Marriage at the click of a button

Financial Times
March 18, 2008
The aftermath of the dotcom bubble in 2001 was a bad time to be
launching an internet start-up, particularly one specialising in
matrimonial listings for Indians. “Newspapers in India put a ban on
writing about internet companies. They were seen as some kind of
scam,” recalls Murugavel Janakiraman, founder and chief executive of
BharatMatrimony.com. Temples in India lambasted online matrimonial
sites, where eligible singles seek others looking to get married, as
the ruin of a sacred tradition by a dodgy medium.

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But BharatMatrimony weathered the storm. Today it has 10m registered
users who post profiles detailing their education, languages, religion
and caste in the hope of finding a husband or wife.

Mr Janakiraman, an affable 37-year-old software engineer from southern
India, says he has been invited to hundreds of weddings brought about
by the website he started in 1997 in his spare time while working as a
consultant for AT&T and Lucent in New Jersey.

BharatMatrimony (Bharat means “India” in Hindi) and rivals such as
Shaadi.com and Jeevansathi.com bring 21st-century technology to the
ancient business of matchmaking. In the traditional setting, parents
play an active role in connecting their children. Matchmakers carry
records of prospective candidates and assess, among other things,
whether their astrological horoscopes are compatible.

Now the practice is thriving online: matrimonial websites are among
the sites most visited by Indians. Last May, 48 per cent of India’s
regular internet users had searched on a matrimonial website,
according to JuxtConsult, a Delhi-based internet research firm.

BharatMatrimony began as a site for the Tamil community in the US. Mr
Janakiraman went to the US to work as a software engineer in 1997. In
his spare time, he began building a web portal that offered e-greeting
cards in the Tamil language, discussion forums, apartment listings and
a “festival reminder” to keep track of Indian festivals.

“I would come home from the office, spend four to five hours every
evening on it. On Saturday and Sunday I spent seven to eight hours,”
Mr Janakiraman says. He shared the house in Edison, New Jersey, with
five other Indian software engineers from his home state of Tamil
Nadu.

Some of them teased him for spending so much time at his home
computer. “Some people appreciated it, some people dissed me,” says Mr
Janakiraman.

When he started the website only a fraction of India’s population had
computers. Even today, only about 22m people own computers in India,
according to IDC, a consultancy. “A lot of people said ‘it’s not going
to work’,” he says.

But Mr Janakiraman was convinced that the internet would eventually
take off among Indians. He advertised the site by e-mailing friends
and posting flyers at Indian grocery stores in New Jersey. By 2000 the
portal had 50,000 users, 3,000 of whom had posted matrimonial
listings. Mr Janakiraman noticed that the matrimonial section of the
portal received the most traffic. He was also certain that the website
worked; he met his future wife through the portal and they married in
1999.

In 2000 Mr Janakiraman spun off matrimonials as a separate website and
created sub-websites geared towards India’s regional languages.

Although Indian states can have vast cultural differences, Mr
Janakiraman found that people searching for a life partner have common
ground. Without difficulty, he launched sub-websites for speakers of a
variety of Indian languages, including Punjabi, Bengali, Guj­arati,
Marathi, Kannada, Hindi and Assamese.

Mr Janakiraman also started charging Rs300 (€5) ($7) for a one-year
subscription to the website in 2000. Those accustomed to free services
on the internet at first resisted. But Mr Janakiraman put his foot
down. “If you want good service, you’d better pay for it,” he says.
“If you want to get married, you have to pay for it.”

BharatMatrimony also encountered its share of challenges. Its early
momentum was derailed by the dotcom meltdown. Mr Janakiraman lost his
job at Lucent. Under pressure from his wife to find another job, he
chose instead to focus full-time on BharatMatrimony. “I told myself:
‘This is the right opportunity.’ I could always get a technology job.
I just needed enough money to take care of my family,” he says.

He started to ramp up services and in 2000 hired his first software
engineer in Chennai, capital of Tamil Nadu, to help expand the site.
In 2004 he moved back to India and opened a small office. “I was
always looking forward to coming back,” he says. BharatMatrimony now
has 29 offices in India, the US and Dubai, with 750 employees.

As a private company, BharatMatrimony does not disclose its financial
results. But the matrimony website is profitable on revenues described
by Mr Janakiraman as “millions of dollars” generated from membership
fees, which today are Rs1,590 for three months, and extra services.

These services hint at the complex criteria for traditional Indians
searching for a life partner. To cater to customer demands, Mr
Janakiraman built software to calculate astrological horoscopes. In
2004 he launched a verification service to vet profiles.
BharatMatrimony subscribers can pay Rs400 to have a third party verify
they have the jobs, homes and diplomas they claim in online profiles.

For seven years the company was self-funded. Mr Janakiraman initially
paid just a few hundred dollars a month to host the website on a
server. But to help bring the company to the next level,
BharatMatrimony took $8.65m in venture capital funding in 2006 from
Yahoo and Canaan Partners of California. It took another round this
January totalling $11.75m from those two investors along with
Mayfield, also of California.

The investment is helping BharatMatrimony evolve into a comprehensive
classifieds website. To diversify beyond marriage, the parent group
changed its name to Consim and acts as an umbrella company for several
websites listing jobs, property, automobiles and other services.

BharatMatrimony is going offline too, with 105 walk-in centres across
India geared towards less tech-savvy customers. Counsellors help
customers search profiles and give them lists of prospective
candidates to study at home.

Although the site’s tagline is “marriages are forever”, it also offers
a marriage counselling service via e-mail and telephone to help save
marriages, says Mr Janakiraman. Marriages, like internet start-ups,
require their share of work.

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