“I am quite used to being called an outsider,” says Ronnie Screwvala, Founder of Unilazer Ventures, when asked about his new ventures, especially in the digital space. “When we started off with television, I was an outsider; when we created a daily soap for the first time in India, we were considered outsiders. When we started a movie studio, people used to ask “Who is this South Mumbai Parsi gentleman, who may not understand Hindi, starting a movie studio?” And for the next 3-4 years we were treated as the outsiders, so I am quite used to that fact,” he told us in an exclusive interview at Unilazer’s Worli office.
With Unilazer Ventures, he will now be leaving the familiar terrain of media and entertainment, an industry that was involved with for 2 decades, to explore new horizons in sports, digital content and online education.
In sports, Screwvala has already achieved some measure of success on the back of two successful seasons with UMumba, the Pro Kabaddi League team he owns. His initiative to improve the football quality at the grassroot level has also been moving ahead at full steam with recent partnerships in the Bundesliga (Germany’s top-tier football league).
In the online education space, with UEducation, Screwvala wants to fill the requirement of quality and easily accessible education, a space he feels has a lot of potential.
UDigital, which Screwvala founded along with ex-Network18 executives Ajay Chacko and B Sai Kumar earlier this year, is also gearing for the launch of its content platform Arre. And Screwvala wants to create a “unique” offering for audiences.
“I think the differentiating fact that we come back to is that if you can understand the consumer and if you are massively curious about what is happening and if you have a fabulous team, which I think we are building, it will help us in the long term. Will we make a lot of mistakes? Of course, we will,” he said.
But why these three particular segments? “When I considered the different sectors, I looked at my strengths and my learnings over the past 20 years and if I were to sum up some of them; one of them would be a strong understanding of the audience, whether it is a product or a service and sort of preempting trends going forward. The second is an obsession with scale and building large organizations and building them from ground upwards with a strong element of team building. Third is being brand conscious and, I think, in India people do not think about brands as catalysts. The fourth was impact; looking at what impact I want to make in this day and age and the last was the ability to be very disruptive,” explained Screwvala.
To explain his point, Screwvala turns to the reason why he decided to back Kabaddi as a sport. Comparing it to cricket, he says, “To be a part of a core team of people who are transforming the game was very exciting. In cricket I would never have been able to do this because there is so much happening with cricket; it is such a well established game that one more person trying to do something would not have made much of a difference.” This is a philosophy he wants to bring to all new initiatives, especially Arre.
Breaking away from the herd
The vision for Arre, he told us, is to create a scalable, first-of-its-kind, independent digital company. The word “independent” he stresses is important in the digital landscape right now with existing media companies looking to enter the digital space. “What we are going to see in our ecosystem (Indian digital ecosystem) is the global majors like the Netflixes and the Amazons coming here and then there are all the existing media companies that are looking at becoming digital. But I think when you are first and foremost digital that brings a very different DNA rather than looking at it as an extension of a business or a platform,” argues Screwvala.
“Our core group is 18-30 years. We also want to reach out to people who are consuming content via print, television, etc. or, perhaps, not consuming it. Our focus is not just video, but it is a lot to do with documentaries, podcasts, text and news. I would call it experiential entertainment because I think you can create a larger and interactive base in digital, which is not something that people have experimented a lot with,” he further added, opining that this was the only age group that had three very distinct segments within it, each with their own likes and dislikes.
And he is not letting the thoughts of competition worry him over much. Referring to the recent mushrooming of Indian digital content companies as a product of the “herd mentality”, Screwvala opined that digital is a level playing field on a global scale. “The entry barriers are low and anyone can enter the field right now but that will change as it usually does. The herd mentality comes in, and then people realize that they have only been looking at the backside of people in front of them so they get bored and leave. The interesting part for me is that it is a global level playing field. We are not 40 years behind the US or 10 years behind China. In terms of bandwidth penetration, we are at the cusp of something exciting,” he added.
“We are not in it for unique visits game”
However, he does agree that creating a revenue model that is not overly dependent on advertising will still be a challenge in the digital content space. And he clearly feels that subscription might not be the best answer. “They (viewers) are too used to not paying for consuming content for it to change, so we will have to find some way around it,” he said. And he also does not want to be over dependent on advertisers, who he feels are usually three years to “figure out trends”. In fact, even when it came to the Pro Kabaddi League, Screwvala maintained that advertisers need to step up and start paying rates more suited to a sport that is now the second most watched one in the country after cricket.
Also read:We have a “take it or leave it” approach with advertisers: Ronnie Screwvala
So, where does the solution lie? “Digital business for everyone today is just advertising but we are also clear that we have to develop some revenue model, which, I would not say subscription, but some model where consumers pay based in their experience. I don’t have a very clear description of that; it is something that we will have to figure out,” he admits.
Another potential revenue source for Arre could be via OTT or, as Screwvala puts it, “B2B2C services”. “We will definitely be an OTT player so that will create more revenue opportunities. What we call B2B2C, working with different platforms and telcos, will be a strong revenue too for us. I think this is going to be a business where collaborative will be a more effective word than competitive,” he added.
However, Screwvala and his fellow partners are quite clear that the focus is on revenue. “We are not into this business just for the unique visits or eyeballs game. We are talking turkey as far as the language (for business) is concerned,” he told us.
“Pre-empt the customer”
Arre is expected to launch new digital content properties by January next year, though Screwvala admits that thoughs the company is progressing rapidly there is no set deadline. Recently, Arre entered into a partnership with Indian Express to create documentaries and there will be more similar partnerships in the future for specific properties. Explaining the rationale behind the Indian Express partnership, Screwvala said, “I think documentaries right now have a very dreary feel. For us, we want to get the deep sense of research and change the narrative. If you see globally, documentaries have a very sharp sense of storytelling. Either they revolt you or they get you to cry; they evoke strong emotions. Documentaries here for most people are a series of interviews and a cutaway to scenario shots. We want to redefine this.”
This facet will be brought in to other content properties too though Screwvala was quick to point out that he does not feel content differentiation is the need of the hour, nor will it be for the next couple of years. “If you see there are not too many players in original content. A lot of them are aggregated plays or deferred live content. So we all have to break moulds and see what the consumer wants and then change accordingly. For me, though I agree that differentiation in a product is a critical aspect when you are launching a new product, I don’t think it is the critical element here (digital content) as much as it is to pre-empt what consumers want. For me it is picking up the right genre, a narrative form, a grammar of speaking which will be quite different from television and movies, a grammar of interactivity, strong characterization, because I feel, from my experience in media and especially movies, if you get the right characterization and emotion, you can do a lot,” he explained.