Deepak Kapoor is not a lawyer. His career path starts with a steering wheel manufacturer before moving on to a petrochemical industry and later, a financial services company. Teaming up with Sanjiv Saraf, he started Manupatra, India’s most recognizable online legal precedent database.
Deepak Kapoor is not a lawyer. His career path starts with a steering wheel manufacturer before moving on to a petrochemical industry and later, a financial services company. Teaming up with Sanjiv Saraf, he started Manupatra, India’s most recognizable online legal precedent database. As of today, he is giving Lexis Nexis and Westlaw a run for their money. Bar & Bench converses with the Chief Executive Director and Founder of Manupatra.
The road to Manupatra
I commenced my career with Sona Steering Systems, an auto ancillary company in 1987. I recall being the first employee of the company and was involved with the promoter in every aspect of the company’s operation ranging from project implementation, financing, accounts, purchases etc. After 2 years with Sona, I moved to India Glycols, another green field venture.
In 1994, I joined 20th Century Finance Corporation and was instrumental in opening the Delhi office and subsequently, another 10 offices across North India. From a one-man show, I took the manpower in the company to over 50 in North India. I also played a key role in raising a $47 million “India Direct Fund”, a private equity fund for investment in start up/mid cap companies and also served on the Investment Committee of the Fund.
These green field ventures proved to be my learning ground on how to create organizations from “ground zero”. I learnt to tackle wide range of issues across various divisions including human resource, accounts, administration, technical, etc. This experience proved beneficial in setting up Manupatra.
The Manupatra idea
In 2000, I joined hands with Sanjiv Saraf (CMD of Polyplex Corporation) to start a BPO. During that time Polyplex was involved in several anti-dumping litigations in the US and had hired several law firms in the US. The legal fee of these US law firms included payments made by these firms to Lexis-Nexis and Westlaw. We noticed that at times, almost 50 percent of the legal fee was for services provided by Lexis-Nexis and Westlaw to these US firms. That is when we realized the potential of Manupatra.
Setting up Manupatra
We spent about 2 years focusing on obtaining past precedents and had a phase wise approach to updating legal judgments and analysis. We faced several logistical issues at the initial stages. We met the Registrar, the Library Committee members of the Supreme Court and various High Courts and started building relationships. We realized that only Supreme Court judgments were numbered, while High Court judgments were not numbered and therefore it was difficult to track judgments.
The Dotcom bust
The Manupatra idea was conceived during the dotcom boom phase and was launched at a time when the dotcom bubble had just burst. Dotcoms were falling like nine-pins. To make matters worse, the media loved to write about ventures that were going down. Manupatra was born amidst this meltdown. However, even in the middle of the weak sentiments for dotcom companies, we realized that we were providing information which was required for business and there was value add to the end customers. There was clear visibility of return on investment for lawyers, whether law firm or a sole practicing advocate.
Around the same time, every second person was either working on a legal portal or was planning to start one. Coming up with a domain name with a quick recall value and clear identity took us 3 months.
We launched Manupatra in phases. We targeted the Mumbai market in the first phase as we realized that there was huge real estate pressure for law firms to maintain a large library. We targeted smaller subscriptions and gave timelines for adding services in terms of reporting previous judgments. We also sponsored a conference organized by the Society of Indian Law firms (SILF), which was held in Goa in 2001. This event gave us the visibility and every law firm and advocate participating in the conference signed up with Manupatra.
Today, Manupatra has 70 full time employees, 50 freelancers and two independent contractors .The company has offices in 12 locations in addition to the headquarters at Noida. The total user base is estimated at over 45,000 and growing.
Big B and Manupatra
This was during the soft launch way back in August 2001 at Mumbai. Ghoolam E. Vahanavati (the current AG of India) had done the honours at Oberoi’s Ball Room. After the launch when we were packing up, one of the Oberoi’s staff members came up to us and said, “Congrats, your product will be a great success.” We asked him what made him so confident, and his reply made us smile. “Amitabh Bachhan had officially launched ‘Kaun Banega Crorepati’ a year back in the same room and he sat exactly in the same place and in the same position from where we launched our product.” Nine years on, there are many times when we remember his words.
Many people had left stable jobs and were lured by the big bucks of the dot coms, and after the burst, those very people were without jobs. We ran the risk of someone walking off with our content, which was our investment.
Our staff has a free hand to learn and perform. Individuals who have shown potential have gone ahead to lead the respective teams. If an individual has not been able to take on the higher responsibilities the same is not held against them. The company promotes a culture of giving every employee a rope and pulls it only if the same is abused. In my experience in most instances the employees have not abused the freedom. However, rare instances where such freedom is abused, we as a company do not take a lenient view.
Some legal websites had collected money from subscribers and later disappeared. Therefore, we knew that it would be difficult for us to convince potential subscribers to pay upfront for one year. We had to come up with a variety of subscription packages in addition to the annual package. The line to the skeptical users was, “Try us out for a month, see if we survive and deliver all that we promise, then decide to renew.” A number of our early subscribers, who started with a monthly package, today subscribe annually for multiple licenses.
In India, traditionally legal products were sold through booksellers. We were convinced that the bookseller cannot sell an online product and they would never do justice to the service levels we wanted to extend to our users. Thus, we set up our captive ‘feet on the street’. In 2004, to penetrate the smaller markets and familiarize such markets with brand Manupatra, we launched the CD ROM along with the online version.
The next level…
We started as a database company, but along the way we realised that case laws were becoming a commodity, which over a period of time will be available free of charge. The key-differentiating factor will be value enhancement, service and technology. We take pride in the fact that we have set service level yardsticks in the Indian industry, which will not be easy to breach. There is no official system for citation, and as of now, it is based on the popularity of the publication. It is great to see many High Court Judges and Supreme Court Judges cite Manupatra in the judgments.
In the online business, we have to keep adapting to the changes and stay ahead of customer’s requirements by about two years. In this regard, we are investing in new generation technology such as intuitive search platforms, which will improve the search tool.
While the database business is our mainstay, we are looking at educational initiatives and creating a template documents for the common man who uses rent agreements, lease deeds etc. We intend to leverage the brand Manupatra and identify business/ projects, which have a synergy with Manupatra Education, and business-to-consumer projects. These will be our next big things.
Lexis Nexis and Westlaw vs. Manupatra
We have the first mover advantage in the Indian legal market. We also have a comprehensive information portal and benefit from a loyal customer base. The ‘feet on street’ strategy has worked very well for brand Manupatra. Our reliance on home grown management has paid off very well, as against hiring management from overseas, which is the model largely followed by our competitors Lexis Nexis and Westlaw.
Internationally, Lexis Nexis and Westlaw have far superior technologies and they have invested in excess of $1 billion (Rs. 4,500 crore). However, I think our reach and distribution network in India is wider. Also, we have understood the Indian lawyer very well. We have invested time and effort in reaching out and are confident that we will continue to be the leaders in the market. We aim to double our revenue and subscriber base every two years. We are also intending to tie up with hardware vendors and bundle our software to target lawyers to increase visibility.
Advice to entrepreneurs
These are some of the things I have learnt from my experience. Lead from the front and don’t panic at adversity. I see most entrepreneurs are in a hurry to sell off. Be passionate and not emotional. Choose your investor or partner carefully and inculcate the spirit of entrepreneurship in every employee.