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 October 24, 2000      TIPS to search 200 million Web pages fast!

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They can’t vote. They can’t get married. And they can’t even hold a driver’s licence.... they are life’s newbies. But in that great levelling space called the Internet, they are already battle-scarred veterans, counting eyeballs, cracking cascading style sheets and courting veecees with consummate ease.
Nidhi Taparia met India's next generation entrepreneurs.

Siddharth Puri, 15, brain behind Visaonnet, a site chockfull with information on visa formalities.

Sumeet Lamba, 16, driving force behind Humhaiindia, India’s ‘‘first’’ metasearch engine

Sukrit Dewan and Vaibhav Sibal (both 16), creators of goindiago.com, a horizontal Indian portal.

If you thought they were driven by ambitions of emulating Bill Gates or visions of getting astronomical valuations for their sites, think again. They were propelled by something far more mundane: boredom in the summer holidays.

In the summer of ’99, Vaibhav and Sukrit shifted gears from being friends to becoming partners. "We’re both computer buffs and have a working knowledge of Java and HTML. So we decided to set up a portal." Goindiago was born. Of course, it wasn’t as simple as they make it sound. Domain names weren’t cheap, and they had no credit cards to pay to register their site. The duo had to convince their parents to shell out the moolah. In hindsight, it was money well-spent. Today they are negotiating strategic alliances with leading sites like Mantra Online, Apna Card and Egurucool.

Siddharth hit upon the idea when he saw serpentine queues outside the UK Embassy in Delhi. "They were waiting for information on how to get their visa." His site, a comprehensive guide to getting a visa, complete with downloadable forms, has already clocked over 1,00,000 hits since its launch on June 18, 2000.

Sumeet, a commerce student from Chandigarh, has blown up Rs 25,000 on his three net ventures: Datalook, a launchpad for new sites; ChandigarhClassifieds and Humhaiindia. The reason: he wants to be recognised by the media for owning "three interesting Web sites at such a young age."

But he has his head firmly on his shoulders. "The Internet might be the playground of the young, but I wouldn’t know whether I want to make it my career as yet." And, in another display of maturity beyond his years, Sumeet says that he does not intend emulating Bill Gates or Jerry Yang. "I want to be my own person."

Which he already is. HumHaiIndia, launched in August 2000, receives more than a 1000-odd visitors a day, and Sumeet is in negotiation with a US-based firm to provide free email, homepages and an instant messenger service through his site.

Turning entrepreneurs has been a learning experience for them. "When I first started a year ago by setting up Datalook, it was pure trial and error. It was tough, but then I have progressed with each site moving on from understanding HTML to CGI scripts, " explains Sumeet.

Agrees Siddharth, who spent over two weeks writing numerous letters, shooting off emails and even calling to get information. "While the German embassy was the easiest, the Australian and the UK embassy were also surprisingly quick. The US embassy, however, was wary of sharing information, since many sites had changed the format of the online form." He looked at Visaonnet from a user’s perspective. Which is why, he says, "The language is very simple and easy to read and the site is uncluttered and low on graphics. Besides, there is interesting content, which brings people back. How many people know that when you need to go to the Fiji Islands, you need to contact the Australian Embassy. Or that one could make it to Pakistan and back on a budget of Rs 5,000."

The popularity of his site can be gauged from the fact that it was nominated for the International Surfers Choice Awards in the travel section ("The Oscars of the Internet," he claims), besides bagging some other Web awards. Cyber café owners and travel agents recommend his site to prospective travellers and make a quick buck with printouts from the site.

Being young, says Sumeet, is not always an advantage. "When the guy is making out a cheque, he may think, ‘Am I doing the right thing here?’ He is only 16 years old." Yet, he has managed to earn Rs 8, 000 selling banner space. His secret: Tangible paperwork, a strong understanding of the Internet and marketing savvy.

"We were taken seriously," say Vaibhav and Sukrit, "but that’s because we showed a streak of responsibility, an in-depth understanding of the medium and the fact that we are part of the generation that uses the net." The duo have even received a few enticing offers to sell their Web site, which they have promptly turned down. "The experience of running our own net venture will be a highlight on our resume when we decide to study abroad."

The accolades and peer respect these teens have earned more than compensate for all the long hours they have put into their sites. Sukrit and Vaibhav basked in the attention they got when they judged presentations from students of 40 schools at a presitigious computer meet, recently. For Sumeet, praise comes from closer quarters. Friends, family, relatives...his phone has been ringing non-stop with congratulatory calls.

"It feels great when a 13-year-old writes in to tell me that he admires the work I have done. That he would like me to help him put up a dot com," says Siddharth, who is working on a revenue model for his site. With two more Web sites in the pipeline, he is open to offers for his site, "provided the price is right".

Such success does not come without a touch of help. And Siddharth gets plenty of it from his dad. Puri Senior not only foots the bills, but also quit a cushy job in an MNC to help Siddharth set up Cyberica Solutions Pvt Ltd. "He will take care of it while I am studying and execute my ideas, so that I can later!" says Siddharth.

"Siddharth’s just a very creative and innovative young boy," explains his father, Praveen Kumar Puri. "I do not allow him to enter the office, but he some how sneaks his way inside. He has his set of meetings with the engineers and he knows his stuff," reveals the proud father. "The five engineers who work for me cannot fool him."

For this boy who wants to make a future in Internet genetics, his birthday gift was a server hosted in the US, costing Rs 3,00,000. Next on his wish list is a laptop...

Design: Lynette Menezes