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L Ravichandran

Managing Director | 30 Mar 2005

Currently we have a team of over 20 people, working on the news and non-news content on the site. In the beginning, we primarily had coordinators to get the work done through freelancers. This has grown into a full-fledged team now.

For over 18 years, L Ravichandran, Managing Director, Chennai Interactive Business Services (CIBS), has been at the helm of affairs of his own venture Heat Tech Industries.

Somewhere along the way, bitten by the Internet bug, this post-graduate in metallurgical engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, found himself on a journey from Heat Treatment to the then-emerging dotcoms. www.chennaionline.com had its beginning when Ravichandran got a dial-up connection from VSNL, which costed Rs 5,000 per year then.

His fascination for the Internet drew him to think of business possibilities in the space. This was at a time when the Internet was considered a luxury in the country.

Gokul Krishnamurthy of exchange4media spoke to Ravichandran about chennaionline, the experiences during the shakeout of the dotcom industry, and the plans for the portal.

Q. Tell us something about chennaionline. How did you decide to build a city-based portal?

Along with friends Krishnan and Asokan, also from IIT (M), I embarked on this web journey. We considered several ideas once the Net intrigued us. This was in early 1997. One idea was that of an exhaustive site for temples in South India. Before doing something like that, we figured out that we needed to do something that will fetch us revenue. We thought of having companies publish their annual reports with us online, a site for tenders, etc. None of these grabbed our attention for long because we felt they were too small in scope.

We finally arrived at putting up information on Chennai. All the information about the vast city was not available at one place. So the scope was vast, and we decided to put Chennai online. On August 15, 1997, we booked the domain name, www.chennaionline.com. We also started work for third parties, helping them build web sites, at Chennai Interactive Business Systems (CIBS).

Q. Where is the audience and how is the traffic on the site currently?

There is a large audience from South India that resides abroad and wish to stay in touch with the region. And online is the best way for them to do that. In terms of traffic, we estimate 53-54 per cent of our audience being NRI/foreign and the rest from India. Of the Indian traffic, Chennai and TN contribute the bulk, maybe an 85 per cent of Indian traffic.

We have half a million unique users a month with over 15 million page views. The number of hits is 50-60 million per month.

Q. What is the competition for chennaionline?

There is no alternative in the same space really as we are the only site to offer a mix of news, education, entertainment, shopping and religion. The closest would be webulagam, and they are in Tamil.

Q. What has been the total investment for the site? Where has the revenue come from?

The total investment would be between Rs 4 and Rs 5 crore. In the early days, the only revenue was from work done for third parties. Ads for the site started coming in only after three years. Currently, the majority of the revenue is from the advertising and e-commerce also contributes significantly.

Q. How did you go about marketing the site?

Three years after the launch, we did a reasonable amount of outdoor advertising and took part in exhibitions and the like, mainly on barter. The government tenders we floated on the site increased the traffic manifold. We also reach out to NRIs in the US through a Tamil magazine ‘Thenral’.

Q. How big is the content team at chennaionline?

Currently we have a team of over 20 people, working on the news and non-news content on the site. In the beginning, in October 1997, we primarily had coordinators to get the work done through freelancers. This has grown into a full-fledged team now.

Q. How big is e-commerce for your site?

10-12 per cent of our total revenues come from e-commerce. We have had a payment gateway for over 4 ½ years now. People’s trust is something we have gained. The popular segments include books, music, gifts and apparels (ready-to-wear).

Q. You were one of the first sites that make classifieds a ‘paid for’ section. Have classifieds had the same kind of popularity after you went paid?

Initially, classified ads were offered free on our site. In mid-2002, we started charging for the same. We were cautioned that people would shy away as most online classifieds were free. There was a slump but for different reasons. We realised that people did not mind paying but they had a problem paying online. We needed people to go and sell. Tele-marketing support also helped. We also believe that retail selling, to smaller customers, is easier. It makes sense to build on volumes.

Q. How would you compare city-based portals in India with those abroad?

The primary problem is in funding. It is easier in India to build a trash newspaper that hardly anyone ever reads. Even now, people haven’t understood the reach and possibilities of the Internet.

Q. Tell us something about the work for other sites that CIBS has done.

The works we have done include projects for TI Cycles, ACC Babcock, Kishkintha, Japan Association for Singapore, and Tarapore & Co. Our role include design, development, hosting and concept ideas. We’ve even done work for Citibank.

Q. What do you now think about dotcoms? What are the plans for chennaionline?

The Internet is actually ‘Life made easy.’ Over the next 2-3 years, Net usage will explode. We also expect more people to enter the city-based and other dotcom space.

At CIBS, we expect to have a presence in other markets in Tamil Nadu, and other major towns, to provide a similar offering. We are also looking to expand into other cities across India. Mumbaionline is something we are considering seriously.

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