Starting with just Rs 50k, VSS Mani has built a business with an annual turnover of Rs 100 crore and a valuation in excess of Rs 500 crore. Just Dial is a case of getting it right the second time around. Not giving up after having to wind up Ask Me, VSS has taken his phone-based business model to print, online and SMS. He is now busy executing an international rollout
Where did the idea come from?
Ok, so I have to go back to my early days. I was actually doing CA articleship along with graduation. But somewhere down the line, I had to drop my CA exams because I had to contribute to the family income. So I took up a sales job with a yellow pages company called United Database India (UDI) in 1987. I worked with the company for about two years.
I come from a middle class family, where, if there is no (other) family income, you could set back to zero and sometimes even minus. I needed more capital. From 1992 to 1996, I worked on different ideas to survive, and to save some money to start Just Dial. This included a concept called Wedding Planner, which was in tie-up with The Times of India. I just used to dream of numbers, and millions of people using my services. In 1996, I came to know of a number – 888 8888. When I checked, the number was from Kandivili Exchange in Mumbai. The exchange was coming out with its 888 series. I approached the general manager and told him about my idea, and also what I intended to do with the number. He liked the presentation and thought that it was a very useful thing and gave me the number. It was a difficult thing to do in those days. But it happened. I don’t know what the reason was. Sometimes when you dream and you are really desperate to get something, you get it.
We got this number in 1995 but for one year, I could not start the service because I didn’t have enough capital. In those days, a phone line used to cost Rs 15,000 under OYT or else one had to wait for a few years. I did not have Rs 15,000 for a phone. We applied by paying Rs 3k, and it actually came a year later! Finally, we started Just Dial, with the number 888 8888, some borrowed furniture, rented PCs, and a small 3x5 feet garage on hire. This company was started with a capital of Rs 50,000!
Chasing a dream with Rs 50k in your pocket...
If you are passionate about something, you will surely find the means and ways to do it. It is not necessary that if there is no capital, you can’t do business. We found various creative ways to overcome such issues. My goal was to see a day- to-day improvement in my business — small improvements every day. There is no clear-cut way of saying that I faced this challenge and I solved it this way. The fact that I was so passionate about it, worked for me. With Ask Me, we were truly passionate and we did work hard – but there were other reasons; the environment was not ready for it. In 1989, Mumbai had hardly 4,00,000 telephone connections. When I started again in 1996—thanks to the telecom liberalisation policy —there was a large number of landline connections across the country. The mobile revolution was slowly taking off.
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