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Friday, Dec 10, 2004

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Fun fundas

Taru Bahl

Being the mother of a teenager has helped Dimpee Bali put together the right mix on Netfundu.com, an interactive Web site for children.

Change, at times, brings out your hidden potential and opens up a whole new world of opportunity. This may not have come your way had you resisted the change and stuck on in what was your old and familiar comfort zone," says Dimpee Bali, CEO of Netfundu.com and an equity holder in the company. She should know, considering that from being the Rajasthan region head of the high-profile Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) , she went on to head a start-up venture.

She says being with CII teaches you not just how to deal with unpredictable moments but also gives you a complete overview of how things function in the corporate arena. "You get down to the nitty-gritty and there is nothing that you cannot swing after a brief stint in an organisation, which serves as an ideal learning ground."

But the flip side was that there was an enormous amount of work managing the secretariat and this involved tasks like preparing delegate kits for a conference and ensuring that local couriers and invites went out at the right time to the right set of people.

Dimpee has no regrets about her decision to opt out of the CII. "Getting into a niche area, a smaller set-up allowed me to grow. Maybe in CII, I would have stagnated, doing the same thing even ten years down the line," she says.

Netfundu.com, which has a US partner in Astral Systems, is promoted by Sameer Arora, the financial wizard who loves children.

And he is extremely bullish on "a Web site devoted to the teenager... it will be a roaring success, besides being a huge motivator and source of satisfaction at a personal level."

The product mix

Starting out as a focused Web site for children, it has expanded its scope and reach to teenagers, too. The site offers creative and informative inputs, and is a clean and healthy mix of joyous knowledge-building.

The site's content includes e-mail, discussion and chat boards, e-cards, an in-house agony aunt, an online quiz that can be played with parents, and a chance to put together an online dream cricket team. Children can voice their opinion on general issues through polls. In one such poll, most children responded to the question, "Should Sonia Gandhi have been the PM?" with a resounding `Yes'. Says Dimpee, "Why do we forget that children have a mind of their own and they do have opinions and choices which actually make sense."

Interactive content and constant updates keep alive the interest levels of the five-lakh plus registered members. One programme allows children to create their own headlines and is quite popular. For instance, young Bhavna Sood can see a lead story in the Sunday Times, London, with the caption, "Bhavna to star opposite Tom Cruise in the latest Hollywood flick." The news clip calls her the latest heroine throughout the story. "The novelty value of taking a print out of the original Sunday Times masthead and pinning it on your soft board can be enormous. Ditto for children flashing their own customised Netfundu visiting cards. Imagine an eight-year-old exchanging his business card complete with e-mail ID and other coordinates. It not only makes him feel important but also gives him a sense of belonging to the Netfundu family," says Dimpee.

Having a teenaged son herself, Dimpee gets to know first hand what will click and what won't. Also, as a parent, she has certain concerns, which she incorporates while adding anything new. Her pride is obvious when she says, "Any parent who checks us out will be happy and reassured at our product mix. It is decent and, at the same time, topical and informative."

Networking through children

It is this kind of personalised attention that she focused on after taking over as CEO. Instead of hiring an advertising agency or earmarking hefty budgets for promotional campaigns, she decided to take a slightly longer route and reach out to the target audience directly.

The idea of using kids for viral (word of mouth) marketing paid off. Each new registered member was given a set of printed visiting cards and a host of free coupons to be used at places like Pizza Hut. The kit also included tazos, stickers and tattoos. Each child roped in 10 more members and the list multiplied. They crossed the one-lakh hump in less than six months. Although more than Rs one crore was spent on this direct marketing exercise, it was worth it because the site was throbbing with activity and advertisers were willing to place ads.

Today, the picture is vastly changed. Dimpee does not have to convince advertisers for ads. It is the advertisers who approach the company, for they see more sense in being associated with a mass medium like the Internet and a captive audience of like-minded kids. Television, which may be more expensive, does not assure you the kind of eyeball attention that a specific Web site does. As Dimpee says, "Every child who logs on stays on the site for an average of 14-15 minutes which means that the banner or the product on display is bound to catch his/her attention with the added probability of a brand recall even after the child has logged off."

Future plans

Dimpee started Netfundu.com four years ago and a glossy magazine on similar lines was launched a year later when Indian Airlines requested them to create something for its young air travellers. Based on the feedback, the magazine became a regular feature and today it is on the verge of breaking even. The Web site too has broken even and can only look up now. The Malaysian government has evinced interest in a children's magazine to be brought out by Netfundu. The content could be similar to the Indian edition, except for the current affairs and news clips sections.

Dimpee and Arora would also like to reach out to Indian children in the UAE, UK, US and other countries. Committed to the cause of children, they feel that they can be an effective catalyst in counselling children, helping them cope with growing-up traumas and provide a medium to connect with children across the world. Dimpee's USP has been to keep her outfit lean and mean. In a profession where employee turnover is high, her IT and designer staff has been with her since Day One and it is the same team that handles the Web site and the print magazine. By keeping the lines of hierarchy simple, Dimpee has managed to cut costs and yet maintain quality.

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