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Nitin Gupta

President & COO | 22 Jul 2003

If the question is will the mobile phones be used as a medium of communicating between the brands and the consumers -I can guarantee you the answer is yes. There would be 100 million consumers in India on mobile in five years.

Nitin Gupta, President & COO, Rediff.com, is joining Master card International. Prior to joining Rediff in January 2001, Gupta worked as President of GE's retail financing division. In his career, he has worked in diverse areas like Sales, Brand Marketing, Direct Marketing and Advertising. Gupta started his career in sales, followed by brand management at Pond's. Then came a brief stint with American Express, after which he moved to Contract Advertising.

In this in-depth interview with exchange4media, he talks about the evolving new media in the country, the growth opportunities, his experience at rediff and his forthcoming assignment with Master Card.

Q. Can we start with your experience at Rediff.com?

It has been fantastic. When I came from GE, one of the world's biggest and most well known companies in January 2000, it was a very conscious decision. At that time I was full of dreams for the Internet and wanted to explore this new field. I wanted to make a contribution to it. In India we were still at a very early stage of making a business out of the Internet then. And I can say with conviction that there is no regret at all - not even an iota of it. The experience has been so fulfilling and enriching, and though it is immodest to say it, it has been a good contribution on my part. Starting new industries, new ideas and new concepts and building it up from scratch - it has been an exciting tenure.

Q. I was reading somewhere that you had come to meet Mr Balakrishnan to offer Rediff some financial product and he was so impressed that he offered you a job.

Well, it did not really happen that way. I had come with my VP of Business Development for a business development call. We came to meet Ajit (Balakrishnan) to explore what we could do together. In that sort of a meeting ideas flow from both the sides and that was what was happening. There was a good chemistry. We had a dialogue a couple of times based on that. But yes, there was no regular application or search. I think such meetings are good because they establish a rapport, which then continues for the next few years. Before I came in, the country did not have too much business. Total business that we might have done in the year before I joined would be perhaps a million dollars. I don't remember the exact figures. But first year that I came in - year 2000 -2001, we did five and a half million dollars of revenue. Next year we did 25 million dollars and so on - we had a very rapid growth.

The first thing that needed to be done was Rediff IPO on the Nasdaq. Ajit was personally leading the process of taking the company public to the Nasdaq. For him it was very important that somebody was there as the president and chief operating officer to make the business happen while he led the company to IPO. I played that role and we successfully IPO'ed in the June 2000 at a very good price. We raised 60 million dollars, and once it was over, it was back to building the business. One of my very early objectives was building a very good management team. Today I can see with pride that one would have vary rarely seen a management team of such high caliber.

My second objective, we had a user base in US market but we did not have any business there. In second year we went and acquired three companies in the US. We were one of those very early Indian acquiring companies in the US. One was an Internet media company like ours - one was an old world publishing company - India Abroad and one was an e-commerce company. The companies, which were based in three different corners of the US, were integrated into one single company at New York within a year. The performance of these companies improved post that.

Third phase was building businesses in India. we first built the online advertising business and we are now leaders in online advertising industry with a share of 30% plus. Secondly, we set up the e-commerce business. And today we roughly do ten times the e-com business than what we did when I joined.

We built subscription services, and roughly in June 2002, we started we started launching paid e-mail services and toady we have about 50,000 customers for different kinds of subscription products.

And then came mobile services, we have started building it and it is doing very well. That revenue is increasing on a very rapid rate quarter on quarter.

Q. Do you have separate teams for these businesses?

We have a business manager for each of these four services. We have teams for these, but to a large extent, the backend and operations are integrated to get the best value out of company resources. Each of these four would grow but at different rates.

Q. How do you see e-commerce growing in India?

We have grown ten times in five years. And, though it is not growing at that fast a pace anymore, it is still an amazing growth.

Q. But are there any bottom line revenues in e-commerce?

Certainly. We make a very healthy gross margin. And as the costs will be flat - it would be a profitable business without any doubt. In any business, where volumes scale up, profits will come. It is going to be fast growing business. There are some things that are standing in the way of the business growing faster than it is. One of them - consumers don't like using credit card on the Net - they find it insecure. There are a variety of things that we are doing to break that perception. For example we have launched an insurance scheme, by which we reassure the customers. This is a unique scheme. Over time, as we offer more products for e-commerce, as we make the process easier, as the use of credit cards grows, as people become more accustomed to doing things on the Net.

Q. And what about the mobile services. Every dotcom is into it. Would there not be a stagnation soon? Consumers are not really appreciating the pull services.

Mobile services have a huge future. As for every player being in it - it happens for everything. Mobile user base is growing much faster than Internet user base, and there would be a lot of services on offer there. It is roughly growing at 100% a year or 8% a month. Indian mobile base would be 25 million by the March of 2004. It is far easier to access data and information on mobile than on PC. We would need to develop certain applications that consumers find. There are some applications that are doing very well in China - for instance dating application for young people is on fire in China. Same is the case with news. We would be leaders in developing these services that make sense to the customer. It jusn't does have to be pulling news, it doesn't just have to be cricket scores. There would be two three big applications on mobile that would be killers - over time they would be big revenue generators there is no doubt about that. There would be cross links between various media like TV and mobile or mobile, radio and Internet - there would be an enveloping of consumer from media experience point of view. Need is to make experience easy, pleasurable and the consumer should get some value out of it.

Q. The media houses have tried to get advertisers onto the mobile services, but it has not really worked.

Honestly, the point is if you go back 25 years and think of what people thought of television, probably it would be same as they think of Internet and mobile services today. We are so early in the development of these industries that if we get discouraged or encouraged by what is happening today, we will not be taking a long enough view. All of them might now succeed like wild fire, but If the question is will the mobile phones be used as a medium of communicating between the brands and the consumers -I can guarantee you the answer is yes. There would be 100 million consumers in India on mobile in five years.

Q. Isn't mobile too personal a medium for the advertisers' to interfere. Orange and Nokia started the service, telling a consumer where he was in Mumbai, and I didn't find it too exciting as a subscriber.

These companies are at an early stage of developing the mobile users' experience itself. If you are sitting inside these companies, there is only one way to find out whether a thing works or not - you have to try it. They have one million customers and depending the feedback that they get, they will drop it or carry on with it. They will add value - or try something else. But at least all these companies are trying new things. It is a very dynamic environment.

Q. If it is such a dynamic environment, why are you moving out of it?

Because I am moving to another very dynamic environment. First of all, I am going as the country head for Master Card International for South Asia. I have a whole cluster of countries reporting to me. Payment products industry is only going to grow. Today people largely pay by cash. In India, for example only 2% of all payments are made by a payment product. It is a future proof industry, only question is at what rate would it grow. Master Card is a global leader in this sphere, it is a terrific brand to work for. It had fourteen straight quarters of market share gain, which is higher than industry average. It very recently converted itself into a stock company in US.

It was a very exciting opportunity. I would get to use my experience in various fields to build a business that would grow in the future. I enjoy growth, I enjoy challenge.

Q. Anything specific triggered your decision to leave Rediff at this juncture?

The opportunity was terrific - and that is the only reason. My relationship with Rediff is excellent, my relationship with Ajit is very close, very cordial. This company is going to be a leader in its sphere in terms of both services and revenues.

Q. One has been hearing that Yahoo and MSN in India have been gaining at the expense of Rediff, as far as ad revenues go. Share of ad pie is being divided more evenly now.

There is no measurement, no method. Frankly it is my word against someone else's and I don't want to get into that. All I know is that our revenues have been growing year on year. I have no figures on other people's revenue. We are a public company, so they might be aware of ours. My impression is that we are the market leader and we continue to be a leader on online advertising revenue side. I have personally led that effort here, so my impression can't be completely wrong.

Q. Talking about another industry rumour -there is restructuring happening in Rediff.com and 25 or so more people are leaving.

First of all, whatever is happening has no connection with my leaving. Secondly, there is no specific restructuring or right sizing or exits of people in large numbers at the same time. Life is normal and dynamic - as it has been in the past. Our head count is reported publicly and June 30th numbers would be out soon.

Q. Do you see yourself coming back to Internet industry.

Interesting question. But I don't know what is in store for me in life.

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