How we missed and found way to Way2SMS

The comeback story of Way2Online & how we pivoted Way2SMS to what we are today.

19th April, 2015.
LearnSocial office.

The turbulence of thought waves in my mind are much hotter than the summer winds around.
Learn social, an instructor led E-learning platform, which I had launched an year ago started acquiring decent user base and attained a consistent growth rate.Furthermore, I can see tremendous growth opportunities for LearnSocial and more than anything, as an Entrepreneur, it is through LearnSocial I gathered back my strength and hope to become successful again, after the dramatic declination of Way2SMS.

But, today, Way2Online, the company, which I had resigned as CEO an year and half ago, before I launched LearnSocial, is in front of me in its most vulnerable condition, left with no future ahead.

Although I was not in the part of day to day ops of Way2Online since one and half year, being its founder, I spent several sleepless nights in the quest of an appropriate solution to make the company gain back its lost glory.

But, now, Way2Online has become completely irrelevant to the world.

And at this point, I am left with two options- either I should shutdown the company or take over way2online as its CEO again and find a way to make it relevant again.The first option lets me to focus on the progression of learnsocial, but the later one demands me to put LearnSocial on autopilot and surround myself with the chaos of Way2Online.

It would be obvious to choose the first one. But Way2Online, being our mothership and few hundreds of team members associated with it, who stood by the company like strong pillars in its every wax and wane, is what making the decision as critical and complicated one to make.
More than anything, it is all about Way2Online, which had stood against many adversities during its nine years long journey, yet stayed strong.

The Inception of Way2SMS

It all started in 2006, when people in India were extensively using SMS as one of the predominant communication tools by purchasing it from telecom operators, although free communication platforms like Email and chat applications like yahoo messenger, Orkut, etc. are available.

Being it a feature mobile phone era, an SMS sent can be accessed in a mobile phone from anywhere, independent to the internet availability, is what made it attain such a significance.

And it all started with one simple question — ‘What if we we send free SMS, if we can send free emails?’
Moreover, even web technology was in its early phase of evolution and it is where I determined an opportunity to facilitate communication between an online web platform to offline mobile device via free SMS.

It eventually driven me to form a startup, Way2Online, bootstrapping with the team of 12 members, in a triple bedroom flat in Hyderabad. After 5 months, in December-2006, way2Online launched its first B2C product Way2SMS, which is India’s first free SMS web portal.

We purchased bulk SMS from telecom companies/aggregators and provided to the users of Way2SMS for free of cost, in which the last 20 characters of every SMS sent was provided for Mobitizements, which was our predetermined revenue source.

But to our misfortune, Mobiltizements, which we thought will make significant revenue did not turn out to be a successful revenue model as the earnings generated could not even meet our expenditure on bulk SMS, let go of fixed costs.

But on the other side, Way2SMS captured the craze instantly, for providing free SMS and started acquiring tremendous user base from the beginning.It was where we had our first challenge in our hands i.e. to balance our revenues and expenditure.

Forgetting about breakeven point, it was for three long years, Way2online underwent huge financial draining.At times, we used to desperately wish for lower traffic, as the increased traffic for way2SMS means more taxation for way2Online.With partial hope to determine alternate revenue model and partially in dilemma, we continued to run the company and burnt all the financial reserves of way2online by 2008.

There came a point where I was completely dependent on credit cards and personal loans from ICICI, HDFC and HSBC banks to which I am grateful and being a defaulter, I managed to run the company for few more months.This had forced us to intensely look for alternative and better advertising options to make money and, it was at that point, we finally found our ultimate treasure, Google AdSense.Thank you Google for your prompt payouts.

WAY2SMS-THE RISE(2010–2011)
As a result of three years long hardships from 2006, by the end of 2009, way2online has acquired around 10 million loyal users, who has become our tremendous inventory to monetise from display Ads in our web portal via Google Adsense.

In the meantime, the costs of promotional SMS has also been reduced by all the primary telecom companies, which had lowered our expenditure on purchasing SMS enormously.
Eventually, way2online turned profitable in 2010.

We adopted viral marketing tactics like sending notification messages to the contacts added by the users, and advertising in the last 20 characters of the every SMS with the tagline-’sent via Way2SMS’, which had driven user registrations for way2sms exponentially.

The dynamic strategic iterations like consolidated chat options, email notifications and social media alerts had made Way2SMS to stand out from the competitors and reach every corner of the country just by word of mouth.
Apart from them, our uncompromising motto to deliver each and every message within 10 seconds, the metric which defines the quality of SMS services, that every employee of Way2Online has lived with emotionally, has built the reliability of public on way2SMS.

And we were continually focussed to improve our technology and tactics to minimize the reachability time of SMS, irrespective of the concurrent usage scale.
Even though there were many operational challenges like servers breaking down during heavy concurrent traffic, Way2Online got determined delivery teams which worked seamlessly to ensure the delivery of messages within 10 seconds.During the occasions like New year, Christmas, Diwali friendship day, etc. our large teams of Way2online used to spend sleepless nights continuously for three to four consecutive days, handling massive concurrent traffic and deliver record number of messages within 10 seconds without any technical impediment.

This was the scenario in the way2online for at least three years, which I would say is impossible if the teams would not have developed the sense of belongingness towards the company.And there were several moments, when many leaders have emerged from our team, showing their sense of ownership and handled the more demanding circumstances efficiently.

There were also days, where even other team members, although they belong to different departments, volunteered themselves and stood by the delivering teams, staying back in the office.

It was during those stressful and critical times, strong team spirit, and bonding between the fraternities of way2online has been greatly developed and brought out.

As a result, by 2011, Way2SMS went to every corner in this country. People recognised way2sms for its top quality SMS delivery.

It was ranked as one of the top 20 web portals in India by Alexa.com and also identified as category defining product, which has created a new category to provide services between web portal and mobile messenger in Juxt research.
No sooner, way2sms became one of the most searched keyword in the country along with Google, YouTube, etc.And the heavy user base and engagement across the country has transformed it as power house for web advertising.
Hence, with colossal growth of Way2SMS, the period between 2009 and 2011 can be considered as the glorious phase for Way2Online.

But what has made Way2SMS to lose out such a prosperous phase and become insignificant and directionless in the coming two years?

TRAI REGULATIONS AND LOST GLORY
It was the heavy restrictions on the timings and volume of promotional SMS, sender id norms imposed by Telecom Regulatory authority of India (TRAI) in the month of September-2011, which had begun of downfall of way2SMS.
Fixed sender ID policy has killed beauty of Way2SMS usage and messaging limitations between 9 am to 9 pm, which had affected of engagement rate of way2sms massively.

On top of this, TRAI has introduced SMS termination charges at 5 paise per Message. This has increased our SMS input cost by over 5 times, which had left way2online in whopping damage and killed its growth fortunes.
It was the financial reserves and alternative revenue streams, which I had kept for crisis management, supported the company to stay strong during the crisis period.

In the meanwhile, beside sorting out functional strategies for Way2SMS, we started focusing on Email marketing, which we had started in 2010 at a minimal scale, with opt-in data of over 20 million users obtained from Way2SMS. We started adding good strong revenues from this channel.
To scale up email marketing services, in the month of January 2012, Way2Online acquired 160by2, for its 13 million registered user base, which not only contributed to our inventory for Email marketing, but also made Way2online capture the 95 % of market share in peer to peer messaging in India, with the total of 35 million users.

On the other side, with strong revenue flow we have navigated the TRAI regulations successfully. During the same time, we have got a deal from Valuefirst, which was on its mission to expand its footprint to digital marketing, to acquire Way2SMS.

Although we had strong positive cash flow and cash reserves, I went ahead with the deal to become part of a larger entity that can be IPO’d. However, the acquisition deal did not turned out to be well and led to a massive legal dispute of one long year, to win the company back in my hand.

But, in the other end, during this time frame, India was tremendously taken by Smartphone revolution and mobile first approach has become a mandatory for the companies to survive the disruption, especially after the launch of Android.

And going mobile via apps or mobile friendly website was not in the fixation of way2online at that time, as we were immensely involved on growing Way2SMS, Email and SMS marketing, without being observant on global scenarios.On top of all, we lost almost one year in the dispute with Valuefirst.

As a result, we indeed missed magnificent opportunity to explore mobile media in the right time, which had left the company with long lasted turmoil.
Whatsapp, which was released in the middle of 2010 and being the first of mobile applications to provide free messaging, started taking over the market of texting applications.

Eventually, Way2SMS started losing out its audience gradually, by each passing day, which in turn had affected its revenues from web ads.
It was a heavy detrimental blow experienced by the Way2Online, as a result of platform shift phase and it was already late when we had realized the impact.
And at this point, Way2Online has become completely dependent on its revenue from Email marketing services and cash reserves, which were sufficient enough to maintain the company’s working capital
But, the puzzle of making Way2SMS relevant again has been still left unsolved.
It was then I had taken the decision to resign as CEO of Way2Online.

DIRECTIONLESS FOR ALMOST TWO YEARS
After confronting constant annihilating challenges for two years that pushed Way2online out of the game and drained me out mentally, I felt that the company needed a better leadership to take it forward and survive the catastrophe.

In 2014, I resigned as CEO of Way2online and appointed a new CEO to run the company and figure out future of Way2SMS.
Under the leadership of new CEO, Way2online has scaled up its Email marketing services at higher volumes, where it has seen some significant revenue.

Since, there was no revenue model evolved for mobile apps, we did not choose to launch any mobile application at that time.
Instead, Way2Online ventured into multiple online business segments like E-commerce, daily deals, market research, instant gratification apps, etc. in the urge to make itself relevant again.

But again, each business model turned out to be a failure despite burning enormous money and immense hard work of the Way2Online, for different reasons.

Forget about future of Way2SMS, the company started losing out all its revenue and there came a point when Way2Online has become negative in cash flow, which was a serious sign of danger for any bootstrapped company.
On the other side, venturing in to highly operations dependent business models like E-commerce, which was not compatible for the personality of Way2online, had made its control across the team coordination and operations difficult.

This in turn affected the internal culture of the company and the influence of constant failures even after immense efforts, started reflecting in the fraternity of way2online, who started losing out their sense of ownership.
And after one and half year, being in auto pilot phase, without knowing which direction to head towards, Way2Online is again in front of me, awaiting for my decision.

The turbulence of thought waves in my mind are much hotter than the summer winds around.
It was that company which stood against constant hard blows since past nine years with the support of many strong teams, which pulled off many challenging scenarios, be it technical, operational, etc. with great determination.

And I have two options left i.e. either to dissolve the company or to take over it to make it relevant again.

I strongly believe Way2Online definitely deserves another chance.
In the year 2015-JAN, I took charge as CEO of Way2Online again.

THE CHALLENGES
As soon as I started focusing on Way2Online again, I found three things which I needed to address on immediate terms.

They were,
1. Getting its internal culture right again.
2. Making Way2SMS relevant again and
3. Improving the revenue for Way2Online

Also, although way2online was in its severe bad crunch, I made sure that no such situation arises where we delay our payments to our stakeholders or default our salary payments to our team members.

Because, we consider the vendors, whom we choose carefully as our long term partners and it is the trust which stakeholders or employees has on our companies, we need to take care, before we address any issue.

THE COMEBACK

1. Getting its internal culture right again
We have seen many leaders and strongly willed teams in Way2Online handling its toughest scenarios in the past.

To get its internal culture right again, it is all about bringing back that sense of ownership and emotional connection with the company in every employee of Way2Online.

So, I begun this mission with one on one interaction with every member in the company, which took me over 30 days, where they are given space to share their ideas, interests and voice out their issues.

Congregating the inputs from the employees and from our past experiences, I understood that the technology is the main weapon of Way2Online, and people wanted to do more.

Beside accommodating teams as per their skill sets and interests, I started encouraging team leads to be open with communication with any member at any level to bring out their unconventional thinking.

As a result, insights and ideas from team members at different level are considered in critical discussions, also, many feasible solutions got implemented.

This has imparted the lost strong bonding between the company and the working force and in many ways contributed significantly to overall company.
And more importantly, decision making was decentralised, where teams are free to decide upon their planning and strategies to achieve their targets, which made the teams more cautious and responsibility regarding every move they make.

This in turn nurtured the sense of ownership in our team members, where teams started coming up to take impossible challenges on their own and I ensured them to provide all kind of support they need to achieve them.
Eventually, as a whole team of Way2Online, we determined our strengths and weaknesses, and started working as a strong team again to make Way2Online stand up again.

And the company’s attrition rate gradually decreased from more than 30% to less than 0.5% with in 8–9 months, as the employee strength who believes in the bright future of Way2Online started increasing.

As a result, within the span of 3 years, Way2Online has grown its strong teams of 92 to more than 480 employees.

2. Making Way2SMS relevant again

To make Way2SMS relevant again, even though we considered launching a mobile app in the communication vertical, the texting application market was already taken over by apps like Whatsapp, Line, viber and many other funded by companies, leaving us no scope to create our own niche. So, we definitely need a new and sustainable mobile strategy to adapt in the market, to which we could pivot the feature of Way2SMS to make it relevant again.

It took us one complete year to analyse what works for Way2SMS audience. We determined that we had greater user density from tier 1, tier 2 and tier 3 cities along with metropolitans, and it has driven us to explore the services which we can provide through our app to the user segments from regional market as well as metros.

Moreover, from the beginning we target desi innovations for masses, and we found News, a sustainable service, which can be provided in different local languages, as one of the most relevant services to all types of users.
Studying the competitors in the market and after multiple brainstorming sessions with various teams, we determined an untapped format and came up with vernacular short news app, Way2News, which provides short news with rich visuals and flip experience in 8 major Indian languages along with English.

After 6 months of development and incubating period, we have repositioned Way2SMS app as way2news app, in 2015 along with feature to send free SMS with in the same app.

And, being the first vernacular app in the short news format, Way2News has created its own intermediate market between vernacular and short news markets.

Providing local language summarised short news with rich visual experience has driven over 15 million downloads to Way2News till today.

It is growing with user acquisition of around 20000 organically every day and it has highest engagement among news apps with almost 1.5 million Daily active app users with over 100 average screen views per user/day and has crossed 3 billion screen views in a month recently. Today, way2News has completely repositioned Way2SMS, which made us remove the free SMS option from the app in our recent updated version.

With the contribution of user base acquired by way2News, Way2Online has attained the mark of over 100 million patrons.

3. Improving the revenue for Way2Online

In the meanwhile, when we looked back and checked what we had achieved in our journey with Way2Online till then, we could see the opt-in data of 80 million unique users(email Ids and mobile numbers which are locomotives of whole digital advertising), through different flagship b2c products, Way2SMS, 160by2, learnsocial, which we had launched and acquired in all these years, across the country.

That was indeed a magnificent number and we found that no other company has acquired such a massive registered user data, other than global brands like facebook.

Beside way2News, the second path to which, the 80 million opt-in user data led us is Martech landscape, where we found immense opportunity for Way2Online to establish itself as one of the largest customer data platforms (CDP) in India.

TWO YEARS TO TRANSFORM AS MARTECH COMPANY (2015–2017)

Whatever and whichever great marketing strategy it is, end of the day, it was the right customer to which the promotion or tactic needs to be reached.
It is where customer data platforms play an important role in the martech funnel, where the data intelligence is utilized to track down the most appropriate audience and personalised marketing is implied at right time and at right place.

And it is the direction which Way2Online took few years back, to become India’s largest Martech company, by providing audience solutions to brands and agencies with over 100 million people.

For this, as our first step, from 2015, we started massively scaling up and automate the Email marketing and SMS marketing services, which are open and reliable marketing channels to leverage Martech solutions to the businesses, where the Email Ids and mobile numbers of over 100 million opt-in users come into the play.

Also with the help of machine learning, we are adding few millions of data points’ everyday by by mining public data and also from all our b2c as well as b2b products to our customer data platform, by tracking 3000 plus granular level targeting parameters of our 100 million patrons.

We also got special teams to continuously monitor and resolve any technical challenges in data management like privacy and security, data fragmentation, servers crashes etc., which we encounter on our everyday process of handling such a huge data in real-time.

After 14 months of deep learning of consumer needs and behaviour, in 2016, we developed and launched our internal audience marketing platform Way2Target, which enables the brands to acquire new customers, who fall in to their buyer persona, making it India’s largest audience cloud with 100 million people.

Altogether, by the end of 2016, Way2Online has data rich user base which is continually growing, robust technology to do digital marketing via Way2News, SMS marketing, Email marketing, etc. and data intelligence technology, which are used by brands to communicate with their most targeted customers at granular level.

Thus, by integrating the segments of data intelligence technology, largest audience set and robust open marketing channels, Way2Online has now transformed into largest Martech Company in India, with user base over 100 million.

And, today by providing Martech solutions to over 1000 brands across the country, we became profitable again, but at the scale of 2.5 times more than what we used to earn during 2011, i.e. at the peak success of Way2SMS.

Whats next?
After twelve years of roller-coaster ride, today, Way2Online is going aggressive on B2C end with Way2News, where we are targeting around 30 million downloads with in a year.
As well as at B2B end, beside providing Martech solutions, we are gearing up to launch our self-serve audience platform with 100 million audience, which is an alternative solution to facebook ads and google adwords in India, with definite targeting and guaranteed reach.