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Dear God! Divinity goes digital with OnlinePrasad

Jul 11 2013, 19:34   |   By SME Mentor

Radhika Saxena

If cell phones, airline tickets, apparel and groceries can be purchased online, can faith and divinity be far behind, especially in a country as deeply religious as India? A small-town boy from West Bengal has jumped on to the rapidly growing e-commerce bandwagon and is shipping prasad from temples across India to devotees who cannot personally visit their favourite shrines.

An engineer from BITS Pilani and a former analyst at a management consulting firm, Mall invested Rs 10 lakh as seed capital from his personal savings and launched his venture, OnlinePrasad.com, in January 2012.

After logging into the portal, devotees can choose a temple where they want to make an offering and the day on which they want the prasad to be offered. Mall's on-ground team then makes the offering and the start-up ships the prasad to the devotee within a week from the date of offering.

"While growing up, I used to regularly visit the Karni Mata Temple (Rat Temple) with my family in my native village in Rajasthan. But on a visit in 2011, I was taken aback at the chaos surrounding my simple desire to visit the temple. The sheer number of devotees made the experience painful," says the 25-year-old entrepreneur.

Scalable Model

"I looked at the younger generation who is too busy to queue up for hours at a temple as well as at elders, for whom visiting a temple is a desire that may not be physically possible any more," explains Mall. He started with one temple in Rajasthan in January 2012 and by March, he had added three more temples from the same state. As the number of temples on his list grew, Mall realised this model was indeed scalable.

Today, OnlinePrasad.com ships prasad from 35 temples across India, the majority located in North India. The current focus is on the larger, more popular temples which include Vaishnodevi, Shirdi, Puri, Kalighat and Vrindavan in the north, and Palani and Tirupati temples among a few others in the South.

Logistics! Logistics! Logistics!

Although the process may seem simple enough, the backend is extremely complex, confesses Mall. Temples have varying styles of functioning, which means a process that works at one temple may not work at another. "At Vrindavan, we have tie-ups with vendors outside the temple since prasad needs to be bought outside. However, at the Palani temple in Tamil Nadu, sealed boxes of prasad are given to devotees inside the temple," he explains.

Temples in remote areas of the country are a huge challenge. This means the prasad needs to be transported to the closest place with access to courier services before it can be shipped to the customer.

Usually, Mall uses local courier networks to send the prasad from the temple to the nearest big city. He then switches to larger logistics players to ensure timely deliveries. And where there is no courier access, the start-up depends on the Indian postal service!

"An opened, half-eaten box of prasad received by one of our early customers meant we needed to vastly improve our packaging. An OnlinePrasad delivery box now comes with five layers of standard packaging that helps keep the prasad intact," mall says.

Revenue Model

Their pricing model is simple - a customer is charged Rs 501 for half a kilo of prasad that can be sent from any temple to any part of the country. Payments are mainly collected online or via cash collection through partners like GharPay, another start-up in the offline cash collection business.

Mall's primary target market is the 40-plus age group and his young start-up has shipped over 4,000 orders in India and even some overseas. Most of OnlinePrasad's customers come via word-of-mouth and 50 per cent of their monthly orders come from repeat customers.

Mall claims the company is growing month-on-month by 30 per cent and says he hopes break even over the 2-3 years.

"We connect with our customers through e-mailers, blogs and social media and have over 70,000 fans on Facebook," explains Mall, who also uses education as a clever marketing tool. OnlinePrasad.com runs a blog where the team shares stories and legends associated with various temples. It is also a vehicle to inform customers about upcoming religious occasions, when they can order prasad.

Interestingly, 50 per cent of orders come from Tier II towns.

Money Matters

OnlinePrasad.com was incubated by Chandigarh-based accelerator, The Morpheus, which invested Rs 5 lakh for a 7-12 per cent stake in the company. Mall used the money to travel to temples, and on marketing, technology, hiring a small team for operations and to manage a call centre.

Then, in March-April 2013, K Ganesh, a serial technology entrepreneur and founder of TutorVista, and his wife Meena invested an undisclosed sum in OnlinePrasad for a 35-per cent stake in the venture. "We will use these funds to grow our operations, on marketing and building a quality team," says Mall.

However, to stabilise revenue flow, OnlinePrasad is diversifying to include other product offerings like idols, gemstones and rudrakshas. Mall envisions this as a marketplace of sorts and these products will probably be launched under a parallel brand name called 'Zevotion'.

Mall smiles and says he is not trying to short-change God wit his venture. "The feeling of actually going to a temple is completely different. We're not trying to replicate that. But if you can't go there yourself, we're saying this is the next best thing."

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