In 2017, Anirudh Singla was a BITS Pilani engineering student chasing a writing internship. Three years later, Singla, along with Pepper Content co-founder Rishabh Shekhar, found himself on the cover of a business magazine.
How did two 20-something-year old entrepreneurs manage to create a product that today is not only backed by an marquee venture capital firm like Lightspeed Venture Partners India, but also works in a space that has thousands of content creators?
On the surface, Pepper is a content creation platform that helps freelance designers and writers match with businesses looking for solutions.
Pepper, however, has been keen to not confine itself to that label. By tracking the product from inception to delivery, the company says it ensures customers get quality content while creators can focus on work instead of worrying about payments.
Also, over the past three years, the company has focused on building its technology backbone.
The platform is similar to an ecommerce website, where customers can place an order for the type of content they are looking for, including blog ideas, posts, write-ups for product descriptions for websites or social media content. At the back end, the order automatically gets assigned to the best fit writer, judged on several metrics and parameters including industry, content verticals, timelines, subject expertise and tonalities. Ultimately, the creator gets to accept or reject the offer.
“Once accepted, we offer them with the tools on our platform and they (writers) get a structured brief. After submission the text goes to a reviewer, who is responsible for maintaining quality of the content on a freelance basis. He is like an editor. Then it goes to customers. Till date, Pepper has done over 200,000 pieces. This year want to reach 500,000,” Singla, the company’s CEO told TechCircle.
Automating the content creation process has helped the company sustain business amid the pandemic.
“We productised the service. We automated a lot of manual processes in the entire operations. The business scaled phenomenally well during Covid. We helped brands get expertise content. Pepper Content accelerates content development timeline,” he added.
To give an idea of the scale, Singla said the startup once created 1,200 long-from SEO content pieces in a month for an edtech company. Similarly, it partnered with a university creating 75 books of 150,000 words each in two months.
“As we started scaling, we generated Rs 1.25 crore total revenue in FY19 for 40,000 content pieces. We created structures on Google docs, gathered data, had 200-300 writers working with us then. We thought that would be a great opportunity if productised well. That’s when we invested in technology solutions,” Singla said.
PepperType.Ai -- a cure for the proverbial writer’s block?
Anyone who has ever had to write generate content has probably dealt with the dreaded ‘writer’s block’ -- a condition that is usually fixed with several cups of coffee and last-minute panic.
PepperType.AI, the company’s AI-assisted content creation tool, attempts to fix the issue of ideation (minus the angry calls from editors).
The tool was launched in February this year and helps customers with short-form content like headline generation, social media post, captions topic selection, blog ideas and rephrasing paragraphs. As of now the product has over 30 customers and over 10,000 plus sign ups.
The tool is highly contextual and keeps on updating itself through machine learning. But at the user end keywords have to proper, Singla said. Most of the customers using this tool are marketers, advertisers and creators.
Powering the hustle culture
At an age when students, especially those in top engineering colleges like BITS Pilani, chase internships at technology conglomerates, Singla looked for opportunities in the content space.
He spent his summer vacation after first year of college freelancing with digital news platform YourStory as well as Upwork and Fiverr. By the time he went back to college in 2017, he already had his startup idea ready. His hustle days as a writer taught him that brands were looking for quality written content and were increasingly taking their online presence seriously.
Singla then teamed up with friend and batchmate Rishabh Shekhar along with Parv Panthari and Adi Mittal to turn content creation into a service. The team got their first client, a digital marketing agency, in November 2017, right before their semester examinations were scheduled to begin. Although the budget was small, the group jumped at the offer to build their work portfolio.
“We got Rs 15,000 for it. We tried to look for writer but then had to write all the articles ourselves. The deal was for 200 articles, 500 words each. All four sat from 10 PM at night everyday till 4 AM in the morning and wrote those articles. Then we went for exams 8 AM in the morning. The topic was around automobiles, and we didn’t have any knowledge. We managed to do and retain the client. We had a long professional relationship,” COO Shekhar said.
Back then, the team wasn’t using any back-end technology to create content pieces. “The bigger problem we were trying to solve then was on the content side as it was always a challenge to find high quality writers for brands. Brands were always looking to outsource and scale content. Finding best fit creators and dealing with them was a problem. Our business idea was to solve for delivery and own up quality,” Singla said.
By the time the group left college, Panthari and Mittal went on to pursue different careers, while Singla and Shekhar have been scaling the business.
But the challenges for the duo were just about to begin. “In the initial days, the most difficult part running a startup was whether people would take us seriously. Businesses we reached out to wouldn’t take us seriously. We even had to hide our age. Only after reaching a couple of rounds of funding people started taking us seriously,” Shekhar said, adding, “When you are young, people try to intimidate you when you try to raise fund. But those also turned out to be some good learnings.”
Funding, revenue model
The company has so far raised $4.5 million in total funding. Key investors include Lightspeed Venture Partners India, Balaji Srinivasan (Coinbase CTO), UpWork co-founder Beerud Sheth, YourStory and Unacademy founder Gaurav Munjal among others. The startup was first incubated in TiE Pune’s Nurture Program in 2019.
Pepper earns on a commission basis, split between the startup and the freelancers working with it. The pricing is estimated depending on the formats, size and subject matter. The company is now working on introducing graphic designing tools and language capabilities. Post that the startup will work on video content creation tools.
Pepper’s clients include Unacademy, GradeUp, UpGrad, Shiksha.com, Amazon, Adobe, Apollo Hospital, HDFC Bank, Razorpay, Groww, Dunzo and Swiggy, to name a few. Overall Pepper Content is currently working with 800 plus brands across startups, mid-sized enterprises and bigger brands. In terms of industries, top contributors to business are edtech, BFSI, and healthcare. “Around 18 out of the top 20 edtech companies in India are our clients,” Singla said.
While India remains the core market, the Singla wants to expand the business to the US in the longer term.