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December 23, 1999
Her Cup of Tea
Move over Java, its time for the Pekoe Black from Darjeeling. The 40 people who work with Bhana Grover in Chaitime.com's office in Philadelphia get high on brainstorming and getting thousands of new visitors to their site. Call it mixing chai and creativity.
Her readers may or may not like the original brew but only months after she launched the desi web site, Chaitime.com founder and chief executive officer Bhana Grover says she is already getting seven million page views a month.
Chaitime.com targets the South Asian community with its web site, designed to get people to network, access information, shop online, debate issues, send cards, match-make and even swap stories of horror dates.
"My background is design so I am very interested in the visual presentation of Chaitime," says 31-year-old Grover.
"The colors we choose are very Indian. Even the name has been selected so as to connote a place where the seriousness of a cup of chai mixes with the vibrancy which comes from the combination of spices and milk in it.''
The idea of an all-Indian web site occurred to Grover when she started Niche Media Inc, a multimedia company in 1996. The company created CD-ROM applications to educate Indian children on their heritage.
With the experience she gained working on multimedia presentations like The Story of Ganesha, The Taj Mahal Storybook and Playground, Grover figured she wanted to create a place where Indians living anywhere in the world could meet, chat and exchange ideas and information.
Grover knew there were several Indian web sites trying to do some things she had in mind, but she did not find them very impressive.
"What was missing was the community atmosphere and the vibrancy so typical of any south Asian culture,'' she says. This was towards the end of 1998.
By 1999 Grover had already raised the money for her project. Her inspiration comes from the subzi mandis of northern India, says the Delhi-born entrepreneur.
"The entire place is so energetic that I hope we put (similar) energy into creating this online community."
Chaitime, apart from its offerings on the web, also reaches out to the community with events held by NetIP. The high profile ones have been breakfast meetings with high-achievers like Desh Deshpande of Sycamore, Rakesh Gangwal of USAir and lectures on how to balance personal life and career.
"The challenges are now in keeping up with the growth level. These are very exciting times, and after each event we are constantly thinking about how we could top it," she says.
With Grover's background it wasn't difficult convincing the corporate world to pump in the money. She has a degree in retail management and design from Drexel University. She has continued her education at the Sorbonne, the Parsons School of Design and the Annenberg and Wharton Schools at the University of Pennsylvania.
With RAF Ventures backing it up with $ 5 million, Chaitime has succeeded in making its presence felt amidst the Internet-savvy Indians in India and in North America.
"We are targeting South Asians globally, not just in India. Our audience is mainly in the 15 to 34 age group and while 70 per cent are South Asians residing in North America, a sizeable 30 per cent log in from India,'' she says.
Ask her about competitors and she dismisses it with "Basically it is all about creating online communities and no one is approaching that now. So I'll borrow from AOL when they say our competitor is none other than the weather."
The web site hosts channels like interactive games, breaking news, music to download, chat rooms and free e-mail. Besides, with astrology, Bollywood and a bargaining area (where you can buy or sell products) channels, chaitime seems to have something for everyone.
The most popular channels at chaitime, however, seem to be the college life section, Bollywood, marriage matching and literature. With the boom in South Asian literature, book discussions too have found a ready audience.
"We have South Asian romance novels by Bobby Mehta online and the ones who are avidly reading them are the 40-plus. I meet them at parties and they get after me wanting to know what happens next," she says with a chuckle.
"Another popular site is where the issues of the day are discussed. There were 150 posts about the Pope's visit to India," she says.
"We presented opinions on both sides of the debate. Another touchy one was on having South Asian names (in America), they went on and on. Our effort is to combine the traditional with the modern and people appreciate that. They like to have a choice where east and west is combined. Because the concept of Internet is so global anyway it makes sense to have a good mix."
What's brewing ahead for chaitime?
"We are going to expand our channels further. Beauty and health are going to figure prominently in the coming year. A singles party is being organized in January and in March we are having a wedding special, focusing on South Asian weddings -- from the clothes to be worn to the actual ceremony.
"I got married last year, so I know it will be hugely popular,'' says Bhana Grover laughing.
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