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Malini Agarwal: Sitting pretty

2017_feb_maliniagarwal

Image Credit: Yasir Iqbal

On a friend’s suggestion, Malini Agarwal, a former dancer and TV show host, started blogging in 2008. It turned out to be great advice. That blog (MissMalini.com) now draws more than 4 million unique visitors a month, and has over 6 million followers across social media. It has made her perhaps the country’s No. 1 pop culture personality on the Internet.

Initially, the blog was an extension of her long-running gossip column in Mumbai’s Mid-Day tabloid. Malini, 39, had also hosted shows for Channel V and MTV, channels that influenced a generation of cable TV-era kids. She knew her audience well. “People in India did not have a one-stop shop for the sort of content we create,” says Nowshad Rizwanullah, Malini’s husband and CEO of the business. “A millennial character like MissMalini was missing.”

Nowshad, who worked for Nomura and Mahindra Group before joining his wife’s business, first met Malini in 2007 through a social network MissMalini had started in Mumbai for people to meet for fun. Her love story is one that resonates with a generation who use social networks and apps like Tinder and TrulyMadly. (We’ve dropped our usual style of using surnames in homage to the new-age, first-name culture she embodies.)

While Malini drew inspiration from western bloggers such as Perez Hilton, she eschewed the vicious insults and scurrilous gossip that so often blighted the genre for a kinder approach. “Bollywood has always been part of my life,” says Malini. “[Readers] want a fun voice [to relate to] their favourite celebrities.” It was that love for Bollywood that helped her build trust among celebrities and brands. She also stood firm on certain principles. MissMalini doesn’t, for instance, endorse skin-whitening brands.

MissMalini has now moved beyond Bollywood. “We don’t want to be too niche,” she says. In 2014, MissMalini forayed into reality TV. In the age of YouTube cable TV may appear to be a relic, but it offers a viewer base in smaller towns, says Malini.

Nowshad says TV channels approached them because of a lack of content. “We now double as content consultants to brands,” says Mike Melli, a founding team member and now the chief revenue officer. MissMalini’s revenues largely come from brand associations. According to MissMalini, revenue was in excess of $1 million in 2016.

Mike recalls what a tough sell it was in its early days when brands spent just 1% of their budgets on digital marketing. “It took us over two years to educate the market.” It is paying off. When Flipkart entered fashion, it signed a one-year deal with MissMalini. Sujal Shah, an early investor and advisor at MissMalini, has joined forces with MissMalini on Bohostar, a lifestyle e-retailer. “MissMalini provided a unique platform to easily fill the top of the customer funnel with low to no cost of acquisition,” he said in an interview with Business Insider.

Nowshad says MissMalini is in talks with potential Series A investors. Its valuations have jumped many folds from its angel round in 2012, when it raised Rs 1 crore from a clutch of investors including Google India CEO Rajan Anandan. It plans to use the money to replicate its success with Bollywood in South India.