Content, commerce and community: How The Better India found the Holy Grail of Media

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We go in-depth with the co-founder of Indian digital media platform The Better India about how he started his publication and scaled it to 90 million users.

Dhimant Parekh started The Better India in 2009, to tell people positive stories and to inspire them. Today through the power of storytelling this founder has built a readership of 90 million users. He has also successfully launched The Better Home, a product line of eco-friendly cleaning products. Read on to discover how Dhimant Parekh brought together content, community, and commerce — the holy grail of media.

Q. Talk to us about your early journey and why you decided to start The Better India

A. I grew up in Bangalore back then you were destined to become an engineer or a doctor. Those were the only career options people knew and hence, I went on to study computer science engineering. 

My dad was a big influence in my childhood, with very limited means he was extremely philanthropic in the way he lived and that stayed with me throughout. After my engineering degree, I joined a large tech company. After five years, I joined  ISB Hyderabad, and that was a turning point in my life. I met a bunch of people who had started their own companies at ISB. I realized there’s this whole new world (of entrepreneurship), which I had never experienced or thought about.

 The agility, nimbleness, and the whole idea of solving for things, addressing and building stuff that nobody has ever built before, appealed to me and that became a big thrill. 

I met my co-founder Anuradha at ISB and we both felt very strongly about leveraging the internet to build a for-impact and for-profit company that could be scaled.

We didn’t want to build a media company, but we wanted to leverage the internet to drive large-scale change and we realized the best way to do this would be by building a community that can be mobilized. We wanted to build a company using the power of storytelling and that is how we struck upon the idea. 

There were a lot of great initiatives happening in local communities and local neighbourhoods but the spotlight largely tended to be on all the people doing the wrong things. When you just bombard people with a lot of content about things that are broken is that it doesn’t lead to solutions. If you’re just all about sensationalism, then eventually people become numb to it and then people opt out of the conversation. What you want is that you highlight a problem, but you also lead with the solution. And if you can do that, you will be surprised to see how many people decide to come forward and amplify that solution.

Q. How did you crack your first sale?

A. It took a long time. We had a constraint that we had put upon ourselves that we didn’t want The Better India advertising through PR pieces for brands. Because that does nothing for the brand or the reader. Everybody knows that this is just a big push and nobody reads them and it just becomes about vanity metrics.

Instead, we were trying to push a unique model back then. We told brands that ‘if you value a particular cause and if your brand stands for that cause, you could partner with us so that we go deeper into that cause. We will showcase stories of people who are addressing that cause and you could have your name on it saying that so and so brand brings or presents whatever that cause is’ and that was a hard sell back then. 

The challenge was to explain to people as to how this hugely benefits a brand as compared to what they were doing with other media companies. 

The first client that we finally managed to get back in 2014 was Vodafone. I did multiple trips to their Bombay office, met a whole bunch of people there and explained to them why our platform —even though it was read by only a few tens of thousands back then is the audience that they should be talking to.

We started a campaign called Mobile for Good where weekly, for a year we would discover stories of people who are using the mobile phone for social change and that was a powerful idea back then.

The campaign went on to win an award and that became a showcase for a lot of brands after that. Since then we have worked with over 400 brands.

Q. What trait were you looking for in your first few hires?

A. The toughest part of running a startup because you don’t have a lot of cushioning is the difference between a good hire and a bad hire. If you get a bad hire the whole thing can fall apart very quickly. And similarly, if you get one good hire you can accelerate. I would say we got lucky with the first three or four key hires that we did. The first three or four hires are still with us and these are the people who helped to grow The Better India.

What I was looking for in the early hires was the ability to hustle and the attitude to say ‘Let’s do this. nobody knows the answer, but let’s do it’.That’s a common trait in the early set of folks who joined us and that is an important attitude you need to build something which has not been done before.

Q. In the early days of social media it must have been easier to acquire readers, how did you react to the changes in the newsfeed and prioritizing sponsored posts?

A. It goes back to that whole idea that we wanted to build a community. We weren’t building a media company. Instead, we were looking at it from the lens of building a community.

If you’re looking to build a media company, you would end up prioritizing quality of the content or the frequency and reaching out to many people. That’s one way to do it. The upside to that is you can get massive readership but the downside to that is that people don’t know you beyond your content.

The second way is that you can build it from a community perspective. Right from the beginning, whenever we would publish content and a lot of people would comment I would make sure that we would respond to every single comment and get to know our readers.

As we started scaling, a lot of people would write back to us on email and I would make it a point that every email would get a response within two hours and that just builds so much trust between people, the community and us as founders.

Another example is when we wrote a story, people came together, donated money and so on. We took that impact and wrote a story about it, praising the readers who came forward and made it happen. So people don’t feel like they’re reading content, but they started seeing themselves as part of an impactful company. And that is the crucial difference between how you build as a pure-play content distribution company, as compared to a community-led content platform.

The community has always remembered us, they always sought us out, no matter what platform we were on. If they’re no longer seeing us on Facebook, they would seek us out through the website or the newsletter or social media.

Q. What are some of the core metrics that you would look at early on?

A. Initially I would worry about how much traffic was coming on the website and then I realized that these are daily metrics that do not change daily. You need to step back and look at what’s happening quarter on quarter, what’s happening six months to six months.

Once you’re free from looking at daily metrics and worrying about it new horizons open up and it makes you think about what’s going to happen six months later, how is social media going to change six months later? And you make a few predictions and you start building for those predictions. Some of these things will work out, some of these things will not work out. But when you build for something six months in advance, you will likely be in a better position than many others, six months down the line.

So for me, it was more about being forward-looking as compared to just fussing over daily metrics.

Q. Now you had the two pieces – Content and Community, you also ventured into Commerce. How did that happen?

A. We were clear that we wanted to build a community and then build a business on top of it and that’s what we were working towards. 

Around 2018 we started seeing that content around sustainability and around leading a natural lifestyle getting significantly more traction than a lot of our other content. We started digging deeper, we had conversations with our readers trying to understand more on this trend.What emerged is that this massive trend or a shift is starting to happen where people are prioritizing health, wellness, and hygiene and sustainability are now starting to become mainstream.

We predicted that over the next five-six years, you will see sustainability become a core mantra for a lot of companies and a lot of people. With these insights, we decided that building e-commerce or sustainability vertical would be a massive opportunity. We started with a marketplace assuming that there are enough sustainability-focused product creators, and we could get them in front of our audience.

As we started ramping up, the demand side started going up, because there is a big demand for these products but on the supply side we started to see some of the smaller businesses struggle to keep up with the demand. And as we scaled our supply side to over a thousand partners, it became a lot harder for us to operationally manage these small businesses. A lot of them needed capacity building interventions, credit, all of that stuff and that was not something that came naturally to us and it was not something we were able to get into. The key insight for me was if I wanted to scale this I needed to own the entire supply chain, from sourcing, manufacturing, all the way to delivering it to customers. So we started working on our range of products in the sustainability space and that is now The Better Home our primary e-commerce growth offering.

Q. You launched The Better Home, somewhere in the middle of the pandemic. How has it grown?

A. We went live just before the pandemic. We saw from our marketplace that the demand for home and personal care items was huge.

Personal care already had a lot of disruption happening, there’s a lot of noise there. Homecare curiously enough has not seen any disruption at all and the fact is that it’s a utilitarian product. Everybody needs a dishwasher, everybody needs a detergent, everybody needs a floor cleaner so we decided that the home care space is a big opportunity, which is completely under the radar.

Because it was a utility product we decided that we would sell it as a subscription because you need it every month. So we made a pack of six for smaller houses and a pack of eight for larger houses and we had this nice minimalistic styling on our bottles. We went live with the site and for 20 days and then the lockdown hit us.

In those 20 days, two crucial pieces of feedback came in. First: people wanted customized kits of their cleaners for the subscription. The six-pack and eight pack were not going to cut it because people had different needs. 

The second was about the labels. A lot of people came back and said, the products were used by their domestic help. And because the packaging was so minimalistic, they had trouble identifying the specific cleaners. That was an interesting insight that completely escaped us. We used the lockdown to do two things. We redid our entire tech stack of the website to build a completely new solution, which allowed people to make their customizable kits, and second was we went back and created a whole new identity and a labeled range, which made it visually clear in terms of what this product was. 

When the lockdown was lifted at the end of May, we launched and within six months it was rapid growth. The subscription model helped because an overwhelming majority of people opted for it and your retention rates are sky-high. That brings in guaranteed revenues month after month so it’s been fantastic growth.

Q. During those days in which you were bootstrapping how did you look at managing your personal finance?

A. This is something that I learned the hard way. Not enough is talked about personal finance of startup founders. When you start up you’re letting go of a well-paying corporate job and that salary so what happens is your monthly salary is no longer adding up. As you get some traction you start using up your savings and then you try to raise a seed round. And that’s when you finally start paying yourself something. But not anywhere close to what your corporate salary would have been.

Let’s say then you scale and you raise a Series-A now you have a more comfortable salary, but you have to understand that it’s already four or five years in the job market. If you were in the corporate job you would have already accelerated significantly. What is happening and what not a lot of us realize is that the opportunity cost when you’re building a startup is rapidly accelerating and there are scenarios where you might just end up having zero savings for any emergencies.

The fundamental issue is that your entire wealth creation is completely notional to your last round of funding and evaluation and the percentage you own in the company is a notional term and your entire outcome is going to be based on a futuristic event, which for all practical purposes, the probability of which is very close to zero. 

So the only way where you can end up making money is if your startup goes for a blockbuster acquisition. While the blockbuster exits and are phenomenal to read, you have to understand that this is less than 1% of the ecosystem.

As a founder, this is a massive risk that you are embarking on and if you don’t focus on personal finance it’s very hard to get back from there. Be frugal, try and save as much as you can and then invest wisely so that you can have something to go back to if things don’t work out.

Q. When do you need to know when to raise money? 

A. Our seed round was more out of a necessity because we were almost six months from shutting everything and going back to what we were doing in terms of jobs.

Since then, we’ve grown significantly, but the first round for us was largely driven by necessity. The second time we had taken The Better India into profitability and I made sure that we kept it that way. When the whole thought around building out an e-commerce platform was concerned, we were super excited, and we knew that this is a big opportunity that we could scale up, so the second round was led largely around this.

Q.What are some of the pointers for founders who are in the process of fundraising?

A. The investor that you get is going to be super crucial because that relationship is what will determine how you grow. One thing that I did was that I would attend a few conferences around fundraising and the impact space and from there I started to get a sense of the people who I would meet in the impact space. It’s important to start building relationships and this is not just at the time of raising money, this has to be way before that.

It’s a good practice to meet people in the sector, understand what they are thinking, and what their thesis is. It’ll help you get a lot of insights in terms of how you should look at the sector as well. But most importantly it starts to give you a personal understanding of how different people are. And you also will quickly realize who are the people you enjoy having a conversation with and who are the people you don’t. So try and spend as much time as you can with these people before you’re getting into a fundraising mode and this could also just be by attending their talks.

Doing that homework is important so that by the time you’re ready to raise, a lot of uncertainty is already out and there is a lot more alignment, I would strongly recommend doing that homework before just going out to meet any VC and trying to raise money.

Q. Can you recommend a book that has helped you on your journey? 

A. I would recommend ‘The Hard Things About The Hard Things’ by Ben Horowitz. He articulates the entire startup journey so well.

Q. How can our listeners find you?

A. I’m most active on Twitter: @dhimant

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