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March - 2009 - issue > Top 10 Internet companies
Sulekha Enabling Indians to Interact and Transact
ST Team
Sunday, March 1, 2009
It was widely viewed as the most inopportune time to start an Internet venture just as the great dotcom boom went completely bust in 2001. But Satya Prabhakar, ever a contrarian who thinks markets are chronically short-sighted, calmly quit his cushy AT&T job in Austin, Texas to found Sulekha.com, with an investment from Indigo Monsoon Group. "A crisis is a terrible thing to waste," he says. No manufactured content; no email or search; no selling flowers and CDs. Just a well-designed and well-managed platform that connected the users with other users and local businesses. "We thought very hard about what our uniqueness is going to be, what will become dramatically more valuable as a franchise, what would allow us to be capital efficient, what would avoid clashing with giants," says Prabhakar. These questions helped Sulekha avoid multiple pitfalls that engulfed scores of dotcom companies.

Eight years later, Sulekha is the most popular local commerce site today, integrating classifieds and yellow pages, connecting millions of Indians in 44 cities with tens of thousands of paying businesses; it is a global, interactive, mobile and Internet platform, providing services including classifieds, yellow pages business search, events, and social media reviews. Today, in most major metros of India and North America, Sulekha.com is the destination of choice, whether users want to look for rentals, movers and packers, buy or sell cars, mobiles, computers, or look for local businesses in over 250 categories. In addition to serving these well-understood segments, Sulekha has opened a vast new space of users buying and selling amongst themselves a variety of fascinating stuff from IPL tickets to household articles and pets to holiday timeshares. Besides, Sulekha has nurtured hugely popular social media verticals that attract user contributions and reviews, which in turn spur local commerce.

Prabhakar, with twin masters degrees in computer science and business administration from the U.S. and 15 years of technology and management expertise in world class companies such as Honeywell and AT&T, brought a rare combination of technical expertise and business know-how to craft and build a sustainable niche for Sulekha.

Prabhakar, leading the 530 member team with 8 offices in the U.S., Canada, and India, is now betting on a gold mine - a unique, immensely popular portfolio of C-C Classifieds and B-C local search where only very few players have succeeded. It received a funding of $10 million in 2006 from Norwest Venture Partners. Currently with its offices in Chennai, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Mumbai, and New Delhi, the company derives its revenues in India through a 'performance guaranteed' response model through which it has served more than 20,000 customers. Sulekha provides advertising space to businesses, and based on the response that a particular advertisement generates, the portal charges a fee. "This model proves very beneficial to SMBs. Sulekha's target user audience is over 300 million strong and the target SMB customer base is more than four million," Prabhakar says.

With nearly 10 million visits a month that Sulekha.com enjoys, Prabhakar saw a huge opportunity in local commerce through mobile phones as the mobile phone penetration was ramping up in India. Currently the portal enables users to post classifieds through the WAP site, or they can post easily by texting their classified ad through its nationwide short code 566778. It has partnered with Reliance, Vodafone, Airtel, Spice, Sify, and AOL to make the use of classifieds and local search easy through cell phones.

But no part of this journey can even remotely be called 'easy'. There were multiple challenges and problems to solve along the way, including raising money, attracting and keeping talent, constantly thinking three moves ahead, expanding office footprint, while moving his family from the U.S. to India to spearhead the India assault. But Prabhakar took all this in his stride. And he has already set his eyes firmly on the success he has achieved so far. But Prabhakar would not like to be boastful, and he doesn't very much like to associate the word 'success' with him.. He says, "The moment you think you are a success, you are dead. We experience slight tailwinds on a few good days, but most of the journey is swimming upstream. A person or a company that thinks he or it is a success stops swimming to enjoy the surrounding scenery and gets washed down."

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