Retain the mind of a beginner, says Satya Prabhakar of Sulekha.com

In this first-person account, Satya Prabhakar, Founder & CEO, Sulekha.com, talks of starting an Internet-based business way back in 2007, and plans to grow Sulekha.com and the new Capshine app now

Srabana LahiriUpdated: Monday, September 05, 2022, 10:25 AM IST
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Satya Prabhakar, Founder & CEO, Sulekha.com | File

GROWING UP WITH GOALS

I did not have a cosmopolitan upbringing, growing up in Machilipatnam, a small town of about 50,000-60,000 people in Andhra Pradesh. But I was quite fortunate to have parents and teachers who always made me aspire for big things in life and expected me to achieve excellence… My father was quite interested in sports... he played chess and tennis, so I had exposure to a variety of activities and that enthusiasm sustains me through life.

I believe human creativity happens when you synthesize multiple insights and experiences into a completely new experience or idea. Subsequently, I went to study at REC, Trichy, and after I graduated, I was lucky enough to get into all four Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) that existed at the time. But I did not join IIM as the attraction of studying in the USA was too strong.

I went for my Masters in Computer Science in the US, and then did MBA. Then I worked for AT&T and Honeywell. Around that time, the idea of creating a platform for local classifieds materialised and that's when we founded the company in India in 2007. We raised some capital and continued to grow it from there.

THE CHOSEN PATH

Sometimes, omens appear in the sky, and you have to follow them. I felt as if somebody was willing to take the financial risk on my idea and sponsor it. That encouraged me.

From the birth of Sulekha in 2007 to now – if I look back, I think we may have been a bit too early to the market at the time, when the Internet audience had not grown enough. Trying to build a big business out of a weak consumer base is difficult. Only now, when everybody is online, have the opportunities increased.

In an entrepreneurial journey, some phases are invariably very difficult. All entrepreneurs go through that phase of extreme pain. For example, the last two years of COVID presented us with that kind of pain, because many of our customers are offline, and they were all shutting down. We had a hard time building the business again, but now we are doing great.

Along the way, there have been two turning points - first in 2015-16, when we focused on connecting instead of advertising small to medium businesses and providing them visibility. We understood that they really want to be connected to qualified prospective consumers rather than being promoted as a brand. They are not looking for a marketing channel, but a sales channel.

So, we have fashioned Sulekha as a platform that connects small to medium business service providers to qualified motivated consumers who have a current and present need for what the business is offering. Sulekha has vast consumer audience data to qualify that audience, understand their service needs and match that need to the right service-providers. That is the epiphany - saying that we will not get advertising, we will not be an advertising platform, but we will be a business growth platform where I hold myself accountable for the business growth of SMEs (small to medium businesses).

The second epiphany or turning point we had was during COVID, as we saw the world move irreversibly online. We figured that our SME customers are not only interested in connecting to Sulekha’s consumers, they're also interested in connecting to the broad Internet population. They needed help in moving beyond Sulekha’s base. We have thus expanded our service offering to also help customers reach out to other platforms.

THE CAPSHINE STORY

During COVID, we understood that there is a large population of about 150 to 200 million people who are educated in English, but don't have fluency in the language. English is a very strong communication requirement, rather the class divider of India, and an important aspect of success.

So, we created a separate brand called Capshine, which we will use to help people gain fluency in English. It's a very simple, inexpensive app that helps people gain fluency by giving them opportunities and putting them in non-threatening situations where they can speak with others in English. We also spot the mistakes they are making and help them fix those errors. Capshine is doing very well - we have about 20,000 to 30,000 learning minutes a day.

We are not taking the conventional route to developing the Capshine brand. While for Sulekha, we use very targeted digital marketing, for Capshine, we create high quality instructional videos that we promote on multiple channels, where people are drawn to them and to subscribing to the app.

LOOKING AHEAD

Through Sulekha, we want to ensure that we are the largest, most popular and most trusted platform to help businesses navigate digital. We want Capshine to be the app to build English fluency in India, that changes the lives of people. A person who is fluent in English will earn three times as much as a person who doesn't know English.

My over-arching motto is to retain the mind of a beginner. Always have an open mind through which you get enthusiasm and love. It’s a sequence. You have to love whatever you are doing and from the loving comes caring and from the caring comes quality.

ON TECHNOLOGY COMING INTO SULEKHA AND INNOVATIONS: Multiple technologies can be synthesized and connected together to create value. For example, we have business technology integrated partnerships with multiple distribution platforms such as Google Business Profile, Microsoft, Facebook, and cloud telephony services. We are able to bring all these together to help our customers reach out to their customers on multiple platforms. Then, we are enabling WhatsApp chats for our SME customers by plugging into the WhatsApp cloud and enabling them to chat with their consumers. Another aspect is ensuring the reputation reviews and ratings improve for typical SMEs that are not technically well-versed.

ON COMPETITION AND ONE STRATEGY THAT HAS WORKED FOR THE BRAND: Competition is always there. But the business model of Sulekha is quite different from that of say, Justdial or Urban Company. Urban Company actually collects money and delivers the service. It can be a customer of ours, because we are in the business of providing prospective consumers to companies and service providers. Then, we are not an advertising platform, like Justdial, where businesses list to be advertised. One strategy that has worked for us is to help businesses - small and now large ones - succeed by enabling growth through use of technology and access to multiple distribution and technology platforms. Our main mission is to help businesses grow by connecting them to get motivated digital consumers.

ON EVOLVING CUSTOMER NEEDS AND TRENDS IN THE INDUSTRY: Number one is that consumers are looking for quality service providers quickly. They're willing to pay more, but they're looking for somebody who can provide reliable quality service, and they want to find them quickly. Number two, people are putting a lot of faith in the public reputation of businesses, with reviews and ratings. Number three, people don't want to talk to businesses anymore, they want to use methods such as chat, as everyone is used to chatting on WhatsApp. They want to extend the same method of interaction to service-providers. Number four, the service-providers themselves have come to understand that they cannot ignore digital marketing. They have to invest either on their own or through an entity like Sulekha. They have to figure out how to master digital. So, they are willing to spend money to do this.

ON SIZE OF ENTIRE BUSINESS, ACROSS SULEKHA AND CAPSHINE: We are not sharing the revenue numbers - but we are about 500 people.

READING FOR SUCCESS

I was always quiet and an avid reader. Reading transports you into different worlds, and gives you the broader confidence of negotiating with the world, because you understand insights and principles of how things work, how people react. Reading has helped me a lot in my journey. Around 1986-87, I was drawn to investing in equity. I must have read hundreds of books on investing, that gave me a certain confidence about carrying out business in general. When you invest, you tend to understand companies, business models, profitability - all these things give you a good sense of business. Other than reading, I play tennis and chess; I love writing and philosophy.

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