Just dial M for Momentum

Debangana Ghosh Mumbai | Updated on July 19, 2021

VSS ManiFounder and CEO, Just Dial

How VSS Mani grew his dialing and listing service into a B2B search major that caught the eyes of Reliance

“Before the advent of aggregator apps like Zomato, Practo, and Makemytrip, getting ‘good ratings' on Just Dial was a fad for many local businesses including neighborhood restaurants, health clinics, and travel agents. I remember feeling proud when my business got top ratings within six months of listing on Just Dial,” said Mukhtar Qureshi, a local restaurant owner at Mumbai’s Crawford market.

Like Qureshi, many small business owners recall the power and brand strength of the dialing and listing service started in 1996 by a then 29-year-old Venkatachalam Sthanu Subramani, popularly known as VSS Mani. He started with a seed capital of just ₹50,000 and six employees.

But success didn’t come easy for this serial entrepreneur, who initially worked for Yellow Pages’ United Database India, before launching Ask Me, with a bunch of friends. Ask Me was a directory service where people could call and ask for contact details of people or services.

The venture didn’t take off because not many had telephones back then. Mani then experimented with several other ideas before launching Just Dial. He and his team literally went door-to-door in Mumbai to gather contact numbers of businesses.

Funding struggles

In 1999, during the dotcom-boom, Just Dial launched its first web search box enabling users to find any products and services. But then, the bust happened and the search box service had to be shut down.

Just when Mani was finding it tough to sustain financially, he soon found one of its first investors in SAIF Partners (now Elevation Capital) in 2006. The investment firm’s managing partner Ravi Adusumalli was convinced by Mani’s passion and ability to build a real business with very little capital. Many investors followed, including Tiger Global.

In 2007, the company created a common platform for selling voice, web, and mobile-based services, while their peers were doing it as separate products. It clicked. Just Dial got listed on the stock exchange in 2013.

In 2018, it launched an e-commerce marketplace JD as a separate app. In February this year, JD Mart was launched — a B2B portal for buyers to discover quality vendors across product categories. According to a source, Just Dial despite its growth, was unable to scale, and hence, Mani had been talking to potential investors including the Tata group for some time. On Friday, Mukesh Ambani backed Reliance Retail announced it would acquire a controlling stake in the company which has a market cap of ₹6,683.74 crore.

“For Just Dial, the partnership with Reliance would give an opportunity to move into a much stronger growth trajectory,” said Arvind Singhal, Chairman and Managing Director, Technopak Advisors. Mani plans to continue as Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer of Just Dial.

Published on July 18, 2021

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