How a Silicon Valley techie and a media veteran launched an ambitious startup from a garage
When Rajiv Bansal came back to India after twenty years in Silicon Valley to lead the transformation at HT Media, India's second-largest media company, as its digital CEO, he needed a partner to lead content operations and form a shared vision about the future.
So, he reached out to journalist and digital newsroom veteran Nilanjana Bhaduri Jha, who had been instrumental in NDTV’s ascent to the top spot in the content space across verticals such as news, entertainment, sports, tech, and health. But after having spent over a decade building one of the biggest success stories in digital media from scratch, Nilanjana had no intention of leaving NDTV.
The two met for the first time at Delhi’s Lodhi Hotel on a January evening in 2018.
Nilanjana’s first words to Rajiv were that she’d agreed to the meeting only because she’d heard “good things” about him from her network, but she would “never ever” work for the company where he was the CEO as they were “clueless about their digital journey.”
Opoyi co-founders Rajiv Bansal and Nilanjana Bhaduri Jha (L-R) at their first 'garage office'.
Many hours and several martinis later, having talked at length about consumer needs in digital content, at 1 am, Nilanjana realised the two shared a similar worldview, and simply said, "I'm in".
Incidentally, both Rajiv and Nilanjana had a similar upbringing, growing up across India, changing several schools as they moved with their fathers’ postings, who had both served in the defence forces. Nilanjana’s father was an officer in the Indian Army, while Rajiv’s father was a naval pilot.
Their collaboration resulted in sowing the seeds to Mint (HT’s business news publication) becoming India's fastest-growing traditional media site. It grew 30X since the launch of the new website last year.
The two colleagues and friends quit HT last June. Rajiv went through a journey of self-discovery that led him to stay in India instead of returning to the Valley, turning down several unicorn-level CEO roles. On the other hand, Nilanjana decided to write a book.
But soon, they found themselves itching to do something to revolutionise media consumption. Within a month, the duo announced a new-age media startup, with a promise to bring the best of content and technology.
The duo hopes to make Opoyi one of the world’s top three media companies over the next decade. It aims to do so by giving consumers access to “high-quality content that is relevant” and available to them in a language of their choice.
“Opoyi's forte is content that has a ‘moment of consumption’ window, so it is closer to Twitter, CNN, ESPN or Google News, than Netflix or Wikipedia,” says Rajiv.
Its primary target audience will be consumers who use the internet multiple times a day to seek out content to consume, especially that which is best consumed during a "moment".
A discovery-oriented platform
The first formal discussions of Opoyi (which stands for “opinion of you and I”) took place in Nilanjana's garage in South Delhi’s Defence Colony, which eventually became the startup’s first office.
In the days and weeks that followed, Rajiv and Nilanjana focussed on the consumer and zeroed in on what made content consumption over the internet an unsatisfying experience.
Over time, the Opoyi tribe grew and the startup moved out of the garage and into an office. Today, it has a 30-member team, and will be launching in beta mode this month.
The Opoyi team at their new office
“This will give us an ability to test our AI and get it completely right before we take off the beta tag. When we are live, expect our experience to be discovery-oriented rather than being reliant on ‘search’ on our platform or from other platforms. We have built our experience to give people relevant information, get deep into their locations of interest, create expert groups of creators they can curate, go back and get updates on the content they've consumed. In short, the consumer is in charge,” says Rajiv.
Unlike traditional or most other new-age media companies, Opoyi is not trying to own the entire value chain of content creation. The startup does not employ its own reporters and stringers.
Instead, it is using a bottom layer of user-generated content (UGC) and a middle layer of ‘influentials’ to create and amplify this content. Simply put, the ‘influentials’ are influential people, leaders, and celebrities from various spaces such as politics, arts, sports, and entertainment. They also include “star news gatherers” and journalists with an audience.
“Opoyi's team focusses on managing these communities so that the content users see is of high-quality, trustworthy, accessible, and timely. Opoyi uses a lot of core technology that makes this possible, including AI that marks every piece of content on its platform for trustworthiness, classifies audiences, and provides language translations,” says Rajiv, who had worked on marquee tech offerings during his two decades in the Valley.
Some of the products he helped build for the consumer internet include Google TV (the precursor to Chromecast and Amazon’s Fire TV), Samsung Gear VR, Samsung SmartThings, Samsung Pay, Hotmail, Xbox, WebTV, and MSN Chat. His enthusiasm for building products is what had brought him back to India.
Through Opoyi, Rajiv and Nilanjana aim to offer a single destination to consumers for all their content needs across languages — irrespective of whether they are literate or illiterate — or whether they want text, audio or video.
“Consumers across the world go to media sites every day, several times a day, to access content across categories such as news, sports, entertainment, food, tech etc. They often start at a place of quality and trust, but they quickly run out of content and start ‘bouncing’ from site to site. In doing so they encounter low quality, questionable and even fake content. Once you go to Opoyi, it will give you so much quality, timely, and relevant content that you will never want to ‘bounce’ to another media site,” says Nilanjana, who has over two decades of experience managing content and newsrooms.
She had begun her digital media journey at Times Internet (the digital arm of the Times Group), breaking through the glass ceiling to become one of the most sought-after digital content leaders in the country.
Initially, Opoyi’s content is going to be deepest in India, where it claims to have built a layer of the top 250 ‘influentials’ in the country for the launch. Its next targeted geography is the US.
“We're launching in 12 languages, which includes major Indian languages, and also Spanish and French. Ultimately, we plan to be in every major geography in the world, and across every language,” Rajiv says.
Disrupting a century-old industry
The co-founders realised that content consumption and creation experiences cannot be fixed from within the confines of traditional or even new media thinking.
“The media industry is more than 100 years old. A lot of the axioms in the industry come from the pre-internet era. Not only traditional players but new age media players also come from the same thinking,” says Rajiv, adding that media companies across the world struggle with domain depth in the areas of technology, user experience, and digital content leadership.
This is also a natural outcome of processes that have become a habit, he points out, sharing how editorial teams live their lives managing newspaper front pages and tv lineups, and when these teams make the transition to digital, they try to spend their time curating and managing home pages on digital. “This does not make any sense on the consumer internet, where the consumer is the king and needs to be given relevant content,” he says.
According to a FICCI-EY report released last year, digital media was expected to overtake film entertainment in 2019 and print by 2021 to reach $5.1 billion by 2021,
Speaking on competition, Nilanjana says, “The alternatives Opoyi’s consumers have are traditional or new media companies like NYT, CNN, Quint, as well as aggregators like Dailyhunt and platforms like Twitter.”
“For any creator across the world, Opoyi can take a few bullet points of content, add context, rewrite the headlines, and the main content, take it across languages, audio and video using its communities and technology platform,” she adds.
Rajiv believes that no other media experience worldwide can offer this value proposition to creators or to consumers because it takes a complete overhaul of what one has known about media over the last century, to accomplish this.
He explains, “We have married technology with content operations in a way that has never been done before to create the world's best central desk.”
As far as the startup’s business model is concerned, it plans to monetise through programmatic ads (automated buying and selling of online advertising), and branded and syndicated content in its initial stages.
“Over time, as it gains scale, Opoyi will also become a natural platform of choice for traditional media companies seeking to add to their digital subscription revenues by getting audiences down their metered paywalls and for brands across the world looking to build their communities on our platform,” says Rajiv.
The co-founders have bootstrapped Opoyi with their personal funds and are reticent about sharing exact numbers. Currently, the startup has a set of angels backing it, including Ambarish Kenghe, Director, Product Management, Google Pay, and Sayali Karanjkar, Co-founder of Paysense, which was recently sold to PayU for $185 M.
The Delhi-based startup is in conversations with venture capitalists for its Pre-Series A as well as its Series A rounds.
Launching amid a pandemic
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) believes that the world is starting at the worst recession since the Great Depression, as coronavirus continues to wreak havoc on the global economy.
It is, without doubt, a challenging as well as an extremely interesting time to launch any startup. Of course, there is a precedence of some of the biggest unicorns (Uber, Airbnb, Slack) being born during the 2008 crisis. But the current crisis is expected to be far worse.
“The Opoyi journey has faced some hurdles due to coronavirus and the worst recession we've seen in our lifetimes. We are in the middle of one of the most complex media launches of all time and cannot even be in the same room. Cancellation of all travel also did not help the team in areas such as fundraising,” says Rajiv.
But he adds that at the same time, these economic factors have accelerated the supply side of creators on the platform as traditional media company layoffs have left a lot of reporters and stringers without platforms to write on, and Opoyi has become a natural choice for them.
“Some of Opoyi's scale competitors who have not built real business models have also been left without funding, which clears some of the space for us. And consumers are embracing online content consumption with a passion. These are all great for Opoyi in the long term,” Rajiv signs off.