and create posts, an open-to-all forum where people could discuss their favourite stars and movies.

Her plunge was quite gradual. After all, she had a well-paying job and a cushy life, besides her friends and family did not think she should go headlong into it leaving all she had then. She did not quit Microsoft right away. She kept her job intact and those who worried about her happy, and sculpted away at that piece of her heart — Pinkvilla — during the nights and weekends.

I barely slept the first four years after I started Pinkvilla. But the passion kept me going.

Her husband, Jeu George, also a software engineer, was her partner in crime. “He helped me develop the site and together we were churning out code,” she says.

Since there was no such online repository focused on Bollywood then, the idea and website picked up rather swiftly. “Believe it or not, within a matter of months of my starting, I had users from Italy, Australia, Pakistan, and the US posting regular content on the site. They had discovered the site via Orkut and Google,” she recalls.

Powered by people

Initially, it was a mix of user-generated content and editorial, the former constituting the larger chunk, and moderators vetting the posts before they got published. Within a couple of months, they were getting around 20–25 posts in a day.

Since it was a platform where users could contribute posts, in 2008, party photos of Sonam Kapoor got published on the site. These photos were later picked up by leading dailies in India, giving exposure to Pinkvilla. After that, users on the site grew exponentially, mainly through word of mouth and its discovery via Google searches.

So, in 2010, when she that felt Pinkvilla was at a stage where it had enough traction and revenue, she focused all her energies on it. By then, they had sources in Mumbai who would tip her off with photos and gossip. As time went by, Nandini felt the need to have in-house editors to scale up and better control over content and its flow. She set up an editorial team in Mumbai by 2013.

Creating a community

Having an easy interface for posting articles, which enabled new users to post comments without having to register, and using Orkut to publicise her content were some of the ways Nandini adopted to net the netizens.

Currently, the website is profitable and has ongoing deals with all major movie production houses for ad sales on the site. It attracts more than 7.5 million visitors a month, contributing to over 45 million page views. Pinkvilla is now putting out around 100 stories a day covering Bollywood, television, and fashion.

“Initially, the challenge was staying on top of things while not being physically present in Mumbai, but hiring the right team in the city did the trick," she says.

The fact that I was able to make a Bollywood site successful running out of the US and with no connections in the industry is one of my life's greatest achievements.

Nandini is not perturbed by dedicated Bollywood portals springing up by the second. Instead, she swears by Pinkvilla's model of being a user-centric site and claims to have built a community of loyal users whom she manages to keep engaged. Pinkvilla now plans to expand to other verticals, with a focus on videos and e-commerce. It plans to expand into the regional markets too, she teases before signing off.

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