The road that leads to The Viral Fever Labs (TVF) office at Aram Nagar in Mumbai’s Versova resembles a dirt track but its founder, Arunabh Kumar has come a long way, literally and figuratively. Kumar, the youngest of three brothers and an electrical engineer from IIT Kharagpur, would have found it easier to infiltrate Bangladesh than break into the nepotistic copycat club that is Bollywood. But the Sulemani Keeda prevailed and via many an irreverent script, Kumar and his team have created a rising digital media star.
‘Victory loves preparation’ goes a Latin adage and Kumar’s story is full of fortuitous incidents that happened, as he stretched himself to the max after the theatre and film making bug bit him in the ‘second semester of third year’. In January 2004, he went to IIM-C for a national theatre festival. As the head of dramatics society in IIT-KGP, he wrote, directed a couple of street plays. Struck by a new found love for storytelling, Kumar decided to learn more about film making. After the fourth year, he interned with Josy Paul at RMG David, a creative hotshop Paul had co-founded with Madhukar Sabnavis. Paul may not be Don Draper but industry veterans attest that he has a Groucho Marx side to him. No wonder, Kumar fondly refers to him as his tormentor.
After completing his engineering, he landed back in Mumbai on an assignment with Aerospace Research and Development, an arm of the US Air Force. “Though I loved mathematics and what we were doing, after a point I got bored. I was to leave for Tokyo for a project module but I walked away.” With plans to become a short film maker, he started cold calling production houses for a job as an assistant director, but kept getting shooed off at the reception desk.
“So, I began dressing up in formals and started pitching that I want to understand the technology behind cinema and how visual effect is used in movies,” Kumar says, breaking into uncontrolled laughter.
The attire was for effect but his interest genuine. Lady Luck finally relented and he ran into Vaibhav Misra at Red Chillies Entertainment who was chief assistant director for the then under production Om Shanti Om. Misra was kind enough to give Kumar the time of the day and through Misra he met Farah Khan.
Waiting to meet Farah outside her office was Kumar’s Bud Fox meets Gordon Gekko moment. “It dawned on me that I have to do this if I want to be part of something big. When Farah asked me, ‘You are an IIT engineer, you don’t know anything about film making, what are you gonna do?’ I just blurted out, ‘Ma’am, I will be your slave,’ She then said, ‘Ok, I need some slaves, come on board.’”
This fleeting interaction in the last week of November, 2006 was a major turning point in Kumar’s life. In about eight years, Kumar would be shooting with Farah and the megastar behind it all, Shahrukh Khan. When he finally got to shoot with SRK to promote Happy New Year, the King fooled around with his one-time minion, saying, “Sahi hai, Ab tu bhi bada aadmi ho gaya hai,” But that is fast forward, so let us flashback.
Red Chillies was Kumar’s film school so to speak. After Om Shanti Om, he tried his hand at documentaries and music videos but the response was lukewarm despite him winning many an award for his short films. As he hustled, he banged on every door that was willing to let him in. Among those accommodative was director Anurag Kashyap who viewed Kumar’s short film, ‘The Wish Divers’. Kumar’s determination and passion reminded Kashyap of a younger version of himself, “Some of his ideas were ambitious to the point of being ridiculous. But the way he spoke whenever we met, it seemed like he was the one guy who could probably pull it off,” exclaims Kashyap.
Kumar started TVF Media Labs in early 2010, when Paul advised him to focus on writing and directing branded content. His tryst with branded content also led him to pitch ideas to youth channels. “I approached them talking about making India’s Big Bang Theory, Friends, etc. We wrote a few episodes for MTV but it didn’t quite turn out the way I envisioned as the channel got directors who had done 4,000 episodes of Saas Bahu to direct my show.”
Post that fiasco, they asked him to pitch the same show as he would want it made. So a show called Engineer’s Diary was conceived and a pilot episode shot and sent. Seven days later, he was told by the network executives and their focus group that, “We have done this research and Indian youth do not want to watch your content.”
This would prove to be another defining moment. In the board room as he reasoned with the suits, he told them, ‘I have been blamed for lot of things, but never for being delusional. I don’t buy this feedback and will go ahead, not to prove you wrong but to prove myself right.” While the snub was official, Kumar’s determination to prove the suits wrong would soon turn personal. He was so much in smoke that if he had the money to burn, he would have started his own TV channel.
But he didn’t. What TVF Media Labs had was some credibility as a production house among ad agencies and clients and the work that came in kept it going. Banking on this credibility and his dripping cash flow from branded content, Kumar decided to venture into online TV on the lines of College Humor, Cracked and Funny or Die. This was also Father Time’s cue for more footage for Amit Golani and the entry of Biswapati Sarkar.
When their kids get into the hallowed portals of an IIT, parents think that they will end up fast tracking their career. Golani got that initially right before succumbing to his calling. An enthusiastic member of IIT-B’s dramatics society, Golani got to know Kumar through his seniors. “After my degree, I had taken up a job in investment banking but I realised that editing and directing short films was something that I wanted to try out. Around that time, Arunabh was planning to pitch a show to MTV.” A couple of life-transforming events lay around the corner. “Even though that MTV thing didn’t play out, we kept working together. In early 2011, he asked me to re-edit the rejected MTV pilot. Soon after, Sarkar also contacted us through a common friend at IIT-B,” recalls Golani.
Sarkar’s mother threatened to throw him out of the house after he decided to turn his preoccupation with writing plays and watching films into a career. But unknown to Mrs Sarkar, Biswapati had started exhibiting anti-social behaviour much before getting into IIT-KGP. “As there was no internet at home, my parents used to send me to the cybercafé to check for IIT-JEE admission forms and I used to go and look up the various courses at FTII”, he discloses with the flourish of a stand-up. While it was TV shows like Friends and The West Wing which winged it for Golani, for Sarkar along with Seinfeld, it was the range of movies that he watched in the first year at IIT-KGP that made him take that leap of faith.
Powered by a high speed LAN, he feasted on Billy Wilder to Martin Scorsese to Quentin Tarantino. “I started doing theatre and writing plays. Then, a one-minute film that we had shot through a mobile phone got selected in a short film competition. I thought, agar yeh ho sakta hai toh let me take the next step. I heard that a senior of mine had been an assistant director to Farah Khan. After realising that I am not the only foolish guy from IIT trying to do this, I looked him up on FB and wrote to him.”
Since Kumar could not afford a video server, YouTube became his default launch platform. In March, 2011, the test video, Inglorious Seniors: Ragging Q-tiyapa got 20,000 views in seven days. In under a year, Sarkar would deliver a blockbuster script and on 21st February, 2012, Rowdies 9, a spoof on you know what, was launched. It got a million views in less than five days and TVF’s Raghu: Deepak Kumar Mishra became a campus sensation. Having got confirmation about Indian youth wanting to watch his content, Kumar began building a crack team for the site, which would gradually morph into TVF-ONE (Online Network for Entertainment).
While Kumar, Golani and Sarkar are among the best things to have happened to TVF-ONE, it would be grossly unfair to heap all credit on them. Their contribution is unquestionable but what has worked for TVF-ONE is that it is a powerhouse of writing, acting, directing and post-production talent. Be it Nidhi Bisht, Jitendra Kumar, Deepak Kumar Mishra, Anandeshwar Dwivedi or Sameer Saxena. Mind you, this is just the frontline writing team who also act and direct; we haven’t rattled off the production team that includes Prem Mistry, Vaibhav Bundhoo, Raghav Subbu, Amrit Raj Gupta et al who chip in everywhere. Clearly, TVF-ONE’s bench has more depth, substance and emoting ability than a combined version of Rajkumar Kohli’s magnum opus Jaani Dushman.
While this is now, there was many an instance of self-doubt when Kumar was trying to find his mooring. He recalls the wavering when working on the spoof of Ra.One. “After finishing Rowdies 9, we had spent around ₹7 to 8 lakh in the summer of 2012. One of those evenings, I met some of my contemporaries from Red Chillies who were doing ad films for ₹50 lakh and some of them were taking home ₹8 lakh for an AV. After reaching home, I asked myself, “Yaar, main kya kar raha hoon? Everybody is making big money and I am directing a Jha.2 video, and that, too, with my own limited money. But I decided to stick it out thinking, baad ki baad main dekhi jayegi.” Today, in addition to online videos under TVF-ONE, the TVF Group does branded content, live events, production services, TV shows and has just added TVF InboxOffice to stream movies.
Dough rolls in
Kumar deciding to stay the course means there are many grown-ups rolling on the floor today. 70% of the site’s subscribers are predominantly male in the 18 to 34 age group, while the rest are professionals aged 34 to 40. TVF-One’s biggest traffic flows from tier-1 and tier-2 cities with metros accounting for a third. Given that there are dime a dozen online video producers on YouTube, what is it that has clicked for TVF Videos?
Having first met Kumar at a YouTube event for production houses in 2012 where ‘he was that guy in the audience with all the tough questions’, Aditi Rajvanshi, YouTube partner manager, content partnerships at Google, says, “TVF-one’s focus on originality, their ability to push the envelope and consistency would be the three things that truly distinguish it from other creators today.”
Kashyap, who ordinarily finds what most people laugh at or consider funny, very mediocre, was impressed enough to reach out to Kumar after his epic saga Gangs of Wasseypur was spoofed. “Brilliantly scripted with a very well thought through voiceover, it was unlike the random spoofs that appear every now and then,” he remarks.
Having written, co-written and acted in many a hit video over the past three years, Sarkar reflects, “A lot of our videos have worked because they are topical and borne out of angst. When we feel something is not being said or done right, we just translate that anger into a video with a first act, second act, third act and an ending.”
Kashyap confesses to be a major fan of the Arnub series and having featured in many a TVF-ONE video says, “Passion is their biggest differentiator. They are very politically and socially aware and are constantly responding to the ridiculousness around them.”
For instance, in June, 2013 when the rupee was being pounded, a TVF meme made the rounds but what gave them much-needed national visibility was the video that they released in February, 2014 on the Bollywood Aam Aadmi Party. The BAAP spoof raked in views by the million and still continues to be their most viewed video (see: The top five). The subscriber base spiked from there-on and the flagship channel TVF Videos, recently hit a million subscribers. In addition to the flagship within TVF-ONE, there are affiliate channels, RecycleBin and Humorously Yours which at last count had 142,000 and 18,200 subscribers respectively.
The subscriber numbers look meaty but in YouTube lexicon, subscribers mean those who sign up for new content notification. Given that online viewers are yet to pay for what they consume, the encashment options left are branded content and the ad rolls that run before the video clip plays. As their videos get high traffic, TVF-ONE enjoys its fair share of ad roll revenue which range from $8,000-10,000 a month and this figure is only set to rise as its content repository gathers critical mass.
While TVF-ONE may not be heavily reliant on ad roll revenue, it does rely on YouTube’s status as the numero uno video platform to cash in on its branded content. Gautam Patel, managing director, Zodius Capital says, “Google-owned YouTube is the largest video viewing platform. Currently, TV viewing in India is at 119 minutes/day, while web and mobile video viewing is at 28 minutes/day resulting in 5 billion video views per month of which 40% are viewed on mobile.”
It is not only YouTube but also Facebook and Twitter which are also aggressively pushing their video platforms. Samir Bangara, co-founder, Qyuki Digital Media, cites the increasing instance of ‘cord cutting’ that is taking place in the US where people are disconnecting their cable connection and subscribing to online streaming networks. “Almost all the world’s biggest media players be it News Corp, Walt Disney, DreamWorks or WPP have invested in the multichannel network (MCN) space. The strategy is not either or. Digital is about engagement, TV is for reach,” he adds.
It is this ‘audience engagement’ that is paying off for TVF Videos and it has worked with close to 40 brands so far. “TVF-ONE is what MTV was for the 90s generation. Through their branded content, TVF-ONE has shown that their reach, engagement and influence are significantly better for advertisers who are targeting the under-25 audience,” says Bangara.
View by appointment
As Kumar goes about scaling his methodical madness, merging a good storyline rather than slap brand logos to resemble a TVC is something he wants to stick to, both for branded content and the standalone videos. His first mover advantage and a young talented team is an entry barrier for competing content producers but Kumar is aware that creative currency is not easily scalable. Ironically, for Kumar, it is this very unique strength that he will have to hold on to as he scales up TVF-ONE through its next phase of growth. “Along with strategic partnerships to scale up distribution, their next big challenge will be managing talent. I’m sure Arunabh and his team has the cultural roots to handle that,” affirms Paul. Kashyap, though, thinks that Kumar might face a problem of plenty.
He explains, “After I put out two or three good films there, I had to stop looking for content because it walked into my office every day. This is what is going to happen with them. It is up to them how to harness it.” His worry has more to do with the TVF-ONE team taking their eyes off the ball. “They now have visibility and this is the time that I have seen a lot of guys fall apart. Suddenly, you become self-aware and start to feel self-important. Your focus shifts to the need to be recognised and when your focus shifts to everything but content, then slowly the erosion happens,” he cautions.
To their credit, Kumar and his team are already building the second line of defence. TVF RecycleBin, the associate channel where programming responsibility lies with Bundhoo, is the fledgling’s playground and many an intern from RecycleBin will eventually graduate to scripting and directing videos for the flagship. Another way in which TVF-ONE is trying to address the creative challenge is playing both with short and long formats. A short format video not only takes care of regular content flow, it also gives the writing team more time to fine-tune the long format videos. The latest effort in this direction being a series called Permanent Roommates (PR) that sought to capitalise on its sticky captive audience.
The five episodes of PR that ran for a total of about 120 minutes have so far amassed a cumulative 6.6 million views and a lot of praise. “I love every one of the TVF videos, but the PR series is what I am most proud of as a fan and their partner manager. They have shown that the audience will watch engaging content, whatever be the length,” says Rajvanshi. For TVF Videos, it was a creative trial by fire as till then the duration of its biggest video was a little over 17 minutes. While the first experiment with organised episodic content was PR, Pitchers, about the troubles a startup faces and its impact on friendship is lined up next.
TVF-ONE’s attempt is to prove that it is more than a YouTube video making company. Along with one-off videos, Kumar wants to engage the audience for six months and reinforce the status of a preferred content consumption destination for those in the 18 to 34 age bracket. And now that TVF-ONE is profitable, he plans to raise capital to expand. TVF Media Labs, the holding company owned by Kumar and his family will close its current financial year with a revenue of close to ₹6.5 crore with TVF-ONE accounting for 80% of that. TVF-ONE is controlled by TVF Media Labs with Kumar, Golani and Sarkar holding a personal minority stake. Kumar is seeking to raise about $25 to $100 million by diluting 10% to 25% of TVF-ONE.
The top five
That coming through will result in a valuation of anywhere between $250 million and $400 million. While the fund raising climate is one of plenty, what benchmark is Kumar using to arrive at this astounding valuation? He explains, “TVF-ONE’s YouTube Network serves almost 1.7 million subscribers, more than most of the biggest MCNs in this country. Nobody can throw ₹100 crore and create another brand like TVF-ONE overnight. Then, there is also a value for the team structure, collaborations and relationships built over the years.”
Zodius’ Patel, who has invested in Culture Machine and BigBasket, says, “The valuation criteria for social media is still evolving and it is too early in India to give guidance on a standard metric. But an online video business can be valued based on monthly video views, monthly watch-time minutes, revenue from advertisements, subscription, sponsorships, Ebitda, O&O – owned and operated channels or intellectual property and social media engagement activity. These metrics track the company’s progress on volume, engagement, revenue and cash flow, IP generation and social engagement.” Bangara, though, feels valuation is not a science as evident in Facebook’s $19 billion deal for WhatsApp. “In terms of revenue, there is nothing to justify that valuation but if you are showing growth in scale and engagement, then investors are ready to bet.”
So, which potential investors could hit like and subscribe to Kumar’s growth plan? “TVF-ONE probably is more valuable than several MCNs but some investor needs to stick his neck out and bet that it is going to scale into an HBO. They are a better strategic bet for a media investor as financial investors with a deep understanding of this fast evolving media are a finite set,” says Bangara. Though TVF-ONE generates enough cash flow to sustain itself, Kumar is cognisant that a new credit line would enhance production values and catapult expansion.
Having arrived in Mumbai on August 1, 2006, Kumar has been in the city for nearly nine years now and his journey has been one of self-selection, acceptance, rejection and celebration. He chose his calling, Farah Khan accepted him, the network executives rejected him and the Indian youth now celebrate him. This achievement would not have been possible without grit and unwavering support from his family, close friends and many of his existing team, who in the beginning, acted for free. Along with his brother who helped fund the initial equipment, his friends gave him about ₹10 lakh to sustain his first office. He may have been the underdog but Kumar was never short on spunk.
“One instance I distinctly remember is when they reached the half a million subscribers mark, Arunabh said, he knew this much was possible, what would be worth seeing is how quickly do they make it to a million,” says Rajvanshi. Well, it took about less than a year. Now his sights are set even higher: a ten-fold jump in views per week from the current 1 million. After a momentary pause to reflect on what he has just said, he adds, “Some experiments will succeed, some will majorly flop, but we won’t stop experimenting.” All this experimentation means that TVF-ONE’s YouTube network now has more subscribers than that of MTV India, the very channel that did the Q-tiyapa of turning his pilot episode of Engineer’s Diary down.