Last week, content network The Viral Fever (TVF) released the second season of the entertaining Tripling under TVFPlay.
Long before starting TVF, founder Arunabh Kumar was preparing to be what most of us end up being.
Engineers, of course.
Becoming an engineer and joining IIT Kharagpur, Mr.Kumar thought that electrical engineering wouldn’t be his true calling. After walking out of his first R&D job, he started cold calling multiple production houses to an assistant director. More out of kindness to a new rookie, a chief assistant director would end up giving him a meeting.
The meeting would be with Shah Rukh Khan’s Red Chillies Entertainment, and more specifically director Farah Khan. After being quizzed on what an IITian with no directorial background was doing in a production house, Kumar famously blurted that he would Farah Khan’s “*****“
Perhaps inspired by Kumar’s self-deprecation, Red Chillies gave him his first break and he served as an assistant director in Deepika Padukone’s debut Om Shanti Om.
Creating short films and content, while attempting to get a break for his content, Kumar would also build a fan in Anurag Kashyap.
In 2010, Mr Kumar would start off TVF Media Labs
Revenge is a Story Well Told
TVF Media labs would serve as the organization that captured Kumar’s creative output. An IITian who decided to take the path “less taken” would soon attract people cut from the same cloth.
The group planned to create content that appealed to an underserved audience – young internet-savvy Indian millennials in the age group 18-35. The thesis was that this group of individuals was underserved and had to rely on “low quality” Bollywood content, or imports from the West such as Seinfeld or F.R.I.E.N.D.S.
Pitching this thesis to MTV, the group’s content was rejected. Kumar said that MTV said he was “delusional“, and nobody would watch his content.
Undeterred and angered by this experience, Kumar would end up assembling the “band of boys”. Perhaps out of this same emotion, they would end up producing a spoof of MTV’s Roadies, expecting it to get some traction.
Rowdies Q-tiyapa racked up 1.1 MM views in 5 days. I and countless other engineering students were in splits. MTV surely wasn’t.
Instead of wanting to supply content to MTV, TVF now wanted to replace it.
Living Upto Your Name
Buoyed by the viral response to its Roadies spoof, TVF was now alive and kicking. Like a scrappy startup without any resources, the company relied on YouTube to distribute its content.
It’s here that you understand that TVF at its core would never want to be a distribution platform, but a new age content production house. The true comparison was not Netflix, but Disney.
The team would add more “creative” engineers, looking to pursue acting or writing. They would create household names like Jeetendra Kumar and Nidhi Bisht. The YouTube channel would begin to rack up subscribers rapidly, along with views, creating a dedicated fan base.
The Viral Fever was truly viral.
Content Cloud Kitchens
TVF continued to build out its content, and was beginning to shape up like a true business.
While YouTube provided ad revenue to the company, it was a small portion of revenue (TVF likely makes ~$1MM today). The larger portion of revenue would come from working with brands.
TVF had a growing and substantially large audience, which was of the younger demographic. Brands wanting to place themselves in the minds of these young consumers would want to be associated with the “cool quotient” of the Viral Fever.
This virtue by association is more commonly known as product placement, a $10Bn market. With a revenue of $1MM in 2015, the company started pushing to create more “captive audiences” which would be target groups for advertisers.
Just like in Edition 70, where Faasos was cooking up different cuisines in the same kitchen infrastructure, TVF would cook up content for different audiences using the same content production infrastructure. It is why you will see a broadly similar pool of actors across seemingly different YouTube channels.
Those channels are, of course, The Timeliners, Girliyapa, Screen Patti and Humorously Yours.
Like a different cuisine, each of these would target a different kind of niche/beat. The companies paying for each of these dishes would be brands (like Tata Motors) or content platforms (like YouTube).
With the cost to produce a video content piece being the actors and the equipment, TVF could command a significant premium on its content. Video, and media, production companies have almost 60% gross margins, and it could be an extremely profitable business.
Tu Beer Hai
TVF, in 2015, would release TVF Pitchers, a well-scripted story about 4 co-founders trying to start a new company. The show would pick up very well with the audience and critics, and remains one of India’s highest-rated TV shows on IMDB.
Pitchers would play out in reality, and it would first result in TVF raising funding like a “content-focused tech startup”.
The company would raise $10MM, after growing to INR 45 Cr ($8MM) in revenue. After years of wilderness as an aspiring director, TVF’s Kumar finally found redemption by being backed to scale massively. Kumar would say that he had built a brand that even INR 100 Cr would find difficult to build.
And just like the drama of pitchers, an earlier mentor/co-founder would take the legal route, demanding a promised 4% equity stake in the company. The company would refuse, but the ugly spat would be a precursor to a bigger storm.
A Band of Bros?
TVF, now Contagious Online Media Network would continue to grow rapidly, moving to revenue of 213 Cr ($30MM), while raking up losses of INR 41 Cr ($6MM). It continued to churn out memorable content, including Permanent Roommates and Tripling’s first season.
Each video that they produced would be able to command $100- $200K from brands and sponsors. Scaling video content would enable them to scale revenue, and things looked positive.
In early 2017, the company would be rocked by claims of a bro-culture and harassment charges. They would be directed at none other than their CEO.
In parallels to the Uber ouster of Travis Kalanick, who was facing a similar storm at the same time, poor financials would be the death knell for the founder-CEO. In both cases, misalignment with investors on company performance and culture would result in the founders leaving the company.
While Uber was a much larger company, with processes, teams and scale, TVF was a creative production house. By all means, the founder CEO was very much an important creative force in the company, which was still small and growing. The company would be shocked by the charges and the disruption in the feel-good feeling towards it. It’s female-focused show “Bisht Please” would tank.
The band of bros purportedly created a culture that would scar the young company. Dhawal Gusain, the company COO, would take over.
From Bachelors to Permanent Roommates
The company’s expectations would be muted as it began to evolve into an organization reacting from a culture shock.
From its heydays, and till date, the company would always position itself as a production house. As content distribution becomes more ubiquitous, and OTTs such as Hotstar and Netflix fighting out, content producers will become king.
Cheap data and wide internet distribution would become distribution a commodity, but content unique.
As I elucidated in the comparison between Netflix and Hotstar, content creation is a lucrative business. As Mr Kumar had earlier quipped “we might produce for Netflix”, and TVF would do so for MX Player. MX Player, a distribution channel, was an acquisition by media giant Times.
TVF Play is thus not part of the company’s core strategy, but likely a method to signal to larger distribution channels that TVF could be a threat. These strategies are likely useful when signalling a larger player for an acquisition, or of the quality of content.
The focus of TVF would still continue to be producing high-quality content for content acquirers, and I believe that is a strong positioning as a standalone business. After the lows of 2017, TVF looks to be scaling again.
Like one of its stories, the making of TVF may likely have a happy ending.