RadioandMusic
| 20 Oct 2019
Neeraj Roy: You must be substantive and sincere

Today, he is acknowledged as a young veteran and visionary in the internet space who actually helped set precedents for profitable internet businesses just before and through the now infamous dotcom bust. But when in 1999, after 10 years  of harbouring dreams of becoming an entrepreneur, he actually launched Hungama.com, Neeraj Roy had experience in marketing and investment banking, and a solid grounding in ethics and integrity at the hallowed Tata Group. But he did not have a business plan.

RadioAndMusic.com caught up with Neeraj Roy, MD & CEO – Hungama Digital Media Entertainment Pvt Ltd, for a very special chat on how gut feel, principles, passion  and belief helped him envision a profitable and sustainable internet business that survived the dotcom bust, and now, as Hungama Digital Media Entertainment Pvt Ltd,  has become a trailblazer, leading across the spaces of Digital entertainment, Mobile Services and VAS, Promo Marketing, the aggregating and publishing of Bollywood and South Asian entertainment content for consumers in 46 countries with more than 150 partners worldwide, with Hungama.com having become India's largest on-demand Digital Entertainment storefront, serving audio, video and imagery to South Asians across the world.

Roy also speaks of what drives him as a leader and motivator, and his expectations of his 800-strong team in 5 countries; the immense possibilities and challenges from technology, and why, across the spectrum of  content, technology and distribution, soundness and innovation play such  a critical role in his vision for not only his Company, but the entire digital media and entertainment space in India and globally.

Excerpts, in two parts, from a conversation with Pavan R Chawla, Director Content & Chief Strategy Officer – Indiantelevision Group, and Editor – RadioAndMusic.com and Swagata Panjari and Poonam Ahuja. Here, in Part-I, are the beginnings.

 

Give us a brief sketch of how you started and entered into the whole area and space. First what space you started in and how you kept on increasing your entire business?

In many ways this whole thing started off back in August 1998, when I got myself for the first time an e-mail account (at hotmail.com). Those were early days when the internet was primarily the world of Yahoo, Hotmail, and things like that. Then, around November-December that year, I went into Amazon and got hold of some books and happened to read a little bit about the internet.

Another important thing happened in that year, not directly with me but with a friend of mine -- in fact a friend and partner, Ashish Kacholia. Ashish and I used to be in investment banking together, and he had attended a convention in New Delhi called India Internet World, in September 1998, and he came back very enthused about how the internet would change things. In those early days we really didn't understand much; it was a time when there weren't even a million people online from India, but that entire exercise got us thinking. I came to Bombay in 1988 from Allahabad to do business studies. After studies I was very keen to get into business, but today I am thankful that I took a  good 10 years.

Why do you say that?

I started my career with the Tata Group where,  as marketing manager for five years, I was  looking after 42 hotels. Then I spent about four-and-a-half years in investment banking with a firm called Prime Securities.

These were the most crucial 10 years. There was always a desire towards an entrepreneurial streak, but I am glad that I didn't start off immediately because what was to follow in the next many years would have required tremendous amount of tenacity, and that's what one got over those 10 years prior to getting into business.

How did those 10 years with a strong mix of marketing and investment banking prepare you for your entrepreneurial career?

I think the most important thing for me that time was to starting my career with the Tata Group. I couldn't have asked for a better company and was fortunate to work with people like Camellia Panjabi, Pankaj Baliga  and others.

One of the principles I learnt at the Taj Group was that having good professional relationships helps a great deal in the entertainment economy, where they can translate into business. The second was ethics and integrity,  and I couldn't have asked for a better mentor than the Tata Group to lay that sort of foundation.

I was even among the fortunate ones to have interacted with J.R.D. Tata and Ratan Tata during my years at the Taj. I got a chance to work with 260-270 companies, where I looked after the business for the Taj Group of hotels. Other businesses include banking, steel, automobiles, fertilizers, petroleum. So that gave me tremendous access into the industry and a deep understanding of business.

My investment banking experience gave me an insight into a more mature side of business. As I moved into investment banking I looked at things more from a research perspective. How did these businesses really work? We were involved in fund-raising in different kinds of areas, and here too, it was kind of the same experience, as investment banking too was a relationship- driven business.

Therefore, I went deeper into it, and all through, I had a deep desire to do something entrepreneurial.

This urge to turn entrepreneur must have manifest itself strongly…

Back in 1992-93 while I was still at the Taj, I took four days off. At that time, the United Nations program was holding, under the aegis of the Prime Minister's office, an Entrepreneurship Summit, based on project reports for an entrepreneurial initiative. There were some 1700-odd entries, and it was considered a big initiative. I submitted a paper along with a friend of mine, Amitabh Garg and we got short-listed. We were at Vigyan Bhawan that time and P. V. Narasimha Rao,  who was the prime minister,  then gave us the recognition for the business plan that we had created. I had taken a day's leave from my employer, the Taj Group of Hotels. Those where the days of mass media, and Doordarshan was big media. I was like 23-24 years old,  and they wanted to do an interview with me. I kept saying â€?no' for the interview because if I would have done the interview then my story of taking leave perhaps for attending a wedding would have gone bust. But I am glad for having tried and for the experience. Amitabh and I still talk about it with very fond memories.

Did your short-listed entry have anything to do with the internet?

No. That plan had to do with setting up a menthol plant somewhere in North India because it had medicinal value for numerous things! Nothing to do with the internet.

So from marketing and investment banking to entering a project plan for a menthol plant, how and when did you veer towards  content in the media and entertainment space?

Somewhere in February 1999, a few friends of mine from Prime Securities got together at my house. We met with the thought of setting up a business which was broadly into the entertainment space,  but which had a strong streak of advertising in it. So it was about building this community which on one side had consumers and on the other side had brands. We would develop interactive engagements for them. Advert games, e-promotions, contests… things like that would engage them, and in return, they would get prices. That's what led to the genesis of Hungama dot com.

And how did you choose the name Hungama.com? Whose idea was it?

I thought of Hungama-dot-com, and suddenly a lot of us said â€?Yeah, it's very cool, makes sense!' But you've got to remember that internet back then was for the ?©lites. We never thought internet would be for the masses, so I discussed this with a very dear friend of mine, Sandeep Chawla, who was then an account director with a leading advertising agency  We were in business school together, and he is now in Amsterdam  So Sandeep and I met up at the Ambassador Hotel  coffee shop late one night at 1… 1.30 am, and he just said to me, Nahin yaar, Hungama is not cool, it's very rustic… desi. It's not â€?internet'… you will get it wrong....

So we sat there writing names we could think of for the site. I still have that book we wrote in with me, and by that time it was 3.30 or 4 am, we would have written some 80-90 potential names, including some really whacked-out names like youarebeingserved.com. But I'm glad that when I revisited the name issue, my instinct prevailed and I said, No, I think I'll go with Hungama.com....

And what did you do with the site in those early days?

We developed interactive advertising, e-promotion, contests, games, advergames. We took ads and converted them into games and we got consumers to our sites to participate in them and in return stand to win prizes. A couple of years later, Hungama.com became a case study at the Mudra Institute of Communication.

Who was your first advertiser?

The first brand to start off with us was Unilever, and I happened to meet this young gentleman who was brand manager then, called Sandeep Kohli. I think he is very senior in the Unilever hierarchy in the Philippines or somewhere, now. He was brand manager for the foods category within Unilever. They had just introduced a brand called Annapurna, and the first brand on Hungama.com was Annapurna Atta. We started with six brands.

What were the other  brands on Hungama.com?

At that time, thankfully, there were music brands as well. For Sony Music, we did something for their property called Runaway Bride. We created a concept where one of my colleagues, Ritu Khatau, was made to dress up like a bride and we announced on the internet that this bride would visit six pre-decided Mumbai locations like Sterling theatre, Planet M, etcetera. You would have to be there, and if you spotted her there, you would get a chance to win something, but then,  from there, she would run away and go somewhere else. Ritu is still with us-- she was the first person to join Hungama  and she is very much a part of our team even now. We often tease her because that story was so publicized in mainstream media across newspapers.

So that is what we use to do. Hungama got formed on a very auspicious day. It was incorporated on All Fools' Day, the first of April in 1999, which was good in a way because we were doing things that were a little wild and whacky!

What was your business plan like, when you started?

Hungama never started with a business plan. But it started with a lot of passion, a lot of energy, and lot of conviction – it was gut pushing the whole thing to a great extent. We felt that the internet was going to be big, let's do this, plunge in, brand advertising… all those kinds of things were happening, so there was no documented business plan.

Later, three to four years down the line, we realized that had we gone with a business plan, there might have been more substance, but being driven by a mixture of gut feel, past experience and the ability to react to the actual ground realities of the downturn that no business plan could have guessed, were what perhaps gave us the resilience to survive the dotcom bust.

So you were actually the guy who was setting up the precedent for sustainable internet businesses in India…

We started in April 1999. October 1999 was another very big step in the Indian Internet world, because that was when Rajesh Jain sold India Internet World to Satyam for the princely sum of 115million dollars, or rupees 500 crore.

In January 2000, the most significant internet-driven deal, which was the acquisition of Time Warner by AOL, happened. Hotmail had happened in the early part of 1998, but the biggest significance was: here was a start-up company. Four-five years back AOL went up to acquire Time Warner, so it became AOL Time Warner, and that was pretty much the peak of the internet. Thereafter what was to follow was the bust.

If I reflect back, we got volumes. We used to track all the media coverage of 1999-2000. In many ways, during the early eight-nine months, some of us were made out to be the poster boys of the internet. I was very aware of all of this. Remember, this was India of 12 years ago. The whole connotation of PR, the drama around events…  was an area where my grounding at the Tata Group came in handy. I remember an incident at a wine company's event. They were doing some kind of e-Tuesday thing and this person caught hold of me and said You have to stand here, this is a picture for Bombay Times.... Something got me going and I kind of very quietly eased out because it was so easy to get carried away with the hype going around all these things.

What were your main beliefs that helped you keep focus?

We were a very small company struggling to make business happen, but I was clear that you need to be substantive and sincere in whatever you are trying to do.

In the next three years, till 2004, post the dotcom bust, survival was pretty much the key thing. In the internet in those times, the act of losing money was almost like an act of virtue.

Those were the days of advertising. In 2000, Indya.com was launched with a full-page front-page ad in the Times of India, and massive amounts of fund raising was happening all over. People were blowing up money, and I was thinking: �What are we doing! We have only a million people online; to do a full-page on Times of India which doesn't even have 10% of the population which is into the internet, doesn't make sense.'

What is your leadership style? How is it that you work, what are the qualities you look at when you choose somebody?

The first thing that comes to my mind is that you need to be lead by examples: so the first set of people you need to be honest is with your own colleagues. There is tremendous amount of aggression in my leadership style but I carry it out with integrity and prudence.

I want people to stretch, I want people to strive beyond their perceived limits, I will challenge them if they are building a plan which perhaps will take a certain amount of growth, and I can sense that there is greater growth and I will stand corrected, if they are able to convince me otherwise. If we go through discussions and I am able to inspire and motivate them to see an element that they perhaps may not have seen, then I certainly want them to stretch.

But you need to inspire, you need to lead from the front, and after doing that, you must have faith and trust in your colleagues. When you have thought through a plan, be prepared for anything because we are also in a business where we are often doing things for the first time.

Tell us about one belief you hold very strongly.

I say this with humility, but I genuinely believe that there is nothing you cannot do. Impossible is nothing because I have seen  and experienced over the years,  that if you have believed in something enough,  it has happened!  So there is a tremendous sense of passion and conviction that comes out,  and I also have to confess that I love really love challenges. There's nothing like having a competitive environment where somebody is challenging you; it truly brings out the best in me -- at times in a devilish manner --  to say, â€?Okay, come on, give it to me on my chin, is it the best you've got?!' You enjoy it.

We are a private company and we don't have anything to prove to anybody. Whatever we are doing is for colleagues, our people and their families. And in midst of the honesty and integrity it is not one more attribute but an integral part of everything that you are doing.

Who has motivated and inspired you through your early days?

I have learnt from my father that there are no shortcuts in life ever  He is in his own way a successful businessman, and still continues to run his business. He has a restaurant called Elchico in Allahabad. In a restaurant you are only as good as the next good thing you will serve and you're always on your toes. And he has been running a restaurant that's been Number One in Allahabad for 44 years now.

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End of Part-I. In Part-2, Neeraj Roy recounts the milestones of Hungama's growth, speaks of the immense possibilities and challenges from technology, and why, across the spectrum of  content, technology and distribution, soundness and innovation play such  a critical role in his vision for not only his Company, but the entire digital media and entertainment space in India and globally.