By Anand Lunia
India internet opportunity is getting bigger, but not clearer
The one peculiar thing about the Mary Meeker report is that it mentions India and its internet penetration very high up, as early as slide 5, and then gives internet growth data. The report notes that India has surpassed the US as the second largest market in the world, much to the skepticism of a lot of Indian twitterati.
And then you keep skipping slides to find something about India. Nothing. Nothing at all, when there is a full section for China. It’s an anti climax, but it is not surprising in a country that knows nothing except WhatsApp. There is not much to write. Perhaps the number of 277 million users is indeed overstated. And the opportunity for the Indian investors and entrepreneurs lies in the fact that there was not much to write about in India.
The wide gap
Take a look at this chart for US. And let’s try to recreate it for India.
(Mary Meeker Internet Trends Report 2016, Slide 73)
An equivalent chart for India?
We plotted numbers released by respective companies and made some very approximate assumptions for usage. The chart looks pretty empty.
It only has WhatsApp and Facebook and nothing else beyond 10% of internet users. As the user base expands beyond the current 100 million/140 million WhatsApp/Facebook users, it’s unlikely that the other apps will keep pace. Why? Because they hit the language and culture barrier. After the initial 40 million English-first users, most people are comfortable with their native languages, about 20 of them, each with a distinct script.
These are also not people who will be wowed with nice cat pictures or connect with any global or Bollywood celebrities. There is very little that cuts across all cultures of India like cricket.
So out of the potential 500 million WhatsApp users in 5 years, less than 5% users are likely to be on platforms like Twitter, Linkedin, Pinterest, Vimeo etc. because the language and culture barriers will hit them beyond the English speaking addressable population. And it’s not clear whether these companies have the ability or willingness to overcome those.
A smug foreign educated armchair analyst would say that Indians will not go beyond WhatsApp. They just don’t count beyond the top 40 million users. But that’s unlikely if anyone has to go by the China experience. Chat was the first step for users to graduate to other things including making paid transactions.
A recap of what is working for India is in order before we move on to analyze the opportunity:
1. 24*7 power is now a reality in most urban and even semi urban places. This is the first hurdle for people using a battery draining smartphone.
2. Mobile broadband: Reliance Jio may set new standards for low pricing and high quality of broadband. Other telecom players have already started preparing for the upcoming war.
3. Removal of hurdles in the online payments infrastructure is progressing, boosted by the world class UPI, the unified payments interface.
4. Aadhaar, the unique ID system
5. A lot of people have entered the banking system via the recent Government push. Interestingly, we were reaching a situation where the country had more WhatsApp users than bank account holders in the banking system.
So what opportunities are available?
The slide that depicts the services offered in China, Korea and Japan on chat platforms doesn’t tell you why India is not on the slide. Those things do happen in India in parts, on WhatsApp. Not very elegant, but consumers always find a way.
(Mary Meeker Internet Trends Report 2016, Slide 103)
The markets above in the chart that have been captured by the chat apps in other Asian countries are the open opportunity in India as of now. WhatsApp has not shown any inclination to go on this route to monetize, though it might help the parent Facebook in any such plans. Consumers have a way of figuring out things, and after somehow making ends meet on WhatsApp, and users are ready to move out.
Why have attempts to carve out such services from WhatsApp not worked so far in India?
Most entrepreneurs don’t target the WhatsApp first user. This user is somebody who doesn’t even know that they have something called internet on their phone. When most of us have a mental image of a browser when speaking of internet, this user rarely goes to a browser, unless sent to via a link they got on WhatsApp. Some other characteristics of this user are :
– Less comfortable with English, zero ability to express in English
– Never used other apps, browsers, even Google search extensively.
– Never owned a desktop or PC, so doesn’t know user interface basics we take for granted
– Not trained from young age for making logical searches on Google. ‘Beta zara yeh pata kar do google se’ message on WhatsApp is their search string. Hence they also don’t’ discover apps on app stores
– Inherently not confident in expressing themselves, prefer closed networks to start with
From our India Quotient portfolio, we had a very interesting finding from Sharechat. English was one of their languages and most users would choose English along with their native languages for subscribing to content. Even if they did not know English well, they felt compelled to choose it, for reasons of self esteem. And then the typical English urban content did not appeal to their taste buds, or they could not make sense of it. Removing English altogether resulted in a significant improvement in content ratings. Not to say that English as a language may never come back on Sharechat.
What has been taken and what is available
Paytm and Freecharge are doing the payments piece already and getting good traction. For long tail merchant payments, we have a few new startups also coming up and then there are p2p apps like Chillr. Independently, apps like Helpchat are trying to create a suite of services of the kind available on other Asian Chat apps.
The Mary Meeker report also talks about voice as an interface, which will be very interesting for India, given the fact that typing in Indian languages is a tough task. After leapfrogging to mobile, but not moving smoothly to transactions on the app interface, will India leapfrog to a different interface for transactions? We are yet to see anything become mainstream elsewhere in the world and there are no startups working on anything locally.
There is a window for Indian entrepreneurs right now, to unbundle various uses cases addressing large markets. The window will last till Facebook/WhatsApp decides to get into transactions, open their APIs or other transaction platforms to gain market-share. In a country with open markets and lot of global interest, such windows are scarce and short lived. In spite of all the issues of high burn and funding crunch etc, we feel it’s easy pickings for now.
About the author: Anand Lunia is a general partner with IndiaQuotient VC. He previously co-founded Brainvisa Technologies and has worked with Seedfund and Hurix Technologies among others.
Disclaimer: The ideas expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of MediaNama.