Indian students who made good in Singapore. That’s the story of National University of Singapore (NUS) graduates Rachit Dayal and Prantik Mazumdar. Singapore permanent residents, they recently sold their start-up, Happy Marketer, to Merkle Company, part of the giant Dentsu-Aegis Network, for “more money than we know what to do with,” says Dayal.
Singapore’s first Google-certified advertising and analytics professional, Dayal helped set up the India Se Media website when he freelanced as a consultant shortly after graduating from NUS. His sister, Richa Dayal, a Singapore Management University (SMU) graduate, interned with India Se Media. Now he and his Happy Marketer team train Google and Facebook employees, among others. Though it has been bought over by Merkle, he and his partners will continue to run the company which works with the likes of Standard Chartered and the Boston Consulting Group. “We have an ambitious goal of getting to US$100 million revenue, which none of our peers have done,” says Dayal. Currently, the company’s revenues are in “double digits of millions”, says Mazumdar.
”When we started, I don’t think anybody would have said we would make six figures,” says Dayal, 35, who founded Happy Marketer with another friend who has since quit. “We incorporated it in 2009. I started the firm with just my savings,” adds Dayal, who had begun working at a start-up even as a student.
Mazumdar, 36, the managing partner, joined Happy Marketer in 2011 after three years with International Enterprise (Singapore) – now called Enterprise Singapore – followed by shorter stints with brand consulting firm StrategiCom, in India, and Pinstorm, an Indian marketing company, in Singapore. “I was interviewing with Facebook and LinkedIn for corporate roles,” he says, “when I finally convinced Prantik to join us,” adds Dayal.
Dayal came from Bangalore to study computer science at NUS in 2001. Mazumdar, who had accompanied his parents from Pune to Jakarta, where he did his International Baccalaureate, enrolled in NUS the same year for computer engineering. “Both of us did a minor in technopreneurship,” says Mazumdar. “If you look at the successful start-ups in Singapore, I would say many of them emerged from that programme. Rachit took it one step further by joining the NUS Overseas Colleges programme.” “They had a tie-up with the University of Pennsylvania where we would study at nights and weekends and at daytime we would work at a start-up,” explains Dayal, who spent a year there. “It brainwashed me to never take a job.” On graduating in 2005, he launched his own start-up, Rachit Dayal Communications, while Mazumdar began his career at IE Singapore.
“Luckily, I didn’t have too much work, so I got to explore a lot of other interesting things,” says Dayal. “For a while I was a hypnotherapist, I studied this thing called neurolinguistic programming or NLP. “ “That little push on the wild side” – NLP, hypnotherapy, life coaching — gave him the mental strength to progress when he launched Happy Marketer in 2009. “Maybe without that it would have taken us 20 years to get to the milestone we’ve gotten to. So I always tell folks who haven’t yet started up to keep doing weird things,” he says.
Mazumdar, meanwhile, gained valuable experience at International Enterprise (Singapore). He had to work with “mobile tech start-ups to help them internationalise.” Later, he had to “drive foreign direct investment into eastern India” and had “very good interactions with (then West Bengal chief minister) Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and (commerce and industries minister) Nirupam Sen”.
Happy Marketer has come a long way since Dayal used to operate from his room. Today the company has 55 full-time employees: more than 30 based in India — in Bangalore, Bombay and Calcutta — and the rest in Singapore. The number of partners has grown to four, with Sanchit Mendiratta and Awadesh Madhogaria coming on board. They knew one another – and offered Madhogoria a deal when he wanted to return from Pune to Calcutta and start his own company. “We said, ‘Why don’t we use you as a subcontractor to start with?’,” recalls Dayal. Now Madhogoria has moved to Singapore and his Calcutta outfit has become part of Happy Marketer.
Merkle acquired Happy Marketer the same way – after initial contact between friends. The talks began two years ago when a “friend of a friend” came to Singapore as Merkle’s chief growth officer for Asia-Pacific to help the US-based company expand in the region. “We agreed to a 100 per cent acquisition because of a chance to grow faster,” says Dayal. “Merkle has grown from US$400 million to US$1 billion in three years. We want to go in and learn those lessons”
“We work in the areas of digital marketing and digital transformation,” he adds. “Let’s say a bank comes and says, ‘I have a new credit card for launch and want to get customers who are women 35 to 40 years old.’’’ Instead of launching a typical advertising campaign showing the same ads in print or television, as a digital marketer, he says, “I need to create 500 different ad versions because I can’t show all ladies who are 35 the same ad. Everyone’s an individual.” He uses data collected by Google, Facebook and Amazon about people to personalise the ads. “They allow us to access the data without a person’s individual identity for the purpose of advertising,” says Mazumdar. “Digital marketing is about driving more business. Digital transformation is about changing internal processes, the organisational structure, and that’s more appropriate for larger companies like a bank,” says Dayal. They did that at Standard Chartered. “We have helped transform the processes in which their marketing teams operate internally,” says Mazumdar.
Besides consulting and marketing, Happy Marketer has also trained more than 15,000 professionals across Asia in analytics, search marketing and social media. “We have more than 30 clients at any given time,” says Dayal. They have worked with Standard Chartered for five years. StarHub was one of their earliest clients when they were only a two-man operation, he recalls. “Spring Singapore did indirectly support us” in the early days when it “launched some programmes for other companies and those companies ended up working with us”. Their roster of clients includes the Boston Consulting Group, Johnson & Johnson, Singtel, Grab, Property Guru, The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, Royal Brunei Airlines, SMRT Corporation, CapitaLand, Great Eastern, to name only a few. They have also been involved in training programmes at Singapore Management University, Kaplan and Rutgers University in New Jersey, among others. Training was “spun off as a business” to another company called Future Marketer, of which they are partners, “because it became a profitable entity”, says Mazumdar.
“There’s so much work to be done here and in Southeast Asia, ” he says. Elaborating on the business opportunities, he cites a report released by Google and Temasek last year which said that by 2025 this market is likely to be worth US$240 billion “primarily driven by four pillars – e-commerce, online media publication sites, travel sites and ride hailing (companies like) Uber, Grab”, not counting the traditional family-owned businesses. “So even if our ambition is $100 million (in revenue), that’s a small sliver,” he adds. Besides working with leading organisations in Singapore, his company also serves family-owned conglomerates in the Philippines such as JG Summit.
“The last few years have been good for us, so lifestyle-wise we were pretty set,” says Dayal. “But when I chose this path out of NUS, it was a hard call knowing the condo life, the frequent travels and all that won’t happen.” “I only finally got a house two years ago,” says Mazumdar. “He (Dayal) has not bought a house. We don’t have cars.”
“Getting employees has not been easy. For every single one of them, we’ve done the wooing, called parents and convinced them and we’ve taken families out to lunch and I had to sell my business plan to my father-in-law before he allowed me to get married,” says Dayal, who has a Japanese wife and a nine-month-old son. Mazumdar’s wife is an Indian doctor at the National University Hospital and they have a 2 ½-year-old son. The two friends have similar backgrounds. “Both our dads went to IIT, both our moms are in performing arts. His a great painter, mine a dancer,” says Mazumdar. Dayal has brought his parents to Singapore; Mazumdar’s live in Pune.
Talking about business, Mazumdar says: “We had those cash crunches, but we have never missed payroll.” “One of our colleagues had a sister who got cancer and she got very sick and she did pass away four or five months later and during those four or five months we just supported that person. They were on regular pay. They weren’t able to work of course. They were in the hospital in a different country and we supported them,” says Dayal. They have people on employment passes, mostly from India, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines.
When looking for people, “we found two groups to be very interesting – trailing spouses… and moms getting back to work”. He recalls a woman who worked for Flipkart in India, accompanied her husband to Japan, couldn’t get a job there, persuaded her husband to come to Singapore and now works for Happy Marketer.
“I find Indians are very good at going deep, very good with details, but poor, I would say, at systems, proper adaptation, actually changing the way of working, whereas I find Singaporeans are meticulous. They’re also systematic,” says Dayal.
“Our India folks work hard, party hard,” says Mazumdar. “Unfortunately, in India, productivity is a big issue because we are still measured by how many hours we are working as opposed to ‘I can do the same work with less cigarette and coffee breaks.” “Good talent in India can be equally, if not more, expensive than in Singapore,” he adds.
The education system is also different. In India, “even a college is run like a school” while “in NUS there’s no attendance, it’s up to me whether I go or not,” says Mazumdar. “There was absolutely no restriction, I could sit in an economics class. Whether that’s by design or otherwise, it just starts opening minds.” He adds, “You’ve got to learn the art of learning. I think this is what NUS has taught us.”
Dayal says: “I know, for both of us, Singapore gave us a lot. We came here as underage students, we studied here, made friends here, learnt business and built careers here, and so also our heart is here.”