Giri Balasubramaniam’s lifestyle is a bit like that of George Clooney’s character in the 2009 film Up in the Air . No, Balasubramaniam is not a downsizer who travels from city to city, handling job-cuts to his clients. But travel he does, criss-crossing the country 180 days a year.
The Bengalurian puts together some of the most followed quiz competitions countrywide, with his teasers even earning him the nickname ‘Pickbrain’.
“I do about 110 shows a year,” Balasubramaniam said over a phone call. He was on his way to Bengaluru airport to catch a Mumbai flight for two shows he was hosting there over the weekend.
His 110 make up just one-third of the quiz shows his company, Greycaps, organises each year. “We have a team of four quizmasters, including me,” says Balasubramaniam, who is the CEO.
Over the years, he has been most closely associated with the Tata Crucible Quiz, having hosted it since 2004. His RBI Quiz is conducted across 62 locations in India.
Though he set up Greycaps in 1999 to give his rising quizzing career a corporate structure, nearly 65 per cent of his revenue comes not from quizzes, but content creation. “The quizzing business is not scalable beyond a point, but the knowledge business is. We are a research firm,” says the 45-year-old former financial journalist, who also had a stint in Walt Disney as marketing manager.
Touted as Asia’s largest on-stage quiz and knowledge services company, Greycaps now supplies content to nearly three lakh students in 600 schools. Created by a 42-member team, the content includes books on general knowledge (GK) and value education, quizzes formatted for students and a separate portal for teachers.
The company is investing in the digital medium as it expands its footprint. “We were profitable from the first day,” Subramaniam says, declining however to reveal the bottomline. From ₹22 crore in 2015, he expects his revenue to touch the ₹30-crore mark this financial year.
Welcome to the fast-evolving industry that Indian quizzing is today.
A question of enterprise
Like Greycaps, several more start-ups have emerged in the niche, but growing quizzing industry in the past decade. The Delhi-based Qryptiq was founded by a group of college friends when they reunited years after they had left campus.
“For me it was a leap of faith,” says Ajay Poonia, who used to be a not-so-happy web developer before he co-founded Qryptiq in 2010 together with Deshan Tucker, a chartered accountant, and Abhiram, a former employee at a leading fintech company in Hyderabad. The friends-turned-business partners initially conducted quiz shows in schools for free. Later, as the first clients came in, they were confused about how much to charge.
Not any more. “Our hands are full now,” says Poonia. Apart from conducting quizzes and GK workshops in more than 50 schools, Qryptiq develops content — “mostly trivia, to connect with customers” — for websites and apps. Today there are countless apps for different genres of quizzing and GK-based games.
The diversification helps as the quizzing business is largely a seasonal one. Most college quizzes take place from September to February. Companies, too, usually host their sponsored events in the second or fourth quarter. “Content creation, on the other hand, generates a monthly cash flow,” says Poonia.
Their leap of faith has stood the friends well. “My chartered accountant friend could have been earning more in his previous company. But if you compare us to marketing or digital companies, we are doing much better. Our topline is growing 70-80 per cent annually — it slowed only in 2013 — and we have always been profitable,” Poonia insists.
Answers from the IT capital
The founders of Bengaluru’s Nexus Consulting — Venkatesh S, Navin Rajaram and Vivek Karthikeyan — spotted an opportunity in catering to brands that wanted to associate themselves with the knowledge platform.
The idea for Nexus struck Venkatesh, an IIM-Bangalore alumnus, and his friends when they took part in a quiz. While they got “cooked” in the competition, winning eight out of 40 points, they still came away with a winning idea.
Nearly 400 quizzes and six years later, their company’s offerings range from corporate awareness programmes and literary events like spelling bees, to brand awareness programmes and corporate quizzes focusing on team-building. Among their recent outings was a team-building event at Manhattan Associates, a company that builds and delivers supply chain software.
“Every year we conduct events for employee engagement. This time we wanted to do something big that would involve all our 1,250 employees,” says Sujatha Saha, senior director, human resources at Manhattan Associates. Venkatesh and team prepared a quiz on supply chain management. It ran for three months, involving 450 teams, which were gradually whittled down to nine for the last two rounds. The winning prize was a trip to the US.
“Through these three months, we had all our employees searching for every bit of information regarding the company and its products. It helped in improving the engagement level of the employees with their customers and our products,” Saha explains. It also served as a great way to familiarise younger employees, fresh out of college, with the company. “We now plan to have this event annually,” she says.
Venkatesh works closely with Dr Navin Jayakumar, the Chennai-based ophthalmologist whose Landmark Quiz every Independence Day is an annual pilgrimage for enthusiasts. Dr Jayakumar, who strikes a fine balance between his two careers, often asks Venkatesh to create questions for the quizzes he hosts.
“Quizzing is now a cottage industry,” says Dr Jayakumar. Quizmasters like him are typically one-man operations, and it usually involves juggling a second or multiple careers.
The quizzes bring in good money, too — the more popular of the quizmasters earn up to ₹3 lakh a day for a quiz show.
This has spurred Dr Chandrakant Nair to toy with the idea of pursuing a full-time career as a quiz host. The former army major (medical officer) could also join his parents’ hospital business in Kozhikode, or pursue an MBA, as planned. But quizzing remains his first love, and with the quiz calendar growing busier by the year, Nair just might heed the call to be a full-time quizzer.
“There can be as many as three to four events a week,” says Nair, who is now a popular name in the country’s college quiz circuit. “It takes an enormous amount of time and resource to prepare, as each quiz is different from the other. We need to make it informative and entertaining.”
He had a gig coming up next at IIT-Delhi.
Sustainability is a crucial factor too — “Quiz shows can only do well if they are sustained and built on the promise of returning the next year,” says Dr Jayakumar; the power of digital media is another: “The future of quizzing — where everyone can make money — will depend on how well we leverage the social media,” he adds.
Dr Jayakumar happened to have a front seat to the evolving quizzing scene in India over the last few decades. His mother, Saranya Jayakumar, is among the pioneers. She helped form Kolkata’s Motley Crew, the quizzing team that, along with the late Neil O’Brien’s Dalhousie Institute, dominated competitions in the 1980s. O’Brien, whose son is the popular quizmaster-turned-politician Derek O’Brien, had organised some of the country’s first few formal quizzes of the country in the late 1960s.
By then, popular shows on radio, especially the Bournvita Quiz Contest conducted by Hamid Sayani, and later his brother Ameen, had made quizzing popular in India. Then in 1985, Siddharth Basu started the path-breaking Quiz Time, which made quizzing popular on television. Fondly called the grandfather of quizzing in India, Basu turned the nerdy sport into mass entertainment by bringing Who Wants to be a Millionaire? to India in 2000.
While the show continues to be popular in its many regional language versions, it changed forever the face of quizzing on the idiot box. “There is still a Tata Crucible on CNBC, which has enjoyed the highest ratings for a weekend show for five years. But yes, a quiz show of the kind that used to be aired earlier on Doordarshan is no longer there. People have stopped watching quizzes on TV,” says Balasubramaniam. Channels today have entertainment shows based on quizzing.
BigSynergy, which was founded by Basu and later became a part of Reliance MediaWorks, now produces a lot more fiction series, reality shows and game shows than quizzes.
Rather than a pure-play quiz format, brands today prefer to sponsor jazzier versions, including a pub quiz.
Qryptiq’s Poonia conducts quizzes in pubs across metros. “It is a popular format in European countries and is getting common here. We have done it in Delhi, Hyderabad, Pune and Bengaluru,” he says. Rather than tying up with a pub, quizmasters prefer joining hands with a company that has a deep pocket to build its brand among pubgoers.
Poonia has, for instance, conducted impromptu quizzes in pubs for an Indian cigarette-maker and an international brewery. “The crowd is also happy to get the company merchandise as prizes,” he adds.
Pub quizzing is one of the flourishing niches within the industry. It helps because quizzing is vulnerable to business cycles. In a downturn, brands can easily shift to cheaper options to spread their messages
“Unless there is a brand that sustains a quiz show, it is difficult to survive. Even open quizzes, which get the biggest crowds, can’t survive on registration fee,” says Dr Jayakumar. Landmark Quiz, Tata Crucible and the Murugappa Madras Quotient Quiz are some of the properties that have benefited from a brand’s continuous patronage.
“Quiz is a great platform. And we will continue to work to change the perception that it is just for the nerdy and the bookworm. It is mindsport,” says Venkatesh.
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