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The SpeakAsia Story: E-commerce Innovation or Fraud?

Zafar Anjum | Jan. 17, 2014
Has SpeakAsia, a Singapore-registered company, taken the concept of e-commerce and social media too far? The company has run afoul of the Indian government, with its assets frozen, officials arrested on charges of fraud and money laundering in India to the tune of US$ 368 million. In an exclusive interview with Computerworld Singapore, the company’s embattled CEO Manoj Kumar Sharma explains what went wrong with his company in India.

"We are saying only one thing-please hear our business model," Sharma says. "Don't keep on harassing us. Hear us what do we do. We are not being given a chance yet."

There have been several Candlelight marches, motorcycle rallies, and demonstrations by consumers to support the company. "Will anybody do that for the Tatas? The most respected company?" he asks rhetorically. "No."

Even consumer leaders have been arrested for "colluding with the company", he says.[7]

Sharma says it is difficult to estimate how many panellists are still with SpeakAsia but when they gave them the exit option, only around 94500 panellists responded for exit. "Our yearly closing in Singapore is 31st March. As of 31st March 2011, about ten lac or one million panellists were there," he says.

India's highest court, the Supreme Court had appointed Retd Justice Lahoti (ex Chief Justice of India) as a mediator in 2011 for ascertaining the amount and help the court in disbursal of the amount to the panellists who wished to exit as per the exit policy of the company.

According to Sharma, SpeakAsia had voluntarily deposited $10 Million (around Rs 55 Crores) with SC Registry towards reimbursement of unused subscription of panellists who wanted to exit. "Since EOW opposed tooth and nail and refused to give the data of the panellists for verification before payments, the mediator gave a report back to the court citing its inability to mediate due to EOW approach," he says. "Then EOW filed an affidavit in SC where the Judges relied upon the affidavit and passed orders quoting the contents of the affidavit, without giving any opportunity to the company to file a counter.  In the order the SC allowed the company to send the money back since the mediation had failed."

Going forward-the future of social media and e-commerce

According to Sharma, the model that SpeakAsia is putting forward is the future of e-commerce in the world, given the backdrop of factors such as countries rising as brands, the demise of the traditional media, and IPTV being too fragmented in nature.

"What I see from SpeakAsia point of view is redefinition of social networking," Sharma says. "What makes SpeakAsia so successful? Why people were so together? It was not social networking only on the net. It also was on the ground: interaction between the people, regular meetings of the people. So, it was global because it was Internet, yet very local, very very local also to each region. Now this is what most of the social media lacks today."

"Here, what makes SpeakAsia so different?" he asks. "One, consumers make money with it, they save with it, they train with it. Lot of people are there in SpeakAsia just because they are trained well. They just love it. They feel that they are becoming better human beings, better speakers and better presenters. They also get to interact with like-minded people in social environment, which no social site allows them to do. So they laugh together, do business together, that has built the community very strong, which no other Internet company offers-which is click and brick together, which is missing whether it is eBay or anyone else."

 

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