Looking for an authentic sushi bar in Delhi? Or wondering if there’s some alternative theatre in Mumbai over the weekend? No worries. Just turn to Little Black Book, a one-stop shop for everything from food and fashion to theatre and shopping in your city. The lifestyle website is just three years old, but it’s already grown into the go-to place for anybody looking for local recommendations in nine cities from Delhi and Mumbai to Bengaluru and Pune.
Little Black Book, or LBB, is the brainchild of 28-year-old Suchita Salwan, a quintessential Delhi millennial looking to discover her city. She might be heading a thriving business today, but it didn’t start out as that. It began as her Tumblr blog, documenting interesting places she’d discovered in Delhi. It was 2011-12, Salwan had finished her economics degree, was working at BBC India’s marketing department, and was bored in a city she had called home all her life. “It was basically me finding a way to make my life more interesting,” she says. “It was a way for me to discover my city on my own.”
That’s when Little Black Book happened. It was the time when social media was peaking, and Delhi’s Hauz Khas Village was flourishing with little indie cafes and bars haunted by the city’s millennials. In fact, a cafe in Hauz Khas named Flipside was the first thing Salwan wrote about on her new blog. Next came bars, monuments, markets, parks and restaurants, and general things to do all over Delhi. “Every weekend I would purposely throw myself in a part of the city that I had never been to and walk around and discover,” she says.
Soon, LBB had grown from a simple blog to a full-fledged website, the Indian equivalent of global go-to guide Time Out. Initially, Salwan built a small team focussed on the interests of millennial users in Delhi; today, there’s a Little Black Book for nine cities, and her website and app have 7 million page views a month, according to the company. With numbers like that, funds have also poured in: The company has already raised around Rs 16 crore through investors like Blume Ventures and IDG Ventures India. “We are an information marketplace for all things local, whether it is food or shopping or events or travel. LBB is a place where you can come and discover, post, and transact with great local businesses,” says CEO Salwan. “The core of LBB is you have these millions and millions of users who need to spend. They are interested in being interesting.”
In the first couple of years, Salwan built a small team of regular employees, free - lancers, and interns, who combed the city looking for interesting things people could do. They were also building a community of people who would not just share their content on social media but also make recommendations on LBB. “Back then I myself was figuring out if I wanted to commit the next 15 years of my life to building this up because when you are 22-23, the world’s your oyster. Especially if you are a reasonably smart person you know that getting an opportunity isn’t difficult,” says Salwan. “It took me a little bit of time to convince myself, that you need to stick this one out because there is something huge that could be at the end of this.”
So how did it all this come about? Things started changing in 2014-15, when Salwan started looking for a co-founder with a background in tech. She did not want to “break her head” on learning coding and other tech things. Enter Dhruv Mathur. A Carnegie Mellon graduate, Dhruv spent three years doing technology implementation for e-commerce firms in the U.S. But he decided to come to India, and started a payments platform called FBpay. “You can either stay in the Silicon Valleys of the world or you can go back to a place, a) where you have deeper connections, and b) where you have an opportunity that is just beginning to arise,” he says.
It was after Mathur joined the company as product and technology head that the focus on building a tech platform began. “The way we have come together as a team and as a product, that has actually happened over the past two-and-a-half odd years. Not to discount the work that we did before with our interns, we were scraping through with whatever we could find,” says Salwan, a self-confessed avid reader of self-help books. “It’s also a space that I am genuinely excited by—which is consumer-facing local business, things to do in your city.”
Mathur had worked with LBB on events while he was still at FBpay. He later joined the company and started focussing on developing tech. He wanted to develop the product, build sound technology, and help LBB become a lot more than just a discovery website. Mathur believes the site had got people hooked on to their content and built strong demand in the market; it was now time to build supply and go deeper.
And LBB is going deeper. It launched an app in 2016 and is building a strong community that contributes to its content. Karan Mohla, executive director and head of consumer media and technology at IDG Ventures India, one of LBB’s investors, says that it’s the community that LBB has built that sets it apart. Essentially, the company is capitalising on the needs of millennials, who in the past few years have become the driving force for both young and old businesses.
According to a recent report by Deloitte and the Retail Association of India, India and China constitute the largest share of millennials in the world and are leading the change in consumer markets globally. “Millennials in India are characterised by high levels of disposable incomes and are digitally connected individuals who are brand conscious whilst placing significant confidence/emphasis on value derived from the product/service. They differ from their previous generations by their lifestyle choices, consumption pattern, significant need for convenience, and brand preferences,” says the report.
Little Black Book’s format isn’t new, but it is definitely an evolved form of what others have done before. Other sites like Zomato, a restaurant discovery platform, or TripAdvisor, a travel recommendation website, are not quite in the same category because people go to them for specific needs. But LBB has a much wider canvas.
Salwan says LBB currently has two sources of revenue: advertisement and sponsored content that benefits local businesses and even companies like Jet Airways, Virgin Atlantic, IndiGo, and Airbnb. She says less than 10% of the content is promoted. “Our revenues catch up with our expenses really quickly. Purely from ad sales, we broke even last year, our burn is very easy to control, our content is coming to us for the most part free from our consumers, and our merchants are getting in touch with us,” says Salwan.
Last year, LBB launched LBB Specials, a curated marketplace for local products. So, if you found something on the site you could buy it there, or through one of its partners. For example, it has partnered with Swiggy for food deliveries for restaurants that people might discover on LBB. Such partnerships give LBB another source of revenue .
Companies like discount deals platform Groupon have done what LBB Special is doing before. “But their model is difficult to pull off because there was no loyalty built in either the platform or the merchant,” says Mohla. “One interesting or different way to pull that loyalty or engagement on the platform was to create content and build a community around it to engage with that content, and then selfpropagate on top of that.”
Next, LBB is thinking of venturing overseas into Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Dubai, and target a similar demographic as it does in Indian cities. These markets are extremely attractive for lifestyle brands because their per capita GDP is much higher than India. “One common thing that Asia has is lots and lots of young people, who every year are making more disposable income, whether it’s Singapore, Malaysia, or Dubai," says angel investor and Google India head Rajan Anandan. "All around this part of the world it is the exact same user need and the exact same user gap, I think it can be a very large business.”
Anandan is right. A whole generation of people who turned to blogging in the 2000s as a means to express themselves went on to eventually become big businesses. Take Chiara Ferragni for example, the Italian blogger who started The Blonde Salad back in 2009 and is now a successful entrepreneur and one of the biggest fashion influencers in the world. She is even a case study at Harvard. There are similar examples across various fields: for instance, tech expert Michael Arrington’s blog on Silicon valley startups, TechCrunch, was sold to AOL for $30 million. Closer home, we have Mumbai-based Malini Agarwal, whose MissMalini is one of the biggest Bollywood gossip sites.
Can Little Black Book make it big on the global map? From the looks of it, it could be heading there.
(The article was originally published in 15 March-14 June special issue of the magazine.)