India Calling: Can India’s JustDial Make it in the US?

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There is one word used over and over again in India to describe JustDial: Addictive.

Said one entrepreneur I spoke with, “My mom lives in a village. I didn’t even know she’d heard of JustDial and recently she was telling me she’s addicted to it. She says before she can even think of what it is she wants to know, they’ve already picked up the phone and answered the question for her.”

The idea is simple: You call up and within the first ring a real person picks up the phone, you ask them for any business listing – in any category – and within 45 seconds they email or text you the information or, if you prefer, connect the call. The company will end its fiscal year at the end of March with some $32 million in revenues having answered 72 million calls in the last year. That call volume is increasing by 40%, so the company expects to break 100 million calls in the next year. In a country where nearly everyone has a mobile phone but just 50 million people have Internet access, JustDial is essentially Google and 411 rolled together.

But what will it be in the U.S.? We’ll find out today. After several months of tweaking the service and building out the database, JustDial is officially launching its free 411-like service here on the number 1-800-JUSTDIAL with a huge Facebook ad campaign starting momentarily. Sound way too low-tech for high-tech, always-on, smart-phone connected America? Well Sequoia Capital doesn’t think so. Having already funded the company in India, Sequoia has taken an additional 15% stake in the US operation. Founder and CEO V.S.S. Mani (pictured above, in one of his call centers) was in Silicon Valley last December where Sequoia kingpin Mike Moritz himself blessed the deal after some initial reservations, Mani told me over dinner at a posh, beach-side restaurant in Mumbai last week. The Sand Hill Road pow-wow was quite a moment for him.

The move is a direct volley at a service like GOOG-411, which has opted to do the same thing, but using voice recognition software. But Mani is betting that nothing beats a human voice with a quick answer.

He started this company for the first time back in 1989, having just dropped out of school to become a CPA. It was way too ahead of its time, especially considering you had to apply for a phone line (and wait years to get it) in India and cell phones were non-existent. The company eventually folded. He started it again in 1996, having waited a year for an Indian landline, and hoping and praying he could land his first choice of number: 888-8888. “I didn’t sleep for two days,” Mani says. “I knew if I got the number my future would be assured. I was waking up in the middle of the night to make sure the line was working.” He got it, but because of the growth of phone lines in India since, there are now a few extra 8s on the end.

The company makes money from small businesses paying up to be sponsored listings, when someone, say, calls for a plumber much like Google. JustDial has more than 100,000 of them and, similar to Google, they only pay when they get a lead from the service. The company has raised $46 million to date from Sequoia, Tiger Venture and SAIF, but Mani says it’s all still in the bank. He’s grown the company to this size out of revenues and his initial $1,000 investment.

For now, JustDial’s US operations will be handled out of India, where the company employs some 4,000 people but, in a twist to the direction most call center jobs are flowing, Mani plans to hire up big in the US—up to 1,000 people mostly in under-employed, rural areas. “We need a big presence in the US very soon,” Mani says. That right– an Indian company will be creating call center jobs in the US.

This is more than just business expansion for Mani—this is validation. He’s long thought the ultimate proof-point of JustDial’s obsessively quick user experience would be success in the ultra-wired US market. Unlike in India, the US already has multiple ways to find business listings. JustDial is no longer in the business of low-hanging fruit—with today’s move JustDial has to be more than the only option to win, it has to be the best.

(Photo: Geoffrey Ellis)

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