It is never easy to write about your former employers or products that you have been closely associated with, without biases or other aspects that cloud your judgement sneaking into it. But I will do my best to stick what is important and leave out the lesser details in trying to analyze the product.
The product itself was meant to be the spark that should have fired up Web18's growth engine and pushed the company into a higher orbit. It was the vehicle that would have taken the company to the NASDAQ listing, doing a CNN-IBN in the online domain for Network18. But, it did not start that way. In its early days, In.com was meant to be a much smaller product that would provide contextual and activity-based content to those who used the service. It was to have grown organically, mostly by leveraging network effects and it was to be used more due to the incremental value the service provided.
But the 2006-2008 period was, well, much like what it is like now in 2010 – a lot of money chasing ideas that could potentially act as incredible multipliers. In.com was also required to form a better narrative. At that point in time, Web18 had an industry-leader in moneycontrol.com that brought in most of the revenue, with ibnlive.com and a clutch of smaller sites bringing in a smaller percentage to the table. It was an operation that relied heavily on content and content-based companies rarely transform themselves into stories that the markets like to invest into. Thus the transformation of the simple idea into a massive consumer-oriented 'portal' was kicked off.
And it almost worked. We can never be sure if it could have been pulled off if other factors had not intervened, but the buzz certainly was there. After the CNN-IBN story, the market expected another bit of magic in Web18, the trade press was positive about it and even the i-bankers were talking about a valuation of a billion dollars. If you noticed the timeframe mentioned earlier, you would have guessed that what stopped the train right in its tracks was the downturn in 2008. To be fair, the downturn only brought out what were clear flaws in what we had put out as a product. With the supply of money being not as plentiful as 2007 and the markets going into shock, neither a listing was possible nor more accelerated burn could be sustained.
Currently, the product is something that is already bogged down by its legacy. It is still a significant part of Web18's listing strategy, but one that costs the company too much sustain. It is not an enviable position for the company – it has failed to diversify beyond what has been its strength for close to ten years (content) – and it has gone nowhere in building out the transactional side of the business other than having the bookmyshow.com connection on its side. To show potential, In.com has to be sustained, but the longer it stays without showing exceptional growth, the more feeble that story becomes for Web18. It bleeds, but there is no cure or respite in sight.
Sometime in 2009 I had privately said to a handful of people that Web18 should sell In.com. They still had a decent amount of good buzz going for it and with many investors looking to enter the Indian market, they could even have found a buyer who would have probably even turned in a small profit on it for them. Of course, that would have come at the price of compromising the listing and severe loss of face, but that is what would have taken to change course on the product and the company itself. This probably is not an option today as the underlying story too has changed significantly.
But going back in time, it is an instructive thing to take a look at what we got wrong with the product.
1. Cost: Since the market was flush with cash it also nicely slotted in with a 'name-it-buy-it' philosophy. We were quite gung-ho, with an attitude of taking on the best heads-on, cost be damned. At launch time the product was already on its back foot because of the huge costs involved in getting it up and running. This was a major mistake in a market like ours where the potential for growth is a significantly larger figure than the rate at which that growth is being realized. India is market where you don't want to fight with an arm and a leg tied. It is a long haul here and you can't last for too long on one leg.
2. The Product: We changed it way too many times and pulled way too many things into it. Email was one such mistake. It is a loss leader in majority of online operations. Most of the infrastructure that goes into sustaining it only receives and blocks spam and the inventory is of an awful quality. Music is a similar thing. The licenses cost money, it costs money to serve the traffic and the audience always will go away some place else if you try and make it paid. You are then left with skinning players and sections for less than 2-3 lakh a month.
We could eventually not put together a coherent, well thought out product. We put everything we thought would do massive traffic into a basket and put it together online. And it did traffic, lots of it, but at a cost that probably did not justify the returns.
3. Numbers: I don't think we ever putting a cost-per-user or revenue-per-user number ever on it. Looking back at it (with hindsight being the awful thing that it is), it seems pretty bizarre that we just did not attempt to do anything of that sort.
4. The why: The reason In.com was put together was to garner more traffic and bolster the numbers. It looked like the perfect means to an end. We really did not much research into whether there was the need for an aggregator or a music portal. While traffic is a very valid and good reason, it is really not the horse that draws the cart in the online domain. To succeed, you have to be a platform (which means you own a sticky audience) or you facilitate transactions (money or information) or you publish or distribute excellent content. In.com wound up being a bit of all of that and none of it in its entirety.
As it is the case with looking at anything in retrospect, it is much easier to say these things now. On the other hand, I am not really sure if things would have turned out differently even if we were willing to address these issues at that time. When you are riding a wave, the world really does feel like your playground. But it has a lot of lessons for us who still are in the domain, trying to build out different things in it.