Neeraj Joshi

@jneeraj0807

How a VC Turned Entrepreneur Used Data and Technology to Hack Growth

PushInterview 04:

The journey of how a VC turned entrepreneur, Vikas, used Data and Technology to grow Plash.

As of March 2017, there are more than 2.8 million apps in Google Play store. Out of these only 10k apps have been downloaded more than 1 million times.

How many of these 2.8 million apps do you use?

According to App Annie, an average smartphone user have 60 apps on his/her phone and uses 30 apps per month.

Monthly Average Number of Apps Used

Getting 1 million people to download your app and make 300k of them to actually use it every month looks like a tough nut to crack, isn’t it?

Read through this interview to know:

“How Vikas used Data and Technology to go from Zero to 1 million downloads of his News app and 18 million views on his content website.”

This is the fourth interview of the series “PushInterview: Interviews that helps you Pushstart powered by Pushstart.

Check out our previous interview on “How I built one of the most active startup communities of India” if you happen to miss it.

🕴Who are you?

Hey Pushstarters! I’m Vikas Jha, an ex-merchant navy guy who became a VC post my MBA at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University Netherlands.

I am the one in the middle :P

It took me 15 deals with 2 exits to realise that I enjoy creating products more than merely helping companies grow with money and guidance. You could say that my entrepreneurial spirit took over.

I always believed that India has more opportunities for growth than any other developed nation. So, I shifted my base to Bangalore in the year 2013.

I had a few things in my mind before taking this strange decision. I wanted to:

1. Experience and Contribute to the Indian startup ecosystem.

2. Practice what I preached as a VC and become a better version of myself.

🤔 What’s the deal with Plash?

Plash is a union of the forces of Art and Technology that guides our marketing campaigns and creation of technology products.
We believe in using their combined energies. It allows us to create stuff with velocity, empathy and greater interactivity.

Plash media has two business arms:

1. Limitless:

Limitless is a creative digital agency. In the past, we have worked with brands such as Ford and W for Women to create and execute their digital strategy.

Few illustrations of our work:

Ford Mustang Launch video
“We focus a lot on blending Art and Technology. Understanding how to use Technology to reach a larger audience has given us an edge over traditional agencies.”

2. Technology arm:

In the last 4 years, we have launched 3 products with moderate success.

While doing BD for Limitless, I use to try out different CRM but unfortunately, none of them were proficient enough to satisfy my needs.

The more I understood my needs, the more I felt intrinsically motivated to just come up with a CRM on my own.

Gradually with time, this thought grew into something bigger with the creation of an AI-powered SaaS tool — Alore CRM.

Alore CRM

Alore, is an AI-powered integrated CRM and inbound marketing platform.

It has advanced CRM capabilities, a built-in email finder, a personalized Drip email campaign creator, a newsletter curator, and the option to have your own AI-powered virtual assistant capture leads and schedule meetings.

Let’s keep Alore’s inception story for another day.

💯 What motivated you to start Plash?

I always believed in the power of knowledge.

“With the rise of internet and social media, everyone has become a publisher. It has become difficult to differentiate between Signal and Noise.”

Plash was started with an idea to segregate knowledge from information and signal from noise.

🛠 What all went into building the initial product?

“A hell lot. It was when I realized that being a VC is unimaginably different from being a founder, and facing the pressure and stress of entrepreneurship yourself.”
Of course, having a strong network is a massive plus but the grind is inescapable.

Our First Product — Plash News App

The Version One of Plash was an AI-powered News Aggregator app that could understand your historical data to give you recommendations relevant to your reading habits.

The environment:

We raised our angel round of funding in April 2013 and launched Plash News App in Nov 2013.

The mobile app eco-system was in a nascent stage at that point in time. App Store contributed to the majority of downloads and paid marketing channels were relatively cheaper.

Our Strategy:

It was important for us to rank consistently high in New and Upcoming Apps category for our segment (News and Magazine) and get good reviews from customers and influencers to get noticed by users in the App Store.

To achieve this:

  • We initially spent around INR 60k on paid marketing. (Google ads, FB ads, and Incentivized app downloads.)
  • We monitored a lot of data and played around with the Ads to get maximum downloads.
  • FB worked the best for us (We used to get an app download for as low as 50 paise on Thursdays and Saturdays.)
  • Within a month we had 5K downloads and around 107 app reviews on the Play Store.
Screenshot of the Plash News app
  • We analysed user reading behaviour in detail and ensured in-app notifications were put to good use. We came up with offerings such as Bed-time reads (one good long read sent at 21:00 hours every day), Weekend reads (7 good picks from the week sent at 09:00 hours on Sunday) based on our analysis.
  • Bollywood and Cricket were the most read categories and we tried our best to ensure that we were the first ones to send notification of anything related to them.
  • All of this ensured that we remained #1 in New and Upcoming Apps category of our segment on both Android and Windows, with a rating of 4.7.
  • The good reviews helped us reach out to journalists and influencers and we got featured on WP Central and Android Authority.
Reviews for Plash News App
  • We also used Incent download to keep the momentum going (We managed to strike a deal with an Incent download platform at INR 4/download and spent INR 400k in total. )
  • Within 9 months we had close to 1 million downloads on Android and Windows platform.

The Challenge:

While we did manage to get to 1 million downloads with 30% MAU, it was difficult to monetise our app.

In 2013, the supply of mobile ad inventory was of:

  • Poor quality
  • Low on variety

Even with 2 million page views a month, the CTRs were very low (Because of the poor quality of ads). Coupled with low CPC, the RPM was around 0.05$ and thus our revenue numbers were dismal (around $100 a month).

By August 2014, we realised that while there was a product-market-distribution fit, we couldn’t succeed with the business model.

Our angel funding was drying up and we were 2 months away from shutting down.

This is when we went back to the drawing board and noted the following things:

  • We had managed to scale-up to 2 million page views a month from zero. We were confident that we could scale higher.
  • While the RPM (Revenue per 1000 page views) on mobile phone was 0.05$, it was around 0.70$ in India and around 2.0$ in US on the web.
  • We also realised that since we didn’t own the content, we were being elbowed by the publishers. Most of the time, there were some terrible one-sided revenue-sharing agreements with them.

The silver lining — Starting Limitless, our content website:

I have one core belief — “Let Data be your North star”.

Backed with tons of data and user behaviour analytics, we decided to pivot and implement the following things:

  • Start owning content instead of distributing others.
  • Move from mobile to web.
  • Use our expertise in distribution to distribute fiercely.
  • Try and see if we could penetrate the US market.

We made the difficult decision of downsizing our Back-end and Front-end teams and started our journey of building read.plash.in (WP hosted Self-owned content website).

This time we first fixed our revenue target — 4000$ (That converts to 4 million page views a month to survive).

And we did survive.

Our first article, 14 Signs of a Truly Beautiful Girl, got almost 150k page views within a few days. It validated our assumption that there was a demand for such articles.

14 Signs of a Truly Beautiful Girl

From December 2014, we started pushing ourselves harder. We use to publish 20 articles daily. Two people wrote, one distributed, one analysed the results, planned and experimented.

Within a month, we started hitting a monthly run rate of 2 million page views a month.

Screenshot depicting our page views

Surprisingly, 80% of the page hits were coming from the US (Almost triple the RPM when compared with India).

However, by the first week of January, we started stagnating in our daily growth. This was when we realised that it was the perfect time to employ some Growth Hacks.

Hacking Growth in the mad dash days:

Social Media platforms promote fresh content based on the rate at which people like, share and comment.

We created around 30 dummy accounts on each of these platforms. Few days went into making them look genuine. And then, we automated everything with the help of a simple Visual Basic script.

As soon as we posted an article on our website, it would get posted on all platforms. And then the VB script would take over to like, share and comment across the 30 dummy accounts.

The hack not only helped us get traction, we got to learn a lot of things about user behaviour on these platforms. Few of them were:

  • Keywords in the headline which impacted CTR the most.
  • The time of launching an article so that it was trending at hours of maximum traffic.
  • The number of articles we should post in each category so that we don’t cannibalise our own articles.

All of this helped us tremendously and by month 3, we were doing 6 million page views a month.

Google analytics report: Dec 2014 to Feb 2015

Since our traffic was largely from the US, our revenue numbers were more than just satisfactory.

Taboola Payment Report: Dec 2014 to Feb 2015

Now that we had the Product-Market-Distribution and Business model fit, we revamped and re-launched our content website by name of Limitless in April 2015.

By end of July 2015, we were doing 18 million page views a month.

🤝 How did you get your initial clients?

By the end of November 2015, many brands started approaching us for doing native advertising on our website (Scoopwhoop and Storypick had made listicles and native advertising a big hit.)

It was during one of my meetings with the Brand Head of a Fashion retail chain that I mentioned how new age marketers don’t understand technology, which ultimately affects the reach and growth of their brand.

One thing led to another and I ended up recommending him 5 simple tricks that would double the performance of his social media channel.

It more than quadrupled the performance and we got invited to become the digital agency for the brand.

We became a digital agency by serendipity but worked hard for its success. Let me briefly share what worked and what not:

  • Cold Calls — A Big Failure for us.
  • Reach out through social media (LinkedIn, Facebook etc) — worked initially but at a very slow pace.
  • Paid marketing — The cost of acquisition was very high, and we rejected this method too.
  • Email marketing — A Big success for us.

How did we get initial clients through Email marketing:

The mistakes:

  • The first mistake was to outsource prospecting to a 3rd party — Led to irrelevant prospecting.
  • Sending only One Email — We sourced and mailed 54k senior level executives and CEOs from various industries and just waited for them to revert.
Stats of our first set of emails

Learning from our mistakes and taking inspiration from Aaron Ross (Founder of Predictable revenue), we decided to do the following things:

  • Source and prospect clients with the help of an in-house team.
  • Experiment with the Subject Lines and Email Send Times.
  • Start Drip campaigns (On an average it takes 5 touch points to convert a user into a prospect.)
Stats after we employed the Drip campaign

Initially, we used Anymail finder and Linkedin to source email addresses and Woodpecker to send Drip campaigns.

Gradually our in-house tool Alore CRM took over the job of Anymail finder and Woodpecker for the Drip campaigns.

The improvement in response rates was immediately evident to us. Since then we have sourced all our clients through Drip campaigns.

👬 How did you go about building your team?

I’ve done my hiring via Linkedin, AngelList, and Referrals.

We have made a lot of hiring mistakes. I have collated a list of all the mistakes here.

💰 What is your business model?

On the agency side, we have the retainer and project model.

In the retainer model, we enter into an annual agreement with fixed monthly fees. In the project model, we agree to deliver the project at a fixed price.

On the product side, we have a subscription-based model.

Alore CRM pricing plans

Alore CRM is a SaaS tool and works on a monthly as well as annual subscription model, where we charge a fixed price for every user. We offer discounts on annual subscriptions.

🏁 What are your future goals and how do you plan to achieve them?

Our focus in coming years is to build AI-powered tools that exponentially raise human productivity and engender entirely new and unknown possibilities for human achievements.

The first in this series of products is our AI-powered CRM tool, Alore CRM.

Alore CRM helps salespersons by completing their trivial tasks so that they can focus on things that matter and thus increases their productivity.

Currently, productivity at work is an intangible concept. Our focus over the next 5 years, is to quantify productivity first and slowly work towards increasing it by a factor of ten.

🌋 The biggest challenges you have faced till now?

As a startup founder, hiring and retaining top talent was one of the biggest challenges that I faced.

In the early rush of establishing myself, I made many flawed hiring decisions. We scaled rapidly to 40 employees at one point in time but slowly parted ways with employees with whom there was a vision mismatch.

After learning from our mistakes, we took a conscious decision to slow down.

We clearly defined our culture and vision and ensured that every employee is aligned with it. Then we set up a process for everything including hiring, monitoring, and appraisal.

Bangalore Team @ Plash:

Team @ Plash

🗒 What is your advice to Pushstarters starting out?

As an ex-VC and an active angel investor, I always tell the following things to the founders I meet and have invested in:

  • Think Big, Start Small, Scale Quickly and Never Give-up.
  • If your startup idea/product isn’t working, just kill it and move ahead (If you survive a battle today, you might win the war tomorrow.)
  • Focus on Data and Process — As a startup founder, your job is to constantly find new bottlenecks at breakneck speed. Setup processes, extract data and figure out the bottlenecks.
  • The best way to murder your startup is to stop experimenting.
  • You aren’t a failure just because you launched a failed product.
  • Take good care of your mental and physical health. If you are ever depressed in your startup life, feel free to reach out to me @ vikas@plash.in.
If you are not happy and excited about your startup — Just Quit.

Running a startup is an intense affair. Let me sum it up in a paragraph:

You have bugs to fix; Probably few months of runway left; Processes need improvement; Parents have no clue about what you are up to; Co-founders have quit; Friends crib that you never have time; You need to do a new fundraise; Clients are not paying; You’ve put on weight because you don’t have time to exercise; You cannot afford a vacation for your anniversary because you have product releases.

All of this is for real, but in the end, nothing is more important than your sanity and happiness.

✉️ How can we get in touch with you?

You can reach out to me on Linkedin, Twitter, Facebook or vikas@plash.in.

Thanks a lot for reading! :) If you liked it, please support by clapping 👏🏻 and sharing the post. Feel free to leave a comment 💬 below.

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Hey! Neeraj here, the founder of Pushstart, India’s most active entrepreneur community. I release interviews with successful entrepreneurs every week. Feel free to reach out to me on Facebook | Linkedin | neeraj.joshi@pushstart.in | Twitter.

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