How Bharatmatrimony continues to match millions of Indians in the times of Tinder
Theirs was never meant to be a one-night stand; it was a lifetime of a match made in heaven all the way. For Bharatmatrimony, India’s first matrimonial site, which was started with a mere $10 a month in 1997, that about sums up its marathon journey.
Bharatmatrimony is now a listed company and had recorded an estimated revenue of Rs 350 crore in 2018.
To remain consistently relevant in a society that is changing rapidly, riding on the high-speed data on its smartphones, is nothing short of a miracle. One would have assumed that matrimonial sites like Bharatmatrimony were done with their days of glory. Dating apps and social media platforms like Instagram are the new watering holes where the young are flocking to in search of a mate. Isn’t it?
But hold on. Like all popular perceptions, this one too succumbs at closer scrutiny. Just let the numbers talk here. With 60 percent of the market share and 135 outlets across India, Bharatmatrimony has a sizeable chunk of the matchmaking business in India, followed closely by its top rivals like Shaadi.com and Jeevansathi.com.
There are 3.72 million active profiles on Bharatmatrimony as on date, and every year, more than one lakh success stories are reported by members.
The company is now eyeing the $56 billion wedding services market in India, with services like MatrimonyMandaps (makes wedding venue booking easy), MatrimonyPhotography, MatrimonyBazaar (wedding related products and services like honeymoon packages, jewellery, and catering), and MatrimonyDirectory (a wedding classifieds portal with over 50,000 vendors)
Made in heaven
In a country like India, made-in-heaven marriages are executed by the parents here on earth. And what better way than with the aid of technology.
With this truth, Murugavel Janakiraman decided to test his destiny way back in 1997. While working in the US in the late 90s, he started a platform for the Tamil community there. It offered service (all free) like sharing the Tamil calendar, festivals, travel to India, and help with flight bookings. Among these services was also a matchmaking service.
Over time, he saw more traction on the matrimonial platform and decided to turn it into a paid service. One of the most successful matching stories happened in 1999, when he himself got married through his own portal.
Speaking to SMBStory from Chennai, 46-year-old Murugavel recalls how his father-in-law had created his daughter’s profile and how he was quizzed extensively before the match was finalised. “They were living in Ahmedabad at that time. He asked for my horoscope. It matched with Deepa’s (his wife now). I was living in the US at that time, so we corresponded for a bit. I then travelled to Chennai, where we were married.”
Murugavel’s marriage has been as much of a success as has been his matrimonial business.
Such is his belief in the institution of marriage that Murugavel’s vision statement for Bharatmatrimony states that its purpose is to “build a better Bharat through better marriages”.
Looking at a cultural shift in India today when the number of divorce rates have gone up, it may not be a bad strategy. Towards this purpose of building better marriages, the platform also provides counseling to young people through blogs and articles on how to make their marriage work.
The seduction of dating apps
Says Able Joseph, Founder of dating app Aisle, which matches people who are serious about a long-term relationship, “Bharatmatrimony is one of the few social networks that has done more good than bad for humanity. Imagine how well they’ve served Indians who wish to keep their traditions and expand their families. The LTV of a matrimony site member may not be as lucrative as other spaces, but the value that it offers to some of their users last a lifetime. That’s remarkable.”
Able believes that though dating apps are a western construct where there is no place for a concept like arranged marriage, startups like his are taking advantage of this paradigm shift and designing products to offer a more western way of finding love. “We are more ‘high intent’ than other dating apps,” he says, adding, “I believe that the pendulum has only started to swing in the direction of online dating. Traditional matchmaking portals will find it hard to convince the youth to go the other way.”
However, Murugavel does not see the rise of online dating as posing much threat. And he is right, for the moment. He is playing the ‘tradition’ game. And for all practical purposes, tradition trumps everything else in India.
Entrepreneur and investor Alok Mittal, who was on the Board of Bharatmatrimony until four years ago and holds Murugavel in high regard, says,
“Muruga did not see matrimony as just a transaction. Hence, a lot of product innovation was centered around trust.”
He feels that Bharatmatrimony’s advantage was its focus on community match-making. “In certain communities this is deep-rooted while other communities are relaxed about inter-community matches,” he says. Pointing out at the socio-economic changes taking place in India, he says one of the things he noticed is the mix of parents representing their children on the platform. While, earlier it was 70:30 ratio with parents taking the lead in hunting for a match for their children, now it is 30:70.
“Even as I look at the Tinder generation, the interesting part is that when it comes to marriage, many older value systems have been more stable than when when it comes to dating. Even as young people are finding their life partners, they are still thinking of that as a different exercise rather finding a date for the next day. How deeply that is ingrained and how quickly that changes is a matter of time,” says Alok.
A labour of love
Alok, who is Co-founder and CEO of Indifi Technologies, feels that for Bharatmatrimony to stay relevant in such circumstances, it needs to watch out for these shifts in behaviour and figure out how all these changes influence the products and services the platform has to offer. He adds,
“There is also the brand challenge to overcome. If young people continue to see the brand as an arranged matrimony portal, regardless of what you do with the product the brand perception will stay."
As we have seen, Bharatmatrimony is a strong brand. Alok was part of Canaan Partners when they invested in Murugavel’s company. Twenty years ago, the match-making business was moving from print to digital, and Murugavel’s sheer passion and ingenuity to see an opportunity in this sector convinced the investors.
Moreover, by the time Murugavel approached investors, he had a good business going and a particular brand recall.
“I was shuttling between India and the US and in 2004, moved back to India. By 2006, it was almost a $4 million business. We raised funding of around $8.61 million from Yahoo and Canaan Partners around that time. Then, in 2008, we raised another $12 million from Yahoo, Canaan, Maysfield. We also expanded various other verticals like property, jobs, automobiles, and mobile,” Murugavel tells me.
Unfortunately, in 2008, there was a global slowdown, and Murugavel had to take a relook at his business. He adds,
“We had limited cash and the global outlook was gloomy. We had to conserve cash. The Board mandated that we cut on non-core businesses, so I closed all the verticals and kept only matrimony and property."
Within six months, Murugavel says they became profitable.
“From an entrepreneur, I learnt to become a CEO. I learnt finance and marketing and everything that is needed to manage a large enterprise,” says Murugavel.
Today, besides entering the wedding services business, Bharatmatrimony also runs the service in 15 languages. They have pioneered several new services that include EliteMatrimony, an exclusive matrimony service to help the ultra rich. It has over one lakh members that include billionaires, millionaires, the Ivy League tribe, and celebrities. And the subscription per year for these can go up to as high as Rs 10 lakh.
When Murugavel started his business nearly 21 years ago, he encountered a number of challenges, the first and foremost being low internet penetration and lack of online payment. He innovated as he went along by engaging community managers who went from door to door making collections and helping the customers.
Today, Bharatmatrimony has expanded to Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Nepal.
Son of a loader in Madras Harbour in Chennai, Murugavel has had humble beginnings. He says there was no one in the family who could advise him on academic matters. His uncles told him to do BSc in Chemistry as that would help him get a lab technician’s job. However, Murugavel says he got an admission in BSc Statistics instead. He went on to do an MCA from there.
“The MCA degree changed my life,” he says. He got a job in the US, and as they say, the rest is history.