We are meeting for lunch at Darios, a vegetarian Italian restaurant (in deference to the fact that I am a vegetarian) tucked away in one of the bylanes of the upmarket Poes Garden area where the chief minister and Rajinikanth live. I ask him about the growing competition. All segments in this business have been pioneered by us. Everyone follows. We are the leaders. For instance, it was his idea to start EliteMatrimony.com for the rich. If the wealthy want to meet other wealthy prospects, they have to cough up R1 lakh to register! The rich also need help, he says. He now has AssistedMatrimony.com for those at the bottom of the pyramid.
Murugavel was the first member of his family to go to the college. He grew up in a blue-collared tenement in north Chennai. He was a bright student. Today, he is able to laugh about his struggles when he was put in an English medium school for his Plus 2 classes. We order garlic bread with parsley and sun dried tomato, to be followed by mushroom soup.
His maternal uncle, the only educated member in the family, asked him to study chemistry in college so that he could get a job easily. As it happened, he got admission into BSc Statistics. He had not even heard about statistics. He put in hours of hard work, conquered the subject, and also started taking part in inter-college competitions. A degree in statistics made him eligible for MCA (Master of Computer Applications). Till then, I had never touched a computer. I applied for a seat in Madras University. I was one of the 15 students who were selected. If I had got into the chemistry course, I may have been working in some laboratory on a monthly salary of R10,000.
It is time to order the main course. We ask for penne arrabiata and stromboli pizza, and decide to share. Murugavel tells me that when he was doing his Masters, he realised that he had excellent programming skills. He gained confidence and found himself a job in Singapore in 1994. It was the first flight I had taken in my life. He moved to the US in 1997 as a consultant working for a multinational company.
By this time, internet was emerging as a major force. In his free time, he set up a portal for the Tamil community living in the US. This was a free website. I started working at home after office hours, leveraging the strong cultural bonds that united the Tamils living abroad. I offered the daily calendar on my website to Indians used to tearing the days sheet on their calendar. I offered them what they were used to back home, reminding them of Indian festivals, auspicious days, daily fortune and so on. Till then, all websites for Tamils were meant only for registering their views. Mine was the first website that was useful for them.
Some of his friends were beginning to look for brides in India. I made it possible for them to register personal details on the internet for prospective brides. The first marriage as a result of my service took place within three months. Technology had dramatically cut short the normal lead-time of months, even years, for Indian marriages. I established a portal called TamilMatrimony.com, without realising this was going to be the turning point in my life.
Murugavel started noticing how many hits his matrimonial service started getting. That triggered the idea of a matrimonial portal based on a revenue model. The dotcom bust gave him the opportunity to return to India. I lost my job and so the decision became easy. He launched TamilMatrimony.com from a small apartment in Chennai with three employees in 1999. He realised that most Indian families no longer wanted to operate with limited choices. TamilMatrimony became inclusive of all languages, communities and became BharatMatrimony.com.
In the beginning, it was a one-man show. Once I introduced a membership fee, I started earning up to R2 lakh per month. I opened offices in the US and Chennai for starters. It was the first step in my progress. That decision of mine opened many doors. Murugavel tied up with all the major portals such as Sify, Rediff and MSN, which gave him a lot of visibility at minimum cost. We were able to monetise the additional traffic. Then he branched out all over India and the portal started servicing all communities and languages. He introduced offline concepts like door-to-door collections, and big marriage melas in large spaces.
He was among the first to get PE funding from Yahoo. He then diversified into IndiaProperty.com and ClickJob.com. Mistakes were made. In 2006, we raised around R40 crore. but in a year blew it all up because we didnt have the understanding of how to use it efficiently. So we were left with hardly any money and were trying to raise the second round. Finally, I had to pledge my house to borrow some money. It was a very challenging time. When we finally managed to get the next line of funding, the 2008 meltdown happened, and we started losing money again. We couldnt raise a third round. We had a rough time for four or five months and, at the end of it, emerged stronger. Murugavel has shut down the jobs portal. He has a separate CEO for IndiaProperty.com. His focus is totally on matrimonial services. There is an IPO in the offing, maybe next year. According to PE circles, the company is being valued at very high figures.
BharatMatrimony.com became profitable by 2009. In the last three years, Murugavel has launched several marriage-related businesses such as Tambulya offline shops which offer return gifts, a directory of matrimonial services, wedding expos and so on. He has mobile apps for Android and ISO which have had more than 5 lakh downloads.
Marriage is a very big market in India. Over 10 million people are getting married every year, which means close to 40-50 million people are actively looking to get married at any given time. The company hasnt even catered to 10% of this market, hence the potential to grow is huge. Murugavel fully plans to exploit this potential. We have scored on various parameters like scale, size, revenue, business model and success. We will build a better Bharat through happy marriages!