It started out as an online classified listings site in 2007 when it raised the first round of venture capital funding. Since then, its business model has gone through changes and it is now a leading digital match-making platform that uses artificial intelligence to connect registered small and medium services businesses with customers in need of verified service providers.

“We always wanted to be enablers and not providers. Our DNA is building platforms that connect people rather than doing things ourselves. We started as a classifieds platform. Then we realised that it is not a commercially viable proposition,” says Satya Prabhakar, CEO, New Media Pvt Ltd.

Turning into services space

According to him, there is not much money to be made in the used product buying and selling space. Neither side is willing to pay. Sulekha realised that but found one lucrative sector, which is the services space, especially small and medium services businesses. “We started focussing on the services listing,” says Satya. The business model changed from an advertisement- based classifieds model to a listings-based services model.

This change happened in 2012-13, but Satya found out that this too was a tough proposition, “because if you say you are in the business of information look up, then you are entering the turf of big shots like Google. It is very hard to excel.”

“We determined that we need to move up the chain and provide greater value to both sides,” says Satya, of the next pivot in the business that happened in 2016-17. Offering greater value for the consumer meant providing a verified, matched and available service. This was the challenge that Sulekha had to solve regarding serving consumers. When it came to SMB service providers, the hard task at hand was to connect them to a motivated buyer. The service providers also want the platform to lend them an aura of credibility so that a customer who is getting to know them has confidence to buy their service. This, says Satya, requires constructing a product model, a system model and technology around those requirements of service providers. “That is what we have done.”

The SMBs are quite exacting in their demands and there is a lot of fickleness to their behaviour. He is confident that Sulekha has solved their problems and a lot more can be done. Sulekha has a strong SEO team that makes sure that whenever anyone searches for a service – say, an event organiser in Chennai – its name will be among the top names thrown up.

So, whenever anyone searches for an event organiser after specifying their requirements, Sulekha will throw up at least five names of service providers, all of which have been verified, their expertise matched to the specifications and their availability on the specified dates checked. Either the service providers will call the consumers or the consumers themselves can get in touch with the service providers to take the conversation forward.

“Within seconds, I will tell you 5-6 businesses that are matched, verified and available to serve you. They will submit their quotes and you can choose from them, with the confidence that I have done some work in verifying them. You can buy from them with some confidence,” says Arun Thathachari, Vice-President, Corporate Development.

AI-driven assistant

“I am an AI-driven intelligent assistant for you that is giving you the top choices. The process of discovery, finding their availability and having them contact you we have shortened that journey for you sustainably,” explains Arun. The whole search takes just a few seconds.

Sulekha does not charge the consumers who search on its site. Instead, it collects a fee from the service providers for being on the platform. As and when Sulekha sends matched requests to the service providers, money is deducted from their balance. Sulekha, according to Arun, has been able to convert a third of the requests into business for the service providers. It has over one lakh service providers on the platform and handles at least a million requests every month. It estimates the value of the transactions to be over ₹2,500 crore annually. The average transaction size is ₹5,000-10,000. The company expects the number of requests to go up to around 1.5 million a month in the coming financial year.

Three categories

The services that Sulekha caters to come under three broad categories – home improvement, including interior decoration, pest control, modular kitchen, and accommodation; life improvement, which includes business and events; and, self improvement, such as training and lifestyle. Sulekha estimates the market to be around $110 billion, with the home improvement category accounting for nearly $50 billion. It believes that there are 16 million service SMEs and 450 million consumers and hence a massive market that is ready for digital disruption.

Will Sulekha be able to take this to other countries? The underlying technology and platform, says Satya, are agnostic to category and city. “We can deploy the same thing in Singapore for something else or in the UK for some other thing. It requires operations in these places to on-board service providers. That is a capital constraint.”

Sulekha offers its service in the US as a local NRI platform. For instance, someone wanting an Indian cook in New Jersey or a DJ who can play Bollywood songs in the Bay Area can use its platform.