Sunday, 30 October 2011

Education gateway to economic growth: Badri Seshadri, Co-founder, New Horizon Media

India may be the most linguistically diverse nation on earth, but its regional-language publishing landscape resembles a barren Sahara. It is in this inhospitable terrain that Badri Seshadri and his company New Horizon Media pitched a tent with the mission of slaking ordinary Indians' thirst for knowledge.

Seven years into their adventure, Seshadri and his co-founder friend K Satyanarayan are materialising a market out of thin air, having pioneered an innovative model of distributing books while evangelising reading along the way.

New Horizon, based in Chennai, is the second entrepreneurial venture of Seshadri and Satyanarayan: they teamed up to start, the home of cricket on the web which is now owned by ESPN. When it was time to start something again, they decided to write down on a piece of paper what they would do and what not.

"The first thing we said was 'no IT'. We looked at education but the regulatory environment is not conducive for ethical entrepreneurs. The closest thing to education is publishing, and we settled on it," says Seshadri, 41, who studied mechanical engineering at IIT-Madras and Cornell University. "We have run with zero bribes. That was something we were very particular about."

New Horizon started by publishing books in Tamil and the expectation was that it would quickly cover other Indian languages. With about 1,500 titles, mostly non-fiction, it is the biggest Tamil book-publisher. But making it work in just Tamil has proven such a challenge that other Indian languages will have to wait.

That is because Seshadri found that most ordinary Indians were not as thirsty for knowledge as he hoped. Even his sales staff did not read newspapers, let alone books.

"I keep saying, 'Hey, why don't you start reading the books you sell?' Those who have stuck around have started reading." To inculcate the reading habit among his sales staff, the best performers among them will be rewarded with tablet computers. And, in future, customers of New Horizon could even be given a tablet PC free along with the purchase of afew dozen books.

Unlike most other regional publishing shops in which the proprietor is little more than a postman who moves manuscripts and published work back and forth, New Horizon has a staff of 80 providing the full complement of publishing services: they commission ideas, edit and proofread manuscripts and carry out sales.

The company will end the financial year in March 2012 with sales of Rs 7.5 crore and a small profit. New Horizon is backed by Sridhar Vembu, the US-based founder of Zoho, a provider of the eponymous online office suite.

"We are building up a bank of intellectuals and writers and want to be a first port of call for any English publisher who wants his books in Tamil and other Indian languages," says Seshadri, who wants books to also educate people on current affairs and trigger discussions on issues of significance.

New Horizon sells it books through some 2,500 outlets in Tamil Nadu, about four-fifths of which are co-located with other shops such as department stores or news marts. The high cost of real estate means that even large bookstores selling popular titles are finding it difficult to afford prime localities in major cities. "If I take 500 sq ft, I'll be thrown out very soon because somebody will pay thrice the rent I can."

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