From braving a lack of electricity and extreme poverty, this son of a dockyard coolie has built a multi-million dollar company that listed this September on BSE.
By Durba Ghosh
The only extravagant thing your roving eyes can catch from the 10th floor office of Murugavel Janakiraman, founder CEO of Matrimony.com is a mesmerizing view of Bay of Bengal.
Despite a stellar IPO on the Bombay Stock Exchange this year, success sits lightly on this 43-year old founder. Janakiraman became an entrepreneur accidentally after he got laid off from his job during the 'Y2K' crisis in the year 2000.
And the boy from the small fishing harbour of Royapuram, in Tamil Nadu, has weathered quite a storm, literally.
From braving a lack of electricity and extreme poverty to building a multi-million dollar company that listed this September on BSE, Janakiraman makes about 200,000 people tie the knot each year.
Matrimony Pvt Ltd runs the largest matchmaking service in India, which has 65 percent of its population under 35 years of age.
Janakiraman who also found his life partner on his own website, recounts the successes and failures of his journey in a free-wheeling chat with Moneycontrol.
Father worked as a coolie on the docks
Hailing from Royapuram, a town which boasts of the oldest surviving railway station (built in 1856) in Indian subcontinent, Janakiraman had little exposure to academics.
His father offloaded stocks at the town’s harbour for a living.
“My father studied till 5th standard, my mother till 1st. Education was not a priority in our village because we had to earn to live,” says Janakiraman.
In fact, he went on to become the first person ever in his family to complete graduation, or even high school for that matter.
His motivation to study further, at best, was to secure a comfortable job as a lab technician, he reveals to me.
But as luck would have it, Janakiraman scored well in mathematics. This led him towards statistics and then on to computer programming.
Soon, he was in the US in 1996, working as a consultant. A strong programming skill spurred him to constantly build new things in cyberspace in his spare time.
Got laid off from job in Y2K crisis
“I had a good life in the US. But I as a person am never satisfied. I got to keep doing things, creating things,” he says.
It was this period of constant engagement with technology that motivated Janakiraman to do something of his own.
But money or fame wasn’t Janakiraman’s motivating factor. “I wanted to create my identity. I wanted to do something worthwhile,” he says.
He chose to float a casual information website for the Tamil community in 1997 giving information on regional calendar, festival dates, property listings, and also matrimony.
While the website was being used by several users at a given time, matrimony was the only section that attracted constant traffic.
“We also came to know of several people who got married through the website.”
“The interface was very basic and linear. It was just a 2-page portal – one for brides and the other for grooms. It was more like newspaper matrimony listings,” he adds.
But it was not until 2000, during the Y2K scare, when Janakiraman was laid off from his job in the US that he was forced to launch a full-fledged website for match-making for Tamil community.
Moved from the US to India to make people marry
“One has to always remember that success is a result of several known and unknown factors. One can just play their role as best as they can. We need to have that maturity, humility to enjoy it,” says Janakiraman.
He moved back permanently to India to concentrate on the venture.
In 2000, he went on to launch segmented platforms for each community or class.
“The ‘dotcom bubble burst’ actually helped us grow. Most of the Internet companies shut down. We were able to tie up with big Indian players, such as Rediff and Sify. We kept the service ‘paid’ right from the beginning,” Janakiraman says.
Matchmaking was one of the key drivers of internet in India in its early days which saw competitors such as Shaadi.come emerge.
“Most players would give the services for free, and monetise it through advertisements. We on the other hand were able to monetise it with a limited marketing budget,” he adds.
The crucial factor for the company’s success, Janakiraman says, was their frugal nature of doing business.
“When we started there was hardly any external funding to depend on, unlike today’s time. We didn’t have any choice but to be bootstrapped. When we started the venture, we invested just US dollar 10 per month as an investment (in marketing),” he says.
To put things in perspective, Matrimony has raised just about Rs 99 crore in two rounds over the last 17 years from investors such as Yahoo, Mayfield and Canaan Partners.
Only in 2017, in a pre-IPO placement it raised USD 35 million (Rs 2275 crore) from investors such as HDFC, Goldman Sachs and Baring Private Equity.
Today it has a consortium of over 300 community matrimony websites including ChristianMatrimony, MuslimMatrimony, SikhMatrimony, JainMatrimony and so on.
The company has also added several new business streams over the years that include MatrimonyPhotography, MatrimonyBazaar and MatrimonyMandaps.
Surviving the 2008 financial crisis
The journey has not been smooth. There was a time when the company came on a financial brink.
The company had spread itself thin at a time when Lehman Brothers collapsed in 2008, which sparked a global financial meltdown.
This is how it happened. After tasting success with its community matrimony websites, the company diversified into several ancillary services such as automotive, jobs, and loans among others. It planned to give competition to leaders in their domains such as BankBazaar, 99Acres and Naukri.com.
In 2008, the company was burning cash to the tune of Rs 2 crore every month.
In fact, the company used ull of its external funding on these ancillary services.
“In 2006 period we reached a certain leadership position in matchmaking segment. We wanted to go after other verticals. Then we realised that launching a portal is the easiest thing. But for success you need so much more,” says Janakiraman.
He enumerates his learnings from the failure for future entrepreneurs who wish to diversify their portfolio in internet space.
“There has to be a dedicated senior management overseeing it. It needs capital and focus. That was a mistake. We also had to let go off people. I had to learn skills beyond being an entrepreneur. I had to function like a CEO,” he recounts.
Janakiraman had to steer the company to safety by consolidating and shutting down some of these ancillary services.
The challenge of rebuilding the company was actually a boon, says Janakiraman.
“It led to innovation in our core business. We created multiple streams under our core business of matchmaking. These include - photography, assisted services, etc,” he added.
Post the failure to diversify, it took six months for Janakiraman to steer the company back to profitability. He shut down all the segments that were dragging down the company’s core business of ‘Shaadi’.
One of the few internet firms to go for an IPO
Matrimony.com, the parent company of Bharat Matrimony, is among very few consumer-facing technology startups to go public in India, which has over 400 million internet users.
The company’s Initial Public Offering in September was oversubscribed by 4.41 times.
Matrimony.com claims to enjoy a 60% market share in the segment ahead of major competitors Shaadi.com, JeevanSaathi.com and others.
The company's last extended fundraise was in 2008 when it was valued at USD 80 million. The IPO worth Rs 500 crore this year took the company’s valuation to nearly USD 350 million.
As of Friday’s close the company was valued at nearly USD 300 million (Rs 1,943 crore)
‘Concept of Arranged Marriage has changed in India’
“My goal now is to build a billion-dollar company. I don’t know when we will reach there, but we will,” he says.
But will the future matches be decided by bots? Perhaps so.
Matrimony.com adopted artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning in around 2015, when the terms were hardly commonplace.
The company’s platform boasts of an intelligent matchmaking algorithm that sifts through millions of user profiles and sends recommendations to users for their future life partners.
Matrimony.com has seen immense success in the children of the 70’s and 80’s obsessed with marriage. But how about a generation that has grown on Tinder and Instagram?
How will it play in an emerging society that is high on dating and doesn’t want to ‘settle down’ in a marriage?
Janakiraman would have us believe that there is a misconception about ‘arranged marriage’.
“Arranged marriage concept is misunderstood. It’s a collaborative affair. The arranged marriage concept that we know today was a thing of past. Today no one can shove down a decision down your throat in India,” he adds.
According to Janakiraman, over 60 percent of the postings on Matrimony are by prospective brides and grooms themselves.
The rest is posted by family (parents or relatives).
The website gets a lot of traction from tier 2 and 3 towns, accounting for nearly 35 percent of total traffic.
The company added over 870,000 profiles in the Q2 of 2017 and has already made 52,000 successful matches in the first half of the current financial year.
Janakiraman, however, is wary of dating websites.
“It just doesn’t work. We had also dabbled in it for some time. But scaling up the dating market and monetising it is a challenge. There’s no defined outcome to the ‘dating’ business. It doesn’t work for India,” he says.
According to Janakiraman, there is a huge market to capture in marriages. There are over 60 million potential users of matrimony websites (people of marriageable age). But only 6 million are online across all platforms available today.
‘Marriages are recession proof’
“Marriage is a business that will see growth no matter there’s recession or anything else. About 90 percent of marriages happen within one’s own community in India. So I think we are well placed,” he adds.
Now flushed with funds after the IPO, Janakiraman is looking at capturing the rest of the market.
Of the Rs 130 crore raised, the company has used up Rs 40 crore for buying land for an exclusive Matrimony.com tower. Another Rs 40 crore was used to clear outstanding debt.
With Rs 20 crore more in marketing, the company is hoping to expand its market wider, making people aware of the variety of life partners one can find in the online world unimaginable in the offline world.
But splurging is not even an option that Janakiraman puts on the table.
“We will continue to be frugal with our expenses. It’s our DNA,” he says, overlooking the vast expanse of the Bay of Bengal from his email@example.com