Organisations, like people, are generally risk averse. Both tend to plan their moves in a manner that doesn’t risk their survival. Except, every now and then, each throws caution to the wind.
For Times Internet, that was the period between 2014 and 2015. It made 5 acquisitions and 14 venture investments, spending millions of dollars in the process.
Some were small, like its investment of Rs 15 lakh (~$23,000) in InShorts (then known as News in Shorts), a summarised news aggregation platform that entered its in-house accelerator programme, TLabs. (In just one year though, it would sell that stake for a few million dollars when Tiger Global invested in InShorts. A 60X return in just one year!)
Others were bigger, like the $10 million acquisition of restaurant reservation platform, Dineout; the $15 million acquisition of task execution marketplace, Taskbucks; or the $30-40 million acquisition of cricket news portal Cricbuzz.
Within the company too, massive changes were afoot. It decided to stop serving ads from third-party ad networks (primarily Google) on its sites. It also decided to stop using third-party content recommendation engines (the ones that show what other articles you might like reading after you’re done with one) like Outbrain and Taboola. And to fill the void with Colombia, a brand-new ad network of its own, built entirely in-house.
It was as if the unique animal that Times Internet was—digital publishing arm for a legacy media company (its parent, the Times Group), corporate venture fund, startup accelerator, Internet holding company and incubator—had decided to go guns blazing into the internet frontier, unafraid of either running out of bullets or the consequences of missing.
In hindsight, it’s clear it was only laying the board for its ambitious platform strategy.
Invisible platform, spinning flywheel
“Within six months of acquiring Cricbuzz, we had doubled its traffic,” says Miten Sampat, the head of corporate development for Times Internet.
Today, Cricbuzz’s average monthly visitors range from 80-100 million, up from around 15 million when Times Internet acquired it in July 2014. It’s widely accepted today in the industry that Cricbuzz was one of Times Internet’s best acquisitions, if not the best, so far.
But what’s allowed it to grow so fast in the space of just 3 years? Its platform and flywheel.
“My definition of TIL (Times Internet) is that we are a platform and data company. We want capital to grow, so I can acquire the next 100 companies to add to my flywheel,” says Gautam Sinha, CEO of Times.
The flywheel Sinha is referring to is Colombia, his ad and data platform that silently hums in the background of everything Times Internet does. It’s a project he kicked off in 2014 and into which the company has since poured tens of millions of dollars.