It is a cozy morning at Salt Water Café, one of Mumbai’s hip breakfast spots. Outside, dark clouds threaten a downpour. Inside, Bandra’s swish set is way too comfortable to care. A few foreigners drink green tea, and there’s Neha Dhupia without make-up, looking like an actress rarely does—just out of bed. Then we spot them. From far, Mansi Poddar and Kanika Parab, founders of web portal Brown Paper Bag (BPB), look like two teenagers gossiping over bagels. Up close, they are too chic to be mistaken for a couple of teenagers. Kanika, 29, dressed in tights and a red military jacket from Zara, and Mansi, 30, sporting a skirt with a beaded blue jacket from Le Mill, epitomise their website: cool, collected and coherent.
Their popularity is perceptible. Actress Amrita Puri, who acted in Aisha, walks up from her table and says, “I have been looking at both of your jackets. You look like rock stars. Can you guys please make me a list of places to shop? You know just where to go.”
They do know where to shop—and also where to eat, drink, party, have clothes tailored, rent a designer sari, get that perfect massage, where to get your Enfield painted, whom to call if your relationship fails (yes, an agony aunt helpline), and even how to get a home makeover in just under three hours. It is why BPB has become a Mumbai go-to for all this and more since it made its internet debut as a blog in 2010, featuring the recommendations of a couple of ‘secret scouters’ who prowl around Mumbai to bring you the coolest stuff.
In just two years, BPB has crept into more lives than the girls had dreamt of. They claim to have around 30,000 subscribers in Mumbai (their Delhi website began recently), and they say they get around 150,000 unique visitors a month. Their target surfer is the 18 to 45-year-old who wants the good things in life, and their tone of writing, as someone put it, is “chatty with integrity”.
If BPB suggests it, it’s likely to be cool. Ask Swapan Seth, an ad professional living in Gurgaon who owes a new habit to the website. “They had suggested a cereal brand called Mississippi, which is so good that it’s my breakfast staple now,” he says, “They only talk about out-of-the-box stuff, so that’s a great draw.” Equally impressed is Malini Agarwal, founder of MissMalini.com. “I love BPB,” she says, “It’s charming and useful and a great way to discover all those hidden treasures this city has to offer.”
It is not just recommendations. As a social experiment, Kanika and Mansi started Turning Tables, a way for the site’s patrons to meet and befriend strangers over delicious dinner made by a chef from a hip Mumbai restaurant. They also hold DIY classes (disclosure: this writer owes her pasta-making skills to one such class). “We didn’t just want to list places,” says Kanika, “We have managed to create stuff. We had contacted a photographer once and asked him if he would like to make videos of people’s lives—like your own little promo. He agreed and we listed that. So many people have got videos done by him now.”
Kanika recalls how they got started. “I used to work for Mid-Day Metro and Bandra was my beat. I knew everything about this suburb. BMC officials actually used to say ‘Hi’ as I walked past.” She then joined a web startup, where she met Mansi, who had just returned from New York—where she worked in PR and had done a stint at Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s office—and was finding Mumbai a bit bland. “Mumbai is like Cleveland, not New York,” says Mansi, “New York has so much to do. So in a way BPB was our way of finding cool stuff to do. Personally, it was my dialogue with Bombay.”
At first, they had about ten friends or so checking out their blog every day. Soon, word went around, and their web stats, up, up and away. “Mumbai has this kinetic energy that New York now lacks as it has reached saturation point,” says Mansi, “There is so much happening. The scene has really changed in the last two years... restaurants, cultural hubs—it’s all growing.”
The girls insist that what matters most is their credibility. “We get it first and we tell the truth,” says Mansi, “We owe that to our readers. We usually go to a restaurant the first day it opens. For example, we went to this great place in Delhi where the food was brilliant but a rat ran past our feet. We didn’t want to bitch about it completely, so we just tweeted that there were some hygiene problems and we would visit again. The good thing is that we are anonymous when we go and pay for our meals, so our credibility remains.”
Their formula has worked well for them. Many restaurants now carry a ‘BPB recommends’ tag on their menu for a dish that the website loved. “The people at Yoga House in Bandra were telling us that everyone comes in and asks for the burger we talked about,” says Kanika. When the girls checked out the Steve Madden store in Mumbai and didn’t like anything but one pair of heels, they tweeted it as the ‘one piece to pick up’ there. “And sure enough,” says Kanika, “Steve Madden sold out those shoes.”
Sita Wadhwani, digital editor, Vogue India, sheds some light on why the BPB girls are so successful. “In 2010, when I was editing CNN’s travel website for Mumbai called CNNGo, some of the first scouts I followed were Mansi and Kanika, and their newly-launched city secrets site. We believed in exploring, discovering and sharing—in real time—the things that make our city special, and before long we were happily collaborating on content and sharing web traffic too. They’re hardworking pros, natural collaborators who trip on Vikram Seth’s poetry, Marquez novels, music, wordplay and the weather. Because of this, what they bring to the conversation about cities is personality and timelines, both key in distinguishing yourself online.”
Kanika and Mansi are also firm believers in the power of the web. “It’s still in its nascent stage and the next few years will decide who lasts. But the web is awesome. It’s as fresh as it gets,” says Mansi. “We plan to stick around.”
Before we leave, we ask them to recommend something, anything, just so we can add some style to our lives. They laugh: “Eat at Yauatcha in Bandra, shop at Bombay Electric, and get a massage as you work at your cubicle. Log on now for details.”