Interview with Venkat Prasad, COO/CTO & Co-Founder, Culture Machine

This startup wants to be the Disney of India’s YouTuber

Some of India's movie stars are larger than life. Photo credit: Nicolas Mirguet.

Some of India’s movie stars are larger than life. Photo credit: Nicolas Mirguet.













Indian culture and entertainment go hand in hand, from movie theaters where audiences throw rupees at exciting fight scenes, to the millions who flock yearly to Mumbai hoping to make it on to the silver screen. Everything in India is moving online, and no one can overlook the glitzy entertainment industry.

“At this point, everyone’s got a tiny little television in their hands,” explains Venkat Prasad, the co-founder of Culture Machine. “That’s a whole new set of viewers waiting to be entertained.”

That little television set is why Culture Machine, a startup founded off the idea that it’s entirely possible to give people exactly what they want, thinks it has a chance to make it big.

It signs on YouTube “creators” – that new agey word referring to people who post creative stuff online – and gives them all the support they need, from studios, to marketing, to PR connections.

“Think of it like Disney with Star Wars,” he says. “They’ve made it into a TV series, they distribute merchandise, they figure out how to twist and turn content. That’s what we do for creators.”

Like Star Wars’ emergence during a time when people were curious about space travel, Culture Machine’s clients are on the cutting edge of what’s what.

Since most YouTube watchers are young, Culture Machine’s content caters to that demographic.

“Being Indian” creates content about the quirky, liberal culture that’s come up with India’s rapid modernization. One of their most popular videos, “Every Indian girlfriend in the world,” has nearly three million views.

Most entertainment is geared towards North India, which is why another one of its creators, Put Chutney, focuses on making stuff that speaks to young South Indians.

Venkat used to work at YouTube, and his co-founder Sameer Pitalwalla held a senior position at UTV, an Indian media company owned by Disney.

The business model involves a lot of work, which means it’s one of the few that actually needs funding to function successfully. The investor interest so far has made it look like a worthy bargain. Last February, it received US$18 million in funding from Tiger Global and Times Internet, bringing the amount of money it’s raised to US$21.5 million.

India’s entertainment industry is notorious for being extremely cutthroat. No family connections? You probably won’t get anywhere. Not enough money? Your chances are slim.

The internet is changing things. “Anyone can be a creator in the digital world,” Venkat says. “You can make two minute videos and longform shows. You can watch music videos or comedy skits.”

That’s where Culture Machine’s technology is useful. The company uses data to help creators figure out what audiences want to watch. If people are pausing and replaying a scene where a man in a cat costume eats food, Culture Machine takes note and passes the information along to creators.

This data also helps with product placement. If a clothing brand like Global Desi – generally catering to young, hip Indians – wants to reach out to an audience, Culture Machine can tell them exactly which creators to pair with and where to place their products.

Signing up with a company like Culture Machine also makes it easier to reach big audiences. “When creators first started out, the only way to create content is to start with a video and hope that a lot of people pick it up,” he says. “We distribute intelligently.”

“We’ve analyzed all of our different outlets,” he adds. “Facebook distribution is different than Roku distribution. We even syndicate with phone operators. We go anywhere that an audience can distribute.”

This also opens up avenues that artists never knew existed. Venkat cites an example of an artist from Mumbai who’s suddenly become a hit among viewers in Sri Lanka.

The things that one can do with technology are endless, and Culture Machine’s offerings go on and on – but there are a few problems with putting so much effort into digital innovation. Many Indians are stuck using low quality feature phones to access the internet, and recent reports found that India has the slowest data in all of Asia.

This doesn’t phase Venkat, though.

“There’s a mega digital revolution coming our way in terms of the way people consume,” he explains. “This is only the beginning. Smartphones are just getting better and the 3G/4G market is only improving.”

Wild, wild west

Anyone can be a YouTube creator. Photo credit: Davidlohr Bueso.

Anyone can be a YouTube creator. Photo credit: Davidlohr Bueso.

The market is huge, especially because there’s not much content out there that specifically caters to young Indians.

The competition that video channels face isn’t as linear as that of conventional media. Time slots aren’t important, and there are enough viewers on the internet for many types of videos to do very well. A retweet from an influencer can help content go viral months after it’s been published, and sharing screen space actually helps celebrities do better.

Tiger Global itself invested US$10 million in another Indian video content creator, The Viral Fever.

There’s still a long way to go before Indians reach for YouTube videos for entertainment instead of the remote control, though. Entertainment’s a tough industry to crack and there’s no tried and tested path that works in this new era that puts virality first.

“At the end of the day, the audience consumes what they’ll want,” says Venkat. “We see ourselves as a digital video network of the future, though. There’s a lot of scope for what we offer.”

FOUNDED: July 2013
Being a digital media company for the internet generation, exporting South Asian youth culture globally, we fuse great digital content, backed by data and technology to create great stories.
Editing by Terence Lee

(And yes, we’re serious about ethics and transparency. More information here.)

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