Calling himself an “ideas guy”, Times Internet’s chief executive officer Rishi Khiani is certainly making the most of the opportunities offered by the varied digital properties at his disposal, not to mention the budgets available for the cross-media giant.
Two years into his job, he describes the role as that of “entrepreneur-in-residence” looking closely at the group’s verticals and taking a hands-on approach.
“There have not been many traditional media companies, even internationally, that have done well on digital,” Khiani says. “That’s why they wanted me to come in as what I am, and inculcate the entrepreneurial spirit.”
Then, Khiani raised more than a few eyebrows with an audacious decision to outbid Google for the digital streaming rights to IPL 2011, and then arranging a distribution deal with YouTube.
“We had put in a bid the year before that. However it was a conservative one and maybe Google helped us realise what the true market opportunity in IPL was, which we then took to the next level,” says Khiani.
The decision to go for IPL was based on a careful analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of Times and Google.
“It got down to who could derive the most out of the online streaming. Mobile is a large component of digital monetisation these days, and Google does not have that ecosystem in India. So, obviously when Google looked at the numbers, it did not take that into account while we did,” he says.
He adds, “I maintain that we are a premium network. We have pushed for the highest CPM (Cost per mille) rates. The challenge for Google with YouTube has been that one cannot have user-generated content generating premium advertising. So the pool of advertisers they have will be limited as compared to the reach we have due to our cross- media holdings.”
As Madan Sanglikar, principal partner, invention, Mindshare says, “ It was a coup from the Times group to successfully bid for the online rights when it was expected that YouTube will walk away with it again. Moreover, their tie-up with YouTube was again an intelligent move from the team, which also shows their increasing focus on monetising from video content.”
Khiani is keenly aware of this. That’s how he leveraged on all the new and old-media properties at his disposal – print, TV, outdoor and radio – to drive traffic.
Now the focus is on basketball and football. “We recently tied up with NBA and that’s a sport which is gaining traction in India. We are tying up with a number of football leagues. Whether that culminates in a destination site or expanding the sports vertical on the Times of India website is something we are working on,” he says.
Music is another Khiani idea and he is keen to apply the lessons from his previous role at Web18, the digital arm of Network18, to Gaana.com, Times Group’s music streaming site.
“There is an audience that doesn’t really want to pirate content from the illegal download websites but at the same time they have a need or hunger for content. My proposition was (during his Web18 days) that you can stop piracy if you can let them sample the content instantaneously and people will go out to buy the CD if they liked it. That argument has stayed true even today with Gaana.com” where, he claims, the subscriber base is steadily rising.
If all this sounds like a long journey for the then young man who took a year off to live in Spain to find his “true calling”; there are two consistent themes running through Khiani’s career since: digital, allied to entrepreneurialism.
These came together following a stint in the US working for a company that developed B2B portals, when he was asked to develop a site for Verve magazine.
“At that time the internet was just taking off,” he recalls. “It was at a nascent stage and I remember looking at some of the websites of my friends on Geocities, but nobody had any clue about what to do after that. They wanted to jump onto the bandwagon and I felt there was an opportunity there.”
That in turn led him in 1998 to found and run UrbanEye Media, a digital development and marketing agency that, Khiani believes, distinguised itself from other agencies at the time by marrying originality with discipline. It attracted a list of blue-chip clients: Mahindra&Mahindra, ICICI Bank, Nike, and the US Army, amongst others.
In 2006, when UrbanEye was developing portals for the likes of Yatra.com and Moneycontrol.com, Network18 (which had interests in both portals) offered to acquire the business as the spearhead from which it launched its own digital offering, Web18.
Coming on board as the chief operating officer, Khiani launched new online and mobile services, including In.com. The aim, he says, was to build a one-stop destination.
“We realised that the only way to get scale and interaction was by building a super-aggregator. That’s how In.com was born. While other portals were just posting content online, In.com was actually grouping content,” he adds.
Despite five years as an employee (three at Web18, and two at Times Group), Khiani insists he has not lost any of his entrepreneurialism. “At Web18, I was an entrepreneur-in-residence, and I am essaying the same role at Times Group as well.”
The vehicle for this at the Times Group is their T-Labs unit, where the focus, notes Khiani, is on ‘intrapreneurship’. “Every year we will identify and select five to ten individuals with ideas that have a strategic fit with the Times Group. We will then support them with start-up cash as well as the basic infrastructure to set up the business. We will help them gain knowledge through mentorship sessions and even help them in raising additional capital when the need arises.”
Lives in New Delhi
What drives you Innovation is clearly something that drives me. Success drives me. I innovate but at the same time it has to be something where I feel there is a gap and I can capture that gap to become number one. I don’t want to do anything for the love of the game.
Gadgets I always step out with my phone and tablet - Apple iPad 2 at work and an Apple iPad at home which my son has inherited from me
In my freezer Ham, ice-cream, funky shaped ice cubes and a frozen wine cooler