Exclusive Interview with Venkat Garapati, Business Head, Ultra Jhakaas

Editor’s Note: In This Interview, We Talk To Venkat Garapati, The Business Head of Ultra Jhakaas, a Marathi OTT Platform launched recently by Ultra about the strategy, launch, reception, and what the future holds for Ultra Jhakaas.

Interview Transcript

Krishna: Hi and welcome to the OTTVerse podcast. Each week we’ll try and bring you the latest in tech and business from across the OTT industry. Today we have a very special guest, Venkat Garapti, the Head of Business of Ultra Jhakaas, Marathi OTT recently launched in India. Venkat and I know each other for a while, though we haven’t had the time to speak to each other in the last two, three years. I’m glad that this platform brought us together.

We’d like to understand our readers would like to understand what it takes to launch an OTT from scratch in a hyper competitive country like India. How what is the difference between a regional OTT versus a national OTT? What metrics do you measure when you launch versus what happens after a few months after launch and maybe as time progresses and also a little bit about your strategy. So thank you Venkat for making the time on a Saturday to be with us.

Venkat: Thank you, Krishna. And it was my pleasure to be with you on the panel. I’m delighted to be here with you. 

Krishna: Yeah. I’ve been looking forward to it in fact. Yeah, I share your sentiment. So to everybody Venkat is extremely knowledgeable in OTT. He straddles the tech, the product and the business very well. So a person who can give us a lot of information about OTT and launching a platform from scratch. So first off, congratulations on the launch of Ultra Jhakaas Marathi OTT.

Krishna: So how was the last couple of months been? Can you walk us through all the excitement … the build up? When did you start planning the project? Could you give us a walk through?

Venkat: Yeah, surely. It’s been crazy for last few months, of course. However like any other new business, it takes quite a lot of groundwork and we do a lot of research and then finally you take a call. It’s time to take that plan and then start developing the platform and start developing the business. And what we see finally is the finished product, what is ultimately seen by everyone including our customers and business partners. But if you ask me what made us take this plan – Ultra Media and Entertainment is a legacy company and it has 40 years of legacy. And incidentally, we have completed 40 years in September 2022.

Venkat  Now, if you look at the Ultra as an entertainment company, we’ve been adopting various technologies to our time. It is a logical, next step for us to, take a path which we have never been attempted to do before. That is, when I say, Ultra Media and Entertainment has been a primary of B2B, so now we need to be in the B2C segment. And this is the first time that the entertainment will be a significant. And when we are looking at various options, what we should do next as a combination.

Venkat: So we realize that over the period of time, we have acquired a lot of contents. We have more than 2 ,500 content in various languages. But we also have various other content. And then we realize that now is the time for us to take this premium content to our users across the pancreas. The diaspora which is there in various parts of the world.

Venkat : So when we were actually doing all this work, we realized that OTT is also kind of taking the same path as PayTV, meaning the customer, the consumer, they want to watch the content in their mother tongue, in their language, in their local lingo. They want the stories which are rooted in their ecosystem, in their business space. So that’s what users are looking for. Be it the elderly people, be it the middle place, when you call the Millennium or the GenZs, there is a connect when you tell the stories of local flavors, when you tell the stories in a local way. So if you look back and then look at the various languages, other than Hindi, what is working in the real world is the Bengali, Telugu, Malayali. So Marathi being the most popular languages after Hindi. And other languages, I just like. So as I mentioned, we have a library, we have a premium content and we do have multi -⁠lingual functions which includes Marathi. 

Venkat : So it made sense for us to get into the B2B system with the OTT platform. But why we have not chosen Hindi or any other language is for the very reason that Marathi being one of the most popular languages after Hindi, as few other languages. And also it has dual population which takes Marathi. So that is more than 130 million. So that is the number what we have. So that is how we have viewed in our act that we should launch an OTT platform but it is Marathi language. There is a lot of potential and opportunity. There is hardly any competition. Of course there are excellent global players who are providing Marathi content. I know to their audience but we are not competing with them. We wanted to create our own mission and we wanted to create that space for us in the region. That is how we got into this and built it.

Krishna It is very interesting because like you mentioned it is a legacy and a legendary company, Ultra. I think some of the largest hits of the 90s, my generation when we were growing up are all Ultra branded. So yeah, it is registered in our minds that logo. Just a question that I had when you mentioned this. Yes, there is a section of audience which is me probably who relate with a lot of old movies. So you might see a lot of traction with people going back to the 80s, searching for movies of their childhood and engaging with that. 

Krishna: By looking at your analytics, how is the split? Is there an interest in the latest movies as well or is Ultra still viewed as somebody who has a fantastic library which goes across genres and age groups?

Venkat Yeah, so it really helps, Krishna. I mean, we have this extensive library of content and we are really excited about what kind of traction we are getting. I think we just know the likes of products and platforms and the traction what we see is the phenomenon and it’s really, really exciting. So, given our library, we have this massive library of content. It helps us to get the audience who are looking for the premium content, older content. And when it comes to entertainment, in Indian context, it is a family viewing experience. And they spend time together when it comes to entertainment.

Venkat So, along with that, given the current technology and the other options, personalization is another aspect we have to look at. The current generation, the younger generation, they should also have personal space and the kind of content. So, we have this mix of content. We have a huge library. And in addition to that, we plan to add a new piece of content every week. And, so, it allows us to get those audience who are looking for a platform. And we are not just adding the long form, we are also adding short form, short form entertainment. So, it is a mix of the film, short form, and content, which helps us get the new users and the older content, premium content, which helps us get the audience looking for the premium content. That’s how we plan to take this forward.

Krishna Okay. Any ideas for live? Do you produce live? Do you want to do what to live, the new concepts coming out like virtual channels, or are you tying up with any live broadcasters? 

Venkat: Yeah, as I said, we have just launched and, we are focusing on, getting a certain scale. And once we achieve that scale, obviously, looking at all these options – other genres of content. As of now, it’s just entertainment, but then, we are looking at other options to help us in terms of driving the users, to watch our platform. So, we are not looking at it aggressively at this point in time, but definitely, these are there in our strategy. 

Krishna: Okay. So, what platforms are you available today in terms of technology, Android, for sure?

Venkat: Yeah, of course, like, the most of the playback today happen from the mobile devices.  Okay. So, it makes sense for us to be available on mobile platforms and Android and iOS. But in addition to that, you know, what our research tells us that people are going to kind of adopting the large screen, right? So, hence, we have made our products to be available on FireTV and Android TV as well. Of course, the web is an option where users can access our platform.

Krishna: So what percentage is mobile? If you can reveal that. 

Venkat: Yeah, mobile is around 80% and the rest is split between the large screen and the other..

Krishna: So did any of your thoughts while designing the platform go with the fact that you might have heavy mobile usage? Did that play a role when you actually designed, selected your platform design? 

Venkat: Yeah, of course, I mean, as you know, technology plays a vital role for continuing products of this time and scale what I’m looking for. And, the Indian Teleco Network, if you look at it, 4G penetration has a long way to go. And we have 5G coming up. And we wanted to be sure that that the any person who ever, you know, wherever he is can play. They should be able to access our product and they should have the seamless training on the device. So that was the primary, you know, the goal what we have set for us. And that’s how we have designed our platform. So we wanted to be a seamless experience when they navigate on the platform.  And it should be at par with any national or global open platform. I would request you, you know, like download the app and experience it yourself and give your valuable feedback to us so that we can detect it if there is anything that we can improve. 

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Krishna: So right behind you is Malgudi Days poster. I think it’s a family favorite for us after dinner.  We sit as a family sometimes and watch Malgudi Days. So, how is the reception been overall? I’m pretty sure a lot of people were happy and came on to OTT. Any chance you can share any numbers, approximates on what your audience or viewing times have been?

Venkat:  When it comes to the acceptance of a new platform, obviously, it takes time. But what helps us is as Ultra being a legacy brand, people are aware of our brand. So it makes things literally easy for us to take it to the market. So as you remember and anyone in the M&E industry we are definitely identified. And even in the remote places, the tier-2  or tier-3 towns, people relate, right? And they’re aware about what it’s like. And so when we launched the platform and product and there is a warm reception and people are very excited about whoever we met, whoever we have spoken to. And obviously, there’s a lot of excitement when it comes to our thinking. And we are hoping this trend will continue. And we gain much more traction and those numbers published also. And at this moment, I’m not in a position to share the numbers. 

Krishna: Are you restricted to India today or are you streaming internationally as well? As I mentioned the both, the properly interactive, global users, it’s a very sizable feature in India. 

Venkat: We have a lot of diaspora in the US, Canada, anywhere. But the number of people that are in the US and Canada are sizable populations. So, we are available across the world.

Krishna: So, Venkat, for the next couple of questions, I might just go back to what you said in the beginning. Ultra was primarily B2B. Now, what is your viewpoint on this aggregation phenomenon in India? Like you mentioned, people are going back to the days of cable TV where you have the sheet in your house. No, you can actually mark what channels you want and you pay only for that. It reminds me of that. Now Tata has 26 partners, Airtel Xstream I believe has 19. I don’t know the exact number for JioCinema. How do you see this playing out? Ultra standing as a standalone app brand with your own pricing model versus joining somewhere being part of a bundle. What are your thoughts on this, pros and cons?

Venkat: Going alone probably takes a longer time to get that reach. Obviously, of course, definitely help us in terms of the PayTV aggregator for that matter. Provide that we can save. In addition to that, there can be a direct carry or a bundle for us. This definitely helps the OTT platform. But it all depends on one strategy, what they finally want to do. For us, we wanted to build the scale ourselves and see how it goes. We have definitely this strategy in place to align and partner with some of these aggregators. For simple reasons that they not only provide the reach and save, but there is no untapped their consumer base. That is one area where they can definitely be great help in terms of driving the number. When it comes to our Indian consumers today, they have multiple OTT platforms to subscribe. I am talking about the user perspective. For one to subscribe to these, 15 OTT platforms … it is a cumbersome process. Figuring artworks … it is really cumbersome. To make things easier for them, having an aggregated product or a super app would definitely be a helpful step. They simply log in on one platform, get that single sign on, and one kind of user experience across the platform. That probably helps the users to have that kind of thing. It is a win-win for the ecosystem partner, be it the OTT platform, or be it the aggregator, or be it the consumer. In my opinion, I think this is going to be one critical aspect of OTT.

Krishna Very interesting. I also wanted your thoughts on monetization. I know you have subscription plans. Do you also do a lot of ads? Do you have hybrid plans?  

Venkat: Yeah, surely. So, when you look at the data, it makes sense for us, you know, like, anyone getting into this domain that planning for a hybrid business model would definitely help. And obviously, you know, to implement these models, we need to have that team. So, we are having these strategy things, right? 

Krishna: Surely, you know, we will look into all these aspects and going forward, we will have Very interesting. So, I think Venkat, my final question is probably going to tap into a bit of your product and engineering back at home. When you launch a platform versus two months later, three months later, what are the things that you actually keep in mind, right? 

Krishna: What are the metrics that you have to follow? How do these metrics evolve? Can you just help us understand?

Venkat: What metrics is the initial phase of your product line? Monthly Active Users, Daily Active Users. And enable the critical metrics, the CAC (Customer Acquisition Cost), that’s the like, because the two critical, you know, metrics that I would look at in the initial phase of the product line. And then when you have a, let’s say, a few months down the line, then you have the the output coming into play, the engagement rate coming into play the completion rate coming into play, right? And then when you mature your product, then you have the the return today, and how many returning users are coming back. And of course, you can segregate them into a common metrics, retention metrics, or content metrics, but then these are the mix of metrics you have to look into. And currently we have focused on MAUs, DAUs, and CAC.

Krishna: Do these also influence your curation, your front end? How do those teams actually feed off or contribute to all of this?

Venkat: Yeah, obviously, when you look at the customer is probably having a picture, and let’s say, you take the journey right from signing into making payment to and then continuing the content. There are various parameters that you can do and then see where the friction, where the drop-⁠off is happening and then try and optimize those areas and improve those areas. And, that’s how we see the overall journey of user and metrics that we consider critical to monitor and improve upon the product and improve the overall journey of the user. Overall user experience of the user and the platform. So that’s how we look into the metrics and that’s how we drive our product and analytics team to have a close monitoring on feedback.

Krishna: Considering that you have multiple languages as well, it will be very interesting, your data to see which is the most popular language. Do you also have multiple subtitles by any chance?

Venkat: We do provide subtitles along with our content. But it is primarily English now. We expect most of the users who are coming to our platform will be Marathi speaking. We are providing English subtitles as a form for some of the premium content. That’s why we know the non -⁠Marathi speaking audience, whoever is coming to our platform, they can consume the content and all that premium content. That’s how we plan out how the content and the platform. Someday when you have more of this data and we are able to share, I’d like to see how many people actually use subtitles and probably people from, let’s say, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, consuming content in Ultra with a subtitle. 

Krishna: That would be very interesting. I’d love to share the idea and then go to some data point when we have. That brings us to the end of this short interview. Thank you so much Venkat. Wish you all the best and good luck to Ultra, Jhakaas. We’d like to see more things coming out, more content and probably report a lot more on this.

Venkat: Thank you very much.It was my pleasure to be on your platform and hearing some of the thoughts I have. I’m looking forward to many more like this and happy to be with you anytime. 

Krishna: Thank you so much, Venkat.

krishna rao vijayanagar
Krishna Rao Vijayanagar

Krishna Rao Vijayanagar, Ph.D., is the Editor-in-Chief of OTTVerse, a news portal covering tech and business news in the OTT industry.

With extensive experience in video encoding, streaming, analytics, monetization, end-to-end streaming, and more, Krishna has held multiple leadership roles in R&D, Engineering, and Product at companies such as Harmonic Inc., MediaMelon, and Airtel Digital. Krishna has published numerous articles and research papers and speaks at industry events to share his insights and perspectives on the fundamentals and the future of OTT streaming.

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