From Facebook page to a $550M media startup: How InShort’s Founder-CEO Azhar Iqubal became a Shark

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Azhar Iqubal is the co-founder of the Indian media application InShorts, which gives bite-sized news in under 60 words. Today, InShorts has raised about $165M, has a $550M valuation, has a whopping 10M+ daily users, and employs more than 500 people; its success has also led to making Azhar Iqbal a judge at Shark Tank India. 

But if you look deeper, its founder, Azhar, has an interesting story and a unique business philosophy that centers around simplifying things, especially in business. He says that the world is quite simple, as we humans tend to complicate things unnecessarily. 

So, let’s dive right in and see what he means by keeping things “simple,” but for that, we have to start from the very beginning. 

Azhar Iqubal’s Education & Early Days

Azhar is an India-born entrepreneur, but where Azhar hails from is not a big metro-city like the capital, Delhi, or the city of dreams, Mumbai, or the tech hub Bangalore. Iqbal, on the other hand, was born in Kishanganj district in Bihar, India, which is amongst less progressive and accessible places in India. 

To provide some background information, Bihar has a low literacy rate of 62%, a low work participation rate of 33.4%, and a high poverty rate of 26.9% with 26.9% of the population living below the poverty line.

In those circumstances, Azhar spent about 15 years of his life, after which he moved to Delhi, a more progressive place in India and also its capital, where he started preparing for engineering entrance exams. 

However, Azhar was a bright student and managed to get into India’s most prestigious engineering college, IIT (Indian Institute Of Technology-Delhi), a college also known for breeding some of the brightest Indian entrepreneurs.

The Indian youth were embracing the new startup culture, which was popularized by the success of Flipkart, an online e-commerce store similar to Amazon, founded by Sachin and Binny Bansal.

They were also IIT students, which further inspired many other IIT students to pursue entrepreneurship. Today, the Flipkart “mafia” is to the Indian entrepreneurship scene what the PayPal mafia is to Silicon Valley. That’s the impact that culture and good leaders can have! 

Moving on, Azhar contemplated dropping out of IIT after three years of education there, as he wasn’t able to perform at the top level there and wasn’t achieving good ranks in his class. So, according to him, he wanted to do something he excelled at, and in the competitive space of IIT-Delhi, that wasn’t happening. 

Source: finowings

Acting on his competitive nature, he didn’t want to do something he was “average” at. So, in 2011, while he was in college, he started thinking of some business ideas, but nothing struck until he got the idea of serving news in under 60 words.

MVP over Surveys

Azhar Iquabal is of the belief that doing surveys about whether people want a certain product or not is useless because of the subjectivity involved and that people don’t know what they want until you show it to them. 

Instead, he suggests launching a miniature version of your product and see if people are using it or not. So, even for InShorts, Azhar and his team initially created a Facebook page, where they used to give bite-sized news in no more than 60 words. The idea was to give digestible news in simple words.

Within just a week, this Facebook page became decently famous on two IIT campuses. Getting recognition on campus gave him a strong proof of concept. Seeing this simple growth, he and his team developed an application called “News In Shorts” in three months and started treating it like a business.

Starting with a Small Goal

Just a short while into their journey, three graduates (Azhar Iqubal,  Anunay Arunav, and Deepit Purkayastha) from the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) were accepted into a startup accelerator supported by the Times Internet group. This program offered them deep insights into entrepreneurship and building a thriving business.

Source: Your Story

In due course, these three companions embarked on their entrepreneurial path by introducing their news application, Inshorts, in 2013. Their ambition was to captivate the audience's interest, encouraging them to dedicate a minimum of five minutes daily to their app.

The Simple Idea Behind InShorts: What’s The Problem That It Solves?

News In Shorts, in 2013, was trying to solve two simple problems of Indian news/media:

  • Firstly, the articles were too long, and thousands of articles on the same topic were published daily, so the competition was huge, and the readers had very little time. So News In Shorts presented a small 60-word summary of the story, that’s perfect for the short attention span of Gen-Zs and millennials. 
  • The articles by the mainstream news are opinionated, so News In Shorts, now In Shorts, provides simple information in a readable format without any opinion, tht the reader can read under 30 seconds. 

Raising Funding & Expanding

Their venture took off in 2013 with support from the TLabs incubator, soon attracting seed funding from Times Internet and a cohort of angel investors, including the founders of Flipkart. 

By 2015, InShorts secured Rs 25 crore in Series A funding from Tiger Global and Rebright Partners, followed by a substantial Rs 127 crore in Series B funding led by Tiger Global just four months later. 

Opting to keep the platform free of advertisements, the startup prioritized refining its product and growing its user base. Shifting its emphasis and undergoing a rebrand from News in Shorts to Inshorts, the company aimed to broaden its content spectrum beyond just news.

Furthermore, Inshorts expanded its capabilities by acquiring Retention.ai, a data analytics firm that enables app developers to understand user engagement better.

The Simple Business Model Behind InShorts

Inshorts operates on a model that offers its services for free to end users while generating revenue through B2B advertising channels. Azhar explained that brands often engage in annual contracts for both advertisements and sponsored content, with costs based on the number of impressions (views) and engagements (likes and shares) they receive. 

The platform specializes in delivering ads through six non-disruptive formats, like banner ads, magazine format, previews, etc. 

Source: InShorts

Designer cards provide a full-screen advertising experience with the option to use images, GIFs, or videos, while banner cards are strategically placed above or below articles, ensuring high visibility, especially for product launches.

Next, the 60-word format allows advertisers to convey their message concisely, complemented by an image or video. It closely mirrors Inshorts' editorial content style and offers a native advertising experience, clearly marked with the advertiser's name.

A banner ad on InShorts

InShorts charges about INR 1-1.5M, which is roughly USD12-15,000 per day for a banner ad, and about INR 2M or USD24,000/day for a magazine ad. Today, after ten years of being in the business, Inshorts has been profitable since 2018 and has a 50% profit margin. 

Azhar’s Philosophy Behind The Growth

Azhar Iqubal considers the simple repeat users metric to be its north-star metric. He says that even if there are ten users using your product, if they are coming back, then that’s a success, and the business will continue to grow.

Second, ‘daily users’ is the other important metric that Azhar considers his north star. InShorts currently has 10M+ daily users. Azhar also focuses on creating exceptional content that keeps people coming back. 

Lastly, as we mentioned above, Azhar is huge on simplicity, which can also be seen in InShort’s hygienic business model and profitability. 

What’s Next For Azhar Iqubal?

Azhar Iqubal just appeared in Shark Tak India as a “Shark”/judge and invested in many startups on the show. 

Other than that, he also recently launched his new media app, called Public, which is a short-form video app for local cities in India.
For context, India is huge, with 28 states, 8 union territories, and 400 cities, where a population of 1.4B people reside and speak about 780 languages. Having a local media that speaks directly to this regional audience in their specific language is nothing short of revolutionary. 

Conclusion

Azhar’s journey from a small district in India to dropping out of IIT and becoming the CEO and founder of one of the fastest-growing internet companies in India is nothing short of inspiring. The most interesting part is that his journey is built on very simple fundamentals of the business of profitability, scalability, MVP-testing, and problem-solving and is based on a very straightforward business plan. It’s also true that he had a good first-movers advantage over a viral and disruptive product idea. 

That proves that all you need is a simple idea and a clean execution, and over time, things can work out for you. Hope you liked this article. Thank you for reading. 

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