This Indian language social network gets Bharat in a way Facebook cannot

Shrabonti Bagchi October 24, 2016 13 min

Frankly, ShareChat is not for PLUs, or People Like Us. It’s for people who are on WhatsApp groups like ‘Maza hi maza’, ‘Jokes hi jokes’, ‘Bhai fans’, ‘Hindustan ki kasam’ and ‘Hot photos of Gurlz’. It’s for people who often make mistakes while downloading WhatsApp on Google Play Store because they can’t spell the name correctly, and search the store for ‘Kishore Kumar songs’ (the reason Gaana has so many subsidiary apps).

The internet is a new place for them, and English-language internet unfamiliar and unfriendly. They don’t get BuzzFeed jokes, Game of Thrones memes are meaningless to them, and they often use Facebook for sharing phone numbers — so that they can be added to WhatsApp groups, where they can find like-minded people.

They live in small towns like Jhunjhunu, Rajasthan; Mau, Uttar Pradesh; and Upleta, Gujarat. These are also the section of people where the next 400 million smartphone and internet users in India are going to come from, and they are the ones everyone from Google to Facebook is chasing.

ShareChat is for people in small towns like Jhunjhunu, Mau, and Upleta, who share jokes, “good morning” and “happy Tuesday” messages, political and God memes in local languages  

Meanwhile, a relatively small Indian-languages-only social network, the Bengaluru-based ShareChat, just climbed to the 7th spot in the ‘social’ category on Google Play Store and has clocked over two million downloads since its launch in June 2015 (with, presumably, more downloads through several APK mirror sites that offer the app, possibly because its target audience may not know about Google Play Store, and often searches for the app on Google). It is a few spots behind Facebook, Facebook Lite, Instagram, and Snapchat, and has between 300,000 and 350,000 daily active users. Earlier this year, ShareChat was among the six Indian startups to join Google’s Launchpad Accelerator programme for a two-week bootcamp in Silicon Valley.

ShareChat’s founders and its data-driven tech team are so sure about the preferences of the app’s userbase that a few months ago, they removed English as a primary language for content when they found that the majority of their users, in spite of choosing English in the language settings, were actually sharing content and talking to each other in Indian languages like Hindi, Marathi, Telugu, Gujarati and Malayalam. In fact, removing English made their engagement with the app go UP. So now, content on Sharechat is available in Hindi, Marathi, Malayalam, Telugu, Gujarati and Punjabi, with Tamil and Bengali about to be added soon.

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ShareChat recently climbed to the 7th spot in the ‘social’ category on Google Play Store and has clocked over two million downloads since its launch in June 2015

“We realised people chose English basically because nobody makes good apps for them in regional languages,” says Farid Ahsan, ShareChat’s 20-something co-founder and CEO. “Also, we Indians have become so accustomed to the Roman script, that even when we chat on WhatsApp etc we chat in Hindi but type in the English script. Nobody cares about Indic keyboards either, they are pretty ok with typing Hindi or Bengali words in English,” he adds.

From my own experience, that’s 100% true. Efforts to get friends and family who chat with me in Bengali or Hindi to switch to a keyboard that allows easy transliteration, where you type in English but the words appear in a different script (such as the Google Indic Keyboard or Reverie Language Technology’s Swalekh keyboard) have failed. Turns out, people are pretty ok with typing in the Roman script — mistakes and all — because they know the person they are communicating with will understand them. There is no loss in translation. Context is everything.

“Don’t want to go from being superheroes to underdogs”

These are the kind of epiphanic discoveries that Ahsan gets really excited talking about. He and his co-founders, Bhanu Singh and Ankush Sachdeva, graduated from IIT Kanpur just a couple of years ago, but by then, they were already veterans of launching products, and even companies. This is the 13th product the trio has built together, Ahsan tells me. They belong to a new generation of IITians who spend their entire four years at the premier engineering institute coding and creating products and preparing to become entrepreneurs — hard-headed, preternaturally mature, and somewhat cocky. “We didn’t want to join a big company. It’s like being superheroes one day and then becoming underdogs in some big company,” says Ahsan.

“We were sure we didn’t want to be ‘wannapreneurs’… people who buy into the buzz. They have their marketing strategy first, even before they have their product”
— Farid Ahsan, ShareChat co-founder  

While still in college, they created an app called ‘Mohalla’, which would provide 360-degree views of apartments for sale and rent. This was before the likes of CommonFloor introduced such features in their apps and websites. But, being in Kanpur was a hindrance for Ahsan and Co, and Mohalla failed to to take off. Then, in 2013, they took part in a bootcamp organised by the Delhi chapter of the Startup Leadership Programme and created a crime analysis tool, which they sold to Delhi Police. “We were sure we didn’t want to be ‘wannapreneurs’,” says Ahsan. I ask him to define ‘wannapreneurs’. “You know, people who buy into the buzz. Take AR/VR (augmented reality / virtual reality) which is the buzz right now. So ‘wannapreneurs’ will say ‘yaar AR-VR mein kuchh karna hai.’ They have their PR and marketing strategy first, even before they have their product,” he explains.

That’s certainly not how Ahsan and Co came to identify their userbase — the new wave of internet users in India from small towns and semi-rural pockets. They stumbled upon it when they were trying to sell a debating app called “Opinio” (not related to the logistics company started by Mayank Kumar, yet another IIT Kanpur alumnus) where users could participate in time-bound debates on various topics. They soon learnt that “people don’t give a f*** about debating” (although somewhat bizarrely, the debating app got users from Europe discussing nuclear disarmament).

Bharat has discovery, not privacy concerns

However, in an attempt to seed the app with really blistering debates — the Bhai fans vs SRK fans kind of debates — something interesting happened. “We started scraping WhatsApp and Facebook groups to start a debate on Salman vs SRK. We knew we had to tap into Bhai fans. There are tons of Facebook groups and pages dedicated to such topics, and we went into at least a thousand FB groups and started posting there to get them to come to our app and debate. Then, on one of the pages, we came across an interesting post — “maine WhatsApp pe Salman Khan fan club start kiya hua hai, apne phone numbers daliye” (“I have started a Salman Khan fan club on WhatsApp, share your phone numbers to join it”). And, suddenly, we saw users sharing their phone numbers, wanting to be added to that group. There were 20-30K phone numbers in three hours!” recalls Ahsan.

And then they figured it out — these users didn’t have privacy concerns, they had discovery concerns. They wanted to be known. They wanted followers. They wanted social power  

Fascinated, they wanted to see where this went, and ended up creating 600 WhatsApp groups, 200 each on each of their phones. “And we went on all those groups and said ‘Salman Khan ki bajayi jaa rahi hai, aa jao Opinio pe debate karte hain’ (‘Salman Khan is being torn apart, come to Opinio and let’s debate’). Well, we could drive a few thousand downloads but not much. Opinio was an utter failure,” says Ahsan.

They shut it down — but because of the 600 WhatsApp groups they’d created, they would wake up to thousands of ‘Good Morning’ messages every day. Their phones would freeze at night because of the flood of jokes, “good morning” and “happy Tuesday” messages, political memes, God memes, inspirational quotes and fake security threats. “Then we started wondering ki yeh aa kahaan se aa raha hai, source kya hai in sab ka (where is all this coming from; what is its source)?” says Ahsan. “We started observing these groups very closely, and realised how seriously people took admin roles. If people are ‘good’ contributors, the admin goes to another group and says ‘these are my friends, please add them.’”

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Ahsan and Co (of ShareChat) realised that there was an imbalance between demand and supply of vernacular language content being shared by people from Bharat and someone needed to aggregate it

And this is where it gets really strange for privacy-obsessed, annoyed-by-random-WhatsApp-messages PLUs — these people were all strangers to each other, and they had no qualms about sharing their phone numbers with thousands of people or joining a group of random strangers. “They have no privacy concerns, for each other or for themselves. Sab baant te rehte hain aapas mein (everyone keeps sharing phone numbers). We were also bewildered. How come these people are not at all bothered about privacy?” says Ahsan.

And then they figured it out — these users didn’t have privacy concerns, they had discovery concerns. They wanted to be known. They wanted followers. They wanted social power.

“I realised, I’ve studied in seven schools, I’ve studied in a big college. But there’s this guy in Agartala, who has stayed there all his life, who has around 10 people in his social group. He wants to know more people, he wants to be connected,” says Ahsan.

“The easiest thing to find on the internet is porn,” says Ahsan, “but many users are still unable to do that. “What they do is, they go to a group and say, ‘bhai, hot photos please.’”

That’s when Ahsan and Co realised that there was an imbalance between demand and supply when it came to the kind of content being shared on these platforms: very high demand, very erratic and concentrated supply. Someone needed to aggregate it. They spoke about it to Madhukar Sinha, an unofficial mentor from the India Quotient fund, and told him “we have an audience. We don’t have a product yet but we know this is going to be our audience.”

The new chatrooms

We tend to forget what the internet was like when People Like Us first went online, when we could hide behind a wall of anonymity to explore different facets of our characters — often, in chatrooms, where we shared A/S/L and sometimes became someone else altogether. It was all so novel and fresh and a bit scary. It’s only now, after we have matured and solidified our online identities and personas, that we are worried about staying true to image and character; back then, characters were fluid and anonymous.

Yet, we tend to ignore the fact that the internet is just as new and exciting to adults coming online now.

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ShareChat has templates for creating new content, and every month, users create more than 0.5 million pieces of shareable content on the app

Well, there are few Yahoo-chatroom like mainstream online spaces for this new generation of internet-unsavvy users. These are the people who don’t have an instinctive understanding of what the term ‘home’ means, in the context of an app or website, which we have developed over years of internet usage. “They have no baggage,” says Ahsan.

ShareChat aims to become their social network of choice, where they will feel comfortable because it was built for them. Its working is really simple. You download the app, create an account using your phone number (not email address), create a username for yourself, and start creating and sharing content. There are templates for creating new content, and every month, users create more than 0.5 million pieces of shareable content on the app. You gather followers and people distribute your content through WhatsApp and Facebook — though it’s the WhatsApp sharing button that’s front and centre. There used to be a “Share on FB” button, but the team removed it when they realised only around 4% of their users were actually using it.

“Look, these guys can’t go and become big on Twitter or Instagram. But of course everyone wants popularity, they want followers. And here they get that. Some of them have more than 20,000 followers. They feel good when they see 500 people have shared their post on WhatsApp,” says Ahsan.

While the content is ad-free now, the team is counting on advertising revenues by reaching out to FMCG companies and others who want to reach these markets on digital platforms. Only 5% of India’s total digital ad spends (slated to exceed Rs 7,000 crore by the end of this year, according to an IAMAI-IMRB report) go to vernacular media, while in print and television advertising, a majority of the advertising spend is in the vernacular press and local language TV channels.

Not just that, according to an IAMAI–IMRB report, local language content can drive internet adoption in India — increasing it by as much as 25%. In rural areas, 43% of those who are not yet online said they would adopt the medium if content was available in the vernacular language. In urban areas, 13.5% of non-users said they would be online if content was provided in local languages.

“I’d say the company is very raw at the moment… there is a lot of content out there that’s not language-independent. So let’s see how they fare and mature”
— Prashanth Prakash, a partner at Accel Partners

This, believe Ahsan and many others like him who are betting on this market, will have to change sooner or later, incentivising the creation of digital content in Indian languages.

Outlining the future of digital content consumption in India, research major Ernst and Young (E&Y) says that 45% of online users consume regional language content. In a January 2016 report titled Future of Digital Content Consumption in India, E&Y researchers say: “The preference of the Indian consumers towards vernacular and regional language content is constantly on the upswing, with 93% of the time spent on videos in Hindi and other regional languages. Digital content producers can thus look at aggregating/ producing vernacular content to capture the next set of audiences.”

With $1.35 million in seed funding from India Quotient and SAIF Partners, ShareChat is betting on becoming the go-to social network for this audience. “In vernacular social, we aim to have the monopoly. There is nothing like our content out there — it’s all fragmented or static. If you go through Google Play Store, you’ll see free apps like Haso Hasao Chutkule, Tantrik Siddhiyan, Suhaag Raat etc. But these have static content, and shareability is low,” says Ahsan.

However, there are concerns that the company and the product are still very “raw”. That’s the term used by Prashanth Prakash, a partner at Accel Partners (an investor in FactorDaily; see disclaimer). “I’d say the company is very raw at the moment. They have figured out the market and seem to understand its dynamics well, and this is a market that’s primed for huge growth especially with improvement in mobile data services. But at the same time, there is a lot of content out there that’s not language-independent, for instance videos, and video consumption is huge. So let’s see how they fare and mature,” says Prakash.


Disclosure: FactorDaily is owned by SourceCode Media, which counts Accel Partners, Blume Ventures and Vijay Shekhar Sharma among its investors. Accel Partners is an early investor in Flipkart. Vijay Shekhar Sharma is the founder of Paytm. None of FactorDaily’s investors have any influence on its reporting about India’s technology and startup ecosystem.