Winning call

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By Just Dial's V.S.S. Mani defied the odds, starting out with no cash and just a bright idea, says Hoihnu Hauzel
  • Published 22.11.09
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V.S.S. Mani has punched in all the right numbers. He started out with no cash and little more than a bright idea and after years of struggle it’s paying off big time. Now his company Just Dial is taking calls from 240 Indian towns and cities and it’s powering ahead and raking in cash.

Mani’s a dreamer who has turned his vision into reality. And he’s now dreaming of conquering new continents. Just Dial’s looking at making its debut in the toughest market of all — the United States. The company has been doing its homework and will probably launch in the New York area by early next year. “The logistics are all in place. We’re ready to go,” says an ebullient Mani, who’s impeccably turned out in a snappily tailored black suit.

You could say that everything is going right for Mani and Just Dial after years of hard slogging. The company now has five lakh customers who call in, e-mail or SMS everyday. Fielding the calls and online inquiries are around 3,500 employees in eight centres in Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Calcutta, Chennai, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad and Pune. The workforce is likely to double after the US launch — the calls will, of course, be answered in India where manpower is much cheaper.

Mani treasures his time with his family. Seen here with his mother, wife Anita and two children; (below) the entrepreneur shares a strong bond with his younger brother Krishnan

What’s more — unlike in the past — Just Dial is flush with cash and has the confidence of knowing that it has financial backing from three powerful venture capital companies. To digress slightly, it’s one of Just Dial’s proud boasts that it has never spent money on advertising and that all its business comes by word of mouth. That was true also for its first venture capital investment. Back in 2006, SAIF Partners, a leading Hong Kong-based private equity firm became Just Dial’s first investor. “They decided to invest because they had heard of us and used our services,” says Mani.

Other investors followed once they realised that the business was poised for profitable growth. In 2007, Tiger Global came on board, followed by Sequoia Capital early this year. Just Dial’s investors have put in about $45 million in all and Mani’s now focusing on multiplying the money.

It’s been a long journey for the youngster (he’s now 44, but he launched his first business in his early 20s) from a middle-class family who studied in one of Calcutta’s less famous educational establishments. He’s about to trade in his old Mercedes Benz and replace it with a top-of-the-line model like either the Benz S Class or a BMW 7 series — he insists he isn’t just buying a bigger car but that, “I think my car has lived its life and it’s time to change.”

Nevertheless, his lifestyle is still relatively modest and he lives — with his wife, two young children and mother — in a three-bedroom apartment in Mumbai and he isn’t planning to buy a bigger one in the near future. “Success is not about multiplying material possession,” says Mani, who says he reads spiritual books every evening before going to bed. “It brings in some form of balance in my life,” he asserts. And yes, he believes that somewhere, there’s a divine being who’s guiding him.

But divine being or not, Mani’s also a person with tremendous self-confidence. His is an extraordinary story of a person who had a good idea almost 15 years too early and who nearly fell at the first post because he was too quick off the mark.

The eight Just Dial call centres handle calls from 240 cities across the country

Back in the 1980s, he worked for a short time at United Database India (UDI), the firm that brought out the Tata Yellow Pages. It was during his short stint at UDI that he conceived the idea of starting a search company where people could access information by dialling a particular number. For two years Mani learnt the ins and outs of selling advertisements. In 1989, he teamed up with two friends to start Ask Me.

There are no prizes for guessing what went wrong with Ask Me. In an era when it was tough to even get a phone line, a telephone-based business was not really a going proposition. “Those pre-liberalisation days were difficult,” says Mani, who admits that his business model was far ahead of its time. But there was an additional problem — he and his two partners needed a lot of money that simply wasn’t available. So by 1992, they were ready to shut shop. Giving up on Ask Me wasn’t easy. “I felt morally responsible towards my friend who put in the money,” says Mani ,who handed over his stake in the company to his friend and left. “That was the day I promised myself that I would redo it the right way,” he says.

The Just Dial website

Of course, in hindsight Mani says he learnt a lot from his first foray into the business arena. “Our mistake was that we wanted to spread too fast without money. We hadn’t got our infrastructure in place,” he says.

Those were tough days for Mani, who did his 12th class exam from the Calcutta’s National High School, and who had always been conscious that a monthly salary cheque would be important for his family. So, as an 18-year-old youngster he enrolled both for his chartered accountancy and a bachelor’s course at the same time. “I was the eldest son and had to provide for my family,” he says. But he gave up chartered accountancy quickly and signed up at UDI.

The next step, giving up his monthly salary, was even tougher. “Initially, I was scared of venturing on my own,” he says. But looking back, he believes that he wouldn’t have been an entrepreneur if that hadn’t quit UDI.

But Mani was an entrepreneur at heart and he wasn’t about to give up on his dreams. He had already identified a new lucrative arena to get into — weddings. He found two new partners and launched a wedding guide for newlyweds with information on everything from how to get a pundit to where to go on a honeymoon. Says Mani: “I knew there was huge potential in the wedding market and wanted to tap it.” But he left the company in 1993 and started A&M Communication with his younger brother V. Krishnan. Under this umbrella, the brothers started another wedding guide.

But at the back of his mind Mani always knew that A&M Communication was just a springboard to bigger entrepreneurial dreams. Once he had raised Rs 50,000 he wound up the business and moved to Mumbai. “I had Rs 50,000 to find a place to stay and start a business,” he says.

For one year from 1994 to 1995 he focused on starting a search company. During that period he made one big breakthrough which he reckons was crucial to the new business. During his Ask Me days, Mani had figured out that it was absolutely crucial to have a number that was easy to memorise. And one day a sympathetic manager at MTNL gave him the number 88888888. “That was the biggest thing to happen in my life and other things followed,” he says. In 1996, Just Dial was born.

One reason why Just Dial doesn’t have too many competitors is that it has a complex model. People who call for information aren’t charged. But a company, say for instance a restaurant that becomes a customer, is charged for the business that’s pushed its way. Says Akash Kalra, who owns Delhi’s United Coffee House and two other restaurants: “Just Dial is a connecting tool. You may not get profit in terms of revenue, but as a restaurateur, my brand is made visible to people. It definitely gives us mileage.”

So, the Just Dial office has 55 per cent of its staff answering queries from the public and 45 per cent doing telemarketing.

“I always believed in myself and knew a good idea would work no matter how long it took to take off,” says Mani, who recounts stories of his entrepreneurial streak even as a child. As a young boy he had sold his uncle a watch and earned a Rs 10 commission from a friend who had watches to sell. He also talks about a time he organised a movie show for his classmates and broke even on the effort.

Right now, Mani and his team are looking at ways to expand overseas. Apart from the US, the company is thinking about targeting English-speaking countries like New Zealand, Australia and Singapore.

Part of his future plans also include going public by 2011. “Since we have investors on board, you must let them unlock their value. It’s the right thing to do after all,” he says. Mani is also considering initiating corporate social responsibility for the underprivileged. “I am particularly keen on working on the welfare of the girl child,” he says.

Mani is constantly on the job. On an average he sleeps only four hours a day. He eats very carefully and also does Yoga and cardio exercises. At one stage in his career he also took six months off and went on a 45-day trip to the US with his wife Anita. He says he needed time to recharge his batteries. Also, he enrolled for an Art of Living course.

He calls his wife Anita “Lady luck”. “When we first came to Mumbai we didn’t have a mattress and no cooking stove. Anita put up with all that and more. She even mortgaged her jewellery. She is my strength,” says Mani.

Can Mani conquer new worlds? It has been a tough journey but one that goes to show how far you can travel on the power of an idea.

Photographs by Rupinder Sharma