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Launched on Valentines Day- ReleaseMyAd.com: Founder Interview

Here we have an ellaborate interview with Sharad Lunia. the founder,  of releaseMyAd.com which is a web based advertising agency, tackling both online and offline spaces. So lets here all about it now. Again this is an elaborate one.

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Tell us something about releaseMyAd.com? Where does it come from? What has been your driving force? 

We offer a one-stop advertising solution enabling newspaper, radio, digital & cinema advertising tailored to the needs of varied business categories and budget sizes. For example, if an education start up wants to launch a branding campaign on radio, the releaseMyAd platform will suggest to them the appropriate ad duration, the number of spots to play daily, campaign duration, preferred time bands and the programmatic content playing across stations- This level of media planning being essential to launch a successful FM campaign.

Where does the idea come from– My initial idea in 2008, was to setup a Digital Marketing Agency catering to large spends in India along with two other Microsoft colleagues.   On surveying the Indian market however, we realized that companies themselves had a very poor Internet presence, therefore running digital marketing campaigns was far below their radar. It felt more like an idea ahead of its time in 2008. On further research, I realized India was a unique market where traditional media (Print, Radio, TV) was still flourishing & controlled the maximum share of Advertising budget. Given Internet Advertising was quite nascent, it was more sensible to build one’s own consumer Internet brand rather than convincing other companies to build theirs.  Hence I decided to build releaseMyAd.com – a brand leveraging the marketing reach of traditional media combined with the simplicity of the Internet.

What has been your driving force – My driving force has been my consistent passion for Advertising and Marketing and the belief that there exists a huge opportunity to help SME’s advertise effectively. All through my education, internships & work abroad I have made certain conscious decisions with the aim of increasing my knowledge & understanding of the subject.  The Indian promise of growth and opportunity has also been a fuel to my vision.

 

Where does the idea come from and how did it get implemented?  

Before expanding into multiple advertising verticals, we consciously made a decision to simplify newspaper advertising first.

In India, there is one newspaper copy printed for every two Indians. This is in contrast to advanced economies such as the US, where print is in decline and content is moving to the web. Increasing literacy, language diversity, consumption powers have together aided the growth of newspaper readership in developing markets like India. Consequently, Newspaper classifieds are among the most popular advertising avenues for small businesses and individuals. Even though online classifieds present a viable alternative, the vast reach of newspapers far outweighs the Internet even today. Moreover, the audience type a newspaper reaches is quite different from the typical Internet user. However, most newspapers maintained primitive methods for accepting classified bookings, and did so usually through local kirana stores and photocopying centres. Such an approach did not ensure rate transparency, an easy booking experience and accountability in ad releases to the consumer. There existed significant inefficiencies throughout the value chain. The business opportunity was to eradicate such inefficiency by connecting the power and reach of print media with the convenience of the Internet.

While simplifying print advertising for our customers we realized the need to offer a stronger consolidated cross-platform advertising solution. This stemmed from the fact that Small and medium-sized enterprises usually don’t have dedicated marketing teams, and most of the staff is occupied with meeting the demands of day-to-day operations. It is difficult for them to find a partner who can help them market their businesses effectively within their budget constraints.

releaseMyAd seeks to be an advertising network catering to such businesses. Our strategy is to be a web-based advertising agency, and we keep evaluating media avenues with a view to making them effective and affordable for such businesses. Offline media offers tremendous scope and still enjoys very strong reach and impact. However, there are several difficulties that local businesses face in advertising on this medium. Our objective remains to identify the unique inefficiencies within each medium, and improve customer experience by eradicating these inefficiencies using the power of technology and the Internet.

We started the business with a team of 6, servicing only Newspaper Classified Ad bookings via our online platform. Over the years, we expanded our product offerings as well as our team to 75, all headquartered in Kolkata.

 

How has college/ education helped you? Or has it? Tell us about your background?

My marketing education at the Wharton School of Business and work experience as part of Digital Advertising Solutions Group of Microsoft in the US and Accounts Management division in Saatchi & Saatchi worldwide New York, definitely helped me a lot.

Starting up was on my mind but I was unsure about the timing. Before starting up, it was important to learn how work gets conducted. Hence Microsoft was perfect in helping me understand and appreciate how large organisations function and grow.

I wanted to acquire deep knowledge and skills in advertising and marketing while working in the US and apply it to an Indian context. I wanted to create something big by conjoining my education and work experience in the West, with the Indian promise of growth and opportunity. My first-hand exposure into planning and executing digital marketing campaigns came at Microsoft. There I worked for premium clients like eBay, Intuit, Priceline, etc. 

Tell us something about your FM Radio Advertising Solution –   ReleaseMyAd.fm .

 As part of our growth plans, we just introduced our FM Radio Advertising Solution. The radio advertising market is currently around Rs. 1500 crore in India, growing at a CAGR of 14% annually, according to the PWC, India Entertainment and Media Outlook Report. Of this, around 40% is by regional advertisers and local in nature. We aim to target this local advertiser market through our online platform. The releaseMyAd.fm solution is a first for the industry. Given our customers are online, we repeatedly iterated on our user interface after gathering beta feedback. This was critical and took multiple rounds to finally settle towards a solution, which was both comprehensive in its offerings yet simple to use.

Why we started ReleaseMyAd.fm?

  • Radio is a powerful and effective medium for local and regional advertisers. Over 85 cities in India have private FM radio channels now, and they are widely used by local businesses because it’s a medium that allows them to reach a highly relevant audience for a reasonable price.
  • The government is expected to launch phase-3 auctions for radio spectrum soon. Radio is expected to soon cover 294 new cities and towns having a population of at least 1 lakh residents. This tremendous growth in reach would also translate to more local advertisers, across various budgets, which are looking to promote their businesses effectively through the medium.
  • Servicing local businesses effectively is an interesting challenge. Their smaller ticket sizes cannot support access to specialist agencies for campaign planning, media buying and ad development. Even the radio station sales teams allocate more time to bigger spenders compared to smaller advertisers. There exists an opportunity to drive more local advertising to Radio by educating local businesses and providing them a scalable platform to address their media planning, buying & creative development needs.

What customers do you target or how has the industry response been? What differentiates your products from other similar ones?

We mainly target SMEs with lower Ad budgets which are generally underserved in launching an effective Advertisement Campaign. If an SME wants to launch an effective Radio Campaign our platform provides a repository of information for comparing Ad Rates, Programming Content to help choose the right Station based on one’s target market. It consults them on their media planning in terms of the number of Ad spots to play per day & their duration. Lastly it assists in developing Radio Jingles & Ads specific to creative briefs to provide a holistic Radio Ad solution.

The ability to combine all of these services, deliver on them efficiently for even the lowest of budgets is a promise that we hope to deliver on.

A lot of our early adopters have been recognized startups such as Housing.com, Knowlarity, Craftsvilla.com, 3sIndia.  Servicing them has provided us with valuable feedback to help inform & better our systems towards building a scalable solution available to every SME.

Our Radio Ad Booking service has been operational in beta over the last few months and has already successfully generated revenues above 28 lakhs. Through our agency we have serviced over 115,000 advertisers.

On Startups

What do you think of the whole startup culture rise in India?

It is great to see Entrepreneurship spring up as a much sought after profession. It is relief to see India, which has a big pool of talent and opportunity, dig into careers aside from the traditional engineer, doctor professions. There are enough problems for people to solve and it is brilliant that one of the agents these issues are being solved by is- new age entrepreneurs who believe in thinking differently.

Views on non-tech start-ups

Non tech start-ups as compared to tech start ups are equally if not more important for the progress of civilisation. Tech Startups enjoy extra visibility because of their ability to scale up exponentially, after having achieved product-market fit. Non-Tech startups however might have a longer path towards growth & scale.

I always believe in leveraging technology as an enabler to assist business growth – both for tech / non-tech startups where technology is not the core product. What is important, is identifying a big problem to solve and then executing towards that goal.

 

Or how has the way you /society thinks about start-ups changed in the last few years?

The fact that we have so many new start-ups like Redbus, Slideshare, Zoho and many others is good sign of the progress in its changing perception in the eyes of the world. These successful start ups then become role models for future innovators. It is still the tip of the iceberg, but I am happy that things are moving in a new direction.

 

Or what were some of the worst reactions you got from people around you when you started up?

One of the worst reactions I got was from one of my relatives who asked me way back in 2009,   “Why would you want to leave your Microsoft job and everything that is going good for you and start something relatively new and unchartered”. Contrary to his advice, I stuck to believing in my idea and ventured to bet against the current . I always realized, that if I had to create something big, I had to have a contrarian view & believe in it to make it real.

How important do you think marketing is for early stage start-ups?

 Marketing, in my opinion, is the most crucial element for the growth of an early stage start up.

Early stage start ups have to attain Product Market Fit. This is to test if their product, has an existing market demand to satisfy. Product Market Fit requires user traction to help validate  business hypothesis.  This traction can be realised only through Marketing. Marketing helps to direct users to your product, who then help you evaluate your Product Market Fit.

How has the vision for ReleaseMyAd.com changed since you started working on it?

Since inception in 2009, we have serviced over 100,000 advertisers and have emerged among the largest advertiser sources for most of the publications we serve. With a focus on scale and efficiency, releaseMyAd now powers booking systems for some of India’s largest newspapers in English, Hindi and other languages.

Starting with classifieds, releaseMyAd acquired a number of local businesses as customers. Now they are also placing their regular print advertisements through our platform. These businesses did not have access to advertising agencies either because of their low advertising spend or because of location constraints. Our user-friendly online platform has successfully catered to such businesses on a large scale.

Having built this customer base, releaseMyAd’s natural evolution is to expand into other media that has similar inefficiencies, so that we eventually become the one-stop, go-to agency servicing local businesses and individuals.

 Our initial vision was creating advertisements for newspapers classified. As we functioned we concluded that our same customers have relevant problems which can be solved if we become a cross platform advertising agency based on the internet. Thus starting with newspapers our services now includes radio, Cinema, Digital advertising. Through our presence on various social networking sites like Quora, Facebook, LinkedIn, our own blog, we wish to circulate ideas on how much the Small Medium Enterprises can grow to tell their unique story by effectively and smartly using the expanding potential of advertising.

 Where does your group get its funding from?

So far, with no external capital, ReleaseMyAd is cash-flow positive. We intend to continue our growth through internal accruals. It is through our revenues that we have managed to scale our team to 75 people profitably.

One of happiest days in relation to releaseMyAd.com?

It was the Valentine’s Day of 2009 when we decided to launch our website officially to test our target market.

The objective, was to enable people to wish their valentine via a Newspaper Ad. We were initially apprehensive whether we would receive any Valentine’s Day newspaper messages. Nevertheless we carried forward a 14 day promotion on social networking sites like Facebook. It was so heartening to see that we had 12 customers at the end of the 14 days. I still remember the euphoria in our then very small company when the first client paid up. Though the profits were minuscule we went and spent it all in our small celebratory get together at Pizza Hut.  Besides the money, it was the thrill that our idea had the power to take shape and roll out into the real world, which made it the happiest day at ReleaseMyAd.

In fact the following message from that day is still hanging framed on the walls of our office –

“Hey Jennyass J Some traditions are a li’l hard to let go off…Happy Valentines Day J  …Really missing you”

 Advise for young entrepreneurs

The whole world is your oyster so do something you are extremely passionate about. Entrepreneurship is like a roller coaster ride which includes the highest highs and the lowest lows. When you are going through a tough day, week or month, keep your original vision that got you started, in mind. It was my belief in my idea that kept me going despite odds. Experience is the best teacher so just believe in your dream; go forward with it and ‘stop not till the goal is reached’!

 

We Thank Sharad for sparing us the time for this interview, and wish him and his team luck for all future endeavors.

Nivedita Saxena
 

Nivedita Saxena is currently an undergraduate student at National Law Institute University, Bhopal. She enjoys reading novels and learning about new startups and businesses & has in the past worked with quiet some startups in various capacity. She currently is also the Public relations In-charge at Grayscale Legal.

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