[Tech30] How these BITS Pilani students built a content marketplace right from their dorm rooms
Content writing and creation is the need of the hour to help secure business connections and market a product, and is extremely vital in effectively branding oneself on the world wide web. Pepper started with these very parameters in mind.
The Mumbai-based startup was co-founded in November 2017 by BITS Pilani friends and batchmates Anirudh Singla (20), Rishabh Shekhar (21), and Rishank Pandey (21). A content creation platform, it builds a community of voice, video, and vernacular subject matter.
Capitalising on the need for content creators who can thrive in an online marketplace where their contributions are not only recognised, but also monetised, the idea was to standardise this disorganised sector.
“We are building India’s largest content marketplace and plan to take this to a global scale. We want to make content creation, right from strategy to execution, accessible through an on-demand virtual workforce at any scale, vertical, and language. We are building the future of work for content in India,” Anirudh claims.
The founding story
It all started at BITS Pilani where co-founders Anirudh Singla, Rishabh Shekhar and Rishank Pandey, all final year engineering students, connected. Anirudh and Rishabh lived in the same dormitory in freshman year, and they met Rishank through mutual friends.
While Anirudh was trying for an internship in content writing, he realised that the entry barrier was huge in the content industry.
The eureka moment came when the co-founders saw a large number of content creators looking for a standardised platform to work and monetise with personal fulfilment and the enormous scale at which companies were looking for multiple content creators with single-entity based accountability. They then went onto create a platform connecting the two.
“I got the best people on board, and we started Pepper in our sophomore year. Within the first month, we realised that running a business is not as rosy as it looks. We used to study from 8 am to 1 pm, and then work from 1 pm till 2 am while also managing extracurriculars,” says Anirudh.
Pepper has eight members with a core team of six including Himanshu Goyal (21), Kishan Panpaliya (20) and Aadesh Chandra (21) who have been instrumental in bring the platform to life.
Pepper operates on a transactional basis. Currently, they charge a specific margin on each content transaction, and have grown exponentially over the past 1.5 years.
Since August 2018, Pepper has been getting a monthly revenue of Rs 4 lakh. In August 2019, they had successfully scaled up to Rs 25 lakh in monthly revenues, with an estimated turnover of Rs 3 crore in FY 19-20.
How Pepper works?
The startup caters to a host of businesses - small startups, media houses, big MNCs, etc. Currently revolutionising how companies create and manage content needs - from start to finish, the process is simple.
A writer who registers with Pepper goes through a systematic vetting process that segments them into predetermined slabs and adds them to the platform.
On the client-side, organisations provide requirements based on content type (article, blog, etc.), genre, language, and brief expectations of the content piece.
The brief is analysed on Pepper’s recommender engine to find the tone and sentiment for the content type and other factors to source the right target of writers and editors.
The recommender system then floats this opportunity to the best-fit writers with a deadline for acceptance. The writer submission is then passed on to the editor, who edits and assigns scores and submits the assignment directly to the client.
From students to entrepreneurs
The biggest challenge the co-founders faced was managing academics while working.
“Although working while pursuing undergraduate studies is not considered full-time work, it was for us. Managing the tough curriculum at BITS along with clients and writers was an uphill battle initially, which we all remember fondly now,” says Anirudh.
Another challenge was to make consumers believe in Pepper, and establish credibility on the supply side.
“Initially, we did not have the liquidity to pay writers immediately when work was submitted. We weren’t capable of paying any percentage of the whole amount because we frankly had zero. We took our first salaries after 15 months of starting up. So, you can understand what the initial days had been like,” says Anirudh, adding, “The hustle is real - figuring out aspects like registering a company, paying taxes, managing monthly payments, etc. Even to acquire customers, we used to make over 150 cold calls daily and face 70 percent rejection,” Anirudh continues.
Overcoming challenges, Anirudh believes, “You don’t overcome these. You just get habituated. Academics took a backseat. That is a tradeoff you should be willing to make. Convincing writers over call for hours was one of the most important jobs.”
Pepper is currently working with Naukri.com, Shiksha.com, BookMyShow, Times Group, India Today Group, Paisabazaar, UpGrad, Yatra, Digit, Businessworld, Zivame, Bharat Matrimony, MarketsandMarkets, etc. The other competitors in the space include SEO.com, Epsilon India, Scatter and Thoughtful Minds Web Services.
According to Anirudh, the Indian content ecosystem is amongst the most dynamic sectors today, and with the market looking at distribution, Pepper wants to be the market leader in content creation.
The future is content ready
Pepper aims to target over 200,000+ content creators over the next 15 months across domains.
“We are looking to scale up aggressively in the next few months. While scaling is important, we want to make sure that the product comes out the very best. Our aim is to expand massively in graphic, voice, and video and strengthen our Indian language capabilities,” says Anirudh eyeing the vernacular medium, which is set to grow exponentially.
“Our aim is also to expand our client base from 175 clients to 1,000 clients in the next 15 months. We are also actively hiring across sales, operations, marketing and technical capabilities,” Rishabh says.
With multiple three-year-long project dealings with massive content volumes tuning over lakhs of content pieces, the co-founders are optimistic about the kind of scale India is opening up to.
(Edited by Suruchi Kapur-Gomes)
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