In conversation with Amit Ranjan, Co-founder & Director of Operations, SlideShare (a LinkedIn company)
A casual conversation with my sister made us both realize that we wanted to do something of our own. We did not come from a background of business, had no idea how to run a company, but still decided to go ahead and ditch our jobs.
We built another product before SlideShare, it was an online research application called MindCanvas that had a narrow focus on design, user experience and usability. We launched it in 2006, and since its launch it started doing very well. But, what we realized was that this product was suited to the B2B consulting space and thus would scale with people and not technology. And that was something we did not want. So we started looking for other options.
Around the same time, we were instrumental in organizing the first Bar Camp at the Adobe office in Noida. A Bar Camp is like an antithesis of a conference where attendees interested in a particular topic come together and put up a show. This idea is very popular in the Silicon Valley and we were the first ones to organize this in India. We realized that our real interest lay in something which was more B-C than B-B so that’s when we started thinking of another product- and the SlideShare idea was born.
As the Bar Camp organizers we found ourselves sandwiched between two groups – presenters and attendees. We also made two very revealing observations.
- The presenters wanted to share the presentations and
- The attendees wanted to have access to these presentations.
So, pen drives were being exchanged and emails with attachments were flying across the Bar Camp. At the same time, there were a bunch of guys who had taken photos and videos of the presentations to put it up on YouTube and Flickr using the tag BarCampDelhi (these sites were quite popular at that time).
When we combined these two observations, we had a very key insight- There was no platform to share presentations as opposed to videos and photos. So, we started looking around if there was an online tool available to share presentations. Found that nothing existed, so that was the starting point for SlideShare.
We took out some engineers from our existing product (Mind Canvass) to build a prototype. Subsequently, we worked on this prototype and SlideShare was launched. It picked up big time, and was growing very fast. We saw that this as a much bigger opportunity and with a heavy heart, quite reluctantly, we shut down the other product. The entire team was moved from Mind Canvass to SlideShare- so there was a team in Delhi and two other founders in the US.
Rashmi Sinha & Jonathan Boutelle- Other two co-founders of SlideShare
There were some revenues from the other product which were put in SlideShare and in hindsight; I feel that this was the best thing which could have happened.
Could you give us a business overview in terms of the service, product, revenue and performance?
Yes definitely, I can share the broad picture with you. In 2012, at the time of our acquisition by LinkedIn, we were profitable as a company and had three lines of businesses– Advertising, Subscription- SlideShare pro, and Enterprise usage of SlideShare (for big companies).
We spent a lot of time, effort and resources building the advertising model in 2009, but after 2-3 years, found that it was successful only to a certain stage and could not be the only business model for SlideShare. This insight was based on the fact that ads are driven by page views and in case of sites like SlideShare & YouTube, a person would still be on the same URL irrespective of the amount of time he/she spends on the page, and therefore the page views don’t change. That’s when we looked at other options such as pro subscription businesses.
So at the time of the acquisition by LinkedIn, I would say that the advertising contribution was coming down, and subscription contribution was going up. Immediately after the acquisition, there was an increased focus on product growth and engagement rather than monetization. Now going forward, there is going to be far more focus on monetization.
How different is SlideShare’s model from others in the same segment?
Personally as an entrepreneur I feel that the most rewarding as well as challenging thing about SlideShare is the fact that we created this industry. When you are the first one in the industry and have created it, then in many ways the industry is you. The role of growing that industry and figuring out various aspects such as- how do you define this industry, what are the contours of this industry, what are the drivers etc. becomes your job.
So you have two jobs- one is to build the product and the other is figuring out an answer to these questions. This is very challenging. We were far more in control of SlideShare as a product, its growth and its usage, than in defining the second part.
There are other sites which have done similar stuff; Scribd is something we used to benchmark ourselves against. Then in 2010, we realized that there was a need to expand the user base of SlideShare, because if we just confined ourselves to presentations, we could only grow when the industry grew. So we started exploring other areas such as PDFs, Documents, Audio and Video. These were just experiments but eventually led to a great discovery and insight. We found that there are larger profits for businesses to do content marketing (fourth pillar of marketing). Incidentally by 2012, content marketing had evolved and that’s when we could figure out the real business model of SlideShare. By this time people had also realized that SlideShare was big.
In 2013, we introduced Infographics, which became very popular. Now, I feel that we have the entire arsenal that a content marketing group requires. We have different tools, formats, a hundred million unique users across desktop and mobile. And we still haven’t tapped the LinkedIn audience. So the plan for 2015 is to explore that market and see where it goes.
What is the best marketing move that you’ve initiated which sets you apart from your competitors?
Unlike YouTube, we are a static format, and a lot of people hate presentations. While explaining my decision to quit my corporate career to my wife, I said, “I can’t be making presentation for the rest of my life”, and like fate would have it, I started SlideShare two years later.
I do a lot of content work, so I have seen a lot of presentations in my life. PPTs are not perceived as a happy model- it’s perceived as very technical, and something that puts people to sleep. Average users don’t say positive things about PPTs. So ideally, I would have built a community around this product but since people are not very enthused about it, we first had to answer some very existential questions.
We launched and got a lot of traction. Our initial users – business users, teachers etc. uploaded their PPTs on SlideShare, and after a year of our launch, we noticed a particular kind of content that was gaining popularity- there were more views, more shares. We noticed that most of this content was well designed, was more visual, and was made by designers or ad agencies. This content was something on the lines of Infographics.
To demonstrate how good PPTs are made, we uploaded these PPTs on our webpage for others to see. People realized that PPT doesn’t have to be boring. We also used to send emails to these uploaders with the message- ‘We uploaded your PPT for millions of people to see, why don’t you share it amongst your network and blog about it’.
This was our marketing strategy- ‘Market great content and recognize these users’. Post this; there were 1000s of writers who wrote about how to get featured on the home page. Now there was only one fundamental question that needed to be addressed- how to get people excited about the product. We realized that it was much easier to communicate via visuals than text and hence were able to successfully ride that wave. We got Guy Kawaski as an advisor. In 2007, we ran a PPT competition (A yearly contest to reward the World’s best presentation, it’s like a PPT Oscar with audience voting and a well-known jury). The winners of this competition were given an opportunity to upload their PPTs onto our website.
What are some of the future trends in this sector that India should look out for?
We have realized that creating content on internet is very tough- it takes a lot of time and effort, and for sites like ours, content is the oxygen. Websites like Twitter and Instagram have done something powerful- they have introduced a shorter version of content creation. By enforcing constraints in the system- you drive the system in a certain way and both these websites have striked at the heart of content creation- they inspire us.
Another trend is mobile as a consumption device-the nature of consumption is changing as people are on the move all the time. The mobile transaction is fragmented and scattered. Now companies have to understand how consumption, distribution and engagement platforms are changing.
What has been your single biggest challenge in sourcing and retaining talent?
Talent anywhere and everywhere is the biggest challenge. Startup CEOs are glorified recruiters. The key thing one realizes is that you need good smart people- and when you are a small company getting these good people is difficult as they would much rather for the big giants than you. We started in 2004 when people didn’t know the word start up, when we were the only ones using Ruby on Rails in India, so we didn’t have many experienced people in our team.
Startups should be problem solvers- if there is a sticky situation, they need to come up with an innovative way of solving it. In our case, all the three founders used to write blogs and were popular amongst our respective fields. I feel that we were sharing our expertise and experiences honestly through the blogs. So the smart people reading our blog joined us, even though they had many options. This was because they saw honesty and sincerity. So most of our earlier employees who made SlideShare what it is now, were our blog readers. Our ethos has always been to be- as open as possible and share our experiences and content.
Later we picked up from there- we relied on three-four different channels of recruitment such as, internal referrals, job boards, requests received through SlideShare. My advice would be to not rely on one channel, but to explore different channels. All this helps in forming a heterogeneous group as opposed to a very homogeneous one.
What would be your piece of advice for new players entering this space in India?
With regard to the Consumer internet products- the best applications are built at the confluence of engineering, design and product management. These three skills come together and have to be present in the founders, so unless you crack these, it won’t be easy for you to build a good model.
Tell us more about your personal journey. How was your life prior to founding SlideShare? Did you always want to be an entrepreneur?
Honestly speaking, I am an accidental entrepreneur as this was something that happened by chance. But I also think that once it happened, it was the best thing to have happened to me. One of the lessons I learnt is to go with my gut instinct. I spent more than 10 years thinking and working towards something, but I made the greatest impact on people- when I didn’t plan. One should always be willing to be experimental, to go with the flow. This is not something which we have been taught since childhood, but it helps make a bigger impact. I have made a bigger impact this way. On a personal level- my biggest takeaway has been a shift in the mindset- startups are all about managing risk and ambiguity.