Building India's Homegrown OTT Platform Stage ft. Shashank Vaishnav

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Building OTT platform Stage ft. Shashank Vaishnav

We're in the age of the internet and OTT platforms are slowly taking over television and traditional film content. We indulge in talks about this new Netflix series or that new documentary almost everywhere in any group. Binge-watching has become the new buzzword.

Several OTT platforms have emerged in India as well over the last few years. One special platform that has become the talk of the town is Stage which offers hyperlocal, premium, and sensible content in languages like Haryanvi, and Rajasthani.

We had the privilege to invite Shashank Vaishnav(Co-founder & CTO, Stage) to one of our Code Talks, where he talked about the origin story of Stage, and how is it like to handle operations as the CTO of the company. During the talk, he shared the startup thought process with our students and inspired them with snippets from his own journey.

Here are a few excerpts from the conversation-

When did you start building tech products?

I joined the SRM institute of science and technology in 2010. I was very fascinated to meet people from big cities, since I came from a small town.

I read about Facebook, Google, and Infosys over the next month and was highly inspired. I decided that I'm going to do something around the internet.

Next, I delved deep into the top 60-70 social networking sites at that time, and came up with the concept of 'smart buyers'. I wanted to build a platform where the audience will decide the price.

I learned Php, MySQL, and Cassandra and created a dynamic website in the first year of college. Since then, I kept on creating web apps here and there, kickstarting with two games for my college event 'Aaruush'.  

When we built FollowMe247, a smart messaging platform for connecting institutions with students, I had no idea how the SMS gateway works. I asked my junior Ashutosh for help and he chalked out the whole plan.

When should a person work on building a startup?

According to me, the best time to build a startup is when you're in your college. You have fewer liabilities, you have time on your hands, and your mind is working actively. Most of the ideas might fail but the learnings will be immense.

Once you've passed out of college, then you must do a job and get industry experience. The best place to start would be a startup where you'd have the liberty to lead your vision, think like a founder, and work together for the growth of the company. You'll learn how to build something from scratch.

The greatest time to start a business, in my opinion, is during your undergraduate years. You have fewer obligations, more time on your hands, and your intellect is actively engaged. Most ideas may fail, but the lessons learned will be enormous.

After graduating from college, you must work and gain industrial experience. A startup is the perfect location to start since you will have the freedom to oversee your goals, think like an entrepreneur, and collaborate on the company's growth. You'll learn how to construct anything from the ground up.

Before Stage, you were working on another startup 'WittyFeed'. Tell us about the experience

When we started WittyFeed I had no idea how to scale a startup. I just knew how to build the website and the infrastructure.

We were operating on shared hosting. When we posted the link on a Facebook page called 'amazing things in the world', instantly 10 thousand people came on the site and it got crashed. I had no idea about website crashes.

I spoke to a few people who suggested I shift the infrastructure to a cloud hosting AWS. I learned about AWS on Google. It took me 2-3 hours to get my website up and running. I made an account on AWS and launched a 32 GB RAM server, it was working.

When we posted a link on the page a second time, it crashed again. Then I learned about load balancing.

So, I kept learning things throughout the process.

If you think you'll sit and learn something and then implement it somewhere some other time, you won't be able to learn it.

Case in point, if you simply learn about machine learning theoretically, you won't have enough idea. But, if you had to use past COVID data to build a machine learning model that predicts how many people will be infected, then you'll be able to learn quickly.

Always prioritize a problem and learn the concept to build a solution.

Tell us the story behind building Stage.

WittyFeed was running from 2014-2018, and we had traffic of around 120 million users coming to our site. It was a dream ride for us, we used to generate revenue of 50 crores annually.

Everything was going well, we were the poster boys of the country. In 2018, everything got away as Facebook shut down our company. Cambridge Analytica scandal happened in the US, and Zuckerberg was under pressure to get tried by the courts.

Every company that was outside the US and serving the American audience (we had 60 mil people visiting from the US every month) was under scrutiny. They shut us down as well as another company called Little Things, I recall.

In one day, everything went to zero. We were literally crying. We had to take loans to pay salaries to the employees. We were about to shut down the company.

But then we realized, "We can't give up like this, our story shouldn't end like this."

A lot of students looked up to us. In lectures at various colleges and universities, we have always propagated the mantra of 'not giving up'. It's better we walk the talk.

And so we decided to continue. We called up our team for a town hall and announced that we were going to start a new project. If you want to be a part of it, you'll be receiving only half of your current salaries for the next 7 months and the second half will be doubled and given to you in form of shares of the company.

Surprisingly, 55 people stayed to work with us. That was a moment of triumph for us and we thought, "Now we have to grow for these people"

For the next 4-5 months, we had brainstorming sessions for a new startup. Everyone contributed with their ideas. We wanted to create a platform that would be able to deliver a mass influence for the positive good.

There were a lot of platforms that distributed content in Tamil, Telugu, etc. but no one addressed the northern languages and dialects like Haryanvi, Marwadi, Bundelkhandi, Bhojpuri, Magadhi, Garhwali, etc. People presumed that Hindi content works everywhere in the northern parts of the country.

We decided to tap into that market. There was another misconception that semi-urban and rural dwellers won't be willing to pay for a premium and sensible content platform. But, we had other ideas.

And so, we started Stage with a collective decision, a platform promoting premium and sensible content in vernacular languages and dialects.

The name 'Stage' was chosen because most people know the meaning and the context of the word irrespective of which language they speak.

The word also has an aspirational value attached to it.

From 2014 to 2018, WittyFeed experienced a remarkable journey, with approximately 120 million users frequenting our site and annual revenue reaching 50 crores. We were the darlings of our nation, basking in the spotlight of success. However, in 2018, our fortunes dramatically turned when Facebook abruptly shut down our operations. The catalyst for this turmoil was the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which had the United States demanding Mark Zuckerberg's accountability in court.

In the wake of this scandal, every non-U.S. company catering to the American audience, including our own (with 60 million monthly visitors from the U.S.), fell under intense scrutiny. Consequently, they brought the axe down on us, and another company called Little Things, if memory serves me correctly. In a matter of hours, everything we had built collapsed, leaving us in tears. We resorted to taking loans to meet our payroll, and the prospect of shuttering the company loomed ominously.

Yet, amidst this bleakness, we realised that surrendering was not an option; our narrative couldn't culminate in such despair. We had become mentors to countless students, advocating the ethos of unwavering determination in our lectures at various colleges and universities. It was imperative that we practised what we preached.

Therefore, we made the audacious decision to persist. Convening a town hall meeting, we announced our intent to embark on a new venture. We offered our team an unconventional proposition: for the next seven months, they would receive only half of their current salaries, with the promise of the second half being doubled and dispensed in the form of company shares.

Astoundingly, 55 individuals chose to remain by our side. This marked a pivotal moment of triumph for us, galvanising our resolve to flourish for their sake. Over the subsequent four to five months, we engaged in extensive brainstorming sessions to hatch a new startup concept. Each team member contributed their ideas, united by our ambition to create a platform capable of catalysing positive change on a grand scale.

While numerous platforms disseminated content in languages like Tamil and Telugu, there was a conspicuous void in addressing the northern languages and dialects such as Haryanvi, Marwadi, Bundelkhandi, Bhojpuri, Magadhi, and Garhwali. It was a common misconception that Hindi content sufficed for all northern regions, disregarding the linguistic diversity present.

We made it our mission to tap into this uncharted market, challenging the prevailing notion that semi-urban and rural residents wouldn't invest in a premium, thoughtful content platform. Our vision was clear.

Thus, Stage was born through collective agreement—a platform championing premium and thoughtful content in vernacular languages and dialects. We chose the name "Stage" because it resonated across languages, encapsulating its significance and embodying aspirational value universally.

Did you use pre-existing content at the beginning or start with fresh content?

We focused on markets that were non-existent. Initially, we collaborated with passionate content creators in the field of standup comedy, poetry, and folk and produced content with them.

After some time, producers and production houses started coming to us with their ideas and we sanctioned the budget and bought their content for our platform. (Netflix operates on a similar model)

Would you be up for the idea of distributing your content to bigger OTT platforms or partnering with them?

Our unique selling point is distribution. We're creating this much content to gain authority in distribution. We're not up for leasing our content to other platforms.

How do you decide the type of content you want to list on Stage?

It has a data-driven approach. We analyze what kind of content is being accepted by the masses, where they're dropping off, etc.

Also, we base our content on a lot of social research and state-specific subjects and issues. Every state in the country has its own social trends and burning topics.

Case in point, there's a lot of talk about Khap Panchayat in Haryana (inter-caste marriage). We narrated the story of Khaap Panchayat from a different perspective and people loved it.

How do you handle your server cost, given the huge scale of streaming at once?

Because of WittyFeed, I have enough experience to handle this issue. We're running everything at a bare minimum. We operate on 3 machines that are 4 GB each. When it comes to streaming, CDN(Content delivery network) cost is the most important thing. Thanks to my connections in the industry, we're functioning at lower CDN costs.

Considering our users have limited data packs, we transcode our videos in various formats, optimize for the aspect ratio of smartphones.

A lot of students face difficulty in understanding data structures and algorithms. How'd you recommend they learn DSA effectively?

Solving DSA problems doesn't start with writing code. First, you have to use pen and paper and draw the problem, and write the pseudo-code for it. That way you'll be better able to understand the problem and write an optimized solution.

Start solving beginner's level questions on platforms like HackerRank and then move on to intermediate-level questions and so on. Gradual growth is the key.

How exactly do OTT platforms make money?

Our major form of revenue is subscriptions. Of course, there is advertisement-based revenue as well but we at Stage don't focus on that. A lot of times OTT content can get skewed in pursuit of more eyeballs for advertisements. We stick to our brand ideals and focus on streaming quality and sensible content.

Any advice for students at Masai?

Learn, read articles and blogs, and contribute to Stack Overflow. Make a gospel of contributing one answer every week on Stack Overflow. The more you share, the more you learn.