In just a decade, Roshni Mahtani, has achieved what many can only dream of – a successful tech media company that is taking a leap into the world of e-commerce. Starting off as a platform for parents to talk about ‘real’ parental issues and not mundane discussions on blues and pinks, she has now set her sights on making a dominant e-commerce player in this space. Her commitment to success is evident from the fact that Tickled Media raised US$6.7 million in Series B funding in May 2018 led by Global Grand Leisure and Mountain Pine Capital. DBS provided additional venture debt financing bringing the start up’s total funding to US $11 million. Vertex Ventures, a Temasek Holdings unit, too invested an undisclosed amount of Series A funds in 2015. Recently KrASIA reported that the company was talking to investors including Alibaba’s Ant Financial and Chinese conglomerate Fosun, on a new round of funding at a pre-money valuation of US$60 million.
But it has not been an easy ride for the 35-year-old, who is a completely self-made entrepreneur. She started working at 17 when the Asian Economic Crisis hit her father’s trading business quite severely. From standing at MRT stations conducting surveys, to sampling products and selling ice-creams, she has done it all. But her first proper pay cheque came when she worked as a telemarketer, as that also brought in commission whenever she closed a sale. “I did not have the backing of rich mummy or daddy. I had to pay my way through university, so that has definitely helped me. But it also allowed me to have a nest egg, so by the time I started the company, I had some of my own money.”
Mahtani, who studied communications and marketing, started Tickled Media when she was 25-years-old and was based in New York. However, she returned to Singapore and established it fully. “A modern woman does not need a knight in shining armour to start her business.” It is really about following your dreams and believing in yourself,” she said.
A hands-on manager, five years ago, Mahtani spent six months in Bombay setting up her tech team and two years ago, she moved to Indonesia because this has been the fastest growing market.
Tickled Media today employs over 185 people with a presence in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam. Apart from theAsianparent, the company also has three other portals: AsianMoneyGuide, HerStyleAsia and Nonilo.In an exclusive interview, Mahtani talks about her journey as an entrepreneur.
India Se: You were an accidental entrepreneur? Could you tell us more?
Roshni Mahtani: I started the company without the intention of running a business. It was mostly motivated by passion and I saw a complete open space, that I wanted to get into, without realising that what I was doing was not a hobby, but it was actually starting a business.
I was not a mom then, and I didn’t have children till three years ago. So when I started the company, I was just using my skills as a journalist, and looking at an industry that had a need for such content.
India Se: What made you zero in on parenting? That was a crowded market in print at least?
Roshni Mahtani: Certainly not in the digital space. When I first started, I there was nothing localised in the Asian market, so we decided to go hyper local. Also everyone looked at parenting as powder pink and baby blue, but that is not the way parenting is. It’s gory, it’s messy, it’s a lot of shades of different colour; depending on what food your kid throws at you. So nobody looked at the harsh side of parenting. And that’s the side we wanted to look at the truth of parenting.
India Se: So were you a trained journalist? Did you work in the media sector before?
Roshni Mahtani: Definitely, that has been the biggest asset as well as setback. Asset because my training in journalism and background in media made me want to start a media company, but it has also been my biggest drawback because sometimes if you are a trained journalist living, breathing and sleeping media, you are not attuned to technology as you should be in today’s day and age. Being able to use the best of media and shedding off the media skin, and thinking like a product manager or like an engineer has definitely helped me grow the company.
India Se: How did you shed your media skin, as that can be quite difficult?
Roshni Mahtani: One feedback that I give to media people is that don’t take yourself so seriously. In media we learn to understand the written word and the power of words that we end up being so compelled into looking for the truth that we get obsessed about content and information without thinking about the delivery of content or information. The delivery is much more important than the content itself.
India Se: But who inspired you to get into the tech sector? Was it because it was cheaper to start an online company?
Roshni Mahtani: Running an online media company is a lot more expensive than running a print media company. The salary of a good engineer would be three times that of a writer. I would say it had nothing to do with cost, but if you look at data, and I have always been someone who studies data, now you can choose to run away from data and think that the world is not technologically driven, or you can embrace it. So are you going to be ahead of the curve or be the flock that follows?
India Se: Did you write a business plan or was the growth organic?
Roshni Mahtani: Absolutely! So I did have a business plan. In fact the other day, I was cleaning up the house and came across the business plan, and there was this 100-page thesis on theAsianparent and what I wanted to do with Tickled Media. And when I started reading through it, I started laughing, because we exceeded everything that we had put in the business plan. I exceeded all those goals three years ago. What was interesting is that the way the company had developed was exactly the way I had written it. So I do think the power of words in that aspect was very important, because putting it down on paper made me commit to it, and it made me visualise and crystallise where I wanted to take it. Every time I found myself floundering or meandering, I would just keep going back and saying, “Is this why I started the company, is this the direction I wanted to take, and am I following what my initial dream was.”
India Se: How was it in terms of revenue?
Roshni Mahtani: The great thing is that as a company we are EBITDA positive, which was a big milestone for us, because before we got venture funding, the company was always profitable. It was only after we took on venture funding that we had to become unprofitable, because we were entering into more countries.
India Se: What have been your main revenue streams?
Roshni Mahtani: Revenue is still broken into five different buckets… the first is media advertising which is digital advertising – like banner ads, native advertising, emailers, second is e-commerce activation where we send traffic to all the ecommerce players, we do affiliate revenue share for the traffic we send to them in case they choose to buy, the third is events which could be fairs and exhibitions as well as workshops for different brands to connect with the target audience, the fourth way is content creation in terms of sponsored advertorials and as well as content for third party brands, the next stream is market research and insights, so we do a lot of polling, surveys, focus groups and just trying to mine the data, and women living around Asia. Our sixth way is to do some kind of subscription.
India Se: So most of your content is region specific? Has going local paid off?
Roshni Mahtani: We have 13 different languages and have 15.5 -16 million users. Our big markets are Indonesia with 6 million users and Thailand has 3.5 million.
• How did you celebrate your one million dollar revenue?
This was some years ago. How did we celebrate? I think it was a non-event. What’s the next goal?
• What about when you hit 10 million subscribers?
10 million happened last year, so it is fresh in my head. I went home and remember telling my husband wow! The impact for me of 10 million subscribers was not just the number, but also the whole idea that 10 million Asian families have been affected by our content and community. And to me that was a big deal because the mission for me was to help 20 million Asian families raise happy, healthy, confident children and we were half way to that goal.
• How do you unwind?
I am a big whisky drinker. I love my whiskey. I enjoy a good glass of whisky and watching comedies.
• What’s your favourite brand then?
I am a local girl at heart born and bred here in Singapore. So it is Laksa, Mee Goreng, Mee Siam, and Chicken Rice
• Where did you meet your husband?
I met him right here in this office.
• How many children?
One daughter, Shan. She is three
• Any plans for her?
She tells me that when she grows up, she will have pink hair and be a dirt bike racer, and I’m all go for it. She is learning Mandarin, Bahasa and English.