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Three’s Company

In a marketplace littered with specialised services, the brains trust of Ru Ediriwira, Vynsley Fernandes, and Johnjit Ahluwalia have set Castle Media apart by providing a unique bouquet of offerings

By Satyam Nagwekar

The brains behind Castle Media Private Limited (Castle Media) may have had roller-coaster careers but running a company in a dynamic industry is the most exciting thing they have done. Castle Media’s three pillars—Vynsley Fernandes, Ru Ediriwira, and Johnjit Ahluwalia—have remained steadfast in the face of myriad challenges thrown at them. A power couple in the truest sense of the term, Fernandes (executive director) and Ediriwira (CEO) founded the company in 2010. Ahluwalia, also an executive director, joined soon after. The varied technical expertise and the operational excellence the trio brings to the table form the cornerstone of the company. With their unique proposition, it was only a matter of time before the big clients made a beeline for the company’s services.

Background
Fernandes, who is the de facto face of the company, has spent well over 25 years in the media and entertainment industry. “I have been around since the time when television was limited to the VHS process. DD was the only television channel around 1990. I kept job hopping and ended up trying my hand at journalism.” One thing led to another and Fernandes, in the pursuit of new challenges, became the anchor of Business Plus on CNN International for 200-odd episodes, ‘cutting his teeth in journalism.’

The story behind Fernandes’ move to the technology side of the business is intriguing by itself. “So, I moved to work with a company that was looking to set up a business news channel in India. The day I joined CMM International, its global parents went bankrupt. Either I had to eat humble pie and go back to my old job or continue at the new place, which had studios. The owners said, ‘Why don’t you just hang around and help us fix the studios?’” At that point in time, Fernandes had no clue about operations but his best bet was to give it a shot working a double shift.

“I moved to CMM Studios that had tied up with Asia Business News International. As I didn’t know the lay of the land, I had to work twice as much. I started learning technologies. I would offer to carry the camera on my shoulders to a shoot and learnt how to operate a camera because, as a journalist, you tend not to really.” This is how Fernandes gained an insight into the functioning of studios and designing them.

It was at ESPN-Star Sports that Fernandes met Peter Mukerjea, who offered him a position with News Corporation. With his stock rising, Fernandes quickly became the go-to projects man for Star in 1997.

“I moved a lot of the post-production that was being done in Hong Kong for all the Star channels to India at a post-production facility that I helped set up.” He was also instrumental for putting in place a production kit that was used for Kaun Banega Crorepati.

In 2002, Star TV parted ways with NDTV, which did the news for the network. That’s when James Murdoch and Mukerjea set into motion a plan for Star TV’s own news channel. Consequently, Fernandes was appointed the operations director for Star News in India, a position that entailed setting up the end-to-end technology and operations. And that is also when Ahluwalia came on board.

Fernandes and Ahluwalia set up Star News and ran the operations until they stabilised. When News Corporation was looking to set up a DTH platform along with Tata Sons in India, Fernandes was hand-picked to be the principal consultant for the project. He moved to Delhi for a couple of years to help set up Space TV, which was rechristened as Tata Sky, in the company of his good friend Ahluwalia, whose technical expertise paved the way for the DTH project. Fernandes’ travels to the UK to meet the Sky team for orientation with Tata Sky resulted in his meeting Ediriwira, who was a part of the Accenture team that consulted on the project. In 2003, they got married. A hardcore design consultant, Ediriwira thereafter moved to Vodafone UK and eventually headed the design and delivery of the company’s strategic CRM programme.
Around 2005, Mukerjea got funding from investors to set up News X, 9X Media, and 9X Music Asia Pacific. Looking for people, he sought Fernandes’ help to set up the whole technology. In 2007, Fernandes moved to INX as the group operations director.

Starting Up
In 2008, the markets crashed and finance was tight. A lot of networks started going under. INX’s investors said the entire business had to be downsized. Therefore, Fernandes had to migrate the business to a tighter operational model. “It was a gut-wrenching time because we had been through a lot of downsizing.” Finally feeling the toll, Fernandes decided to take a three-month hiatus from INX.

The seed to start Castle Media was sown by a chance encounter on an aircraft. Fernandes, off to an introspective break, met an official from Astro Overseas Limited (Astro) on a flight to Malaysia. Said Fernandes, “He said that they were tying up with a company in India to set up a food channel and asked if I could help, rousing my interest.” Upon calling them on his return, he found out that Astro had been in talks with chef Sanjeev Kapoor to start Food Food, India’s first high-definition channel. Fernandes was asked if he could at least consult to design the technology. Castle Media, which was founded by Fernandes along with Ediriwira subsequently, eventually took on the entire mantle of designing the technology for Food Food.
In another serendipitous occurrence, Fernandes received a call from an old friend working for Airtel who asked if he could help a client in Bangladesh set up a news channel. Banking on the experience of setting up NewsX, Fernandes and the team were game for it. The project involved establishing Bangladesh’s first digital news channel.

“The people in the market today are those who have taken consultancy by profession and are not consultants by choice. It is very hard to get people who have actually worked in the industry, actually designed, built something,” Fernandes pointed out.
“Ru’s background, my background and Johnjit’s extensive experience have enabled us to get where we are today. Therefore, we pretty much consider our company a niche. Ru and I set up Castle Media in 2010.”

One of the things Ediriwira hates doing is talking about herself. Her penchant for keeping a low profile is reflected by her refusal to moderate group discussions at several industry events. A holder of a master’s degree in electrical and electronics engineering from Imperial College London, Ediriwira is one of the nerds. “I have been doing technology from the start. At the university, whoever was in the generic stream either got into engineering or went for consulting or investment banking. Pretty much all of them went into investment banking. After my degree, I went to work for Accenture, where I spent six years doing a variety of things,” she recollected. Working with the network team, Ediriwira set up whole networks and all the OE-interacted applications.

Delivering The Goods
Castle Media’s role in the projects that it takes up starts from consulting, progresses to design and ends with delivery.
“A lot of what we do is actually the whole design of how the entire system works and managing the project. There is also a huge amount of design work that goes into it,” said Ediriwira. “The workflows, the whole system application design is done by us. We develop, design, and execute mobile applications as well. So, getting all the vendors to do what is needed, making sure everything is well tested is our goal. We don’t have relationships with specific vendors.”

“So, whether it’s a DTH, HITS, OTG, or a cable platform, we work right from conceptualising to implementing to managing. The two large DTH platforms in the country are our clients; we have helped them develop strategies for improving their throughput–the number of channels carried on a transponder.”

In the projects that come its way, Castle Media is always seeking transformational work.
“A transformational project, according to us, is something that is not a run-of-the-mill DTH or satellite project. It’s something that’s actually transforming the landscape, transforming the way that the industry is structured. For instance, UAE’s MBC Group was looking to figure out how to repurpose and realign their systems—the whole technology, their workflow, and their processes. So, when the opportunity knocked on the door, we were there to help them optimise their processes,” explained Fernandes.

MBC Group, which is the largest broadcaster in the Middle East, wanted to optimise its systems in a bid to go tapeless and switch to high definition.

“Now, tape-based to tapeless itself is a nightmare. Coupled with moving to high definition made it a challenging project. Another transformational project was the Hinduja HITS platform owing to the complexity and innovation involved. The app that Ru and her team developed was truly path breaking. Where have you heard of cable fees being prepaid?”
Castle Media also does a large quantum of work with private equity players and global banks helping arrive at critical business decisions. For nearly every media acquisition in the country, or any major media interest, by private equity players, the company gets called up to do the technical due diligence. At present, Castle Media is assisting a US-based broadcaster that is looking to acquire an OTG platform in India. “We are working with them on designing a solution and a strategy, developing a business plan, and doing the technical due diligence,” said Fernandes.

Furthermore, Castle Media’s newest venture, Spyke Technologies (Spyke), will address the issue of the increasing number of failing set-top boxes (STBs). At present, there are more than 150 million in India STBs thanks to the government mandate of cable TV digitisation. Even at a conservative fail rate of 5 to 8 percent, there is an immense market to cater to. Based in Mumbai and Delhi, Spyke has stepped into STB repairing and servicing. Set up on the lines of the Uber model, the company has received an investment of INR 65 million from Castle Media so far with an infusion of INR 35 million slated for the following quarter. Spyke has four more facilities in the pipeline; the total number is likely to be eight by the end of this year. For this business, a franchise model is also in the works.

In Conclusion
The journey has been as rewarding as the success insists Fernandes, who wouldn’t have it any other way. Starting especially the way they did—with a four-member team at home—Fernandes, Ahluwalia, and Ediriwira find the course of events sobering. Currently, 78 people are in Castle Media’s employ. “Our biggest asset and the thing that drives Castle Media is the calibre of the people. If you look at the people that we have today, there is no better team in solutions integration,” observed Fernandes. He also attributed the success to relations built with people over the years. “All of us have built up personal relationships over the last 20 years, so people have a lot of faith. A lot of our business is through word-of-mouth.”
There is, however, a customer, every now and then, that is not concerned about the value and wants to keep the price as low as possible but Castle Media plays its cards well in such cases. Moreover, being true to the client, the company believes, is one of its strongest legacies. For instance, it was hired to set up an OTT platform for a particular client. “So we said, ‘do us a favour and give us a month first to do the market research.’ Apparently, somebody gave them a forecast that the platform would breakeven in a year’s time.” Fernandes went back to the client in a month and said to him that the project was not viable.

Despite much going for them, Fernandes, Ediriwira, and Ahluwalia are far from a content bunch. With rapid strides in technology and fast-changing consumer habits, the ball is always in play they feel. “Cyber security is going to be a big thing going forward. If they can hack the US elections, they can hack pretty much anything. Moreover, everyone today is moving their data to a cloud,” said Ediriwira. We hope Castle Media makes data security its next transformational play.

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