An interview with Hareesh Tibrewala, Joint CEO, Social Wavelength

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Social Wavelength is currently India’s largest social media agency. Jointly founded in 2009 by Hareesh Tibrewala and Sanjay Mehta, Social Wavelength handles some of the most prestigious brands in the market. The agency has grown at a staggering speed since its inception and the name is very popular in the market. I caught up with Hareesh Tibrewala for an exclusive interview at Social Wavelength’s Vikhroli office.

How did the idea of starting a Social Media agency come to you?

For last 10-12 years, Sanjay Mehta and I have been following the internet space very closely. In 2008, we could see the Facebook evolution in US market. We also heard that some brands were keen on leveraging Social Media to boost their business. Around that time, I came across a book by Charlene Li, titled Groundswell. The book was a sweet revelation of what really was happening in the internet world. With the world becoming a connecting space with Facebook and Twitter, we realized that there was an opportunity. We did not really know what exactly was to be done, but the idea was to start somewhere and carve our own way.

Have you been involved in any other entrepreneurial venture before this? If yes, how has the experience been different from the current?

I think of myself as a serial entrepreneur. Social Wavelength is my third venture. The 1st venture was an HR Consultancy Firm that was set up with my father. The 2nd venture, Homeindia, was set up by Sanjay Mehta and me. It was an online e-retail firm.

The difference in experience has not really been substantial. All ventures started at zero level with minimum capital. Whatever experience was gained in the first 2 ventures was definitely useful in the 3rd venture. Homeindia was a completely new business which is very much what Social Wavelength has been. The overall experience has been continuing rather than different.

Social Wavelength is in its fourth year. You started with a vision in your mind. Has it turned out the way it was planned initially?

Most certainly the vision has turned out as expected. Before we started Social Wavelength, Sanjay and I discussed the revenues for the first 3 years. Now looking back, it has definitely surpassed our targets.

Social Wavelength won some major awards in the SM field. Could you take us through them?

Social Wavelength has won two distinct awards.

Red Herring Asia 100 award is given to companies with innovative business model and demonstrating a higher growth rate. It was a great high for us to be invited to Hong Kong and actually win the award. Red Herring is an internationally recognized award with the likes of Microsoft and Google being previous recipients. The Red Herring branding itself gives us a pedigree.

The 2nd award was WAT Award Social Media Agency of the year. The award gives us a distinction among our competitors and peers. There is no victory sweeter than your peers telling you that you are the best in the industry.

How do you see India as a market for Social Media now and in future?

I don’t see Social Media as a new activity. It is more of a communication channel, a way of life. Internet is all pervasive. For me, internet or social media is like electricity. It’s going to be everywhere. The opportunity and market is huge. Very soon, we will see social media move to the center of businesses. Far from being a CMO or marketing level issue, it should soon become a CEO level issue.

A lot of agencies are surfacing while a lot are closing down. What according to you is the success formula to stay in the Social media business?

In a capitalist society, there will always be people coming in and going out. It is the whole Darwinian Theory, the survival of the fittest. If you are fastest, fittest, leanest, you will keep on surviving. If the opportunity is good, a lot of people will keep coming in. If I am the only one playing in the space, I should be worried, why is nobody else seeing the pot of gold that I see?

The formula for success is simply creating value. One must create value for employees and clients alike. If we keep on creating values, there will always be room for survival in the eco system.

What are your thoughts on the current Social Media scenario in India?

Right now, India is going up the hype curve. Everybody thinks he can create a Facebook page. But creating a Facebook page is not Social Media. It is much deep rooted science. We will see a time when corrections will start happening in the market and clients will start demanding ROI. There is still time for us to reach that stability level.

How do you see your organization juxtaposed with Social Media market 5-10 years down the line?

When we started, we were closer to a KPO model. Our job was to manage Facebook and Twitter accounts. Now we have shifted to an agency model. We lead with creativity, thoughts, planning and understanding brand requirements. It has been a successful transition so far. Soon we will be making another transition to being KPMG for social media. We will have brand verticals, HR verticals, online research verticals and so on. Brands will require help in each of these categories. Besides giving guidance, we will also be doing a whole lot of execution.

What are your future plans for Social Wavelength? Are you looking to expand to other cities?

We are looking at horizontal and vertical growth. Horizontal growth is expanding to newer cities. We have already expanded to Delhi and Chennai where we have our sales team. In 3 months, we will be expanding to Bangalore. We don’t see ourselves going to US and Europe. Indian market is going to be our prime and only focus.

Vertical expansion, other than brand management, we will be expanding to HR and market research as mentioned earlier. One key area will be business analytics. Recently we tied up with Radian-6 making us authorized resellers for them in India. With their domain knowledge, we want to be able to excavate conversations from Social Media. Can we predict the success of a TV show based on social media interactions? Can we predict the opening of stock market tomorrow by looking at broker conversations today? That is the area we will be moving in the next year’s time.

According to you, how long will it take for the Indian Social Media market to gain recognition worldwide? Do you think there is a certain trait missing when it comes to India based SM agencies?

When it comes to communication, I think there are going to be local people in local countries doing the communication. India may play an important role when it comes to page management or business analytics.

Social media is an evolving field. It takes years for business to develop. We are sitting on a learning curve. Three years from today, we will not be different as compared to other social media entities worldwide.

Many brands are going in-house. What is your take on in-house vs Outsourcing?

Citibank has the capability to do in-house call centre, yet they outsource it. They do it for a good reason.

In a market that is becoming immensely competitive, with very sharp ups and downs, businesses will have to start focusing on core competence. Everything else will get outsourced, HR, finance and communication. I have no reason to believe why social media cannot be outsourced.

If a big brand builds an in-house team of 5 members, it makes sense. But we see so many changes happening in the industry. If the brand has one member for social media, he could not possibly know everything about the media and stay updated all the time.

To create social media strategy, we require planners, designers, visualizers, copywriters and so on.

As an agency, we have access to database and we are trained to think like a brand. So I think the outsourcing model will always work brilliantly.

How do you identify business opportunities and what metrics do you use to measure their viability?

We look at clients based on their proficiency to spend and business to grow. For us the mandate is very clear. If a client comes at level x and has the potential to be 3x by next year, it makes sense for us. We look at clients for following features:

  1. Good understanding of social media
  2. Clear objectives
  3. Serious ambition to leverage social media

Many entrepreneurs complain about not succeeding in business due to lack of adequate funding, what is your take on this matter and how do you cope with funding issues in your business?

In the Indian context, the ecosystem is not well developed. Entrepreneurs are constantly chasing the capital. In American context, capital is chasing the entrepreneurs.

Unless some businessmen do IPOs which puts money in the pocket of investors, they will not come back and reinvest. In last 10 years, too many businesses have been acquired due to substantial IPOs. This happens in US all the time. It will take another 4-5 years for India to evolve in this field.

Being an entrepreneur, one will face plenty of challenges, starting with the lack of funds. I believe that an entrepreneur is the one who can create money without money, work without people and business without clients.

The pricing of services is always an issue for entrepreneurs. Given the fact that new agencies will always pull down the rates, what approach do you take when it comes to pricing?

I think pricing is a function of value creation. If you are creating a value, you should be very confident of demanding your price. Obviously if your pricing is haywire and demands illogical, you will lose the business. Simply put, brands will pay you for creating value.

What 3 pieces of business advice would you give to a first time Social Media entrepreneur?

  1. Keep your feet firmly rooted in ground
  2. Have faith in the power of the medium
  3. Whatever business you build, build a cash positive business

If you had the chance to start your career over again, what would you do differently?

I would probably want to take some corporate experience early in my career. I started business immediately after my graduation. For a long time, I felt that a 2 years experience would have been very useful.

Quick Fire round

Your definition of Social Media.

Focus on social part of it, and not the media part of it. Social Media is all about being helpful, friendly and guiding.

Your favorite Social Media Platform. Why?

Linkedin – It is a place where I get to build good connections and talk to young people. It helps my business too.

Your favorite Social Media campaign, not designed by your own team.

Coke Village by Coca Cola. Social Media is all about brand advocacy and consumer loyalty. I think this campaign leveraged both very well.

How many hours do you work a day on an average?

Close to 16 hours

If you could talk to one person (businessman) from history, who would it be and why?

JRD Tata. He quoted once, “As an industrialist, this work is not mine. I am only a custodian of wealth. This wealth belongs to people of the company and the country.” The level of humility in him is very rare in modern times.

What is your favorite aspect of being a Social Media expert?

 It is the opportunity to talk and engage with numerous people.

A book that has inspired you in recent times. Describe the book.

The Cluetrain Manifesto (2000). A sentence from the book reads, “when you think of internet, don’t think of it as a truck full of billboards. Think of it as a conversation table. It is not about banner ads, it’s about people talking.” It is incredible that someone 10 years back could predict what we see today in social media.

What has been your most satisfying moment at Social Wavelength?

The most satisfying moment would be when we moved to our new office in Vikhroli. The earlier office was divided into small units occupying different rooms on different floors. It is a special joy to see the entire family under one roof now.

In three words, characterize your life as an entrepreneur.

 Passionate, ambitious and hardworking.

Excluding yours, what company do you admire the most?

Infosys and Tata Group

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Uday Mane, best known to many as The Allegorist, is a Social Media expert, planner and consultant who works as a free-lancer. He eats, breathes and lives for his passion of story writing. He is nocturnal and spends most of his night working on romantic, dramatic, and murderous plots that he converts into short stories and publishes on his blog www.theallegorist.wordpress.com
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