Background: This piece was again written in April 2000 and was set against the background of all kinds of Indian sites being launched with a lot of hype and without any significant substance.
"That should be our new venture. Pyaarimausi.com (loving aunt)."
"Do you know how many people read agony aunt columns the world over? 'I am a 35-years old married woman attracted to my husband's brother' or 'I have masturbated since I was 12 and now I think I am sterile' or 'I am in love with her but she doesn't even look at me'.
"Let's start our own agony aunt on the net. We'll call it Pyaarimausi.com."
"And where do you propose to get the money?"
"From here and there, but let's start."
So, Mahesh and Pranay sat down and made a business plan. Mahesh became the CEO, Pranay the CFO (Chief Financial Officer) and Mahesh's sister, Neeta, the actual agony aunt. They immediately registered the site at Network Solutions using Mahesh's newly acquired Stanchart international credit card.
They searched for a good web-provider and finding a reasonably cheap one, put up a basic, simple site. No one knew anything about HTML, etc. but Pranay tinkered with Frontpage Express and came up with a reasonably decent design. Using net-based resources, he also quickly learnt about metatags and spiders and robots and was able to configure the home page so that the search engine spiders wouldn't go back disappointed.
The first 200 agony questions were all made up by the three of them and self answered. Some were anonymous, whereas others seemed to come from real email addresses that they obtained from the large number of free e-mail services such as Hotmail and Yahoo, using fake identities.
They started telling all their friends and asked to them to spread the word. A week after the site was up they received their first genuine question, which Neeta promptly answered. Mahesh and Pranay started hanging around the indiatimes.com and mid-day.com discussion boards and chat-rooms and started advertising themselves by using the Pyaarimausi.com URL in their signature. They also searched for other discussion groups on the net frequented by Indians and participated regularly in various discussions no matter how stupid or out of context, they may have been. Daily, they concocted at least 20 fake questions.
It took two months to reach 10 real queries a day. By that time, they were registered at all the major search engines except Yahoo, which took another six weeks. They printed Diwali and Christmas cards displaying the pyaarimausi.com URL prominently and that year they distributed cards to everyone they knew, even if that person was just a passing acquaintance. In six months, they were up to fifty queries.
Thinking they might be onto something, Mahesh searched the web for information on venture capital funding and conjured a fascinating business plan showing returns of more than 60% within two years. Revenues would be generated from advertisers, once a large number of people started coming to the site. To make the proposal more solid, they asked Vinod, a friend working with a legal firm to provide proper legalese paperwork to impress the VC fund managers.
From a VC directory on the net, they short-listed those that had Indians on board or had Indian sounding names. At least three funds replied to their email and after further negotiations one fund manager flew down to Mumbai and agreed to give Mahesh 5 million dollars in return for 50% equity in the new company.
With the money, they moved into a plush new 3000 sq feet office in Lower Parel and both Mahesh and Pranay as directors of the company gave themselves 1500 sq feet leased apartments in Worli. They contacted a few mid-sized web design companies and after intense negotiations, chose one with a good track record. The next three months went in design issues.
As soon as the site was ready, using the 4 million dollars still available, they launched an advertising blitzkrieg. A full-page ad in the Times of India followed by one in the Mid-day and then, quarter page ads daily for another month. A simple ad with a lot of white space and four lines saying, "Are you troubled? Don't worry. Help is just a click away.www.Pyaarimausi.com". They hired hoardings all the way from Nariman Point to the airport, one every kilometre and put up this advertisement on all of them. In one month, they spent around ten million rupees (250,000$) on advertising.
By the month end they were getting 20,000 page views and 500 queries a day. They hired five more "mausis" to answer those queries. They also started a daily mailing list, which carried a sample of interesting questions and answers for the day and within a month the mailing list subscription reached a million people, most of them Indians or of Indian origin. The reason for the popularity was simple; the whole concept tickled the voyeuristic tendencies of the readers. Who wouldn't want to read about the married lady who wanted to make love to her next door neighbor or the student who fantasized about his teacher or the 20-year old who was sleeping with three boy-friends, none of whom knew about the other?
Armed with this data, their new marketing manager, appointed at a salary of 2 million rupees /year ($50,000), started approaching companies for advertising. Seeing the eyeballs, FMCGs like Hindustan Lever, Nestle and Britannia as well as companies such as Nirma started advertising. Sensing a good opportunity, Mahesh and Pranay also set up an e-shop selling products such as punching bags, anti-depressant drugs, mood-elevating drinks, condoms and other eclectic items. They teamed up with a couple of psychiatrists to whom they started referring some of the readers who wanted personal attention and took a cut from these referrals.
Within no time the revenues started pouring in.
A new portal, www.mrindia.com came into the market. They wanted to make their presence felt fast. Someone suggested Pyaarimausi.com as a potential buy and the portal contacted Mahesh and Pranay. Looking at the hit statistics, mrindia.com immediately offered them 100 crore rupees (25million$). They promptly snapped up the offer. The offer was either of straight cash or of cash and stock options. They were not fools - they opted for the cash offer.
Just the interest from their earnings is enough to last them a lifetime. They have now bought houses in Mumbai, Lonavala and Goa. Over the last six months they have toured India and the US, giving lectures, attending functions, judging Miss India contests and giving prizes for "best Indian web designer". Every now and then someone asks them for their opinions on the current status and future prospects of the Internet, computer industry and e-commerce in India, and they are ready with their grave and studied opinions. Among today's computer-savvy youth they have achieved iconic status and are the new idols to look up to.
They are now planning a book on their success story, "How to be a Net-Millionaire" for which they have already received a 500,000$ advance from a leading publishing house.
And I am so thrilled. I have just received an invitation from Mahesh, the eldest of them, to his 19th birthday party. After which they will all take a one-month break to study for their second year college BSc exams.
Addendum: As we all know, almost everything launched at that time failed. But this was a typical story for many of those who got off the ground early, before the bubble burst.
And then there have been bubbles and bubbles...they keep coming and going.
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