Vinay Singhal On Losing Rs 300 Cr Startup & Building STAGE

Started in 2014 by Vinay Singhal, Shashank Vaishav and Praveen Singhal, the viral website WittyFeed was India’s answer to the American company BuzzFeed.

In an interaction with your storyVinay revealed that by the end of 2016, the website had taken up 120 million unique month-on-month users. In addition, it generated 420 million page views and 2.5 billion impressions.

But on November 26, 2018, the team woke up in a nightmare. The WittyFeed Facebook page was wiped out.

“We were killed overnight by Facebook. As founders, we were in denial… we thought it was a glitch. Later we were ready to fight against Facebook. But as time went on, we realized this wasn’t going to happen,” Vinay says.

In February 2019, the team ran out of money and was about to close the store. “But somehow we believed this couldn’t be the pinnacle of our story… We had to rebuild and rethink what we’re doing from here,” he adds.

Later that year, Vinay, Shashank and Praveen started building a Netflix for Bharat-STAGE, an artist and dialect based OTT platform for Indians. Today, the hyper-local video entertainment platform has registered more than two million downloads and more than a lakh of paying customers.

It is supported by Vijay Shekhar Sharma, Ritesh Malik, Blume Ventures, Venture Catalysts and Inflection Point Ventures.

“Our team kept saying they won’t give up no matter what. And that became the origin story of STAGE,” says Vinay.

For this episode on Your story UNCUTVinay takes us on his journey from losing his first business, nearly closing a store, and building STAGE.

It takes a team

Before the official page of WittyFeed was removed, the personal Facebook profiles of the founders were removed from the social media platform. Also, the 150 employees who work at the company have had their work experience removed from the platform.

“We may have violated some policies, but we were never informed about it… these companies don’t allow you to talk to people. At the most, you’re talking to an email address,” Vinay says.

WittyFeed was profitable. But shortly after his death, the team ran out of money.

The founding team called for a town hall with 90 remaining employees and presented two options. They can either close that same day or the team can trust the founder and stay with them for another six months.

To their surprise, 54 people decided to stay behind and take home only 25 percent of their salary. Double the remaining 75 percent was given as equity.

Vinay says, “This… 54 employees became our angel investorscame to the cap table and saved us as we mapped out the trip further.

“How do you kill a company that refuses to die?” he smiles.

the spindle

OTT platforms in India – both global and major Indian players – are targeting languages ​​in the name of local content. That is, they create video content in languages ​​like Gujarati, Bengali, Tamil, Telugu and Marathi.

But the moment you move beyond the urban settlements of India, everyone speaks a dialect…Language is an urban concept”, explains Vinay.

Growing up speaking in Haryanvi, him and his co-founders started thinking about why there was no content available in the dialect. “A truly hyper-local business built for Bharat would be a dialect-based platform. That’s what STAGE is,” he adds.

STAGE, which currently only builds content in Haryanvi, focuses on the underserved markets of India.

The founders of STAGE

Road to STAGE

In building STAGE, the team essentially faced three major challenges.

“We are more of a category maker. There are no TV channels or OTT platforms in this industry that we can learn from,” Vinay says.

First, the team had to prove that there was actually an audience willing to consume content in local dialects. Vinay says the first 18 months since the company was founded have been spent solving this demand problem.

Once it was determined that people wanted to consume content in local languages, the startup had to tackle the supply problem. To solve this, STAGE started a production house from the beginning and made the very first web series in Haryanvi.

Finally, the last roadblock was making money from the content. “There is more money in rural India than we give credit for. All we had to do was create value for that,” Vinay says. Last April, STAGE went from a completely free platform to a fully paid platform, and it has been added ever since more than one lakh paying customers


overcoming 500 rejections

While WittyFeed’s success gave the team credibility in the market, production is no child’s play. “To build an OTT platform, you have to invest heavily to produce movies and web series. You have to pump crores to build just one good web series,” Vinay says.

STAGE therefore had to attract more external financing and that was not easy.

The most common model was to build a user-generated content application, similar to TikTok or Instagram or YouTube.

“We were trying to build something new… There was no parallel to our story in the US or China. So it became very difficult for investors to understand the model,” Vinay explains. “Anyone who wants to invest in our company has to spend an incredible amount of time understanding our business.”

“The funny thing about investors is that they want you to build something unique and once you do, it becomes difficult for them to invest in you because you are ‘out of thesis’ and a category creator,” he says.

Convincing VCs to invest in STAGE became another battle. The founding team reached the top 25 investors and made over 100 pitches – and was rejected. STAGE even had to endure 500 rejections before five investors believed in the story.

The startup’s first angel investor was Jana Balasubramaniam, which came through Venture Catalysts. Although Jana was not on the field, he reached out to the team after watching the recorded video and decided to lead the rounds for his company. He remains the largest angel investor on STAGE’s cap table.

“Blume (Ventures) also turned down the first pitch,” Vinay says. The conversation with Blume lasted more than a year before the VC came on board at an early stage, and Vinay attributes this to the immense patience Karthik Reddy possesses.

Another of the first investors in STAGE is Better Capital. The startup has been increased Rs 30.75 crore so far in financing.

Last word

Vinay advises aspiring and aspiring entrepreneurs, saying, “Keep it up. Don’t give up. Hang on and negotiate your way out of the fray. Everyone who has built a successful business has had to struggle at some point. They’ve made it to the top because they persevered.”

The entrepreneur says it does get lonely at the top, adding that he had a breakdown the previous night “because it got too much”.

“We are currently raising funds and are still facing rejections. We do so much and it still takes a lot of persuasion and education to get them (investors) to believe in us,” Vinay says.

Looking back, however, he adds that he wouldn’t change anything.

Yo hua acha hua (Whatever happened happened for the best). It just made us better entrepreneurs in the process… If you don’t give up, life will give you a way out,” Vinay jokes.

(This story was updated to correct a typo in the headline.)

Edited by Saheli Sen Gupta

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