One97 Communications* announced the raising of $10 million from SAP Ventures earlier this month, with the agenda of growing its mobile Internet business – especially mobile commerce and mobile marketing – and with plans to expand its operations into new geographies, especially South Asia and Africa. In conversation with MediaNama, One97 Communications MD Vijay Shekhar Sharma talks about the change in focus to mobile commerce and marketing, and about becoming a mobile Internet company, and responds to questions raised about outbound dialers and subscriptions, which are being impacted by TRAI’s subscription guidelines.

MediaNama: Where do you plan to invest the money you’ve raised?
Vijay Shekhar Sharma: Focusing on mobile Internet, you need to have larger money in the bank, and we have an expectation of having around Rs 100 crore in the bank. The business is such that there is large amount of revenue that you can make using mobile marketing and mobile commerce. Most of the business investment will go this strategy.

MediaNama: Have you raised funds from the perspective of the TRAI guidelines, which, from what we hear, will effect your mainstay – the outbound dialer business?
Vijay Shekhar Sharma:  If you see what One97’s revenue mix is, that business has very rarely had a big impact on our business. It is much less than 10-15% as a revenue contributor. First of all the the fund raising is not driven by TRAI. Secondly, it is something that we took a conscious call on not this year, but a year ago, when the TRAI directive was not there.

When you look at 3G and its growth, and how consumer behavior is going to change, we have been lucky enough to spot a few of these, and committed enough to bring forth business which is more relevant going forward.

MediaNama: How will you make money from the mobile Internet? You’ve traditionally been a telecom operator dependent business.
Vijay Shekhar Sharma:  As we look at ourself, we are more and more of a consumer facing mobile marketing and commerce platform. That is what we focus on our business as. Speaking of mobile marketing and commerce, Mobile Internet just means a richer experience on the mobile Internet. A much better and engaging and richer experience, and you make money because the number of companies want to access the consumer your platform, or the number of consumers want to transact using your platform, or a number of consumers want to shop from you. I think it is more and more a consumer oriented business.

MediaNama: In terms of commerce, it is PayTM, but what are you doing in terms of marketing?
Vijay Shekhar Sharma:  We have this large mobile marketing piece, which is multiple types of customer communication and upselling pieces come together. We base ourselves on massive analytics, and a large number of data points that we enter into our databases every day. The customer knowledge know-how is at the core of our business. If you see that, and build what all you could communicate to the customer. There are Outbound dialers, there are WAP portals, there is USSD communication. Whatever your phone can do, our mobile marketing piece can do that.

MediaNama: Give me an example of what you’ve done.
Vijay Shekhar Sharma:  It’s very visible. Telecom operators create voice based portals, for dialing in and knowing the best offer for themselves. If you dial 121 or 123 on Vodafone, are platforms that we run, which allow telecom operators to deliver non intrusive customer selection choices.

MediaNama: What are you doing in terms of WAP and apps?
Vijay Shekhar Sharma:  There is a tremendous amount of consumer base which is moving towards an android based mobile experience, giving a large opportunity to address consumers on devices. So if our marketing platform has traditionally been network based, we will become more and more device based.

MediaNama: But you haven’t launched anything yet?
Vijay Shekhar Sharma:  There are things in beta. We don’t want to talk much, but you can search them on the app store. Some of them are planted without our name.

MediaNama: How do you see the monetization of your mobile Internet business?
Vijay Shekhar Sharma:  We are a marketing tool. We get paid because we give access to the consumer, because we are driving leads, because we are driving leads, because we are running a campaign, and are allowing clickthroughs of customers.

MediaNama: But a lot of your monetization through operator billing, and there has been an accusation against you in the comments on our site that you are the company that is responsible for billing on OBDs?

Vijay Shekhar Sharma:  Please see VAS value chain. Operators have split the roles, and customers get to know about the service from many promotion channels. Agnostic to where the customer came to know of service from, charging and service activation is responsibility of VAS application provider. We are just a promotional and go to market tool. Someone who runs that application for the operator does service activation and charging.

MediaNama: Does the service provider do it or the content platform?
Vijay Shekhar Sharma:  The Application provider or the platform provider does this charging and there has been issues with it. Telecom operators are changing it and bringing this charging module on their self-owned platforms. Today if you activate a particular content service, that content service provider is doing charging. Following the best consumer interests, telecom operators are now deploying their own subscription engines brining charging under their own control.

MediaNama: Where else will you spend the money raised, apart from mobile marketing and commerce?
Vijay Shekhar Sharma:  Some of it will be used to expand in international markets. We have been slow on that. We dont want to go the saturated markets, we want to go to growing markets like Africa and South East Asia.

MediaNama: Aren’t the South East Asian markets fairly mature?
Vijay Shekhar Sharma:  Could be, but the kind of services we want to offer, and the requirement needs, there will be a place for us.

MediaNama: Will you use any part of this fundraising for acquisitions?
Vijay Shekhar Sharma:  Acquisition has not been our primary strategy for growth. We’ve always tried building a business, and invested in early stage companies and building teams and incubating products. If a company comes out as a great fit for what we want to do, we will not shy away from that. The money raised is for the core business.

MediaNama: How is your commerce platform doing?
Vijay Shekhar Sharma:  We have a monthly run rate of over $1 million in commerce, on a gross basis. Net margins are…acutally it is more of customer acquisition today. Gross margins aren’t very large, they’re less than 10%. On PayTM, we have a consumer facing site which is PayTM.com, but that is an anchor for customers to allow create a wallet. Our intention for PayTM is to create a payment platform, which is why we call it Pay TM – Pay Through Mobile. We want to get into a business where consumers can create a prepaid wallet, and over a period we can bring those customers to use that wallet.

MediaNama: Have you applied for a prepaid license with the RBI?
Vijay Shekhar Sharma:  We have applied, but we haven’t got a license yet.

MediaNama: What sort of services are you looking to expand to?
Vijay Shekhar Sharma:  There are two businesses in PayTM – one is the consumer facing PayTM.com, which is the anchor because of which the consumer is creating a wallet. The second is the PayTM wallet, which will be used by a number of merchants. Hopefully first the digital goods merchants. There is a tremendous problem with the commerce system, because there is a massive arbitrage left. A country like India doesn’t even have someone like PayPal operating here. It is a large gap,it is complex, but it is a large opportunity.

MediaNama: How many merchants do you have on PayTM?
Vijay Shekhar Sharma:  We have more than 50 merchants today, and the intention is that we have to build the number of wallets first, and we will announce that once we have the RBI mandated wallet. Currently we are a payment gateway. There is a massive problem with payment gateway, and we want to rewrite the payment gateway piece, connected to Visa and Mastercard. India is 5 years behind China where payment distributions are. We have similar problems – less bank accounts, cards,so there is a requirement of digital money. Look at a company like TenCent, they’ve been able to create a parallel currency.

MediaNama: What’s your split between online and mobile transactions?
Vijay Shekhar Sharma:  No doubt about it, that there is an one-time-password, which is a deterrent for mobile transactions, and that is the opportunity in mobile wallet.

Disclosure: One97 Communications is an advertiser with MediaNama