Business

Raghav Bahl tells his start-up story

Raghav Bahl is the founder and editor of Network18, one of India's largest media businesses, which delivers television news and entertainment to Indian homes.

The enterprise has also partnered with CNBC Asia and CNN to launch specific India-focused channels for business and general news.

Raghav Bahl says that broadcasting in India has changed dramatically in the last 20 years. Before the 1990s, there were no private enterprises, foreign or otherwise, which were allowed to set up television stations or transmit TV signals.

Instead there were only two state-controlled television channels. "There was so much… bottling up of latent demand and latent need that just exploded in the 1990s," he says.

The catalyst for this explosion came when the Indian government relaxed its policy in 1991 and allowed foreign and domestic programmers to broadcast via satellite television.

Mr Bahl says the impact was phenomenal. "A whole new industry was born overnight," he says, as foreign companies swiftly moved to import or launch their own output for this new audience.

For many viewers, the satellite coverage of the war in Kuwait was their first glimpse of this new TV viewing experience.

He recalls the intensity of the demand as people clamoured to watch the broadcasts: "Suddenly Indians realised that there is something happening here which they could capitalise on," he says.

"They installed dish antennae and just took wires and strung them across trees and roads to reach people's households."

Keeping it local

Despite the increase in television programming suddenly available, the founder of Network18 recognised there was something missing from the airwaves.

For Raghav Bahl, the "technological consumer success" of satellite TV in India was hampered by the foreign content.

"I realised India would not just live off what was happening in the West or just imported entertainment or news programming," he says. "It was clear to me that local programming would become big."

The gap in the market inspired Raghav Bahl to launch Network18 as a television production company providing Indian content for satellite broadcasters.

He says it started off small: "We put together two pilot programmes. One was a weekly business programme and one was a weekly entertainment and feature programme."

They were picked up by the BBC in London and Star TV in Hong Kong, which agreed to broadcast them on their Indian channels.

There was a snowball effect and the company continued to produce programmes with local content for both foreign and domestic channels broadcasting in India.

Change of direction

Raghav Bahl says Network18 reached a "bend in the river" around the year 2000, when they decided to switch from a production company to a 24 hour India-focused television channel.

He admits the reason for expanding the company in a new direction came from the realisation that they did not have the resources required to grow their news programmes.

Image caption Network18 became a 24 hour, India-focused television channel in 2000

"It was fairly clear that this whole business of weekly news was about to go away because you would need vans, you would need bureaux, you would need journalists, you need to be live. All of that would happen inevitably," he explains.

The transition came at a pertinent time when they were already providing Indian business news for CNBC Asia, which was looking to establish itself firmly within the Indian market.

Mr Bahl believed they made natural bedfellows and they set up a joint venture to launch an Indian business news channel, CNBC-TV18.

He used the same business model when, five years later, he launched a general television news channel for India with CNN.

Raghav Bahl says the practice of starting up television channels in partnership with established broadcasters who could bring the brand and infrastructure to complement Network18's local knowledge and content production was a pragmatic move.

But he admits there were difficulties and many were sceptical the partnerships would last.

"It was a challenge in the beginning to ensure that we didn't allow conflicts of interest to operate," he says. Still, the founder of Network18 believes he has proved his critics wrong.

"It's now been six years: very robust partnerships going with both of them and I think we have transparently handled both," he adds.

Child of reform

Mr Bahl calls Network18 "a child of India's economic liberalisation programme".

He does not believe the company would have been able to successfully launch and grow without the reforms of the 1990s. Indeed, he believes the India of the 1980s lacked social and economic mobility.

"You needed to have family capital to do anything," he says. He believes the company would have struggled if it had started then because a "bunch of professionals would not have been able to get capital for just their professional skills".

India's later economic reforms allowed enterprises such as Network18 to take advantage of private equity funding and venture capitalists.

Since then, Raghav Bahl thinks he has had a run of good luck. "We listed the company in the late 90s [and] got, I believe, an extraordinarily good valuation, just before the technology boom went bust in 2000."

Student hobby

Raghav Bahl doesn't see himself as a typical entrepreneur. His interest in broadcasting began when he was a student.

After college, whilst working in a multinational bank, he continued his "hobby", doing youth programmes and moderating debates for the state broadcaster. But because of the then limited scale of the industry, it was difficult to establish a career as a television professional.

Mr Bahl says the expertise and management skills he gained in his previous career in business were very helpful when it came to launching a company of his own.

But Network18's founder says there is one thing all entrepreneurs need when it comes to running a successful business.

"Sheer dogged persistence; the 'never say die' spirit" that will determine a company's longevity because, "when you start something new, you can be sure that the first few years will be full of failures and disappointments."