India's $30 billion religious and spirituality market is full of gurus, temples and pilgrimages, and now tech entrepreneurs are set to take a leap of faith.
Three years ago, on a visit to the Karni temple during the 'Navratri' festival, 26-year-old engineer Goonjan Mall discovered a problem: for many, the difficulty of getting 'prasad' ruined the religious experience.
Prasad is a food offering made to Hindu Gods and distributed amongst devotees who seek divine blessing. At many Indian temples the devotee experience is spoiled by long queues, pestering touts, crowd mismanagement and the recycling of 'prasad.'
Mall came up with a solution: online ordering. "The idea that religion must be simplified and technology was the perfect tool came in a flash," he said.
The senior analyst at Bain & Company quit his job and launched OnlinePrasad.com – a website that enables devotees to get prasad from more than 50 temples delivered to their homes. They can also organize a pooja – a prayer ritual – at any temple and buy any of the 300 religious symbols and products.
Onlineprasad.com now boasts over 2,500 daily visitors, has 120,000 Facebook followers, backing from angel investors and mentoring from startup accelerator Morpheus.
Bringing faith and technology together
As India's religious market grows entrepreneurs are using technology to tap into niche segments and differentiate themselves from competitors.
Online portals like Onlineprasad.com are aimed at the multi-billion dollar market that has been traditionally exploited by spiritual gurus and religious trusts, offering customized pilgrimages, rites and rituals and personal accessories.
ProudUmmah.com, for instance, focuses on Islamic pilgrimages to Mecca. Launched by ex-Google employee Abid Khan in Hyderabad, the site sells kits designed for the pilgrimage, provides information on associated rites and rituals and facilitates travel through a network of over 1,200 registered agents.
"The hajj and Umrah market is growing at 6-7 percent a year and more than 7 million people take the pilgrimage every year, yet it was so hard to get the products or even information at one place," said Khan.
ProudUmmah.com closed over 800 orders in less than two years and enquires are growing. In 2012, it was voted the best internet startup by Silicon India.
Shubhpuja.com, another online portal, extends beyond religion offering astrology, numerology and vaastu consultations. The site was launched by Saumya Vardhan after a stint as technology consultant at KPMG and Ernst & Young. She now employs over 30 religious studies post-graduates and doctorate holders in a bid to bring top talent to the disorganized market.
"There is a need in the market for a more scientific and fact-based interpretation of religious and cultural tradition. We fill that gap," says Vardhan.