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Quiet flows the Puzha

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A Kerala dotcom venture kept going even as the bubble burst around it. It shares the secret behind the smooth flow.

Vipin V. Nair

APPLYING the usual benchmarks of success profits, shareholder value, growth prospects is just not the right way to evaluate this Internet venture based out of Aluva, near Kochi.

Puzha.com (puzha means river in Malayalam) is still too small to talk about revenues and all that, it's got just seven people and hardly matters to anyone who can't pronounce it properly.

But for Keralites working and living abroad, the site touches a nostalgic nerve.

Puzha.com, predominantly a literary site, is an attempt to remind Keralites of their rich language, the State's arts and culture.

The site was launched in 2000, when the bursting of the dotcom bubble was imminent.

"Because of the nature of the business, Puzha.com didn't plan to make a profit in the first three years but concentrated on branding and penetration into online communities," says Jeomoan Kurian, a Bombay IIT alumnus, one of the co-founders of Puzha.com. And this strategy saw the venture through the tough days.

It didn't go for any marketing blitzkrieg. Instead, the site built a steady stream of content, leveraging on the strong literary tradition of Malayalam.

It started the first Internet magazine in the language and published short stories, essays and poems, besides novel, movie and book reviews.

"We provided a platform for budding writers to publish their works," says Sanal Kumar K, Manager-Operations.

Over the years, the magazine section of Puzha.com has been able to launch many a literary discussion, he claims. The site has also given users the freedom to publish their write-ups without having to go through the hands of an editor.

The channel for children is targeted especially at children living abroad, who are often cut off from their roots. Stories, songs and rhymes of the State are featured in this section. "Those who want their children to learn Malayalam find this section useful," Sanal says.

Another section is on local knowledge of Kerala. The site works closely with the Centre for Folklore Studies and brings out articles related to folklore, ethnic and agriculture practices, handicrafts, etc.

Puzha.com's biggest break came in 2001 when it tied up with DC Books, Kerala's largest publisher.

"We were developing software for our virtual bookstore with the Puzha.com team. They were offering different proposals but then we decided to get into a partnership," says Ravi DC, CEO of DC Books.

Puzha.com thus became the exclusive online store for DC Books. Since then, it has shipped over 30,000 books to 34 countries.

Today, dcbookstore.com, run on the puzha site, is an Indian local language bookstore with over 4,000 titles.

"We make sure that an online customer gets the book he orders even if it is not available in a shop offline," Ravi DC says.

Buoyed by the success of this initiative, Puzha.com has built more e-commerce channels. It has launched a handloom and cultural products store.

"Puzha.com's vision is to grow as a technology-driven media business, focussed on Malayalam literature and language. Five years down the line, it plans to bring out its own print magazine, multi-media CDs and TV software leveraging on literary works in Malayalam and its own content channels," Kurian says.

If he achieves that vision, Puzha will grow big enough for the usual benchmarks of success to apply.

Picture by K.K. Mustafah

vipin@thehindu.co.in

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated April 4, 2005)
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