Business Standard Story on Netcore

Peerzada Abrar from Business Standard interview me about Netcore. Here is his story. I have reproduced it below since its behind a paywall.

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Creator India’s first web portals in 1990s aims to take his tech co public

Netcore Cloud today serves over 5,000 clients in 18 countries, delivering 12 bn emails and tracking 100 bn events a month for world’s top marketers. It is now planning an IPO in 15-18 months

Tech entrepreneur Rajesh Jain is a pioneer in Asia’s dotcom revolution, having created India’s first Internet portals in the late 1990s. He then started what is today India’s largest marketing technology company, Netcore Cloud. It offers AI-powered marketing automation and analytics solutions.

Making successful strides for over 20 years, Netcore Cloud today serves over 5,000 clients spread across 18 countries. These include India, the US, Germany, Nigeria, Singapore, Malaysia and UAE. It is delivering over 12 billion emails, and tracking more than 100 billion marketing events every month for the world’s top marketers. The bootstrapped company is now planning an initial public offering (IPO) in the next 15-18 months.

“We want to become India’s first B2B SaaS (company) going for an IPO by 2022,” says Jain.

Some of the leading brands that use Netcore Cloud’s services to power their customer acquisition, engagement, and retention goals include MaxLife Insurance, ICICI Bank, Standard Chartered and Flipkart. The other such brands include Myntra, Miss Amara, Airtel, Disney Hotstar, Canon, Puma, Tobi, Easemytrip, PizzaHut, and McDonalds.

“One of our goals is to double our annual recurring revenue (ARR) in the next two years to $150 million,” says Jain. “We’ve done very well in India, Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Africa. Now our plan is to grow very rapidly in the US and Europe. We are looking at both organic growth, and acquisitions.”

Jain sees that the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated digitisation and customers need platforms such as Netcore more than before which can help them build relationships with their existing customers. “The trends that we are beginning to see on the digital side is that it has been accelerated by at least 3-4 years in the last 15 months,” he says.

Jain is also seeing the startup ecosystem in India becoming broader and deeper. There are massive opportunities in the area of software-as-a-service. The Indian SaaS (software-as-a-Service) community is maturing and has the potential to become a $1 trillion opportunity over the next 10 years, according to a report by SaaSBoomi, a community of SaaS founders and builders, alongside McKinsey & Co and Nasscom. It highlights that there are nearly 1,000 funded SaaS companies in India, of which 10 have unicorn status and are generating about $2-3 billion in revenues while employing 40,000 people. Entrepreneurs are also looking to solve local problems in areas such as healthcare, education and logistics.

“Indian’s don’t have to go to Silicon Valley to create deep tech,” says Jain who earned his B. Tech (Electrical Engineering) from the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay in 1988, followed by M.S. from Columbia University, New York in 1989. He worked at NYNEX, USA, for two years before returning to India to begin his entrepreneurial ventures in 1992.

One of Jain’s early ventures, IndiaWorld Communications, was launched in 1995. The fledgling 20-person company was acquired by Satyam Infoway (later, Sifty) in November 1999 for $115 million in one of Asia’s largest internet deals. IndiaWorld was the largest collection of India-centric websites, comprising Samachar (news), Khel (cricket), Khoj (search) and Bawarchi (food).

“For IndiaWorld, everybody said that I made $100 million, but they don’t realise that during the 5 years of running that business, we had many near to death experiences,” says Jain. “Our goal was, how do you offer good services to customers, so that they keep coming back.”

He calls his ventures IndiaWorld (1995-2000) and Netcore (1998-now) as proficorns.A proficorn is a company that is private, profitable, promoter-bootstrapped and highly valuable ($100 million or more in valuation). Other such examples include broking firm Zerodha and tech firms, Zoho and Wingify.

A lot has changed since then. Jain is of the view that it is a great time to be an entrepreneur in India and he would dream of such a situation in early 2000’s.

“I would look at China and the growth there,” says Jain. “I always wondered when that would happen in India.”

He says now there is substantial risk capital available from multiple sources ranging from few lakh rupees to millions of dollars. “It really creates a virtuous cycle because entrepreneurs are then willing to take the risk,” says Jain.

One such example is the blockbuster listing of online food delivery company Zomato which is expected to set the stage for many technology firms and startups to follow suit. He said there would have been many instances when Zomato came very close to failure. But, either there were pivots or they did not give up and they figured out new business models.

“Now what’s happening is that exits have started to happen,” says Jain. There’s liquidity for entrepreneurs and investors. That is coming in the form of acquisitions and secondary transactions.

Also new ecosystems including supply chains are getting built in areas such as agritech, healthtech and edtech. The way the country leapfrogged in mobile and digital payments, Jain is expecting the same to happen in numerous areas including SaaS, where India can now serve the world. Earlier the country provided IT services. Now it is providing products that work for the global markets.

In between, from 2012-2019, Jain also worked as a political entrepreneur.His previous political venture, Niti Digital, was one of the key organisations that supported the 2014 BJP election campaign for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It had a 100-person team working for two years in the right-of-centre digital media space (NitiCentral.com), elections data and analytics (IndiaVotes), and volunteering platform (India272.com).

Also, Free A Billion (FAB) was started by Jain in 2015 with a focus to bring economic freedom to Indians. Its flagship initiative was Nayi Disha–to create a demand for prosperity, put an end to government interventions that destroy wealth and enable widespread wealth creation. But FAB closed in early 2019 because of lack of traction for its ideas. Jain had also spent a year on the board of Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) and spent two years as a government nominated director on the board of energy conglomerate NTPC. Jain says now there’s not that much of direct government interaction.

“We serve different government enterprises with our (Netcore) services,” says Jain. “But I’m personally not now directly involved with any (government) initiative.”

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The Blog: What’s Coming

I started this new blog exactly a year ago with a commitment to publish one new post daily. Over the past year, I have written on three themes: marketing, entrepreneurship and India. As I begin the second year of this blog, I hope to continue those themes perhaps with a few tweaks – in sync with my evolving interests.

Marketing: I will focus more on the idea of Microns (short, informational, daily emails) and VRM (Velvet Rope Marketing). Through 100+ conversations with marketers over the past year, there have been many learnings which will help take both these ideas further. Microns can be the natural evolution (or extension) of promotional mails which can change our “delete” mindset into “delight” as we see these mails in our inbox. VRM can be a profit booster for enterprises when done right by increasing loyalty and revenues from Best Customers which can contribute disproportionately to driving profits.

Entrepreneurship: The past year’s writings have focused on the past – stories and learnings from my 29 years as an entrepreneur. They have been about how to build a startup into a proficorn. Going forward, I want to write more about the present and future – how to go beyond entrepreneurship and build an enduring, great company. It is what I am focused on at Netcore, and I want to share my thinking and learnings as we go along.

India: Over the past year, I have outlined why India needs a revolution if we are to become free and rich. I will write an occasional series on “What India Needs” (WIN) – the elements that are missing in India. India needs economic freedom, which means free markets, free trade, rule of law, property rights, limited government, decentralisation of power, and more. A few PSU privatisations, import tariffs and PLI (production-linked incentives) schemes are not harbingers of future prosperity. And to make all this happen we need UVI.

For all of us, the past year has been first about the virus and then about the vaccine. Work from home has changed our daily routine. We have given up some things we liked (international travel, in my case) and adopted new ways of life (Zoom, online everything). Digitisation of daily life has accelerated. The coming months will see some return to our past ways while some other changes will stick. For me, publishing a new post every morning along with the Thinks series in the evening are two habits that I hope will stay for a long time.

Vartam Headlines: Your New News Page

In 1997, as part of the IndiaWorld family of portals, I created Samachar.com with the aim of providing an aggregated cornucopia of top headlines across various well-regarded news sites. Samachar soon became the home page for millions of Indians who logged on to the Web. Here is how it looked (a partial recreation from 2001).

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Since then, we have had various other aggregators, including Google News, Dailyhunt, Inshorts, etc, which do a very thorough job of aggregating the headlines. Yet, I admit that I continue to miss the Samachar USP and its consequent innate efficiency i.e. displaying the top headlines organised by source.

In today’s world of fake news, the questionable veracity of news items and multiple means of dissemination of data/news (read Whatsapp forwards!),  source matters, more than ever. Disinformation is a pervasive reality – trust and quality journalism is more important than ever. As is an exposure to diverse viewpoints.

To bridge this gap, we have created Vartam Headlines where the focus will primarily be to aggregate authentic, source-based news items. Vartam Headlines will not, admittedly, be the fastest or the quickest ‘breaker of news’. It will neither be the publisher of  the ‘newest’ items. For that there is Twitter. Vartam Headlines aim is simple: aggregate the most important and relevant headlines at any point of time.We curate 10 main sections with almost 100 news sources each with 5 headlines. It is also updated every 30 minutes.

Hopefully, our efforts prove to be a time-saver for you and assist you in staying abreast of what’s transpiring in India and the world, in the language of your choice. I do fervently hope that Vartam Headlines also becomes your start page. Because  “news source matters”!

Here is a glimpse of the Vartam Hindi Headlines page:

And here is the snapshot of the Vartam Tech Headlines page: Postscript

  • We have renamed the microns (micro newsletters/nudges/nuggets) site from MyToday to Vartam Microns. MyToday will become the micron publishing platform.
  • Vartam is the brand we will use for various properties to give you the best return on time invested!
  • Coming soon: Vartam Stories.

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Looking Back, Looking Forward (Part 4)

The Year To Come

Tomorrow heralds a new year. We have been trained to think in collections of 365 days. 2020 is over, 2021 is here. And we start each new year with hope, optimism and even some resolutions. The fear of the virus is still ever-present for some – we don’t know if we have the antibodies, we don’t know what will happen if we are infected by Covid-19, we don’t know when we will get the vaccine, we don’t know what other long-term effects may be there.

But life has always been about unknowns. Whether in business or in life, the future is yet to happen and therefore unknowable. We can speak of broad trends but we cannot say for certain what will happen. The best we can do is to make the most of the time that we are alive and in good health.

For me, 2021 is about increasing the odds of success for many of the ideas that I have started on. There are many different tracks that I am working on and I hope I can make at least some of them work. My life has been about many experiments and ideas with a lot of failures. But that is what I like – new ideas which can hopefully bring about some change for the better. The entrepreneur in me keeps thinking and trying.

The post-Covid world will be different – 2020 will be seen as a defining year. Even as many trends accelerated (especially those around digital and tech), there will be a lasting impact on each of us on the way we work and socialise. Will I travel less since everyone I need to meet is but a Zoom call away? Do I really need to make a full-day visit just for that one meeting? Even when I could go to the office, will I prefer to spend some days just working from the comfort of home? Will I want to attend conferences in person when everything is just a click away? Which habits will persist and which will need to get altered? What does “return to normal” even mean?

Even as I look at our fortunate selves, there are hundreds of millions whose lives were torn asunder not as much by the virus but by the harshest of lockdowns imposed by the Indian political leaders. It will take a long time for any normalcy to return – for the kid whose school is not online, for the family who migrated back, for the professional who lost a job because the fat was cut, for small businesses who could not go online. But the human spirit has been and will be resilient. We have to each make our way across the obstacles. It is the hero’s journey for each of us.

Wish you all a very Happy New Year.

Looking Back, Looking Forward (Part 3)

What I Miss

There are many things I miss. Top of the list is international travel. For the past two-and-a-half decades, the long flights have been my source of new ideas, deep reflections and big decisions. Being up in the air, without any of the earthly distractions makes one meditative and contemplative – hours can be spent on pushing the mind to probe deeper on a theme which is so hard to do with a live screen and interrupting people. Ever since I discovered business class travel for the long-haul flights in 1999 (thanks to the cheap round-the-world airfares that were common then), travel became something I started looking forward to. It will probably still be a year before the romance of the 15-hour non-stop comes back in my life.

One reason I used to travel a lot was to attend conferences – and I miss that a lot. While online has replaced the offline, for me it was about the setting. Being physically present and mentally undistracted, my complete focus was on the knowledge being imparted. In those moments, the speaker’s words melded with my own thinking to create new ideas for the future. Even though one can attend and listen to many more people now from the comforts of home, it is just not the same.

The other thing I miss is meeting friends in person. As we grow older, we develop our own small circle. The monthly lunch, the fortnightly group gathering, the periodic late night chat – all have been curtailed. The occasional phone call or a Zoom session does not make up for the proximity that sharing the same space brings. In that sense, while I have spoken to many more people than I otherwise would have met, these conversations do not lead to the same connection that a face-to-face meeting does. I hope this will resume soon.

We had a monthly review for Netcore recently. 16 of us discuss the past, present and future. We had all met last as a group at an offsite in late February. A week ago, some of us came together in our office conference room and a few others joined via Zoom. Over the past few months, I had become a much more silent participant – reduced to a small window on a large screen. Just being in the room with everyone made me so much more active and alive – I was less hesitant in making interventions or even interrupting. I was not distracted or bored as I sat through the four hours of discussion. This is what needs to come back – the jiu-jitsu of ideas flowing from people across the table.

Choosing to become a prisoner in one’s own home limits our experiences. We learn when we put ourselves in different situations. The drive to and from work, unexpected encounter with a long lost friend at an airport, the short weekend visit to meet relatives in Pune or Surat, the customer visits – all will probably have to wait for some more time. This is what the pandemic has taken away from us – and hopefully, we will cherish these moments much more when we get them back.

So, as I look ahead to 2021, it is with the optimism that we will treasure our relationships with people even more – in our personal lives and at work. Each of us has gone through difficult times in the past year. Some have even lost a loved one. What I hope we remember are what changed us for the better, the things we learnt, the new bonds we forged. Our experiences and past shape us – what we have to take away from 2020 are the happier moments even as we have had to live through some sad ones.

Tomorrow: Part 4

Looking Back, Looking Forward (Part 2)

Father and Son

As I look back, perhaps the biggest change in the past year has been the change in the relationship with my son, Abhishek. He is 15 and in the tenth grade. Through the years, the maximum time we got together was typically on the summer vacations. Now, thrown together for hours on end, we bonded in a very different way. It started with our daily walks in April and May. We both needed to get some exercise, so we charted a path around the neighbourhood each evening. (Now, we just walk around in our compound.)

Abhishek and I started talking much more even during the day. He got to know my world of business much more. His ever-present curiosity led to question after question, which I patiently answered – something that has remained unchanged since he was a kid. And as he understood more, the conversations become richer – he would provide a different perspective and interesting inputs on what I was doing. Somewhere, the father-son relationship evolved to a more equal and balanced one.

For me, I found someone I could talk a lot to – in person. Zoom creates a bit of distance in conversations. However well one knows the other person, the lack of presence increases the distance even as the screen brings the other closer. Along with Bhavana and my parents, Abhishek was the only other person whose physical presence was a constant. In a way, he was new – we knew each other as father and son. But he knew very little of my world. That is what we started sharing as the months started going by.

Abhishek was born to Bhavana and me after 12 years of marriage. I was 38 years then. (See: The Making of Abhishek.) The IndiaWorld days, the early Netcore years, my political work with Niti Digital, Free A Billion and Nayi Disha – all were fiction for him. And in our conversations through the past months, I brought some of them alive for him – the ups and downs, the stories, the many failures, the few successes. I also spoke about my dreams for the future. He listens, questions, separates for me the possible and the wishful. He has become my biggest critic – and sounding board.

Relationships evolve a day at a time – and then suddenly, something beautiful emerges. Almost like the world of nature around us. One keeps watering and then a plant or tree is there for us to behold. With children, it is something like that. Many times, we fail to recognise the person within them and see them just as kids or mini-clones of our imagined selves. When I look back, the transformation in the relationship with my own son has perhaps been the greatest gift of the time home in 2020. He has made me better. And I hope I too have done the same for him.

Tomorrow: Part 3

Looking Back, Looking Forward (Part 1)

The Year That Was

2020 has changed us and the world around in many different ways. Few could have imagined the impact of the pandemic on how we live, work, shop and entertain. It is a year that will always be a defining chapter in our lives. Whether we have got Covid-19 or not, the coronavirus has left its mark deep within all of us. Each of us will take away very different memories and learnings from 2020. Even though the transition from December 31 to January is just a day, the change of year tends to bring hope – and in this case the promise of both herd immunity and vaccines.

I spent much of January 2020 travelling. A visit to the US with a side-trip to Guatemala for the Antigua Forum. I love travelling. Little did I know then that it would be my last international trip for a very long time. I woke up to the possible impact of the virus in late February when a friend sent an email about the possible death and destruction that was likely to come because of the coming spread of the coronavirus. In March, I started tracking the virus closely. By mid-March, I had realised that some harsh measures were likely in India also – though I had underestimated the severity of the lockdown that the government finally imposed.

I was not fully prepared for working from home. My office desk and cabin full of books was where I felt most comfortable. And suddenly, that was all taken away. I did not even get time to bring my office desktop home, and so was stuck using my laptop for work for the next few weeks. We had not set up WiFi to cover the entire house, so the hotspot was how I connected to the Internet. I was quite unprepared for work from home.

Things improved once the lockdown was eased – I got my office desktop and chair home, bought a better table from Ikea, improved WiFi coverage at home. And by late June, I had also got back many books from the office.  The distant months of April and May are just specks in my memory now. I have to strain hard to recollect how those days went by.

The past pandemic months have been quite productive in terms of new ideas. I wrote about the April-September period recently. With each day identical to the previous one – wake up, get to desk, work, back to sleep – and no variation in terms of going out or meeting people in person, it has been actually possible to perhaps get more done than I could have imagined at the start of the year. Then, I had an idea called Velvet Rope Marketing that I was exploring. Over the rest of the year, many different tracks have started – how to rethink marketing and customer loyalty, what we need to do fast-track Netcore’s growth for the future, a new short-form email idea in the form of MyToday, imagining what an Indian Revolution that creates political and economic transformation could look like, starting Prashnam, doing two weekly web shows in hippoBrain and MartechBrain. Amidst all that the best thing has been that I have rediscovered writing. The old habit of posting something new on my blog each morning has made me much more mentally active than I otherwise would have been.

Tomorrow: Part 2

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