Featured in the Limca Book Of World Records for Most Number Of Documented Marriages Online, Matrimony.com is India’s leader in online matchmaking with a market share of over 60%. With 3 million active users, 4000 employees, and 140 branches in India till date, the company’s growth story is fascinating, inspirational and a good example of brand evolution that achieved product/market fit on a staggering number of levels. As a result, they have managed to constantly reinvent the brand with incredible foresight.
I met Murugavel Janakiraman, Founder & CEO – Matrimony.com and Rajasekar KS, GM Marketing & Head of Social Media – Matrimony.com to get to know the story behind BharatMatrimony and examine its journey from being an early adopter in its formative years to becoming a force to reckon with two decades later.
Here is a distilled version –
- The idea: How it all started?
- How they launched the idea?
- How they got their first set of customers?
- How they grew their business?
- Summary of Marketing
- What BharatMatrimony does differently?
- Advice from the founder
The idea: How it all started?
Murugavel (aka Muruga) had a rough start with his day-to-day life posing several challenges very early on. He lived in a small town called Royapuram, Chennai where 14 houses shared 1 bathroom. Till he turned 23, he didn’t have electricity at home. He always dreamed of earning a degree, getting a job and buying a house with electricity and an attached bathroom. In 1994 he earned an MCA degree and took up a tech consulting job with Polaris Chennai. The job required traveling overseas to Singapore and the US for projects. This is when he gained considerable exposure to the internet with names like Yahoo, Sify and Rediff building their business around the web and all things online back then.
In the US Muruga really missed home, his parents, hanging out with friends and Tamil movies over the weekend. Muruga had been away from home for over 2 years and truly felt the need to connect with his Tamilian community. His initial research led him to a few websites that created content for Tamilians around politics, entertainment, and the latest movies but weren’t really offering any avenues for interaction. A service that catered to the needs of a community away from home was an opportunity that no one had tapped as yet.
He was onto something.
A recurring pattern that has observed is that most successful entrepreneurs also happen to be the first ones in the space, aka first movers. It is all about getting in early and riding the wave.
How they launched the idea?
In 1997, Muruga launched transindia.com and with that, he paved the way for a platform called Thamizhar Pakkam (translates to For the Tamil community). The platform hosted multiple services and engagement channels driven by content. These included –
- Tamil Matrimonial: Look for prospective brides or grooms
- Make Friends: Connect with others Tamilians across the world
- Tamil daily calendar: Calendar marked with auspicious dates
- Reminder: Indian festival reminder
- Travel: Book flight tickets through travel agencies
- Religion and charities: Find religious and charitable groups in Tamil Nadu
- Radio: List of radio stations that you could tune into and listen to your favorite songs
Content for engagement:
- News and Magazines: Tamil political news
- Movies and Cine Stars: Tamil Cine News, Photos & Interviews (Updated Weekly)
- Literature and people: Famous people in the field of literature
- Institutes: A database of educational institutions
How they got their first set of customers?
Back in 1997, social media was non-existent and Muruga didn’t have money to spend on marketing. So, he got creative and used the following methods to gain traction for his business:
Grocery Stores in the US
Most Indians went to their local grocery store to shop, Muruga printed 500 flyers and distributed them across all Indian stores in his locality in the US.
Friends in Chennai
He also got in touch with a few of his close friends in Chennai and asked them to take printouts of these flyers and distribute them to different stores within their locality.
- Online Discussion Forums
With no social channels, Muruga decided to target discussion forums like Google and Yahoo groups. He started by joining those conversations and mentioning transindia.com.
- Cross Promotions
Muruga also found a few websites willing to promote his platform in return for some incentives provided to their users. For example, create a free profile and get a discount on travel tickets. This form of cross-promotion helped funnel initial users into the site.
- Early days SEO
Also, with the advent of Google and Yahoo search engines, Muruga started leveraging concepts of Search Engine Optimization (SEO). His primary focus was ranking on the first page of Google, Yahoo, and other search engines.
Idea to Demand Validation
These efforts reaped heartening results:
- 3000 people created a ‘matrimonial profile’
- 2000 users had ‘make friends’ profile (unknowingly making him a pioneer of the Social Network)
- The Greeting card service was also used actively.
Muruga had assumed a lot of his services would be used equally but the numbers showed that more people gravitated towards the matrimonial section while the other sections saw minimal engagement. This fact was confirmed when he received an email from a user expressing his joy at having found a bride through the Tamil matrimonial section. This was a huge validation.
This led to the launch of Tamil Matrimony and Telugu Matrimony which eventually evolved into BharatMatrimony.
How they grew their business?
In the midst of growth and the glow of the newlyweds, the dot-com bubble in the US burst in the year 2000. Most of the companies that had received investments from venture capitalists were shutting down causing a global panic and eventually a global recession. This forced Muruga out of his job.
One Step forward
Muruga was initially investing close to $1000 per month to run the website. But when he was out a job he was compelled to create a revenue stream for BharatMatrimony.
He decided to introduce a paid version with the free version. The terms and benefits were as under –
|Free Version||Paid Version (Rs 200 or ~$4.5 annually)|
Add basic information
Communicate with other profiles
|Features offered in the free version
Boost profile and Upload photos
Add Horoscope information
Users were allowed to place Newspaper Ads
Result: BharatMatrimony managed to break even with revenue received from paid users.
Given his situation, Muruga did want to scale and make more money. The model was further revised to include the following –
- Free users were allowed to add images, bookmark their favorite profiles, save searches and scan photos. However getting in touch with other profiles was made available in the Paid Version only.
The new pricing was revised to:
- $15 for 3 months: Bride/Groom living outside India
- $25 for 6 months: Bride/Groom living outside India
- $15 for 6 months: Bride/Groom living in India
Online marketing channels
When the dot-com bubble burst almost every other technology company was shutting down. However, BharatMatrimony stood the test of time and witnessed steady growth. Education and marriages are the only two industries that continue to grow even in times of economic downturn.
1. Partnerships with companies
Muruga observed that big technology companies that offered matrimony as ancillary services were shutting down those divisions to focus on their core business and the best way to take advantage of this crisis was to reach out to these companies.
Muruga approached Rediff (A news information platform) and showed interest in becoming one of their channel partners for the matrimonial services that were offered on Rediff. They paid Rediff Rs 1 lakh (~$2200) for this partnership.
Rediff eventually started making money as compared to their previous scenario because they had no workforce. BharatMatrimony, on the other hand, gained a phenomenal amount of traffic with Rediff migrating all of their profiles to BharatMatrimony’s database.
- Multiple websites, inter-connected
- Muruga’s goal was focussed on creating a matrimonial space for different communities. He added sections with services like Real Estate (Buy and sell property online), Astrology (Get weekly and monthly horoscopes) along with new pieces of content featuring an extensive collection South Indian music, books, and recipes.
- He changed the look and feel of the website along with the domain name and called it sysindia.com. He then made sure that people would inevitably navigate from the individual sites (telegumatrimony.com or tamilmatrimony.com) to the parent site (sysindia.com)
- As time went by more profiles and successful marriages were being registered through the website. With data and on his side and a strong gut egging him to take on more he decided to expand. He felt if there was a demand for Tamil and Telugu matrimony, there would be a similar demand for other communities across India. He decided to register other domain names like bengalimatrimony.com, punjabimatrimony.com, gujaratimatrimony.com even though there was no sign of these communities growing online at the time. His grand vision was to have all of these communities under one brand name. Matrimony.com: A platform for all Indians.
- His inability to procure the domain name ‘matrimony.com’ initially and ‘indiamatrimony.com’ later, led to the creation of the next best available domain name ‘bharatmatrimony.com’.
From an SEO perspective, it is advantageous to have one parent domain – matrimony.com with dedicated pages for each community that come under the parent site. Eg: www.bharatmatrimony.com/tamilmatrimony helped provide more authority to the website and also proved favorable in the search engine rankings.
- Scaled content marketing
- Launched ‘Desi Match’, the first and only Matrimony magazine for South Asians residing in the US.
- Initiated India’s first blog on relationships, Matrimony Xpress
- BharatMatrimony has always been about owning the matrimonial space in India. Diversification across religions (muslimmatrimony.com, hindimatrimony) languages (Telugu, Tamil), economic segments (Elite, Assisted) and then helping people staying married. Happymarriages.com is all about advice and tips on how people can stay happily married.The team at BharatMatrimony engaged several experts and counselors including some psychiatrists to make sure that the content added value to the reader’s experience.
Why was HappyMarriages.com created?
“The future of a country depends on its citizens. Good citizens emerge out of good parenting; good parenting can happen only in a good marriage and we are the gateway to happy marriages.”
This is the mission of Matrimony.com. HappyMarriages.com is BharatMatrimony’s initiative to help newly married couples enrich their lives and lead a happy married life.
The team at Matrimony.com discovered that people who got married needed some guidance to enrich their relationship towards a happy marriage. They were facing issues early in the marriage from the very first day upto 4 years into the marriage. These ranged from understanding each other, arguments between couples, relationship challenges with inlaws, managing time, pursuing their passion, giving each other space, to name a few. There was no credible source of information or advice related to the challenges faced by newly married couples. Lack of time, support and guidance from elders often left them confused and with no one to turn to for help to resolve these matters.
Idea behind the initiative
“Happy families are the building blocks of the nation. As a leader in the online matchmaking space, we have the responsibility to guide married couples to lead a happy life post marriage. HappyMarriages.com is an initiative to enrich marital relationships and make them meaningful. It’s BharatMatrimony’s guide to a happy marriage.”
– Murugavel Janakiraman, Founder & CEO, Matrimony.com
HappyMarriages.com is India’s first website guiding newly married couples to a happy marriage. A simple site with useful and relevant content and a monthly newsletter. Quality content that enriches users was the idea.
How was the initiative executed?
The Marketing team took about three months to research the challenges faced by newly-wed couples. After intense research through conversations with couples and online/ social research, they rolled out the content.
The objective was to offer useful content around the early marital challenges and help guide young couples to a meaningful relationship and a happy marriage. This was achieved with the website and a monthly newsletter which has over 24,000 subscribers and over 1 lakh married members receive the newsletter every month.
3. Referral & Word of Mouth
A lot of their traffic came from referrals and word of mouth. Parents create profiles for their children by hearing about it through other parents. They have very strong brand recall and it is solely due to BharatMatrimony’s first mover advantage.
This online channel showcases TVCs made by BharatMatrimony.tv across categories that include International TVCs, Assisted Matrimony, Elite Matrimony, and Tambulya in multiple languages that cater to diverse users online.
5. Website Traffic
- Direct > Referrals > Organic Search > Display Ads > Mail > Social
This is the order in which they get their traffic. Maximum direct traffic is a great sign because it means it has a really strong brand recall. People are typing bharatmatrimony.com directly rather than being referred or finding them on social recall.
- The traffic isn’t really being directed by emails, organic search or social. They’re more branding and engagement channels rather than direct revenue channels.
Offline marketing channels
1. Mega Swayamvaram
The world’s largest Matrimony Meet was conducted in 2007 in Chennai with over 10,000 participants from 9 major communities in Tamil Nadu.
What was the objective behind such an event?
To facilitate a quicker process of finding a match and make available a database of like-minded prospects seeking a partner.
How did they pull it off?
- The details of the brides participating in the Swayamvaram were provided in a caste-wise categorized booklet containing the details of the grooms and vice versa.
- This booklet included details like caste, height, weight, horoscope etc and sent to the participants well in advance.
- List of probables was shortlisted for a meeting to be initiated.
- Contact details of all participants from respective castes would be given at the venue for them to make contacts independently after the event.
Result: The impact was huge. People walking around, networking with the ability to have real life interactions at this scale was clearly unprecedented. It helped build brand BharatMatrimony in a big way.
2. Speed dating with families
- To build trust BharatMatrimony went ahead and started creating strong offline communities.
- In 2002 they organized the first ever Matrimony Meet, a progressive concept wherein prospective brides, grooms and their respective families could meet face to face.
- This also facilitated both one-to-one and group interactions
3. Niche meetups
- Muruga genuinely felt that love had no bounds and everyone in this world deserves a shot at finding a life partner. Taking this thought forward BharatMatrimony hosted its first-ever Matrimony Meet for the physically challenged.
4. Retail outlets
BharatMatrimony’s strategy for online expansion has always been to support it with offline retail outlets that customers can visit, talk to representatives. This helps humanize a brand. The idea was to expand them under the flagship brand bharatmatrimony.com, giving parents and the older generation who aren’t too tech savvy an offline channel to communicate in person.
- In 2007-2008 Muruga and team decided to create over 100 outlets in the metros and suburban cities in India. The retail outlets would be company-owned or franchised. Even though there was some resonance with the offline outlets, they didn’t do well. The main reason being branding. For example, most Tamilians seeking matrimonial services didn’t necessarily identify with BharatMatrimony but instead resonated with Tamil Matrimony. The brand strategy didn’t align with the local brand strategy. They had expanded too quickly without personalization. The retail outlets lost money and the losses were amplified due to the recession leading to their shutdown.
- In 2009 Muruga decided to have another go at it with a re-launch. This time the plan was to start locally and then scale nationally. And most importantly to personalize the branding. The team launched 20 company-owned retail outlets in Tamil Nadu that were branded as tamilmatrimony.com.
The benefits of the localized offline centers were obvious –
o People could speak to a representative who spoke the local language.
o See prospective profiles and take printouts if required.
o It also facilitated visibility locally and collection of payments.
Within 6 months, it was evident that the outlets were a huge success and over a period of 18 months, BharatMatrimony launched over 100 company-owned outlets pan India with a similar localized strategy. Currently, it has 140 retail outlets.
5. Partnerships with the government
Purpose: Expansion of BharatMatrimony to suburban communities to provide access to many more prospective brides and grooms across India and the world.
- Partnered with the Andhra Pradesh government to provide matrimonial services through e-Seva, a service initiated by the government to ensure technology reaches one and all – urban and rural, rich and poor, literate and illiterate.
- Tied up with the Government of Kerala to provide Matrimony services through the Akshaya initiative. This is an innovative project aimed at bridging the digital divide between the urban and the rural to create massive economic growth.
- Collaborated with the Department of Post, Government of India, to sell BharatMatrimony Membership Cards through post offices across the country.
6. Creative offline brand campaigns
- Matrimony Day
- On April 14th, Matrimony Day, people come together to celebrate the joys of matrimony. BharatMatrimony makes it a true celebration by treating married couples to great discounts and offers from leading brands. With everyone joining in, this day has come to be officially celebrated as Matrimony Day. In fact this year, The Hindu published a 4-page supplement aptly titled “Perfect Match” on Matrimony Day.
- The initiative is a celebration of marriage and helps reinforce the importance of matrimony, BharatMatrimony’s reason for being.
- Guinness Book of World records
- To celebrate their 15th anniversary, BharatMatrimony made the world’s largest photo album on Matrimony Day. What was unique about this album was that BharatMatrimony featured every couple (who met on their portal) with their original wedding photos.
Result: Their message, ‘Matrimony is essential to secure a happy and healthy society’ was well received.
Summary of Marketing
|Launching Idea||1. Online:
|Early Adopters → Growth [2000 – 2005]||1. Online
|Growth → Expansion [2006-2010]||1. Online
2. More Offline Events
|Expansion → Maturity [2010-2016]||1. Direct Traffic
2. TV Ads
3. Offline Events
8. Creative branding campaigns
What BharatMatrimony does differently?
1. Aggressive diversification
With money in and a strong foothold within the matrimony space, BharatMatrimony had two options through which they could expand –
A single-brand strategy where they could roll out more services around matrimony and a multi-brand strategy wherein they could create other marketplaces using the same technology and move horizontally. They opted for both. This is how –
- Single-brand strategy – Building on BharatMatrimony
Looking for faster growth, the company diversified to wedding services, a $56 billion market in India. It rolled out three services:
o In 2015 – MatrimonyPhotography was launched. It offers professional photography and videography services.
o In 2016 – MatrimonyBazaar.com was launched as an assisted commerce service that helps those getting married save time and money while availing wedding services.
o In 2017 – MatrimonyMandaps.com was launched to help users check the availability of wedding venues online and book at the best prices.
To keep the communication and engagement intact even post the wedding, BharatMatrimony developed the appended portals which shared updates and information for and by couples post marriage.
o Success stories – A platform that encourages couples to share their success stories with others. It also has a section called Tinies for couples to share pictures and stories of their children with their extended families on BharatMatrimony.
o HappyMarriages.com – A content platform that encourages couples to share their experiences post marriage leading to a collection of stories and tips that help enhance relationships.
- Multi-brand strategy – Diverse marketplaces
Muruga saw the following advantages of using a multi-brand strategy –
o It was easy to replicate these marketplaces using the same back-end technology
o Scalability wasn’t an issue
o Also, matrimonial customers aren’t lifelong customers. The lifetime value of a user is usually 3-12 months. They only stayed on the platform till they got married. Once the search is over, there is no reason for them to come back to the site. This made it imperative to diversify.
Keeping the framework of technology in place, Muruga took an executive decision and decided to launch the following marketplaces consecutively from 2006 to 2008 i.e. 8 services in a span of 24 months. The diversification helped gain market share and these platforms were starting to see growth –
o Indiaproperty.com: The No.1 Property Portal.
o Loanwala.com: Help people with personal, property and automobile loans.
o Indiaautomobile.com: The Online Automobile Supermarket.
o Mobile 5050: Latest news on phones, gadgets
o Indialist.com: The Online Classifieds.
o Clickjobs: A jobs portal
o Indiapages: The Online Yellow Pages
o BharatBloodBank – a non-profit, non-commercial interface
In 2008 when the credit crisis led to a global recession, the aforementioned entities, barring Indiaproperty.com were shut down to survive the downturn. This is when the focus shifted solely towards the matrimony space.
2. Differential Pricing Strategies – Geographies & Net Worth
In 2001 after the dot-com crash, Muruga decided to offer a paid version along with the free version to create a revenue stream for BharatMatrimony.
The paid version was pegged at Rs 200/year (~$4.5/year). When this model picked up, he decided to scale with a revised model that took geographies and thereby the net worth of the users into account.
Even though differential pricing based on geographies isn’t very common in the subscription business, it was a brilliant move by Muruga given BharatMatrimony was catering to a global Indian audience with different spending powers.
There are some companies that adopt this strategy today. For example, Tinder, a dating app, for its premium services, charges differently based on where one is located as well as based on the age group they fall under.
3. Experimenting right through
One of the main reasons for BharatMatrimony standing tall and strong for two decades has been their need to perpetually experiment and launch new properties, platforms, and products.
- The initial idea was launched with 15 regional domains under BharatMatrimony and finally, Muruga shifted the focus to matrimony based on audience preferences.
- Launched diversified properties unrelated to matrimony such as Indiaproperty.com, Indiaautomobile.com, Indialist.com, Indiapages to name a few.
- Launched over 300+ websites that catered to matrimony and its niche categories and provided services ranging from organizing 100 meets in 30 days to organizing massive offline events.
While some experiments in horizontal diversification worked and others clearly failed, Muruga learned from them all. It comes with the territory.
4. Extremely data driven
Muruga relied on data to drive his decisions, especially during the expansion phase. Information was being captured from Day 1 but the company wasn’t drawing any insights based on the data. It was only in early 2006 that Muruga decided to form a process to analyze the information and iterate based on what it said, to make BharatMatrimony more efficient. He set up a data warehousing team to make sure all the data that was being collected was cataloged for easy search. Analytical tools were installed and data scientists were hired to analyze the data and report interesting insights to the team on a weekly basis.
5. Human-Centered Product Updates
- New communities – Muruga expanded BharatMatrimony’s services based on the assumption that people from various backgrounds would have the same matrimonial requirements as those from Tamil and Telugu communities. The common denominator is language for all human interaction. Based on this factor Muruga made these matrimonial services available to communities that spoke – Kannada, Sindhi, Gujarati, Marathi, Kerala, Bengali, Hindi initially and then went onto extend it to speakers of Parsi, Marathi, Marwadi, Assamese, Oriya and commonly spoken local languages in India. Based on the success stories seen so far, the idea clearly worked.
- New devices – BharatMatrimony was always available as a desktop version but Muruga wanted to make it possible for those without a desktop to easily access the website. Especially individuals in the rural areas. They do not have computers at home but it is very likely that each of them owns a phone. Thus to cater to these people, BharatMatrimony decided to create an optimized, mobile-friendly version of their website which would help people set up alerts online for better interaction and engagement.
A keen examination of the demographics of your target audience, their device usage, and online payment habits goes a long way in determining which platform a business should opt for to ensure ease of navigation and frequent use of the online interface.
When you’re looking at how people interact with your product, look at the Soft qualitative data as well as the Hard quantitative data. Soft data is usually in the form of customer feedback, reviews, conversations over calls that give you information about how they feel about your product and their sentiments. Hard data is in the form of numbers like revenue, the number of customers, rating score, time spent on the site. Things which are quantifiable. To make better decisions, it is important to look at both types of data.
6. Keen to stay lean through optimization
Once the processes and tools within the company were well in place, we made a keen effort to optimize it. The optimization was mainly around product and marketing related developments. The questions posed were “How can we spend less and get more customers while retaining the existing ones? The traffic was analyzed based on channels, ads, keywords, creatives and finally how that translated into revenue. The entire gamut of interactions from the first touchpoint to a retained user was closely examined across the board. Properties and campaigns that weren’t contributing as much were done away with and the focus was shifted to ones that were thriving. There was a need to optimize which led to the company’s size being drastically reduced, making it a lot leaner and focussed.
Advice from the founder
1. Freedom to voice ideas
It creates a culture of openness and leads to innovation. So many interesting ideas have come out from customer support representatives and tech teams that have led to new products being created at BharatMatrimony. Usually, if there is an interesting idea, we let the person decide a strategy, place a team behind it and then execute the plan.
2. Work with a process
At BharatMatrimony, we follow a fairly robust agile process. There are daily stand-up meetings across all product teams in the morning for 15 minutes where we discuss what was done yesterday, if any impediments were encountered along the way, what we plan to do today. Key metrics often form part of these discussions.
3. Motivate people
We have had employees who have been with BharatMatrimony for more than 10 years. For instance, our first three employees are still around. We motivate our people by consciously keeping them in the loop about the company’s growth and where it is headed. This helps boost employee morale.
4. Understanding the values system
The Company values and those of marriage go hand in hand within the organisation, making the mission bigger than all of us. We instill these values among people in BharatMatrimony from the very start.
BharatMatrimony (Matrimony.com) decided to go public. The IPO opened in September 2017 and was oversubscribed 4.41 times (441%) at the end of the third and final day. The company raised Rs 500 crore through the issue that comprised of fresh issue of up to Rs 130 crore and an offer for sale of up to 37.67 lakh equity shares.
Prima facie, the IPO satisfies Warren Buffet’s cardinal principle of investing – a business that is easy to understand, has favourable long-term prospects and operated by honest and competent people.
BharatMatrimony had its fair share of misses but the hits were far bigger and way more in number.
So why are most of the Indian startups failing or unable to recover from their failures today? Is it lack of disruption, inability to assess or retain product/market fit or simply refusal to pivot and try another idea when the one on hand is clearly not working. Do you have any others in mind?
Do write in with your thoughts and a wishlist of companies you would like to hear about.
All feedback is…much awaited and more importantly truly appreciated.