MX Player is TIL’s biggest gamble and its biggest success: Satyan Gajwani

Gajwani, Vice Chairman, Times Internet, talks about the risks that paid off to achieve the growth numbers for the company, their new launches, their biggest "gamble" MX Player, and more

e4m by Neeta Nair
Updated: Sep 18, 2020 9:34 AM
Satyan Gajwani

Most non-listed, privately held companies are cagey about sharing their numbers, but this is the second year in a row that Times Internet has released an annual report, and it shows very promising numbers. The revenue has grown 24% to touch Rs 1625 crore, ad revenue has witnessed 22% jump and there is 23% growth in monthly active users which now stands at 557 million, making Times Internet the largest digital platform in India after Google and Facebook. Satyan Gajwani, Vice Chairman, Times Internet, talks about the risks that paid off to achieve these numbers, their new launches, their biggest "gamble" MX Player and why over-emphasis on monetization at this stage can mess it up.

Edited Excerpts

Why has Times Internet, a non-listed, privately held company, taken to releasing its annual reports and is this going to be a practice every year?

We started it last year, and I think it's something that I would like to continue for the foreseeable future. The Times Group and Times Internet have traditionally been pretty private about sharing more than what's required. But I feel being more explicit and transparent about what we're trying to do will help us to build alignment internally and externally for our 6000 employees, investors, stakeholders across Times Group, and our advertising partners who genuinely care about what's happening. It also brings more accountability to the business teams.

You registered a 40% growth last year and 24% this year, what are the gambles or planned risks that paid off?

Our most successful transition last year was MX Player, which really went from not really being competitive or existing in the OTT space to now becoming the market leader. And we did that with a very non-traditional strategy of buying a non-video asset and building a new video property into it. The growth in consumption is pretty unparalleled and the revenue growth pretty strong. But our priority for MX in the first couple of years was to really establish product-market fit and get people to love it. When we look at Times Internet as an ecosystem, five years ago, we weren't really into media beyond news. Today, our media and entertainment assets reach over 400 million monthly users and they do represent almost half of the reach of the group on digital now. Our entertainment footprint has been our strongest success in the last couple of years.

MX player was a Rs 1000-crore acquisition for TIL. The annual report does not spell out the exact growth figure, but going by App Annie that pegs it at 200 million MAU, the app has grown by 14.2% in the past 18 months, correct?

No, it has grown more than that. So, there are two different things to look at-- India numbers and the global numbers. Nearly 70% of the consumption for MX is in India and the balance is outside. And so sometimes we compare the India numbers to the global number, which mixes it up.
The way it works is when we bought MX, it was a very, very large asset that supported playback videos on your phone, not streaming videos. We built a streaming product into it about 18 months ago and that streaming product itself has effectively gone from zero users to over 200 million monthly users. And so, in essence, the total audience growth in India has been closer to about 40 or 50% in the last year. I don't have the exact number right on top of my head, but more important than the overall app growth has been the streaming product growth, because that's really what is comparable to what's out there in the market. It is really large and has crossed that of most others in the domain.

But for most OTT apps, the problem is to build an audience base from scratch, but you already had a good existing base of 175 million monthly active users, courtesy the acquisition of MX Player which was a video playback app.

It was honestly our biggest gamble. So, we bought this asset for over a 100 million dollars without knowing whether it would work. Majority of our team’s energy went into thinking about how to make it a successful transition and that was our biggest success too. The simple answer I can give you today is that more than 70% of our users every month consume the streaming product. And that was zero a couple of years ago when it didn't exist.

So was the difficult part to convert and retain the users on the new OTT platform?

There are a lot of companies, including us, who talk about moving audiences from one product to another. And that is not easy. A couple of years ago, everyone was getting excited to build the ‘Netflix of India’ and so we saw 20, 30 OTT apps getting launched saying, ‘oh, I'm a good movie producer, I'm a good TV show producer, I'll make an app, put this content on it, people will subscribe and the app will grow really big’. But our strategy was different. The core skill that we really have is understanding digital consumer products and technology and where they can converge with the media ecosystem. Our insight was that a successful product really needs to have strategic thinking on distribution and growth just as much as content. And so when everyone else was saying, we'll make a bunch of shows, stick them on an app and then figure out how to get users, we took the opposite approach, which was that we had this very large, captive, entertainment consuming audience, could we bring great content to them and build a positive experience? And I think it's been a combination of good product tech strategies as well as the content to make the conversion .

To give you an example, our show Ashram, which was launched just a couple of weeks ago, crossed 100 million streams in the first week. It has broken all of our internal records in terms of expectations on output. It really is emblematic of us as a company being really good at traditional media skills, i.e. producing great stories and content, while having the technology and DNA to think about growth, app distribution, scale and conversion.

So, you have great content out there, but as far as subscription is concerned, you have Times Prime, Gaana Plus, TOI, ET Prime, Gourmet Passport. Why have you kept MX out of the ad-free model?

MX is two years old. Given that it was a fairly untested strategy to see whether you could successfully convert users, we felt that doing product-market fit was the first priority. Today, MX offers music and gaming as well. We want to be different from other OTT players and think about the massive audience in India seeking digital entertainment content and experiences. Part of that may be around video, part of it music and gaming. The most recent one was our launch in the short-form video space. We want to provide a holistic entertainment offering across different experiences and get really good at building engagement. For example, users who consume video and gaming have on a monthly basis spent 6X time on the app than users consuming just video. So, our priority today is just to fill that customer need; the subscription models and figuring new ways to monetize-- those will be on agenda for the next couple of years. The big TV networks dominated television media over the last 5-10 years. We're building that for the digital world. And this has a 5-10-year horizon to really get to that scale. We're in year two right now. So, I think if we over emphasized on monetization at this stage, we probably will mess it up a little bit.

You launched the gaming wing in February, just at the right time before the lockdown, do you see that contribute to your revenues in a big way here on?

Hopefully it will. Gaming is one of the fast-growing and emerging bets for us. So, we have two essential plays in gaming. We have a standalone app called Qureka, and then MX has built gaming within the app, and both of them are growing extremely well. In general, we stay away from things like poker, rummy which we feel don’t fit for us as a company and we've also stayed away from fantasy sports. We focused a lot more on casual gaming and trivia where we feel it's both light, entertaining, something that people can really engage with, nothing that can inculcate negative habits.

Our goal is basically to think about better ways to monetize our audience over time. We've built 550 million monthly users. Nobody in India comes close to that in terms of scale. Qureka has grown 600% this year, again a small base, but meaningfully contributing in terms of scale. It's growing much faster than the average growth of Times Internet.

The ban on TikTok saw many Indian brands get into the space like Zee’s HiPi, Times’ MX Takatak, Gaana HotShots etc, do you feel you can match TikTok’s scale in India?

I was honestly pretty skeptical when we launched it. I told my team that there are going to be many players in the market. I don't know how big it can be. But it has been two months and it has by far exceeded my expectations, I am genuinely surprised. We are extremely bullish about it because there is a big void in the space. And the consumption we've seen just in the last two months is really emblematic of how large is the consumer need for it. We also think it's really, really complementary with both our music and video platforms. And that's why we launched two players in the space. We're definitely going to invest pretty aggressively behind both, Gaana HotShots and MX Takatak. Gaana is a little more music-centric, because it really fits with where they are and it's embedded in the Gaana app. MX is more of a general video entertainment approach, but both of them have seen phenomenal uptake from users. And it really fits with our core and operates in this space between media and technology.
Read the second part of the interview in the upcoming edition of IMPACT magazine

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